Forbidding Wrong?

So I want to open this blog with a discussion beyond the recent headlines. Islamic ethics has been on my mind because of news reports of the little Afghani girls, who were covered (muhajiba-s), that were terrorized by having acid thrown on their faces, not for purposes of demanding modesty it seems, but for the fact that they were coming from a school…

In fact, this practice can be found in many states in this region, especially in Pakistan. Apparently Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times has been thinking about this too and has published an op-ed article on this today.

But my way of thinking goes beyond just the inhumanity of it. My investigation was based more on the ethical conception behind this attack, and how it can be related to this twisted form of coercion. I was wondering to myself, where in Islamic Law (shari’a) would such action taken by a random individual be construed as legitimate. I thought, the people who perpetrate these types of attacks would, if pushed, make some kind of religious justificaiton for it. I thought, ‘Where in Islam could they extract legitimacy for this?’.

It brought me to the concept of hisba. As you may or may not know it’s an ‘Islamic’ term, primarily coined by Mawardi and al-Ghazzali (two of the most important thinkers in Islamic history) to refer to the Qur’anic idea of ‘forbidding wrong’, an entrenched positive concept in the Qur’an to correct wrongdoing in the name of God. Al-Ghazzali then developed terminology from this Arabic root (h-s-b), therefore there is the one who performs hisba (al-muhtasib) and the one to whom hisba is done (al-muhtasab ‘alayhi), etc.

The starting-point is the injunction of Qur’an 3:104 (and several other locations too actually) of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’, or simply forbidding wrong for short. So I decided to explore what this can mean en toto?:

Why?: Because it is essentially God’s will. God is imposing a duty upon Muslims. Additionally, besides in Qur’an, the hadith from the al-Sahih Muslim is that “Whoever sees a wrong, and is able to put it right with his hand, let him do so; if he can’t, then with his tongue; if he can’t, then in his heart, and that is the bare minimum of faith”

Who?: There are many arguments within the different schools of jurisprudence (madhahab, singular madhab), and without them, on who is inclined, but generally any believer is commanded to do this, whether man or woman (although there are considered to be social stipulations, etc.).

To Whom?: Any Muslim, although it could be argued any human. Here too, there are social constraints on whether a child to his/her parents or student to teacher should rebuke the other, but generally speaking anyone committing a wrong (al-muhtasab ‘alayhi).

Over What?: One may say one must forbid all that God and His Prophet has forbidden, all the shari’a encompasses. This is contentious as many Muslims throughout the world listen to different madhahab and even different jurists within each madhab. Therefore I believe the norm would be to not challenge people in other madhahab. An example from al-Ghazzali would be if a Shafi’ite (a particular legal school of though) is eating a lizard and a Hanafi (another particular school of thought) wants to join in, (even though it is regarded with disapproval, although not outright banned, by Hanafi law) the Shafi’ite should say nothing to rebuke the Hanafi Muslim.

When surveying this to try to come up with Islamic justification for the acid throwing, it seems that hisba is really so ambiguous still… One can claim hisba as defense for defacing young girls if one thinks that the shari’a strictly commands woman to stay at home (rather than get an education), or to cover their faces entirely.

So what can the argument be against this, besides bringing it to a Qur’anic translation and perception argument, in regards to the Prophetic traditions (ahadith) that bolster these claims for the shari’a-defense of acid throwing through demanding the submission of women? Is there more Islamic justification against this idea of using hisba to cause harm or even death?

For that answer one must hear argument that the Qur’anic thrust does not include harming people so brutally. Qur’an 2:85 states how dangerous it is for a Muslim to ‘believe in part of the Book and disbelieve in part’. The whole thrust of the message must be adhered to. The Qur’an is not the sum of all of its parts; it needs to be taken as a whole, where one must decide which message truly encompasses the Qur’anic thrust: forbidding wrong by violently forcing girls away from education and towards maximalist modesty, or forbidding wrong by promoting peace and non-violence to fellow brethren. One must demonstrate that the true thrust of the Qur’an (in simplified terms of course as one could write volumes about the Qur’an’s ‘true’ thrust), regards peace, education, and human well-being over such things as causing harm as some grotesque form of hisba.

Hisba is not a concept obeyed to violently deface the defenseless, and I believe Qur’an backs that up explicitly. That, as the Prophet supposedly said, putting ‘things right with his hand’ here does not mean harming another person’s health and life. Moses once commanded of a sage by his side who killed an innocent young man, “Have you killed an innocent person without justice? You have truly come with something awful!” (Q, 18:74). The language of morality here, what is ‘right’, can never be justified through lethal harm.

Therefore, is there any ethical justification here? No there is not, in fact even though the Muslim world has fractured jurisprudence methodology guiding different traditions in different ways, there is no categorical imperative here within the Muslim world that could ever justify this behavior. The Qur’an guides all schools of thought within Islam, and the Qur’an is extremely clear on this. God encourages Muslims in the Qur’an to speak gently and argue magnanimously (Q, 16:126) and explicitly forbids coercion (Q, 2:256). In fact, as with Kantian moral theory (which is the major influence for our modern, post-enlightenment, ‘secular’ ethical code), only a universal law can be the crux of a requirement that has the reason-giving thrust of moral actions, such as a moral act of hisba. “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (Kant, The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:402) can easily come from the mouth of any individual that makes up part of the umma, whether a Hanafite Sunni, or Twelver Shi’i, and anything in between or beyond.

When it all comes down to it these individuals may not have hisba in mind. As a friend said to me, “their logic most likely had its source in more localized codes of behavior or in complex, emotional/psychological patterns of thought, the same patterns of thought that have made men oppressors of women since as far back as we can remember”. As is often the case, Islam is just used as an excuse. Any thoughts?

(Hat tip: Sara for her reflection)

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~ by The Common Man on November 30, 2008.

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