God save us from the experts

I don’t agree that questions like whether women are competent to lead men in prayer require expert analysis.

Feisal Naqvi August 30, 2011

In case you don’t know Mehreen Kasana, please correct your mistake immediately. She teaches, she writes, she doodles brilliantly and she blogs. She also runs a tumblr but I have no idea what to call that — tumblring? Whatever.

The point of this column though is not only to praise Ms Kasana but to take issue with the following quote approvingly posted by her regarding the question of whether or not women can lead men in prayer: “People have no idea how many of these issues were already examined and discussed. And incredible erudition and energy went into this. So if you look, I would argue that the Islamic tradition has within itself all of the needs to renovate the house. But it’s going to take an immense amount of intellectual energy. It’s going to take very, very highly qualified people which necessitates institutions that can train and produce the types of people that are needed to engage in this activity.”

I both agree and disagree with this quote. I completely agree that “people have no idea” about the intellectual history of Islam. At the same time, I disagree vehemently that determining whether or not women can lead men in prayer requires “very, very highly qualified people”.

Let us begin with the first point. It is correct that most people have little idea of the immense scholarship erudition that informs Islamic history. For generation upon generation, indeed for century upon century, some of the brightest minds in the world have lavished their entire attention upon exegesis of the Holy Quran, upon analysis of the hadith and upon study of the shariah. Many people know that Al Azhar in Cairo is the oldest university in the world. But as George Makdisi has detailed, the entire model of western scholarship is infused by Islamic precedents. For example, the concept of independent colleges funded through permanent endowments — as illustrated by Oxford and Cambridge — was explicitly drawn from Islamic models. Similarly, the concept of the doctorate — in which a student ascended to scholar status by presenting an original thesis — was explicitly taken from Islamic academic norms.

Instead of the world of the scholar, we now live in the age of the dilettante jihadi. Islamic scholarship had been on the decline for centuries, but it is the last four decades which have seen the most damage. The reason for this is simple: the empowerment of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in 1973 and the great oil spike of the 1970s meant that the Middle East (and Saudi Arabia in particular) became the cash focus of the entire world. As a consequence, vast amounts of oil money have flowed ever since into the coffers of those willing to toe the Wahabi line. Those who want an in-depth view of the destruction of Islamic scholarship can do no better than to read The Great Theft, Khalid Abou alFadel’s passionate polemic about the destruction wrought by Saudi money. The less diligent can simply look around and see the world which emerges when every militant moron gets a free soapbox.

At the same time, I don’t agree with the assumption that questions like whether or not women are competent to lead men in prayer require expert analysis. Seriously, why do you need to be an expert to answer such questions?

Let me present this issue differently. Over the last few months, parliament has enacted two different laws dealing with international arbitration, one implementing the Washington Convention of 1966 and the other implementing the New York Convention of 1958. The overwhelming majority of our parliamentarians have no knowledge whatsoever of arbitration, international or otherwise. And yet nobody would suggest that this lack of expertise somehow renders our new laws invalid.

One response to my example is that there is a fundamental difference between a ‘technical’ law (such as the new arbitration laws) and a ‘moral’ or ‘religious’ law such as one dealing with the possibility of female imams. Not surprisingly, I would disagree with any such distinction.

The arbitration regime of Pakistan may not deal with any moral issues of great import but other laws certainly do. Take, for example, the draft bill pending in parliament regarding organ transplantation. Whether or not people should be allowed to donate organs (and if so, under what circumstances) certainly involves profound moral questions. Why is it that we are comfortable with parliament deciding such issues? And given that we are, why should we be uncomfortable about parliament deciding other moral issues?

Let us leave aside all these hypotheticals and come back to the basic issue: should women be allowed to lead men in prayer? Obviously the answer to this question depends on how one thinks of women. Equally obviously how one thinks of women is something that depends on the society in which one lives. Given that society changes, and given more specifically that our 21st century lives differ radically from 7th century life in the Arabian peninsula, why do we need a religious scholar to tell us how to think about women, especially when that scholar’s sole claim to fame is his supposed ability to divine what Islamic society would have thought of this question had it been posed 1,400 years ago?

At least in my view, all moral questions are the same from a societal perspective. Whether or not women should be allowed to lead men in prayer is thus no different from the question of whether or not men should be allowed to beat their wives, which is in turn no different from the question of whether or not men should be allowed to keep other humans as their slaves. Each one of these is a moral question. In each case, we have every right to seek guidance from religious scholars and religious texts. But in each and every case, the laws that actually bind us are only those that we — as a people — chose to accept through our freely elected representatives. This is because the free consent of the governed is the fundamental manner in which a democracy determines moral issues. Why then should we demand religious expertise to determine any moral question, even if that moral question has religious overtones?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2011.