Secularism discredited in the Islamic world?

An article in the Chronicle, summarizing recent debates in Islamic political theory and theology. There seem to be two alternatives to secularism being floated. One is essentially Islamism democratized -- Ijtihad -- and is associated with a scholar named Muqtedar Khan:

Today's proponents of ijtihad take a far more expansive view. "There will be no Islamic democracy unless jurists permit the democratization of interpretation," wrote M.A. Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science at Adrian College, in a 2003 essay. In Mr. Khan's view, political elites in the Muslim world have for centuries restricted the development of democracy and political accountability by hiding behind religious principles that they proclaim to be fixed in stone. Mr. Khan argues, in effect, for an end run around the entire traditional apparatus of Muslim jurisprudence. Believers should instead, he suggests, look directly to the Koran and to the practices of Muhammad and his companions, and use their own efforts at interpretation to build ethical communities.

Among other subscribers to roughly this approach was none other than Mohammed Iqbal, the Indo/Pakistani poet.

The other philosophy making the rounds is represented by Khaled Abou El Fadl.

Not all Muslim liberals, however, find the ijtihad model attractive. A very different strategy for working toward democracy and pluralism is put forward by Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles. In Mr. Abou El Fadl's view, liberal Muslim scholars should revive, not dismiss, some of the longstanding threads of Islamic jurisprudence, looking carefully at historical cases in which Muslims have successfully built pluralist and relatively democratic societies.

Although Mr. Abou El Fadl's methodology is more elitist than Mr. Khan's vision of ijtihad for all, he also maintains that it will ultimately be more liberal. He wrote in a 2003 essay that basing government around consultation and shura, as Mr. Khan and his allies suggest, could lead to majoritarian tyranny. "Even if shura is transformed into an instrument of participatory representation," he wrote, "it must itself be limited by a scheme of private and individual rights that serve an overriding moral goal such as justice."

Mr. Abou El Fadl adds in an interview that he finds Mr. Khan's framework extremely ill-disciplined. "Instead of making the effort to study Arabic and study the texts," he says, "Muqtedar Khan is simply throwing around terms like ijtihad and mufti and fatwa. ... This kind of thing is why there's such a vacuum of authority. This is why we have people like bin Laden going around claiming to be Islamic."

It seems like El Fadl is advocating something along the lines of a moral historicism. You study history in order to have a more accurate and rigorous model for jurisprudence, but you do it with an "overriding moral goal such as justice," presumably derived from the present day.

But doesn't the presumption of a moral goal lend itself just as well to a thoroughly secularist approach to jurisprudence? If we know what justice is, we should be able to write laws without recourse to religion.

In the Indian context I've sometimes argued in favor of a radical implementation of a Uniform Civil Code, which would remove all traces of theology (Hindu or Islamic) from personal laws that affect things like marriage, divorce, custody rights, head of household status, inheritance, and property rights.

As much as it now seems that such an approach to secularism is discredited in the Islamic world because of the totalitarianism of people like Ataturk, as well as the failures in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, I don't see the intellectual justification for the approaches suggested by Khan or El Fadl.


Quizman said...

Nice post. The writings of these gents remind me of Md. Iqbal's writings which resonated similarly. His concept of itjihad was what made him write the famous sher:
khudi ko kar bulund itna
ke har taqdeer se pahle
khuda bande se khud pucche
bataa teri razaa kya hain?

And of course, Iqbal's experiment (Pakistan) has more or less failed.

StrideLimitless said...

Unfortunately, The level of this post is that of a comment. Author failed to recognise election of government and running the government, as two distinct processes. Application of democracy to the abovementioned two questions is astonishingly different. Decision making in governance matters heavily relies on consultation, in almost all contemporary govs. General body interference is unwelcome. It is leaders' privilege to have a vision and interprete it. Examples are budget, which is regarded as populist, to describe the negative influence of people. And defence policy, avoiding popular will on the grounds of secrecy. etc. Domain of election in modern democracies is either presidential form; or parliamentary, which is multi tier. Both forms enjoy plenty of manuverability to adjust the extent of accommodation of public desire. Guiding and misguiding influence of media is in addition to it. Now lets return to question of democracy in islam. It differed in more than one way from today democracy. 1. It emphasised heavily on the qualities of god fearing and knowledge, that is taqwah and ilm. Finding a selfless and able person was the target. This stage was akin to nomination stage or sponsoring 2. Self-nomination or candidacy goes against the teaching of Prophet PBUH. 3. Mandate from general body came in the form of Bea't. Here comes the role of ijtehad which may elaborate bea't system to general election. Further support to this comes from the fact that Prophet avoided naming his successor and left the question open for the nation to decide. 4. Appointment of chief was for lifetime, unless finding him guilty of gross misconduct. This step insured stability and freedom from undue influences. 5. Direct Responsibility and Accountability of chief in even most trivial matters. To fulfill this, he was bestowed with centralised power, decentralisation of which was his own discretion. Now coming to governance, it was encouraged to do consultation from knowledgable people. In the light of above we can see that the benefits of Islamic system can be obtained only if put in practice in whole and not in parts. The cause of plight of today muslim world is whimsical mixturing of contemporary political system, sometimes replacing one or more of important principles islamic polity. So called democratization of ijtehad will only add to their woes. Because Ijtehad is strictly scholaristic activity. And it requires wholistic approach, more than anywhere else. Author of the post reached close to make a very valuable point i.e people should exercise the right to see the basis of any fatwa, even if they lack the requisite level of capacity to evolve a fatwa themselves . This will be true democratization of Ijtehad and will put effective check on any misuse of this important institution.