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Observing Islam

November 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: In Afghanistan and much of the Islamic world, Ramadan prayers began this morning, hours after a sliver of the new moon appeared the night before. The holy month of fasting, prayer, and reflection recalls God’s revelation of the Koran to the prophet Mohammed 14 centuries ago.

This year’s holiday comes amid intense curiosity and debate over the world’s fastest growing faith and its future. Islam has 1.2 billion adherents; from the traditional Saudi Holy Land, to Indonesia, Macedonia, and parts of the U.S. Beyond geography, Islam has a diversity of interpretations. The differences played out this week in the parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban and its strict doctrine pulled out; many men immediately shaved their beards, and some women showed their faces in public.

Three scholars join us now. Azizah al-Hibri is a professor of law at the University of Richmond. Khaled Abou el Fadl is an acting professor of law at UCLA. He teaches classes in Islamic law and terrorism and the law. And John Esposito is the director of the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He is also the author of “Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?”

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this Ramadan, perhaps more than those in many a year, has been speculated about, anticipated. What’s the significance of this month in the Muslim calendar, Professor al-Hibri?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: It is a very important month, individually and collectively. It is the month where the individual takes stock of their whole life; of their relationship to their maker, their relationship to other people, and tries to build this relationship on harmony and purify oneself so that if we notice we have shortcomings in the past, we try to overcome them. And we try to create peace around us. This is the time when you go visit your family, reestablish family bonds, friendships and so on. It’s really a very peaceful and pious time, or it ought to be, in the Muslim world.

RAY SUAREZ: And Professor el Fadl, is there a uniformity of observance? Would the way the rhythm of life changes be pretty much the same in Senegal and Singapore and Pakistan?

KHALED ABOU EL FADL: Well, the onset of the months of fasting does affect the social rhythm and the social practices in the Muslim world all around, so it is actually quite a delightful sight to see the streets empty at sundown as people gather with their family to break fast and the mosques fill up for the night prayers as people focus on worshipping God.

RAY SUAREZ: So, if you were traveling in a place where much of the population was Muslim, it wouldn’t change that much depending on where you were in the world.

KHALED ABOU EL FADL: Well, of course there are, you know, cultural variations as to what type of exact ritualistic type manifestations take place, but the overwhelming spiritual feeling of — is noticeable all around the Muslim world wherever you go. It’s remarkable that at sundown when the call for prayer is sounded, the streets literally all over the Muslim world just empty and people are all eating at the same time. Shortly afterwards you see the streets fill up as people head to mosques to perform the prayers.

RAY SUAREZ: And John Esposito, this is an experience that must have been unknown or almost unknown in the west until recent decades, where there are now large numbers of Muslims living in minorities in our part of the world.

JOHN ESPOSITO: That’s true. I think a lot of people– I always tell them I moved into the field about 30 years ago, and 30 years ago you talked about if you knew anything about Islam, it was out there. Today it’s the second or third largest religion in Europe and America. 30 years ago when we described the landscape of New York, the New York I was raised in you talked about churches and synagogues. It was unheard of to realize that we now have mosques and Islamic centers, not only in major cities but in towns and urban areas. There are more Muslims today living in minority communities than at any time in history.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor al-Hibri, during the brief report that preceded our talk, we saw men getting their beards shaved, we saw women taking off the burka. Is this kind of observance called for by scripture, or this is really an expression of local practices that has more to do with the culture of Central Asia or the culture of North Africa than it has to do with observance of the religion itself?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I would say it’s the latter, especially since we are talking about covering one’s face and growing a beard. Many jurists who have looked at not only at the Koran but the Hadit, the words of the prophet and tradition might disagree whether a woman should cover her head or might all agree that she should cover her head. But they would disagree certainly about covering the face. But the Taliban took a position that the face must be and all the other parts of a woman must be covered. And the men should grow a beard. This was their interpretation based on some evidence; for example, that people at the time of the prophet had beards. But that’s really not an argument to impose this kind of requirement on people today.

In Islam there is a diversity of interpretation of text, and we have lived with this diversity, in fact celebrated it in many ways because Islam is about freedom of thought. The problem comes when one mode of thought wants to impose that mode on the rest of the population, because it denies the other the freedom of thought vis-a-vis God and their religion.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor el Fadl, I don’t know if there is back in controversy or back to being renegotiated or if this has always been part of a millennium history of the faith. Has there always been a renegotiation, or are there long settled periods that then break out into sort of a family argument about observance, about the rules, what they mean?

KHALED ABOU EL FADL: Well, of course, like all religious systems, and especially a religious juristic tradition like the one that exists in Islam, there is a very rich tradition of hermeneutics and interpretation and schools of thoughts and so on. And you will find strict interpretations and liberal interpretations.

I think that the problem that we observe in the case of the Taliban is a tendency not just to go to the most strict interpretation and the less tolerant of human dignity, but to enforce it — to, in fact, assume that one knows the truth and the divine law and that one is entitled to force all others to live according to that. And, of course, this type of attitude ebbed and flowed at different times in Islamic history.

But I think the power of the state in the modern nation states was the power of centralization and the power of the state to reach into the private lives of people. It had become particularly worrisome and it can become particularly destructive of individuality and the private conscience of human beings.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a problem with pluralism, John Esposito?

JOHN ESPOSITO: I think that Islam is going through a period of discussing and debating the realities of pluralism in the 21st century. It’s comparable to me to the Roman Catholic experience. I think people forget that Roman Catholicism didn’t officially accept pluralism until Vatican II, and a lot of the debates within the Muslim faiths over modernity and various aspects of modernity, they may be faced differently or may be responded to differently, but I think that we’re seeing a similar kind of struggle within Muslim communities.

If you go from Egypt to Indonesia, you see Muslim thinkers writing about pluralism today, what does that mean within Muslim societies, but also what does it mean to be a Muslim minority living in Europe and America, and to live one’s faith when in fact you are going to be a permanent minority? It is a very healthy debate but I think as my colleague, Khaled Abou El Fadl, alluded to before, it brings out the best and the worst in people, and you see the kinds of fights that can occur, you know, on the ground and attempts by some to move forward and others to attempt to silence the struggle between, if you will, conservatives and reformers but also between moderates and extremists.

RAY SUAREZ: What do those words mean, moderates, extremists, conservatives?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Exactly. I find them very confusing because as a scholar of Islamic family law, for example, I’ve looked at the various schools that are classified as progressive or strict. And I find out that they all have a combination of various features. And really what we’re talking about today is how certain groups who adopt these schools have interpreted them in the modern society and behaved politically on the basis of them.

And so as we have said earlier, when there is an imposition of one’s interpretation of others, we are talking now about the power of the state, and that is not acceptable in Islam, because in Islam diversity is supposed to be celebrated. And the state should stay away from supporting one way of thinking as opposed to another.

RAY SUAREZ: But don’t we get into a problem when we talk about the state in the first place? Is there a mosque and state in orthodoxy where they are two separate things?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: From day one, they are to some extent quite separate, but ultimately they all have a religious basis, which is a belief in God. It is not– it is not a secular state in that sense. But there is a separation of power; and in fact one could describe a very similar separation of powers to the one we have in this country. Also remember there is no such thing as a clerical structure in Islam. So there is no clergy that is going to establish a theocracy.

What we are seeing today is really a bunch of people who have political views of one kind or another and are using religious symbols and language in order to further their points with the masses who are religious. But to speak about the theocracy in the western sense – that is an inaccurate description of what happened, for example, 1400 years ago in the Muslim world.

RAY SUAREZ: But Professor el Fadl, aren’t some of the struggles we’re seeing now in the majority Muslim countries just over that question, whether there is a separation between religion and state? Some of the armed groups in the field say they want to fuse the two, to have there be no daylight between a government and the religious authorities.

KHALED ABOU EL FADL: I think part of the problem is exactly the problem of authoritativeness and legitimacy and authenticity. Who really represents the tradition?

Of course in debates with these types of organizations, you know they tend to accuse the other side of having their own political causes, of either pro-westernism or liberalism, or inclination towards democratic pluralism, and that they try to rummage through the Islamic tradition to find support. And so it’s easy for both sides to claim that the other is primarily politically motivated and then searching for a religious garb.

The main issue is that the Puritan orientations, orientations of strict constructionism and orientations that imagine a golden age in Islam that must be returned to, orientations that reject the cumulative interpretive tradition of Islamic insights and hermeneutics tend to see issues in a dichotomous way, in a very black and white way. Shades of gray and notions of diversity of opinion and tolerance is not very respected. If you believe you have the ultimate truth, your tolerance for the other is not very high.

And I think that’s part of it, is that they conceive of this state as basically guardian for orthodoxy, guardian for correctness, correctness of belief, correctness of practice, and in my own view, in my own opinion, in doing so, they corrupt the richness of the Islamic tradition and they corrupt the very strong heritage of discourse, in which on every opinion you would have six different points of view, all of them equally legitimate.

RAY SUAREZ: What are we seeing played out now in what is essentially a Muslim-Muslim battle in Central Asia?

JOHN ESPOSITO: I think, you know, what one is seeing is a struggle for defining one’s future, for defining what it means to be now a people now that one is free. But I think part of the problem you have in Central Asia is that many of the people who are in power are really people who were, you know, members of the party before.

And the struggle that you’re going to see in Central Asia is going to be a bit similar to the struggle you are seeing across the Muslim world. You have authoritarian regimes and authoritarian regimes that in fact are about staying in power. They’re not about building a pluralistic society. They’re not about developing a culture for civil society for democratization. I think the risk in Central Asia, it will be similar to the risks that we see in many countries in the Muslim world of authoritarian powers that, in fact, will alienate groups within the masses and then there will be a reaction. And the more you put pressure down, the more the risk is that you will wind up with an extremist reaction exploding back, and the state will then have an excuse for further repression.

The challenge to countries like America and Europe will be where they stand on issues of self-determination and democratization, and with regard to the future, because in terms of our own relationships and our own security, it’s going to be very important.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests thank you all. Good to be with you.