June 03, 2007

Discretion, interpretation

In the Berman quotations linked below, he writes, "Qutb shows no embarrassment at all in noting the seventh-century barbarities whenever they seem apropos--the cruel amputations and other punishments ordained by huddud, the penal code, which he carefully discusses ... The barbarous passages add a peculiar thrill to his writings, a frisson of the weird and the forbidden that seems all the more powerful because his tone of voice never changes: the tone of a man speaking with tranquility and confidence about things that are cosmically true."

This reminds me a bit of something Qutb wrote in Social Justice in Islam (described here), in which Qutb relates a hadith about a couple who confess their adultery to the prophet, begging to be purified (that is, stoned to death). This quote, from the seventh chapter of Qutb's Social Justice in Islam, pretty much describes what Berman is talking about. To set the scene, Ma'iz bin Malik has asked the prophet to purify him, the sin being adultery. Muhammad asks if he's drunk or a looney, knowing full well the punishment he'll have to inflict. Bin Malik continues to insist on his adultery, and he's stoned to death. Shortly thereafter, a woman comes:

Thereupon there came to him a woman of the Ghamidi clan of Azd, and said, "O Messenger of Allah, purify me." "Woe unto you," he said to her. "Go and ask pardon of Allah, and repent towards him." She said, "Do you intend to repulse me as you did Ma'iz ibn Malik? For I am with child by fornication with him." "You!" siad the Prophet and she answered, "Yes." Then he commanded her, "Wait till you have brought forth your child," and one of the Helpers volunteered to care for her unitl the time of the birth. When this happened, he came and told the Prophet, "The Ghamidi woman has had her child." Then said the Prophet, "We cannot stone her, and leave her helpless child without a nurse"; but one of the Helpers at once said, "I will be responsible for a nurse, O Prophet of Allah." So they stoned the woman to death."

I think this is the "peculiar thrill" of seventh century barbarity to which Berman refers; here is the lesson Qutb draws from the passage:

Now neither Ma'iz bin Malik nor his partner in crime were ignorant of the dreadful penalty that the would have to pay or of the shameful end that they would have to face. No one had seen them, to establish the fact of their crime. Nevertheless, they pressed the Messenger importunately, no matter what was dictated by his mercy and by that of Islam, to deny them the benefit of any doubt; they closed all possible ways against their own escape; indeed the woman even confronted Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, with wanting to repulse her as he had repulsed Ma'iz. She almost accused Allah's Messenger of neglecting his own religion.

Why did they do these things? The answer lies in their request, "Purify me, O Messenger of Allah." This betrays the true impulse that was strong enough to overcome love of life -- a watchful conscience and a keen moral sense. It was the desire to be purified of a crime which none save Allah was cognizant; it was the shame of meeting Allah unpurified from a sin which they had committed.

This is Islam. Its keen moral perception appears in the conscience of the offender, and its profound mercy appears in Muhammad's repulsion of these two people and in his effort to provide a way to escape for them. Its resolution appears in the carrying out of the stipulated punishment when the charge had been proven, despite the nobility of the confession and the intensity of the repentance; for on this point the sinner and the Prophet find common ground -- that the faith must stand by its basic tenets.

I think another interpretation is possible, and perhaps preferable. Ma'iz bin Malik is put to death, not for adultery, but for talking about it in public, as is his paramour. If one thinks of the milieu of Mohammad -- a rough culture riven by blood feuds, in which violence and vendetta were a way of life -- the sin wasn't adultery (which was expected and normal and tolerated and perhaps even condoned) but rather openly avowing it. Mohammad makes no effort to discover who bin Malik had been sleeping with; if adultery were the sin, surely the Prophet would have, at the very least, asked him. Bin Malik is stoned to death by the community to prevent his being killed by, perhaps, a jealous husband or outraged father (either of or not of the Ghamidi clan), which in turn would have led to Bin Malik's family knocking off a Ghamidi, and so on. (Such blood feuds continue to the present day, suggesting the Islam wasn't quite the corrective Qutb argues it was.)

Posted by Ideofact at June 3, 2007 11:46 PM