Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Real Reason for the Muslim World's Outrage

I'm sure most people have seen the horrific video of the burning of the Jordanian pilot and it is indeed gruesome but let's put in perspective - there have been much worse videos I've seen from the Islamic world. You may remember the beheading video of Nick Berg by another Muslim terrorist group in 2004, long before the formation of the Islamic State. This was quickly followed by the video of the beheading of a South Korean called Kim. In both videos, the victims had their heads sawn off by a dagger. I thought those videos were much worse than the recent video of the burning of the Jordanian pilot and I remember feeling faint after watching them. Perhaps between then and now, I've been inured to violent videos now that the world is seeing more and more Islamic terrorist groups in action. Just days before this video of the Jordanian pilot's murder was released, the Islamic State released videos of the beheading of two Japanese men. There was no outcry from the Muslim world.

My first thoughts did not do justice to the Arab world or to Muslims. I thought they were just exhibiting their tribal clannishness or cliquishness and they had nothing but indifference for the deaths of non-Muslims or non-Arabs. But that's not true. The Islamic State is known to be hostile to Muslims too. They view Shiites as apostates and they aren't particularly kind to non-extreme Sunnis either.

Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb

Why then are Arab nations only united in their anger for the Islamic State's murder of the Jordanian pilot? Why is the Muslim world jointly and vociferously outraged only now? It was only after I read the words of the Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al Azhar, that I understood perfectly the reason for the Muslim world's outrage. Al Azhar is the seat of Sunni Islam and Al Azhar is to the Sunni Muslim world what the Vatican is to Roman Catholicism. What Muslims are most unhappy about is the METHOD by which the Jordanian pilot was executed - by way of immolation while locked in a cage. Sheikh Tayeb, after condemning the Islamic State for burning the Jordanian pilot, goes on to call for the Islamic State’s extremists to be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.” The incongruity of what he is saying is of course lost on him, so staunchly is he upholding the methods of killing that are approved in Islam and of which he is suggesting should be the fate of the Islamic State criminals.

I have seen the barbaric slaughter by Islamic groups of innocent people and I must say the burning video is not so horrific as some of them. I've seen a video of a thieving boy having his hand cut off after a shariah court meted out the punishment. Beheadings which are gruesome to us are nothing new to the average Muslim in the Arab world. Public beheadings are carried out in Saudi Arabia to this day. The worst video I've ever seen showed the stoning to death of a woman allegedly guilty of something as minor as adultery. And if you are familiar with Islamic jurisprudence, you will know that an adulteress in the eyes of the Shariah court may really be as innocent as a new-born babe. Victims of a gang rape are frequently sentenced to death in the Arab world and it used to puzzle me to no end until I discovered the reason for this. In Islamic law, a man can only be convicted of rape if there are testimonies from 4 eye-witnesses who must be adult Muslim men as to his guilt. It's very hard to find even an eye witness in a rape case and of course if it's a gang rape, the four or more Muslim men present at the rape scene are almost always the accused rapists themselves and it's not surprising that they usually testify that the woman is a prostitute and the Shariah court has no alternative but to find her guilty of adultery and death is the right punishment.

Why is the Arab world outraged by this and not by the stoning of rape victims even if some of their death sentences are commuted to life imprisonment? I've seen a stoning video and I must say that if I have to choose my mode of execution, I would rather be burnt like the Jordanian pilot rather than be stoned to death. The burning may be dramatic but it is swift.

The Arab world is not disturbed by the executions of rape victims because they are all done in accordance with Islamic teachings. What disturbs them about the burning of the Jordanian pilot is their belief that only Allah has the right to burn people.

The Hadith by Imam Abu Daud and Imam Ahmad says this:
Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire). Only Allah can punish anybody with (fire).
The Arab world is outraged only because the Islamic State is usurping Allah's monopoly over the use of fire as a form of punishment. But contrary to Obama's and the Western world's insistence that the Islamic State is not Muslim, the Islamic State was formed to preserve the sanctity of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet. And they have their Islamic scholars too. As soon as the video was released by the Islamic State, they issued a fatwa to explain that the execution by burning was perfectly in accordance with Islamic teachings and they cited precedents of such a punishment being meted out in the past by Muslim saints and even Muhammad himself. I don't want to go into the gory details of what Muhammad and his Companions actually did with fire on their hapless victims but because their actions might seem to contradict the Hadith that says fire is to be used solely by Allah, the Hanafis and Shafi’is (two major Sunni schools - almost all South East Asian Muslims are Shafi'i Sunnis) have distinguished that saying in the Hadith as an "affirmation of humility".  As Al-Muhallab says, “This is not an absolute prohibition, but rather it is the path of humility."  In other words, if you don't kill a man with fire, you are just being humble; you are, in humility, reserving fire purely for Allah's use. But the use of fire as a means of execution is not strictly prohibited.

I don't want to adjudicate on this and decide which side is right or wrong. But there's so much biased and unfair reporting in all the major newspapers which repeat ad nauseam the position given by Muslim clerics in Jordan and Egypt on this issue but they do not publish the arguments of the Islamic experts from the Islamic State.

What we have here is a theological dispute between Muslims on whether an execution by fire is legitimate in Islam. It's no different from a disagreement over the meaning of the Eucharist - is it the body of Christ or is it a symbol of the body of Christ. Give religious disputes some time and you can have even more variations -  perhaps it's neither the body of Christ nor a mere symbol of it but could it be that the Eucharist CONTAINS the body of Christ? But not all religious disputes are as gruesome as the current dispute between the Islamic State and moderate Muslims on what method of killing is legitimate. For the Eucharist, whether you believe it's the body of Christ or it contains the body of Christ or it's merely a symbol of the body of Christ, you are still consuming the same wafer and all 100 calories of it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

As changeable as language

I usually prefer reading fiction in my spare time but for the past few weeks, I have been reading nothing but books on grammar and linguistics. That's because I recently read that a new edition of my favourite grammar will be published in the middle of this year. You might ask what good a new edition does to anyone. Language is no different from the mobile phone or the computer. It changes all the time. In fact, it mutates much more rapidly than anything else I know.

When I was a lad, I was made to spend a long time studying the distinction between "shall" and "will". This may sound ludicrous to those of you who are not familiar with the complexities of English grammar and you may very well think I was a little thick to have to grapple with something so apparently easy. But it is far from easy. Even the grammarian Burchfield himself referred to this as "immensely complicated". And this is not the only problem with English grammar. There are many other such immensely complicated aspects of grammar that those of us who do not have to study them are blissfully unaware of.

But language belongs to the masses and follows the law of democracy and the masses do not like to put their minds to anything that is immensely complicated. Within a decade or so, the English-speaking public put its foot down and the immensely complicated distinction between "shall" and "will" has all but been relegated to the pages of linguistic history.

How do you think I felt when I first discovered that I had pored over Jespersen (that's the grammarian who wrote the longest thesis on this subject) and the tracts of the Society for Pure English only to be told years later that all those rules no longer applied? Naturally, I wanted them to continue to apply just to justify those otherwise wasted hours of my childhood.

But that's not how language works. Purists can scream blue murder but nothing can stop the inexorable progress (or deterioration, as purists would insist) of language.

Most of us don't like to suffer for nothing. I remember reading in the newspaper about an interview with teachers in England who insisted on cautioning students against splitting their infinitives. One of them said his teachers used to rap him on the knuckles every time he split an infinitive and so he continued to rap his students on the knuckles when they split their infinitives.

More than 3 centuries ago, Daniel Defoe (the chap who wrote Robinson Crusoe) proposed the formation of a Society to regulate and police the use of English words. It did not come to anything. A century later, Samuel Johnson with great foresight says in the Preface to his Dictionary that it is not possible to "embalm" the English language. He speaks of the futility of any attempt to police language and before referring to the inability of the French Academie to stop the tide of change in the French language, he says this which is best quoted verbatim:
...sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
Those who know me well must know that I'm always opposed to any attempt to control or regulate the language. Do we correct all errors and if so, how far back do we go? Take the word adder which we all know to be a snake. It started life as a nadder but over time, it became an adder. I suppose if you say "a nadder" repeatedly, it doesn't take long before it sounds like "an adder". And that's how we get the word "adder". Do we go back in time and insist that the poor snake should be known by its original name, nadder?

As I eagerly wait for the publication of the new edition of my favourite grammar, I have been going through some of my very old books. Some of the entries cannot help but bring a smile to the face.

I remember reading this just as I was leaving my childhood and entering the cusp of adolescence and becoming a teenager and I remember asking myself if such a common word could possibly at one time have been in dispute. That's how mutable language is.