Struggling in the Dark

Title: Struggling to Surrender
Author: Jeffrey Lang
Publisher: Amana Publications, Maryland, U.S.A.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S. Every day somewhere in the U.S. a new person declares Shahadah, and bears witness that there is no god but Allah, and that Prophet Muhammad, Allah's blessings and peace on him, is the Messenger of Allah. This happens against all odds. First, it is happening in a society whose mass media constantly are depicting Islam as a third world religion of hate and anger: crude and blood-thirsty. Not worthy of serious consideration even for those who are actively looking around to find the true religion. Second, it is happening without a systematic and organized campaign on the part of Muslims to reach out to the rest of the society and tell them about their religion. That is why so many of the conversions are a result of chance encounters. All the efforts of the Muslims in this area, taken together, may be next to nothing compared to the efforts of a single Christian group.

While the Muslims obviously rejoice in this phenomenon, the bigger question is what happens to those who overcome all the hurdles to join them. Where do they go from here? What help is available to guide them, educate them, facilitate their adoption of the new Way of life? Above all, to answer their questions, suspicions and misunderstandings? As the title of Lang's book suggests, the answer to this question is, "not much." As the book itself illustrates, although that is not the purpose of the author, the results of this lapse are alarming.

Jeffrey Lang is intelligent, sincere, eloquent, and confused. Raised as a Catholic and educated in a Catholic school, he found his religious beliefs wanting and tried reason, agnosticism, and atheism. As a young lecturer in mathematics in San Francisco, he meets Mahmoud Qandeel, a regal looking Saudi student who attracts the attention of the entire class the moment he walks in. When Lang asks a question about medical research, Qandeel answers the question in perfect English and with great self assurance. Everyone knows Qandeel: the mayor, police chief, rock stars, drug dealers, street people, call girls. Together the professor and student go to all the glittering places where "there was no joy or happiness, only laughter." Yet at the end Qandeel surprisingly gives him a copy of the Qur'an and some books on Islam.

Lang reads the Qur'an on his own, finds his way to the student run prayer area at the University, and basically surrenders without much struggle. He was conquered by the Qur'an. The first two chapters are an account of that encounter and it is a fascinating one. "Painters can make the eyes of a portrait appear to be following you from one place to another, but what author can write a scripture that anticipates your daily vicissitudes?...Each night I would formulate questions and objections and somehow discover the answer the next day as I continued on in the accepted order. It seemed that the author was reading my ideas and writing in the appropriate lines in time for my next reading. I had met myself in its pages..."

The journey is both intellectual and emotional. Lang compares Qur'an with Bible, looks at the Qur'an and science, fully aware of the pitfalls of reading too much science in the scripture, and comes back with clear signs in the ayat of Qur'an. He also prays regularly and finds much spiritual satisfaction in the practice. He finds the Fajr (pre-dawn) prayer as one of the most beautiful and moving rituals in Islam. "It is as if you temporarily leave this world and commune with the angels in singing God's praises before dawn." To the question as to how he finds it so captivating when the recitation is in Arabic, which is totally foreign to him, he responds: "Why is a baby comforted by his mother's voice?"

The first two chapters are the high point of this book. Unfortunately they end quickly. We don't find Qandeel again in the book, but in a way we find him on every page in the rest of the book. When he had answered the question about medical research brilliantly in the class, Lang had said:"You seem to know quite a lot about medicine. Is that your area of study?" Qandeel replied that it was not so, he just happened to read a magazine article on the subject the other day. Lang also talks impressively and with lot of references about complex subjects in Shariah, hadith, and fiqh. He has also read a lot of articles on the subject! In that journey he has taken anyone and everyone as his guide. If a little knowledge is dangerous, Lang, through this approach, has acquired a lot of it. And it is a lot more dangerous.

Consider the subject of hadith collection and its status as a source of Islamic law. Lang approvingly quotes Orientalist J. Schact that hadith had become important source of Islamic law towards the end of the second Islamic century (p 84 and 88). Then a few pages later he also supports William Muir's assertion that undetected fabrication of hadith had occurred in the first Islamic century. Not only both assertions are totally wrong, as dozens of Islamic scholars have shown, they are also mutually contradictory. For people make a counterfeit only of things of value. If ahadith had to wait for 200 years before becoming important, why were they being fabricated in the first century?

According to Lang the hierarchy of Qur'an, Sunnah, Ijma, and Qiyas, as the sources of Islamic law "became the standard Islamic praxis in the beginning of the third Islamic century." Actually this is based on the famous hadith of Muaz bin Jabal, may Allah be pleased with him, when he had the conversation with the Prophet before leaving for his appointment as governor of Yemen, and therefore had been the Islamic practice from the very beginning. According to Tareekhul Khulafa, Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, used to decide every issue by looking into the Book of Allah. Next he would try to remember a Sunnah of the Prophet, Allah's blessings and peace on him. If he did not know any Sunnah, he would ask others for their knowledge of Sunnah relevant to the issue at hand. Some times many people would come back with an answer and he would say: "Praise be to Allah Who has raised such people among us who remember the sayings of our Prophet." The pledge of allegiance made to the third Khalifa was: "We pledge allegiance to you on the condition that you will follow the Book of Allah, the Sunnah of His Prophet, and the practices of the first two Khulafah."

Actually the real problem is Lang's ambivalence about the nature of Prophet-hood and the personality of Prophet Muhammad, Allah's blessings and peace on him. He comes with "definite expectations of what is and is not saintly conduct" and sees a conflict between them and "the depiction of Prophet in the hadith and the Sirah literature." Then he quotes a lengthy passage by Orientalist Watt which begins: "Of the many stories illustrating his [Prophet's] gentleness and tenderness of feeling, some [emphasis added] at least are worthy of credence." (p 91) And declares that this is close to his own description of the Prophet (p 124). He ends the chapter by mentioning his respect, awe, and love for the Prophet. Alas, this is the most painful chapter to read. You see this new Muslim groping in the dark. He does not yet know the "Mercy to the mankind." He has heard the phrase but does not know its meaning. He has been inspired by the Qur'an but does not know the Prophet who was the Walking Qur'an, whose wife declared him to be the embodiment of Qur'an. He probably knows that the closer the people were to the Prophet, the greater love and devotion and respect they had for him, but he cannot yet figure out why. He probably knows that even the worst enemies of the Prophet, who met him, could not find fault with the Prophet's character and personality. Yet he has met others who never met the Prophet, who speak in a scholarly style and in flawless English, and who try to maintain a thin veneer of objectivity. And he took them as a guide when he went to see the Prophet. Now he is trying, but he is confused. There is nothing in orientalist's attacks that has not been adequately answered by the Muslim scholars but the problem is that most of that literature is not available in English.

The other major subject is the status of women in Islam which he describes as the "biggest barrier between Islam and its acceptance in the West." He is caught between the two cultures and is sincerely trying to help but his methods are the same and good intentions cannot compensate for serious flaws in methods. His guide here is the late Fazal ur Rahman, whom he presents as a genuine authority, and appreciates his bold assertions. Lang probably does not know that his bold assertions had been exposed to be lies and distortions by the serious ulema in Pakistan 30 years ago. When Fazal ur Rahman tried to force some of his bold assertions (including that bear is halal) through a secular establishment, the public outrage was so intense that he had to leave Pakistan. Consider the issue of a woman "divorcing" her husband. Islamic law does not allow it for the Qur'an clearly says that the husband is the one in "whose hands is the marriage tie." (Albaqarah 2: 237). There is great wisdom and key to the stability of married life in this arrangement, but Fazal ur Rahman has other ideas. So he tries to prove it based on a hadith about Jameelah bint Salul who approached the Prophet as she wanted divorce from her husband because of his ugliness. The Prophet asked her whether she would return the garden that he gave her as a marriage gift. When Jameelah agreed, "he ordered that Thabit should accept the garden and the separation (Bukhari)." The problem is that the account is Bukhari is different at this point. It quotes the Prophet as saying to Thabit: "Accept the garden, and give her divorce." Prominent scholar Justice Taqi Usmani observes :" It is obvious that the Prophet did not annul the marriage. He advised Thabit to do that and he accepted the advice. Otherwise there was no need to ask Thabit to divorce his wife, the marriage could have been declared void by the Prophet himself." How unfortunate that Lang declares that "Islamic lawyers have always recognized a woman's right to divorce her husband." At another place he also declares that according to scholars in the subcontinent, Muslim men can marry Hindu girls. This is another error of fact.

On the issues of hijab, segregation of sexes, dress code, and leadership, Lang has his own "bold" assertions. He asserts that "segregation of sexes is wrong in the west"; that "practically all Muslim women at some time or other agonize over the decision to conform to what is usually referred to as the Islamic code of dress"; the Prophet's family either did not follow the severe form of segregation between the sexes, or if it did it was exclusively for them; and that modern Muslims must find a middle way between the feminists and the earlier Muslim scholarship.

I mentioned these assertions to my wife who had stopped reading the book after the second chapter. She said: "All the problems caused by adhering to the laws of Shariah on these issues are nothing compared to the problems caused by violating those laws." Here is a perspective that Lang should consider. For it may mean the difference between "Struggling To Surrender" and "Struggling With Surrender."

By Khalid Baig