The rights and wrongs of Syria’s civil war are controversial, although the West and the Gulf monarchies clearly support the rebels’ jihad. A situation that raises a few moral and spiritual problems. Such as that posed by the Qur’an phrase ‘whom your right hand possesses’.
A nasty video is going around, claiming that a Saudi scholar has issued a fatwa which permits Omar’s fellow fighters to marry, i.e. rape, female captives. Most likely a forgery, a canard against the bad guys, the Wahhabis, the ruling sect in Saudi Arabia. The scholar allegedly invokes the justification of mut’ah, a temporary marriage contract. But that makes little sense, as the legality of mut’ah, briefly admitted by the Prophet, was later abrogated in Sunni Islam. Nonetheless, a difficulty remains.
‘Whom your right hand possesses’ comes from ‘The Women’, the fourth surah in the Qur’an, verse 25. My copy, published in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has a footnote by translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Women taken prisoners in jihad is what ‘whom your right hand possesses’ means, Yusuf Ali says. Mind, the passage imports many qualifications. First, the reference is to slave girls and note: slavery is no longer legal in Islam. (Some disagree, however.) Second, agreement from the owners is required. If ‘owner’ is glossed as parents or guardians, well, it is unlikely the girls’ parents would permit to have them deflowered by the glorious warriors. Third, a dowry should be given. Notably, the verse points out how this union is a concession, not a command. Namely, it is a remedy against sin. The passage ends with a commendable recommendation to sexual self-restraint.
The priest has no way of knowing whether the West-backed jihadis are actually using verses like this to violate any hapless captives. Is engaging in such fantasies itself a form of lurid voyeurism? Ersatz orientalism? Maybe. But it is tricky business. In fact, it goes back to a celebrated Islamic thinker, Taqi Al-Din Ibn Taymiyya.
Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) lived through tumultuous times. The fury of the invading Mongols had struck the Muslim lands with a tsunami of massacre and pillage. For a while it looked as if the very survival of Islam was at stake. Gradually, however, the Mongols converted, embracing the religion of the conquered ones. But they were not quite perfect Muslims. Alongside, Sharia’, the legal code of Islam, the Mongols retained their own customary, tribal law. Ibn Taymiyya would not put up with that. Thus, he passed a fatwa against the Mongols. Despite their formal conversion, he declared them kafirs, unbelievers. It was henceforth legitimate for pious Muslims to rebel and do jihad against them. (Distasteful to speculate what happened to Mongol ladies as a result...) An action with many fateful, reverberating echoes.
Fast forward to 18th century Arabia. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the sect named after him. Inspired by Ibn Taymiyya, al-Wahhab inveighed against the sin of shirk, idolatry. Sufis, Shia’s and other Muslims were declared idol-worshippers, mushrikins. Jihad on them was legitimate. Wahhabis and their scalding ideology prosper today. Fuelled by plenty of cash from Saudi coffers, apparently. Oil, unholy oil is at the root of much mischief...
The game of declaring fellow Muslims unbelievers is called takfir. Another key practitioner of this was a well-dressed Egyptian intellectual, Sayyd Qutb. He believed modern society is so steeped in the darkest ignorance of God and His laws that warring against it is permissible, even necessary. Ahem..I must say that makes a lot of sense. But the problem is about means of fighting ignorance – here I speak as a feeble Christian. Qutb’s ideas engendered much violence and terror. Was it justified? Discuss.
Qutb taught that contemporary jihad ought to be offensive. Believers must take the initiative against ignorance, strike first. But normative for Muslims must be the wars led by the Prophet. Were they defensive or offensive? Dictated by the need of self-defence? Protecting Muslims’ lands and property? Or aimed at the spreading of the faith? ‘No compulsion in religion’: a Qur’an verse often quoted to rule out holy war. Qutb allowed for that, he did not argue for the forced conversion of non-Muslims in war. Still, jihad cannot be confined to mere defence of borders, he claimed. History shows him right: the Turks who conquered Constantinople in 1453 were hardly fighting in self-defence.
So, what about those ‘whom your right hand possesses’, females taken captives in a military jihad? Naturally, the matter does not arise in international law. Civilians are afforded all kind of protections and immunity from attack, let alone rape. A sacred text, however, is a sacred text. As it comes from God, it cannot be dismissed in a cavalier fashion. And the holy law of Islam also should not be nullified. What is the way ahead?
Far be it from the poor priest to dare pontificate here. He can only gesture towards the views of Tariq Ramadan, another worthy Muslim, Sunni thinker. He has called for a moratorium on certain aspects of Shari’a law. Because not conforming to the spirit of divine justice eminent in the Qur’an. Discussing the case of al-hudud, the penal punishments, for example, Ramadan observes how such punishments are routinely applied ‘almost exclusively to the women and the poor’. That strikes a chord. Surely any decent human being, regardless of religion, would accept that women and girls are amongst the most vulnerable in the Syrian conflict? As such, they deserve special protection from physical and sexual attacks. So, perhaps either the verses in question need re-interpreting or they should be put into brackets, suspended for the present. Omar, my jihadi friend, are you reading this? I eagerly await your response.Revd Frank J. Gelli