Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Open to Interpretation: review of "Misquoting Muhammad".

The subtitle of the book highlights "The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy", and it was the Choices element that most interested me in this lucid and interesting history of competing traditions of interpretation within Sunni Islam.  The array of choices around interpretation gave me the impression of epistemological vertigo.  It makes sense of why almost anything that can be said about Islam seems to be immediately subject to debate.

Again and again, Brown points up choices that have had to be made between interpretative strategies in order to work out what implications for Sharia law to take from the Qur'an and Muhammad's recorded sayings and conduct.  For any given statement in the Qur'an, or about the prophetic Sunna as recorded in the Hadith literature, one might ask, for example:
  • Is the statement an imperative command, or something else, like an expression of mere opinion, or hyperbole, or factual observation?
  • Is the statement of general validity or limited to specific circumstances, historical or moral?
  • If so, what is the appropriate context for understanding it?
  • If the statements comports awkwardly with another statement, does one complement the other, or specify it, or abrogate it, and if so which controls the other?
  • If the statement is drawn from a hadith, is it authentic in origin and reliable in transmission?  (On which see this fascinating chapter of Brown's previous interesting book.)
This is just a small selection of the ramifying interpretative questions that lead off into a maze of competing theories.

Here is a first example of the dizzying uncertainty of it all.  Sura 2:282 reads in part:
O you who have believed, when you contract a debt for a specified term, write it down. ... And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men, then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses - so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.
So, at a minimum, Muhammad is held to have prophesied from God that two women were required to replace one man as a witness to a debt, due to the risk of a female deficit of memory.  But just at that time, or forever?  Just there or everywhere?  Does the same requirement apply to other matters of testimony?

One sees the questions ramify as Brown lays out various sides to the interpretative debate over the implications of this statement:
While the majority of Sunni schools understood this as meaning that women could only bear witness in cases concerning financial transactions, and even then carrying only half the evidentiary value of a man, the Hanafi school held that they were fundamentally sound witnesses and could thus testify in other matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and even manslaughter.
So there was debate about whether the Quranic requirement for two women to testify about debt excluded women witnessing to other matters, or else included them as witnesses in other matters so that they could testify in the same way as men on those.
Ghazali stepped even further than his Hanafi school on this matter. [He] deemed the reasons for which God had treated female witnesses differently than males to be obsolete. He understood the Qur’an’s commandment on witnessing to be premised on a world where women had little commercial experience. In the modern world, in which women ran corporations, the reason behind the Qur’anic laws no longer applied.
So there was also debate about whether the statement applied generally for all time, or only in the historical circumstances of Muhammad's world.
[O]ne scholar of Mecca had written that, even if the Prophet’s wife Aisha herself came to bear witness in court, her sole testimony would not be accepted. This despite the fact that many of the rulings of the Shariah itself were established by Hadiths that Aisha alone narrated from the Prophet. Any inconsistency that we sense in such matters comes merely from our inability to grasp the ‘divine secrets’ of God’s justice, the Meccan scholar wrote.
And, furthermore, there were implications to consider about the reputation of Aisha as a transmitter of authoritative tradition, raising the danger of a contradictory attitude towards the reliability of a woman's memory.

In other words, it seems to me, the authoritative statement on the issue of female witnesses was so laconic that it was scarcely able to constrain the scope of debatable implications that it gave rise to.  When so many questions can be asked that cannot be definitively answered, the prophetic authority seems to evaporate in a cloud of questions.

To take another issue, let us consider the prophetic theory of the Just War.  As Brown notes, a medieval consensus accepted that the "Sword verses" of Sura 9 abrogated (replaced) all previously revealed "principles of proportionality and non-aggression", so that:
Jihad for the expansion of the Abode of Islam thus became a collective duty for the Muslim polity according to all Sunni schools of law. ... Jihad was understood as the unceasing quest to ‘make God’s word supreme,’ as Hadiths described, through the ongoing expansion of the rule of God’s law on earth.
That is, all Sunni schools of law accepted a conclusion for centuries following the establishment of Islam that virtually all Sunni ulema now repudiate.  If it is possible to take the same set of authoritative sources, and yet derive at two points in time two such radically opposite consensuses of expert jurists on the same vital question, then one must ask whether the supposedly authoritative, prophetic sources provide any firm guidance at all on the matter.

Even seemingly plain statements of legislation fizzle into a web of questions and contexts and extrapolations, such as around the question:
‘How should a thief who has stolen loaves of bread from a baker be punished?’ Abu Hanifa and the young scholars who congregated around him would look first to the Qur’an. It states clearly, ‘The thief, male or female , cut off their hand as a punishment for what they have earned…’ (5: 38). But Abu Hanifa would also remember that his teacher Hammad had heard the great Nakha‘i tell that the Prophet only ordered this punishment if the item stolen was worth more than ten silver coins. Moreover, earlier Kufan masters had ruled, on the basis of a well-known Hadith from the Prophet, that ‘There is no amputation for stealing the fruits [of a palm tree] or its heart.’ But Abu Hanifa and his colleagues would still not have found a clear answer to the question of the loaves of bread in the Qur’an, the Hadiths or the Companion rulings at their disposal. How could they use these sources to cover new territory and resolve the question?
Abu Hanifa developed a systematic form of analogical reasoning, called Qiyas, to extend the ruling of one situation to another based on a shared legal cause (‘illa) – that feature for which God or the Prophet had judged the situation in a certain way. By understanding what lay behind the rulings of the Qur’an and Hadiths, these rulings could be extended to unknown situations that shared the same legal causes. Abu Hanifa understood that the Prophet had ruled out the severe punishment of amputating a hand for stealing the yield of a palm tree because the fruit would soon rot anyway. It was too ephemeral to merit such a harsh response. He thus concluded that the theft of any foodstuff, such as a loaf of bread, that would quickly rot would not entail losing a hand.
Of course, Qiyas was a precarious process. The Qur’an and Hadiths rarely explained clearly the legal cause of a ruling, and it was left to scholars like Abu Hanifa to derive it from context. Some disagreed with his Qiyas in the case of date palms, arguing that the reason the Prophet had prohibited amputating a hand for stealing dates from trees was that in Medina such exposed fruit was considered semi-public property.
More importantly, there may be no reason at all for a ruling...
What makes the question so vertiginous here, is that no sooner do we find a clear ruling in the Qur'an on the punishment of a thief, than other rulings brought in from the Sunna of Muhammad fog up the picture.

So somebody reported that Muhammad only punished by mutilation thefts to a value greater than 10 silver coins.  One can imagine the ramifying questions: Did this report characterise Muhammad's decisions before or after the revelation of the punishment of thieves in Sura 5?  Was it authentic and reliable?  Is the ten-silver-coins test to be applied in nominal or real terms today?  Was Muhammad's laxity towards lesser thefts due to his mercy or his justice?  Was it his peculiar way or a general rule?  What about the palm-fruit exception?  Was this exempted because it would soon rot, or because it was so cheap, or because it was common property?  Or because of local custom in Medina?  Or because of a combination of such factors?

Who knows?  One can imagine a range of implications being drawn.  For every debatable point in a statement there are at least two interpretative options, and when you multiply these together, they multiply out to many different interpretations even of apparently simply points.  This is without even taking into account the problem that there might be a divine ruling made a certain way for no apparent reason.

And that is where this book ultimately leaves me, with the feeling that Islam is so open to interpretation that its adherents have great leeway in deriving implications from its sources of authority, and that while little is definitively mandated, by the same token much seems not to be definitively ruled out.  This may be a bias of the author's focus on differences in interpretation rather than commonalities, but on the other hand his examples cover a huge spread of issues.

My final, more personal conclusion is summed up by Brown's lengthy discussion of how many scholars have tried to interpret away the Qur'an's apparent permission for husbands to strike their wives.  They seem to have tried every interpretative strategy to generate the result they seek.  It is not easy, though, to find an acceptable meaning for the verb in question that makes sense of the Hadith saying that if husbands strike their wives then it may be only "with a light blow that leaves no mark."  This verse, for one, seems to be an indisputable permission, albeit in however limited circumstances, to use violence.  Yet, having found an island of clarity, many believers go out of their way to reject it.

Surely the reason why so many Muslims, like people everywhere, regard hitting people as wrong and in fact disallowed in all but the most necessary circumstances, is that they derive their sense of right and wrong from their wider culture.  I do not believe that most Muslims' rejection of wife-beating is due to the "well-established precedent of the Prophet’s treatment of wives and his strong criticism of striking women" which Brown states has been the main scholarly justification for seeking to interpret the Qur'an in such a way as to prevent it from recommending what it appears to recommend.  I cannot believe that millions of people are so devoid of personal conscience that they would not know whether to think hitting people was right or wrong without the benefit of a sanctified model human being.  They might argue that they derive fundamental values from their religion which seem to be at odds with specific texts, but even then they are making their own judgement as to which values are so fundamental as to override the plain meaning of the texts they dislike.

When they go picking and choosing values and interpretations, they are starting from the same place as I, an atheist, do.  Once you are seeking as much leeway as you can possibly get to force through your preferred interpretation, because you don't want your scripture to say what it says, then you may as well give up taking prophetic and scriptural authorities as your guide.

So Muslims (like Jews, who have a similarly huge and multiplicitous body of authoritative sources) seem to have two choices: either seek to take their moral code from their religion's authoritative sources, in which case their guidance seems in many cases hopelessly indefinite; or else start out from their own moral sense and seek to have it confirmed in the sources, in which case confirmation really adds nothing at all.  It's like an empirical version of the Euthyphro Problem, in which Socrates posed a fundamental and unanswered dilemma for religious ethics.  Whichever horn you choose to sit on, the notion that religion provides a clearer and more rigorous moral code than atheists can hold takes a big hit.

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