"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Is slavery "abhorrent" in Islam?

It's been a while since BBC's Thought for the Day has motivated me to blog about it, but a recent contribution (link above) by Sughra Ahmed, the current president of The Islamic Society of Britain was such a blatant example of scriptural cherry picking that I can’t let it pass without comment.
Muslim Slave Trader
The piece was ostensibly about modern slavery, a very real problem that Prime Minister Theresa May has recently highlighted as a priority for national attention by setting up a cabinet task-force, and Ahmed opens with this thought
” Slavery is a phenomenon I think of as something from long ago and a history I’m ashamed of.”
I waited for the admission that many religions, including Islam, had condoned slavery and that would be the source of her “shame”. But no…
“Slavery has also been a challenge for religious traditions and we know this through the example of prophets and religious texts. Prophet Muhammad, for example, put himself at risk when he freed those who were enslaved by people of the time. It was commonplace for powerful men to own slaves, in fact it was seen as a sign of wealth and stature in their communities. The story of Muhammad freeing the slave Bilal is the most famous and was a clear demonstration to those of the time, and those who read the story today, that slavery is abhorrent in Islam.”
“Slavery is abhorrent in Islam…”. Really? Lets test this glib assertion, based as it is on one cherry picked story about the African slave Bilal Ibn Rabah against several other Quranic verses and Hadiths.
Quran (33:50) - "O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those (slaves) whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee"
Bukhari (52:255) -Volume 4, Book 52, Number 255The Prophet said, "Three persons will get their reward twice. (One is) a person who has a slave girl and he educates her properly and teaches her good manners properly (without violence) and then manumits and marries her. Such a person will get a double reward. (Another is) a believer from the people of the scriptures who has been a true believer and then he believes in the Prophet (Muhammad). Such a person will get a double reward. (The third is) a slave who observes Allah's Rights and Obligations and is sincere to his master."
Bukhari Volume 3, Book 41, Number 598: Narrated Jabir: A man manumitted a slave and he had no other property than that, so the Prophet cancelled the manumission (and sold the slave for him). No'aim bin Al-Nahham bought the slave from him.
These and other examples can be found here .

The best you can say about Islam from a scriptural point of view is that it sees manumitting slaves as a nice thing to do that will likely get you brownie points with Allah (who,as we know, rewards good Muslim men with 72 perpetually virginal sex slaves in heaven) but it certainly doesn’t see it as a priority and by no means is slavery portrayed as “abhorrent”. Like the old testament a thousand years earlier the Quran accepts slavery as a normal part of the human condition and fundamentalists today are convinced they are justified in taking sex slaves from among their enemies.

It does no justice to the victims of modern slavery or any favour to Islam in the west to deny the reality of what scripture teaches. Both the Quran and the bible are flawed texts with little moral authority when read without eisegesis, cherry picking and fallacious appeal to historical context. In the same way they promote discrimination, misogyny and intolerance they condone slavery in clear unambiguous language and Sughra Ahmed’s broadcast seems more an exercise in propaganda for Islam than a genuine attempt to discuss the problem in the modern era.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Accommodating Religious Practice

The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents UK exam boards has recently announced that heavily subscribed GCSE and A level exams will be held a week earlier this year to accommodate Muslim children who may be observing Ramadan and fasting during the main exam period.

This strikes me as a correct and humanistic thing to do primarily because the children and young people affected are at an age when personal, peer and parental pressure to conform will be very strong and their capacity to make well informed pragmatic choices about religion and religious practice may not be fully developed. The system should protect children from their own and their parent’s follies at this critical stage in their education so far as is practicable given fasting is a known and obvious risk factor for reduced performance in this growing minority.

This is not, to my way of thinking, about “creeping sharia” or religious privilege but about maximising the potential of a future generation of productive individuals. But…

…as a society we should be wary about giving the signal that religious practice, that’s any religious practice of any faith tradition, is an inevitable consequence of belonging to a religion. Religion and the practice of it is always a choice in a secular democracy and should not be unquestioningly pandered to in the same way we should accommodate race, gender or disability. Adult believers ought to be expected to accept the consequences of their decisions to impair their performance, career choices, health and opportunities by practicing their religion if that is the result.

It could be argued that as a formerly Christian country, British Christians are privileged in that national holidays are arranged around their festivals and this is true at least to the extent that the pagan and agricultural cycles they usurped still mark the rhythms of this country’s life. But it would make no difference to minority faiths if those holiday seasons were based on any arbitrary calendar that ignored their own traditions and just as Hindu or Muslim countries would not alter their calendars to accommodate Christians there is no reason for the UK to do so.

So, good on the exam boards for helping Muslim children maximise their potential with this small concession that will not adversely impact other children as long as they plan their revision to the timetable given (which they should be doing anyway). But let’s beware of making this a wider principle by privileging religious beliefs with a status they do not merit.

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