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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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 http://www.hittininstitute.com/Article.aspx?ID=20&category=3
 The Liberal Project and Human Rights. Cambridge University Press. 2008. p. 28
 Ibid p. 29
 Ibid p. 32
 See ‘Liberalism and its Effect on Society’ for more details http://www.hittininstitute.com/Article.aspx?ID=18
 Some of the Fruits of Islam when it experienced political power:
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.