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Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Posts Tagged ‘theology

A Response to Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly (AFPC)

Robert R. Reilly pleads insanity on behalf of Sunni Islam.

When I read this post by Robert R. Reilly, author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind, I intended to respond to it, as it did not make sense based on what I had read of Sunni Ash’arite theology. But after my written request to post a response on The Catholic Thing was ignored, I convinced myself that it was simply not worth responding to.

Since then, I have been finding Reilly’s view—that today’s Islam is inherently unreasonable—more prevalent, and thereby more worthy of attention.

I would first like to emphasize, before addressing his argument, that my response is not a philosophical vindication of Sunni Ash’arite theology but a practical endeavor. The practical implications of the view that Sunni Islam is unreasonable is that the ideas and actions that result from it are incoherent—unexplainable. If we accept this, then there is no use in trying to explain or justify anything that the Muslim world does. Suddenly, all the things that we cannot understand are not even worth understanding. Suddenly, the proximate cause of everything (disagreeable) that happens in the Islamic world becomes misguided fundamentalism. Consciously or not, Reilly is justifying the ultra-expedient “talking to a wall” mentality that has pervaded Western foreign policy—and the violence that naturally comes with it. The additional fact that he “has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense” is telling, and perhaps worrying.

For the sake of space, I will provide no synopsis of Reilly’s post, so before I continue, I encourage the reader to read his argument.

Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram

In his post, Robert Reilly is seeking to explain the murderous practices of Boko Haram, an Islamist group in northern Nigeria. He does so by describing their practices as consistent with the theology of Sunni Islam—specifically the dominant Ash’arite school. The implication of this consistency is, significantly, that mainstream Islam is supportive of the terrorism of Boko Haram and organizations like it. But Reilly bases this supposed consistency on two troublesome premises: (1) an oversimplification of Ash’arite theology and (2) an unprecedented assumption.

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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.