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Evaluating Tariq Ramadan’s Call for Moratorium on Hudud

Reading Approach and Discourse
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Tariq Ramadan's call should be reevaluated in a new, quiet, and calm atmosphere
Tariq Ramadan's call should be reevaluated in a new, quiet, and calm atmosphere

Tariq Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on hudud (prescribed penalties) was provocative as regards its content, its timing, its wording, and its way of presentation. This probably was the reason why almost everyone dealt with it angrily, affected by the current situation, which goes against Islamic discourse, as well as by the call’s prejudiced and offensive wording. Another point is that intellectual discourse such as Ramadan’s is not methodological which affected the accuracy of the issue. 

The atmosphere that has enveloped Ramadan’s call requires us to reevaluate the whole issue in a new atmosphere, which should be quiet, calm, and free from the pressures of provocative language, such as that of Ramadan. This will surely help us to recognize the actual value of the call and reintroduce it accordingly, in order to benefit from the call. In addition, this will help eliminate the fear that others who have innovative ideas may have felt. Such persons may have expected their ideas to be met open-mindedly, but were shocked by how scholars dealt with Ramadan’s call. Such a reaction may delay the introduction of their opinions, both now and in the future.

The above considerations pushed me to introduce a modest analysis of the approach and the discourse Ramadan used in his paper. I hope by this to encourage reevaluation of this thesis. The two trends I am following in examining Ramadan’s call do not stand on legal ground; rather, they belong to the methodology used in human sciences. The first of these trends focuses on evaluating Ramadan’s approach to the issue, while the second introduces an analysis that partially explores the discourse Ramadan used when dealing with the issue.

First: Evaluating Ramadan’s Approach

There are two points concerning Ramadan’s handling of the issue of hudud. The first is related to the methodological approach and its consequences, while the second is related to the discourse he used and its features. I will first discuss the approach and the methodology.

There is no doubt that Ramadan’s paper has a good approach, as long as we are talking about a method for formulating relationships between human beings in which a need for talking about more justice, mercy, and benevolence arises. Ramadan resorts to these great, warm, human, Islamic values in order to introduce a framework in which the environment surrounding the application of prescribed penalties is deconstructed and its social properties (within the broad sense of the word society) are identified, and the inconsistencies in the application in the Islamic environment are noticed. All these elements lead to a proper approach to understand the Muslim reality on the academic and scientific levels. These elements also give the approach a social credibility that precedes or parallels the spiritual and logical credibility that constitutes the basis of calling a non-Muslim to Islam.

I have previously called for expanding one of the projects of Islamization of knowledge in order to use the great Islamic values in establishing conceptual scientific systems. These systems will, in turn, be used in deconstructing the reality and anatomizing it, using Islamic values as Ramadan did in his thesis. This, in fact, will help in achieving three goals:

1. Deepening the awareness of social and life-related significances of Islamic values.

2. Consolidating one of the trends of Islamizing knowledge.

3. Consolidating the potentiality of constructing Islamic societies according to Islamic consciousness, which is based on using Islamic values in describing and analyzing societies’ actualities on the theoretical level.

Among the most important values that can be used are the two values that Ramadan has relied upon in formulating his attitude toward hudud: human honor and justice. These two values have been mentioned explicitly in the Glorious Qur’an, such as in the following verses: Verily We have honored the children of Adam (Al-Israa’ 17:70) and that ye judge justly (An-Nisaa’ 4:58). At the same time, these two values recur in the commands and the prohibitions of the Lawgiver, Allah Almighty.

In many places in his paper, Ramadan speaks about the injustice that may occur with the implementation of the hudud, especially with regards to implementing them on the poor rather than the rich and on women rather than men. This is more related to the credibility of Islam; this, in fact, needs a decisive stance, which will take us to another point—due methodological review.

Due Methodological Review

In discussing the topics of justice and injustice in relation to executing the hudud, we are handling two inseparable issues:

1. The image of the Islamic Shari`ah and the attacks heaped on it in the world media. 

2. The legal level related to regulating the execution of the hudud (studying the potentiality of executing the hudud in society)
Some may tend to consider the first issue more important than the second, but I agree with Ramadan’s opinion that the importance of each adds to that of the other. To elaborate, sparing the Shari`ah from defamation in today’s formidable media machine is something which, though important, is not among the highest objectives of Shari`ah. Also, it is un-Islamic to stick to improper practices, ascribing them falsely to Islam and converting them into legal idols that are not liable to be reviewed. Doing so, we would end up resembling Noah’s people who worshiped their righteous people as idols, although those righteous people disavowed being idols. In a word, the priority here is for spreading justice and for honoring the human being. So, cases of discrimination between the rich and poor, men and women, if any, are totally unacceptable.

The logical conclusion of the above is that evaluating the framework of the implementation of Shari`ah will contribute positively to the image of Shari`ah, as it will help manifest the Shari`ah’s keenness to enforce justice. At the same time, this evaluation would spare the Shari`ah the accusations of rigidity.

However, as far as I have supported Ramadan regarding the importance of regulating the execution of hudud, I stand against him for not giving the issue of Shari`ah in the media the same importance he gave to the issue of reconsidering hudud. I oppose him for the following reasons: 

1. It is not methodologically fitting to introduce a paper calling for a moratorium on hudud in the countries executing them—as Ramadan has done—without mentioning the reason behind this call.

2. It is also not methodologically fitting to charge that executing hudud is cruel. This happened many times in the paper published on Professor Ramadan’s Web site, but without introducing statistics to clarify this “cruelty.”

3. Methodologically, it is inappropriate to base the call on the argument that the reach and the poor are being treated discriminately, without presenting simple statistics that show the average income of persons punished by hudud in comparison to other persons in other cases where hudud was not carried out. 

4. The same can be also said with regards to women; Ramadan said that executing punishment is restricted to women without providing any figures or statistics.

If there is the slightest doubt that the accused is innocent, execution of the prescribed penalties is invalidated. However, doubt should be there.

It is worth mentioning that Ramadan’s call appeared in an impressive intellectual construction; I absolutely agree with some of it and, at the same time, I absolutely disagree with some of it.

Although I appreciate the construction of the paper as a whole, I should note that the part that is considered t he base of the argument is not logically supported. The Arabic version of the paper—published on Ramadan’s Web site—has no single statistic as evidence to support his basic objection to the execution of hudud.

I should repeat that if there is the slightest doubt that the accused is innocent, execution of the prescribed penalties is invalidated. However, doubt should be there. Moreover, everybody, including myself, must be fair-spoken in discussing Shari`ah-related affairs before the Western media, which is either secular or missionary. Needless to say, media usually attempts to damage the reputation of Shari`ah, not only the prescribed penalties, and to defame Islam.

As far as I know, three countries—Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Indonesia—remove penalties in the process of implementing Shari`ah when doubt appears. The implementation of Shari`ah was stopped in Afghanistan. The important question that should be asked now is, were there no data available in any of these countries that could elaborate on the implementation of Shari`ah? Was it not possible to contact some of the reformists or opposition members in order for them to provide data, or even take the opinion of citizens of these countries? Isn’t such evidence to support the basic premise methodologically needed?

I totally agree with Ramadan concerning the necessity to stop regarding hudud as the core of Shari`ah. (I will expound on that in a separate paragraph.) However, I absolutely refuse to deal with Shari`ah and its implementation in such an inconsiderate way as Ramadan did. Discussion of such matters should take place in a disciplined, academic way, which is missing in Ramadan’s call.

Necessary Methodological Framework

It is important here to demonstrate a very grave mistake that appeared in Ramadan’s paper. This mistake is related to the analogy he drew between his call for a moratorium on hudud and Caliph `Umar ibn Al-Khattab’s stopping the execution of the penalty for theft in the Year of Ar-Ramadah (a year of famine in the Muslim state). Ramadan succeeds in presenting the situation in which the legal penalty for theft was halted; however, his analogy between that situation and the moratorium he calls for is defective. Since he has presented the social context of the moratorium on the penalty for theft expressly and concisely in his paper, why then did he not also present considerations for the moratorium on other penalties in the same way? Instead, he relied on mere moral expressions unsubstantiated by statistics.

Briefly, Ramadan has charged societies with the responsibility of reformation, referring the issue of executing the legal penalties and the related problems to those concerned with the matter. I would like to note that the first step to solving this problem may be to present it in a disciplined, academic way. The Muslim nation will not be reformed by burying its head in the sand and ignoring real problems. At the same time, it will not make any progress by talking erratically.

Second: A Look at the Discourse Postulates of the Discourse and Their Consequences

If we try to discover the point from which Ramadan began his argument—which point was not clearly mentioned in his paper—we find that he talks as a European Muslim. The Muslim community he belongs to in the West faces many causes for annoyance, as well as many questions that are raised because of the practices of Muslims in Arab countries. Let me clarify this: The Western media focuses on the image of Islam and the features they regard as negative, the most prominent of which is that the Islamic penal code is savage and unjust. Ramadan’s discourse is founded on the effective influence of the communication revolution transmitting the idea of savagery and injustice, and the impact of this idea on the possibility of accepting the integration of Muslims in the socio-cultural Western context.

Ramadan’s lack of proof to substantiate his argument about injustice existing in the implementation of the hudud caused the discourse to appear unbalanced and biased in favor of the Muslim communities in Europe at the expense of Muslims in Islamic countries, though the latter were the main topic of the paper. This appeared in the opening words of the paper: “Continually and on an ongoing basis, majority Muslim societies and Muslims around the world are confronted with a fundamental question: the application of the penalties linked to the Islamic penal code.”

Again, as far as methodology is concerned, Ramadan, who relied on the idea of justice in its human range, could have talked about the harm done to the concept of justice that Western Muslims introduce because of the unjust practices done to Muslims on the grounds that they have a “cruel” penal code. This, of course, should have balanced between the common interests of Western and Arab Muslims. However, in his discourse, his main concern was that Muslims in the West are facing such accusations, not that Muslims in the Arab countries are suffering from unjustified cruelty as a result of the misinterpretation of the hudud. That was why the paper’s focus was on the pressures which Western Muslims face because of hudud, not what all Muslims suffer in Arab and Muslim countries; hence, no single statistic was mentioned in the paper.

In fact, the above-mentioned postulates have strongly, but negatively, affected Ramadan’s discourse. Despite the fact that his call has so many positive points, which we will discuss later, his being a European Muslim has caused his call to address Muslim societies, accusing them of sentimentalism and accusing Muslim scholars of concern for their status more than their concern for Shari`ah. He even accused that Muslims’ hatred of the West—a justified hatred—has changed Muslims and Islamic movements into a group of masochists or mentally disordered people who derive pleasure from being tortured. Such masochists, according to Ramadan, declare that they approve implementing the hudud wholly and immediately, though some injustice might be involved in such implementation, only because the West has remarked that practicing hudud could be described as unjust in some cases. Finally, we can add the recurrent accusation of injustice and oppression that he levels at applying Shari`ah. All these features make the wording of his discourse provoking, and perhaps this may account for the vehement reactions he received from scholars.

The main problem with this paper lies in the lack of evidence supporting its apparently offensive arguments. Ramadan does not provide any evidence for his claims about the governments’ misapplication of hudud; or incidents that indicate that scholars retracted their refusal of the rigors of hudud; or testimony of a member of an Islamic movement that they hold on to the application of hudud not because they are devoted to the belief, but rather because the West hates the idea of applying hudud

Important Points 

It is important to review the objective symbols we Muslims introduce on top of the Islamic discourse.

In spite of the negative points in the discourse through which Ramadan presents a legal petition for the moratorium on hudud—which leads to the inclusion of some negative aspects in his wording—his discourse comprises of a number of important theses and concepts that des erve to be considered, explained, and circulated.

The first important point in Ramadan’s discourse is represented by what can be called the rationalization of handling Shari`ah symbols. Ramadan directs attention toward an important issue, namely the necessity of choosing the symbols of Islamic discourse, when, at present, we direly need to perfect the way of presenting this religion. The preaching of Islam is considered problematic because of the negativity that surrounds its image, not to mention the negativity that surrounds this whole project—the Muslims themselves.

In fact, to my knowledge, the supporters of the Islamic revival do not cling to the issue of hudud as much as Ramadan indicates; or at least no fact-finding study that monitors this issue is presented. Although the issue of hudud does not occupy such a highly symbolic position in the eye of the Muslims or the supporters of the Islamic revival, it is still one of the objective symbols that reside in the unconscious mind of the advocates of the Islamic revival, along with many other symbols like modesty, eliminating corruption, solidarity, the necessary spiritual values in such a materialistic age, and the history of Arabs— who changed from disputing groups into the strongest nation that carried a spiritual and social message that astonished the world at such times.

In this way, Ramadan’s call tries to draw Muslims’ attention to the necessity of reviewing the objective symbols we Muslims introduce on top of the Islamic discourse, in which we have undertaken the responsibility to call people to Islam, whether socially, politically, or with people in our daily lives.

The second point in this concern is no less important: the negative presence of the Other (that is, the Western) in formulating Islamic discourse. We have reached a point where the desire to contradict the West and deny its interference in our affairs may push us to give unnecessary priority for certain symbols in our discourse for no other reason than the West disapproval of them. Actually, this day and age contains a number of examples, such as discourse about reform; democracy; the necessity of ridding Islam of the non-Islamic practices that govern the relationship between our Muslim societies; and women’s concerns, expectations, and issues.

Two points need elaborating here: First, the presence of the West in our revival can be seen as three images:

1. The image of the imperialistic power, which must be rejected by the Islamic discourse.

2. The image of the technical and social achievements, which must be comprehended and benefited from by the Islamic discourse.

3. The image of the Western person who is part of humanity and who is targeted by the Islamic message and call.

Thus, all kinds of Islamic discourse should distinguish between these different perspectives of the Western status.

Second, in formulating our discourse, we should not put the West at the center of this process by targeting it or by adopting a formula simply because the West has criticized it. In other words, our formulation of Islamic discourse should result from the center of our own revival, according to our own reading of the status quo and our thorough study and discernment of the revelation’s approach towards this reading.

The third important point in Ramadan’s discourse is considering the suitability of the circumstances surrounding the implementation of the legal judgments. Here, Ramadan states a critically important point, which is that we should not discuss the judgments of Shari`ah in terms of the suitability of the origins of Shari`ah—the Qur’an and the Sunnah—but in terms of the suitability of the circumstances of applying such judgments. That is because the non-divinely-ordained (non-tawqifi) judgments—and even the divinely-ordained (tawqifi) judgments, though the debate about their inclusion is not settled yet) were legalized in response to social circumstances and occasions that are repeatable throughout ages. 

For this reason, the Shari`ah has asserted that such a response should conform with the circumstances in which such judgments were legalized and revealed. Ramadan cites that Caliph `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, Commander of the Faithful, established a moratorium on the punishment for robbery during a famine. In spite of the loose analogy Ramadan draws with the example of Caliph `Umar, Ramadan refers us to the origins of an important issue. Although I am not concerned in this article with the validity of Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on hudud, I do care about his call for reviewing the circumstances of applying hudud. That is because Allah Almighty reveals laws to be applied within certain regulations—social, political, and cultural. Should such circumstances cease to exist, it may become unsuitable, then, to enforce these laws. The point Ramadan raises concerning the changes that have taken place in political and social environments should be examined with fair consideration and with a good understanding of the environments in which such laws are to be applied.

The fourth point Ramadan raises is the broad consultative framework he has called for. He states, “The international community has an equally major and obvious responsibility to be involved in addressing the question of hudud in the Muslim world.” Elsewhere in the paper he writes, “This does not mean that the questions put forward by intellectuals or by non-Muslim citizens must be disqualified. On the contrary, all parties must learn to decentre themselves and move towards listening to the other, of their points of reference, their logic and their hopes.” 

I want to clarify two points here:

1. Non-Muslims are the audience of the Islamic call (da`wah); hence, in our pursuit of self-correction, it is important to be aware of the problems they perceive in the application of Islamic rules. We have to know whether they see the problem in Islam itself or in the ways of applying it; there is a crucial difference between the two things. I should note here that we are used to knowing the Other’s opinion through many indirect ways, but why don’t we try direct dialogue? I believe that in such a case, the result will be much clearer. It goes without saying that the outcome of such exploration of opinions will have nothing to do with the religion itself; rather, it is more relevant to the problems in the public’s understanding the religion, an area in which the Other’s opinion is justified. 

2. Exploring the opinions of the Other may clash with our refusal of Western interference in formulating our Islamic discourse. We can solve this problem simply in the following ways:

We should decisively and openly declare that we refuse Western imperialistic interference.

We should outspokenly declare that we want to change for the better and that we are ready to pay for this change ourselves; we do not need any opportunists to pay for such a change on our behalf. However, we should not be pushed to refuse true reformation when it comes from those with imperialistic agendas. That is because those who have imperialistic agendas might try to push us away from reformation by using a psychological trick: that is, we would reject what is right only because it has been offered by them.

These are the points that I find most useful in the discourse and approach Ramadan has introduced in his paper. Still, there is an important note: We should be open-minded with regard to any innovative thesis, even if such a thesis involves methodological fallacies because it has been issued by a non-specialist. Furthermore, we should bear in mind the principle that everybody’s speech can be either acceptable or rejected, except that of the infallible Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

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