Modernity has given us a de-divinized public order. It has suppressed the truth of the Soul for the harmony of the City. It has reduced the mandate of Divine Vicegerency to a commitment to civil morality. Our civilization no longer represents any cosmic truth, it partakes of no transcendent order of being and recognizes no human purpose beyond existence. Indeed, by redefining the eschation (Akhira) as an immanent order of society, modernity abrogates the question of transcendence altogether. In place of the bliss of the soul, it offers peace in the city, and for the mystery of the Here-after, it substitutes the promise of the Here-now.
Contrary to the creeds of secularism, Islam holds that salvation of the Soul takes precedence over peace in the City. The believer confronts the mystery of being as l'homme and not as le citoyen. The sacrosanct discourse of the Law addresses predominantly the individual soul, the singular Muslim who is not a political being. Only sparingly does it pronounce on communitarian duties (fard kifaya), and rarely still on matters political. The 'political' vision that is the bequest of the jurist's tradition elucidates nothing but a theory of the sacred community and the moment of its bliss in actual history. To all intents and purposes, the politics of fiqh is utopian, paradigmatic and transcendental, rather than utilitarian, pragmatic and existential. The true guardian of Islam would rather damn the whole of history a thousand times than part with a single text. Faith not existence is the real home of the believer.
After the triumph of the Secular City, however, even the Muslim theopolity
is subject to the demands of the new order in which history and progress,
and not obedience to any divine revelation, are the yardsticks of politics.
Indeed, for the guardians of secular world order, the Islamic polity, the
most successful historical enterprise based on the unity of din
and dawla, has lost both its power and its raison d'étre.
Hence, standing before the tribunal of history, the Umma today is forced
to legitimize itself not only as a polity of power but also as a
community of faith! Little wonder that the problem of power and
world-history has become the most pressing issue of Islamic thought in
Readings in Islamic Political Philosophy: Vol I: Liberty. By Afzalur Rahman, Seerah Foundation, London, 1987. 326pp. £8.95 (paper)
The Final Imperative: An Islamic Theology of Liberation. By Shabbir Akhtar. Bellew Publishing Company Ltd, 7 Southampton Place, London, WC1A 2DR, 1991. Pp 117. £9.95. ISBN 0 947792 93 7.
The Ethics of World Religions and Human Rights (Concilium, 1990/2). Ed by Hans Küng & Jürgen Moltman. SCM Press, 26-30 Tottenham Road, London N1 4BZ, 1990. Pp 139. £ 7.95.
Human Rights Source Book. Ed
by Albert P Blaustein, Roger S Clark, Jay A Sigler. Paragon House Publishers,
90 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011, 1987. Pp 970. ISBN 0 88702 202 2.
Ever since the birth of the secular city, then, the problem of finding an authentic vocabulary of politics, of inventing an Islamic language of pragmatic action, has plagued the Umma. Afazlur Rahman's monograph harmonizes with the modern quest for a new political vocabulary of Islam. However, his diagnostic reading of `Islamic Political Philosophy' as 'liberty' reveals that borrowed idioms will not help us in our present predicament. Indeed, if anything, this failure reinforces the insight that whatever the discontents of our utopian and trans-political tradition, no pragmatic language of politics will be available to us unless we fall back on its resources.
Happily, the most pardonable shortcoming of this curious work is that its subject-matter bears little relation to the fashionable title it carries. Totally oblivious of the semantic distinction, now de rigueur among the modernists, between 'liberty', which connotes the political issues of civil liberties, and 'freedom', which alludes to the theological problem of 'free will', Afzalur Rahman treats the two terms as absolute synonyms. Indeed, he is under the impression that the modern discussion on 'liberty' is actually about the theological problem of free will! Needless to say that such an impressive display of semantic innocence deprives his announced theme of all political significance.
Further, in his eagerness to visualize `Islamic politics' as a quest for `liberty' (a term which has never been part of the traditional repertoire), Afzalur Rahman actually ends up by bartering the timeless, ie theocratic and metaphysical, insights of our tradition for the temporal prejudices of the secular man. In short, Afzalur Rahman's bid to superimpose the modern concept of `liberty' on the traditional discourse of Islam must be reckoned as a singularly thoughtless and reckless project of Muslim political science. For it neither discerns the trans-political ethos of the Islamic tradition nor recognizes the civil and political dimensions of the libertarian discourse. (For a highly original and competent handling of the theme of liberty, the reader should consult Abdullah Laroui very rewarding work that unfortunately is still not available in English, viz: Islam et Modernité (Paris, 1987; Chapter 2: "Islam et Liberté', pp 47-63.)
Given the author's failure to distinguish between the two varieties of `political' discourse, the one that stems from a theocentric (trans-existential) consciousness and the other which is steeped in the secularistic (existential) perception of reality, it is not surprising that this work is a hopeless amalgamation of theological, moral and trans-political themes. Traditional Islamic motives, such as the Qur'anic account of the creation of man, the nature of man's vicegerency, and the intractable problem of man's free-will and determination, are all expounded in detail (largely through lengthy and repetitious quotes from more reputable contemporary thinkers) in order to delineate the supposedly Islamic parameters of `liberty'.
And yet, Afzalur Rahman defines his pivotal concept, liberty, as `the right or the power of a citizen to do as he pleases, provided ..... he does not interfere with, or encroach upon, the similar right of other citizens' (107; emphasis mine). Alas, it never occurs to him to ask the simple question: Where does the Qur'an speak about `the citizen'? Similarly, he often asserts that within the Islamic framework `no one is allowed to violate his [ie the individual's] right to do or act as he pleases within the law of the land.' (93; my italics), but the capital question, what is the Qur'anic source of the notion of the `law of the land', is never posed!
In the present climate of intellectual confusion, when authentic insights are being equated with alien wisdom and when religious truth is being confounded with secular method, it makes eminent sense, even from the Islamic point of view, to keep the indigenous (theological) discourse separate from the modern (so far foreign) political debate on civil liberties. That the notion of 'liberty' never arose within the civilization of Islam (the much fashionable rhetoric of hurriya is modern) points to nothing but to the inalienably religious character of our civilization. For, from the vantage-point of moral faith, the modern idea is superfluous. After all, the meaning of the revealed faith of Islam is just that, whatever the contingencies of existence, the moral man is always bound to God's law. He is the one who barters his freedom for obedience, submits his will to God's will, and becomes a Muslim.
It is because of the revelational imperative that Islam, not only as a faith but also as a culture and a civilization, can never free itself from the `ultimate ends of existence'. It is not a materialistic ideology that can degenerate into a mere stratagem for survival. Indeed, Islamic existence may neither become a Promethean bid for the earthly paradise nor remain a pathetic quest for security in the `solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' life of man. Hence, Islamic tradition knows of no `libertarian discourse' against God's revelation and its injunctions. There's no moral, intellectual and existential space, so to speak, where the truth of God's revelation does not hold.
However, the same rationale for submission, which binds the moral man and his conscience to the imperatives of the revelation, cannot be applied to the citizen's relationship with the temporal state. For the state cannot claim the same authority as the law of God. (Law incarnates the truth; it is universal, normative and eternal. State caters to existence: it is parochial, pragmatic and temporal.) Or, expressed in our traditional metaphor, insofar as the state is not ma`sum, inasmuch as it is not theocratic but secular, it cannot demand absolute obedience. A worldly state, accordingly, is obliged to offer safeguards against its own incursion, against its own (mis)rule.
Properly, understood, the modern discourse on civil liberties is aimed at curbing the 'sovereignty' of the secular state. In fact, the impulse for the restriction of state 'authority' to the realm of the civil comes from the religious consciousness itself. It is the trans-political faith of the believers that demands a sanctuary - freedom of conscience - that lies outside of the state jurisdiction. As such, the Muslim should welcome this debate, rather than be apprehensive and apologetic in the manner of Afzalur Rahman. Given the woeful state of civil liberties in Muslim states today, such a debate is more than welcome: it is mandatory. Unfortunately, in elucidating the key terms of this much needed debate, Afzalur Rahman's monograph is of little help.
Compared to the distressing irrelevance of Afzalur Rahman's 'traditionalism', Shabbir Akhtar's, equally conventional, reading of Islamic politics as the `final imperative' to peace, the peace of a just moral order, however, achieves an impressive degree of cogency and felicity. For, his is an intrepid vision, forged in the thick of a polemical battle, that does not surrender justice to peace and rectitude to security. Further, Akhtar's 'liberation theology' incarnates a traditional piety that is as devout in its defence of the Prophetic regime as it is unremitting in the censure of all purely salvational schemes of things.
Thus, while Akhtar argues for the unity of religious faith and political power in the revivalist manner, he does so with a clarity of vision and singleness of will that is all but missing in the 'fundamentalist' discourse. Akhtar's thought, by contrast, is both gratifying and problematic; it is radical and orthodox, militant and conciliatory, at the same time. Hence, in these vigorous and sensitive dialogues with missionary Christianity, one meets the same pugilistic posture, the same pensive piety, the same stubborn irreverence, that has endeared Shabbir Akhtar to many - and made his name a byword for intransigence and atavism for the rest. In sum, for all its faults, and these cannot be neglected, Akhtar's work makes a welcome contribution to the current Muslim debate and it needs to be received in this spirit.
The Final Imperative delivers a swift, but by no means gentle, riposte to Rev. Kenneth Cragg, for striking at the face of 'the unified enterprise of faith and power' that is Islam. Cragg's latest rebuke, delivered without diffidence or after thought in his Muhammad and the Christian (London, 1984) and repeated in its companion volume Jesus and the Muslim (London, 1985), concerns the Prophet's alleged sanctioning of force for the legitimization of his mission. The 'argument', touching the sanctimonious nerve of Christianity, claims that militancy may frustrate evil, it cannot redeem it, that the more evil is chased by political power, the deeper it recedes into the heart of the evildoer. Hence, the charge is, by winning the political battle, the Prophet of Islam lost the religious war. For, by trading temporal sovereignty for spiritual surrender, indeed by exchanging eternity for history, the Prophet of Islam compromised his prophecy (Ma`adh Allah!).
Fortunately, with respect to the Prophet's authority, our tradition possesses a sureness of conviction and a clarity of perception that no perverse reading of the Prophetic Text, no matter how crafty or subversive, can ever obfuscate. Akhtar's utterly forthright, unimpeachably alert and thoroughly devastating rejoinder to Cragg amply testifies to the moral and intellectual resources of the Islamic position. He unmasks the Anglican Bishop's argument for what it is: an inextricable `Catch-22' which, when taken to its logical conclusion, turns either Christian faith or Christian existence into a monumental lie! For there is nothing in the resources of Christian reason that can unite the Christian's existence and his faith: it can affirm Christian faith only at the cost of denying Christian existence. Only in death - martyrdom and Cross - do the twain meet and only at that macabre moment does the Christian's existence attain authenticity. Only then can the Christian give testimony to his fanatical faith!
Obviously, from the Islamic point of view, the absolute antithesis of faith and existence that is the boon (or is it bane?) of Christian metaphysics and the nemesis of Christian reason is overcome in the Prophetic sunna. Little wonder, Akhtar is not impressed by the squeamish missionary who resents that the Prophet of Islam did not prescribe a model of Islamic conduct which would make the Muslim, like his/her Christian brother/sister, either live a spurious existence or cherish a fradulent faith! Indeed, he feels that Cragg's, radically Protestant and post-Reformational, contention that 'Christians have compromised themselves in having recourse to secular power' may well signal 'a categorical departure from the norms implicit in any authentic imitatio Christi.'
Cragg, however, Akhtar insists further, 'is begging the question against Muhammad [S] and his followers when he claims that their use of force was equally compromising. Thus, a Christian compromises his moral integrity in having any recourse to coercive methods to affect reforms. But a Muslim only compromises himself - if we use standards intrinsic to Islam - by mis-using force. For Islam does not see power in itself as necessarily destructive. Indeed, power is no more inherently corrupting than sexuality or knowledge, or the appetite for food.' (Emphasis supplied by the author). In short, Akhtar is forced to ask pointedly and rhetorically: 'Is political failure the only guarantee of authenticity of mission?'
Together with Jamil Qureshi's earlier 'deconstruction' of Kenneth Cragg's 'cross' theology, Akhtar's invigorating defence of Islamic activism succeeds in delivering a polite but firm rebuttal to the impeaching, self-righteous, conscience of contemporary Christianity. In the tradition of his spiritually sensitive predecessor, Akhtar's handling of Islamic issues is marked by a resoluteness of faith, an acuteness of perception, and an elegance of expression that in every way matches the stylized intelligence and courteousness of Rev. Cragg himself. Moreover, Akhtar negotiates the polemical waters of Muslim-Christian dialogue with daring and aplomb. Hence, for the Muslim reader who follows this reflection to the end, it becomes obvious that modern Christianity's 'subversive' approach to Islam (this particularly apt expression was first employed by Jamil Qureshi) has come to the end of its moral and intellectual tether.
Unfortunately, for all its resources of intelligence and perception, Akhtar's Islamic disposition is both problematic and erratic. Indeed, outside the lofty citadel of pure thought, he proudly takes on the garb of an uncouth and unconscionable demagogue and makes outrageous 'political' judgements (Cf, the introductory, penultimate and concluding chapters). In fact, the most lamentable failing of the work is that in fending the missionary charge, Akhtar far exceeds the advocacy of the realistic, life-affirming, rationale of Islamic tradition and assumes the role of an enthusiastic advocatus belli! Lest this spiritually slanted vision of islam as 'the piety which welcomes power as the effective instrument for the enactment of religious conviction' (81) gets canonized in the militant consciousness of 'fundamentalism' as the cardinal truth of faith, one must retort with all the conviction and force at one's command that no piety worthy of the epithet 'Islamic' can ever accept, let alone welcome, the ministry of power in the kingdom of faith! For it flies in the face of the categorical Qur'anic declaration that as far as din (religious conviction) is concerned, there can be no recourse to coercion!
No, Islam's unabashed and unflinching stance on the, limited, legitimacy of force is not for reasons of faith - for the truth of Islam may never be propagated by force, nor may the hearts and consciences of men be ever subdued by sword - but for the preservation of its community. And yet, Islam can be conceived as a 'political religion' only from a frame of reference that is truly transcendent and trans-existential. Little wonder, Islam stipulates no institutions of power: it has no State, no Church, no Party and no Pontiff. (The State that is conceived as 'Islamic' is nothing but the interface of the transcendent Law of God and the universal Community of the faithful.) Hence, for its existence and survival, Islam relies on the conscience and the will of believers alone. Islam is, without doubt as its name implies, the religion of peace. In sum, even if both Cragg and Akhtar are in agreement, for different reasons of course, that Islam is a 'unified enterprise of faith and power', this writer, as a believer and as a student of history, cannot accept their judgement.
Whatever the cogency of Cragg's argument or the vigour of Akhtar's counter-critique, the disconcerting fact is that there is little that distinguishes historical Christianity's attitudes to war and peace from that of historical Islam. Hence, if one is searching for meaningful differences between the two sister religions, one would have to look elsewhere; perhaps, into their more fundamental metaphysical dispositions. In this regard, Marshal G Hodgson's seminal insights and succinct formulations can hardly be improved upon. Despite the tremendous variety of religious orientation within these two universal traditions, Hodgson feels, their central themes may be expressed quite fairly as: Islam represents `the demand for personal responsibility for the moral ordering of the natural world'; while Christianity stands for 'the demand for personal responsiveness to redemptive love in a corrupted world'. (Emphasis supplied by the author.) The whole 'political' rationale of Islamic tradition is felicitously summed up in this statement. However, it is a 'political' rationale that unfolds only through a moral discourse on world-order. Fortunately, Human Rights movement promises to develop into one such universal debate on world-order.
Curiously enough, many of the great world religions', note the editors of a particularly illuminating and frank collection of reflections on the theme of HR, 'have their problems with the affirmation and realization of human rights..' These rights, one is reminded further, were first proclaimed by the American and French Revolutions and finally grounded in the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations in 1948. Not surprisingly, the Popes of the nineteenth century condemned human rights as an expression of secularism, naturalism and laicism. Only John XXIII, 'the greatest ecumenical pope of our century', spoke in favour of HR and praised the UN declaration as 'an of highest importance.' The main query is whether HR can evolve into a moral consensus which is greater than the historical tradition to which each of the world religion belongs? More particularly, the questions addressed are: '1) How are HR grounded in the tradition of each religion? What are the strong points in each tradition for the grounding and realization of human rights?; and, 2) What are the deficiencies in theory and practice in each religion? What are the weak points for the realization of human rights?' In other words, the perspective is exploratory and self-critical.
Despite the absence of any consensus on HR, it must be noted that the two Muslim contributors, Roger Garaudy and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nai`m, appear singularly out of step with the Umma. While the former demands putting an end to triumphalism, literalism and legalism (58), the latter feels compelled to distinguish between Islam and Shari`a 'in the sense that the latter is a particular interpretation of the former in a given historical sense.' (Fiqh would have been a better designation of what he understands as the Shari`a.) However, An-Na`im also believes that 'a modern interpretation of Islam will produce a version of Shari`a which is capable of sustaining the full range of human rights and can accompany the further development of these rights.' And yet, he is not reticent at all in stating that 'the historical formulation of Shari`a is incapable of sustaining the most fundamental human rights today.' (68).
Whatever the discomforts of the Muslim contribution, the collection as a whole is quite stimulating and rewarding. At times the sheer honesty and humility of the contributing scholars is more eloquent and devastating than all the grandiose official rhetoric. For instance, the Buddhist representative confesses: ‘I must state plainly that there is no serious contemporary Buddhist perspective for global problem-solving.’ Other thinkers extend the scope of these speculations beyond the conventional individual rights as does, for instance,Jurgen Moltman in ‘Human Rights, the Rights of Humanity and the Rights of Nature’. Moltman’s approach, I feel, is more in harmony with the Islamic point of view. Indeed, in an exploratory essay, ‘Humanity Rights as Human Duties’ (Afkar-Inquiry, July 1987) I anticipated some of his arguments and reflections.
For anyone seriously interested in the HR debate, the availability of Human Rights Source Book comes as a real boon. It is indeed more comprehensive than what it name suggests. It not only includes all the HR charters and documents of the United Nations but has almost everything of import from this century, such as documents relating to ‘Slavery, Servitude, Forced Labour’, or to ‘War Crimes and Crimes aganist Humanity’, or to stipulations for ‘Rights against the State’ (United Kingdom, United States and France), ‘Economic and Social Rights (USSR and Mexico), ‘Group Rights and Protections’ (Ireland, India, Belgium and Malaysia) and other similar items are part of this collection. Indeed, the ‘unauthorized’ Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (1981) also finds a place in the Source Book.
Given the moral and intellectual challenges of our age, our tradition
needs a renewed dialogue on Khilafa; not merely a resuscitation
of the traditional discourse but a radical reflection that takes into account
the full universalist and humanistic import of this Qur’anic concept. Indeed,
with the helo of a fresh reading of Man’s universal Vicegerency, a reading
which is fully alert to the Islamic imperative for ‘personal reposnsibility
for the moral ordering of the natural world’, we Muslims may agains become
conscience of humanity.