The person who goes by the handle @brumbyOz has written an enlightening rebuttal to my recent column, Of Mohammad Shami and the Good Bad Muslim. The rebuttal is edifying and instructive on two counts: one, it dissects my thesis lucidly and without spite – both on opinion and the facts quoted; and two, its tempered arguments allow for a healthy debate that would hopefully enrich not only the two writers but also the readers. To be sure, some of the arguments in the rebuttal, I felt, required a rejoinder from my side lest my hypothesis be misconstrued. What follows is my response, with arguments from Brumby’s rebuttal.
Brumby, although in agreement, has replaced Bad Muslim – the term I used – with Liberal Muslim. I have no grouse with this but feel it would be helpful if I were to expand a little on the reason behind my choice of the phrases, Bad Muslim and Good Muslim.
I began my article with the following qualification: “The definition of a good Muslim is someone who believes in every word of the Holy Quran, the order of Allah as dictated to Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him). Assuming this definition, one which incidentally is sacrosanct to any Muslim, a bad Muslim is one who, even though he does not dare to admit it publicly, chooses the Quranic commandments as per his needs.”
Now the Holy Quran is amply clear on what is to be done by a Muslim. The word of the Allah is inviolable; it is the truth; and it is to be followed and submitted to unquestioningly. There is no room for ambiguity. A good Muslim, therefore, is one who follows and takes for granted the word of Allah. Indeed, the Almighty Allah has described who a good or a bad Muslim is, repeatedly and unequivocally:
“It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error.” Quran 33:36
“And obey Allah and the Messenger that you may obtain mercy.” Quran 3:132
“The believers are only those who, when Allah is mentioned, their hearts become fearful, and when His verses are recited to them, it increases them in faith; and upon their Lord they rely.” Quran 8:2
“The believers are only the ones who have believed in Allah and His Messenger and then doubt not but strive with their properties and their lives in the cause of Allah. It is those who are the truthful.” Quran 49:15
“O you who have believed, fear Allah and give up what remains [due to you] of interest, if you should be believers (https://quran.com/2/278)…And if you do not, then be informed of a war [against you] from Allah and His Messenger. But if you repent, you may have your principal – [thus] you do no wrong, nor are you wronged.” Quran 2:279
“And why do you not believe in Allah while the Messenger invites you to believe in your Lord and He has taken your covenant, if you should [truly] be believers?” Quran 57:8
“And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.” Quran 3:85
“Allah, to whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And woe to the disbelievers from a severe punishment.” Quran 14:2
Going by the aforementioned Quranic verses, I contend that my definition of who is a good or a bad Muslim is well substantiated. Furthermore, the almighty Allah is also unambiguous in establishing that his words are the eternal truth, are final, and are inviolable:
“And the word of your Lord has been fulfilled in truth and in justice. None can alter His words, and He is the Hearing, the Knowing.” Quran 6:115
“[This is] the established way of Allah with those who passed on before; and you will not find in the way of Allah any change.” Quran 33:62
“And recite, [O Muhammad], what has been revealed to you of the Book of your Lord. There is no changer of His words, and never will you find in other than Him a refuge.” Quran 18:27
“…No change is there in the words of Allah…” Quran 1:64
“…And none can alter the words of Allah…” Quran 6:34
“…But you will never find in the way of Allah any change, and you will never find in the way of Allah any alteration.” Quran 35:43
“…And never will you find in the way of Allah any change.” Quran 48:23
By being selective in his adherence to Quranic commandments, a Muslim is not only violating the definition of a Muslim as expressly set out by Allah, he is also being sceptical of Allah’s words that are the exposition of everything, are inviolable, and the eternal truth.
First, I beg to disagree with the contention that quoting Quranic verses relating to how a Muslim woman is to dress and behave in public, is to be taken as selective reading of the Holy Quran. The context is the appearance of a Muslim woman and the Quran does not contradict itself in this respect. The almighty Allah is clear and unambiguous. Indeed, as Brumby says so himself: “Ranganathan is absolutely right when he points to the fact that a modest dress code is prescribed by the Quran itself. Liberal Muslims should accept this fact instead of trying to give it a liberal spin.”
Second, nowhere in my article have I criticised Islam or claimed to be a critic of Islam. I have simply quoted the Holy Quran, and quoting Quranic verses do not make one a critic of Islam.
Third, the verse 24:19 quoted by Brumby is, contrary to his purport, accepted by Islamic scholars to in fact mean the following:
“Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread [or publicised] among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows and you do not know.” Quran 24:19
The operative words here are ‘spreading of immorality’ (many a time also read as ‘indecency’, for example in the Islamic scholar Arthur Arberry’s translation of the Holy Quran, widely considered to be the most accurate and definitive of all translations). Because the Almighty Allah warns of a painful punishment for those who spread immorality or indecency, it follows that, if failure to dress in a manner as suggested by Allah constitutes indecency and immorality, then it is in actual fact the Shami couple who have spread it and publicised it through Twitter and Facebook, and therefore are subject to a painful punishment in this world and the hereafter.
Could this be because exodus of Muslims from Islam, meaning Apostasy, is disallowed in Islam and invites a death sentence?
Brumby is correct here. That said, there are multiple verses in the Quran that warn against Apostasy:
“Indeed, those who have believed then disbelieved, then believed, then disbelieved, and then increased in disbelief – never will Allah forgive them, nor will He guide them to a way.” Quran 4:137
“Whoever disbelieves in Allah after his belief except for one who is forced [to renounce his religion] while his heart is secure in faith. But those who [willingly] open their breasts to disbelief, upon them is wrath from Allah, and for them is a great punishment.” Quran 16:16
“And whoever of you reverts from his religion [to disbelief] and dies while he is a disbeliever – for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the Hereafter, and those are the companions of the Fire, they will abide therein eternally.” Quran 2:217
These warnings have subsequently been consecrated unambiguously and multiple times in the form of death penalty in the Hadith (the second most important scripture for Muslims after the Holy Quran). And as the Almighty Allah says so himself, multiple times in the Holy Quran, both He and the Prophet (Peace be upon him) are to be obeyed:
“And obey Allah and obey the Messenger and beware. And if you turn away – then know that upon Our Messenger is only [the responsibility for] clear notification.” Quran 5:92
“Indeed, those who disbelieve in Allah and His messengers and wish to discriminate between Allah and His messengers and say, “We believe in some and disbelieve in others,” and wish to adopt a way in between – Those are the disbelievers, truly. And we have prepared for the disbelievers a humiliating punishment.” Quran 4:15
Consequently, Apostasy carries the death sentence in most Islamic countries.
Brumby makes a good point here, and broadly speaking he is correct in his assessment. To be sure, my opinion – which I accept was inadvertently too generic and therefore open to counterviews – was based on the following thesis:
The spread of religion has many reasons behind it: proselytising of non-believers, conquests of non-believers, coercive or forced conversions of non-believers, propagation through population growth among believers, and cost to believers for abandoning their belief.
The context of my argument is the view that preachers and proselytisers, of any religion, preach and proselytise primarily what they believe to be the virtuous and good parts of their religion. The flock must not be intimidated if it is to be increased, and religion, rightly or wrongly, must be shown as compassionate, benevolent, non-patriarchal, non-misogynist, and non-violent. The spread of Christianity in Africa stands testament to this simple fact. Islam is no exception. To take one example, here is what the Almighty Allah has to say on how a husband should treat his wife:
“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.” Quran 4:34
This and many other verses regarding women – their clothing, appearance, behaviour in public and at home, their share of property and in jurisprudence – are not discussed by proselytisers when recounting the rights and status of women in Islam.
To take another example, the Quranic verse: “To kill one innocent is to kill entire humanity”, is perhaps the most quoted verse in Islam, and one that has undoubtedly drawn countless into its fold. From clerics to Barack Obama to Shahrukh Khan to Salim Khan to Salman Khan to even Brumby, every one quotes this verse to expound the compassionate nature of Islam, without realising – deliberately or otherwise – that he is not only quoting a truncated version of the said verse but also misquoting it.
Here is the verse in its entirety:
“Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.” Quran 5:32
The verse, as can be seen, is a decree upon the Jews [The Children of Israel]; many scholars believe this verse has its antecedence in the Talmud. Further, its virtuosity is conditional [“unless”]. This becomes clear from the nature of the very next verse:
“Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.” Quran 5:33
Protected or not by the liberal Muslim, preached or not the truncated verses, it cannot be denied that Islam has spread, and so Brumby is quite correct in his argument. That said, it is also a fact that the prescribed punishment for Apostasy makes it impossible for Muslims to leave Islam, and therefore it is a religion whose followers cannot, like the followers of other religions, decrease in numbers.
First, Zakir Naik arguing for things liberals argue for doesn’t make him a liberal in the true sense of the word. He could ask for mosque entry for women while at the same time demand punishment for homosexuals, blasphemy, and apostasy – which indeed he does.
Second, I never stated that stoning is a punishment prescribed in the Holy Quran. Rather, I mentioned that it comes from the Book of Hudood. The two are entirely different. The Book of Hudood has commandments derived from the Hadith in addition to the Holy Quran.
The scale of goodness or badness was restricted to a Muslim adhering to, or not adhering to, what is prescribed in the Holy Quran. Consequently, the qualification of Zakir Naik was made as a good or a bad Muslim and not as a good or a bad human being, and specifically for his adherence to the word of Allah. Triple Talaq and entry of women into mosques are not discussed in the Holy Quran and therefore these examples are subsidiary to the point being made.
I beg to disagree with the notion that societies that put a high premium on the value of family structure would prescribe severe punishment for adultery. India, for example, doesn’t prescribe either flogging or stoning as punishment for sexual intercourse outside of marriage while Pakistan does. Are we to believe that Pakistanis put a higher premium than Indians on the value of family structure? To be sure, the barometer for such a premium, if it is to be the divorce rate or gender equality or crimes against women, is notoriously difficult to ascertain. India has a higher divorce rate, of 13 per 1000 marriages. That said, the increasing use of the “Khula proclamation” is leading to a rise in Pakistan’s divorce rate.
It is indeed true, that the moral scale of a society varies all across the world. However, is it to be overlooked that there is a universal moral scale for a human society that one need aspire for, and in many societies achieve even? Given a choice between living in Saudi Arabia and Sweden, which country would a person of liberal disposition choose?
Again, I contend that I did not criticise any Quranic verse but, rather, presented them without my interpretation or analysis. This was, I felt, important, as I wanted the readers to read the verse and make up their own minds. Putting on the table what is written in the Holy Quran, word for word, cannot be construed as criticism either of Quran or of Islam.
If I may, this is an entirely wrong reading of what was said in my article. Indeed, this misconception has been repeated elsewhere in Brumby’s rebuttal: “As Ranganathan’s article argues, A good Muslim is in fact a bad human being.”
I wrote: “While Mr and Mrs Shami might be bad Muslims, they are good human beings.” Nowhere have I written or implied that “a good Muslim is a bad human being”, or that “a good Muslim lacks empathy, kindness, remorse and reconciliation.” Indeed, my contention was quite the opposite. The evolutionary endowments of empathy, kindness, remorse, and reconciliation, were mentioned to buttress the thesis that, in spite of the fact that most of the world is religious and follows religious diktats, the world is a peaceful place. This is because humans are inherently desirous of, as I wrote, “settling to their energy-minimum”, gifted as they are with the aforementioned evolutionary endowments. More on this idea can be read here.
I emphasise that the attributes of goodness and badness were made by me solely in the context of a Muslim adhering to what is written in the book that he follows and swears by.
And as I have shown, Allah himself is quite clear on who a good Muslim is. Further, if a book is emphatically proclaimed to be the final word on truth, and accepted thus by all its followers, can one then be selective about its contents? If yes, then it is incumbent upon the follower to mention what he disagrees with in the book, and what proclamation of Allah he sees as untrue, especially keeping in mind the words of the Almighty Allah that the Quran is the eternal truth (as shown above) and without contradiction:
“Then do they not reflect upon the Quran? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction.” Quran 4:82
Goodness and badness are moral judgements when it comes to ascertaining them for human beings. One can be a bad believer, but to see someone as a bad human being involves factoring in a multitude of actions and character traits, with his good or bad belief being a minuscule subset. It is also a fact that attributing positivity to someone, i.e. calling him a good human being, is more often than not a better judgment than attributing negativity to someone, i.e. calling him a bad human being. A person is presumed innocent until guilty, and assumption of guilt, especially a sweeping assumption, is unwise. Second, the badness of a human being or a State becomes an issue to be perturbed with only when it begins to affect their actions. The goodness of a human being is seldom an issue. Much more central, therefore, than the assertion that a good believer is a bad human being – an assertion I did not make – is the assertion that a bad believer is a good human being.
This is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that the same book also – to use the rebutter’s own words – leans towards patriarchy; not to mention innumerable instances of advocacy of punishment and strict adherence to a specific code and a way of life that – again in the rebutter’s words – come in conflict with liberal sentiments. What, then, must a believer do? Does the fact of forgiveness being advocated rule out the punishment to be meted out on account of disobeyance? Who is to say – follow one command and not the other, when all commands are stated to be inviolable and the eternal truth and not contradictory and to be obeyed by the true believer? As an analogy, what is an evolutionary biologist to do if he finds The Origin of Species professing both Evolution and Intelligent Design at the same time? It is for this reason that I had written: Moderates believe in the good passages and the extremists believe in the bad. But it is the same book and that is what matters to the extremists.
By definition a liberal cannot be intolerant of a liberal value or a set of values. Is the rebutter here suggesting that Islam is not compatible with, as he says, the liberal world? Be that as it may, it is for the rebutter and the readers to answer the following: A human being who believes, and then enforces, the view that fellow human beings cannot sing, dance, play sports, drink, fornicate, be openly homosexual, and wear what they want to – is this a good human being or a bad human being? And if a nation state believes, and then enforces, the view that human beings cannot sing, dance, play sports, drink, fornicate, be openly homosexual, and wear what they want to – is this a good nation state or a bad nation state?
Author’s note: The author thanks @brumbyOz for allowing his rebuttal to be published in Newslaundry, and for initiating an enlightening debate.