Owen Ellerkamp: Textual/Praxis Discrepancies

In a course that aims to compare the theoretical underpinnings and practice of forgiveness in Christianity and Islam, there is one declaration made by Moucarry that creates a significant cleavage between the two practices of forgiveness. This cleavage does not have to do directly with forgiveness, but rather how God’s rule manifests in daily life as a mediating force.  In Islam, God’s law governs the Muslim community– thus Islamic law is as much religious and moral law as a social, political and criminal law. (Moucarry 271). This does not mean that forgiveness isn’t a central tenet between humans and God, it still is, but it also acts as a legal system that governs societies. In contrast, the Christian understanding of God’s law regulates on a more individual level– in a relationship of mutual love between God and an individual, or at least this is one way to conceptualize it. In the remainder of my response I will compare and contrast Christian and Islamic ethics of forgiveness and then investigate the case of Islamic apostasy.

Edward Vacek writes from a theological perspective on human-God ethical relations exploring three main conceptions: divine command ethics, natural-law ethics, and mutual-love ethics. He posits that mutual-love ethics are superior in that they possess a “vision of holiness and godliness and a vision of humanity’s cocapacity-in-relationship” (Vacek 633) Mutual-love ethics allow for humans to develop a personal relationship with God that encourages exploration of the self and of God. In this relationship, co-responsibility is integral as both God and the human must interact to development a relationship– much like a human to human relationship. Mutual-love ethics push back against the common theological notion that God does all and we are simply receivers. Vacek does not touch upon the topic of forgiveness, but borrowing from Pettigrove one could infer that in a mutual-love relationship with God forgiveness would be given bidirectionally, both to God and to the human. Additionally, Moucarry proclaims that “God’s forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel” (284). Methods to achieve forgiveness are mandated through scripture and the life of Jesus. God’s willingness to forgive believers is a virtue that ought to be extended from God-human relations to human-human relations. In other words, God’s willingness to forgive sets the precedent for humans to be willing to forgive each other. While I cringe at the notion of making a broad proclamation, it can be said that in Christianity forgiveness is essential to faith, social relationships, and conceptualization of the self.

Due to Islam’s religious ethics relationship to penal law, forgiveness is more circumstantial and codified in God-human relations. Therefore sins are not treated in a theological manner, but in a criminal law manner. The main objective of Islamic criminal law is not to punish offenders, but rather to change people and reform them. (281).  This begs the question: how does forgiveness operate in the area of criminal justice? Moucarry looks at five seminal transgressions of God’s law: apostasy, murder, adultery, theft, and slander and speaks to how penal law punishes people for these transgressions. Moucarry concludes that there is a varying range of punishments for these acts from the most conservative school who believe some should result in death to more liberal legal clerics (Shafi’ite school) who think forgiveness is a possible solution. The legal dimension of Islamic ethics makes forgiveness more human regulated as opposed to regulated by God. The clerics act on behalf of God, but they are human and not messengers of God’s word, but moreso interpreters. Because the act of forgiveness is regulated through humans in the Islamic legal system Moucarry writes of the act of repentance as integral to displaying one’s remorse. Given that forgiveness for these five transgressions are regulated by a legal system and remorse is necessary for forgiveness in some circumstances, there is a need for “approval” by the clerics. Approval in the sense that one is genuine in repentance.  

Nearing the end of Moucarry discussion on Islamic penal code he undermines the validity of much of what he wrote about penal code by writing “Islamic legal punishments, they observe, are nowhere near fully enforced in the Muslim world” (Moucarry 282). This point makes all of what Moucarry had previously said rather abstract and as a source of law that exists solely theoretically. The convoluted relationship between scripture/text and praxis is a common discrepancy in religion. Often times texts and doctrine are vastly different when they manifest in the human sphere which demonstrates the complexity and localized nature of religion. This leads me to the example of apostasy in the Islamic tradition.

Apostasy or unbelief is one of the most serious sins a Muslim can commit and often times it leads to the death sentence, or that is how Moucarry frames apostasy primarily. Fascinated by the idea that leaving a religion can lead to punishment, and death at that, I did some research online about apostasy in the 21st century. What I found was vastly different from what Moucarry writes about in the chapter about forgiveness and penal law. I found a website for a support group and community called Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA). EXMNA has many testimonials from ex-Muslims, many of them women, who speak negatively of Islam and seem to possess a fervor of Islamophobia. The testimonials speak to the difficulty of leaving the tradition and their relations to God, but the threat of being punished by Islamic clerics is devoid from the testimonials. This may be the case because the apostates no longer live in a state where Islam is the foremost religion.

During the class discussion regarding apostasy, Professor Mahallati, spoke about where the punishment for apostasy came from. Firstly, 95% of Sharia Law is customary meaning that is in inherited and was created in the past. The punishment for apostasy, part of Sharia Law, is no exception to this. The punishment was created long ago as a political history that has now been given theological support. Apostasy, like many other legal codes throughout civilizations, is not a solely a religiously backed law, but a mixture of culture, power, politics, and a product of a particular historical period.

 

Sources:

Moucarry, C. G. The search for forgiveness: pardon and punishment in Islam and Christianity. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004.

Edward Vacek, “Divine Command, Natural Law, and Mutual-Love Ethics,” Theological Studies, (Dec 1996).

“Ex-Muslims of North America ( USA & Canada ).” Ex-Muslims of North America. Accessed February 17, 2017. http://www.exmna.org/.