Allah Save the Queen

So London just got its first Pakistani Muslim mayor.

I’m a Londoner, I’m European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband.

Why do I feel such a powerful impulse to throw cold water on this? Is it because, as an apostate Muslim, I find something problematic about a supposed Muslim who lists his religious commitment fifth on a list of politically expedient identities that helped him win an election? Or is it because, as a person of South Asian descent, I just find loud public expressions of South Asian–sorry Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Kashmiri, or Bengali identity really embarrassing? 

This, too, is gallingly WTF-worthy:

Elected to Parliament in 2005, Mr. Khan was appointed a junior minister for communities in 2008, and minister for transport in 2009 under the last Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown. Although he was not one of the highest-ranking ministers, he became the first Muslim to attend cabinet meetings regularly and was admitted to the Privy Council, a largely ceremonial body in which induction normally requires taking an oath to the queen.

“The palace called me and said, ‘What type of Bible do you want to swear on?’ ” Mr. Khan told the magazine The New Statesman. “When I said the Quran, they said, ‘We haven’t got one.’ So I took one with me.”

Let’s assume that the Bible story is true. (It actually has the ring of the apocryphal about it.) A couple of questions, then, at least one of which I mean in all seriousness.

  1. Is Buckingham Palace really that stupid?
  2. Is Buckingham Palace so hard up that it can’t buy a Qur’an?
  3. Does sharia permit an observant Muslim to bow before and take an oath to a human being? The folk answer, and certainly the answer I was brought up with, is “absolutely not.”*

Yeah, the real question is (3). I haven’t studied sharia well enough to have complete confidence in the answer, but the folk-shariat answer has obvious plausibility to it. Bowing is symbolic of worship in Islam, and worship is to be reserved for God alone. Shirk, or association of others with God, is the Islamic version of radix malorum. Given that, you’d expect a Muslim to steer well clear of anything that might approximate shirk. Surely bowing before the Queen of England, and taking an oath to her with God as your witness, does that.

It’s not as though I have a real dog in this fight, since I’m not a believing Muslim myself, and the chances of my engaging with Buckingham Palace are zero (“Sir Irfan Khawaja”? Please). So question (3) is literal, not rhetorical or merely rant-based, and intended for anyone who thinks they have a good answer: is bowing in allegiance halal?

Obviously, I don’t mean to be asking whether oaths or vows are permissible by Islamic law, per se; clearly, they are. In fact, the Qur’an itself ratifies the idea of an oath of allegiance to a person (bay’ah).

Allah’s good pleasure was on the believers when they swore fealty [or allegiance] under the Tree. He knew what was in their hearts, and he sent down tranquility to them, and awarded them a speedy victory (Qur’an, 48:18)

l’qad radiallahu an’al-mo’minina idh ubay’hnaka tahta al-shajara f’a’lama fi qulubihim f’anzala al sakinata alayhim wa athabahum fatahan qareeban.

But the analogy from this oath to Sadiq Khan’s isn’t kosher. The Qur’anic oath was one of believers to the Prophet. Yes, the Arabic makes clear that the oath was one to him as a person (“ubay’hnaka“), but no one bowed to him. Anyway,  the Prophet Muhammad was (on the orthodox interpretation) speaking ex officio as a passive conduit for God’s revelation, so that the oath “to him” was really elliptical for an oath to God by way of someone with the authority to make offers on God’s behalf (dissertation topic: “The Prophet Muhammad as Revelational Broker: Selling Shares in the Kingdom of God”). So as I see it, there’s no warrant in this verse (or others like it, e.g., 60:12) for extending the idea of a personal oath beyond this very idiosyncratic context. And an oath to the Queen of England exceeds the relevant context by a long shot.

I suppose that there’s room for reasonable disagreement here. You might interpret the same verse by saying, “Well, if the Qur’an ratifies this token oath, it ratifies oaths as a type or kind. And if oaths are a type or kind, there have to be other ratifiable tokens. And that means…” Etc. I find that implausible, but fine. In that case, I would get more adamant about the details (what about the bowing?), and then move the goalposts a bit: No matter how you slice the casuistry here, there are bones to be picked with a Divine Author who demands on the one hand that, He, the Lord God, not be “associated” with anyone on pain of perpetual immersion in Hell fire, Who insists that bowing and worship are proper only to Him–and Who then cheerfully ratifies a worship-like oath to a person, Muhammad, knowing full well that the ratification will lead to problematic ambiguities in the future, e.g., whether you can bow to your karate sensei, swear an oath to Osama bin Laden, or submit to the ceremonies of Buckingham Palace. These may not sound like problems of precisely equal gravity to the average non-Muslim, but on some interpretations of sharia, any one of them can damn you to Hell for eternity.

To be precise, then, my question is whether an oath of allegiance to a person (or secular regime) is permissible, especially if that oath involves the physical act of bowing before that person (or some symbol of a regime).

Whatever the answer, I find the Sadiq Khan spectacle dismaying, and not (at all) because I begrudge him his electoral victory. What I begrudge is the idea of making such a big deal of a religious identity that the bearer himself doesn’t take all that seriously: “Hey, look at me! I’m a Muslim! But don’t worry–I don’t mean it, man….God save the Queen!” What is the point of trumpeting one’s Islamic credentials if one flouts them so openly in deference to a secular monarch? Coming from the reverse direction: what is one to make of Britain’s vaunted commitment to multiculturalism if it can’t relax its ceremonial strictures for long enough to accommodate the requirements of orthodox religious commitment? If Sadiq Khan had said, “I’m not bowing before anyone,” how exactly would Buckingham Palace have responded in turn? I’m not religious, but I was brought up as a Muslim of the no-bowing variety. I don’t pray and don’t believe in God, but if Buckingham Palace had made bowing a condition of my admission to the Privy Council, I would have told them to fuck themselves.

I find it sad that religious belief has, in our milieu, become a kind of ethno-nationalist farce. Supposedly “religious people” today see no difference between avowing a genuine belief in God, and avowing a religiously-inflected commitment to some half-assed ethno-nationalist tribal identity for which they demand the same solemn respect and reverence as has typically been accorded to old-time religion. (And sorry if this offends anyone, but “Pakistani” is the paradigm of a half-assed identity, with “Hindutva” in second place, and “Zionist” and “White Christian” tied for third. Like it or not, I’m entitled to say that, given my ethnic-identity credentials as a person of Pakistani-Indian descent, Islamo-Jewish upbringing, and a Presbyterian prep school education.)

The distinction between a genuine commitment to a religious faith and its fake multicultural-ethno-nationalist simulacrum should not be as hard to grasp as it now is. As an atheist and an anti-nationalist, I’m opposed to both, but as someone committed to conceptual clarity, I think it’s worth preserving the distinction between them. And truth to be told, as an atheist and an anti-nationalist, if I had the choice of flushing just one item–religion or ethno-nationalist tribal identity–down the proverbial Toilet of History, I, personally, wouldn’t find it a hard choice. I’ll leave you to guess which one it would be.

Anyway, here’s a tutorial on the Islamic position on oaths, as explicated by a real expert in the field. (“…except to be immersed in the Hell fire. Is this cleaaar?”)

Are you following? Walla, have cup of tea.

*Postscript: There’s a minor factual mistake throughout my post, but it’s immaterial to my argument, so I’ll leave it without correction: one kneels rather than bowing before the Queen. But that’s a distinction without a difference, since kneeling and bowing have the same significance in Islam: both kneeling and bowing are reserved for worship of God (in some ways, kneeling seems more deferential, therefore worse). Khan actually took kneeling to a rather ridiculous extreme during his Privy Council ceremony. Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was criticized (or criticised) for not bowing deeply enough on Remembrance Day (what Americans call Veterans Day). All I can say is: gag me with a spoon.

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