Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The "Obama is a Muslim" issue

There have been various attempts, I think mostly online, to argue that Obama is really a Muslim. The silliest version is probably the claim that when Obama referred to campaigning in 57 states he was referring to the number of Muslim states. That one only works if you don't read the text of what he said, in which he says he has one state to go and isn't going to campaign in Alaska and Hawaii, making it obvious that "fifty-seven" was a slip of the tongue for 47. It also depends on not noticing that he in fact has not campaigned in fifty-seven Muslim states.

I recently came across a more interesting version by Daniel Pipes. His argument is not that Obama is a Muslim but that, from the standpoint of Muslim law, he was a Muslim as a small child, at a point at which he had a Muslim step-father whom he occasionally accompanied to the Mosque. If so then, from the Muslim standpoint, Obama is now an apostate, a Muslim who converted to Christianity. Under Muslim law, it is permissable to be a Christian (or a Jew or a Sabean--along with Muslims the four "peoples of the book"), but for a Muslim to abandon Islam is a serious, indeed capital, offense. Hence, Pipes argues, Obama might have problems dealing with Muslim leaders.

So far as I can tell, the argument is at least plausible. I am not sure what the Sharia rules are on the age at which a religious choice counts, but I am pretty sure that repeating the formula "There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet" is supposed to make one a Muslim, legally speaking, and it seems likely enough that a child who attended services at a mosque would have repeated that formula at some point.


Anonymous said...

While I don't believe in a god myself [having recently realized that I never did], I am still familiar with much of the major religious books [as I think any educated person should be]. I think you have confused what it means to be an apostate in Islam and what it means to be an apostate in some contemporary Islamic countries. I've linked to an article below that summarizes the Koranic take on apostasy, and it's very persuasive that an earthly punishment was never intended [though hell awaits], and that freedom of choice in religious matters is paramount. This has obviously been perverted by some Islamic authorities, often in the name of political gain. So no matter what Obama has said or done, he has done no wrong under the Koran that anyone should punish.

Stephen Smith said...

To be a Muslim, you must adhere to the five tenets of Islam. One of these is the oath of allegiance to the prophet, which you discussed. The other four are: almsgiving (2.5% of your income is the standard amount), fasting during Ramadan, praying five times a day, and making the hajj (if you are able).

As far as I know, Obama has not (and has no intention of) making the hajj, and does not pray five times a day. This makes him, unambiguously, not a Muslim.

David Friedman said...

hh links to a piece arguing that the Koran established freedom of religion.

I think if you actually read the quotes, you will find them consistent with what I believe is, and long has been, the conventional interpretation in Islamic law. You are free to be a Christian (or Jew or Sabean--the situation of other religions is less clear). But you are not free, having once chosen to be a Muslim, to switch to another religion.

A quick google turned up the following Koranic quote, not mentioned in the piece you linked to:

IV. 89: “If they desert you seize them and put them to death wherever you find them. Look for neither friends nor helpers among them…” Baydawi (died c. 1315-16), in his celebrated commentary on the Koran, interprets this passage to mean: “Whosover turns back from his belief ( irtada ), openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel.

In any case, I think it is clear that apostasy has been considered a capital offense from the early years of Islam. For more details, see:

Milhouse said...

On the "57 states" thing, I think Snopes's explanation, that he meant to say "forty" and somehow "fifty" came out, is at all plausible. But there is that pause between "fifty" and "seven". What I think happened is that he started to say "all fifty states", and realised mid-phrase that that wasn't true - he'd only been to 47 of them - so he tried to correct himself. In his head, he said "I've been to all, I've been to forty-seven states", but the correction stepped on the original, and what came out was "I've been to all states". No biggie, but you can imagine what would happen if Palin made such a mistake.

As it is, nobody really thinks he doesn't know how many states there are, but it's still a legitimate object of humour. When someone recently predicted that Obama would win "seven states, max", and I replied "so that would be 50 for McCain, then?", everyone understood the joke, and that it was a joke.

Scot Johnson said...

Juan Cole has a post on a similar argument made by Edward Luttwak over at his blog "Informed Comment". He quotes some Arabist scholars on this issue:

"So here is what the academic literature has to say about Islamic law on this issue (Rudolph Peters and Gert J. J. De Vries
Die Welt des Islams, New Series, Vol. 17, Issue 1/4 (1976 - 1977), pp. 1-25 ):

"Not only the act of apostasy is subject to certain conditions in order to be legally valid, but also with regard to the perpetrator (murtadd) specific qualifications have been laid down. He can perform a legally effective act of riddah [apostasy] only out of free will (ikhtiyar) at an adult age (bulugh), being compos mentis (`aqil [of sound mind]), and, as emphasized by the Malikite school, after his unambiguous and explicit adoption of Islam." [- p. 3][P. 2, n. 3: "It is equally stated that this Islam needs to be evident in both qawl [speech] and `amal [deed]; a person who embraced the faith by merely pronouncing the shahadah [profession of faith] would not be considered qulified to perform a legally valid act of apostasy-- Cf. Mawwaq in the margin of Hattab, Mawahib al-Jalil, VI, pp. 279-80]"

Cole goes on:

"Barack Obama never accepted or practiced Islam as an adult (which would be age 15 in Islamic law) and therefore according to classical Islamic jurisprudence cannot be an apostate. Peters and DeVries are Arabists and are among the foremost scholars on Islamic law, unlike Luttwak, who does not have the slightest idea what he is talking about."

It appears that Obama really isn't a Muslim after all.

Milhouse said...

I wouldn't trust anything coming from Juan Cole, especially against Daniel Pipes, who has the advantage of actually knowing Arabic.

Scot Johnson said...

Apparently Cole speaks Arabic too. From his resume: "Cole commands Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads some Turkish, knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam, and lived in a number of places in the Muslim world for extended periods of time."

Dan Clore said...

Juan Cole's blog Informed Comment ( ) continually links to Arabic-language publications, describing their contents. Notably including news stories that go unreported in English-language publications.

Obama, on the other hand, was clearly thinking of the number of card-carrying Communists in the Defense Department.

Anonymous said...

David, I am Arab living in the middle east and I can tell you these worries about Obama not being welcome here have never shown up on any of the Arabic media.

In Islam, a person is not punished for anything he/she commits before puberty. As long as Obama has never admitted an Islamic faith while adult, then he is not/never was a Muslim. Also, in Sari'aa, there is a rule that says "Alhodood Mukafferat". It can be translated as, "earthly religious punishments are meant to lift the perpetrator's afterlife ones". If a person rejects the religion, there is no point in punishing him since he is doomed in hell anyway. Killing a convert is pointless.

Not religious myself, but I often hear so many misinterpretations of Islam.

David Friedman said...

"Killing a convert is pointless."

I don't think that has ever been the dominant position in any of the four schools of Sunni law, however sensible it may be.

On your other point, I'm not surprised. I wasn't arguing that the argument I was repeating was correct, just trying to explain it.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with the simplest, most obvious answer?

This is troll bait that the republicans created to draw upon the fears and bigotry of rural america. Furthermore, it is difficult to discredit properly in a way that is respectful to religion since it requires acceptance of that bigotry to find it insulting instead of merely incorrect. (i.e. even though it's more correct, adding "but there's nothing wrong with that if he were" makes it a weaker argument).

Simply talking about it without clear ridicule lends more credibility than it deserves. It is the modern bigot equivalent of "how often did John McCain beat his ex-wife".