Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Scattered thoughts on perceptions of and about those nasty Muslims ...

This blog is meant to be a place where I express my views on social, political and cultural matters. It isn’t a place to discuss religion. For that, I have another blog. But since the debate about Danish cartoons has made many people curious about Muslims and their cultures, I think it would be appropriate to devote some space here to discussing these issues.

The controversy over the Danish cartoons has been used in some quarters to demonise anyone who has any relation to Islam. A whole host of Muslim-haters, many of them the usual suspects, are making all sorts of outlandish statements that they themselves know are not true.

Muslim-haters are able to do this because sadly many Muslim community leaders and imams in countries such as Australia and New Zealand are simply not equipped to address Muslim issues in a manner that the average westerner can understand. I have dealt with some reasons why this is the case elsewhere.

The Muslim-hating commentators and writers are in fact doing an enormous favour to Muslims. In the short term, Muslims may feel uncomfortable and embarrassed by all the attention. But in the long term, more people will become curious as to exactly what Muslims think and feel about issues. A primary goal of Muslim-haters is to marginalise Muslims. In the long term, the effect will be the opposite.

In the meantime, it is important that people have accurate information about the range of views Muslims have about their faith. People also need to know about the enormous variety of understandings within different Muslim communities.

A favourite ploy of some Muslim-haters is to paint all Muslims as being exactly the same, as all having the same beliefs and opinions and as all having the same loyalties (usually loyalty to some force hostile to the west).

This monolithic analysis of Muslims makes it easier to generate maximum venom and hatred. It is the same ploy used by some Arab nationalists in the Middle East to demonise Jews.

The reality is that there is an amazing amount of variety even within Islamic law or sharia. Muslims understand sharia in so many different ways.

I am no theologian or scholar of Islamic law. I hold no qualifications in Islamic law, nor have I read the sources of Islamic law in their original language of classical Arabic. What I say is based upon what I have read and been taught over the years and what I have seen.

For those struggling to understand Muslim cultures and seeking to go beyond the monolithic approach of Muslim-haters, it’s good to have some background in Muslim sacred legal traditions, all of which come under the broad umbrella term of sharia.

The term sharia literally means “the way to a watering place”. In fact, it refers not so much to a code as to a methodology for deriving rules and laws from primary sources of Islam. It is a complex science.

Within the sharia legal tradition, there is one main division, that being between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Amongst Sunni Muslims, the sharia is divided into four schools of law.

Among the Shia Muslims, there are no distinct schools of law as such. Rather, Shia Muslims have a rule that a person must obtain their law from someone who has studied and mastered various texts, has permission to give judgments and is still alive. Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, are able to pick one school of law and follow it, regardless of whether the rulings were made by someone living or deceased.

Apart from sectarian divisions, Muslims are also divided along cultural, linguistic and other lines. To suggest that Muslims are one huge monolith is as nonsensical as suggesting that all Catholics are one huge monolith.

That’s all for the time being.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006