Islam and Democracy in the New AWorld Order@:
The Role of the Humanities
M.A.R. Habib, Rutgers University
Fourth Malaysia International Conference on Languages, Literatures and Cultures
Universiti Putra, Malaysia, April 23, 2005

An ostensibly integral component of the Anew world order@ envisioned by the Bush dynasty in America is its alleged world wide endeavour to promote Aliberty@ and Ademocracy.@ The events in Iraq over the last two years have proven the inexhaustibly complex nature of the process of democratisation, a complexity scarcely acknowledged or anticipated by the Bush administration. 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?

My paper 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 empircism, 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 a 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, as models to be avoided?

Turning to the second question: the debate concerning Islam and democracy has now reached peculiarly intense proportions. Several Western journalists, such as Jamie Glazov, somewhat 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:  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); the compact or constitution effected by the prophet (s) at Medina, between muhajirun, ansar and the yahud; and the status of the sharia as immutable and unchangeable divine law or as historically conditioned and adaptable to particular circumstances; 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, ADemocracy must triumph in theory before it can be realized in practice.@ 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 literal meaning of any text has been exploded; there can be no meaning that somehow exists promordially 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 Auguistine 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 calipha Ali Ibn Abi Talib.  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 of 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 gathered around >Ali exclaimed, AWhat 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).

If the humanities have insisted on the constitutive role of interpretation, the implications of this insight for the study of Islam, and its compataibility with democracy, as well as its standing of many other issues, 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, AShari>ah relies on the interpretive act of the human agent for its production and execution.@  Fadl argues that Aregardless 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: AAs 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 Athief,@ Acut off,@ Ahands,@ and Arecompense.@ 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.26 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 fulfillments of the Divine Will, but the laws as codified and implemented by the state cannot be considered as the actual fulfillment of these potentialities@ (Boston Review, Apr/May 2003).

El Fadl=s position seems to me an example of a  reasonable and knowledgable 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 Aa tyranny of legalism.@ Khan goes so far as to call for a complete democatisation of the legal process: AAbou El Fadl, too, argues that an Islamic democracy should recognize 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 sameCthe 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, Aunless jurists permit the democratization 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 AIslamic outcomes@ by requiring that, for example, Athe 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 AMy 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 B though not a compromise B 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 B the Qur=an, the hadith and the shariah B but would acknowledge their historical conditions, their audience, their aesthetic qualities and, above all, their depth and diversity of meaning.