By Sheikh Daoud Rosser-Owen
The famous Tudor dramaturge, Christopher Marlowe, wrote circa 1592 to the Prologue of his play The Jew of Malta, “I count religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin but ignorance”.
While I don’t agree with him about religion, nor the solitariness of the sin, I certainly hold with him that ignorance is sinful. I don’t mean ‘ignorance’ as in simply not knowing something. I mean ‘ignorance’ as refusing to find out. Indeed, in these days of the easy accessibility of information through the Internet and widespread literacy, I would consider such ‘ignorance’ not merely to be a sin, but worse – a willful and inexcusable self-indulgence. And, as it affects Islam and Muslims in the British Isles and even elsewhere in that putative entity ‘The West’, outrageous and with the wrong people positively dangerous. It should be needless to say that this works both ways.
At the moment it is quite common, even fashionable, among many to denigrate and anathematise the Shari’ah, used as a shorthand for Islamic Law or more accurately as one for the degenerate legal systems applied in certain Muslim countries – which is not at all the same thing.
There is also the understandable reaction to a more immediate problem of the ignorant demands from certain Muslims of Britain, and their umbrella organisations, for the application in the UK of some concept that they describe as “Shari’ah” or “Islamic Law”, but which is actually little better than an Islamic label stuck crudely over some imported cultural or customary code that in all too many dimensions touches Islam itself only notionally.
It is sadly true that there is some justification for these responses.
However reacting from ignorance is not helpful. Yet what else can people do when they are let down by those whose professional duty it used to be (according to the Great John Delane, sometime Editor of The Times, in his famous editorial “The Earl of Derby remarked…” of Friday, 6 February, 1852) “to educate and inform” but who nowadays seem to take it as being to promote ignorance and dissention? Few people are orientalists, and the generations who were born, grew up and served in the Empire have largely passed out of public life.
The aim of this essay is an attempt to fill in the gap abandoned by journalism. It is largely adapted from my monograph (as yet unpublished because not quite complete) on Tory Fundamentalism and Muslim Ideas of State, and it has been revised in the light of two Reports recently released on Islamophobia: that by Spinwatch, “The Cold War on British Muslims” (available to read at http://www.scribd.com/doc/61402174/The-Cold-War-on-British-Muslims and as a PDF at http://www.spinwatch.org/images/The_Cold_War on_British_Muslims_July_2011.pdf) and that by the Center for American Progress, “Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America” (available to read and to download as a PDF at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/08/islamophobia.html).
It is possible that I actually was the first to coin the word “Islamophobia” in an Editorial I wrote in Q-News International in early 1995 – I had formed the word as a derivative from, and allusion to, “homophobia” – which was picked up by the Runnymede Trust’s Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, set up in 1996, in its first Report “Islamophobia: a challenge for us all”, published in 1997. On reflection, seeing how things have developed more towards outright hatred of Islam and Muslims rather than an irrational fear, it would have been more appropriate for me to have called it “Islamomisia”. I had toyed with the idea, and dismissed it as being too academically obscure for a newspaper editorial.
About two years ago, in I think 2008, there was published in one of the UK’s daily broadsheets the results of a survey among Muslims, largely in the Midlands and north-east of England, asking whether they wanted Shari’ah in the UK. Many answered ‘yes’, but the questions remain what did the respondents understand by the request, did they think that there was a realistic possibility of it actually happening, or were they reacting to some massive hypothetical “If”?
Much has been made of the apparent results of this poll. So, following from this, what does the word Shari’ah mean for the average UK Muslim – or the proverbial ‘Muslim on the Clapham omnibus’ – and the average UK non-Muslim? And what does this actually mean for them at the operative level of daily life?
There used not to be an educated person unfamiliar with that verse from Jeremiah (6:16), “interrogate de semitis antiquis quae sit via bona et ambulate in ea” (ask after the old paths where is the good way and walk in it). This “good way” (via bona) is the well-trodden path of the prophets and patriarchs, and is the Way of Truth that all these have called people to follow.
The Muslims do not see their Way as being different from this but as a continuation of this well-trodden path, though all communities at various places, times, and circumstances have needed specific guidance for their conditions. As stated in the Quran “for every one of you We have ordained a Code and a Good Way” (li kulli ja’alna minkum shir’atan wa minhaja)(Q5:48). This via bona is none other than the Shari’ah – a ‘well-trodden path to that watering hole’ (which is what the word actually means) of laws and conduct derived from what has been sent down from the Almighty from which the Mosaic Law of the Torah, much of the Canon Law of the Christians, and the corpus of Islamic Law drink deep. To Muslims, each of these Abrahamic Faiths (as the late Professor Isma’il al-Faruqi, al shahid, termed them) has its own Shari’ah: its own track (semita) on the Way (via) of Truth.