Hugh Fitzgerald: Robert Azzi, Still At It With His “Ask A Muslim Anything” Program (Part Three)

“It says in the Qur’an that a man can beat his wife if she is disobedient. Could you comment on that?”

Azzi: “Yes, I’m glad you asked that question. It’s true that some 1400 years ago, and not just in the Middle East but in Europe, men had far more control over their wives than they do today. I’m not excusing it, just putting it in its proper historical  perspective. So yes, if a wife was  considered disobedient, a Muslim husband could first of all reprimand her. If that didn’t change her behavior, she would have to sleep in a separate bed. And if she still was disobedient, and only then, the husband could ‘beat’ his wife but only very lightly, using an instrument as small as a ‘miswak’ — a small natural toothbrush. It’s a symbolic, not a real beating. Try hurting someone with a toothbrush. I rest my case.

“And remember all that Muhammad did for women’s rights. I’ve heard it said that ‘Muhammad was the greatest champion of women’s rights the world has ever seen.’ He didn’t want to force women to stay at home. His first wife Khadijah, who had a great influence on him, was no shrinking violet, but a successful businesswoman. And Muhammad encouraged her every step of the way. The Qur’an provided women with explicit rights to inheritance, to property, the obligation to testify in a court of law, and the right to divorce. It made explicit prohibitions on the use of violence against female children and women as well as on duress in marriage and community affairs. That isn’t gender equality in the modern sense, but it did give Muslim women greater rights than they had had in the pre-Islamic period. So I’d say that that verse about ‘beating a disobedient wife’ should be seen in its proper context.

“Next question.”

4. “Could you comment on Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was nine years old?”

Azzi: “What makes you think Aisha was nine years old?”

Questioner: “It says so, in the Hadith of Bukhari, 5,Book 58, number 234.” (A look of anguish passes quickly over Azzi’s face, as he realizes he’s now dealing with someone Who Knows Too Much.)

Azzi: “That may be, but there’s several things to consider. Bukhari wrote what he did about Aisha being nine, but there’s several things to consider. First, marriage had to be between consenting adults. Marriage in Islam is a civil contract — the Arabic word is meesaaq (4:21), and it can only be between persons who are intellectually and physically mature enough to understand and fulfill the responsibilities of such a contract. That means they both had to be adults. And the girl certainly had to have reached puberty. Some Muslim scholars believe, on the basis of all the evidence, including the age of Aisha’s sister Asma, that Bukhari miscalculated Aisha’s age, and that she was, in fact, 19.

“I’m no scholar of the Hadith, but I know that all of them, including even Bukhari, could make mistakes. I can only say that I would be flabbergasted and outraged if I thought Muhammad would have married a nine-year-old girl. I find the work of modern Muslim scholars, who believe she was much older, to be pretty convincing. I think it’s one of those questions to which we’ll never get a final answer. The Islamophobes will keep saying ‘nine years old, nine years old,’ while the scholars of Islam will carefully weigh all the evidence, as to the onset of puberty, and as to when a girl was considered to be an ‘adult’ capable of entering into a marriage contract. These modern scholars offer a more nuanced and plausible answer. And let’s not forget that in Medieval Europe, for dynastic reasons, Christian girls of the ruling class  could be married at the age of eleven or twelve to boys not much older. That might have some bearing on Aisha’s real age. I was always taught that she was 19.

“Yes, again in the back.”

5. “I’d like to ask you about the Verse of the Sword. That’s Qur’an 9:5. It reads as follows: ‘When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful.’ Of course, if they ‘repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy’ means that they have become Muslims, saying the Five Daily Prayers and paying the Zakat. But what happens if they don’t?”

Azzi: “Well, I see you’ve chosen one of the seemingly most disturbing verses in the Qur’an. I admit, the words, on the face of it, are deeply troubling. That’s why Qur’an commentators are so important; they help us get beyond what seems to be the literal meaning. We need the context to understand those verses correctly. Read over that verse. You are supposed to ‘slay the idolaters wherever you find them.’ Who are the ‘idolaters’? They’re the people who were fighting Muhammad at that time. Fight those idolaters, do what you can to defeat them. It’s a kind of war-cry, designed to whip up fervor among your own troops. But the Islamophobes want you to believe, without the slightest evidence, that ‘idolaters’ is supposed to refer to non-Muslims today, right now, and also to refer to all those people who, over the past 1400 years, were non-Muslims, even if they were on the other side of the globe. Does this verse really mean Muslims should slay people who had never met a Muslim in their whole lives, much less tried to oppose them in any way? Doesn’t it make more sense to take this verse, as I do, and as all mainstream Muslims do, as referring only to enemies whom the Muslims were fighting 1400 years ago? Or do you think it makes more sense to believe what the nutjobs of ISIS and Al-Qaeda and their mirror images, the Islamophobes, maintain? Why should we take their word for it and assume that the word ‘idolaters’ means all non-Muslims, everywhere, for all time, instead of referring only to the enemies they were fighting at that very moment? I regard that definition of ‘enemies’ — everyone, everywhere, for all time, who wasn’t a Muslim — to be sheer madness. If that were true, why wouldn’t the 57 Muslim-majority countries be in a state of permanent war against all the non-Muslim countries? And why wouldn’t the millions of Muslims all over Europe and the United States be trying to ‘kill the idolaters’ — the very non-Muslims with whom their kids go to school, with whom they work, with whom they play sports or collaborate with on community projects, who are their neighbors and, as I know from a lifetime of such unforgettable experiences in New Hampshire, their friends?

“Just look around and you can see that the verses you referred to, and the others like them, must refer to specific enemies in 7th century Arabia. That’s why it’s so important, as I say, that we not take the Qur’an literally or apply it to broadly. The Muslims who think those verses apply to non-Muslims today are the ISIS types. Nothing can be done to disabuse them of their view — they’re fanatics — so they just have to be fought. Don’t even try to reason with them. And we mainstream Muslims are fighting their nonsense, both inside and outside the Muslim community. Believe me, we are doing everything we can to consign the ISIS and Al-Qaeda madmen, and all the extremists who claim to be Muslims,  to the dustbin of history. And we are taking our case, too, to non-Muslims, so that they don’t lose faith in us or what we stand for — a tolerant, inclusive Islam, the kind that flourished in Islamic Spain where Christians, Jews, and Muslims got along so well, in what used to be called the ‘convivencia.’ I hope that answers your question.

“I’ve got time for one more. Remember, I want you to ask me anything.”

6. “Mr. Azzi, you said your parents were Lebanese Christians. They held to their faith in Lebanon, despite living in a largely-Muslim environment. What do you think they would say about your converting to Islam? Would they be pleased?”

“Well, my parents, and grandparents never mentioned to me that they had any problems in Lebanon with  Muslims. Of course they lived in a Christian area of the country. Everyone got along, and as I said in my talk, when I went to Lebanon I saw for myself how 17 different sects managed to get along. Yes, there was a Christian-Muslim conflict in the 1970s, but that was because of so many Muslims who had arrived as refugees from Palestine and who felt they were being left out of Lebanese society; many of them were banned from getting jobs in certain fields; for some reason these Muslims who came from outside Lebanon blamed the Lebanese Christians. That’s a whole other story. But let me answer your main question. No, I don’t think my parents or grandparents  would have minded my converting, or reverting as we like to say,  to Islam. My family was very understanding when it came to religion. If Islam answered my spiritual needs — and it did — then I feel sure they would have had no objection.”

“Mr. Azzi, I think I speak for all of us when I say it’s been a great evening. We’ve all learned a lot. No further questions, your honor [laughter].”

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