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Islamic Society ( 21 Nov 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How to Construct a Liberal Islam – Part One

By Akbar Ganji


The major world’s religions are products of the ancient times and, thus, do not and cannot represent liberal ideologies, as liberalism was developed in modern times. It is not difficult to identify verses in the Torah, the Bible or the Quran that are in complete conflict with liberalism.

But, given all the debates and negative propaganda about Islam’s nature, a fundamental question that is worth studying is: Can we construct a liberal Islam? As I explain below, I believe we can because I believe Islam is a reformable religion, and completely compatible with secularism, i.e., separation of mosque from governance, and respect for human rights. In a previous article I explained why inventing a democratic Islam is an urgent issue. The reasons for inventing a democratic Islam also make it imperative to invent a liberal Islam.

Some people believe that the problem of “radical Islamic terrorism” has a military solution. But, this is false, because “Islamic terrorism” is only one interpretation of the Islamic teachings that several governments in the Middle East, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, support directly or indirectly by providing the terrorists with arms of funds, believing that it serves their national interests. The Sunni Muftis, particularly among the Salafi/Wahhabi sect, together with some Shiite Ayatollahs, advocate a harsh and violent interpretation of the Quranic teachings. Over the course of their presidential campaigns, Donald Trump and Ben Carson illustrated Muslims as dangerous animals. The promises and slogans against “the radical Islam” and Muslims made by Trump throughout his campaign, if realized, could lead to the growth of radicalization among Muslims. The true solution is in demonstrating to the vast majority of Muslims who are moderate that there are also secular and liberal interpretations of the Islamic teachings that, in fact, are more compatible with the true spirit of the Quran. This is vital to worldwide peace, as well as the national interests of the nations that are hurt by Islamic terrorism.

Conceptual Illustration

Let us first illustrate the possibility of constructing a liberal Islam through some simple concepts. The facts are,

One, there is no unique Islam; rather there are multiple versions of Islam, such as Shiite Islam, Sunni Islam, philosophical Islam, fundamentalist Islam, modern Islam, post-modern Islam, and mystical Islam. Why, then, can we not have a liberal Islam?

Two, there is also no unique liberalism; rather there are many versions of it. Examples include Joel Feinberg’s liberalism based on opposition to legal paternalism, Joseph Raz’s perfectionist liberalism, and political liberalism of John Rawls that I discuss in detail in this article.

When there are so many interpretations of Islam, one can also think of socialist, nationalist, liberal, and communitarianism interpretations of the religion, and in fact they do exist. For example, to invent a “nationalist Islam” one can claim that Arabic is not only the Quran’s language, but also its culture. Thus, a religion that was constructed by the people of the Arabian Peninsula cannot be non-Arab. And, if we are a bit careless, we can even consider Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, a university lecturer of philosophy and Islamic thought at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco as the defender of a “nationalist Islam.”

Constructing a liberal Islam can be accomplished at two different levels. One is a liberal Islam that is compatible with Rawls’ political liberalism. The second one is an Islamic form of what Rawls called comprehensive liberalism. In what follows I first explain briefly Rawls’ political liberalism. I then describe his views about Islam. Finally, I discuss the evidence in the Quran and the Sunnah [the life and tradition of Prophet Muhammad] that supports constructing a liberal Islam based on Rawls’ views.

Rawls’ Political Liberalism

Rawls’ political liberalism is based on three fundamental pillars:

First, the movement for reforming religions and its consequences are the historical source (p. xxiv) of political liberalism, and more generally liberalism itself.

Second, political liberalism includes a political conception of justice and, contrary to the comprehensive liberalism, can be presented independently from any comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine. It is an independent and freestanding concept, which draws on “mass culture” of democratic systems and their “implicitly-accepted joint ideas and fundamental principles,” and limits itself to the fundamental thoughts in the political culture of democratic societies. In such societies people consider others and themselves as free and equal citizens. Rawls believes that even human rights are independent of the comprehensive moral, religious, and philosophical teachings. According to him (p. 68),

“These rights do not depend on any particular comprehensive religious doctrine or philosophical doctrine of human nature. The Law of Peoples does not say, for example, that human beings are moral persons and have equal worth in the eyes of God; or that they have certain moral and intellectual powers that entitle them to these rights. To argue in these ways would involve religious or philosophical doctrines that many decent hierarchical peoples might reject as liberal or democratic, or as in some way distinctive of Western political tradition and prejudicial to other cultures.”

Third, for a liberal society to be stable for the right reasons, political liberalism must be supported and confirmed by the comprehensive moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines that wins adherents in a liberal society. Justice is the first virtue of a social structure and a subject of a basic structure. Rawls says (ibid. p. 11) the following about the basic structure:

“It applies to what I shall call the ‘basic structure’ of society, which for our present purposes I take to be a modern constitutional democracy.”

Freedom and equality are among the central ideas in liberal political conception of justice, about which he says, Although there are liberal interpretations of justice other than what Rawls advocated, we restrict ourselves to his interpretations.

First principle (ibid. p. 5): “Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all, and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.”

Second principle (ibid. p. 6): “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members.”

Thus, Rawls’ Political Liberalism Is Based On Four Pillars:

The Fact Of Reasonable Pluralism: There is plurality of comprehensive moral, philosophical, and religious doctrines and teachings in human societies that are irreconcilable, but also reasonable and rational (ibid. p. 37).

The Burdens of Judgment: There is no method for unifying the various comprehensive doctrines of societies. This is because the evidence for arriving at the judgement is complex and contradictory; the weight and the credibility given to various evidence is subject to debate; our concepts are vague and cannot be easily clarified; and the way our judgements is influenced by our moral and ethical experiences is infinitely different from those of others. Rawls believes (ibid. p. 62) that “everyone is exposed to the same difficulties for reaching the judgement.”

The Reality of Repression: Rawls believes that broad social consensus about an ethical, philosophical, or religious teaching or doctrine is possible only through governmental repression of the people (ibid. p. 37). Thus, accepting freedom is tantamount to accepting “comprehensive, diverse, and irreconcilable doctrines” and teachings (ibid. p. 36). Therefore, in political liberalism use of political power for imposing our own comprehensive doctrine, even we consider it as fact, is irrational (ibid. p. 138).

Overlapping Consensus: How can such a pluralistic society survive? Rawls does not base the stability of a liberal democratic society on compromise and balance of power, but thinks it can be achieved through as an overlapping consensus. This means that citizens affirm political justice based on their own various comprehensive doctrines. The political conception of justice is a module and an essential part of the constituent structure:

“The political conception is a module, an essential constituent part that fits into and can be supported by various reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endure in the society regulated by it” (ibid. p. 12).

Thus, not only the seculars, but also the religious citizens can identify good reasons in their comprehensive doctrines to affirm political liberalism. As Rawls puts it,

“All those who affirm the political conception start from within their own comprehensive view and draw on the religious, philosophical, and moral grounds it provides”(ibid. p 147).

Affirming political liberalism based on one’s own comprehensive doctrine can be the basis for stable democratic societies. As Rawls explains it, the consensus “rests on the totality of reasons specified within the comprehensive doctrine affirmed by each citizen” (ibid. p. 170).

There are two other plausible interpretations of Rawls’ view about overlapping consensus. Sometimes it appears as if a consensus can emerge between followers of distinct comprehensive views, but not because those who hold such views have made an effort to reach the consensus. By the overlap Rawls also meant that the followers of different and incompatible comprehensive views endorse the same conception of justice and thus recognize the same rights for the followers of a competing comprehensive view.

Rawls’ Understanding of Islam

As pointed out earlier, Rawls believes that even the religious citizens can endorse political liberalism based on their own comprehensive doctrine. In particular, Rawls believes that the Islamic teachings can endorse political liberalism. To support his view, Rawls begins from the position that the three great historical religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, constitute comprehensive rational doctrines. As he puts it,

“Here, I shall suppose - perhaps too optimistically - that, except for certain kinds of fundamentalism, all the main historical religions admit of such an account and thus may be seen as reasonable comprehensive doctrines” (ibid. p. 170).

In “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited“ Rawls clarifies what he believes about the relation between religion and political liberalism, particularly Islam. He asks, how can those who believe in religious doctrines also believe reasonable political ideas that are the basis for a democratic political system based on a constitution? Can comprehensive religious and secular teachings and doctrines be compatible with political liberalism? As he puts it in his book, The Laws of Peoples (p. 151), Rawls believes that religions must understand that,

“Except by endorsing a reasonable constitutional democracy, there is no other way fairly to ensure the liberty of its adherents consistent with the equal liberties of other reasonable free and equal citizens.”

Rawls discusses an Islamic example of the aforementioned overlapping consensus, and refers to the views of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha [who was executed by former Sudanese President Jaafar Nemeiri on the charge of apostasy] and his student Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim in the book, Toward An Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law. In their book they interpreted the Meccan Quranic verses (revealed to Prophet Muhammad during the time that he was in Mecca) as the symbol of idealistic Islam, whereas the Medinan verses(those revealed to the Prophet in Medina) were a function of the era’s constraints. The former abrogates the latter and, thus, the Meccan Islam that is supportive of freedom and equality must be put into effect in our era. Rawls points out that the two types of verses “is a perfect example of overlapping consensus” (ibid. p. 151).

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim presented a new reading of the Quran. Using reverse abrogation, they declared that Muslims must consider the Meccan verses as the Quran’s true gem and the basis for the Prophet to invite people to convert to the new religion. Their work is an example of the Muslims’ efforts in modern times to reconcile Islam with the modern era.

Rawls emphasized that “the roots of democratic citizen allegiance to their political conceptions lie in their respective comprehensive doctrines, both religious and nonreligious” (ibid. p 153).

Islam and Political Liberalism

Rawls has also emphasized that there are different interpretations of the same teaching or idea “since its concepts and values may be taken in different ways..... A conception greatly limits its possible interpretations; otherwise discussion and argument could not proceed” (ibid. p. 145).

One might argue that through overlapping consensus one can construct an interpretation of Islam that endorses political liberalism, but not a liberal Islam. But the descriptive way that Rawls prescribes goes beyond the former.

First, description: In his book, Justice as Fairness (p. 190), Rawls emphasizes that history of religion and philosophy demonstrates how, using many reasonable ways, not only the two have re-interpreted their values in a way that they would not be in conflict with the values in the political arena, but also be reconcilable. Thus, presenting new interpretation of comprehensive doctrines is an experience that has been repeated throughout history.

Second, prescription: Rawls differentiates between “political conception and comprehensive doctrine,” believing that, “Should an incompatibility later be recognized between the political conceptions and their comprehensive doctrines, then they might very well adjust or revise the latter rather than reject the political conception. Note that here we distinguish between the initial allegiance to, or appreciation of, the political conception and the later adjustment or revision of comprehensive doctrines to which that allegiance or appreciation leads when inconsistencies arise” (ibid. p. 193).

Thus, Rawls suggests to the adherents of comprehensive doctrines to re-interpret and revise their teachings in a way that would not be in conflict with a political conception of justice. Rawls believes that religious and secular people can do the revision in two ways. One is declaration, in which one declares that “each of us shows how, from our own doctrines, we can and do endorse a reasonable public political conception of justice with its principles and ideals” (ibid. p. 155).

The second method is reasoning based on conjectures to show that others can endorse political justice based on their comprehensive religious or secular doctrines. Rawls emphasizes that attributing endorsement of political liberalism to religious and philosophical teachings, i.e. conjecture, must be sincere and free of manipulation; “It is important that this be honest, not for the purpose of deceiving,” as he put it in his book, The Laws of Peoples (p. 156).

Our job is to develop an interpretation of Islam that can embrace political liberalism. If we assume that political liberalism is honest, it would then be natural to identify the Quranic verses that are more compatible with it, select them as the verses that represent the true spirit of the Quran, and interpret the rest of the holy book based on those verses. As I understand it, our liberal interpretation of the Quran is justified. It is not for the sake of the expediency of our era Thus, if we are Muslim, we believe that such verses represent the Quran’s spirit, and by identifying them we declare our position regarding Islam and political liberalism, and if we are not Muslim, we conjecture what form a liberal Islam may have.

Constructing liberal Islam is not evidence of anachronistic time because we ask ourselves, how can we be a true Muslim and liberal? We are not asking whether at its inception Islam was a liberal ideology - a claim that was rejected at the beginning of this article - so that we can be accused of anachronism. Rather, we ask whether a Muslim can be a liberal while truly believing in the spirit and gem of Islam. The Quranic verses are re-interpreted in order not to have any conflict with liberalism.

The Quranic Verses That Endorse Liberal Values

I now describe the sources in the Quran and the Sunnah [The Prophet’s traditions] that can be used as the pillar of a liberal Islam. How the theological details of such a reading of the Quran and the Sunnah are or must be is beyond the scope of this article. But, the Islamic sources that I describe support liberal values, such as pluralism, justice, freedom, tolerance, the inherent dignity of human beings, respect for pacts, and commitment to the wisdom of each era’s elite.

We now show through much evidence that the Quran accepts the Rawlsian concept of “equal and free citizens.” But, before doing so, one important point must be emphasized. The Quran has differentiated between two types of freedom: freedom of the people relatice to other people, and their freedom with regards to God. The Quran does not consider people to be free when it comes to God, because it considers them to be God’s servants. But, this does not contradict Rawls’ political freedom because it defends people’s freedom relative to other people. In his political will, Ali ibn abi Talib, the 4th Caliph after the Prophet (and his cousin and son-in-law) and Shiites’ first Imam, told his children and all the people, “Do not be servant to anyone, because God created you free.”

In every single case in which the Quran speaks about inequality, it is either about inequality of people with respect to God (due to their deeds), or their inequality after their death and in the hereafter. The pious and apostate are not morally equal to God, and will receive different rewards after their death. Consider the following two examples from the Quranic verses:

“Verily, in Allah’s Sight the most honourable of you is the most pious of your” (Al-Hujurat, 13).

“Verily, the worst of moving creatures in the Sight of Allah are those who are deaf and dumb [from hearing and telling the truth] and do not use their reason” (Al-Anfal, 22).

Thus, although people may not be morally equal to God and not receive equal treatment in the hereafter, they are equal in this world. In other worlds, one cannot extract inequality of people in this world based on their moral inequality in God’s sight. Thus, the concept of “equal and free citizens” is completely compatible with the Quran.