Progressive Muslim Dilemma

Javeed Akhter

Posted Dec 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Progressive Muslim dilemma.

Amina Wadud Muhsin, who is one of the Gurus of the “Progressive Muslim movement in the US, is reported to have declared recently that she could not intellectually or spiritually accept some injunctions in the Qur’an. For example, some of the hudud punishments like amputating hands or the permission to beat oneԒs wife. She made it clear that she was denying neither the religion nor the revelation. It is the Qur’an she said, ғthat gives me the means to say no to the Quran.  The obvious contradiction in her statements seems to escape her.  Paraphrasing her, she appears to be saying; I believe some parts of the Qur’an and reject other parts and the QurԒan allows me to do it.  The argument defies logic. 

Her discomfort with some of the hudud punishments is understandable and shared by many Muslims of both the current and previous generations.  According to noted scholar Fazalur Rahman, who called himself a “modernist, the punishment of amputating hands for theft, part of hudud mentioned in the Quran, does not apply in modern times, as theft in earlier times was an attack on persons honor (ird), not merely taking of property, and was therefore a much more serious affront.  To bolster his argument he invokes the concept of “ratio legis.  Each legal or quasi-legal pronouncement is accompanied by a ratio legis explaining why a law is being enunciated.  To understand a ratio legis fully, an understanding of the socio-historical background, including what Qur’anic commentators call “occasions of revelationҔ, is necessary. (Major Themes of the Quran).  He suggests if the situation changes (such) that the law fails to reflect the ratio, the law must change.  This is in contrast to the principle enunciated by the traditional lawyers that although the law is occasioned by a specific situation, its application nevertheless becomes universal and unchangeable.  The ratio legis of amputating hands was attack on honor.

Amin Ahmed Islahi, well known exegete and author of the Urdu language tafisr Tadabbur al-Qur’an rejects the stoning to death as punishment for adultery on different grounds.  He points out that this specific punishment is not mentioned in the Quran.  There is in fact a very different punishment, lashing, that is prescribed.  Accepting and implementing the stoning would set the precedent of a hadith being used to abrogate a Quranic verse.  This he points out emphatically is unacceptable.  A Quranic verse may abrogate another Qur’anic verse, a hadith may abrogate another hadith, QurҒan may abrogate hadith, but a hadith may not abrogate a Qur’anic verse. 

The testimony of two women equaling that of one man has been questioned by scholars on many grounds.  Recently Indonesian courts passed a law stating that the testimony of both men and women should be treated as equal.  They argued the verse dealing with testimony (2:282) of two women one man applied only to business transactions.  They argue that the stipulation must have had to do with the fact that the vast majority of women at the time of the Prophetr were not in the business space and therefore may not have been familiar with these transactions.  This, the Indonesians point out, is not true in their country where for example a Batik workshop is frequently managed or owned by a woman and many of the workers may be men. 

Mohammed Fadel in his essay Two women, one man” (Int. J. Middle East Stud. 29 1997) notes that ӓAl-Qarafi, a Sunni jurist, used a different argument to explain the one man two women edict.  Al-Qarafi argues that unlike being a transmitter of a saying like a hadith, the act being a witness in a dispute would expose women to the ire of the losing party.  This resentment would be greater, Al-Qarafi notes, if the loss in the dispute was perceived to be due to a womans testimony.  The Quran appears to be alluding to this issue when it says, The witnesses should not refuse when they are called on (For evidence).Ҕ (2:282). It is as if the Qur’an is fearful of the fact that the witness may be a no show.  This separation of private space for women and public for men has changed irreversibly.  As womans role in society has changed, it is unlikely that the social disorder that may have occurred in the past from the violation of the private space would occur now.  This takes away Al-Qarafis justification for two women and one man being needed for witness instead of two men.  Additionally the Indonesians point out that the strict separation of men in public space and women in private space never existed in Indonesia to the extent it did in the traditional Arab culture.

Although a progressive like Wadud Muhsin is dealing with legitimate problems that have become part of widely accepted Muslim practice, her contention that she will accept only parts of the Quran is untenable with the Muslim credo that Qur’an is the divine word of God that has to be accepted in its totality.  In contrast what Modernists have done in the past and continue to do so today is to re-interpret the verses using well established principles of ijtehad.  This type of dynamic re-interpretation of the Quran is both valid and essential to keep the religion alive and relevant.  If Wadud-Muhsin and her supporters continue down the path of accepting the Quran piecemeal, they run the risk of becoming another heterodoxic sect of Islam.  They would serve their cause better if they used arguments based on the well established principles of Ijtehad.  As the recent Indonesian example shows things do change.

Javeed Akhter is the director of the International Strategy and Policy Institute at