Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Posts Tagged ‘sharia

Khan: Freedom to interpret Shari‘ah

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In Khaled Abou El Fadl’s collection of essays, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, which I reviewed here, there was one essay response in particular that I thought worth posting. That was M. A. Muqtedar Khan’s “Primacy of Political Philosophy,” as it is titled in the collection. In a slightly more primitive form than in the book (from Khan’s website), it is reproduced below.

I recommend reading the original post as well as Abou El Fadl’s essay before continuing.

Instead of saying that liberal values are at the heart of Shari’ah, and potentially leaving it up to government jurists (ulema) to decide what that means, Khan gets rid of the jurists entirely, forcing the demos to interpret Shari’ah for themselves—individually. Khan maintains that if the jurists aren’t kicked out, there will be an inevitable regression to a government where the jurists, the privileged interpreters of Shari’ah, rule. The only answer is to remove them from government.

It is tempting to read Khan’s argument as “Shari’ah is not necessary for Islam, so let’s get rid of Shari’ah and make way for democracy.” Unfortunately, Khan is careless, perhaps relying on Abou El Fadl’s prior explanation of Shari’ah. So to understand Khan’s argument, one must think of Shari’ah as unquestionably divine and perfect, notwithstanding its earthly interpretation and practice. Indeed, its earthly interpretation and practice is what Khan takes issue with, claiming that when there is a monopoly on interpretation of Shari’ah, democracy is not possible. Instead, there must be individual freedom to interpret Shari’ah. Unlike Abou El Fadl, who attempted to liberalize Shari’ah itself for the sake of assigning rights (acting all the while as a jurist), Khan encourages the liberalization of interpretation.

In the space permitted, I think that Khan makes a good case for not only (1) the necessity of individual freedom of interpretation for the success of democracy, but also (2) the Islamic precedent for individual freedom of interpretation. But it’s about time I allow Khan to speak for himself, and the reader to decide.

The Priority of Politics: A Response to “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy”
M. A. Muqtedar Khan; Boston Review; Apr./May 2003

The Tyranny of Legalism

The Islamic intellectual tradition—which includes Islamic legal thought (Usul al-fiqh and fiqh), theology (Kalam), mysticism (Tasawwuf) and philosophy (falsafa)—is one of the most developed and profound traditions of human knowledge. In the area of political philosophy, however, this intellectual heritage remains strikingly underdeveloped. Read the rest of this entry »


“Islam” and the Challenge of “Democracy”

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Read something else.

Khaled Abou El Fadl says: We can’t be perfect, so why even try?

I recently had the opportunity to read Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Islam and the Challenge of Democracy—a lackluster essay on reconciling “Islam” with “democracy,” and some responses, bound together and cleverly disguised as a book.

The first thing you’ll notice—if you, for whatever reason, decide to read the essay—is that Abou El Fadl is fantastically imprecise. So imprecise, in fact, that by the end you won’t be sure that he’s said anything at all. One thing is for sure, though: The title of the book should be Islam and the Challenge of Some Particular Liberal Values.

My central argument … is that democracy—by assigning equal rights of speech, association, and suffrage to all—offers the greatest potential for promoting justice and protecting human dignity, without making God responsible for injustice or the degradation of human beings.

If you hadn’t guessed that he was targeting a Western audience already (and ignoring an Islamic audience), here’s your cue. According to Abou El Fadl, God can somehow be “made responsible” for injustice and the degradation of human beings. For a Muslim, the idea that we can “make” God responsible for injustice is—to put it lightly—absurd.

And when Abou El Fadl isn’t attempting theology, he’s attempting Islamic jurisprudence—and it goes equally well. Liberal values, he seems to be saying, can (1) be found in the Qur’an, and (2) serve as the basis for Shari’ah. Though I cannot dispute the former, the latter is quite a reach, and is a project unsuitable for a mere 34 pages of text.

He seems to recognize this problem at a certain point, and instead of actually reconciling Shari’ah with liberal values, he pulls a fast one.

…Shari’ah ought to stand in an Islamic polity as a symbolic construct for the divine perfection that is unreachable by human effort.

…the law of the state, regardless of its origins or basis, belongs to the state. Under this conception, no religious laws can or may be enforced by the state.

So, since we can’t enforce Shari’ah even if we try, we might as well enforce liberal values. Why? Because liberal values are actually at the heart of Shari’ah (never mind how he got to that conclusion), and that’s simply the best we can do.

Oh, and if you don’t like his argument, it all works out in the wash, because, as he concludes, “we will all have to answer, in the Hereafter, to God.” Is that the same God, I wonder, who is responsible for injustice when we’re not democratic?

Following Abou El Fadl’s essay are, generally, equally impressive, or trite, responses. I thought one of them—by M. A. Muqtedar Khan—stood out, though. So my readers don’t feel compelled to buy the “book,” I will post that response shortly.

Edit: The response.

Tunisia takes to Turkish model

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Tunisian constitution will make no place for faith
Tom Heneghan; Reuters; Nov. 4, 2011

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s Islamist-led government will focus on democracy, human rights and a free-market economy in planned changes to the constitution, effectively leaving religion out of the text it will draw up, party leaders said.

The government, due to be announced next week, will not introduce sharia or other Islamic concepts to alter the secular nature of the constitution in force when Tunisia’s Arab Spring revolution ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

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Written by M. James

November 14, 2011 at 5:29 pm