Ali Asani on Islamic Law

Faculty insight with Ali Asani

Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures at Harvard, talks with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast about the misconceptions of Islam in Western culture.

Video interview with Ali Asani on Islamic law

Ali Asani is the professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures, department chair of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University.

Asani has made it almost his mission throughout his career to educate people about Islam. Asani asserts that historical roots are one of the reasons why people in the Western world tend be misinformed about Islam. This goes back to how, in the past, the West sometimes saw Islam as a threat to their sovereignty because of the religion’s proximity to Europe. Recently, the Western educational system has failed to correct stereotypical assumptions about Islam.

Often the knowledge Americans have about the Muslim world is poor. Also, in many Muslim countries there are stereotypical notions of Americans and Western culture. They don’t study the history or intellectual history of Western culture so stereotypes continue to be perpetuated.

Sometimes it is assumed that the actions of Muslims can be tied to their religion. An example where this misconception arises is with the Taliban. Many of their customs are pre-Islamic in nature. The Taliban belong to a particular tribe, the Pashtun, and they have a particular code of behavior. While some parts of this code are honorable, such as loyalty and hospitality, there are other aspects that are highly patriarchal.

The Taliban are also Muslim, adhering to ideas and concepts from the Quran. When it comes to certain acts, such as stoning women for adultery, it’s important to consider the motivation. Often such acts are influenced by the patriarchal tribal code. And the Taliban may justify their actions by interpreting Quranic verses through the lens of tribal code. Sometimes, the interpretations even go against Islamic law.

An example of this tribal code being used in opposition to Islamic law is with cases of adultery. Under Islamic law, people cannot be accused of adultery until there are four witnesses to the act. With the Pashtun, they believe the accused woman represents the honor of the tribe. If there’s even a rumor, the woman is immediately assumed guilty and tribal codes take precedence over Islamic law.

People who are not knowledgeable about Islamic law may read or hear about the Taliban and assume they must be motivated by their religion. How people interpret Islam depends on their social mores. It is possible to have the patriarchal interpretations of Islam, as well as a feminist interpretation of the religion.

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