Thursday, 16 June 2011

Muslim theologians, experts on Islam, Islamic commentators


As the events in the Arab Spring unfold, it is worthwhile noting some of the experts over the last few years and what some are saying now that the funding of research into Islam has been questioned in several higher education establishments in the UK, and not just Gaddafi backed funding of the LSE.  Questions have been raised elsewhere. 

There is often a tendency by some to view any Islamic ‘expert’ as some sort of an apologist.  One who does not fit any idea of a pigeon hole in our book is Professor Mona Siddiqui from the University of Glasgow.  Normally, anything from Glasgow would be deemed to fall apart if you believe some of our previous posts, but over the years Mona Siddiqui contributions across radio have been impressive.  While many theological experts will throw in some theological jargon and many Islamic experts will throw in a lot of Arabic equivalence, Mona Siddiqui tends to use plain language, especially in her Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4 on assisted suicide and the Berlusconi problem in Italy.  It’s nice to comment on another theologian (Rowan Williams is the other one) who will tackle and at least air moral dilemmas and political/leadership and religious failure.  There is probably some unappreciated input of Muslim theologians and some experts on Islam which may deserve further scrutiny. 

“Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic Studies and founding director of the Centre for the Study of Islam at the University of Glasgow. She researches on classical Islamic law and theology, contemporary law and ethics, and Christian-Muslim relations. Siddiqui is the chair of the BBC's Scottish Religious Advisory Committee and is a regular broadcaster and commentator on radio and other media. She is a member of the Commission on Scottish Devolution and the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Islam-West Dialogue. She holds three honorary doctorates. During 2010-2012 she holds the Chair in Islam and Citizenship at the Universities of Tilburg and Utrecht. In 2011 she will be a Visiting Professor at the Angelicum University in Rome, sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation. Since February 2011, she has been an associate scholar with Georgetown University’s Berkeley Centre on their Templeton funded Religious Freedom Project. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Arts and in June 2011, was awarded an OBE for her contribution to interfaith relations.”

(Obreption is not alone in appreciating Mona Siddiqui’s contributions.  See:

Another expert on the interaction of Islam and modernity is Professor Charles Tripp. 

“Charles Tripp is Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  A prominent and well-respected academic, his research focuses on states and ideologies in the Middle East, conflict, and Islamic political thought. He is a world class specialist on Iraq and has contributed as a regional expert to media broadcasters including the BBC and NPR, as well as to print media such as Foreign Affairs, The Guardian and the New Statesman.” 

Some Muslim scholars argue that Islam has always supported human rights (  However, others contend that religion abuses human rights, though religious leaders would attribute this to interpretation rather than religion itself.  Examples include the child abuse scandals by Christian organisations in Europe and North America; and the limited rights of women in most Muslim countries. 

Studies of Islam can be problematic due to:

- cultural diversity across the Islamic world (for example Dr Katerina Dalacoura:;

- the fact that both democracy and human rights are viewed as western imports;

- and the over-arching authority of the Quran and Hadith (Tamimi and Fatima Mernissi -

There is also a problem in defining the various branches of Islam such as Sunni and Shia.  These have become more apparent in regards to the Arab Spring, where some religious divides such as in Bahrain, have caused clashes and the divide between Islam and some Christian organisations in Egypt has also caused tension.

ijtihad is defined as a process of resetting the Quran and the Hadith in context, and which has an impact on the legal, democratic, political, and human rights sectors.  This can be politically difficult as it threatens vested interests within society and ruling cliques.  The degree of ijtihad which has been allowed is that permitted by the state, as all Arab states have claimed that they are Islamic or conform to Muslim principles.  While authoritarian states have denied the democratic process and human rights discourse on the grounds of incompatibility with Islam, there is great resistance in some countries to the exposure of too much ijtihad or istihsan (‘preferance’ or discretion) as innovation (bidda) is forbidden.(see  Many Muslim attitudes to apostasy, punishments and inheritance (viz male/female inequality) appear to be enshrined in the sharia, and some claim that updating and reinterpretation are inherent in sharia and so reformation is unnecessary. (for example: Hisham Hellyer -

However, the Muslim response to the question of human rights is not homogenous and the late Fred Halliday of the LSE devised five broad categories.  Thus, the “particularists” dismiss notions of democracy and human rights as inappropriate (e.g. the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia).  The “assimilationists” claim that Islam already incorporates human rights.  However, Halliday recognised instances where minorities are afforded basic rights, yet not considered equal with Muslims. A third category, the “appropriationists”, assume that the Islamic view being decreed by God, is superior to any imported system, while the fourth category, called ‘liberal harmonising’, (see Tamimi and Judge Weeramantry do not see any fundamental conflict between Islamic and western views on rights, attributing differences to legitimate cultural and religious factors (e.g. women’s and homosexual rights).  Other liberals, however, are prepared to confront these differences head on.  These “confrontationalist liberals” like the Sudanese An’Naim suggest that the Meccan and Medinese Quranic surahs need to considered separately, claiming that the latter are necessarily more legalistic being based on conditions in Medina at the time of setting up the first Islamic state. An’Naim had proposed a tri-partite relationship between religion, state and society. However, these relationships shift constantly and are in turn subject to economic and environmental influences.  As such, they may be better explained using chaos theory rather than a traditional system-oriented approach.
(for more on An’Naim, see

In a similar vein, Mernissi has investigated a hadith (saying of the Prophet) in which he strongly cautioned against allowing women positions of power. She ‘discovered’ that the source had been found to be fallible and so should have been excluded from the authoritative sayings of the Prophet.  While she found that her grocer and the other male customers (which she regards as indicative of larger opinion) were unanimously opposed to women rulers in Morocco, Pakistan, Bangla Desh and Indonesia have all had woman leaders, so this may be an Arab rather than a Muslim reaction.  Moreover, even Europe and America have been slow to vote for women heads of government; and Mernisi cites the low level of women elected to political representational roles even though half the electorate are women.  Again, the same could be said of the Conservative Party in the UK which traditionally avoided the selection of women candidates.  Thus, culture and tradition rather than religion can often prevent women asserting democratic rights. 

Previously, Tunisia had been regarded as more western and in fact tolerant, though the Arab Spring seemed to have ignited there.   In Tunisia human rights had been debated by the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) and their draft code came close to the UN UDHR.  Other Islamic organisations produced the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, though there are some nuances, especially regarding religion and women, which have been questioned by international NGOs.  Thus, some like Professors Mayer ( and Dalacoura argue that rights have to be separated from duties and that dignity does not include rights. However, others like the late Algerian scholar Arkhoun ( regarded it as at least a recognition of human rights and so a step in the right direction. 

Such ‘conciliatory’ approaches highlight the role religion plays in not just democracy but human rights adherence as well.  The boundaries in most Muslim countries between religion, state, judiciary, politics and human rights is not so clear cut as in western societies, and some states have experienced difficulties in adapting or implementing the UN UDHR.  However, as Mayer points out, this is not peculiar to Muslim countries as America too has only selectively adopted the UDHR to suit its own “traditions”. (  In this regard, Halliday also recognised the validity of local culture and tradition.

ps: further views on Islam and human rights can be found at


  1. This comment came in via Twitter:

    Fouadalobaid Fouad Al-Obaid
    @obreption interesting editorial, I would argue that the Islamic world is in great need for reformation to suit 21st century realities...

    My response was:

    @Fouadalobaid Thanks for your comments and I agree. Lord Cromer 'assertion' about reformation has clouded too many commentators.

    To fill in some background, Lord Cromer is reported to have said: “A reformed Islam is not Islam” and “Islam reformed is Islam no longer.” Lord Cromer was the British Governor in Egypt and is by no means the last official to comment on a religion.

  2. Human rights are inevitably relative - either in time or culture - and they are always evolving. What worries me is where they get out of sync. within the same society, as in the case of immigrants settling in the west. This is a major time bomb waiting to go off in a spectacular way if something is not done - and yet, I'm not sure what can be done!

  3. Anonymous

    You raise an important issue in terms of how religions adapt to modernity. I need to think more about Islam in let us for arguments sake a European context. It might be worth saying that Pentecostalism developed from Azusa St and has resulted in waves or effervescence eversince. In some cases more traditional forms of Christianity have been seen as less competitive than the propserity theology espoused by some. There may be a problem in the propagation of Islam in the west through funding by some energy rich nations, rather than engendering a work ethic, as has been seen by other immigrant communities.

    In simplistic terms, some of our monetisation theories imply religion being used as an industry with a culture of creating capital as well as spiritual wealth.