Those with the time and inclination for a thorough, careful, balanced and nuanced portrayal respecting the position of Islam respecting the notion of equal citizenship under law irrespective of creed should very seriously consider looking at Sh. Dr. Usama Hasan’s recent work on the subject, entitled From Dhimmitude to Democracy. It summarizes a progressive’s account of how Islam and secular democratic citizenship might be reconciled in 80 richly satisfying pages.
The task, to be clear, is different from that undertaken by friend of the blog Andrew March in his excellent work, Islam and Liberal Citizenship. March imagines how what he calls an “ideal typical” Muslim (and I call an unreconstructed Salafi) with unalloyed loyalties to the premodern tradition might reconcile Rawlsian liberalism with Islam. This necessarily involves consideration of the subject in the context of a state that has no Muslim majority, because you can’t actually get to anything approaching modern liberalism in an actual Islamic state if you take the premodern tradition that seriously.
What impressed me particularly about Sh. Dr. Usama Hasan’s work is his willingness to examine the premodern tradition in a critical fashion. All too much work on Islam and democracy falls into one of two unsatisfactory camps. The first, the apologists, somehow claim that in fact Islam always believed in full equality of citizenship for non-Muslims. To get to this, a variety of rules of deep pedigree. among them the special non Muslim tax, the exemption of non-Muslims from military service, the special dress requirements established for non-Muslims, and the like, somehow are rationalized or ignored in a fashion that can only be described as ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Opposing them are the second camp, the Islamophobes, who argue incoherently that to be a Muslim, one must believe in these things, and there can be no evolution or reconsideration of previous generation’s beliefs while still retaining loyalty to the heritage. Therefore every Muslim seeks to subjugate every Christian no matter what they might say or do to suggest something quite contrary. Obviously, if you applied that in any other context (every Southerner must believe blacks to be inferior to whites, every Catholic must persecute scientists who believe the earth spins around the sun, etc.), you’d sound racist, ridiculous, or quite likely both.
Dr. Hasan’s work painstakingly carries out the necessary task of laying out the premodern rules, noting their context, describing their many variations and of course not shying away from their limitations. Concerning the latter, for example, he points out how deeply problematic it is to criticize ISIS for killing a Christian hostage on theory that the hostage is a dhimmi. If you start arguing from that part of the tradition, which renders non Muslims second class citizens, you will certainly face counterarguments, from other works of medieval provenance, justifying all sorts of things that are an affront to modern civilization, and you’ve already more or less given up getting to anything modern or liberal. At the same time, Dr. Hasan is careful to point out that the roots (not the full manifestation of, but the roots of) modern respect for others, and modern human rights discourse, can be found in Hanafi notions of adamiyya, or, even earlier, in the Charter of Medina. The premodern tradition, that is, must be seen as part of a broad and rich continuum, with medieval limitations to be not merely disregarded, but positively disavowed, yet with aspirational elements establishing the basis for the evolution of Islam to follow.
But I suppose what I found the most impressive about Dr. Hasan’s work was his willingness to show that evolution of Islamic thought through references to modern thinkers and modern clerics, without pretending that they were not responding to modern stimuli. That is, one could not responsibly claim that if you were to sit in some sort of isolation tank, read the Qur’an and the canonical Sunna, and then asked to establish a state on the basis of it, you’d draft a secular liberal constitution. Of course modern thinkers are taking the world as they see it and attempting to find Islamic principles to make their way in it. But so what? And more to the point, didn’t the classical thinkers do the same? The dar al harb and dar al Islam are precisely the same thing. And if you say you can find verses justifying this, so I can find language in the Charter of Medina justifying coexistence. In fact, the modernists are far more consonant with the general flow of Islamic thought over centuries, Dr. Hasan shows, then the radicals, who are attempting to pull together acontextually and anachronistically pieces of a medieval tradition into a world where they just don’t belong.
This really is Islamic argument at its most elevated. The sad part? He’d be shunned, and the work quite possibly banned, if published in Arabic in no small number of modern Muslim states, where any deviation from orthodoxy is heresy. Recall, after all, that it was not long ago that Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd was declared by the Egyptian Court of Cassation a heretic for, among other things, challenging the Islamic normativity of a man’s right to rape his female slaves. No wonder, then, ISIS is given room to emerge in such a stultifying environment.