Hesham A. Hassaballa’s Column
I wrote a column, “Does God need a police force?”, in which I berated the concept of a “religious police” in some Muslim societies. I stand by that criticism 100%. Morality can not be imposed upon people from without; God does not need a police force. The truth, however, is a bit more complex. Although God does not need a police force per se, it seems He wants one. Well, sort of.
In the Qur’an, God told the angels He will place on earth a vice-regent, His representative, on earth: “Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: ‘I will create a vicegerent on earth.’ They said: ‘Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?’ He said: ‘I know what ye know not'” (2:30). In this system, sovereignty belongs to God, and human beings will be agents of that sovereignty. Part of this task includes implementing (and enforcing) God’s laws on His servants, a sort of “police force.”
So have I contradicted myself? Not at all. Islamic law, or Shari’ah, has general principles that must be established: protection of life, religion, lineage, intellect, and property. Every one of Islam’s laws heralds back to one of these principles. Some Muslims, unfortunately, have focused solely on implementing that part of the Shari’ah that deals with personal morality and thinking this is how “Islamic law” should be implemented. And it has led to disastrous consequences.
Let us take the Taliban as an example. Whilst they were in power, “religious policemen” made sure men wore beards of a certain length, women were covered head-to-toe, and no one laughed in public, all in the name of “establishing God’s law.” Yet, women and girls were barred from working or going to school. Is this not an affront to God’s law? Does this not violate the principle of protection of the intellect? Is not equality of men and women an essential aspect of Islamic law?
In Saudi Arabia, another country that espouses “Islamic law,” there is also a “religious police” to ensure Saudis follow Islamic law. In fact, 15 schoolgirls died in a school fire in Mecca in March 2002 because, according to Civil Defense workers, members of the “religious police” barred the girls from exiting because they were not properly dressed. Is not the preservation of life one of the utmost principles of Islamic law? Did not the Qur’an state that is someone saves a life, it is as if they have saved the lives of all of humanity (5:32)?
In Nigeria, a woman was condemned to death by stoning for adultery. This was despite the fact that she was not married at the time of the alleged sexual encounter, and thus, the punishment of stoning does not even apply. She received this sentence despite the fact that many Islamic scholars do not even accept pregnancy as a high enough burden of proof of sex out of wedlock. She was sentenced to death despite the fact that there were not enough witnesses to the alleged sexual encounter as required by Islamic law: the man in the case was released due to “lack of evidence.” Is not due process an essential component of Islamic law?
I do not think God placed us on earth as his vice-regent solely to ensure men have beards, women wear “burqas,” and music is banned. God made us His representative so that life, religion, lineage, intellect, and property be protected. Furthermore, Islam demands that the “forest” always be seen for “the trees.” For example, Caliph Omar (God be pleased with him) suspended the punishment for theft during a time of extreme famine, because it is not just for the government to punish someone for theft out of want when the government can not provide for its citizens.
If Islamic law is established in a community that lacks clean water, then I believe the Shari’ah would demand that clean water facilities be established as the first priority, not ensuring Muslim men have beards of appropriate length. The gross misapplication of Shari’ah by some Muslims has led to its mischaracterization as a backward, barbaric system of government. This has done an enormous disservice to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for Beliefnet.com and Media Monitors Network (MMN). He is author of “Why I Love the Ten Commandments,” published in the book “Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith” (Rodale Press), winner of the prestigious Wilbur Award for Best Religion Book by the Religion Communicators Council.