April 20, 2003

"We have created you male and female, and appointed you nations and tribes, that you may come to know one another"

Khaled Abou El Fadl has an excellent essay on "Islam and the Challenge of Democracy" in the new issue of the Boston Review. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as an exposition of those parts of Islamic traditions of jurisprudence and political thought which can be seen to point towards liberal democracy, given a bit of good will, creative interpretation and selective attention.

Does that make it sound like Abou El Fadl is being shifty? It shouldn't. It's not, manifestly, that he isn't actually a Muslim, but is sketching a propaganda plan for making democracy acceptable to Muslims. (He wouldn't be much of a democrat then, either.) Rather he is heir to two different traditions, Islamic jurisprudence and liberal democracy, and is trying to reconcile them. This is a large part of the intellectual history of humanity in epitome. Traditions --- at least ones like what we call "Islam" or "Christianity" or "liberalism" --- are like Whitman: they are large, they contain multitudes, they contradict themselves; they are full of ambiguities. Any attempt to follow them, learn from them or act on them must be highly selective, and inevitably shaped by one's other interests, traditions and experiences. Traditions do not interpret themselves, and certainly do not implement themselves in human life. (Abou El Fadl recounts a nice story about the Caliph Ali which makes this point.) This activity is necessary.

One imagines two kinds of critics who might nonetheless attack Abou El Fadl here; on the one hand, self-professed Islamists, and on the other hand, a western believer in the clash of civilizations idea. (Let me give labels to these two figures; to pick names at random, Q. and P., respectively.) Both might grant the point about how traditions must be implemented and continued by selective human activity, but still say that what Abou El Fadl proposes is so at variance with the preponderance of the tradition that it is not Islamic at all. In effect, he anticipates this objection, and replies that maybe most of the participants in the tradition have not seen things his way, but might they not have been wrong about that? Might not his ideas represent a better understanding of the most important parts of the tradition?

To Q., in fact, he makes the point that, as a fellow believer, he cannot presume to confuse the weight of the tradition with the actual Divine Authority, or even the Divine Command as embodied in the Qur'an.

Of course, the most formidable challenge to this position is the argument that God and His Prophet have set out clear legal injunctions that cannot be ignored. Arguably, God provided unambiguous laws precisely because God wished to limit the role of human agency and foreclose the possibility of innovations. But --- to return one last time to a point I have emphasized throughout --- regardless of how clear and precise the statements of the Qur'an and Sunna, the meaning derived from these sources is negotiated through human agency. For example, the Qur'an states: "As to the thief, male or female, cut off (faqta'u) their hands as a recompense for that which they committed, a punishment from God, and God is all-powerful and all-wise" (5:38). Although the legal import of the verse seems to be clear, it requires at minimum that human agents struggle with the meaning of "thief," "cut off," "hands," and "recompense." The Qur'an uses the expression iqta'u, from the root word qata'a, which could mean to sever or cut off, but it could also mean to deal firmly, to bring to an end, to restrain, or to distance oneself from. Whatever the meaning derived from the text, can the human interpreter claim with certainty that the determination reached is identical to God's?

P., on the other hand, would point to how little Abou El Fadl finds to work with, and say that this shows that liberal democracy basically has nothing in common with Islam, that it cannot be transplanted there, or only at the cost of breaking the continuity of tradition. But an unbiased look at the intellectual culture of western Christendom in, say, 1600, would lead to much the same conclusion. Existing polities were overwhelmingly authoritarian, whether in a centralized mode with pretensions to absolutism, or in a decentralized one which translated into rule by thousands of local petty tyrants. (Kings might consult barons, bishops and burghers, but only if they were too weak to compell them.) There were a few city "republics", carefully set up to leave power in the hands of, at most, a few hundred men from wealthy families; even these had a well-known tendency to revert to monarchy. The religious tradition, going back to St. Paul, counseled submission to arbitrary power ("slaves, obey your masters"; "the powers that be are ordained by God"); the church manned much of the state appartus, which in turn enforced clerical dogmas over every sphere of life. Political thought was in the grips of an ancient tradition of authoritarianism going back to Plato's totalitarian Republic. A neutral observer would conclude that, in all probability, liberal democracy was basically incompatible with the culture of the Franks and the Latins.

In a sense that observer was right, because the cultural transformation between 1600 and 2000 is so great that we might plausibly say that the civilization of the Franks and the Latins did not survive it. In another sense, though, modern civilization grew out of theirs in part by exploiting the obscure, marginal resources I glossed over in my summary of the central tendency. That summary should sound strange to most people who now regard themselves as heirs to the western tradition. We remember (i.e., teach) Athenian democracy as belonging to that tradition in a way that Athenian slavery or Roman and Renaissance absolutism do not. Pericles seems more a part of us than Augustus, just as Democritus seems more important than the astrologers. Our current knowledge and values naturally shape our retrospective take on what is belongs to our tradition's core. Which is fine: Pericles and Democritus were there for the taking. But let's not pretend that our predecessors shared our retrospective view of what was the center of the shared tradition. None of the other great traditions emphasized the core of modern civilization (science, freedom, democracy, productivity, etc.), but, on examination, they all had usable elements lurking around, and it's very hard indeed to honestly say that western Christendom was better-provided with them than Islam, or China, or India. (Amartya Sen had a very nice essay on this point in the New York Review back in 2000.)

To cut a long, rambling post short, if some of us can now read Abou El Fadl's essay and feel, comfortably, that there are places where he's reaching a bit, it's precisely because of four hundred odd years of just such creative interpretation and selective attention. If such efforts meet with the success they deserve, our grandchildren will be taught that "western civilization" encompasses all the societies which inherited both the Hellenistic intellectual heritage and the prophetic religious traditions, and will learn the medieval division between Islam and Christianity as just a larger version of the split between the eastern and the western Churches, or between Sunni and Shia.

[If, incidentally, you want to learn where I stole all these ideas about traditions from, read Karl Popper's "Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition" (in his Conjectures and Refutations), Marshall Hodgson's The Venture of Islam (in three great volumes), or Stephen Toulmin's sadly-out-of-print Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts.]

Islam; The Great Transformation

Posted at April 20, 2003 18:06 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth