An Interview with Raheel Raza

The Fourth R 27-5
Sept-Oct 2014

Raheel Raza, author of Their Jihad - Not My Jihad

Read the full text of Raheel Raza’s presentation, “Politics, Patriarchy and Power” from the Westar Fall 2014 national meeting

Raheel Raza is the President of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow. A fierce advocate for human rights and gender equality and a frequent speaker at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Raza was featured in the award-winning documentary Honor Diaries. She will be a featured speaker at the Westar fall 2014 meeting. She was interviewed by Westar Fellow David Galston.

The Fourth R: For many people in North America the words “progressive” and “Muslim” do not go together, yet for years you have maintained that Islam is a progressive, open religion. Please explain.

Raheel Raza: I have to take you back to seventh-century Arabia where the message of Islam was revealed. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a place where slavery was rampant, women were bought and sold as chattel, newborn girls were buried alive, and tribal warfare was the norm. When Mohammad received the revelation, it was a visionary and progressive message for that time because it freed slaves, gave women rights and aspired to create a society based on social justice. Mohammed’s charter for the city of Medina gave rights to minorities. The earliest Muslims truly practiced the Qur’anic verse, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

Obviously, something went wrong. After the death of the Prophet, Islam spread, and with it came innovations in science and art, but progress in faith matters came to a standstill after four hundred years. Sunni Muslims closed the gates to “Ijtihad” (reason and knowledge) and, by the tenth century, questions about religion were considered dangerous to the political rulers.

4R: You have expressed some strong and, to outsiders, surprising opinions about wearing a niqab (face covering) or a hijab (head covering). I understand that you are not against them as cultural expressions but critical of them as a representations of Islam. What is the basis of your criticism, and how did these garments enter into the tradition as icons of Islam?

RR: The niqab is not a religious requirement under Islam. As Muslims we take guidance from our holy scripture the Qur’an, especially in cases where there might be human-made secondary texts that are ambiguous or contradictory.

The Qur’an does not ask us to cover our face. In fact, when we go for the pilgrimage to Mecca, women are not allowed to cover the face, as I experienced when I was there. Since we don’t have a formal priesthood in Islam, we are asked to take counsel from credible religious scholars. One such scholar, Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is the highest seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, has said that face-veiling is a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith or the Qur’an. He stated that this practice is widely associated with more conservative trends of Islam. In fact, he has asked students in Egypt to remove the niqab in educational institutions.

We are told repeatedly in the Qur’an to keep a balance. The Qur’an describes the Muslim community as “a moderate nation” (2:143). The word “moderate” here is a translation of the Arabic word wastan, which means “in the middle,” but it can also mean “fair” or “balanced.” Prophet Mohammad has been quoted to have said, “The best of things is what is in the middle,” that is, what is being done in moderation. One of the fundamental underpinnings of Islamic law is the requirement that a just balance between the rights of individuals and the interests of the society as a whole be maintained.

A few years ago when the niqab debate was at its height, I was on a radio show with Steve Rockwell, who calls himself an imam. He brought along a huge edition of the Qur’an and I asked him to show me where it says that the face needs to be covered. He could not, because in terms of dress the Qur’an asks both men and women only to dress modestly. Later, on another show, after Sheikh Tantawi and some other scholars gave fatwas (authoritative rulings) that the niqab is not an Islamic requirement, Mr. Rockwell back-peddled and said, “Well it’s not religious but cultural.”

4R: So let’s examine the niqab issue from some cultural perspectives.

RR: When my grandmothers migrated from India to Pakistan decades ago, they used to wear a chador as a cultural dress, but they discarded it for a simple head covering over time because the chador was all enveloping, hard to manage, and impractical. Similarly, when I came to Canada twenty-two years ago, I was used to wearing a shalwar Qameez (traditional Pakistani dress) made of thin material, not at all suited to this harsh climate. It didn’t take me long to change to long warm trousers to adapt to the weather. Had I insisted on my own cultural dress, I would have suffered.

Cultures need to evolve and change. Those of us stuck in centuries old customs bring excess cultural baggage with us. The niqab is essentially a tribal custom that has been imported into the West. It’s a mask. So how does it impact society? It’s obvious that it’s a barrier to communication because you can’t see the face of the person behind the veil. In some ways, the niqab discriminates against me. If the person under the niqab can see me, and I can’t see her, it’s discrimination.

Driving while wearing the niqab creates a problem with peripheral vision. When a woman driving in a niqab hit a cyclist some years ago, I had to wear a burqa in a cultural sensitivity training session to show the judges that a face covering does reduce peripheral vision.

The niqab is also a direct clash with security because in a post 9/11 world, faces need to be shown at airports. Female security personnel are not always available to check the ID of these passengers, as they insist. Which brings me to share an interesting piece of trivia. The embassies and consulates of the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Pakistan, two countries from which the ideology of the niqab has crept into Canada, have posted notices that women who wish to have their photograph taken for their passports must show their face.

Furthermore, it’s an Islamic injunction, agreed on by all schools of thought, that Muslims who immigrate must abide by the laws of their new countries—whether Muslim or not—as long as they are not ordered to commit a sin.

From a Canadian perspective, we appreciate that Canada offers the ultimate in personal liberty and freedoms. People have an absolute right to wear—or not wear—whatever they want, in private. We Muslims must show our public face and identity. If we hide this, we’re being dishonest to ourselves and to Canada.

4R: Part of your talk this fall at the Westar Institute meeting will explain that the Qur’an is difficult to comprehend because of the way it is arranged. Why is this an important issue? Also, for people used to the critical study of the Bible, it is not shocking that there are variant readings, contradictions, and other writings that were never included in the canon. Is any of this true and relevant to the Qur’an? Are there variant readings, writings not included, and contradictions in the Qur’an?

RR: Thomas Carlyle, on reading George Sale’s English translation of the Qur’an in 1734, said that the book is a “wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement … insupportable stupidity, in short!”

For Muslims the Qur’an is the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Mohammad over a period of twenty-three years. The message was an oral message and, since Mohammad was unlettered, the words were written on scraps of paper, tree bark, and animal skins. It was only after the death of the Prophet that his companions compiled the Qur’an into book form. For reasons known only to them, instead of compiling the revelations in chronological order, they assembled them in order of length, from longest verse to shortest. Therefore, trying to understand the historical and social contexts of passages in the Qur’an is a challenging task. Furthermore, in many passages the train of thought is difficult to discern. Passages can move quickly from topics such as praising nature as created by God to thunder and lightning on the day of judgement.

Having said this, there is a sublime beauty in reading and listening to the Qur’an—which is always recited in Arabic—even if one does not understand the language. The poetry and rhythm are mesmerizing.

There are many interpretations, so if you open copies of the Qur’an side-by-side, you will read slightly different understandings, which is fine until someone takes sentences out of context. Besides, Arabic is a language in which one word can have two or more meanings, so the intent of the translation is left to the translator.

Over 1400 years, most translations have been made by men. It was only in 2007 that the first translation was done by a woman, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, and its key difference is that in the chapter on women, where most men have translated the text to say that men can beat women lightly, Dr. Bakhtiar has translated it to mean “move away.” Translations and interpretations are only as blessed as their authors.

Similarly, both Muslim (extremists) and non-Muslims have quoted lines out of context to justify jihad, for exam- ple. It’s only in the past decade that there has been some critical study of the Qur’an by scholars like Dr. Ziauddin Sardar.

There is also some talk about newly discovered texts and scrolls (such as the Sana’a manuscript found in 1972), but none of this has been verified yet. Those who have attempted to dig deeper into the origins of the Qur’an, like ex-Muslim Ibn Warraq, have been branded heretics.

4R: One important comment that you have made in the past concerns Western “tolerance” backfiring when it comes to extremism. Can you indicate some of the background of this concern? Western democracies are built on openness, citizenship, and common human rights. How do these values backfire in the face of extremism, and what can be done to prevent this situation?

RR: You are right. Western democracies are built on openness, citizenship and human rights. However, there are many societies where tribal alliances trump human rights, and some of the immigration into Western countries is from those societies.

The Western concept of tolerance has sometimes backfired, when under the influence of political correctness, Westerners will tolerate the intolerant. There are many examples of this and a misapplication of “multiculturalism” is one. To speak bluntly, all cultures are not equal. A culture that doesn’t respect women or give women equal rights is not equal to a culture that has evolved to give women full rights. Westerners need to understand and accept that culture is no excuse for abuse of any kind. Cultural relativism should not trump human rights.

You also need to keep in mind that the extremists believe this life to be temporary and that the real life is in the hereafter, so they would love to “expedite” the journey of many people to the hereafter using violence as a tool.

4R: Many progressive Christians are called, by extremist Christians, heretics or false Christians—among other things. Rarely, though, is the matter taken beyond name calling. In the Muslim world this is not the case. What is the cost for you of being an outspoken defender of human rights and progressive understandings of Islam?

RR: I have been an outspoken critic of violence in the name of my faith. I have spoken out at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva against the blasphemy law in Pakistan and against the ease with which Muslim extremists take lives. This is why Islamist extremism (political Islam using violence as a tool) is so dangerous. There is no dialogue, no discussion—just death and destruction as we see around us today.
I have the honor of being the recipient of a death threat, a fatwa, and hate mail. My name is # 6 on the list of the most hated Muslims in the world (according to an earnest blogger) and I plan to become # 1.

Read the full text of Raheel Raza’s presentation “Politics, Patriarchy & Power: When the Word of God Goes Wrong” from the Westar Fall 2014 national meeting

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