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Islam - Meaning and Practice

Islam represents a potentially unifying symbolic system which offsets the divisiveness that frequently rises from the existence of a deep pride in tribal loyalties and an abounding sense of personal and family honor found in multitribal and multiethnic societies such as Afghanistan.

Islam is a central, pervasive influence throughout Afghan society; religious observances punctuate the rythmn of each day and season. In addition to a central Friday mosque for weekly communal prayers which are not obligatory but generally attended, smaller community-maintained mosques stand at the center of villages, as well as town and city neighborhoods. Mosques serve not only as places of worship, but for a multitude of functions, including shelter for guests, places to meet and gossip, the focus of social religious festivities and schools. Almost every Afghan has at one time during his youth studied at a mosque school; for many this is the only formal education they receive.

Because Islam is a total way of life and functions as a comprehensive code of social behavior regulating all human relationships, individual and family status depends on the proper observance of the society's value system based on concepts defined in Islam. These are characterized by honesty, frugality, generosity, virtuousness, piousness, fairness, truthfulness, tolerance and respect for others. To uphold family honor, elders also control the behavior of their children according to these same Islamic prescriptions. At times, even competitive relations between tribal or ethnic groups are expressed in terms claiming religious superiority. In short, Islam structures day-to-day interactions of all members of the community.

The religious establishment consists of several levels. Any Muslim can lead informal groups in prayer. Mullahs who officiate at mosques are normally appointed by the government after consultation with their communities and, although partially financed by the government, mullahs are largely dependent for their livelihood on community contributions including shelter and a portion of the harvest. Supposedly versed in the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and Shariah, they must ensure that their communities are knowledgeable in the fundamentals of Islamic ritual and behavior. This qualifies them to arbitrate disputes over religious interpretation. Often they function as paid teachers responsible for religious education classes held in mosques where children learn basic moral values and correct ritual practices. Their role has additional social aspects for they officiate on the occasion of life crisis rituals associated with births, marriages and deaths.

But rural mullahs are not part of an institutionalized hierarchy of clergy. Most are part-time mullahs working also as farmers or craftsmen. Some are barely literate, or only slightly more educated than the people they serve. Often, but by no means always, they are men of minimal wealth and, because they depend for their livelihood on the community that appoints them, they have little authority even within their own social boundaries. They are often treated with scant respect and are the butt of a vast body of jokes making fun of their arrogance and ignorance. Yet their role as religious arbiters forces them to take positions on issues that have political ramifications and since mullahs often disagree with one another, pitting one community against the other, they are frequently perceived as disruptive elements within their communities.

Other religious figures include the muezzin who calls the congregation to prayer and the khadim, the mosque caretakers. Qari are experts at reciting the Quran; hafiz know it by heart. Hafiz are often blind and associated with brotherhoods at important shrines. Qazi, religious judges, are part of the government judicial system responsible for the application of Shariah laws.

Ulama is the term that describes the body of scholars who have acquired ilm or religious learning. As such they are seen as the transmitters of religious texts, doctrines and values, as well as interpreters of the Shariah. Maulana and Mawlawi are titles given to members of the ulama and religious dignitaries. Sayyids among both Sunni and Shia refer to descendants of the Prophet Mohammad who enjoy social and religious prestige throughout the Muslim world.

The constitution states that when there is no provision in the constitution or other laws that guide ruling on an issue, the courts’ decisions shall follow Hanafi jurisprudence in a way that best serves justice. Judges decide whether they will use Hanafi jurisprudence when other laws are deemed not to be clear. The Office of Fatwa and Accounts within the Supreme Court interprets Hanafi jurisprudence when a judge needs assistance in understanding its application.

The General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court ruled in May 2007 that the Baha’i Faith was distinct from Islam and a form of blasphemy. It held that all Muslims who converted to the Baha’i Faith were apostates and all Baha’is were infidels. Baha’is who accepted the Muslim declaration of faith, however, were not expected to be subject to the ruling. The ruling created uncertainties for the country’s small Baha’i population, particularly on the question of marriages between Baha’i women and Muslim men. Citizens who converted from Islam to the Baha’i Faith faced risk of persecution, similar to that of Christian converts, in theory up to and including the death penalty. Also unclear is how the government would treat second-generation Baha’is born into Baha’i families. Although technically not converts, second-generation Baha’is could still be viewed by some as having committed blasphemy.

Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death under some interpretations of Islamic law in the country. The criminal code does not define apostasy as a crime, and the constitution forbids punishment for any crime not defined in the criminal code; however, the penal code states that egregious crimes, including apostasy, should be punished in line with Hanafi religious jurisprudence and handled by the Attorney General’s office. Converting from Islam to another religion is considered an egregious crime under Islamic law. Male citizens over age 18 or female citizens over age 16 of sound mind who convert from Islam have three days to recant their conversions or possibly face death by stoning, or deprivation of all property and possessions, and/or the invalidation of their marriage.

Although there is no reference in the penal code to spoken or written utterance of insults or profanity against God, religion, sacred symbols, or religious books, blasphemy--which in the Afghan context can include anti-Islamic writings or speech, or the “defamation” of Islam--is a capital crime under some interpretations of Islamic law in the country. The civil law is silent on blasphemy and the courts therefore rely on Islamic law to address this issue, based on Article 3 of the constitution. An Islamic judge may impose a death sentence for blasphemy, if committed by a male over age 18 or a female over age 16 of sound mind. Similar to apostates, those accused of blasphemy are given three days to recant or face death.

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Page last modified: 17-08-2012 18:47:40 ZULU