Transcript of Annual Open Peace Lecture arranged by Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group

Presented by Imam Afroz Ali   on 24 August 2016 in Burns 1 Theatre, Otago University.

Afroz Ali is founder and President, Al-Gazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development, Sydney, Australia.

Title of Lecture:  Between Law and Spirituality: Islam’s legal basis for its spirit of peaceful Coexistence

Peace and blessings of the Divine on all of you. The topic I chose probably would needs a day for introduction, but I’ve been given 45 minutes to hopefully can sum it up – that we have some understanding that when we speak of a peaceful coexistence it is not a philosophical romantic idea in this modern world for any religion and indeed Islam, but it is embedded within our religion—and I am confident it is embedded in all other religions as well. Obviously I’m here to speak from within the Islamic religion/tradition, and I want to share with you an interesting concept when we speak of peaceful coexistence. I have been doing Interfaith [activities] for a long time – for the last 10 years averaging about 200 a year. So I consider myself a ‘young’ veteran in interfaith work.

Often there is a lot of informed sentiment when we speak of interfaith and the importance of our coexistence. But often there is a missing point – there is this idea or assumption that when we speak of coexistence, peace and unconditional compassion for each other, that this arises only because there are conflicts in the world – that because we have a problem, we have to respond in one manner or other – like we plant trees because there is a climate challenge problem, when in fact we would say we plant trees because we think it is a good thing to do. Similarly, when we speak of peaceful coexistence [it is not to deal with any specific problem, but because] it is embedded in Islamic law and spirituality, so we are going to take a journey in the legal side of Islam.

Islam is a religion of intellect, particularly through its juridical aspects. If we do not understand its juridical aspects, we might miss the spiritual aspects as well. Might I add that most Muslims do miss the spiritual aspects! So I hope that my Muslim brothers and sisters here will take note and learn that our religion is quite rich in relation to its spirituality – that if we were to remove spirituality from Islam then you would not actually have Islam. Islam is an Islam of hearts – if that is missing then we would not have a beat.

So first and foremost, let’s look at some principles – foundational ideas – which actually frame our religion of Islam and lead into our peaceful coexistence.

Islam is built on two foundations. The first foundation is built on Tawhid (Oneness of God), and the second is Jalb-al-Maslih (Commitment to Positive). We will explain these Arabic words as we go along. So when we speak of Tawhid, we are speaking of the oneness of God. Islam is a monotheistic religion, and therefore it frames its understanding from this aspect of oneness of God. We would say that this is a private matter – that when we speak of our relationship to God, it is not an institutional based or temple/church/mosque based relationship. It’s an entirely private matter; and Islam considers everyone’s religion a private matter in relation to their relationship to God. But it is the second part in which we all come together. It’s a foundational element in Islam, which is a commitment to positive action. This is about our commitment to preserve, sustain and leave a legacy for future generations in all aspects of our existence—from our human relations to the environment, to the economy, etc.—that there be left behind something that is better than what we had started off with. That is a challenge which we human beings have to deal with because future generations are paying for our mistakes in a very heavy manner. The environment is a classic example of this very fact – that what we are ripping off the earth –we are now seeing the grave results of that around the world. New Zealand is the first country in the world that has accepted environmental refugees. So here again New Zealand has set great high standards and an example, for which Australians should move to New Zealand- probably to Dunedin! I’m falling in love with this place. This is my third visit here – incredibly warm hearts, and incredible open policy, as seen in the way you have brought Syrian refugees here. And we have our dear Mayor sitting together here with us. You might not get this in the country I come from!

Then we talk about the three conditions of law. Speaking about this, the first thing we need to look at is: what is law? Because when we speak of law today, language itself is a real problem. The tradition of Islam is understood through Arabic. So when we simply translate something, important things can be lost, especially if that particular language has a slightly different meaning. The word ‘peace’ can be an example.

The word for ‘law’ in Arabic is ‘hukm’ which is a very interesting word because its root word is hakama, the same word from which comes wisdom, hikma. It’s the same word from which comes ‘a healer’, Hakeem. And from the same word comes the one who implements justice and fairness, the hakem. So when we speak of hukm as law, we are not talking about a law of control of society, but of nurturing of society – that which is healing and nurturing, that is just, that is fair. In order to do this, Islam imbeds three principles into every law—and we are a law heavy tradition. These three are the following:

First and foremost is compassion. This might surprise you, because I hear from people of other faiths who ask: “Why is the Muslim God angry?” First of all, Islam’s God is not only Islam’s God, but the God of all of us. And this God is not an angry God. In fact, it starts with a particular concept: compassion. That God’s compassion overrides God’s justice—and there is a Prophetic statement in that regard. So if a law is oppressive, it could not be law in Islam. I do want to make a point here: I’m speaking of Islam, not necessarily of Muslims. Because Muslims are not Martians – we are human beings – and we have our shortcomings like everyone else does. And we may not be the most compassionate people on Earth. I must concede with much embarrassment that we don’t seem to exude and set example of what is the most important virtue that we would consider to be divinely granted to creation – and that’s compassion. At this point in time I want to acknowledge the Christian communities around the world who live up to compassion. It’s not until we utilize and learn from the examples of great people of this Earth, then we will not be able to have the greatness of our own values to come out and to be respected. So compassion is extremely important; it is embedded into our law.

Wisdom: I often say Truth is a difficult pill to swallow – only sweetened by wisdom. And you need to be able to not only implement, execute and deploy Truth, but you need to do that with wisdom. There is time and place for everything; there are priorities. Therefore, wisdom must be a part and parcel of the law.

If you don’t happen to have compassion and wisdom, you won’t be able to obtain Truth, which is justice – in fact law must be just. When we speak of justice we are not speaking of receiving justice but to be just. If you are to execute law, compassion, wisdom, and being just, this is embedded in action taken in relation to law. Another point regarding law that needs to be made is that for me to stand here and speak to you like this, I am guided by Islamic law – not only written rules, but the principles by which we are to engage with each other: these aspects of being genuine, sincere, honest, courteous, and courageous to be able to concede certain things but also courageous to be able to challenge certain things. And I’m sure we need to have both of these as we continue the conversations.

But I do want to talk more about hikma as well, which is wisdom. When we speak of hikma, [in tis root] it is connected to this idea of the law. So law and wisdom are inseparable in this regard. More important is the Arabic word for compassion.

(I’m a bit of linguist as well. And language carries so much meaning. If we could just simply return to language, so many of our problems could be resolved- because a lot of times people say certain things which they do not mean – and they can mean certain things but they do not say that. So words are so important)

So when we speak of compassion, it comes from the root word – and I want you to pay attention to this – it is the root for the womb. And in a tradition it says, if you cut relations with the womb, you cut relations with God. Now, how do we aspire to compassion? The root word tells us to look to your mother. Yes, there is a rare minority of women out there who can hurt their children. But by far and the norm and the reality is that the mother would give everything for the children. And that’s the nature of compassion that we should aspire towards. And that’s what Islam calls us to. It’s a very high standard to be a mother – which is not much respected in many ways in our present world. And we do need to show the respect to our mothers – I want to salute you all mothers. If you didn’t teach us mercy, we men would have destroyed the Earth three times over already. So thank you, mothers!

And lastly, the word justice – adl. Another very tricky word, because when we look at the root meaning of this word, literally an adeel is a person who places the burdens on a camel at the right places with the right priority of the journey—interestingly, if you want to learn about Arabic words, you learn about the camel!  So adl is literally this balancing of facts and information and knowledge and wisdom and truth etc. that ultimately is supposed to manifest itself in fairness in a holistic manner. And if we were to function according to these spiritual and virtuous qualities, fairness or the end result is greater than what you would have in fact expected. This is what I hold to be true, but you might choose to disagree with me on that.

So what I want to look at now is the two spirits of the law. The basis of peaceful coexistence is not only an ideal, not only embedded in our law and in our religion, but according to our holy book the Quran, into the sheer existence of us being here. A Quranic verse says: “O humanity: We have indeed created you male and female, and granted you nations and tribes in order you may come to know one another in goodness…” The general translation of the Arabic word “litaarafu” is “to know one another”. This is another word that needs to be looked into with some detail. When we speak of “taarafu” we need to go back to its root word. This word first and foremost means “to know to be true”; and it also means “something which is good”. Another word from the same root is maroof, - “that is good”. So what is “good” is something that is called upon by God for our relations with each other – it must be a relationship of goodness.

Interestingly the same word also has its meaning as “customs”. I will talk about customs at the end because I do want to acknowledge the first nation of this land – the Maori people. I leave that to the end in relation to the idea of customs because this idea of the same word meaning “knowing” and “goodness” is also connected to “the customs of the original people” – something we aught not to forget.

The second principle is a prophetic tradition—a brief explanation: in Islam we have the divine revelation such as the Quran or the Bible, then we have the prophetic traditions, which are the statements of the prophet Muhammad (may the blessings of God almighty be upon Him and all the prophets of God). In a Prophetic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad says, and in Arabic it is a beautiful play on words: “Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth, and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.” According to prophetic tradition experts, this is one of the four prophetic traditions that if a Muslim were to live by – one of the four - they would have completed their covenant with God.

So moving on to some more legal matters – hoping to add more to the theme of peaceful coexistence –
I’d like to discuss what is referred to as universal maxims. Islam has five – five universal maxim by which its entire legislature is formed. So you can imagine this as the root of our system from which come the fruits that we have in relation to its diversity of law. So lets quickly go through these five.

First and foremost: al Umooru be-maqaasedeha EVERY ACTION IS BY ITS PURPOSE. This means that every action must have intent. It means actions are dead, given life through intention. We are called upon to have virtuous intention when we do something. This is something our youth are very challenged with – sometimes blank on intention, but a firework of doing things! In most cases we would hope people actually think as to why they would do what they do. There are two points that need to be taken into account, which we have just covered:
1) In the pursuit of the spirit of the law, the intent aught to be that you are compassionate, that you are wise, and that you are just and fair.  That your intent must embrace these spiritual principles in whatever you do.
2) And secondly in relation to that, there are the foundations of the law—as you may remember, they are the Oneness of God, and to benefit everybody – to be a person who embraces benefit. If I was intent to break something, to harm something, then this action is not only abhorrent to God, but in fact has no value – no value in my sheer expansion of energy in this regard. In the Japanese tradition in the art of Aikido you have what is referred to as the key internal energy which if not expended in the right manner, then in the attack in the Aikido tradition you would hurt yourself. But if you extend that energy appropriately you would not only not hurt yourself, you would bring the person who is trying to harm you into a sense of peace as well. So we need to be virtuous in our intention by having compassion, wisdom and justice.

Now, you obviously might be thinking: hang on Afroz, when you look at ISIS, it is a crisis!  As I said, and I want to remind everybody, I’m speaking of Islam, not of the black sheep of the family.  I will come back to ISIS later on, because I think it is important to address this point directly.

So when we speak of these elements, I want to highlight another point: regarding the idea of benefit, there are three elements of benefit that we need to take into account: The first one is preservation – the preservation of ourselves, as human life, the creation, etc. Then, secondly, we have the sustenance, which is a virtuous economy – also economizing in relation to frugality – being people of moderation – that we should not turn into materialistic people, consumerist people. Thirdly we have to leave a legacy, to leave behind some benefit for others in such a manner that you transcend yourselves, you transcend your desires, and attach yourself to a relatable God – that you work so hard, that you strive, to reflect Godly qualities – that you reflect mercy, that you reflect kindness, reflect generosity. In Islamic tradition we have what is referred to as the 99 beautiful names of God, the 99 attributes of God; and a tradition teaches us that we should become Godlike in our reality. So if our actions are in line with what God intends and is pleased with, then we ourselves will be Godlike in our actions.

The second maxim: CERTAINTY IS NOT REMOVED BY DOUBT. Certainty is how we function as human beings, and indeed as Muslims. So what is the certainty that God has given us? And why do I bring this up and how is it connected to the realm of peaceful co-existence?  Well, the world is a dark place right now – there are a lot of bad things happening. So how do a Muslim respond to all of this? This is a very important question, because when we have the youth today, whether it is Muslim youth, or Christian youth, Jewish youth, when I speak with them they are asking some very important questions. They ask: who is it that is sabotaging humanity? This needs to be answered. It can’t be brushed aside on the grounds of national security or whatever. So how do we help our Muslim brothers and sisters realize that there is a problem out there? What is a response to the problems we see in the world out there?  And this is important particularly when we talk of extremism.

Firstly, we look at the certainty that God has promised to overlook our inadvertent errors – He says, ”Oh my servants that you have erred: Do not despair of the mercy of God. Indeed God forgives all errors. He is indeed the one most Forgiving and most Merciful”. So, be certain that God’s forgiveness and mercy are with us. Related to this is God’s promise in relation to His all encompassing Mercy, as He states in the Quran: “My (that is, God’s) Mercy encompasses all things.” And thirdly, God’s promise of good actions overcoming perpetration of evil. In other words, we are called to remove evil, to remove what is bad, to remove all injustices with good – not with another evil – not creating an alliance of the willing to bomb the rest of the world out – but in fact to create an inventive way  - the way, for example, that Dunedin has been doing in relation to the settlement of Syrian refugees here. So how can you reach out in doing something which is good? And we have this challenge as a human race that we do not respond to bad with bad – this idea that since war is happening and is inadvertent, we can only respond with more war. This idea that we only respond to violence with violence is only making all of us blind, and soon we will have no one who can see anything in front of us. So the idea to be persevering and resilient, despite our emotions, despite our anger sometimes – and perhaps deserving anger – it takes a lot of courage to still do good. I’m really hoping that as we go along, you are realizing how wrong some Muslims are – for example ISIS.

These are the principles by which we are supposed to live, but those who are in ISIS – or wherever else they are – they are like many other human beings who are doing a lot of terrible things. But the place that religion has – that if we were able to educate our people, our children, our youth – hopefully we can turn them around – so that they can come to realize that in fact there is a different paradigm they have not yet looked into. These are not paradigms sitting in some little closet, but are part and parcel of the centrality of Islam.

The third maxim is DIFFICULTIES NECESSITATE FACILITATION, in other words, ease.  The prophet Mohammadpeace be upon Him – said our sense is to facilitate or ease and not impose difficulty. He also said that ease is from good, and burdening is from evil. To the extent that the letter of the law in Islam is suspended when there is a dire need, or somebody is in difficulty. An example: if I was here praying to God, and there was a person right next to me needing food- hungry, starving- I have to suspend prayer in order to serve another human being – that difficulties must facilitate, must bring out facilitation. So the third point here – a bit of a metaphysical one – in Islam difficulties are not seen as a negative point – they can be seen as hidden blessings. That is a challenging concept. I’m not sure whether other traditions see it in the same way. Imam Ghazali, one of the great scholars of Islam, sums it up very well. He says: ”For gold to go through fire to be purified, so do human beings go through tribulation to be purified”. In fact, difficulties in life allow us to become resilient, and transcend – and to find what we might call the mysterious deep strength in ourselves to do the right thing. Tribulation and difficulty is supposed to do exactly that—but if only we were to do that – in a manner that is given to us by God or given as guidance. A quick example – if we look at the idea of patience, because patience is a pillar to the concept of difficulty. In English, etymologically ‘patience’ speaks of the idea of waiting for a better day. Traditionally in Islam, that would be a problem, because if you were simply to wait for a better day, soon you would lose your patience, and you will go ahead and do what people do out there because you have lost your patience. So what would be the definition of patience in Islam? The definition is that you persevere with constancy to the decree of God in a manner that is pleasing to God and His servants, in other words, all of us. And that is not easy to do when we have such circumstances that burden us, or load us, that we would not be able to respond in that manner because our haste comes in place.

The forth maxim is that HARM MUST BE REMOVED – this  is  where ISIS completely falls apart – that harm cannot be the basis by which we function. In theological terms, it is prohibited to harm. Again, a very high aspiration to work with, but it is something that the practitioners are asked to call upon to rise to the challenge.

So first and foremost, consciously harming is considered alien to the human nature in Islamic tradition. The word with which we refer to evil and harm – munkar- literally means that which is not known. So this idea of harming is very alien to human nature, not alien to human beings—and that is why we do harm people—but alien to our nature. It is kind of when at school you told a white lie, and it left you with a hollow feeling, something happening in your stomach – that it doesn’t feel right that you have done that. So in Islam, there is emphasis on not harming. There are traditions like if someone were to harm a sparrow then the sparrow will speak against him in seeking justice on the Day of Judgment.

Secondly, beneficial society does not arise until the harmful detriment is removed. So we are called to remove harms, not to create them – that in order to live in a peaceful society, [we need to deal with] too many harms that we have around ourselves. If we want to look for enemies, then there are plenty to struggle against; for example the climate change, homelessness, existence of poverty. And also there is another harm that is coming into society, and that is the isolation of the aged – that we are forgetting our elders. So if we were to look for enemies that are destroying, disconnecting, and removing humanity from us, we’ve got plenty that we can strive against.

And lastly, harm is distancing yourself from God. Harm – if you kill, if you pillage, if you behead, if you drop uranium-depleted bombs, you are distancing yourself from God.

Before I look into our last maxim – I want to share with you a covenant that the Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) signed – what we in modern day language call a “Bill of Rights”. It’s a nonnegotiable covenant, non-abrogated covenant. This covenant refers to one particular community; and it is referring to that community– which is Christians – because it was written directly to and for them, because of the interactions between the Prophet and Christians of the time. But by consensus [of Islamic scholars] it applies to all humanity. So let us look at this covenant, which is very well preserved in the Topkapi Museum [in Istanbul, Turkey], to see what it says—because I am here to say that on the one hand there are a lot of problems in this world, problems from nation states as well from rebel groups. There is a lot of violence going on in the world. But I also want to let you know that Muslims are trying very hard to live up to these standards. I want you to know that by and large Muslims are busy living up to these standards. Please do not think that somehow we are so alien to the idea of peaceful coexistence. It is embedded in the spirit of the law and the letter of the law – and they are very high aspirations. I can assure you that Muslims are daily busy striving to live up to these standards. We need to stand together to help each other to achieve the pursuit we are engaged with – this peaceful coexistence. So let us look at this covenant:

“This is a message from Muhammad bin Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslim’s house.
Should anyone take any of these, he would break God’s covenant and disobey His People.
Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel, leave or oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them.
If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor from preserving the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the Community is to disobey this Covenant till the Last Day.”
By the Prophet of Peace, Mercy & Forbearance

“Till the Last Day”!  What has happened to this world? How does ISIS function? I don’t understand. We just don’t know what is happening in their minds. I’m not here to question the nation state violations. I’m here to talk about what Muslims are doing. I don’t understand how a Muslim could behead a Christian priest! What’s causing them to do this in the name of God? Maybe nobody knows the cause, because it's alien to being a human being. See this diagram [reading “Muhammad the Messenger of God” in Arabic]. It is the same diagram seen on ISIS’s flag. It is the very seal of the Prophet, also used on the above Covenant. It has been usurped by an entity – an entity that disrespects the Prophet of mercy, of peaceful coexistence. The charter of Madina is well clear about that. I personally do not know where we have gone wrong!

Lastly, the fifth maxim: CUSTOMS OF A PEOPLE IS LEGISLATIVE. This is a challenge we all have to deal with in regards to the first nations - in the case of Maoris as the first peoples here and the case of Aboriginals in Australia. What are we going to do to return them to their rightful place as custodians of this land? Do we have the courage of compassion, wisdom and justice; or is it only applicable to Muslims? Can we rise to the challenge? It’s a very real problem throughout the world. I want to acknowledge and show deep appreciation to the Maori people who are a great example for many first nations throughout the world.  The Maori people have shown great resilience, patience and constancy in being able to work with the society in which they live in, and ultimately make it their rightful place – and may God Almighty grant them that.

Customs of a people influence how Islamic law is implemented. Muslim rulers are to take the customs of a people in relation to how the Sharia functions in a society.  It is interesting to note how people who are ‘anti Islamists’ throw the word Sharia around without its full understanding. Our multicultural, multi-religious world must be built on respect and acceptance, and not on restriction and mere tolerance. We must go beyond tolerance. We need to accept each other – your values, my values, your customs, my customs are equally valid; and we aught to respect that. We have to acknowledge that the original people have a legislative voice. That’s a challenge for all of us.

I would like to acknowledge the Maori people again, to permit us and allow us to be here, to live on this land and to continue to give us a peaceful co-existence that they have shown over many years.

I’m finished here. I trust the five maxims I have outlined help us understand and frame our own informed values. I leave with you four questions that might be considered. I am happy to answer any other questions too.

  1. How do your values inform you about living and promoting peaceful coexistence?
  2. What fears do you have about Islam that you would like to talk about?
  3. What ideas do you have about encouraging more people to stand in solidarity for coexistence?
  4. Share a short prayer of compassion for all, with us.


Q 1
There are many schools of creedal thought – among them the mu'tazilla and ash'aria. The mu'tazilla argue that one must understand God through reason rather than revelation and the ash'aria (who are prevalent today) believe the opposite of this. Do you think the absence of the mu'tazilla school of thought is the main reason that Islam is being radicalized and peaceful coexistence being undermined?

Answer: Thank you for the question. Firstly, I would not define the mu'tazilite and the ash’ari schools that simplistically. In fact the critical difference is more on the anthropomorphic aspect, rather than the aspect of how reason and revelation is understood.  So we have this idea of naql, which is revelation, and aql, which is reason. The ash’ari school doesn't say that revelation comes before reason - what it says is that reason is not the basis of understanding; and in fact that basis of understanding is through an application of reason into the revelation itself.  The mu'tazillites say that reason alone suffices, and that revelation comes as a kind of complementary or supplement to humanity. That is the critical difference between the two schools.

The problem, in my opinion, is exactly what you have stated, but in a slightly nuance manner.
If we look at the more literalist communities in the Islamic world – the 'salafist' movement  – they claim to engage with the revelation and revelation only; and therefore they only see from a literalist perspective, without using reason to understand context and meaning.  And you are right that there is something messy here. But I think there is a nuance problem here – that it is not so much ‘reason’ as ‘ignorance’. Ignorance is the problem. I’m here to speak for our household. But this is a problem for humanity. Ignorance is a big problem. How many people in the world actually understand what is going on out there? It's a very complex, difficult, and in some ways a veiled world – ignorance is a big problem and connected to that is the failure to reason.  The reality of perception is that everybody holds a perception of reality, and so if we fill in gaps through our own perceptions – without taking a step back to see what it really says – then we obviously have a problem.

Q 2   Do you think God will be merciful to ISIS and other perpetrators of crimes around the world?

A. I think God’s world is God’s world.  I would like to say two things: One has to understand the legal or existential perspective - that what they are doing is merciless and therefore God’s Mercy would be removed from such things. But God’s mercy is so encompassing that who knows whom He will forgive and whom He shows His mercy to for whatever reason or wisdom. I cannot enter the world of the Divine. I want to function in the world where God has given me the ability, the right and the privilege to be able to understand. I don’t understand God’s world!

Q How bad does one need to be before God stops being merciful?
A. Islam has a technical answer  - when you stop believing in God. What about the person who says “I believe in God, but let me murder”. His claim to believe is actually negated by his act of murder. A person knowing that an action is insulting to God or offensive to God wouldn’t do it.  On a lighter note, ‘Let's try and get to God’s presence, then He will tell us the story’.

Q 3 My question is in regards to blasphemy laws in Islam.  The laws in Islamic countries look quite hard and strong compared to others such as Christian laws in the West. You say we should remain merciful of somebody who makes a mistake. So why is the punishment so harsh in Islamic countries?

A.  Firstly regarding ‘blasphemy’, or probably ‘apostasy’ is a better word – how do we define that?
In fact the Western world is not so kind to 'secular apostasy', which is called ‘sedition’. You can be hung in Australia, Singapore or USA for sedition – acts which create such level of harm to a country that it causes huge problems to society. So the closest word for apostasy in theology in the secular world is sedition. Interestingly, in Islam, we wouldn't use the words blasphemy or apostasy, but the word sedition; because the Arabic word rudd [translated as apostasy] means bringing harm to the Muslim community. Islamic scholars differ greatly regarding punishment – from execution, to imprisonment, to simply removal of their citizenship or to be moved to a place where they can’t interact with Muslims anymore. These are all differences of opinion in regards to the punishment of 'rudd'. If we look at the sedition laws and if we look at the time of the companions of the Prophet, there was not a single execution that occurred during that initial time. It is the later times, particularly the Seljuk and the Ottoman times, that the execution laws were instated in relation to sedition. So there are big differences of opinion.
As I have said, Islam is a legal based religion. We Muslims do not live in a time where there is a structured legal system for Muslims which would allow us to have these laws and to understand how it would be applied at a time when the moral consensus of the people (which fits under the customs of a people) would reject execution for sedition. It is definitely open for debate. Imam Shafie states in regards to sedition that its application can be carried out with the following condition only – that such harm has been committed that over a thousand Muslims have been killed because of it. When we look at Muslim populated countries, we don’t have a single Islamic country on this earth. Saudi Arabia does not have a single right to represent me as a Muslim – nor does Pakistan or Indonesia - because they function in a non-Islamic legal system. These countries only apply laws that are oppressive and support a very oppressive regime in all of these places, and I openly reject these oppressive laws.

Q 4   You made a distinction between Islam as a religion and Muslim people. Do you think climate change itself has a role to play in influencing how people in the Middle East, where climate change is affecting crop production and rainfall – influencing why people are acting in this way? Can climate change be a main cause of the problems facing Middle East?

A.  Let me take it from a different angle. The reason why I believe the Western powers are in the Middle East is because they are affected by climate change: food security, water security, energy security. When you have a country like the UK which has a storage of a maximum five days food, we might understand what the UK is doing in Africa.  New York celebrated itself as having one of the lightest city footprints in the world, the reason for that is because its footprint is very large in Africa. So I don't think the large cause of the problem in the Middle East is in fact the climate change, although every part of the world are affected by it. Its greater impact is in fact on our own neighbours  - the islands of the South Pacific.

Q 5   How do you apply the principle of peaceful coexistence to Muslims converted to Christianity? There are reports of persecution in Iran and other places.

A.   The question of apostasy is a very complex question and has no clarity in relation to the Islamic jurisprudence - I am personally aware of 7 – 8 opinions as far as the legal construct of it is concerned. But I must say one thing: If a person leaves Islam, then that is a person’s right – its that person’s prerogative. For some Muslims that would be problematic for me to say that. Because if ISIS was here – hopefully they’re not – I would probably be shot right now. Actually I am on ISIS’s list for saying things like that. So I am one of the people ISIS wants to kill on this earth. So please pray for us all!  So the issue here is that Islam teaches us that we in fact reject certain actions but not the person committing that act. Let me take this one step forward, and hope it doesn’t open a big can of worms for me – that the LBGTQI community. Islam says openly that it is prohibited. But Islam also prohibits homophobia. Yes, Islam has a law in relation to leaving Islam. But Islam also has a law prohibiting persecution, imprisonment, killing and executions happening around this issue. It is a problem.  But it takes us back to two earlier questions that have been raised today – the apostasy question, and the question relating to some of these countries. If we look at Pakistan for example, its marital laws are not only archaic, but have nothing to do with Islam. There are laws there that explicitly contradict the Shariah in relation to the rights of women. Similarly, with regard to apostasy laws, [they contradict the Shariah]. Also, Pakistan has an ordinance that prohibits churches to be built in Pakistan. This is contradictory to the Prophetic covenant read earlier. So which Islamic law does Pakistan’s government follow? I’m yet to figure this out myself.

Q 6 My question relates to an end-time scenario. The Christian tradition is that Jesus came and that he will come back and the faithful will be with him. The Jewish position is that the Messiah will come one day and that he will regather Israel, will rebuild the Temple according to the Torah – rebuild on the Tempe mount where there is currently the Muslim shrine. From a Muslim perspective, how do you see that playing out?

A.  We believe that Jesus – peace be upon him – will return to this earth. We have great respect for our dear prophet Messiah/Jesus will return and establish peace on this earth. It's interesting to look at the word that describes Christians in Arabic, which is Nasara – from a word meaning ‘helpers’ – to help. We see that there will be a uniting of the people of God under Jesus – peace be upon him. Might I add: I fear for the day to arrive, however; because it will only arrive after serious levels of destruction on this earth. So in the Islamic tradition we are told we should make a particular supplication – a particular prayer – which is to be followed by action. We should pray for good and busy ourselves with good so that God extends the end-time, [which comes] when there are no people that will do good. I’m hoping I will be gone from this earth when that occurs because human beings will be so destructive – you and I will need to be designing caves to protect us for humanity's survival. So we have some serious problems coming to us which sound quite negative, but we are not here to concern ourselves about the end times as such according to Islamic tradition. But we are here to live today – to bring the best we can today and each day. Because we will be asked and judged by God for what we did rather than what we were concerned about. I’M not really concerned about end times. I can live for peace now, I can advocate, I can plant trees, help poor people – that’s what God will be judging me for. The timeline is entirely in the hand of the Divine.

Q    What happens to the piece of ground on the Temple mount – is that not relevant?
A.    It’s entirely relevant – it will return to Jesus himself. It will be returned to another – Mahadi (peace be upon him)– and both of these will return this earth to a time of unparalleled peace. The word ‘Jerusalem’, and the Arabic word for it which is Darussalam, means abode of peace.

Q 7 The Arabic manuscript that you displayed earlier for us – did that come from the Charter of Madina?

A.   The Charter of Madina is another document. The covenant I showed comes from the Covenant of all times. It is held in Istanbul in Turkey, as is also the Madina Charter.

Q    Where did the statement concerning treatment of Christians of that time come from?
A.   From the ancient Covenant itself, and actually sealed by The Prophet Muhammad himself.

Q 8   I’d would like to ask about the rights of women in Islam. In the Muslim tradition, Muslim men are dominant, seen as protector of women and also can marry non-Muslim women, but non-Muslim men cannot marry Muslim women. What are reasons for this?

A. The first thing we would like to address is the issue of women's rights – not to counter what you are saying but to make a general point.  Part of the problem as we were speaking about earlier is that we are so much removed from the truth of history. So when we claim things about women's rights in Islam, we don't actually realise that Islam has provided rights for women that the Western world only noticed from the 19th century. For example: A woman has a right to maternity leave and returning to work after two years. Show me a government in the world that gives women that right! So there were rights for the time and issues that were not addressed explicitly, but there are principles in the religion that quite clearly protect the rights of women to amongst the highest levels that we understand. And as I spoke about the concept of compassion, our place for ‘mother’ for example, and ultimately for every woman is undoubted. So looking at women’s rights, what we see today is a post-colonisation Islam in many parts of the world where Islam's traditions have been stripped from Muslims. Many quasi-secular laws have been placed upon them – Egypt is a classical example of that. So Muslims themselves are trying to work out over the last 50 – 80 years (of a 1400 years tradition) trying to articulate the traditionally and theologically stated rights in the language that we would understand today. If women really knew what were the rights of women, they would become Muslim just for that. But only if Muslims practiced it, though! The same case applies in secular law. Another example is sexual harassment, which is very well codified but we are only seeing that in today’s world in the last 10 – 15 years.

In relation to the male/female marriage, the simple reason is that, when we speak of marriage, we can talk about equality; but does equality occur in human nature? It largely doesn’t – for example often we see that men impose things on women – it’s the nature of how men function. In Australia a woman dies from domestic violence every week – no religious influences – just people doing this. So in Islam we are called to a very high standard – because men have been give certain responsibilities (not privileges) to maintain the safety and peace of the house. They are required to ensure that the non-Muslim female maintains and preserves her religion. If it was the other way around, the woman might not be able to do so because of the subjugation that might come about in that regard. It’s about the gender realities that affect families - that’s the principle.

In regards to the verse that speaks of men as the providers and protectors/guardians of women, it is an important element that is considered in regards with religious obligation. In Islam it is very important that we respect and dignify women – and if this was not obligated – as we see in the world out there that women are constantly subjugated, constantly exploited, and constantly misused. The word ‘man' in Arabic is referred to as rajul, and it means “to be upright”. Muslim scholars go to the extend that if a man is no longer upright – if he is oppressive to his women, if he is exploitative of his wife – he is no longer ‘rajul’; he is no longer the guardian and preserver of the family or wife.  So in the divorce laws, if the man is not doing his job, the woman has an automatic right to divorce him. On the other hand, if the woman is not fulfilling her responsibilities in the household, the man cannot divorce her – the court can take action against that. However, if a male fails to fulfil his responsibilities, the woman has automatic rights of divorce. That doesn’t mean she goes ahead to divorce him. It’s a legal right that she has in this regard. So the legal construct of all of this is a lot more complex than this idea that of man is somehow the controllers of women because of a specific, literalist interpretation of the Quranic verse. There are factors of human psychology and who we are as male and female. Islam does not shy away from the fact that we have primarily two genders, and we refer to gender in a particular manner as opposed to bio-social definitions of gender which is also a conversation need to be had.  Gender is part of a complete circle of humanity. Women are not inferior to men, and men are not superior to women. An example: Many key decisions in the life of the Prophet did not, in fact, come from him but his wife. He also has said:  The best men amongst you are those who are best to their wives. That’s the tradition we seek to follow. The fact is that we humans fail in so many ways – we fail to look after our elders, parents, men fail to look after their wives.

More QA can happen over supper. Our sincere thanks to Imam Afroz Ali!