Yesterday, Sam Harris and Dean Obeidallah had at each other on CNN, hosted by Don Lemon. The video can be viewed here. For the after-shocks, however, please view the Twitter timelines of either of the guest speakers. The topic was ‘Is Islam inconsistent with American constitution’, which was chosen in the backdrop of US presidential candidate Ben Carson’s controversial statements about how a Muslim could not become the president of US.
I like Sam, despite difference of opinion. He balances his responses in such a manner that leaves very little room for any substantial criticism. Dean, on the other hand, is a typical well-meaning Muslim. What he said resonates with most of the educated Muslims in the West, and the East too, I’d argue. Notwithstanding, his comebacks during the discussion weren’t, how do I put it, astute or academic enough. Because unlike most critics of Islam who only happen to have he said she said info about Islam, when you have Sam Harris as your opponent, you need to be VERY academic.
That is not to say that Sam has some deep understanding of Islam. Nope, not at all. But he, at least, has gone through the Quran (in a manner of speaking) and has researched some of the oft-quoted ‘barbaric’ injunctions that are ascribed to Islam. So you can’t simply say that “it’s not in the Quran” and then not have a retort when Sam correctly cites a reference from the hadith. Because when you don’t have a riposte crammed in that short span of the discussion, Sam branding it as ‘Hide the ball’ seems justified even to the most initiated.
IMHO, Sam has mediocre knowledge of Islam; that is still a feat unmatched by most other critics of Islam. I know I am euphemizing a bit, since he doesn’t even have some of the very basics straight and worked out. While he insinuates ‘Hide the Ball’, I am alleging he sometimes indulges into what I call ‘Hide the ballpark’; perhaps unwittingly, I might add. For instance, all Islamic punishments are for Muslims only. How many times have you heard that out of Sam? Even in the time of Muhammad (pbuh), non-Muslims were free to go to their own courts and judge ‘their’ disputes according to their own will; a finding undeniable in History as well as attested by unequivocal verses of the Quran. But why let such a ‘tiny’ point get in the way of fear-mongering!
The kind of knowledge he has is perhaps limited to ‘where’ to find a particular injunction. He is not worried about the provenance of that injunction; why it was given; how it holds up in the ecosystem of Islam; and perhaps most importantly: is it an ‘Islamic’ injunction or a ‘juristic’ derivation. And because he doesn’t know that, his statement about the punishment of homosexuality, as stated in the a/m video, ‘seamlessly’, albeit erroneously, becomes ‘Islamic’.
What is an Islamic punishment? A punishment prescribed by God and/or practiced by Muhammad (pbuh). Let me rephrase that for clarification: A punishment prescribed in the Quran and/or the Sunnah. Sunnah, means the established practices of Muhammad. And Sunnah is NOT Hadith. Let me say that again: Sunnah is NOT Hadith. Unless this distinction is manifest to the critics of Islam, they’ll keep lumping Islamic and juristic punishments together, vindicating ISIS, and calling ISIS Islamic.
Unfortunately, most Muslims too in this era have forgotten that distinction: sad but true. An anomaly born of the poor prevalent scholarship of Islam. But that doesn’t mean that a researcher like Sam Harris, has to credulously follow suit hook line and sinker. I do not intend to bore people with any more jargon for the purposes of this article, so I’ll have to leave it at that.
So when Sam said, in one breath, that Islamic punishments like chopping off hands for thieves and throwing off buildings for homosexuals, here’s the missing subtext:
- Chopping off hands for thieves is an Islamic punishment, only for criminals unworthy of any compassion, and reserved for Muslims only.
- Throwing off building for homosexuals (or death by any means) is a juristic punishment, reserved for Muslims only, carrying many disagreements by scholars; not to mention irreconcilably against the Quranic principle of allowing death penalty only for murder or waging war against the state. But since it is juristic, and NOT Islamic, it is nothing but an opinion, which is absolutely open to critique, amendment or revocation.
Muslim guest speakers should not allow their co-attendees to subsidize the cost at which anyone can easily call anything Islamic, without a comprehensive and immediate rebuttal. Hence, what Dean Obeidallah should’ve done, is reply in these terms:
“Islamic punishments, like amputation of one hand for thieves, are extreme punishments; only delivered to offenders unworthy of any mercy; and most importantly are reserved for Muslims only. More so, criminal punishments are subject to law of the land. If Muslims are not allowed to mete out their criminal law, they do not have the right to even deliver religiously prescribed punishments to Muslims either.”
“As for death penalty for homosexuals: there is NO punishment legislated by God or practiced by Muhammad (pbuh). The oft-quoted punishment is an interpretation by fallible scholars of Islam. And their right to interpret is in no way superior to our right: a thought expressed by Islamic latter day scholars as ‘ھم رجال و نحن رجال’ meaning ‘they were men and we are men’, thereby holding equal rights to interpretation. And hence, we can most certainly say that allotting death penalty for any crimes committed by Muslims, other than murder or waging war against the state, goes against the Quran.”