Beyond The Pale: How Taliban Literalism Violates Basic Islamic Mandate

The literalist obsession of the Taliban with criminal law violates the basic Islamic mandate for egalitarianism based on kindness, mutual respect, and forgiveness

Taliban return to power has been disastrous for women

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021 has expectedly been disastrous for women with their virtual erasure from public life. They have denied women even basic rights and freedoms, restricted them from seeking education, employment, travelling long distances without a male chaperone, besides forcing them to cover their faces in public.

Women continue to be the worst sufferers of Afghan conflict since the Soviet occupation plunged Afghanistan into turmoil over 40 years ago. Hind Elhinnawy, who teaches at Nottingham Trent University, noted in a piece that women’s rights have over these years often been exploited for political gain packaged as a justification for war. ‘At times things have slightly improved for women, but most of the time their rights have significantly been violated.’

Women’s rights were at least guaranteed in the constitution adopted post-American invasion. The constitution allocated 25% of seats in parliament and provincial council and 30% of positions in civil services to women.

The Taliban have gone back on Afghanistan’s commitment to implementing global conventions on women’s rights. They disbanded the women’s affairs ministry mandated to uphold their rights and ensure their empowerment. The Taliban replaced it with the so-called ministry for the ‘propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.’ 

There is no women representation in the Taliban’s interim government. The Taliban asked women to refrain from attending work until systems were put in place to ensure their safety. They have restricted access to education for women and girls until they are able to create a secure ‘learning environment’ for them. 

Women have been asked to remain indoors except in cases of emergency. But they have refused to take this lying down and have taken to the streets to assert their agency.

Taliban literalists have turned a blind eye to the Islamic mandate for love and compassion and allowed the global Islamophobia industry another excuse to tar Muslims. In reality, the Taliban do not even represent Afghans not to mention about 25% of the world’s population, or the 1.97 billion Muslims.

Organizations such as Indonesian Nahdlatul Ulama (Reawakening of the Islamic Scholars) working for a more harmonious and just world have much stronger representative claims. Nahdlatul Ulama’s 90 million membership is over double the population of Afghanistan. Around 37 million Afghans account for just two percent of Muslims worldwide.

Antithetical to the Taliban but barely known, Nahdlatul Ulama is the world’s largest Islamic organisation founded in 1926. Nahdlatul Ulama does not fit into the dominant narrative about Islam when Islamophobia is lucrative and demagogues globally have tapped into it for political power. It embraces spirituality and cultural traditions. Nahdlatul Ulama backs equal citizenship, rejecting distinctions on religious grounds as legal categories.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s work on inter-faith dialogue to promote peace has won accolades. It has joined hands with organizations such as the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents 600 million Protestants, to encourage solidarity. It also represents defining ethos the world’s biggest Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally—Indonesia.

Whose Sharia?

The Taliban have been violating women’s rights in the name of their form of Sharia, which has, in reality, little to do with religiosity. A large number of people in Afghanistan, a deeply religious country, in any case, and non-Pasthuns certainly do not identify with the Taliban’s brand of religiosity.

Pashtuns and other ethnic groups have long tussled for political power in Afghanistan. Non-Pashtuns howsoever religious are unlikely to support the Taliban and see their so-called Sharia as just a tool for grabbing power. 

The 2001 American invasion titled the power balance in favour of non-Pahtuns and helped the Taliban eventually reclaim power by tapping into the resentment of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s single largest ethnic group.   

The Taliban have continued with their literalist obsession with criminal law. This makes them even more abominable. The Taliban violate Islam’s basic mandate for egalitarianism based on kindness, mutual respect, and forgiveness.

The Taliban’s style of governance can only cause disruption of social and economic lives, leading to instability, which makes their position untenable under the Sharia as outlaws. There is no place for the Taliban’s kangaroo courts as Islam mandates the creation of a society, where people do not need to commit punishable offenses.

Islam seeks to first address the people’s needs before allowing punishments as a last resort. The punishments also have to be benign and merciful. The Taliban conflate pre-Islamic Pashtun tribal code Pashtunwali with Sharia. The ideas drawn from Pashtunwali such as revenge, counter-revenge, denial of inheritance rights, confining them to homes, and denying women education are utterly un-Islamic.

Sharia literally means the ‘way’ in Arabic. Unlike what the Taliban and their ilk may want us to believe, it is not uniform and has been subjected to much debate. Sharia has varied meanings for different people. For some, it means the Quran, the Prophet’s way and manners, and early interpretations of divine sources.

Sources of Sharia have to be interpreted in different contexts and have differed based on the ideological and theological position of the interpreters. There have often been different outcomes from separate interpretations. 

The Quran is revered as divine but interpretations, the fiqh or jurisprudence is man-made. Muslims over centuries have interpreted divine sources differently depending on the contexts relevant to them. The fiqh is neither divine nor immutable and is amendable, unlike the Quran.

Often Sharia is conflated with fiqh, which is actually a result of human reflection. Fiqh, which literally means understanding and has different schools, is human and hence fallible. But it is often wrongly projected as beyond change. 

Sharia is not even law as it has often been projected in the West. In a Washington Times piece in 2016, academic Asifa Quraishi-Landes explained most devout Muslims embracing Sharia conceptually do not think of it as a substitute for civil law. She wrote Sharia is not a book of statutes or judicial precedent a government has imposed.

Sharia is not a set of regulations adjudicated in court either. It is rather a body of Quran-based guidance that points Muslims toward living an Islamic life. ‘It doesn’t come from the state, and it doesn’t even come in one book or a single collection of rules,’ wrote Quraishi-Landes.

The Taliban are literal followers of fiqh, which was formulated centuries back and belongs to another era. They are incompatible with the world we live in, making the Taliban primitive, outdated, and parochial. The Taliban are products of dogmatic adherence. They contradict Islam’s universal and inclusive spirit underlined in the Prophet Muhammad’s moral and ethical mandate for Muslims in his last sermon.

The Prophet reiterated his vision in the sermon and called all humans descendants of Adam and Eve. He declared there is no superiority ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, a white person over a black person, or of a black person over a white person.’

The Prophet called for treating others justly to ensure that no one would be unjust to his followers: ‘You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity… you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. … Treat women well and be kind to them…’

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s lifelong teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia that the Taliban appear to be hell-bent on turning the clock back to.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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