Towards a Comprehensive Justice: Prophetic Solidarity
A crucial aspect of Esack’s understanding of justice is its comprehensive character. Esack is usually associated with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. As important as this struggle was for Esack, however, his Islamic liberation theology cannot be reduced to it because, as a Coloured South African, he had vested interests in seeing the struggle through. As integral as the commitment to the liberation of one’s own oppressed social, religious or racial group is, warns Esack, a genuine commitment to morality lies in being moved not by one’s own suffering but by the suffering of others. This is the litmus test of the ethical, empathetic human being. Justice must be comprehensive—encompassing racial, class, and gender equality— and is the right of all of humanity, not a specific subsection of it. Esack’s sense of liberation, then, is utterly universal. The South African struggle acted as a critical point of departure for this understanding. His experience of growing up under apartheid not only allowed him, when travelling to Pakistan for Islamic training, to make connections with the discrimination of women in Muslim- majority societies, but also the second-class status of Pakistani Christians. It is due to the complexity, the multilayered basis of oppression that Esack’s definition of liberation is equally complex and layered, entailing ‘the freedom of all people from all those laws, social norms and economic practices that militate against them developing their potential to be fully human.’
Because Esack’s understanding of justice is universal, solidarity— what he calls ‘prophetic Islam’—features prominently in his liber- ationist discourse. Simply translated, prophetic Islam is a principled practice of solidarity, whereby a Muslim stands with the oppressed while at the same time acknowledging that this analytical category— ‘the oppressed’—is not fixed or timeless but conditioned, and repeatedly reconditioned, by an ever-changing context, denoting different communities and individuals in different times and places. Esack foregrounds this contextually contingent practice of solidarity since he has witnessed, at first hand, how an oppressed group can, with the passage of time, actually become the oppressing party: namely, the Afrikaners of South Africa. Initially the victims of the British, who placed them in concentration camps and destroyed almost a sixth of their population, the Afrikaners went on to consolidate their colonization of indigenous Black land, erecting a deeply authoritarian and White-supremacist state. The case of European Jewry is another compelling example: the very people who experienced the horrors of the Nazi holocaust became staunch supporters of Israel—a settler- colonial state built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and that continues to occupy Palestinian land illegally. A prophetic solidarity, therefore, is about being vigilant of the inherently fluid and dynamic nature of injustice. As Esack puts it:
While I can, for example, be in solidarity with a male black worker in respect of the exploitation that he experiences at work, I ought to be in solidarity with his abused wife in the home context. While I can be in solidarity with the Muslim male who is being racially profiled at airports, I can be in solidarity with the marginalized Christian who lives in the same Muslim country that the Muslim male comes from.
In other words, by avoiding sweeping affiliation with abstract, disembodied communities—Muslims or Blacks or workers—and instead constantly defining and redefining the categories of oppressor and oppressed within a complex, ever-changing web of power relations, the progressive Muslim intellectual is able to pre-empt the reproduction of the very inequality that s/he seeks to critique. Prophetic Islam and the type of principled solidarity that it espouses, then, is built on a keen sense of vision: that whatever struggle one may be engaged in at the moment, the ultimate objective is the establishment of a genuinely inclusive social order wherein all people are equal.
Fitra, or human nature, is an interesting aspect of Esack’s discourse on solidarity with the oppressed. Muslims often describe Islam as din al-fitra. Departing from mainstream Muslim understandings of din al-fitra, which views Islam as the natural religion of humankind, thereby treating other religions as abberations, Esack understands Islam’s description as din al-fitra as being a religion based on the natural state of humankind, that is, on one’s humanity. The Islamic scholars Kecia Ali and Oliver Leaman have a similar rendering of fitra, which they describe as the innate inclination of every human being, from the beginning of time when God fashioned Adam, to yearn for goodness. For Esack, the presence and persistence of injustice constitute a threat to this natural state of being and thus one’s humanity is fundamentally compromised if one does not act. Esack, therefore, has an acutely communitarian sense of selfhood, for his fitra is wedded to the well-being of those around him and by standing for others he is, in fact, standing for himself. The idea that the liberation of the Self is intrinsically tied to the liberation of the Other—that I am lacking because you are suffering—has deep roots in Islam. The zaka, or annual almsgiving, is one of the five pillars of the faith. Yet the actual definition of zaka is neither almsgiving nor charity. Literally, zaka means ‘purification’, referring to the idea that when a Muslim gives a portion of her/his accrued wealth to the needy, the remaining amount is purified in the eyes of God. The concept of fitra is especially salient to solidarity and activism because it provides an alternative, theoretical framework to the patronizing discourse of benevolence and charity. Standing in solidarity with others, through the framework of fitra, is not about doing a favour to the less fortunate, for the favour, by affirming one’s own humanity through the act of standing, is done to oneself. As Esack describes it within the context of gender justice:
This is not a favour that I am doing for women. I have often used the
analogy that if I am holding someone down, I am not free to be myself.
I can’t grow, I can’t enjoy the sun, I just can’t be.106
It is important to appreciate the significance of this point, as it raises crucial questions concerning the complex power dynamics at play in solidarity work. Is a White American activist’s humanity fully intact if s/he, whilst standing in solidarity with Black Americans, reproduces racial inequality by speaking over the voices of the very people that s/ he is standing with? Is a male feminist’s humanity wholly intact if he, when articulating an anti-patriarchal platform, does so with a voice louder than the very women that he is in solidarity with? By acknowledging one’s own complicity in complex systems of oppression, the concept of fitra forcefully shifts the battleground of liberation from the Other to the Self. In so doing, it undercuts the consignment of the oppressed to the role of passive objects—that are to be pitied and patronized through benevolent acts of charity—encouraging, in its stead, reflexivity and humility on the part of those in solidarity with the oppressed.
Esack has been extensively involved in solidarity work, such as supporting the Palestinian cause and working with South African Muslims who have HIV/AIDS. He has visited Palestine numerous times and has been a prominent participant in the international solidarity movement, regularly speaking at educational events like Israeli Apartheid Week. In 2009, Esack wrote an open letter to the Palestinians, outlining the striking similarities between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the oppression of Blacks under the apartheid regime in South Africa. This letter was then spray- painted in large font on the so-called Security Fence in Palestine, the wording running for over two and a half kilometres. Drawing on his understanding of a prophetic Islam dedicated to the attainment of justice for all peoples, Esack describes his connection as a South African to Palestine as follows:
Indeed, for those of us who lived under South African Apartheid and
fought for liberation from it and everything that it represented, Palestine
reflects in many ways the unfinished business of our own struggle.110
Here, again, liberation—although being waged in solidarity with the Other—is located within the Self. Esack’s own humanity (fitra) is under siege so long as Israel continues to brutalize the Palestinians. He has also worked extensively with Muslims who are HIV-positive or have AIDS. Along with a number of colleagues, he established an organization in 2000 called Positive Muslims. In addition to creating a support network for victims, the group seeks to challenge dominant Muslim attitudes towards HIV/AIDS, exposing Muslim complicity in the stigmatization of those afflicted with the disease. In his struggle to combat AIDS, Esack has repeatedly emphasized the socioeconomic roots of the pandemic. A meaningful struggle against AIDS, then, must include the critique of a cruel economic establishment that prioritizes profit over human welfare. Capitalism, Esack laments, is a principal cause of global suffering, effectively cleaving the world into two unequal halves: the affluent North, comprising Western Europe and North America, which continues to become exponentially wealthier at the expense of the impoverished South—Africa, Asia, Latin America—leading to immense suffering for the vast majority of the Earth’s inhabitants.
It is the struggle for gender justice, however, that is most intimately tied to Esack’s own liberation. Growing up in a single-parent family— recall that his father had abandoned his mother when Esack was only three weeks old, leaving her to raise six children on her own—Esack discerned the demons of patriarchy at a very young age. Furthermore, he experienced first-hand the close collusion of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism, as his mother laboured long hours every day as an underpaid factory worker, eventually succumbing to her crippling circum- stances. Indeed, the roots of Esack’s liberationist discourse are to be found in this painful, formative period. Due to the efforts of South African Muslim feminists, including Esack, gender equality became an integral component of anti-apartheid discourse within the Muslim community. Wadud, whose hermeneutic we will explore in the fourth chapter, visited South Africa in 1994 and was struck by the centrality of gender justice amongst Muslims, who were even talking about the possibility of women leading ritual worship. The following passage captures the critical linkages Esack draws between racism and patriarchy, underscoring their common denominator of inequality:
Every single argument, religious or cultural, that is employed to keep women in the kitchen or in the house has a parallel in racist discourse. ‘Our traditional way of life,’ ‘Allah made them inferior,’ ‘No they are not inferior, merely different,’ ‘What would happen if women were to control the world?’... ‘Of course women can govern, if they are capable.’
In other words, to call for racial or economic justice without at the same time taking a firm stand against patriarchy (and vice versa) is hypocrisy. Inconsistency—the selective application of justice, restricting it to only certain struggles—is an act of injustice.
The realm of gender relations is illustrative of how, within Esack’s hermeneutic, praxis constitutes as important a text that is to be read alongside the text of scripture. As central as the theme of justice is within the Qur’an, Esack is wary of idealizing the text. In particular, he notes that with regard to social and legal matters, the Qur’an presupposes male control over women, in that women are to be economically maintained and protected by men, scolded, and even beaten if they are disobedient. The literal wording of the text, then, is essentially androcentric: a number of passages like Q. 4:34—the so- called Beating Verse, which we will engage in detail when examining women’s gender egalitarian exegesis—clearly address men and speak of women in the third person, and therefore as objects to be acted upon by men. Q. 4:34 reads:
Men are the guardians of women, because of the advantage God has granted some of them over others and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth. So righteous women are obedient, safeguarding what is unseen of what God has enjoined them to guard. As for those wives whose misconduct you fear, (first) advise them, and (if ineffective) keep away from them in the bed, and (as a last resort) beat them. Then if they obey you, do not seek any course (of action) against them. Indeed, God is all-Exalted, all-Great.
This critical take on the Qur’an stands in contrast, as we will see later in this book, to the exegeses of Engineer and Barlas, who insist that the text affirms the complete equality of women and men. It is necessary to clarify here that Esack does not view the Qur’an as an obstacle to gender justice. He writes that the text ‘contains sufficient seeds for those committed to human rights and gender justice to live in fidelity to its underlying ethos.’ But this does not entail partaking in, Esack stresses, simplistic apologia. He thus seeks to navigate a complex middle way between what he sees as two interpretive extremes: classical commentators who read far more patriarchy into the Qur’an than there actually was and, now, modern-day apologists—women and men alike—who are reading absolute gender justice into the Qur’an despite the fact that several verses presume male listeners and male control over women’s bodies. These are verses, argues Esack, which ought to be confronted, not ignored. And in this hermeneutical endeavour contemporary standards of justice, as defined through praxis, need to be taken as seriously as scripture itself. There are, then, two principal texts—the text of the Qur’an and the text of praxis—that must be reconciled through various reading strategies, one such strategy being an emphasis on the spirit over the letter: that whenever a seeming contradiction may emerge between scripture and praxis, the Qur’anic spirit, or what he refers to as ‘its underlying ethos’, is privileged over the Qur’anic letter. In so doing, Esack is able to acknowledge unapologetically the androcentrism of the text while, at the same time, using its gender egalitarian spirit to uphold contemporary understandings of justice.
In addition to the centrality of praxis, Esack’s writings on gender are illustrative of his commitment to approaching social justice in a comprehensive fashion, namely, supporting queer Muslims through an anticolonial lens. Esack, and coauthor Nadeem Mahomed, a South African legal scholar, have argued that while Muslims need to be more tolerant of homosexuality, recent attempts at a ‘homosexual friendly Islamic jurisprudence’ ought to be critiqued. Here, the authors refer to the work of the American Islamic scholar Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who has made a case for homosexuality through an Islamic framework, systematically expounding the Qur’an, hadith, and legal tradition. Specifically, Esack and Mahomed contend that, in positing a sexually-sensitive reading of Islamic jurisprudence, Kugle plays into Western colonial notions of sexuality as a fixed, singular, and stable category, thereby undermining sexuality’s fluidity, complexity, and acutely unstable character, especially in non-Western societies. In other words, while sexual justice is squarely a component of Esack’s understanding of gender justice, he raises the following key question: sexuality on whose epistemological terms and based on whose lived experiences—that of the hegemonic West (read secular modernity) or the two-third world? In offering this postcolonial perspective the authors draw on, among others, the Palestinian intellectual Joseph Massad. Massad has argued that the ‘Gay International’, defined as the discourse of Western-based LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer) organizations who claim to defend and speak on behalf of homosexuals worldwide, effectively ‘produces homosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist, and represses same-sex desires and practices that refuse to be assimilated into its sexual epistemology.’ This discursive production is a result of treating sexual categories-gay, lesbian, homosexual-as universal, timeless, and stable, and by presuming that sexual practice is intrinsically linked to identity: that is, that someone who practices same-sex contact necessarily identifies as a homosexual subject. For Massad, this linkage is not axiomatic but socially created, a product of Western historical experiences that were universalized, and that continue to be universalized, through empire. Esack and Mahomed, too, underline the connections between discourses of gay rights and empire (past and present), noting, for example, how Israel portrays itself as a homosexual safehaven in the Middle East while simultaneously brutalizing the Palestinians, straight and queer, through military occupation. To be sure, Esack and Mahomed also challenge Massad on various levels, such as his lack “of any recognition whatsoever of the harsh negative effects of heteronormative societal structures on Muslim or Arab societies” and his dismissive attitude towards queer identity politics. For this can serve to ignore the genuine grievances of (and, by extension, deny justice for) marginalized queer Muslims “struggling for acceptance and recognition, both spiritually and socially, as individuals, activists, and groups.”