Is Islam compatible with a free society?
The actions of Muslims, in Muslim majority countries and elsewhere, lead many non-Muslims ask that question today. Anti-Muslim bigots have the quick answer that Islam is not compatible with freedom, and promote the view that it is ISIS and Al Qaeda who represent authentic Islam.
On 19 October 2016, the Institute of Economic Affairs published a short book, "Islamic Foundations of a Free Society" which is a collection of nine essays, edited by Dr Nouh El Harmouzi & Linda Whetstone. This can be bought in hard copy from the IEA, or downloaded free.
On 15 May 2017, the Henry Jackson Society hosted an event to discuss the theme of the book. The audience overwhelmingly comprised non-Muslims.
The Henry Jackson Society's website has a short summary of the event.
The event was recorded, and can be listened to below. This page also has a transcript of what I said, as I was speaking from a written text, which I have harmonised with what I said.
The speakers at the event were:
For the avoidance of doubt, the Conservative Muslim Forum does not do theology, and I am speaking entirely in a personal capacity.
I have been asked to explain two major divides in two minutes. Firstly, the difference between Sunni and Shia. Secondly, the divide between Islamists, traditionalists, and rationalists.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) died without appointing a successor.
One group of Muslims believed that the replacement leader should be the Prophet’s closest male relative. That meant Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, who was also the Prophet’s son in law. This group, the minority, became known as the Shia, which simply means the party of Ali.
The other group, the majority, believed that the replacement leader should be the best qualified male Muslim, irrespective of ancestry. They installed the Prophet’s closest friend, Abu Bakr, as the first caliph. This group are called Sunnis, from the word Sunnah.
The Sunnah is the traditions of the Prophet, accounts of what he did and what he said. But don’t let the etymology of the word Sunni confuse you. Shia Muslims also believe in the Sunnah, but that does not make them Sunnis. Sunnis are defined by their view on that original decision about who should be the first caliph, and indeed the second caliph and the third caliph. The fourth caliph was Ali, so he eventually made it into the job.
How do you decide what God wants you to do? How much can you apply rational interpretation to the text of the Quran, especially in the light of changing circumstances?
At one extreme, around 800 AD, one group, called the Mutazilites in Arabic, believed that you could deduce almost everything about Islam by pure reason, without even reference to the text of the Quran. Let’s call them extreme rationalists.
Other Muslims believed that Islam had to be totally grounded in the traditions of the Prophet. As an extreme example, one scholar, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who was the founder of the Hanbali school of Islamic law, never ate a watermelon, because there were no accounts of the Prophet ever eating watermelon.
The traditionalists won out, mainly thanks to brute force, because they had the caliph on their side. Since then, Islamic scholars have overwhelmingly been traditionalists, tending to follow past rulings.
However, rationalism never disappeared. Throughout Muslim history and Muslim scholarship there has been this balance between how much emphasis you put on tradition and how much emphasis you put on applying independent thinking about the text of the Quran.
Islamism is a 20’th century invention by two people. In Egypt, Hassan al Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. In British India, Abul A'la Maududi founded the Jamaat-i-Islami in 1941.
Both believed that you could find a complete ready-made set of political ideas within Islam. That is what Islamism is.
My view is very simple. In Maududi’s time, Fascism and Bolshevism were the trendy intellectual and political ideas. What Maududi did was to create his own totalitarian replica, albeit wrapped in Islamic language, which is why I have zero sympathy for Maududi or the views of the Jamaat-i-Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood.
The question is whether Islam is compatible with a free society.
Let me start with a confession. I am a chartered accountant. Ask a chartered accountant almost any question, the reply is likely to be “On the one hand it could be this, and on the other hand it could be that.” That is why some businessmen look for one armed accountants!
My answer to the question “Is Islam compatible with a free society?” is that it depends. It depends on how you understand Islam.
Let me give you an example from another religion.
Within our lifetimes, some Christians read the Bible and decided that black South Africans were an inferior form of humanity compared with white South Africans. At the same time, other Christians read that same Bible and joined the South African civil rights movement, campaigning for racial equality.
One Bible – two diametrically opposite interpretations.
The same is true of Islam.
The Taliban and ISIS read the same religious texts that I read. Their understanding of Islam is incompatible with any concept of freedom. They demand that people become robots, obeying the rules of Islam as the Taliban or ISIS choose to interpret them.
Conversely, last year I gave the annual religious freedom lecture of the J Reuben Clark Law Society UK and Ireland Chapter. You can find the lecture on my website mohammedamin.com quite easily if you look for it. In my lecture, I showed how the Quran is completely compatible with Article 18, the religious freedom article, of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Just because the Bible or the Islamic sources can be read in multiple ways does not mean that all readings are equally valid. Outside the Dutch Reformed Church [of South Africa] or some of the segregationists in the deep south [of the USA], very few Christians read the Bible as justifying white people suppressing black people. Similarly, very few Muslims agree with the way that the Taliban or ISIS read the Islamic sources.
Sadly, many of the people who disagree with the Taliban or ISIS are reluctant to speak up, perhaps because they fear being accused of not being “Muslim enough.”
In my remaining time, I want to look at the Islamic sources in just a tiny bit more detail, but I am going to leave the heavy stuff to my colleagues.
The starting point with Islam is the Quran. As a Muslim, I believe that God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) via the Archangel Gabriel. The Quran is the literal word of God. That is what I believe.
The second source of authority in Islam is called hadith. Hadith are accounts of the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him]. These were not recorded contemporaneously but spread by word-of-mouth. Several hundred years later, some scholars went around collecting these oral accounts. They tested the chains of transmission: “I heard this from A who heard it from B who heard it from C who heard the Prophet say it.” These collectors rejected most of the hadith that they found but recorded some as believed to be reliable.
Now with the Quran, the only question is understanding and interpretation because all Muslims accept that the text of the Quran that we have is the Quran that was given by God to the Prophet Muhammad. But when someone quotes a hadith, the very first question should always be to decide if you think the hadith is authentic.
Let me give you one example. Apostasy is the act of deciding that you no longer believe in Islam. In the Quran, God is quite damning about those who choose voluntarily to leave Islam. God makes it quite clear that they are liable to be condemned to Hell on the Day of Judgement. However, the Quran lays down no earthly penalties for simple apostasy. There are earthly penalties for getting involved in armed insurrection against the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] but that is a different thing entirely.
But when you look at hadith, there are some hadith to the effect that anyone who changes his religion away from Islam should be killed. Although these hadith are included in the major hadith collections, when assessed by the criteria for deciding whether a hadith is strong or weak, these hadith are not particularly strong. My colleague Usama has written about this subject in real depth. And these hadith are regarded as not particularly strong just from looking at the chains of transmission.
But when you go on to compare what these hadith are saying, and compare that with the message of the Quran, I think it becomes even clearer. My view is that any hadith which contradicts the Quran has to be rejected because I do not believe that the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] would ever have gone against the express word of God as written in the Quran. When God prescribes no earthly penalty for apostasy, while castigating people for flip flopping, I do not believe that the Prophet decided spontaneously of himself to create an earthly penalty for apostasy.
I do not have time to go through lots of texts; my colleagues may go through them a bit more. But I have a very simple big picture message.
In the Quran, God speaks directly to every person individually. He tells us what is the right way to live. God promises us rewards for obeying him and threatens to punish us for disobeying him. God then leaves it to us to get on with it. That is fundamentally a message of freedom.
That is why for centuries, right through until the European Enlightenment Muslim majority countries were much more tolerant of religious diversity than Christian Europe with its persecution of heresy, any form of Christian heresy was persecuted in Europe, let alone the treatment of Jews in Europe until the Enlightenment.
My conclusion is that the better reading of the Islamic sources is that Islam is compatible with a free society. It is God who gives us the freedom to choose. Otherwise He could have made us into robots, automatically doing exactly what God wanted us to do.
I do not have a transcript of his session. However, he refers to two of his previous writings.
"No Compulsion in Religion: Islam and the Freedom of Belief"
"From Dhimmitude to Democracy: Islamic Law, Non-Muslims and Equal Citizenship"
In his talk, Usama works through the eight main points from his text "No Compulsion in Religion: Islam and the Freedom of Belief" which are reproduced below:
- Blasphemy is difficult to define in a global context: one person’s blasphemy may be another’s freedom of belief
- Blasphemy laws are notoriously open to abuse, and are used by repressive governments to enforce discrimination against religious minorities
- From an Islamic perspective, the prohibition of compulsion in religious matters is a fundamental Qur'anic principle: true faith is based on free will and free choice
- Religious faith and practice under coercion is clearly not genuine, and therefore counter-productive
- There is no explicit sanction in the Qur'an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for the criminalisation and punishment of blasphemy: in fact, the opposite is the case; the few scriptural texts that are misquoted in this regard all refer to wartime situations, and the harsh, mediaeval Islamic jurisprudence on blasphemy was developed centuries after the Prophet himself
- The Islamic scriptures promote faith and respect for sacred symbols; any penalties for violations of these are spiritual and other-worldly, and not the business of worldly legislation and punishment
- The Qur'anic spirit is to freely discuss and debate matters of faith and religion to enable people as free, moral agents to make informed choices about such matters
- Debate and discussion should ideally be polite, respectful and civilised: when it is not, the Muhammadan character is to respond to insults, uncivilised behaviour and violence with patience, forbearance, forgiveness and compassion
Azhar Aslam spoke from some prepared notes. They are reproduced below, verbatim. However I have added some headings to make the notes easier to follow on screen.
Is Liberal democracy compatible with Islam?
1. History: John Locke the father of liberalism. His theories on life, liberty, property, consent, and the social contract form the foundation of classical liberalism, which is the foundation of open and free society.
But who influenced Locke? Two names stand out. His teacher Dr Edward Pococke. And friend Henry Stubbe. Pococke had lived studied in Aleppo under Muslims scholars and was well versed in Classic Muslim texts. He had set up the chair in Arabic at Oxford where Locke studied under him. Pococke had first-hand experience of open plural and tolerant Islamic empire.
Pococke is considered one of the greatest influences on Locke's thinking, by his biographers, and on "The Treatise of Toleration". Locke was a lifelong friends with Dr Pococke and his son, Edward Pococke junior, who he also taught. In fact G A Russell observes that Dr Pococke may have left many of his important books to Locke.
Henry Stubbe was a radical reformist, influential English thinker and Locke’s friend ,who is believed to have converted to Islam. Stubbe in 1674 in his famous book ‘An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, and a Vindication of Him and His Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians, says
‘Unlike the Christian princes and church leaders, Mohammad was “far from depriving any Ismaelite of his liberty, that he would set even a bird free if he saw him encaged’.
Therefore Stubbe argued Muhammad’s religion and his government must be a Christian ideal, “a government based upon natural prudence’ ...
As we all know that Islam does not believe in original sin.
Ibn i Sina’s concept of the ‘tabula rasa’, and Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn Tofayl’s novel Hayy bin Yaqzan, which was translated to Latin as Philosophus Autodidactus and then in English as The Self-Taught Philosopher, directly influenced Locke to argue that a child was born with a clean slate (Tabula Rasa) and one’s identity, ideas, and beliefs are the result of one’s experiences, society, and education.
According to GA Russell this text was the case study for Locke’s Essay On Human Understanding.
Maqasid Shariah [The goals of Shariah]
Here is another Historical fact: Maqasid Shariah : Throughout history Muslim jurists have insisted that Islamic law has come to protect the universal inalienable God-given rights of life, religious freedom, and liberty to choose and protect one’s family, property, and human intellect.
The Qur’anic concepts of common origins of all humans, absolute equality, and human dignity formulates the foundations of God-given, inalienable, and universal human rights.
Ghazali, 600 years before Locke had written extensively about this, and, Al-Shatibi, the extremely well known and influential Spanish Muslim jurist, 300 hundred years earlier than Locke, had summarized the objectives of the Islamic Shari’ah as the preservation of “life, religion, family, property, and reason.
As Ibn Ashur in his book on Maqasid e shariah emphasises that one of the fundamental maxims of Islamic jurisprudence is ‘The Lawgiver aims for freedom’.
Was this a coincidence? Locke stating the Maqasid e Shariah, in his various writings. Not in my opinion.
My conclusion is that it is Islam which indirectly have given birth to Classical Liberalism, Liberal democratic ideas and ideals of free society.
The nation state
2. Nation state is a western concept and has developed out of particular western European historical framework. Islam does not define or require a state. It does desire idealises and demands a community, although to a large degree it leaves open the defines and confines of such a community and offers only broad principles but no strictures and codes. These broadly are
- Commonwealth of humanity and community; Allah nominated humans as ‘ khalifah fil araz’; that means all humans and any human. Not Muslims or believers.; There is ummah or commonwealth of believers but not a state with its majesty and Power.
- Rule of law to maintain peace and order with complete freedom of religion, movement and life, including protection of and respect for privacy and liberty; prevention of fasaad and fitnaa;
- Individual identity and reponsiblity: full and complete acceptance of each individual and his and her rights;
- Equality in accountability in front of Allah and thence law and governing body. Adl. Justice.
- Free markets with complete economic freedom for capital, labour and contracts.
What developed historically in the first 50 years of Islam was based on these principles.
The only standard of the priority has been clearly set out by Qura’an which is ‘Taqwa’. Consciousness of being answerable to a Just but merciful God about one’s individual actions.
Quran places individual squarely at heart of all action.
Islam places before the individuals and societies the same high ideals of morality. And makes it obligatory for them to abide by the principles of morality at all costs and in all circumstances.
The scholars of Islam in the early centuries were not officials of the state. Their status was what Goiten called “an independent republic” of scholars, more akin to modern law professors, but with greater influence. They were the ones who discovered the law which the people then expected the ruler not only to enforce, but to be governed by.
In theory at least all rulers in Muslim History were accountable to the Law.
The first Caliph Abu Bakr in his inaugural address stated this: “I have been elected your amir (Commander), although I am not the best of you. If I give you a command in accordance with the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet, obey me; but if I give you a command that departs from the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet, then correct me. Truth is righteousness and falsehood is treason.”
The British nobles witnessed this first hand in the crusades where they saw Saladin rule under the law, not above it.
As a matter of fact, the Islamic view of political structures in its very own nature encompasses the coexistence of multiple religions, cultures, social and political patterns.
Meesaq e Medina by Prophet himself is the Prime example and Unique not only in Islamic but Human history.
Classical Muslim jurists view of the state
3. Classic Muslim jurists saw a powerful monarch and State as an essential evil, and accepted as the least worse alternative to anarchy and chaos (fitnaa and fassad).
In the first three hundred years of Islam there were open discussions and debates. There was an open flow of ideas. Many ideas considered heretic settled and lived in peace free to practice their ways of life under various empires.
It is in this spirit that Malik told Abbasid caliph Al Mansour ‘O leaders of faithful do not do so for people have already learnt various views and known certain traditions and developed their practice according to various companions’ teachings. So preventing them from what they do will be hard leave them to what they practice and let them choose what they want to practice. ( ibn Ashur)
Nizam al Mulk the prime minister for Seljuq sultans for thirty years, wrote a ‘treatise on govt’ … puts Justice as the highest quality and advocates moderation as the golden mean in all acts of govt… ( Erwin Rosenthal in ‘political thought in medieval islam‘ )
Ibn e Khaldun distinguishes three states and advocated the political system of Muslims as sisyas aqiliya .. Politics based on reasoning with religion playing important and primary but not the sole role …
Modern Muslim scholars have similar ideas. According to Iqbal ‘the state from Islamic point of view is an endeavour to transform the ideals of tawhid … equality, solidarity and freedom,,, into a definite human organisation’.
Prof shabbier Akhtar ( Islam as political religion) Islamic moral force will always push for equitable distribution of political power and economic assets and will always oppose monopoly in market and bureaucratic state , executive democracy .. disguised as liberal participatory democratic polity …
Dr. Jasser Auda in his article “The Islamic Concept of State” asserts that ‘Islamic law is neutral about the specific political system that a Muslim society endorses; Muslim societies are free to choose any political system they wish, without making any of them an Islamic ‘obligation’.
It is supported by the facts of Islamic history that even the Prophet (S.A.W) did not announce any structure of state in his life. S.M Zafar in his book ‘Awaam, Islam Aur Parliament’ terms this reference as the examination of the Muslim Ummah after the moral training that the Holy Prophet (S.A.W) bestowed through the divine message and its exemplification through out his life.
To sum up, in my view, Islam sees Power and its instruments though the Lens of Human Morality and subservient to it.
4. Liberal democracy is in trouble. According to Hoover institution at Stanford University while the World is learning from America that the economic and political freedoms that come from capitalism and democracy are the most powerful and productive way to organize society, America is discovering that capitalism and democracy alone are not enough to sustain a healthy, vibrant society. We are learning the hard way that a self-governing nation must consist of self-governing individuals. A breakdown in the moral fabric of society has dire consequences.
Bill Emmott chairman of Wake up Foundation, and an ex editor of The economist writes about this in his latest book. The Fate of the West. ‘The principles that drove It to its greatest achievements have been corrupted. Special interest groups have accrued too much power. The values of openness and equality have fallen into disrepair.
The current state of affairs
5. The factors ranging from the after effects of colonialism, post-colonial despotism, present day western hegemony, attacks on Muslim lands during past quarter of a century, and living in an interconnected global society, with burgeoning populations under resource constrained circumstances, have all resulted in the resurgence of reactionary but doomed theories of Islamic statehood, based on false premise. But because they promise a land of milk and honey to the have-nots, they attract followers. Such utopian and extreme views naturally result in intolerance, mainly due to practical and occasionally due to ideological reasons. This has been the case in Human history and present day Muslims are no exception to this rule. John Morrow notes that ‘the periods of greatest intolerance have coincided with Western imperialist occupation, both past and present.’
This state of affairs is further encouraged by pygmies who rule the Muslims countries. There is complete lack of vision; corruption is rampant; crony capitalism dominates the economy, and democracy is seen as mere electioneering with ruling elite exploiting the resources for personal gains. Such rulers, mostly supported by short-sighted western governments, have showed no interest in improving the social, political and intellectual lot of Muslim masses. They continue to self-serve. There is an unholy alliance of orthodox Mullah and the monopolistic elite. This alliance continues to perpetuate the inbreeding of poverty, lack of education and extremist interpretations of Islam.
6. My argument is that Muslims lands need a 'breathing space' and West must be willing to accept a different, but 'compatible and mutually reinforcing' future for Muslims societies where an indigenous form of "liberal Islamic order' will develop.
Islamisation of modern secularism is not only a possibility it is actively happening in Muslim countries.
That Islam envisages, provides, and facilitates such a free society there should be no doubt. Both the scriptural sources, Quran and Sunnah testify to this. The early Islamic history and even the later Islamic empires built on openness, tolerance, pluralism and inclusiveness again testify to the Islamic Freedoms
But must this happen in the way West would like it to happen?
To think that religion is irrelevant or an obstacle to democracy is patently wrong ,,, that there will be host of Muslim democracies and modernities … as authoritarian secular forces meltdown these will be filled with religio-secular forces ,,, Pakistan is a case in point … democratization will be along unfamiliar lines … these don’t have to be along western trajectory and institutional models, .. the democratic systems will not be exact copies of those in the West, just because religion has a role to play in public sphere it doesn’t mean they won’t be democracies, ( Bukhari and ……. Political Islam in the age of democratization)
We all share one planet and with some serious existential threats to Humanity the future must be freed from the Past, in as much as it can be, and mutually complementary order be developed based on fundamental values that are shared.
The most important of these values is Morality of Abrahamic faiths inherent in each self- accountable individual.
The presentations were followed by a question and answer session. That forms part of the recording, but is not transcribed.