May 262007

Another interesting conversation with A. the other day. He married a Maroccan woman, converted to Islam and observes muslim tradition carefully. I always enjoy our discussions; born and raised Christian, A. understands my skepticism and is remarkably candid in explaining how Islam functions.

A. is a jovial chap and can share any joke. He’s also playful and joined his buddies in the latest fad of playing poker. Of course, the fun is betting and it only works with real money. Their stakes are minimal, 5 francs (about 4 US$) for a pile of tokens which usually last the evening. Problem: gambling is forbidden to muslims. A. resolved the issue very elegantly: he pays his 5 francs like the others, but if he has winnings at the end of the evening, he puts them in a pot, which buys dinner for the group when it’s full enough. (He admitted sheepishly that he had taken it on himself not to check with the imam if this way of avoiding betting was legal.)

We worked together for several years and once took a taxi on a business ride. I paid the driver, on expenses. Walking away I noticed that A. had returned to the taxi. “A problem?” I asked, not realising that he had tried to be discreet.
A. explained that it was Zakat. Muslim law dictates that you must give a small percentage of your income (some 2.5%) to the needy. From a philosophical standpoint, this strikes me as rather an intelligent idea; if everyone were to give a little to the poor, there would be less hardship (and less likelyhood of the poor revolting). I have no way of obtaining  the figures but the apparent balance of wealth in the Middle-East suggests to me that zakat isn’t as prevalent as it should be.

This brings me to another discussion we had, where I had asked about the charia, in particular the stoning of adulterers. A.’s explanation was not quite the one I expected. In a nutshell, the reasoning he had been taught was this: The laws of Islam can only be fully applied when all of them are applied simultaneously. These laws stipulate that everyone in society must be provided for (food, clothing, lodging etc), must observe all the laws, care for his family, etc (we agreed that this description has many parallels with communism). Such a society doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, thus if all the laws are not applied, then not all the laws necessarily apply. The tricky bit is deciding what is applicable in a given situation. For example, in an extremely poor, under-developed country, perhaps the only workable method of dissuading robbers is to cut off one of their hands. In a more modern (or moderate) country, such practices would be unthinkable. Of course, if everyone had been cared for as the law mandates, then there wouldn’t be any stealing to punish and amputation would only be a theoretical threat.

A lot of this makes sense to me and the aims, at least in theory, are laudable. The difficulty I have is that nothing is black or white, just shades of grey according to who’s judging what and when. Perhaps it’s just that I’m too cartesian?

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