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May 31 2017

Islam and Classical Liberalism: Are they Compatible?

From the Web
Excerpt from: http://www.learnliberty.org/blog/islam-and-classical-liberalism-are-they-compatible/

By Mustafa Akyol
(Learn Liberty), April 10, 2011

 

In [the] classical age of Islam — say, from the 7th century to the 19th century — there was at least one gain in terms of liberty: Muslim states did not have a single law of the land. They rather had multiple legal systems to which individuals would be subject based on their religion. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, the Sharia was binding on Muslims, whereas Christians and Jews had their own laws. While alcohol was forbidden to Muslims, it was allowed for Christians.

In the modern era, theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia have taken a much worse step by making the Sharia the law of the land. That is how Islamic commandments became binding on non-Muslims as well. Thus, Christians visiting Saudi Arabia from abroad may not drink or even possess alcohol — or, alas, even a copy of the Bible — for example, and are subject to imprisonment for violating the law.

Yet in the same modern era, there have also emerged reformist Muslims who call for revisiting this whole idea of state religion. These reformists — my humble self being among them — argue that the marriage of Islam and the state is just an accident of history, not a requirement of religion.

They emphasize a key Qur’anic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:258), and argue that the Sharia must be reinterpreted in light of this principle. Compulsion, they add, breeds not genuine religiosity but only hypocrisy. Jihad, they argue, is only a justification for defensive and just war, not a warrant for aggression and conquest.

This reformist argument makes sense to many Muslims around the world and is promoted by plenty of scholars, intellectuals, movements, and parties. (Tunisia’s recent success was made possible partly because its main pro-Islamic party, En-Nahda, is led by Rashid Ghannouchi — a prominent Islamic scholar who takes the “no compulsion in religion” principle seriously.)

The Limited Muslim State

While Muslim reformists argue against certain aspects of the Islamic tradition, they embrace other aspects of it. One of them is a little-noticed but crucial feature of the Sharia: It [shariah] was not a law devised by state power. It was rather a law devised by religious scholars who were often independent of state power.

That is why and how, throughout the long centuries of classical Islam, the Sharia often acted as a constraint on arbitrary rule and became the guardian of rights. (It is not an accident that in Arabic, the term “law” translates as huquq, which literally means “rights.”) The rights that the Sharia protected included property rights. This protection was crucial at time when despotic states could typically plunder wealth at will.

To further consolidate the protection of private property, medieval Islamic scholars developed a version of the legal doctrine of trusts. This allowed the transmission of wealth across generations through the creation of the charitable foundation, the waqf, which was legally immune from governmental interference. The result was a vigorous civil society, including charities, hospitals, and schools, all supported by the private foundations that were under the Sharia’s protection.

The medieval Muslim state, in other words, was a state limited by law. Thanks to the sanctity and independence of the Sharia, a form of checks and balances was established that allowed nonstate institutions to flourish. If there was a big secret to Islam’s much-praised golden age, it was this notion of a limited state.

Today, what are we supposed to understand from this whole legacy of the Sharia? A good answer comes from a theory developed by a 14th-century Islamic scholar named Imam Shatibi. He studied all injunctions of the Sharia and reasoned that the “intentions” behind all of them could be rendered to the protection of five values: religion, life, property, intellect, and lineage. Reformist Muslims often take these “five intentions” of the Sharia as the guiding light and argue that any state that protects them — and is constrained by them — is welcome regardless of whether it is “Islamic” or not.

Islamic Capitalism

There is one more area to consider: the economy. What kind of economy does Islam envision? Answers among Muslims vary, as there are defenders of so-called “Islamic socialism.” Others, however, argue that if there is a specific Islamic model of the economy, it is certainly capitalism.

This argument for capitalism is partly rooted in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Before the beginning of his religious mission at the age of 40 in the city of Mecca, he was a successful merchant. This meant that he saw the blessings of trade and understood the mechanisms of the market. No wonder he has many recorded sayings in which he promotes trade and praises the “honest merchant.”

The same spirit can be found in the Qur’an. It is quite notable that the longest verse of the Qur’an (2:282) is about how to write a proper loan contract with the right witnesses.

In a remarkable episode in Prophet Muhammad’s life, we also read that he was asked by his faithful believers to regulate the increasing prices in the marketplace. He responded negatively, saying: “Only God controls the prices.” Some later commentators have seen a spirit here similar to Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

The protrade spirit of Islam’s prophet and scripture led to the rise of a financial and commercial capitalism in the Middle East in the early centuries of Islam. Some inventions of this “Islamic capitalism” were later borrowed by Europeans. (That is why, for example, the English word “check” comes from the Arabic word saqq, which means “written document.”)

In his remarkable book Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism, economist Benedikt Koehler documents all these economic achievements of Islam. “The roots of Chicago economics,” he even argues, “lie in seventh century Medina.”

The decline of this medieval Islamic capitalism — due to many factors, including wars, invasions, and the change in trade routes — led to the overall decline of Muslim civilization. The Muslim world stagnated, lagged behind, and ultimately panicked in the face of a much more advanced West. It is a trauma that is still alive and kicking. And the solution lies in revitalizing the capitalist creativity of Islam’s golden age.

Muslim Liberals

None of this means that classical liberalism is a popular idea among Muslims today. Quite the contrary — there are very powerful illiberal, statist, autocratic trends among Muslims, not to mention the violent extremists that threaten us all.

But a defense of classical liberalism on Islamic grounds is possible — and is not unheard of. Many Muslims, especially those living in the West, accept classical liberal ideas intuitively. Moreover, there are initiatives dedicated to this cause, such the Minaret of Freedom and Muslims for Liberty in the United States, the Islamic Renaissance Front in Malaysia, and the Liberal Islam Network in Indonesia. They are led by Muslims who are serious about their faith and who are genuine in their commitment to liberty.

Such pious Muslims can usher a reform in Islam toward “no compulsion in religion” and freedom for all. This concept of freedom is not something that will be poised against God. Quite the contrary: it is a freedom that is bestowed by God.

1 comment

  1. Phillip Slepian

    I liked this piece. It clearly states that the author’s views are reformist in nature, and not a contorted interpretation of classical Islam. My only reservation, as always, is that of critical mass. There are no reliable figures available for the numbers of Muslims anywhere that support the sort of reforms proposed by Akyol. Clearly, he dismisses the principle of abrogation in the Koran (naskh). If an Islamic reformer is willing to disregard abrogation, Islam can indeed become a liberal, democratic faith that could be compatible with the U.S. constitution and republic. As long as the reforms proposed here are genuine and not simply a means of obfuscation in the service of Islamic jihad (as it is with e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood), I applaud it whole-heartedly.

    On the topic of capitalism, I take no issue with Akyol except for the issue of Islamic finance. Much of the capitalist system of the West is based on the lending of money at interest for business development. It is my understanding that the Judeo-Christian culture makes a distinction between lending to a poor person so that the poor person can either by food, shelter and clothing, or even create a means by which to support himself, and lending money to business ventures which are not a matter of survival, but rather a voluntary undertaking. Likewise, it’s one thing to borrow money to purchase a basic means of transportation in order to commute to work, and another to purchase a luxury vehicle. As far as I understand it, Islamic law makes no such distinction, making our capitalist system difficult for Muslims. Perhaps this is another area ripe for reform?

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