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10 Male Muslim Scholars Who Resist Islamic Punishments

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"How can you do this to anybody?"
-- The Stoning of Soraya M

The Pan Malaysian Islamic Party clerics recently declared liberal Muslims as a threat to Islam as they reject the hudud (punishments under Islamic law). They vowed to wipe them out. Such rhetoric is not unique to Malaysia.

Identity politics allows Muslim scholars and their followers in the West to uphold draconian punishments under an ideal Islamic state. Dr. Mohammad Fadel notes that rejecting hudud as "cruel and unusual punishments ... would have no purchase among believing Muslims."

Catering to their religious constituents, popular Muslim academics engage in apologetics to make the classical Islamic position on homosexuality, apostasy, slavery and hudud palatable to modern sensibilities.

They downplay the application of the hudud by arguing that such punishments are impossible to apply and that the primary purpose is to remind people of the enormity of their sins. They apologetically claim that such punishments are rarely inflicted and are often politically motivated.

However, a single death in the name of such laws is way too many. Fortunately, there are many Muslim scholars who resist the hudud without apologetics. Here are 10 such voices.

abdolkarim soroush
Hosein Haj Faraj Dabbagh, best known by his pen name, Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian scholar and religious and political philosopher, at his temporary office in Tehran, March 1, 1999. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

1) Abdolkarim Soroush

Iranian Islamic thinker Soroush asserts that nothing unreasonable can be God's will, that human rights do not contradict Islam, that it is not necessary to follow Islamic law to the letter and therefore "a whole series of punishments recognized by Islamic law need no longer be applied."

In an interview, he expressed:

"Some parts of religion are historically and culturally determined and no longer relevant today. That is the case, for instance, with the corporal punishments prescribed in the Koran. If the Prophet had lived in another cultural environment, those punishments would probably not have been part of his message."

2) Abdullahi An-Naim

Sudanese Islamic scholar An-Naim is a strong proponent of the idea that we need a secular state to be a Muslim by conviction. Commenting in the Malaysian context, he has stated that any obligation to support the hudud rests on personal speculation. He argues that since the Islamic criminal code is not mentioned in the Qur'an, Muslims have no obligation to support the hudud.

3) Khaled Abou El-Fadl

Islamic jurist and scholar El-Fadl states that the "ethical precepts" of Islam do not lie in "specific punishments." He emphasizes that the values the punishments seek to safeguard are deemed eternal but not the punishments themselves. Commenting on the past jurists, he writes:

"... they erroneously rendered some of the punitive measures mentioned in the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions sacrosanct and eternal. ... But there is no plausible reason to believe that ..."

4) Asghar Ali Engineer

The late Dawoodi Bohra Islamic thinker argued that the hudud laws are a product of human interpretation and reasoning and should not be treated as immutable. He wrote of acknowledging the new social context that justifies a revision of hudud laws based on human dignity and human rights.

5) Farhad Shafti

U.K. based Dr. Shafti argues that the penal law of Islam was "never intended to be permanent and universally applicable." He writes that the laws suited the norms of time and location 1400 years ago but also emphasizes that, "we have to adapt and evolve it as appropriate for the time and the location."

6) Hashim Kamali

Malaysia based Dr. Kamali, a leading Islamic scholar, has proposed that the Hadith text that calls for suspending the hudud under doubtful situations is not restricted to the evidential procedures in courts. He argues that circumstances of modern society as a whole allow for shubha (doubtful situation) and render the application of the hudud as obsolete. In doing so, the hudud, usually defended as God's right, would be automatically reduced to ta'zir (discretionary punishment) and subject to revisions based on the contemporary context of Muslim societies.

7) Shabir Ally

Muslim academic and public speaker, Dr. Ally goes against the classical grain and asserts that, "there are other ways" of calling people "to what is good." Commenting on cutting off hands in a YouTube video, he says:

"... many people would think ... That's the law of God written in the Quran. It must apply for all time. But it's not so simple. ... it would seem that in modern times, when there is so much concern with preserving the human body... it would be out of place to apply such a ruling."

8) Mohammad Fadel

Professor of Islamic law, Dr. Fadel adopts a nuanced approach. He argues that the since the purpose of hudud was atonement, they could not be applied to non-Muslims or Muslims who do not accept such punishments based on the argument that the "salvific benefits" would not be achieved.

He asserts that prominent Muslim jurists rejected the punishment for drinking alcohol for Muslims who believed that this penalty was limited to drinking grape wine.

9) Allama Iqbal

Like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, 20th century Islamic thinker, Iqbal upheld that the hudud were not essential components of Islam. He wrote:

"... (e.g. rules relating to penalties for crimes) are in a sense specific to that people; and since their observance is not an end in itself they cannot be strictly enforced in the case of future generations."

10) Nasr Abu Zayd

The late Dr. Abu Zayd argued that the body of sharia literature is not divine but a product of human thought. He asserted that calls for a theocratic state would merely lead to a "devilish dictatorial regime at the expense of the spiritual and ethical dimension of Islam." On hudud, he wrote:

"In our modern times of human rights and respect for the integrity of the human body, the amputation of body parts or execution cannot be considered divinely sanctioned religious punishments."

In essence, Muslims should not clamour for the hudud just to fuel identity politics. Likewise, Muslim spokesmen should stop feeding the political passions of their religious constituents.

Islam needs people of vision, not apologists.

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