If we could call his long-winded discussion with self-described apostate, Ridvan Aydemir, a debate, we would have to concede that in his ability to trounce his opponent Daniel Jou won hands down.
In his philosophical takedown of Western imperialism, supremacist ideology and hypocrisy, he pulled no punches, regurgitating well-rehearsed arguments one after the other. Aydemir was expecting to take down a Muslim apologist, but Jou was not apologetic in the slightest: he came armed with notes, glancing at them from time to time, as he bamboozled his opponent with quotations and summations sourced in American and European academia. The softly-spoken disbeliever seemed flummoxed, as Jou confidently stuck to his guns, refusing to apologise for his views and beliefs. If this was a great debate, as Muslim social media seems to have agreed it was, Daniel Jou seemed to emerge victorious.
But as I listened in to the recording the next day, background noise to an afternoon of work, I thought to myself: that was an impassioned defence of medieval Islamdom, but was it a victory for the truth? By which I mean, yes, he acknowledged and defended the positions of a thousand years of eminent scholarship with unwavering certainty, refusing to water down his sincere faith in fear of his foe, but was what he was defending truly the truth? Was he defending ideas founded on the Quran, or rather well-established ideas that fly in the face of it?
Jou was indeed defending long-established ideas, found in old works passed down from generation to generation. Nobody could accuse him of dishonesty, a charge easily made for many a scholar who obfuscates before his audience. Jou does not sugar-coat anything: he says it as he sees it, steadfastly citing the opinions of scholars past. But therein lies the problem.
His defence of slavery appears odd to the modern mind, because it is. Islam came to a people at a time when slavery was embedded in civilisation — it acknowledged the reality of the world as it found it — but it never intended to institutionalise and perpetuate it. Over and over, the Quran speaks of the reward for emancipating slaves; where that seems not immediately possible, it petitions the fair and kind treatment of them. In its attempt to reform society, the Quran associates virtuous deeds like the freeing of slaves with spiritual ascent: the steep path.
“Have We not made for him two eyes? And a tongue and two lips, And have shown him the two ways? But he has not attempted the Ascent — Ah, what will convey to you what the Ascent is? It is the freeing of a slave and to feed in the day of hunger.” — Quran 90:8-14
Indeed, to set slaves free is explicitly mentioned in the Quran’s depiction of true righteousness.
“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believes in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and gives wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observe proper worship and pay the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.” — Quran 2:177
It doesn’t make much sense to suggest that slavery is an optimal or virtuous phenomenon — likened to the difference between owning and renting a car — when the Quran has the virtuous position being to set slaves free. Those nations that have abolished slavery may thus be near to righteousness; to revive it, the reverse.
But in this discussion, the Quran did not receive much love; it was set aside, in favour of secular texts which appeared to bolster the opinions of the scholars of Islam. When Aydemir asked whether, as an apostate, he should be executed for his disbelief, Jou was blunt: absolutely, he said with utter conviction. Though the Qur’an is clear that the matter of disbelief will be settled on the day of judgement —so let him who pleases believe, and let him who pleases disbelieve (18:29) — this exchange has already been turned into a meme, causing merriment in the online dawah scene. Yet the Quran clearly talks about people believing and then disbelieving and believing again — a continuity that would not be possible if they were to be put to death for their disbelief.
“Indeed, those who have believed then disbelieved, then believed, then disbelieved, and then increased in disbelief — never will God forgive them, nor will He guide them to a way.” — Quran 4:137
Indeed those that reject faith after having accepted it are mentioned throughout the Quran, and their fate is with their Lord alone. The punishment of execution is reserved for two crimes: murder and spreading sheer corruption in the earth. Rather the Quran appears to censure the Prophet, peace be upon him, for thinking that he could compel people to believe.
“And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed — all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of God, and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.” — Quran 10:99-100
Naturally I am aware that traditional fiqh differs on these points absolutely. I am well aware of the narration of Ikrima, which contradicts the apparent freedom of faith granted by the Quran. And of course I am well versed in the doctrines of abrogation which traditional scholars have deployed to negate passages of the Quran in favour of narrations which contradict them. Jou defends this tradition — and does so well, professing these ideas unapologetically, as is his right.
So a victory of sorts for one and an utter humiliation for the other. The victor and his supporters have been exultant on social media over the weekend, rejoicing in their success, vanquishing the once self-assured, self-identified apostate, who devotes his free time to attacking Islam and insulting Muslims. In the online dawah space, Jou is celebrated as a new champion: a defender of the faith, perhaps soon to be crowned Sheikh al-Islam by his admirers.
Whether his victory is a victory for Islam, though, remains to be seen. He argues his case convincingly, bringing with him seemingly indisputable sources. Such is the power of the tongue. By his eloquence alone, he will have convinced many that everything he said was sound and true. For my part, I fear that we have become like those folk who put their fingers in their ears and talk noisily over the message as it is recited, replacing its verses with the narrations and rulings of our forefathers instead.
“And of the people is he who buys the amusement of speech to mislead from the way of God without knowledge and who takes it in ridicule. Those will have a humiliating punishment. And when our verses are recited to him, he turns away arrogantly as if he had not heard them, as if there was in his ears deafness. So give him tidings of a painful punishment.” — Quran 31:6-7
I fear that we are turning away from its verses in our defence of something else entirely: the opinions of men from ancient times, buffeted by the currents of their own cultures and times as much as we are.
“A revelation from the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful — a Scripture whereof the verses are expounded, a Lecture in Arabic for people who have knowledge: Good tidings and a warning. But most of them turn away so that they hear not.” — Quran 41:2-4
I pray that the Lord of the Worlds guides all of us: the victor and the vanquished, you and me, and grants us the humility and perseverance to ponder on His verses, to return to Him with the truest understanding of the message possible. If there must be argumentation, let it be within: between the inner soul calling to righteousness and the rebellious nafs leading us astray. That is truly a debate worth having, informed not by the opinions of men, but by guidance from above.