Casuistry in Islamic Apologetics

Apologists for Islam sometimes respond to criticisms of regressive Islamic doctrines by arguing that such doctrines emerged in a context far removed from the modern world. They argue that these doctrines remain valid even if they are inapplicable to the modern world, because the very meanings of these doctrines are inextricably linked to the specific cultural and historical contexts from which they emerged and for which they were morally suited. If for example a critic of Islam emphasizes that An-Nisa, the fourth Quranic Surah, advocates for daughters to inherit half of what their brothers inherit—that is, if a man has one daughter and one son, then his daughter should inherit one-third of his holdings, whereas his son should inherit two-thirds—then an apologist for Islam may hypothetically argue along the following lines: “In seventh century Arabia, young daughters married older men, who supported them financially. Sons, conversely, supported themselves before marriage, and then had to support their younger wives, and eventually also their children. Thus when An-Nisa is understood properly in its cultural and historical context, its seemingly misogynistic prescriptions are shown to be not sexist—but fair. And indeed, these practices were much fairer than the practices they replaced, meaning that they represented progress, attesting to the veracity of Muhammad’s revelation.” But such arguments—which we might call contextual arguments—cannot defend Islam against its critics, for they contradict a core tenet of Islam: namely, that the Prophet Muhammad received from Allah a final, perfect, and timeless revelation, and hence that the norms stipulated by the Quran apply to human life in all contexts. Thus the moral import of the Quran, according to Islam, is not that it revealed to the Arabs of the seventh century how to live better lives, but instead that it revealed to all people for all time that they should live as Muhammad lived in seventh century Arabia.

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