Cartoons, Lard, and YouTube: An Inquiry into Religious Rage

They’re after your babies!!!

In 1857, Muslim and Hindu soldiers under the employ of the East India Company heard a rumor, not without basis, that the Company planned to issue new rifle cartridges that would have to be bitten in order to release the gunpowder. These cartridges were to be lubricated using lard (pig-grease) or tallow (cow-grease), something offensive to Muslim and Hindu dietary laws, respectively. Several contingents rebelled against their British commanders, riots broke out throughout northern India, and before long there were calls from Hindu and Muslim rebels to restore the politically weakened Mughal Emperor, Bahadur II, to full sovereignty over India and to expel the British.

The British public was presented by the press with stories about the rape of innocent Christian women, the religious fanaticism of the Muslims, and the valiant struggle of superior British values in a harsh and barbaric land. Christian missionaries complained that they had not been given free enough rein to impart these values, and were now suffering atrocities at the hands of the heathen. And all because of some lard?

Well, not really. Historians looking back at the Indian Mutiny (and indeed more than a few more discerning contemporaries from Britain and India) readily see the bloody revolt as an expression of a whole whirlwind of social and political tensions. The top of the list, obviously, is the piece-meal annexation of the sub-continent over three centuries by a foreign economic power. But closer study of the rebellion reveals that it was not simply a native vs. British scenario. Hindu castes were pitted against one another, and Muslim statelets fought with one another over territory as often as they fought against the British. Competition for power and status was fierce in a rapidly changing political context.

At the end of the revolt, the last Mughal emperor was exiled, the British crown assumed direct control of the colony from the Company, and the British public called for harsh and merciless penalties against the Hindu and Muslim offenders. Indian constituencies that had sided with the British, such as the Sikhs, found themselves in a far more privileged position than they had been, while mutinying Muslims found themselves tied to the front of a cannon and burst asunder, to the cheers of proper Victorian ladies in parlors half a world away.

It was not, ultimately, about the lard, although that may have served as the trigger, nor was it really about British values.

We are once again faced with media images of a young angry Muslim mob™ and headlines like “Film Provokes Rage across Muslim World.” Echoes of the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005 are clear. But in both cases, the failure of much of our media to give us sufficient context in each country in which the protests are going on allows most of the American audience to say, “There they go again, those angry, intolerant Muslims that don’t like free speech.” We collectively stick them in storm trooper helmets, allowing them to be faceless, villainous clones.

The still unfolding story has been both alarmingly deadly with the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador and three of his staff in Libya and one protester in Yemen and truly bizarre, as the identity and motives of the film-maker seem wrapped in an onion of deception. And, as expected in an election year (scratch that, in all years), our politicians try to find the best news-cycle spin for their agenda.

Everyone should know by now that offending the Prophet Muhammad is not going to go over well with a Muslim audience. But one has to have one’s eyes closed to not see that there are insults to Muhammad sprinkled all over the Internet. There are individuals whose whole career seems built around stoking fear and anger from and against Muslims. So why this video, why now, and why in the places these protests have turned violent?

I would submit that it is not, ultimately, about the film or religious offense, although that has served as the trigger, nor is it about Free Speech™. Instead, it is about power, and local power, as opposed to a global or anti-American agenda.

It is not a coincidence that the three first flashpoints were in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, three hotspots of the Arab Spring. And the balance of power in each of these countries is vastly different, though all three share a precarious security situation.

Egypt’s recent election has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to executive power after decades of being a vocal and often persecuted political opponent to the nationalistic regime. They have evolved quite a bit from their days as a violent revolutionary group against Nasser. They are the granddaddy of Islamist parties and advocate conservative religious values, but despite their election victory, they are aware that their position is precarious. Their status as long-time voice of the opposition may only get them so far when the revolution in Tahrir Square was made up of Egyptians from across the political spectrum. Despite years of rhetoric, they will be forced to build working relationships with both the U.S. and Israel. How far they can push for their conservative social views has yet to become clear.

Khaled ‘Abdullah, proposed roommate for Glenn Beck

It appears that an Egyptian Rush Limbaugh-esque shock jock Khaled ‘Abdullah drew attention to the film trailer dubbed into Arabic on his program, in which he regularly spouts anti-Copt and anti-Jewish rhetoric. Though it now turns out that filmmaker “Sam Bacile,” the Israeli ex-pat real estate mogul, does not exist, one can imagine the political resonance in Egypt of a supposedly Jewish and Coptic funded anti-Muslim film. President Mursi is in a tough spot. While the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood might be expected to protest an anti-Muhammad film, Mursi appealed to Coptic voters during his campaign, and it may certainly have helped his victory. The Copts, meanwhile, are widely perceived to have benefitted economically under Sadat and Mubarak and are eager to appear cooperative with a regime that has so far avoided much anti-Coptic rhetoric, despite rumbling resentment in some corners of Egypt. The Egyptian Coptic community’s rapid denunciation of the film is understandable. Mursi’s ambivalence – he has called for continued protests against the film on the condition they be peaceful and not held outside anyone’s embassy – is likewise comprehensible, albeit frustrating to the Obama administration. It does, however, call into question his control over security.

The Libyan situation is murkier at the moment. The Libyan and American governments are investigating the possibility that the film protests were used as a pretext for an already-planned attack on the consulate. Unlike in Egypt, Libya’s Islamists did not win their election, and many Libyans, particularly in Benghazi, one of the strongholds of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, are very pro-American (they have held counter-protests in recent days). However, the new government has had a hard time establishing its authority when many political factions have remained armed since the rebellion. Although initial suspicions pointed to local Islamist groups, it can’t be ruled out at this point that former Qaddafi loyalists or even al-Qa’ida in North Africa might have planned the attack.

What is devastatingly tragic is that Ambassador Stevens worked closely with the Libyan opposition and is part of the reason the Libyans have been so pro-American of late. He was a career diplomat who had learned to care about the countries where he represented the U.S. Libya’s perception of America has certainly changed, but this will certainly set back American perceptions of Libya.

Yemen, likewise, has a precarious security situation. Although ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh has stepped down as president, his vice president was elected as his successor, as the only candidate. Islamist opposition parties in Yemen are thus neither defanged by democratic rejection, as in Libya, nor empowered, as in Egypt.

Politics really is local. Even the tendency of the press to depict these protests as a global confrontation between the “Free West” and the “Islamic World” is a distortion that, once again, will mostly benefit local interests, whether those be the interests of the American Right, the Islamist parties of certain countries, or the Iranian regime, which can freely organize anti-American protests to shore up its legitimacy whenever the need arises. The movie is indeed offensive, but even such offense will not spontaneously give rise to violence unless someone has an interest in making it so and stirring the pot. And there have been plenty of pot-stirrers.


Silhouettes of Shari’a – Part 1: Herding Classical Cats

A herd of cats (and friends)!

The wave of political Islamophobia that many hoped had reached its crescendo in the 2010 election appears to be alive and thriving. Vitriolic bloggers like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney and their political allies like Michelle Bachmann and Steve King continue to craft elaborate conspiracy theories about how Islam and American Muslims are undermining American security and social values.  (It’s not my purpose here to bother refuting these folks.  I recommend Loonwatch or Islamophobia Today for coverage of Islamophobia.)  One of the most “successful” initiatives to come out of this movement has been the push for anti-shari’a legislation in more than 20 states, which would forbid courts from considering Islamic Law in any cases whatsoever. Although the Oklahoma referendum of 2010, one of the most publicized examples, passed a popular vote, it was ruled unconstitutional and attempts to re-route the proposal through the Oklahoma Senate this year have so far failed.

At issue are a few cases in which judges have considered Islamic Law in inheritance and divorce situations where circumstances were ambiguous or where civil laws had holes (some examples). There have been no cases where shari’a concepts were used to replace or override American civil laws. But the proposed legislation could have sweeping consequences that might render contracts void simply for referring to Islam. So, if I borrow ten bucks from you and promise to pay you back eleven, that’s allowed, but if the contract suggests this was done according to principles of Islamic finance, the courts may have to refuse to uphold it. Most brained-Americans have no problems dismissing such proposals as loony, but these debates have not actually improved the general public’s understanding of what shari’a actually is, effectively ceding much of the definitional power to the loons.

To make matters worse, we are constantly hearing about threatening shari’a abroad, whether it’s the Taliban’s draconian approach to public order, the stoning of adulterers in Saudi Arabia, or the political influence of “Islamist” groups like the Muslim Brotherhood on the Arab Spring. Although I do not wish to diminish our sense the horror at what life is like under the Taliban nor do I wish to campaign for the Muslim Brotherhood, we are often given the idea that these otherwise disparate phenomena are part of some aggregated global conspiracy akin to the Communist Threat in the 50’s and 60’s (itself of dubious aggregated-ness). The logic seems to be that shari’a is shari’a is shari’a. But it may not be – and I won’t even have to redefine “is” to attempt to persuade you. Shari’a means vastly different things to different people in different places, and as a society – in policy, journalism, or education – we won’t really be able to grasp the real situations of those people and places until we beef-up and complicate our collective one-dimensional understanding of shari’a.

Unfortunately, most media outlets have failed at getting a nuanced presentation of shari’a to the public. I chalk this up to the “wikification” of journalism dealing with “other” cultures/people, or in a more academic sense, the notion that “origin equals essence,” which is particularly pervasive in coverage of the Islamic world. Providing a textbook definition of a term or its historical origin, no matter how accurate, crowd-sourced, or hyperlink-referenced, often falls short of providing the needed context for deeper understanding. So, for example, we had countless articles about the sectarian violence in Iraq telling us about the disagreements in early Islam over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad or maybe some doctrines on the Hidden Imam. But the Iraqis were no more fighting about the honor of ‘Ali than the Irish Troubles were about papal infallibility or transubstantiation. A few more responsible journalists delved into Saddam’s policies regarding the Iraqi Shi’a, but hardly any brought in 19th-20th century migration patterns, demographic shifts, tribal dynamics, or other factors in the tensions. As a result, the American public, policy-makers, and military could just throw up their hands and say, “They’ve been fighting over irrational dogma for thousands of years. There’s no solution.” (One finds this argument for inaction in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Contrary to popular perception, Muslims and Jews have not been fighting in the Holy Land for hundreds/thousands of years. But examining current problems or asking who has an interest in keeping the conflict going takes too much risk and effort, apparently. But that is grist for another mill.)

What I propose to do here is contribute in some small way to a more nuanced treatment of shari’a. A universal definition won’t suffice (although we can start with that), because shari’a means different things to different people in different places, and we can’t even begin to understand the debate in this country, or in Egypt, or in Afghanistan without taking into account local attitudes and circumstances. In a series of posts, I want to present a few sketches of Islamic Law in context. After introducing an overview of classical shari’a, I’ll discuss the idea of shari’a in an American Muslim context. I plan to follow-up with posts about “Islamism” as a set of ideologies and the role of shari’a in local village contexts.


Shari’a, literally “path”, is usually translated as Islamic Law, and it is that, at least. But one is often left with a sense that there’s some document out there that contains some kind of fixed code. Islam in Arabic means “submission (to God’s will)” and shari’a is simply the set of answers to the question, “Well, how are we supposed to do that?” As in the other Abrahamic faiths, human beings from the Islamic viewpoint are imperfect while God alone is perfect. Only God fully understands Himself, but even though human beings must fall short of that perfection, they are nevertheless meant to reach for it, to embrace goodness to the best of their capabilities. But because of human imperfection, the existence of multiple interpretations or priorities is deemed inevitable – and perhaps even necessary.

There is no centralized doctrinal institution in Islam – no Vatican or even a Southern Baptist Convention. As in Rabbinic Judaism, doctrine and law are studied and debated by scholars educated in the religious texts. One occasionally finds practical consensus on some issues, but there is no universally-recognized institution to enforce consensus on the community. A certain doctrinal position comes to prominence based on the strength of the argument and/or the perceived authority and authenticity of the scholar, past or present. In Islam, the religious scholars are collectively known as the ‘ulama’. Nearly all attempts of historical Muslim governments to herd the scholarly cats into a hierarchical church have failed. This did not lead to the modern concept of a separation of church and state, but it did result in political and religious institutions in Islamic history that were rarely completely under the thumb of the other type.

That being said, much Islamic legal scholarship ended up coalescing around schools of thought defined by slightly varying methods and traditions. In many ways, what makes the Sunnis Sunnis (literally “followers of the Prophet’s example” – although Shi’is claim to do the same thing. It’s kind of like claiming to be more “orthodox” than your rival.) was the gradual mutual-recognition of four of the legal schools with broad geographical or scholarly adherence. They “agreed to disagree.” Many contemporary Muslim scholars even suggest that in the absence of caliphs and the hidden-ness of the Shi’i Imam (for Twelver Shi’is, anyway), the differences between Sunni and Shi’i legal doctrines are no greater than those between the Sunni schools. Doctrinal and theoretical ecumenism, however, doesn’t automatically translate into social or political reconciliation.

So where do scholars look to figure out God’s will? Obviously, the first source would be the Qur’an, which for Muslims is the unadulterated Word of God transmitted through the mouth of Muhammad. The Qur’an itself typically speaks of God in the first person, unlike the third person perspective found in most of the Bible. However, the explicitly legal material in the Qur’an is very limited. While there are some straight-forward do’s and don’t’s, most of the Qur’an is interested in broader themes of the nature of God, humanity, prophets, and the good society. It is generally closer to Isaiah or Amos in tone and content than to Leviticus. And there is nothing at all laying out the ideal shape of political or legal institutions, other than exhortations to justice and fairness. Countries that claim to use the Qur’an as the basis for their constitutions can only do so in the most vague and symbolic sense.

While lending more certainty to some legal positions, the Qur’an doesn’t provide the breadth or quantity of legal material to divine all facets of God’s will. So a second accepted source derives from the question, “What would Muhammad do?” For Muslims, the Prophet was not divine, but he was uniquely touched and guided by God, so emulating him is a good bet for aligning oneself on God’s path. This led to the emergence of originally oral reports about the Prophet’s words and deeds, the hadith. While there are several written collections of hadith that enjoy general acceptance among many Muslims, the hadith do not form a closed canon, unlike the Qur’an. There are hundreds of thousands of these individual prophetic “sound bites” on topics ranging from dental hygiene to the proper conduct of war and peace. And Muslim scholars, from the outset, realized that these reports vary in accuracy and authenticity. Traditionally, one would interrogate the reliability of the oral transmitters, but there are other ways to weed out the weak hadith from the reliable. But scholars often differ wildly about the validity or even the interpretation of individual hadith, even if thy agree on the methodology of verification. This, by itself, leads to vastly divergent understandings of Islamic Law.

Scholars traditionally draw on some additional sources, but disagreements over which ones can be used were what created the boundaries between the legal schools. Many use some form of rational argument, such as analogy, but this is tempered by a fear of presuming to put imperfect human rationales in the mouth of God. Certain forms of scholarly consensus and local tradition may also influence the shape of Islamic Law in a particular region or case.

In short, there is no fixed shari’a code but rather a set of contested procedures based on sources that themselves might be contested. This doesn’t mean, however, that shari’a is just willy-nilly and can be whatever an individual says it is. Legal scholars earn the respect of believers and build up their authority through a sense of rigor and meticulousness. The ‘ulama’ who “show their work” and explain their process are more likely to have their positions supported by their colleagues.


What might happen if you go out on the green without your qadi

So that’s where shari’a comes from, but how does it work and what does it do? Depending on the situation, the shari’a becomes relevant in expanding circles from the personal, to the social, to the truly legal.

While many believers would say that shari’a is a comprehensive way of life, in practice the daily activities one pursues may reference it to greater or lesser degrees. There are recommended procedures for dental hygiene, for example, but most Muslims don’t have the sense that it’s a mortal sin to skip flossing with an aromatic twig. Likewise, what channel to watch or which gas station to use are probably not situations most would want or need to filter through a religious lens. Still, the most common application of shari’a is personal discipline: how to pray, how to treat others, how to cultivate moral purity. There generally has not been a mechanism for enforcement of these matters, other than one’s own sense of religious merit or social pressure (which can, admittedly, be very great).

Some of these issues might get a little murky, however, so some believers will appeal to muftis, legal scholars whose legal opinions on personal conduct have come to be respected. Some countries have had “national” muftis, who render opinions on larger social problems, but most muftis these days are essentially dealing with “Dear Abby” questions on relationships and manners. A mufti’s answer is known as a fatwa, a non-binding opinion.

When most Americans hear the word fatwa, they immediately think of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for denigrating the Prophet in The Satanic Verses (and/or for providing a deeply scathing caricature of Khomeini himself in the novel). But fatwa does not mean a death sentence, a least not literally. Khomeini opined that it would be morally virtuous for someone to kill Rushdie; he did not order the state or security forces to carry out a legal execution. The effective difference probably doesn’t make Rushdie feel any safer. But my point is to show that a fatwa does not call upon state enforcement and relies instead on the reputation and authority of the scholar in the eyes of the believer.

As I suggested above, however, most fatwas are fairly mundane. In the modern setting, it has not become uncommon for conferences or organizations of scholars to issue joint fatwas on things like bioethics, political situations, or ritual reforms. But even in these cases, compliance with these fatwas is left largely to the believer.  The Fiqh Council of North America is one such organization that issues such joint religious recommendations, although they are not in a position to enforce compliance or even universal regard, as exemplified by the furor over their recommendation to calculate the beginning and end of the fasting month of Ramadan by astronomical calculations instead of the naked eye viewing of the new moon.

Historically and in some modern Muslim countries there are shari’a courts, whose function is to deal with concrete disputes or even criminal cases. The judge, or qadi, can count on the state, who is usually his employer, to enforce his ruling. The jurisdiction of such courts has varied widely in different societies historically. In medieval times, qadis could count on an entire bureaucracy of market inspectors, professional witnesses (public character witnesses cum notaries), and maybe even police or others who would mete out the demanded punishments.

However, the jurisdiction of the qadi was never total in any society, limited or superseded by the decisions of the ruler’s own court. As time went on, the scope of shari’a courts generally shrank in the face of increasingly complex bureaucracies designed to maintain justice and order over legally, religiously, and ethnically diverse populations, such as was found in the Ottoman or Mughal Empires. Even before the rise of European colonialism and the imposition of European legal systems in many places in the Islamic world, shari’a courts had found themselves dealing with fewer types of cases.

Most contemporary Muslim-majority nations, if they implement shari’a at all (and many do not), have limited the enforceable jurisdiction of shari’a to family law: marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. Of course, it is exactly these matters where gender inequities in traditional understandings of Islamic Law stand out. Saudi Arabia and the once-and-maybe-future Taliban regime are among the few that have determined criminal or contract law according to their interpretations of shari’a, not without bending the law here and there to suit the needs of the regime. Even Iran has a complex hybrid legal system that blends secular and religious legal principles and institutions, and thus only partly makes use of shari’a. Others have limited shari’a‘s effective scope but occasionally indulge in a public spectacle such as a stoning or hand-removal to deflect criticism from the otherwise un-Islamic behavior of a given regime. Although still too many, perhaps, the cases of the death penalty for adultery in Muslim-majority countries are surely far fewer than occasions of adultery.

This state of affairs is exactly what some “Islamists” would like to change, although what those changes would look like are another source of contention. My next post will look at the question of shari’a in the U.S., where we can throw most of what I said in this post out the window. But as I hope to have shown, even classical “textbook” shari’a refuses to conform to an unchanging, monolithic code – even less so when you toss modern politics and society into the mix.


The information in this post comes mostly from my experience teaching about Islamic Law, but I wanted to share a few very useful sources for those who want a taste of classical Islamic Law, and particularly those who are interested in learning about the culture of debate and flexibility that characterized pre-modern Islamic jurisprudence.  Two very thorough overviews can be found in N. J. Coulson’s An Introduction to Islamic Law and Wael Hallaq’s A History of Islamic Legal Theory (Hallaq’s substantial body of scholarship on Islamic Law is worth checking out).  For a glance at Islamic tradition legal institutions in practice (such as what qadis and muftis do in a village setting), I find Brinkley Messick’s The Calligraphic State to be a great work that blends history and textual studies with living ethnography.  A good case study of the role of shari’a courts in shaping family law in contemporary Iran and Morocco is Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law.  I’d also recommend the works of Khaled Abou el-Fadl, about whom I will be speaking more in my next post.