A reply to George Readings on Qaradawi

Crossposted from Socialist Unity

The Quilliam Foundation claims to be a think-tank combating extremism, particularly within the Muslim community. However, as the recently leaked briefing document “Preventing terrorism: where next for Britain?” has demonstrated, Quilliam’s real objective is to misrepresent and smear those mainstream Muslim organisations and individuals who are the leading forces in countering extremist interpretations of their faith.

An article at Left Foot Forward (“Livingstone: Al-Qaradawi is a ‘leading progressive voice’ in Muslim world”) by George Readings, who holds the post of Communications Officer and Research Fellow at the Quilliam Foundation, is exactly the sort of dishonest hatchet-job against a leading Muslim figure we have come to expect from the organisation that employs Readings. Predictably, he completely ignores the actual role played by Yusuf al-Qaradawi across the Muslim world and in the Arabic-speaking Middle East in particular.

In his book Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World Hugh Miles has emphasised the enormous influence that Qaradawi exercises among his co-religionists:

“It is hard for a secular Westerner to grasp how or why someone could hold as much sway as Sheikh al-Qaradawi. In Islam, great respect is invested in the most senior clerics [more accurately, scholars], and their fatwas, or religious pronouncements, carry immense weight. Through the Internet and his Al-Jazeera TV slot the Sheikh’s verdicts influence hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world.”

What advice does Qaradawi give to the hundreds of millions who follow his pronouncements? Here is Hugh Miles again:

“He condemned the London bombings, just as he quickly condemned the September 11 attacks. He has consistently said that Muslims need to think for themselves, which means they need be free of government control. This is not a message that goes down well with Arab governments. Al-Qaradawi has written at least 50 books attempting to reconcile Islam with democracy and human rights and he is one of the most important proponents of women’s rights in contemporary Islam. All this is utterly at odds with the teachings of fundamentalist imams, who see democracy and women’s rights as alien concepts imported from the infidel West.”

Western experts in the fields of Islam and the Middle East – John Esposito, Marc Lynch, Karen Armstrong, Noah Feldman, Barbara Stowasser, Raymond William Baker, to name a few – would all endorse that positive view of Qaradawi. Either George Readings is unaware of this, in which case Quilliam should consider replacing him with someone who possesses some basic research skills, or else he has consciously decided to ignore the facts in the interests of smearing Qaradawi and Livingstone.

In an attempt to refute Livingstone’s claim that Qaradawi is a leading progressive voice in the Muslim world, which as we have noted is a widely accepted view, Readings cites two passages from Qaradawi’s book The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam. This book was written in the late 1950s when Qaradawi was a young scholar who had yet to develop his own distinctive interpretations of Islam, and he restricted himself to providing a summary of traditional rulings by Islamic jurists.

Readings quotes Qaradawi’s summary of the punishments jurists had recommended for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. But he omits to explain the background to this.

Under the various schools of sharia law homosexuality is treated as a sub-section of adultery. The Islamic jurists who formulated the legal position on this issue were trying to put a stop to the barbaric practices in a backward tribal society which did lead to individuals (mainly women) being killed in order to defend the “honour” of the family or community.

These early jurists ruled that it wasn’t adultery, and by extension homosexuality, that was a crime but rather the sexual act itself, and further that four independent witnesses to the sexual act were required for a conviction. The result was to preserve the draconian punishments – stoning etc – as a symbol of extreme social disapproval while raising the evidential requirements so high that in practice it was impossible to sentence anyone to those punishments.

So when Qaradawi was discussing the penalties for gay sex in The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam we have to bear in mind that it was these symbolic punishments he was referring to.

In a 2006 interview on Al-Jazeera, when asked about the Islamic position on homosexuality, Qaradawi argued that there was disagreement among the early Islamic jurists over the issue of gay sex and that in the modern world the (symbolic) draconian punishments should no longer apply. He continued: “Therefore we don’t lock the doors before the homosexuals. No! They have committed sins, but it is within their ability to repent to God.” Does Readings really think these are the words of a man who advocates “lashing or killing homosexuals”?

Readings also quotes a passage from The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam in which he claims Qaradawi supports “wife-beating”. Here Qaradawi was in fact summarising an early Islamic jurists’ interpretation of verse 4:34 of the Qur’an, which urges husbands to be patient with their wives but does concede that, if all else fails, a husband may strike his wife. This verse evidently caused problems very early on, because men could go through the motions of being conciliatory towards their wives and then subject them to a severe beating while claiming it was permitted in the Qur’an. So Muslim jurists had to find a way of stopping this.

Their difficulty lay in the fact the Qur’an was supposed to be the word of God, and the jurists could hardly rule that God had made a mistake in this particular case (“Frankly, he should have thought a bit more carefully about what he was saying”). However, it is not just the text of the Qur’an that provides the basis for Islamic jurisprudence but also the sunnah – the example set by the Prophet as detailed in reports of his words and actions in the Hadith.

The jurists determined that the only recorded instance of the Prophet even theoretically contemplating the use of violence to resolve a domestic dispute was when he became so furious with a woman servant that he said he had struggled to restrain himself from striking her with a “siwak” – a tiny twig used for cleaning teeth (toothbrushes had not yet been invented then). Therefore, the jurists ruled, when the Qur’an stated that a man might strike his wife, God clearly had in mind nothing more than a light tap with a twig or some other equivalent non-violent blow.

As Qaradawi himself has explained, the sort of blow permitted under this interpretation of 4:34 “was meant to be symbolic”. By these means, the jurists remained true to the letter of the Qur’an while depriving 4:34 of the authority to justify actual physical violence.

In other words, the passage Readings quotes in support of the accusation that Qaradawi is in favour of domestic violence is Qaradawi’s exposition of a juridical ruling that was intended to prevent domestic violence.

Readings also accuses Qaradawi of supporting female genital mutilation. He quotes a Qaradawi fatwa – “circumcision is better for a woman’s health and it enhances her conjugal relation with her husband” – and links to a World Health Organization page on FGM, but he avoids pointing out to his readers what form of female circumcision Qaradawi actually advocates.

This issue came up when Qaradawi visited the UK in 2004. Peter Tatchell and OutRage! issued a press release headed “Dr al-Qaradawi condones female genital mutilation” which included the following description of the consequences of the practice supposedly advocated by Qaradawi:

“As expected, normal sexual intercourse is not possible without a corrective procedure and childbirth frequently involves severe trauma that can result in life-threatening haemorrhage. Other complications include chronic urinary tract and other infections, infertility, psychological trauma, sexual dysfunction, menstrual problems and several other negative medical and emotional outcomes.”

The passage that OutRage! quoted was from the website of the US Muslim Women’s League. As can be seen, the MWL’s description of the consequences of FGM refers specifically to “complete infibulation which involves removal of the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora, leaving a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood”.

Yet the introduction to the IslamOnline version of Qaradawi’s fatwa states quite clearly that “we would like to make it clear that ‘female circumcision’ means removing the prepuce of the clitoris, not the clitoris itself”. So it was quite dishonest of OutRage! to use the MWL quote against Qaradawi, as he has never advocated a practice that produces these horrific effects.

The Muslim Women’s League presented the following reasoned argument against the actual practice supported by Qaradawi:

“Some proponents of female circumcision argue that removing the clitoral hood (the anatomical equivalent of the foreskin of the penis) can enhance a woman’s sexual experience which would not violate her rights to sexual fulfillment. Yet, it is practically impossible when examining the genitals of a young girl (and especially an infant), to distinguish between the hood and the clitoris itself. Also an exposed clitoris that is stimulated due to friction from clothing would result in discomfort and pain and would not necessarily enhance a woman’s ability to achieve sexual fulfillment through orgasm.”

This sounds like a good argument against female circumcision. But what of male circumcision, which as the MWL points out is the “anatomical equivalent” of the practice advocated by Qaradawi? As can be seen from his fatwa at IslamOnline, Qaradawi not only supports this form of genital cutting but argues that it is a religious obligation. Yet the practice of male circumcision has been criticised in terms similar to those employed by the MWL in its analysis of female circumcision, as an article from the BMJ shows.

However, Readings doesn’t see fit to condemn Qaradawi for promoting male genital mutilation. And for obvious reasons. Male circumcision is widely practised in the West and it would be difficult to get anyone worked up about it. But accuse Qaradawi of supporting FGM, without explaining what his actual position on the issue is, and it conjures up the image of a barbarian proposing what OutRage! in its 2004 press release called “a bloody, violent assault on the bodies of children”.

Readings concludes his piece with the hypocritical claim that “if leading figures like Ken Livingstone continue to claim that Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a ‘moderate’, they will feed the EDL/BNP narrative that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim”.

The reality is that Quilliam’s briefing document “Preventing terrorism: where next for Britain?” has been publicly welcomed by the BNP – because it takes an almost identical line to that promoted by the BNP itself, namely that organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain are motivated by the same ideology as al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups.

In short, it is Readings and his friends at the Quilliam Foundation who give credibility to the Islamophobic propaganda of the far right, through their misrepresentation and vilification of leading Muslim organisations and of major figures like Qaradawi.