Venice Conference on Islamic Law
This past week I took a respite from
There was quite a fascinating opening panel involving Abdullahi An Naim and Asma Barlas that I thought I might discuss, because in many ways the issues I identified as worthy of further thought there might well be replicated in my own work.
Basically, I don’t think those who profess a liberal brand of Islam can credibly shy away from the fact that their approaches are to some fundamental extent contingent on circumstance and ideological preference, because they have to be. They can admit that contingency, and then insist all views, liberal and conservative, are contingent, and be more or less ignored in the policy sphere because that’s not what a believer wants to hear. The people who do that are “academics”. Or they can be just as simplistic and devoid of nuance as the average Salafist who thinks he has the answers without much, if any, historical or theoretical rigor. That might well sell. Those people are the “activists.” The problem lies in trying to balance them, it’s not easy to do. Let me elaborate with reference to the talks in question.
Professor An Naim, a mentor to me if there ever was one (and instrumental in getting me invited to this conference, one among many of his contributions to my professional career), addressed the issue that he has been thinking about for a few years now. This is the necessity of a secular state given the pluralist nature of Islamic doctrine. That is to say, once we acknowledge (as anyone with a brain who knows anything about classical Muslim theology, or modern Shi’i theology, must) that Islamic doctrine is pluralist, that it allows for a diverse range of opinions, then this, to An Naim, immediately makes it impossible to enact as modern state law. Picking one automatically deprives Islamic doctrine of its intended diversity, he argues. He desires this approach to be neutral among Islamic doctrines. In other words, the goal here is to permit the maximum number of competing interpretations of Islamic doctrines, as intended under Islamic theory.
In addition to the logical problem of imposing uniformity from pluralism, there is also the fact that if the state tries to choose one version of doctrine over another, the state is a political instrument, its officials are political animals. You cannot expect whatever comes out of the sausage making processes of state legislatures (having seen this process up close in Iraq now, for promised constitutional amendments and for legislation, the analogy to sausage making is pretty apt) to be a methodologically rigorous application of fiqh. The only way to preserve Islamic doctrine’s inherent diversity and to allow it not to be captivated by narrow political interests in a state is to remove the state from it, and Muslims within it to decide which among many, potentially infinite, interpretations of Islamic doctrine they wish to pursue.
I’ve heard him before, and it is always a pleasure to hear Professor An Naim speak. Islam is better because of him, of this there can be no doubt. Having heard him for perhaps the sixth or seventh time, it occurred to me that one cannot, and therefore should not, actually claim real neutrality for all Muslim doctrine when this approach is adopted. (I’m not saying Professor An Naim makes this mistake, only that one shouldn’t). Neutrality among doctrines is not a robust enough basis it seems to me to build a secular state and so some resort has to be made to religious doctrine, thereby favoring some interpretations over others.
That is, state neutrality as “logical necessity cum practical preference given the nature of state politics” might help to supply a basis for a Muslim majority country to preclude the enactment of Islamic doctrine from one school or another, or some combination of them. However, it doesn’t precisely give reasons that a Muslim should be particularly loyal to that state. That is, I think you might be able to convince Sayyid Khu’i in Najaf during the 1980’s of much, though not all, of this. Khu’i might argue that Islamic doctrine is pure and not entirely knowable in the absence of the Hidden Imam, the state is inherently venal and corrupt, a necessary profane presence in the life of this world, Islamic doctrine is therefore not to be enacted by the state, but instead the believer should await the return of the Hidden Imam for that and follow fiqh to the extent he can otherwise. Some of the elements of An Naim’s idea lurk here—the incapacity of the state to realize a truer form of Islamic doctrine, indeed the incapacity of humanity absent the Hidden Imam know it entirely, and the preference therefore to leave it beyond the question of doctrine. The Grand Ayatollah unlike An Naim depends on eschatology to defend his passivity and quietism, there will be return of the Hidden Imam and at that point the real Islamic state will appear, An Naim avowedly does not argue anything close, but in the absence of the Hidden Imam, they are some important similarities.
But Khu’i would take this to argue that the proper course of events is to withdraw from the state, to treat it as a profane epiphenomenon from which the true believer is alienated. That is not to say one should ignore state laws, but rather treat them for what they are—necessary and painful compromises that one must accept and deal with while living in the Ghayba, the Absence of the Hidden Imam, where Islamic doctrine lies unenactable and the realization of God’s Will on Earth impossible to attain.
Admittedly, Khu’i’s attitude towards the state is a product of his own circumstances. Khu’i was living in one of the most repressive and savage regimes on earth, Ba’ath Iraq, and An Naim is a passionate believer in human rights and is talking about a liberal, secular state that protects Khu’i and his opinions (and those of others), not one that puts him under house arrest as Saddam did. But the point is that saying Islamic doctrine cannot be enacted, for whatever reason (whatever the basis—we have to wait for the Hidden Imam, or it’s inherently plural and we’ll never know or even God likes diversity) is not in itself a reason to pay attention to the state, other than to comply with it so as not to be put in jail. The question remains whether there is a real basis to serve and be loyal to that state. Saying the true believer follows the law even in Dar al Harb (as one commentator did today) is not an answer. We aren’t talking about the Abode of War, we’re talking here about Muslim majority lands, and secondly, there are levels of loyalty, voting, serving in police and army, participating in civic life, that are not about just following rules and that are necessary for any state to survive.
It seems to me one is left with two choices to ground the necessary loyalty. One is to seek the source of that loyalty beyond Islamic doctrine, and the other is to find it in Islamic doctrine. The former will not work for the conservative who believes that all loyalty and proper guide to conduct must be rooted in Islam. The latter might work fine for some, in fact it is the subject of Andrew March’s latest book, at least with respect to Muslim minorities (more in later writings on that book, definitely worth reading) but importantly it necessarily privileges some interpretations over others. In other words, what starts out as an accommodation of all sorts of different positions in Islamic doctrine I think ends up as an endorsement of those Islamic doctrines that themselves justify liberal states. Those that don’t, and there are quite a few, might well be accommodated, but their adherents aren’t going to be particularly good citizens. Neutrality among competing doctrines I think remains a bit elusive, to my mind.
Asma Barlas gave the second talk, equally fascinating, and one which fortified my views that we cannot avoid the fact that our own views are also contingent, when it comes to justifying our own approaches, which reflect our own exogenous biases. Professor Barlas has spent years developing an alternative interpretation of the Qur’an with which she seeks to counter what she describes as patriarchal interpretations that have dominated for centuries. She did not provide us the details, given the paucity of time. But I’ve read them elsewhere in her work, and I do find them quite interesting readings.
What struck me though was the struggle of both attempting to defend her own approach as objectively reasonable while pointing out others are contingent. It eventually hits a wall I think. At some point near the end of the talk, she quoted someone as suggesting that the problem of textualists is that they think they “discover” meanings in text, when in fact what they do is invent meanings from it. That is to say, the text provides no certain answer, rather humanity itself invents one. She then indicated that this author then, in her words, ironically seemed to attack interpretations such as those she develops for being stripped of content and playing excessively with particular words. Barlas gave a broad, articulate, and persuasive defense of her own approach, which she argued is holistic, deeply respectful of the Qur’an’s context, and by no means a limited focus on a few words.
She is right, there is an irony in saying text is invented and then having a problem with one set of interpretations, though I don’t want to attack whoever it is she cited as I haven’t read him or her myself. Still, that argument could be turned against her too, or any of us. It is all well and good, as Barlas does, to call traditional interpretations “misogynist” and “patriarchal”, to react sarcastically and with genuine anger at those who argue that her readings by granting women real rights “destroys the bedrock of the family.” This position she attacks might be self evidently wrong in an academic conference filled with professors from law schools and academic departments in the
You have accused me, Professor Barlas, of inventing meaning from text. I do. And so do you. The same “irony” that you describe of a commentator dismissing you after declaring interpretation to be text invention would be applicable to you if you declared my inventions to be wrong and yours to be right. (Not suggesting by the way that Professor Barlas does this, only that one cannot.) You think women should work. I like a society where they remain home. You think they should be able to leave the home without a husband’s permission. I want a world where they leave the home twice, on their marriage to enter their husband’s home, and on their death in a coffin. I know this world, I like this world, I live in this world, I am happy in this world, and you have no better basis under God’s Text than I do to defend your vision.
In other words, yes we can demystify the traditionalist doctrine, and point out everything that led to its creation and demonstrate that its rise had to do with contingent circumstances and beliefs, not what the Book says. But then that could just as well be used against us. We’ve opened the floor for our viewpoint, but we just haven’t offered a better one than anyone else, except to the extent that our readings give us answers we prefer. That is, it’s back to exogenous ideological preference, divorced from actual text.
That might work for Richard Rorty, who would say sure my beliefs are contingent, but they are my beliefs, and I’ll proselytize mine as you proselytize yours and I’ll try to sell you my vision however I can and hopefully I’ll win. But I’ve got no transcendental basis to argue my position, I am not being neutral among competing doctrines, I’m not claiming objective normativity of any sort. I’m pushing my beliefs, which are just a product of my time and place, I’ll admit that.
But I’m not sure that works very well for all too many Muslim believers, as it doesn’t provide the same comfort of certainty as the traditionalist who thinks he is just calling balls and strikes with God’s Book and not importing his own vision into it.
This isn’t to say that doctrine won’t change, only that when it will, it won’t be thoughtful, careful and rigorous academics who lead the way. It’ll just be some activists who take the same intellectually limited approach as many traditionalists. They’ll just point to the text, insist it self evidently says something nobody thought it did before, declare it obvious, castigate anyone who thought differently as just biased and driven by a narrow agenda, and, one fine morning, Muslims might start believing it and ignore their own history in adopting the alternative vision. It’s already happened in some areas. It’s happened in slavery, where your average Muslim is convinced that Islam abhors the practice, when clearly classical jurists thought nothing of the sort. It is happening (process not by any means complete) in forced marriages of girls by their fathers, where again you repeatedly hear that Islam forbids this, when there was an ijma, a consensus, among the four Sunni schools that the father could force that marriage. That’s how change occurs, nobody will admit contingency to shape policy, that’ll just be the province of pointy headed academics, they’ll just pretend what they think now must have been right all along.
This will happen because at the end of the day, how much more comforting to assume that the Qur’an and the Sunnah give the answer, and our own biases, preferences, circumstances, tendencies have nothing to do with it. Isn’t it pretty to think so.