Al-Jazeera television on March 9 apologized to viewers after a talk-show guest, Syrian-American psychologist Dr. Wafa Sultan, described as “barbaric” the response of Muslims to a Danish newspaper’s cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed. “The Muslims’ barbaric reaction added to the value of these cartoons. It simply proved their rightness,” said Dr. Sultan on the Qatari network. “The Muslim is an irrational creature, and the things he learned overpower his mind and inflame his feelings. That is why these remarks have turned him into an inferior creature, who cannot control himself and respond to events in a rational way.”

Despite the network’s hasty apology, Dr. Sultan’s presence on the show is a sign of the times. The issue of Muslim “barbarism,” including honor killings and other forms of violence against women, has risen in prominence in Europe’s political agenda. The question appears to be: Do Muslims commit barbaric acts because they are bad Muslims or because they are good Muslims? Does Islam as such promote barbarism or suppress it? Within the vast collection of hadith, or apocryphal sayings of Mohammed, are to be found explicit support for female genital mutilation and wife-beating. Are such barbaric acts a residue of traditional society that persist despite Islam, or because of it?

I shall argue that this is the wrong question, for Islam by its nature cannot be separated from primitive life.

Many Muslims protest that Islamic law does not sanction honor killings, and that other ethnic groups (e.g., Hindus in Britain) are guilty of the practice. Honor killings are a repulsive aspect of traditional society. We first hear of such an act in Genesis 34, when after Jacob’s daughter Dinah was seduced by a man of Shechem, after which his sons Simeon and Levi instigated the slaughter of the town’s men. But Jacob denounced the act and still reproached his sons for it from his deathbed.

The Hebrew Bible reports the practice of honor killing, but abhors it. Muslims remain divided on the subject. Strictly speaking, it is true that Islamic law forbids a Muslim family from killing an adulteress or a woman who has had relations with a non-Muslim man. But that is only because Islamic law specifies that Islamic courts, rather than families, should supervise the killing. It is not that women (and sometimes men) should not be killed for the crime of illicit sexual relations, but rather that the Islamic courts should arrange the killing.

For this reason, Islamic law views quite leniently honor killings that accomplish what the courts would have done given the opportunity, and many Islamic commentators do not see why families should wait for the courts at all. Until recently, Jordan gave “honor” killers sentences of as little as six months under Article 340 of the Jordan Penal Code, which stated: “Anyone catching his wife or one of his immediate family in a flagrant act of fornication with another person, and kills, injures or harms both or either of them, will benefit from the exculpating excuse …”

Jordan’s King Abdullah succeeded in revising this language, but as the Associated Press reported last year, “attempts to introduce harsher sentences for honor killings have been blocked in Jordan’s parliament, where the predominantly conservative Bedouin lawmakers argue that lesser penalties [than honor killings] would lead to tolerating of promiscuity.”

Islamic clerics, to be sure, tend to favor the idea that they rather than families should do the killing. According to a traditional ruling cited by Dr. Mohammed Fadel and frequently posted on Islamic sites,

The prohibition against applying a legal penalty without legal authority (bi ghayri sultan) and without witnesses; cutting off the means to shedding the blood of a Muslim based merely upon the claim of his accuser, the one seeking the shedding of the accused’s blood. [In this case] the truth of the claim would be known only by [the accuser’s] own statement and Allah, may He be glorified and sanctified, has made the life of a Muslim a precious thing, and has made the sin in taking it great as well. Therefore, it [legal punishment] is permissible only under the conditions in which Allah has permitted it. [Application of legal punishments] is exclusively for the government so that it may apply that which Allah has commanded in His book or on the tongue of His Prophet.

There is no question that flogging and execution of adulterers is mandated by the Koran (eg, Sudra 4:15). As I observed in another context, this point is so clear in Islamic law that Professor Tariq Ramadan refused to condemn the practice in a televised debate with then French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

All Islamic commentary on the subject, though, applies to the behavior of Muslims in a country under Islamic rule in which the only law is Islamic law. If no Islamic courts are available, what should an individual Muslim do? Is it then permissible to take the law into one’s own hands? We have no clear record of Islamic jurisprudence on the subject, for only in recent years have large numbers of Muslims come to live in non-Muslim countries. But the reticence of Islamic clergy in the West to denounce honor killings is noteworthy. Western apologists for Islam who attempt to distinguish between the religion and primitive practices constantly stub their toes against Muslim authorities who insist that honor killing, genital mutilation, and stoning of adulterers is mandated by Islam.

The death penalty for adultery is typical of primitive society (it is of course found in the Hebrew Bible), but extremely rare in the Jewish Commonwealth during the historical era. In Hillel’s time, a generation before Jesus, the saying was that a court that handed down one death sentence in a century was considered a hanging court. Jesus’ mercy towards the adulteress reflected a wide body of Second-Temple opinion.

The crucial issue is why the practices of primitive society perdure in the Islamic world while they have been eliminated in the Judeo-Christian world. The practice of genital mutilation, surely one of the most barbaric customs in the world, is still defended by Islamic clergy. The website Islam Online has the following to say on the subject:

Before delving deep into the question of female circumcision, we would like to make it clear that ‘female circumcision’ means removing the prepuce of the clitoris, not the clitoris itself.

As for the Shariah stance on female circumcision, it’s a controversial issue among the Muslim scholars and even doctors.

In response to the question, the eminent Muslim scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, states:

Actually, this is a controversial issue among jurists and even among doctors. It has sparked off fierce debate in Egypt whereby scholars and doctors are split into proponents and opponents.

However, the most moderate opinion and the most likely one to be correct is in favor of practicing circumcision in the moderate Islamic way indicated in some of the Prophet’s hadiths – even though such hadiths are not confirmed to be authentic. It is reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to a midwife: ‘Reduce the size of the clitoris but do not exceed the limit, for that is better for her health and is preferred by husbands.’ The hadith indicates that circumcision is better for a woman’s health and it enhances her conjugal relation with her husband. It’s noteworthy that the Prophet’s saying ‘do not exceed the limit’ means do not totally remove the clitoris.

And defends wife-beating as follows:

The basic rule (asl) is strict prohibition, followed by dispensation (rukhsa) as explicited by the Prophet in the hadith below, which al-Shafi`i took for his evidence in his ruling:

The Prophet said: ‘Do not hit the maidservants of Allah!’ (la tadribu ima’ Allah). Then Umar (RA) came to the Prophet and said [NB: by way of exaggeration, cf Awn al-Ma bud]: ‘The women are rebelling (dha’irna) against their husbands!’ So the Prophet gave a dispensation (rakhkhasa) to beat them.

Not all Islamic countries practice female genital mutilation, to be sure, and some non-Islamic African countries do so. The custom is neither universal in Islam nor unique to it.

Nonetheless, the ubiquity of traditional practices that the civilized world long has repudiated underscores the fundamental difference between Islam on one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other. No Christian court has condemned a woman to death for adultery; although the death penalty for adultery is found in the Book of Leviticus, there is no record of such a sentence by any Jewish court. Although elements of traditional practice are found in ancient Jewish law, the entire purpose of the Jewish code is to separate Israel from the pagan practices of its neighbors. “Holiness” in Hebrew shares a root with the word for separation. The practices of traditional society throughout the Hebrew Bible are regarded as an abomination. By electing Israel, God removes it from the traditional world.

Christianity rejects traditional society all the more emphatically. To become a Christian, every individual must repudiate ethnicity and be reborn into a spiritualized Israel. The reborn Christian belongs not to a tribe, but to the people of God.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great German-Jewish theologian, qualified Islam as a parody of revealed religion. On the surface Islam mimics Jewish more than Christian practice; Muslims pray five times a day while the Jews pray three times, males are circumcised, a similar dietary code prevails, and so forth. But the inability of Islam to rid itself of the most barbaric practices of the primitive world at the beginning of the 21st century is a hallmark of a parody. The resemblances are strictly on the surface. The primitive world persists in Islam under the Abrahamic veneer, because the religion never offered a challenge to it. A small people to repudiate the practices of the pagan world, but a religion that absorbs countless peoples by conquest must accept them with their customs more or less intact.

In another respect, Islam parodies Christianity. Unlike Judaism, which seeks to separate Israel from the traditional practices of the surrounding peoples, Christianity proposes to incorporate all of humanity into the new People of God, by effecting an inner transformation of every individual. By this transformation, Christians believe, all of humanity can become holy. Islam offers a universal religion not of inner transformation but of obedience. Precisely this form of surface universalism ensures that Muslims carry the baggage of traditional life into the new religion, for it offers no point of departure from traditional society.

For this reason it is meaningless to ask whether Islam opposes or promotes the practices of traditional society, for its method of expansion is to absorb whole the societies within its power. As a universal religion, it can only universalize the aspirations of the tribes it assimilates, rather than transform them. At its worst, Christianity makes compromises with the pagan heritage of its converts, which is why Sicilian Catholics killed for honor until recently; at its best, Islam embodies this pagan heritage, which is why it cannot rid itself of barbarism today.

For more extensive discussion, I refer the reader to my essay Christian, Muslim, Jew in the October 2007 issue of First Things.

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