The sermons of certain imams and interviews with young Muslims indicate a fact of Islam that is quite absent from the pessimistic visions of radical Islamists like Sayyid Qutb. This is the idea that Islam might bring happiness, or at least reconcile the believer with himself, by healing a self divided between faith and materialist aspirations, between tradition and modernity, between what sometimes seems a desolate life and the search for dignity and self-esteem. Such sermons are, of course, primarily addressed to an audience of young people who are experiencing uprootedness, alienation and racism, and vacillate between schizophrenic assimilation and hopeless revolt. But the message of these sermons also addresses the older generation, who, specifically in Western Europe, wonder what they have really achieved in their life, after lately acknowledging that they will not return to their country of origin, but will remain and even be buried in a non-Muslim society, unsure of the fate of their children. The sermons speak about salvation, ultimate ends, the value of life, and self-esteem. They portray a good Muslim as one who is obsessed not by legal norms, but by the meaning of norms, by values and ethics. They insist on social interaction, not on the strict following of norms; they acknowledge the non-Muslim environment as a matter of fact, not as a temporary, anomalous situation. They pragmatically answer concrete requests for advice.
But by definition they are confronted with situations that are the result of a brutal mixture of the merging of and confrontation between various values systems. Let us take an example:
Question: I am a white American girl who recently gave birth to a child whose father is a Pakistani muslim currently residing in the UK. We wish to marry so that our son can be raised in a proper muslim environment. Problem arising- This man has not told his father of our child. He is afraid his father will not allow us to be married because I also have another child from a previous time. His mother knows and is all for the marriage. I have tried to take on this religion as my own but it is hard because we are so far apart and I do not have that environment present in every day life. Can we defy his father if he does not allow us to marry just so that we can raise this child properly? Are there any surrahs in the Qu’ran or teachings in the hadiths to back up our decision to marry? Thank you very much.
Answer: Since the child was born out of wedlock, the father is not considered to be the legal father of the child in Islamic law. However, since he is the biological father of the child, he should take moral responsibility of the child and rear him to the best of his ability. Now, if he wants to marry you to take care of you and his biological child, it is best he goes ahead. He should also explain the circumstances to his own father and request his blessings for this marriage. His permission is not necessary though laudable. He should try his level best in winning his father over and explain the situation to him – and Allah Ta’ala Knows Best.
This case is interesting and quite common. We have people who claim to be Muslims but experience and take responsibility for a situation largely inconceivable, or at least unspeakable, in a traditional Muslim society. A fundamentalist mullah could do nothing but condemn the sinners but, as we have seen, there is no way of punishing them. To expel them from the community (a solution that some Muslim, Jewish or Protestant preachers would advocate) would mean closing the door of the community to many people who still conceive of themselves as Muslim but cannot deal with the sharia. The answer of the mufti here is congruent with what almost any Catholic priest would say (and many Protestants or Jews): you are a sinner but it is best to consider life and moral duty first, and God will deal with the rest. In a word, it is not for human beings to judge, but to help; this is a typical Christian answer. The same attitude is to be found, for example, in the work of Tariq Ramadan, who writes that the hijab is compulsory for Muslim women – here he remains in the fundamentalist fold against liberal theologians – but that it should never be forcibly imposed. Rather, it should be the result of the voluntary achievement of a personal quest for self-realisation and reconciliation with God; the hijab is ‘a testimony to faith’. In this sense the idea is not to dispense with the concept of law. The norm remains uncontested but is ascribed to a spiritual and personal itinerary, something more reminiscent of orthodox Sufism than of the Taliban’s religious police. Ramadan speaks of a ‘Muslim humanism'.
OLIVIER ROY is a professor at EHESS in Paris. Among his books are The Failure of Political Islam and (with Mariam Abou Zahab) Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection.