Q. With all of the Islamophobia in the media and the increasing public fear of Muslims, it appears that some Muslims are putting their perceived religious rights above their safety. Furthermore, Islamic organizations that claim to represent Muslims seem to take the view that Muslims can do no wrong. Examples include women having the right to wear burqas / niqabs in public, even though there are obvious detrimental implications, Muslims praying in public thoroughfares, etc. What are your thoughts on these?

A. One may argue that this is a pitfall of freedom of religion. In the United States and Canada, for example, one may register organizations and establish "authoritative" bodies of religion. Sometimes bodies are formed for one cause and then effortlessly and erroneously misinterpret their role and cause maximum confusion. Some organizations were formed in North America to protect the rights of Muslims against discrimination. Many of these organizations continue to do good work, but have now assumed the mantle of issuing judgment on what is "Islamic." For example, the issue of the niqab is often presented as normative Islamic Law and practice -- which it is NOT. So too, the issue of the hijab and other aspects of raiment. Most recently, Muslims have claimed their rights are being trampled upon because if they try to pray in public thoroughfares, public areas in airports, or in one case, in the aisle in a grocery store, people either treat them badly or call in law enforcement. Any first year student of Islam knows that safety and consideration of the rights of others are paramount in Islam. As such, prayer in places that are used for traffic is absolutely forbidden. Considerations of safety allow the prayers to be combined, shortened, or otherwise modified, as is clear from the Qur'anic directives.

It is obvious that many Muslims are taking customary observances from particular areas and seeking to make them representative of Islam. And rather than educating these people, "Muslim" organizations are encouraging them and perpetuating these practices. This sort of conduct encourages otherness and acculturation, which, as outlined in the texts of Islamic Law, are counter-productive. One of the Islamic Law maxims does state that "custom is given the weight of law," and such custom is taken to mean the predominant practice in a particular area. If, for example, in the United States, we don't do ritual prayer in public places, one ought to follow the American custom even if s/he does not know the ruling of the scholars on the issue. Of course, an interlocutor might argue that many non-Muslim Americans also drink wine with their meals, and that our logic is tantamount to prescribing such. Our answer is that what is forbidden in the Qur'an is very clear. In answer to those who might argue about the khimar, we point out that the ratio legis of the Qur'an for the practice makes it clear that this was for a specific time and place, and no longer applicable. This is our position from an Islamic Law perspective, although we do agree that it is a person's right to dress however she wishes.

One of the biggest issues we seem NOT to accept may lie in understanding a term coined by Marshal Hodgson, "Islamicate." This represents a society in which the norms are set by adherents of Islam, i.e., in a Muslim majority area. We have to accept too that different areas have different cultures and practices that are so interwoven with their perception of religion, that they deem those practices as representative of religion. For some people from such cultures, relocation to another place where Islam is NOT the dominant religion can present several problems, exacerbated of course by ignorance and unfamiliarity with being a minority in a non-Islamicate society. Let us take for example the issue of prayer in public. In Saudi Arabia, if a person has to pray at a particular time, there are mosques or other areas to accommodate those wishing to pray. Or if one were to see a group of people in the street on Friday in front of a mosque blocking the roadway, one might understand that the mosque is overcrowded, and as such accommodate the people in the street. In the United States, however, a person who is shopping and suddenly realizes that the time for a particular prayer is due, and cannot find an area of seclusion, might be tempted to pray anywhere, following the normative rituals. The fact is that s/he can delay the prayer for emergency reasons, or observe it in such a manner that is not noticeable to others or cause them any inconveniences.

The organizations that have been formed to protect the rights of Muslims can seek to solve the problem by educating Muslims about what is truly obligatory and what is not, and how circumstances might affect one's rituals, etc., by consulting with Islamic scholars on such matters. Instead, however, some of these organizations do things that are seemingly illogical, such as asking for donations so that Qur'ans may be sent to non-Muslims, and so on. It would be so much better if they spent time distributing directives to Muslims on how to function outside of Islamicate societies. The American legal system (as do most G8 legal systems) allows for the filing and hearing of causes that truly challenge our sense of right and wrong. One can only hope that with time, Muslims will become more educated about their own religion and act like vicegerents as described in the Qur’an. The Muslim laity needs to place more emphasis on ethics instead of reducing their faith to the practice of rituals and dress, some of which are NOT (even in the most extremist interpretation) part of Islam.

Webmaster’s Note: There are other examples of Muslims acting selfishly instead of seeing the larger picture and thinking about the implications of their behavior for other Muslims. There was a reported incident in the media about a female Muslim flight attendant who refused to serve pork and alcohol to passengers because she claimed this was against her faith. Besides the fact that the prohibition is against Muslims consuming these items, does this flight attendant expect the airline to hire two people to do her job? Incredulously, a Muslim civil rights organization was actually fighting the case on her behalf. Why should any US airline hire Muslim flight attendants if they are going to behave this way? Another incident reported in the media was about Muslims having a dispute with their employer over prayer breaks. While we don’t know the specifics, as already explained above, if prayer breaks are going to be disruptive in the workplace (this was a manufacturing facility with an assembly line), then as a general rule, the prayers can be performed later when it is convenient so as not to impact productivity.

Posted June 18, 2016