Islamic Theology, Constitutionalism, and the State
A wide array of thinkers have wondered, or proposed, the “modernization” of Islam into a form that can support a constitutional republic (or in modern parlance, a constitutional democracy; we have unfortunately long since lost the sense of the words republic and democracy). In many minds, Christianity and Islam are generally about the same in beliefs and tenor; the main difference between the two being the Reformation and Enlightment, which taught Christians to separate themselves from the state, and to temper their belief in the face of the public good.
This narrative underlies much of the modern world’s thinking on “the Middle East problem,” or perhaps the “radical Islam problem.” If we just somehow give ear to the moderates in Islam, the religion can go through its own “enlightenment,” and come to grips with the modern world. A singular irony embedded in this view is the idea that Islam carried civilization through the “Dark Ages,” as they’re mistakenly called, and into the Enlightenment. So somehow the religion that is most responsible for the Enlightenment needs enlightenment, and the religion that was dragged, kicking and screaming, through the Enlightenment is in a position to bring Islam forward into the light. Or something like that.
Ironies aside, what are the prospects for “reforming” Islam in this way? The book under review considers one element of the constitutional republic formula, the constitution. Can an Islamic nation actually create and hold to a constitution in the Western sense of the word? As the author says —
The frequent attention paid to tolerant intellectuals disguises, in my view, a not-inconsiderable Eurocentric arrogance which suggests that Muslims would really like to imitate Western ideals but are only prevented by their lack of education and their commitment to an antiquated worldview. Western ideas are raised to the level of a normative horizon, and any programs that contradict that ideal are immediately dismissed as inauthentic manifestations of Islam. The conviction is unconsciously conveyed that the historical development of the West represents the universal historical paradigm that must sooner or later emerge in all parts of the world. It is furthermore insinuated that the Islamic world needs a transformation comparable to the Protestant Reformation in order to leap successfully into the modern age. To this end, grotesque historical comparisons have sometimes been made to a need for an Islamic Luther. -Kindle locations 2381-2396
The author begins by tracing the history of constitutional government, pinning the source of the movement on the demand that citizens be free from arbitrary arrest — in fact, the author states that this singular right has the side effect of creating religious freedom, in that people cannot be arrested and imprisoned without some form of just cause. This view seems to be a bit backwards — certainly being free from arbitrary arrest is a large leap forward, but if the law under which people are arrested and imprisoned is as arbitrary as the arrest powers before any such reform, this is a distinction without a difference. Narrowing and making consistent reasons for arresting someone seem to be as important as the process of arrest in the development of a government by law.
The Founding Fathers are given their rightful due in the narrative told in the first chapter of the book for taking the theories created by the political thinkers they followed and turning them into a practical framework on which a government could be hung (at least for a little while, as it turns out). This first chapter on the history of constitutionalism in Europe contains a lengthy, and useful, discussion of secularization and the separation of the Church and state.
The development of constitutions in Islamic nations is the subject of the next chapter. The author shows that each time a constitution was implemented in an Islamic nation, it was either imposed by an outside force, or imposed as a sort of reformation onto the nation from a small group within with nation. There is no instance of a constitutional movement arising “natively,” as with the European nations. Why is this?
The fourth chapter undertakes to answer this question by examining theology in Islam. The author relies on a wide swath of Islamic thinkers and scholars in this investigation. These are not what most modern political thinkers might consider “moderate” Islamic thinkers, but the author makes the case that these are the thinkers who most influence the modern Ilsamic world, and hence should be the ones we listen to when considering the topic at hand. This chapter shows the answer to the question left hanging at the end of the last chapter — why doesn’t Islam have a history of creating constitutions and constitutional movements — is anchored in Islamic theology.
Islamic theology, the author argues, devalues reason in the face of revelation. While Christianity, through it’s struggle with Greek philosophy and Jewish Rabbinical thought, had to come to grips with some merger of reason and revelation, Islamic theology has never truly integrated these two realms of thought.
Skepticism about the power of reason and a negative attitude toward philosophical projects ended the efforts of the mu‘tazila and led to serious reactions toward the thought of Rāzi and Ibn Roshd. An intellectual investigation of the background of faith no longer seemed needed; faith alone would suffice. -Kindle locations 1991-1994
Al-Ash‘ari, the critic of reason, concluded that he saw no desirable way of divine learning in the kalam— only a field of intellectual exercise to be used in an emergency. The believer should stay away from that as far as possible and not strive for intellectual comprehension. -Kindle locations 2015-2018
In Christianity and Judaism, for instance, God as Creator calls on Adam to name the animals. In this act, God calls on humans to interact with His creation through reason, providing a path to the secularization of reason outside the immediately religious sphere. Islam has no such separation.
In chapter five, the relationship between modern political though and Islamic theology is traced. This chapter, synthesizing the background of constitutionality and theology, drives hom the point that constitutionalism in a Western (perhaps Christian) sense is not possible within the framework of Islamic thought. A specific example is considered in the original thread of the book, religious freedom. Can religious freedom truly exist within an Islamic nation? The author argues that while other religions can be tolerated under Islam, the basic Stoic view that men are to be treated equally simply because they are men is missing within Islam. As such, religious freedom in the sense implied by Western constitutionalism simply cannot exist.
The author concludes this work by examining selected Uluma in the context of political modernity, and a final conclusion chapter bringing all the various threads together.
Overall, this is a well argued and documented work around modern forms of law and Islam. The author does make some interesting leaps at the very beginning, leaps that are hard to support from within the context of history and the original writings of those who developed Christian political thought and constitutionalism itself. These have little effect on the overall flow of the argument, in the end, however.