M.A.R. Habib

Rutgers University

Fourth Malaysia International Conference on Languages, Literatures and Cultures

Universiti Putra, Malaysia, April 23, 2005

(To be published in the volume Critical Perspectives in Literature and Culture in the New World Order, Cambridge Scholars, U.K.)

An ostensibly integral component of the ‘new world order’ envisioned by the Bush dynasty in America is its alleged world wide endeavour to promote ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’. The events in Iraq over the last three years have proven the inexhaustibly complex nature of the process of democratisation, a complexity scarcely acknowledged or anticipated. There are some broader implications raised by developments in Iraq: (1) to what extent does Islam itself harbour democratic principles? Is it, as many modern scholars have argued, essentially a religion of equality and equal access to justice? (2) Why has the American attempt to impose democracy on Iraq encountered such severe problems? Do the obstinate differences in historical development between the West and much of the Islamic world necessitate an entirely different approach to democracy? Indeed, might there be alternative visions of democracy that need not be based on Western, secular models? (3) What can be the role of the humanities and of a liberal education in fostering truly democratic institutions and democratic principles, built upon a truly Islamic basis, in the Islamic world?

This talk will focus on the last question, namely, the role of the humanities. But I would like to make a few remarks concerning the first two questions. To begin with, we might reflect that democracy in the West took hundreds of years to emerge and mature, and its development rested upon a vast complex of factors, including the Protestant Reformation, the rise of science, the separation of theology from philosophy and the consequent emphasis on rationalism and empiricism, the decline of feudalism, the rise and fall of absolute monarchies, and the French Revolution, as well as more general trends such as industrialisation, urbanisation, and increasingly broad access to education and voting rights. Along with these developments came changes in the rights of agricultural and industrial workers, as well as the rights of women. The essential change underlying all of these was the rise of an economically powerful middle class, which promulgated its own values of liberalism, rationalism, economic efficiency, pragmatism and utilitarianism in the spheres of business, trade and education. This is the essential change that has not happened in much of the Islamic world. To the extent that liberalism has taken any root in the Islamic world, it has been mimetic of, and imported from, the West.

Hence democracy is a complex historical process, based not merely on voting rights but an entire series of institutions such as an independent judiciary, free political parties, the creation of a civil society and the separation of powers; it also embraces certain deep-rooted principles such as: pluralism, limited government, accountability, human rights, equality and the ideal of popular sovereignty. Clearly, then, democracy is not a system of government that can simply be imposed from the outside, since it presupposes ways of thinking that have taken centuries to cultivate. Moreover, we cannot simply take for granted that liberal bourgeois values are necessarily valid; historically, they have subserved a certain class of society, and they include an intense emphasis upon individualism, profit-making, competition, aggression, as many commentators from within the Western tradition itself have noted. Furthermore, historically, Western democracies have been intrinsically tied to ideals of nationalism (which are questionable in Islam) and have effected oppression of many classes of their own people (the working classes, women, minorities). The questions we need to ask include: how successful are Western democracies? Is this where the Islamic world desires to go? Or can we see certain societal developments, such as the breakdown of even the nuclear family, and a consumerised individualism, as models to be avoided?

Turning to the second question: the debate concerning Islam and democracy has now reached peculiarly intense proportions. Several ill-minded Western journalists, such as Jamie Glazov, hysterically deny that Islam is compatible with democracy or modernisation. Other Western journalists are more balanced and knowledgeable but still suspicious of any claim that Islamic fundamentalism might promote or even desire democratic principles. Among Islamic scholars and theologians the debate has produced an interesting spectrum of responses. While there is clearly no consensus on the question, it might be fair to say that the debate has centred on a number of issues: (i) the process of shura or consultative decision making, which is commended/commanded by the Quran xlii, v. 38 and iii, v. 159 (wa amruhum shura baynahum); (ii) the compact or constitution effected by the Prophet (s) in the first Islamic community at Medina, between the muhajirun, the Muslim emigrants from Mecca, the ansar, the “helpers” or Medinans who converted to Islam, and the yahud or Jews; (iii) the status of the sharia or Islamic law: should this be regarded as immutable and unchangeable divine law or as historically conditioned and adaptable to particular circumstances; (iv) and finally, the kinds of political and moral values espoused by the Quran, such as justice based on co-operation (49:13, 11:119), and consultative government (6:12, 54:21:107, 29:51, 45:20).

What can the role of the humanities be in these debates? The most fundamental role, surely, must be to promote appropriate and desirable attitudes toward knowledge and learning. Given the ignorance of Islam, not only in the West but among Muslims themselves, we need to reform our education systems. The Prophet (S) himself, in many ahadith, placed a great value on knowledge and emphasised the need to talk about matters of religion in an informed manner. As Muqtedar Khan has said, “Democracy must triumph in theory before it can be realised in practice” (Boston Review, Apr/May 2003). I think that we could broaden this statement to say that Islam itself must be understood in theory before it can be realised in practice.

Through the twentieth century, the humanities have undergone many methodological developments; perhaps the most fundamental is the acknowledgment of the constitutive role of human perception and interpretation in constructing our world: our intellectual and spiritual world as well our physical world. The notion of a “literal meaning” of any text has been exploded; there can be no meaning that somehow exists primordially or prior to the act of interpretation. The Qur’an, in its infinite wisdom, recognises this, and asserts that God speaks in parables for men. The early Christian thinkers such as Augustine also recognised the need to interpret many passages of scripture metaphorically. The early rulers of Islam were also aware of the need to interpret: Abou el Fadl relates an anecdotal story about the fourth caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib (R). A group later known as the Khawarij insisted on divine sovereignty, and they accused Ali of accepting the judgment and dominion (hakimiyya) of human beings instead of abiding by the dominion of God’s law. Upon hearing this accusation, Ali called upon the people to gather around him and brought a large copy of the Qur’an. Ali touched the Qur’an while instructing it to speak to the people and inform them about God’s law. Surprised, the people who were gathered around Ali exclaimed, “What are you doing? The Qur’an cannot speak, for it is not a human being!” Upon hearing this, Ali exclaimed that this was exactly his point. The Qur’an, Ali explained, is but ink and paper, and it does not speak for itself. Instead, it is human beings who give effect to it according to their limited personal judgments and opinions (Boston Review, Apr/May 2003).1

If the humanities have insisted on the constitutive role of interpretation in the way we perceive the meaning of anything, the implications of this insight for the study of Islam, and its compatibility with democracy, is immense. For example, Khalid Abou el Fadl reaffirms the distinction between shariah which is divine law, and fiqh, which is the human attempt to understand and apply this law. Shariah is fixed and immutable whereas fiqh varies according to human capacity and circumstance. According to el Fadl, shariah relies on the interpretive act of the human agent for its production and execution. Fadl argues that 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? And even when the issue of meaning is resolved, can the law be enforced in such a fashion that one can claim that the result belongs to God? God’s knowledge and justice are perfect, but it is impossible for human beings to determine or enforce the law in such a fashion that the possibility of a wrongful result is entirely excluded. This does not mean that the exploration of God’s law is pointless; it only means that the interpretations of jurists are potential fulfilments of the Divine Will, but the laws as codified and implemented by the state cannot be considered as the actual fulfilment of these potentialities (Boston Review, Apr/May 2003).

El Fadl’s position seems to me an example of a reasonable and knowledgeable attempt to harmonise the demand for divine sovereignty with the unavoidably human nature of interpretation. However, there are dangers in merely demanding abstractly that the process of interpretation be democratised. M.A. Muqtedar Khan equates even Fadl’s position with what Khan calls “a tyranny of legalism”. Khan goes so far as to call for a complete democratisation of the legal process: Abou El Fadl, too, argues that an Islamic democracy should recognise the centrality of Shari’ah in Muslim life. This claim is scary, and prompts several questions. Who gets to articulate what constitutes the Shari’ah? Islamic jurists? Who determines who an Islamic jurist is? Who determines which schools can provide the education that will produce jurists? Who determines when a specific democratically passed law is in violation of the Shari’ah? Who determines the issues on which people will have freedom of thought and action and the issues on which the so-called Shari’ah will be unquestionable? The answer to all of these questions is the same: the Muslim jurist. A close reading of Abou El Fadl’s arguments suggests that an Islamic democracy is essentially a dictatorship of the Muslim jurists. It is much like contemporary Iranian democracy, which is often held hostage by the clerics.

“There will be no Islamic democracy,” Khan continues, “unless jurists permit the democratisation of interpretation.” Let every citizen be a jurist and let her interpret Islam and Shari’ah when she votes. In a democracy the vote/opinion/fatwa of every individual must be considered equal since ontologically all humans are equals. Insisting on the centrality of a fixed Shari’ah is a recipe for authoritarianism. Abou El Fadl is interpretively more liberal than his traditional colleagues and his vision of the Shari’ah is more inclusive, but as long as the commanding authority of jurists remains in place, and the jurists retain a monopoly on interpretation (Ijtihad), there can be no Islamic democracy. To be sure, the moral quality of this Islamic democracy will depend on the extent of Islamic knowledge and commitment of the citizens. But attempts to guarantee “Islamic outcomes” by requiring that, for example, “the essential Shari’ah must be applied” will inevitably subvert democracy by handing authority over to jurists. Also, the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) reportedly said that “My Ummah will not unite upon error.” But no comparable claim is made about the infallibility of the opinions of the jurists. We are left, then, with the democratic idea that only public opinion should be trusted. In short: the content of law in an Islamic democracy should be a democratically negotiated conclusion emerging in a democratic society. In the absence of this free and open negotiation, Islamic democracy will be a procedural sham that confines voting mechanisms to secondary matters (Boston Review, Apr/May 2003).

While the questions raised by Professor Khan are highly pertinent, his suggestion for a simple and abstract democratisation of law seems impractical and theoretically implausible. His position would appear to highlight the dangers of uncritical subservience to liberal principles. Education systems in the Islamic world need to achieve a balance – though not a compromise – between adherence to Islamic principles and the critical and judicious employment of principles drawn from the Western liberal democratic tradition. Those education systems need to move away from rote learning and reliance upon tradition (taqlid) to a knowledge based on understanding, toward the practice of reading and interpretation grounded on critical principles. Such a practice of reading would not posit a primordial, timeless meaning of the fundamental texts of Islam – the Qur’an, the hadith and the shari’ah – but would acknowledge their historical conditions, their audience, their aesthetic qualities and, above all, their depth and diversity of meaning.

One of the fundamental factors underlying the importance of the humanities is that, as both Western and Islamic scholars have pointed out, there is no consensus concerning even Western models of democracy. There are multiple discourses concerning this concept, and the main challenge to liberal-bourgeois formulations of democracy has issued from Marxism, which has held that true democracy is stifled under capitalism. Even more poignantly, it might be pointed out that there is no consensus concerning the concepts in Islam – such as shura, ijma and ijtihad – which have conventionally been aligned with democratic impulses. As mentioned before, democracy is a relatively recent political phenomenon even in the West, and it emerged as a result of a complex array of ideological, religious, political, economic and military struggles. The meaning of democracy itself has been richly contested, and it might be instructive to recall that the conventional liberal-bourgeois definitions of democracy — which have been historically affiliated with nationalism, possession of property, individualism, economic competition and in general an atomistic vision of society – have variously been challenged. One of the most articulate critiques has issued from the tradition of Marxism, which has advanced a more communal and collective vision of society and which has insisted that true freedom, including the freedom to participate in the political process, cannot subsist in a context where one class or a minority has privileged access to property, wealth, power and the means of ideological hegemony. Marx was insistent that a socialist society would not abrogate capitalism but would rather realise capitalism’s promise of democracy and individual freedom.

It is arguable that the impulses toward democratic thinking in Islam share certain essential features with socialist visions of democracy: a collective, rather than individualistic, view of society; a vision of economic practice as grounded upon moral and social responsibility; an ideal of universal participation in the political process; a rejection of nationalism in favour of the idea of universal brotherhood and sisterhood; and the ideal of universal equality (an additional, non-Marxist, basis for Islam’s rejection of nationalism is the idea of a universal accountability to God). Muslim scholars such as Muhammad Iqbal and, more recently, Khurshid Ahmed have long argued that Western democracy is based on material foundations and human sovereignty, whereas any Islamic concept of democracy must have a spiritual and ethical foundation and is based upon the sovereignty of God.

How are we to understand the idea of God’s sovereignty in the context of modern discussions of the democratic process? In their recent book Islam and Democracy, John L. Esposito and John O. Voll argue that Islamic politics has centred on three fundamental concepts: tawhid or the belief in the absolute unity of God; risalat or prophethood, embracing the practice, precedent and example of the prophet (S), and khilafah or caliphate. This last term is often used to indicate the successorship to the prophet (S) of a political leader. But, as many Islamic scholars have pointed out, the term caliph can also refer to a regent or representative. Again, scholars such as Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi have interpreted khilafah or caliphate as denoting that man is God’s representative or regent on earth. It is humankind as a whole which is endowed with this responsibility which, when translated into political terms, means that all must participate in the political process. If, as in the concept of tawhid or absolute oneness, God is absolutely one and His sovereignty is absolute, there can be no human hierarchy since all are equally bound to act in His name and according to His will.21

Clearly, then, the discussion of Islam and democracy reaches into interpretations of the most fundamental concepts of Islam such as tawhid and khilafah, as well as into some of the founding presuppositions of modern Western ideology, such as the affiliations of individual rights with property and the affiliation of democracy with nationalism. The apparatus of interpretation in both Western secular contexts and Islamic theological contexts must be furnished by the rhetorical and philosophical traditions that have often served as the foundations of the humanities. It is within the broad spectrum of disciplines comprising the humanities that the remedy lies for the ahistorical fundamentalism of treating either democracy or Islamic political doctrine as monolithic and unquestionably fixed in their character.

What do these multiple discourses mean for the humanities? The role of the humanities is now more important than ever: in order to understand the basic concepts and institutions of democracy, in order to participate in the democratic political process, in order to understand the basic concepts and political orientation of Islam, we need to address deficiencies in educational systems in both the West and in Muslim societies. We need to create, through the humanities, an apparatus of interpretation, through a revitalisation and, in some cases, a transformation, of the educational process, in ways that will promote knowledge which is grounded on a thorough literacy. Unfortunately, as indicated by a recent report issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities, we are currently moving further and further away from these ideals, as our world becomes increasingly digitalised and as the younger generation becomes increasingly obsessed with electronic media, literacy is reaching dramatically and alarmingly low levels.31

Indeed, it is arguable that in Western societies today, themselves at the heart of capitalism’s globalising impulse to integrate the world’s cultures into its own ever-expanding markets and cultural modes, are experiencing a crisis in their own democratic structures. For example, recent years have witnessed a weakening of civil society in the United States through increased governmental power over individuals, through significant decreases in the literacy of the population, through a massive attunement of younger people to electronic forms of communication and pastime as opposed to any kind of reading, through the monopolisation of the media by a handful of companies, through lack of public access to accurate information concerning national and international issues: all of these developments have tended to decrease the potential of public participation in political discourse and the political process. It is equally arguable that, where regimes which have silenced political dissent in their own countries, even moderate Muslims have become radicalised and the democratic orientation of Islam has been drowned in political exigency and political despair. The role of education and the role of the humanities have never been more desperate, more urgent, than they are now. We might well draw upon the rich traditions emphasising knowledge and wisdom, in both the Western traditions of the liberal arts and the Islamic traditions of thought and science, in a profounder reading of the texts and history of democracy as well as of the Qur’an itself. We might well recall that the Qur’an itself states that Allah (S) speaks in parables: perhaps we should re-examine the notion of literal meaning. It is presumptuous for us to pretend that we can understand easily the Word of God; rather, we might acknowledge that the Word of God is infinitely rich and infinitely profound, that it will repay profound study and extensive inquiry. If, as nearly all of the disciplines in the humanities have repeatedly shown us, the process of thought is enabled by language, and reality as a construct is expressible only in language, then the language of the Qur’an could be viewed as the archetype of a mode of thinking that can sustain and renew itself without lapsing into a rigidity that is typically founded upon ignorance. The notion of Truth would then become a function of the connection between Divine language and human language: what human thought can apprehend through human language is but a partial and metaphorical apprehension of what is revealed by Divine language. The sad truth is that many Muslims read the Arabic of the Qur’an without understanding it; this may apply to the majority of Muslims, who comprise over one billion people. It could change the nature and practice of Islam radically if these people were given access to an understanding of the Holy text. In fact, the reading and re-reading of the Qur’an, in the light of the accumulated knowledge of the past and present, both Eastern and Western, is one of the most important tasks confronting the twenty-first century.