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A Note on Understanding Islam:Liberalism’s Origins & the Superimposition of a Specific European Experience

Having travelled to the America’s, Middle East and Europe, lecturing and debating on issues related to Islam, philosophy and politics, I have found a common trend when people try to understand Islam and its political authority. This common trend is the imposition of European history, intellectual development and religious experiences on the Islamic narrative. As a result of finding myself trying to deconstruct this common approach many times, I feel it is only wise to write some notes on how Liberal or European minds should seek to understand Islam and its political structures. One way of doing this is by explaining the specific political history of Europe, the origins of its predominant ideology and the different experiences in Islamic history.

Liberalism is purely a European product. Liberalism’s political values are the outcome of specific social and historical conditions, subjected to a specific type of analysis. Therefore it must be asked, is Liberalism an ‘absolute’ alternative to other ideologies, or is it historically and geographically bound?

History & Political Climate

Liberalism’s core political values, of individual freedoms and the primacy of individual rights, emerged and were developed as a result of a specific European problem. This problem was the clash between the Catholic Church and the people who carried ideas that were incongruous with the Church’s doctrine and philosophy.

The medieval Catholic Church never recognised other dogmas and beliefs. It frequently persecuted those who sought to promulgate non-Catholic ideas and practices in the public square. By the beginning of the 16th Century it sought to suppress Protestantism using the rulers of Spanish Netherlands and France who were sympathetic to Catholic intolerance.

In 1517 Martin Luther pinned to a church door in Wittenberg his famous theses attacking Catholicism. This event initiated a process, which is now called the ‘Reformation’, leading to a massive split in the Christian Church. This new version of Christianity – Protestantism – gained popularity in North Western Europe and many of its rulers adopted its doctrine as a means to bring to light their completed independence of the Pope and Emperor.

In spite of this, the Catholic Church pursued its oppression to the extent that, in the Netherlands, the Protestants revolted and after an eighty year war it became an independent state which succeeded the peace of Westphalia in 1648. During this period many massacres took place as a result of clashes between Catholicism and Protestantism. Some of these included the massacre on St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 in France and the 30 years war in 1618 which was fought on German territory but involved the Catholic and Protestant states of Denmark, Sweden, Spain and France. There were many merciless massacres committed by both parties.[1]

The Origins of Liberalism’s Premise

As a result of the revulsion of the huge scale of atrocities committed in the name of Christianity, several parties were formed with the mandate to bring about reconciliation. Some of the members in these groups included the likes of Erasmus of Rotterdam who facilitated the Edict of Nantes which set measures of tolerance for the French Protestants, but also in England in promoting the Toleration Act of 1689.[2]

This climate produced the emotional and intellectual environment for the likes of Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Samuel Pufendorf who developed a new understanding of natural law which was to become the philosophical basis for Liberalism. These seventeenth century theorists developed an individualistic doctrine of rights. Professor John Charvet describes this individualist view as,

“…the rights held by individuals independently fitting into, and filling a function within, a God-ordered purposive whole based on the good.”[3]

These theorists viewed the rights of the human being as independent to that of a societal context, and therefore rested on the premise of individualism. This was perfectly consistent in preventing any further religiously inspired atrocities because this individualist view took the rights of a human being abstracted away from God’s perceived will for society. In this way an individual belonging to the Catholic or non-Catholic tradition could be tolerated. However this need for an individualist view on rights was based upon the weakness of Catholicism, inasmuch that it did not have the capacity to tolerate.

In this context is the individualist view of rights valid?

Since these theories were developed as a result of this clash and intolerance then it can be argued that in absence of this historical context these theories are no longer valid from a universal perspective. The reasons for this are due to their limited intellectual scope, the scope was to ensure European tolerance rather than seeking a true understanding of the human being and their standing in the world.

This individualistic perspective was temporarily sufficient in providing a relatively quick solution to the problems faced in the 16th and 17th Century. However in the absence of these problems nothing was done to review this individualist doctrine in order to ensure that it was philosophically and practically sound. It was just taken for granted because it solved the problems of violence and intolerance. This was problematic because individualism, as a premise for an entire political outlook, has been found to be philosophically incorrect and it has produce problems in society that have ensured its destruction.[4]

If Europe never experienced the intolerance of the Church, would have Liberalism developed as a result of thinking and humanity’s ideological progress? Or is Liberalism an accidental product of Catholicism’s coercive political nature?

Is Liberalism Universal?

Whatever the answers are to these questions, what can be concluded is that the most predominant ideology in the west emerged as a result of a specific history. The claim by some liberal ideologues is that Liberalism is universal; however there are some philosophical issues with this line of thought. Firstly it is a logical fallacy to take something specific and make it general. What if non-European nations developed non-individualist views on natural rights and still created a cohesive tolerant society?

Secondly when we do look into other societies, such as Islamic societies, it can be seen that in Islamic history there was no clash between state and ‘church’ or religion. There was a symbiotic relationship between the two. Tolerance, justice, compassion, rights and responsibilities resonated in Islamic societies, all due to the ruling religion at the time, Islam.[5]

Understanding Islam

It must be highlighted that Islam must not be viewed through the eyes of European history or understood by fallacious references to Catholic intolerance and coercion. Rather, Islam and its history, must be viewed without a reference to historical or intellectual baggage that is specific to Europe. Superimposing a specific negative history to understand another world view is fallacious and only skews understanding. To really understand Islam, or any other worldview for that matter, it must be understood – as the Chinese put it – by “emptying your tea cup”.


Useful Notes

Kindness & Liberty
The Qur’an expresses kindness and liberty of belief, “There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the Right Path has become distinct from the wrong path.”
“What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger, an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion.”

Heinrich Graetz, a 19th century Jewish historian expressed how Islamic rule in Spain favoured the Jews in the context of kindness and liberty of belief, “It was in these favourable circumstances that the Spanish Jews came under the rule of Mahometans, as whose allies they esteemed themselves the equals of their co-religionists in Babylonia and Persia. They were kindly treated, obtained religious liberty, of which they had so long been deprived, were permitted to exercise jurisdiction over their co-religionists, and were only obliged, like the conquered Christians, to pay poll tax…”

Tolerance and Popular Rule
Reinhart Dozy, an authority on early Islamic Spain, states with regards to Islamic tolerance, “…the unbounded tolerance of the Arabs must also be taken into account. In religious matters they put pressure on no man…Christians preferred their rule to that of the Franks.”

Ulick R. Burke, a prominent historian specializing in the history of Spain, reached a similar conclusion, “Christians did not suffer in any way, on account of their religion, at the hands of Moors…not only perfect toleration but nominal equality was the rule of the Arabs in Spain.”

These historical realities were as a result of the cohesive values of Islam. The Qur’an states, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”

The Qur’an resonates with teachings of justice, “O You who believe! Be upholders of justice, bearing witness for God alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives. Whether they are rich or poor, God is well able to look after them. Do not follow your own desires and deviate from the truth. If you twist or turn away, God is aware of what you do.”
“… God loves the just.”
“O You who believe! Show integrity for the sake of God, bearing witness with justice. Do not let hatred for a people incite you into not being just. Be just. That is closer to faith. Heed God [alone]. God is aware of what you do.”

In Islamic history, where the cohesive values of Islam such as justice were propagated, the conclusions made by some historians are unparalleled, an Italian Rabbi, Obadiah Yareh Da Bertinoro, travelled to Jerusalem in 1486 CE and he wrote a letter to his father telling him about the country and its people under the Islamic Social Model, “The Jews are not persecuted by the Arabs in these parts. I have travelled through the country in its length and breadth, and none of them has put an obstacle in my way. They are very kind to strangers, particularly to anyone who does not know the language; and if they see many Jews together they are not annoyed by it. In my opinion, an intelligent man versed in political science might easily raise himself to be chief of the Jews as well as of the Arabs…”

The Jewish historian Amnon Cohen states that the Jewish minorities sought justice from the Islamic courts rather than their own, “The Jews went to the Muslim court for a variety of reasons, but the overwhelming fact was their ongoing and almost permanent presence there. This indicates that they went there not only in search of justice, but did so hoping, or rather knowing, that more often than not they would attain redress when wronged…”

Distribution of Resources
The distribution of wealth and resources constitutes the macro-economy of the Islamic economic model; the Qur’an repeatedly mentions distribution of resources and charity. “Do good to the indigent till their economic imbalance is no more.”

“Feed the indigent, without wishing any return from them, not even a word of thanks.”

The famous letter from a Rabbi found in Phillip Mansel’s book ‘Constantinople’, reflects the Qur’anic reality of distributing resources, “Here in the land of the Turks we have nothing to complain of. We possess great fortunes; much gold and silver are in our hands. We are not oppressed with heavy taxes and our commerce is free and unhindered. Rich are the fruits of the earth. Everything is cheap and every one of us lives in peace and freedom…”

See ‘Is Islamic Society Barbaric?’ for more details





[1] The Liberal Project and Human Rights. Cambridge University Press. 2008. p. 28
[2] Ibid p. 29
[3] Ibid p. 32
[4] See ‘Liberalism and its Effect on Society’ for more details
[5] Some of the Fruits of Islam when it experienced political power:


About Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

Hamza Andreas Tzortzis is an international public speaker on Islam, a writer, lecturer, instructor and researcher. He is particularly interested in Islam, politics, western and Islamic thought and philosophy. Hamza delivers workshops, seminars and courses on the foundations of Islamic thought. He is an instructor for iERA and AlKauthar Institute. Hamza has also delivered a short course on the intellectual foundations of Islam for the Islamic Online University for their Diploma course. Hamza is one of the main initiators of the contemporary emergence of Muslim public debaters and speakers using western and Islamic philosophy to defend and explain Islam. Hamza heads the research team and Lectures for iERA.


  1. This article was great – the video on the issue

  2. Goolam Dawood

    so so article
    >>> Also, have you not seen the basic civil liberties being discarded because ‘national assembly’ has voted them down due to perceived threats? In Islam this will never happen because law is divine, it can not be voted down by any assembly.

    I believe the Fiqh as it is presented as Shariah, is even MORE vulnerable to infringements on human dignity. There isn’t a single firm injunction in the Shariah which guarantees freedom of speech, habeus corpus, freedom of movement, equality of sexes before the law etc. As has been proven by the Salafi application of the shariah in middle class Saudi Arabia, where rape and human rights violations often goes unpunished or dismissed as minor grievances. These liberal principles are principles earned and hard-won after hundreds of years of civilisationary development. It would be difficult to find the Islamic application that fully meets the expectations of humanities jointly owned history of injustice against its poor, women and outside cultures. And I truly do believe humanity has these common expectations because even you are dismayed when they are violated in a western country which defined them clearly and absolutely in the first place.

    Like all other refutations of “western” thought (by a westerner no less), you depend on the rational exposition of discussion (i.e. you look beyond the Quraan and Hadeeth to discuss matters of law openly), the free and critical inquiry (freedom of conscience and speech), and a subtle but poorly elaborated supposition of superiority of Islam. Ironic you can critique the principles of the whole and diverse western civilisation with logic, when in reality you won’t allow yourself to critique those same principles in Islam honestly. You point out “substantive” proofs of equality and justice in Islam (i.e. historians suggest Muslim Spain was better for Jews), but typically cannot provide any empirical evidence that this is true in the texts of what you coin the Shariah. You won’t be able to evidence your views of a more just society (though somehow non-liberal belief) by seeking guidance from madhab and the shareeah, because you will end up with many different answers from the same sources.

    Notions like civil liberties disappear under the slightest duress because Muslims have places within the shariah that can easily bend. It is not the rigid impermeable law as you’ve pointed out. Even the Hadd punishments can be set aside depending on the circumstances. Right now non-Muslim labourers in Arabia hardly have the right to even establish proper places of worship despite living in the land for many years. They don’t even have an Islamically enshrined access to a fair hearing and judgement. And all this justified by the Shariah in all these places.

    >>> Over 70% of the Muslims world wants the Shariah (Islamic Law) as a part of their political makeup.

    At some point it should be made clear that the Shariah is a very broad thing and is not just a law as enisaged in the practical sense. Your assertion of the application of shariah applies only if you can get Muslims to agree to what extent the Shariah is applied… and what exactly it is. Access to halaal meat and the recourse to laws of inheritance don’t even come vaguely close to full extent of the law as it is applied. And to that extent, only a broad and liberal law regarding freedom of practice of the Shariah would allow people to live under the Shariah (which means different things to different people anyways).

    At some point Muslims have to take a stand point on the limits of “justice” (i.e. that tool that curtails/enforces a persons rights to recompense a lost right), and then use that other complex concept shariah to produce good within those obviously LIBERAL limits. Muslims in Spain suffered their own failings, which eventually led to the breakdown of the empire itself. Critique that, and you’ll be doing the Ummah a real favour. It may be complicated, more antagonistic of traditionalists, but it would be more honest and more fruitful in the long run.

  3. MashAllah!
    excellent article, keep up the good work. i look forward to reading more articles like this since it educates me and also i really like the writers style. May Allah [az] reward you abundantly for your good works. ameen

    *please can you write more about women and the west and Islaam. such as the role of Muslim women in the west. especially universities, work, families etc


  4. surely there’s better?
    something’s gone amiss here i feel. Hamza’s article essentialy just says that liberalism emerged due to the violence and intolerance of catholicism. and ‘apocrypha’ suggested that the same problems exist in different forms within the Muslim condition. Adnan and Hamza’s response didnt really address that did it?

    Whatever the reason the companions engaged in civil war and killed each other. (what’s religion got to do with a decision to pursue the assassins of uthman now or later? i dont agree with Hamza, the civil war was very much political and not religious…in fact i dont understand why Hamza would say that it was religious – what history are you reading bro?).

    The muslims raped plenty of women taking them as slave girls all across greater syria, iraq, north africa for instance.

    And i dont think there was a suitable answer for muslims being the new catholics – hamza simply suggested that there’s no islamic system in place impying that these are the actions of rogue Muslims. But if muslims are blowing up each other and others indiscriminately, and its undeniable that they are doing this, then one could easily argue that cathiolics when they were intolerant were not following the teachings of their scriptures and these too were rogues. There have been plenty of rogue muslim forces (mu’tazila/khwarij/shia etc)

    i mean we need to respond to these issues….but is this it? is this all we’ve got? A few figures of rape, and subjective cries of this is baseless and shallow requests to read history. What if they list figures of corruption and unreported rape in the muslim world because of tribal culture etc.

  5. Hamza A. Tzortzis

    Responding to Apocrypha
    Dear Apocrypha,

    Thank you for your comments,

    Your first point needs to be substantiated:

    “I think the success of liberalism in the hearts and minds of non-Muslims (and even Muslims) is that violence, intolerance, and coercion are phenomena not limited to Catholicism (or catholic history) but to mankind..”

    I would challenge your assumption that Muslims have been won over by liberalism and its values, judging by current political trends and international polls (see Gallup & University of Maryland) you will conclude that the opposite is actually true. Over 70% of the Muslims world wants the Shariah (Islamic Law) as a part of their political makeup. This is antithetical to liberalism, in though and practice.

    Your second point:

    “Whilst Liberalism may have emerged as we know it rooted in the history you have outlined above – it seems to appeal, and work in many respects.”

    I must also challenge this. One example is that liberalism has failed society. Please see this article as an example. ‘Liberalism and its Effect on Society’

    Your third point:

    “There have been problems between religion (church) and state – consider the civil war of the companions for instance. Did an Islamic liberalism emerge?”

    Is this the only example you can cite? If it is then you have used the wrong example. The ‘civil’ war was not a political battle that challenged the status quo. It was a theological concern. Please read your history. I would argue that no where in the 1100 year history was there a war or violence to remove Islam from the political arena. Islam simply doesn’t share European history. An Islamic liberalism didn’t emerge because Islam doesn’t need to re-invent itself, and as previously mentioned there was no clash between ‘mosque’ and state, and I have shown this to you by explaining that your example is flawed. History has shown that when a society re-aligns itself with Islam, it succeeds.

    Your fourth point:

    “the individualist view may be criticised theoretically or philosophically but in practice it protects people, individuals. Islamic systems, which i assume you believe are perfect, have not done this in innumerable instances.”

    Liberalism doesn’t have a monopoly on protecting individual rights. The Islamic systems you quote, are they contemporary? Then I would disagree with your definition of an Islamic system, as one doesn’t exist today. Also, have you not seen the basic civil liberties being discarded because ‘national assembly’ has voted them down due to perceived threats? In Islam this will never happen because law is divine, it can not be voted down by any assembly. Liberalism always re-invents the same mistakes because when the pressure is on, it breaks its own principles. Did we not see this is the financial crisis? All of a sudden state involvement is on the agenda! How illiberal!

    Your last point:

    “today, is not true Hamza, that Muslims are the new Catholics (oppressive, coercive, intolerant)? Is it not they who blow up other Muslims opening their fasts and praying Friday prayers?”

    As I said there is no Islamic system in place today, so your analogy is baseless…..

  6. To Apocrypha 2
    The individualist liberal out look not only fails to convince ones intellect in a theoretical or philosophical discourse, it has also failed miserably in practice. To take one example, there are 46000 rapes taking place every year in the UK. How does Liberalism/Individualism protect the women of this country in practice? While Islam in theory and practice protects the honour of women. For theory, please read the first 25 verses of chapter 24 (Sura An-Noor) of the Quran. For Practice, compare the rape statistics of the UK with that of the KSA (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), of course considering the poulation size at the same time.
    As for the Muslims being Catholics (oppressive, coercive, intolerant), you are right. These Muslims should be like Muslims, not like historical Catholics. They should follow the example of Mohammad SA, which breeds Tolerance, Peace and Freedom of religion.
    Islam is the solution/alternative.

  7. To Apocrypha
    Dear Sir/Madam, is liberalism free of intolerance, coercion and violence. Can you give me any examples of non-liberal Cathoilics, Jews and Muslims being responsible for the deaths of millions. The libarals are. The so called liberal governments have caused millions to die in very recent wars (Iraq alone inherited over one million deaths). Operation “enduring freedom” was to ensure freedom from tyrants but waht followed was the coercion of the masses into embracing an alien political system: Western style Democracy. Did you see the manifestation of the liberal tolerance in practice in Abu Ghurayb prison? Muslims do not give examples from Islamic Spain alone rather we look at our history objectively and when we do that, we come to realise that we were better of then than now. And the wars between the companions of the Prophet did not breed any intolerance for the Christians and the Jews rather there was peace for them. John Bar Penkaye (a Christian monk writing in the riegn of Muawiyyah (r.661-80 CE), who was one of the contestants in the civil war of the Companions) writes that:

    ‘the peace throughout the world was such that we have never heard, either from our fathers or from our grandparents, or seen that there had ever been any like it’(Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests, London, 2008, P. 349).

    May Allah enable us to see the truth. Ameen. Wassalam.

  8. Dear Hamza.
    A couple of points. I think the success of liberalism in the hearts and minds of non-muslims (and even Muslims) is that violence, intolerance, and coercion are phenomena not limited to Catholicism (or catholic history) but to mankind. This is why Hindus, christians, jews, muslims and atheists have embraced the ideology of liberalism. Whilst Liberalism may have emerged as we know it rooted in the history you have outlined above – it seems to appeal, and work in many respects.

    Muslims are sometimes very quick to use a few scattered quotes about Islamic spain etc but Islamic history is not free of intolerance, violence and coercion. There have been problems between religion (church) and state – consider the civil war of the companions for instance. Did an Islamic liberalism emerge?

    the individualist view may be criticised theoretically or philosophically but in practice it protects people, individuals. Islamic systems, which i assume you believe are perfect, have not done this in innumerable instances.

    today, is not true Hamza, that Muslims are the new Catholics (oppressive, coercive, intolerant)? Is it not they who blow up other Muslims opening their fasts and praying Friday prayers?

    what’s the alternative sir?

  9. Nice note
    Nice note, and it is something we must keep in mind when trying to understand why so many ‘westerners’ hate religion, especially when it seeks political power. However, how would you answer the liberal academics when they claim liberalism is universal because its origins are universal? They may say that intolerance is commonplace in the world, especially the muslim world.

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