Evangelist (and hateful bigot) Franklin Graham said this weekend that President Obama was ‘born a Muslim’ because, he said, Islam is transmitted through the father just as Judaism is transmitted through the mother.
Presumably it is this sort of thinking that has led an increasing number of Americans to believe, incorrectly, that Obama is a Muslim.
Graham as usual is not only hateful but also plain wrong. The Talmudic rule that one is a Jew by virtue of having a Jewish mother has been responsible for imagining the Jewish people as a race as well as a religion. (They are not actually a race, of course, and most Jewish women are descended from a Gentile ancestor).
But Muslims are not a race even in the imagining, but rather a world-religion to which belong people of virtually every ethnic group in the world. Thus, unlike in Judaism, one is not born a Muslim. Rather, children of Muslim parents who embrace Islam typically recite the confession of faith around puberty and undertake to fulfill the obligations of Islamic law at that time. Until that time, they are not mukallaf or obliged to perform the rituals of the religion. Franklin’s allegation would imply that children are Muslim by birth and have to fast the month of Ramadan when they are 5. It is ridiculous.
(P.S. “Muslim” has many meanings, and some pre-Islamic figures in the Qur’an speak of being “muslim” with a small “m,” i.e. living in accordance with God’s will. Being a Muslim as a believer with duties under the divine law requires that one have achieved his or her majority. Children cannot be Muslim in this sense, but there is a saying from the Prophet that all children are born under a kind of natural religious disposition (fitrah) of which Islam is the adult manifestation. So prepubescent children are “muslim” with a small “m” the way Abraham was said to have been, but all children from all religious backgrounds are considered to be that way, so Franklin Graham was born under this fitrah or as a natural-religion “muslim” too– from this theological point of view. As for being a Muslim with a large “M” as a conscious matter, the question is whether one recites the witness to faith and observes the religious laws from puberty or young adulthood.)
While it is true that Islamic law gives custody of children in divorce cases to the father, and this principle could affect the children’s religious upbringing where the mother is, e.g., a Christian, in many families of mixed religion where there is no divorce, the children are given the choice of which religion to follow. (By secular Egyptian law, in fact, even non-Muslim mothers get custody of the children until age 15 in case of divorce, though some Muslim judges are declining to be bound by that law where the mother is Christian. But that the modern law of the land in Egypt (a major Muslim country of some 81 million) recognizes the woman’s custody of the children complicates Franklin Graham’s flat statement).
I discussed this principle in my posting in 2008 on the then artificial controversy whipped up by Neocon Daniel Pipes and columnist Edward Luttwak about whether Obama is an apostate from Islam and would be killed if he went to the Middle East. Uh, no and no. Did you see the warm and enthusiastic welcome he got in Cairo?
‘ 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]”
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.’
The passages are relevant to what Franklin Graham said, as well, since by insisting that one can be a Muslim by birth he is also implying that Obama would be an apostate if he became a Christian.
Those Americans who insist on seeing Obama as a Muslim are ‘othering’ him, and probably are using religion as a proxy for race. Since the Civil Rights movement, it has been unacceptable in the United States for a public figure to engage openly in racist discourse, as shock jocks Dr. Laura and Don Imus discovered. But apparently it is still all right to be a religious bigot, so Islam is being scapegoated by the Republican Party, as its ability openly to play on racial fears is being increasingly constrained. (Even if a majority of Republicans in Louisiana once voted for Klan figure David Duke, in most of the country sounding like Duke is a distinct political liability).
But what I observed was that the Republican presidential candidates in 2007-2008 who most stridently played the Islam card– Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee — crashed and burned. I can’t imagine that most Americans are really afraid of their Muslim neighbors (who are disproportionately likely to be physicians or businessmen and pillars of the local community). So I think the GOP is mistakenly playing to a lunatic fringe of proto-Klan elements in their party, and I think it will backfire on them, even with their own constituents. Big time.