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Was Panorama right about Islam?
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Was Panorama right about Islam?

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On 22nd November 2010 the BBC aired a Panorama programme entitled “British Schools, Islamic Rules”. This programme aimed to investigate the “disturbing evidence” that some Muslim schools were providing a platform to “extremist preachers” and “fundamentalist Islamic groups”. The programme focused on some key areas concerning Islam, namely the Islamic penal code and claims of anti-semitism. This leaflet attempts to demystify the Islamic penal code, respond to the false accusation that Islam and Muslims hate the Jewish community, and show why Muslims feel so strongly about their religion.

 

WAS PANORAMA RIGHT ABOUT ISLAM?

 

Islamic Punishments

Muslim do not believe in jungle justice. Many of us living in the west have images of crazy Mullahs running riot, cutting off hands and chopping off heads. This is the unfortunate caricature of Islamic law portrayed by the media. However this is not the case at all, and is evident just by looking into Islamic history, for instance Richard W. Bulliet a Professor of History at Columbia University highlights this point “…minutely studying case after case, they have shown that justice was generally meted out impartially, irrespective of religion, official status, gender….”

To be frank, Islamic law does prescribe harsh punishments, but Muslims would argue that these are suitably so. These punishments are often described as “barbaric”, however this perception is based upon our current views on crime and society. If the punishments are viewed in the context of Islamic philosophy, without superimposing liberal or our own personal values on the discussion, these perceptions will change. Islam considers these punishments as a deterrent and a last resort, and one of the most powerful arguments for the deterrent effect of harsh punishments comes from the common-sense notion that people are conscious of pain or death more than a relatively short and comfortable stint in prison. Even western scholars appreciate this point, for instance Ernest van den Haag, the late Professor at Fordham University stated, “What is feared most deters most.”

“Today, when we invoke the harsh punishments prescribed by Shariah [Islamic law] for a handful of offences, we rarely acknowledge the high standards of proof necessary for their implementation.”

Noah Feldman – Professor of Law at Harvard University

Muslims completely reject the accusation that these rules are barbaric. They serve as a deterrent to ward off the occurrence of crime in society. The Qur’an, the Holy book of the Muslims, views oppressive trials and hardship as worse than killing, hence for some crimes, capital punishment is a suitable punishment. To contextualise this further, Islamic law requires detailed pre-conditions to be in place prior to conviction, for example there are eleven preconditions for the
punishment for theft to be applied. Explaining this fact Professor of Law at Harvard University Noah Feldman states, “Today, when we invoke the harsh punishments prescribed by Shariah [Islamic law] for a handful of offences, we rarely acknowledge the high standards of proof necessary for their implementation.”

Islamic law actually gives the defendant greater basic rights, but also recognises that society has rights too. For example with regards to burden of proof, Islam requires much higher levels of proof compared to the liberal tradition of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. In this regards the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) said, “…if a person has a way [e.g., alibi, excuses] let them go, as it is better for a judge to make a mistake in dismissing charges than in applying the punishment on an innocent.” In other words there must be no doubt at all rather than the liberal concept of beyond reasonable doubt, which is based upon common sense rather than certainty. The Islamic concept considers certainty as the criteria for passing criminal judgements.

Islamic law exists to protect both the individual and society, defining when one outweighs the other which is a point that seems to have been lost or ignored in liberal societies today.

Anti-Semitism

“Muslims hate Jews”. This is what you are thinking right? But this is not true at all. Firstly if we were to look into Islamic history, we would see that Islam and Muslims have always protected and treated Jews with kindness and justice. For instance in 1168 CE Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew who travelled to Baghdad, described the situation of the Iraqi Jews in these words “In Baghdad there are about forty thousand Jews, and they dwell in security, prosperity, and honour…” In 1420 CE Rabbi Yitzhak Tsarfati wrote a letter to his persecuted German brothers from the Ottoman Turkish territory inviting them to join him in prosperous and tolerant Islamic lands, the Rabbi mentions “Here you will find peace.” Heinrich Graetz, a 19th century Jewish historian expressed how Islamic rule in Spain favoured the Jews in the context of kindness and liberty of belief “It was in these favourable circumstances that the Spanish Jews came under the rule of Mahometans…They were kindly treated, obtained religious liberty, of which they had so long been deprived…”

“Jews under medieval Islam never suffered from the same general negative perception as in the Christian West.”

Professor Phillip Bell – – Dean and Professor of History at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies

Now this is not some type of self-delusion, even western historians agree with the good treatment of Jews under Islam. For example the historian Karen Armstrong notes in her book; History of Jerusalem, “The Muslims had established a system that enabled Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live in Jerusalem together for the first time.” In similar light Professor Dean Phillip Bell, said that “Jews under medieval Islam never suffered from the same general negative perception as in the Christian West.”

This treatment is not a historical accident rather it is deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition. For instance the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) said that “whoever harms a non-Muslim [under Muslim protection] harms me”. Additionally the Qur’an, the book of the Muslims, in the 60th chapter states: “And He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just”.

The difference between political confrontation and communal engagement has always been clear in the Islamic tradition. This is why Islam has an unprecedented history with regards to the treatment of the Jewish community.

Reason to Believe

Reading the above you are probably interested in why Muslims feel so strongly that they have to clarify their position on law and other religious minorities. Additionally, you may be intrigued with what Islam achieved in the past, and you may even be questioning what Islam has to offer today. However, all of the answers Muslims may give you rests on a profound philosophy that divine laws, values and principles are better and more applicable than their opposite, as the divine is All-Wise and All-Knowing. This concept is obviously founded on the existence of God and that God has announced himself to humanity.

So how can we show that God exists? Well, a good start is to re-evaluate what we already know about existence itself, in other words the universe. We know that the universe must have had a beginning because without a beginning it would mean the universe is eternal, and the universe could not be eternal because that would imply that the past is infinite, and the infinite cannot exist in the real world. To justify this point let’s take the following example into consideration, if I had an infinite number of books in a room, and I took two books away, how many do I have left? You may reply “Infinity” or those who are logically minded “Infinity minus two”.

In any case, both answers just don’t make sense because I have taken away from infinity but still have infinity, and I have two less than infinity, which would mean I can count how many books I have in the room, but I can’t! Therefore the infinite simply leads to contradictions and it
doesn’t exist in the real world. So it logically follows that the universe must have begun to exist at some point in time.

But what does this mean?Well, this means that the universe must have had a cause. Because if everything we know and see that begins to exist has a cause, for example an explosion or noise in a room, then the universe – which also began to exist – must also have a cause. So just by starting with what we know about the universe, we come to the surprising conclusion that we have good reasons to believe that God exists.

In this light how do we know God has announced himself to humanity? In short, if one of the revealed books can provide good reasons to believe it is from the divine, then it essentially answers the question. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the revelation from God as the Qur’an always mentions nature as signs for God’s existence, power and majesty. Every time these signs are mentioned, they are expressed with great accuracy, and they also give us information that could have never been known at the time of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (Peace and blessing be upon Him).

One of these signs includes the function and structure of mountains. The Qur’an mentions that the mountains have “peg” like structures and that they have been embedded into the earth to stabilize it. This fact has only been revealed by Geologists in recent times. So how can we explain this in light of the fact that this is relatively recent science, with no one at the time of revelation knowing this information, or even remotely having the possible technology to acquire such knowledge? What does this tell you about the author?

Intrigued? Do you want to know more?

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