The Liberty Divide in Islam

I was glad to read the recent review of my book, Reopening Muslim Minds, by Jeffrey Bristol in Law & Liberty. I was also happy to see that Dr. Bristol found some of my arguments relevant to contemporary troubles in America, such as the nascent “post-liberal” integralism, which indeed has parallels to the illiberal conceptions of Islam that I criticize in my book.

However, I also found some of the criticisms a bit off the mark.

Primarily, Dr. Bristol criticizes my book for missing the nuances of Ash’arism — the dominant theological school in the Sunni tradition that I defined as a fatefully wrong turn in the history of Islam. Yet to me, his very criticism seems to have missed the nuances that were already discussed in my book.

Ash’arism, in a nutshell, was a reaction to the earlier theological school of the Mu’tazilites, who are often defined as the “rationalists” of Islam. These were pious theologians who thrived between the eighth and tenth centuries, in the most cosmopolitan centers of the Islamic empire, such as Baghdad and Basra. Unlike other Muslims who lived and thought more parochially, Mu’tazilites faced the intellectual challenges of well-developed traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, and, most importantly, Greek philosophy. So, as evangelists for Islam, they tried to “make sense” of it—to universal human reason, to which they granted significant epistemological authority.

The bones of contention between the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites were numerous. Surprisingly, Dr. Bristol highlights the least consequential one—whether God’s attributes should be taken literally or metaphorically—instead of the more vital issue, which is also the very crux of my book: the gap between the two camps in the conceptualization of the divinely revealed law—the Sharia.

Briefly, the Mu’tazilites argued that the Sharia educates Muslims about ethical values that are already present in the nature of things, and that are knowable by human reason. Murder was inherently evil, in this view, and the Sharia only indicated this truth, which even the unbelievers could know by innate moral intuition.

The Ash’arites, in return, insisted on what moral philosophers call “divine command theory.” In this view, the Sharia did not indicate but constituted moral truths. So, murder was evil only because God banned it. But if God had commanded it, then it would be perfectly fine, because there was no measure of “good” and “bad” other than the Sharia.

Does this mean the Ash’arites rejected any role for reason in religion? Dr. Bristol assumes that I think so, and then devotes much of his criticism against this strawman. “The split between the Mutazilites and Ash’arites was not really about reason and unreason,” he writes, “but how to apply reason.”

In return, I would say: Yes, of course, that is also what I said. With a reference to the late George Hourani, a pioneering scholar who studied this matter, I wrote that the Mu’tazilites accepted two separate sources of ethical and legal wisdom: “Revelation and independent reason.” In contrast, the Ash’arite formula was: “Revelation supplemented by dependent reason.”

Now, “dependent reason” does not mean “unreason.” Quite the contrary, the Ash’arite tradition proved increasingly sophisticated. Eventually, it built a complex legal theory that “extended” the verdicts of revelation, often by analogy, to matters on which it is silent. Beginning with al-Ghazali, to whose defense Dr. Bristol emphatically comes, the “late Ash’arites” even absorbed some philosophical ideas, as I grant in my book—though philosophy, as an independent discipline, died out.

And yet, the gap between dependent and independent reason had huge consequences, which I also demonstrate in my book.

Is outer freedom—and its systematic defense, liberalism—compatible with Islam?

For an example, one could see the gap between al-Jahiz, a prolific Mu’tazilite scholar from the ninth century, and al-Ghazali, on whether God would punish all unbelievers with hellfire. Al-Jahiz, thinking with independent reason, had argued that if Jews, Christians, and even the “Dahris” (materialists) sincerely searched for the truth yet ended up not being convinced by Islam, God would “excuse” them. Because it would be unjust to punish people for things that go beyond their capacity—and God could not do injustice, as we understand the concept in our human terms. In return, Ghazali, in his late work, On Legal Theory of Muslim Jurisprudence (Al-Mustasfa), argues that while the view of al-Jahiz is “not against reason,” it is wrong because it is against revelation—just by quoting a controversial narration about the Prophet Muhammad executing the male members of a treacherous Jewish tribe in Medina. (Whether such post-Quranic narrations count as “revelation” was also a big part of the dispute.)

Afterlife aside, divine command theory had major consequences on earth, which I examine in my book, from the strictly textualist hermeneutic of Islamic jurisprudence, to the faintness of individual conscience and the overdominance of fatwas in popular religiosity, to the Islamist rejection of any “man-made” political system. There is a thread which connects all these troubles, though, which is the absence of a concept of natural law.

One of the prominent Western experts on Islamic law, Bernard Weiss, had offered similar observations in The Search for God’s Law (1992). “As in Christian natural law thinking,” he wrote, “in Mu‘tazili thinking the human intellect was a link between man and God whereby man could, apart from any special revelation, come to an understanding of God’s intentions.” But the Ash’arites emphatically opposed this view, putting the “orthodoxy at odds with all rationalist views of law and morality.” The result was “centuries of interconnectedness between law and religion,” in contrast to the West, where “the existence of an autonomous textual foundation of law facilitated the process of the secularization of law.”

This brings us to the discussion on Islam and liberalism that Dr. Bristol tackles in his review. Yet again, he first finds a flaw in my argument—suggesting that, despite what I argue, “Islamic political thinkers are very concerned with liberty”—only to come up with a conclusion that is already stressed in my book: the problem is that by “liberty,” these thinkers often mean liberty from idolatry, sin, or temptation, while championing “slavery to Allah.” What they really do, as I put it, is to willfully confuse “inner freedom,” a spiritual value, with “outer freedom,” a political value, meaning absence of coercion.

So, the question should be specified as such: Is outer freedom—and its systematic defense, liberalism—compatible with Islam?

My answer is that there are in fact “seeds of freedom” in Islam, as Daniel Philpott rightly calls them, such as the oft-quoted Qur’anic passage, “There is no compulsion in religion.” But conceptual seeds can be cultivated, only if we see them as indications of broader truths—such as “love of universal Liberty,” a term that Dr. Bristol aptly borrows from John Adams. And this is the kind of universalism that we see, not in the divine command theory of al-Ghazali, but the philosophy of his greatest Muslim critic, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who wrote that besides contextual “written laws,” such as religious laws, there are also higher “unwritten laws” of humanity.

That is why in my book, I discussed not only some of the burning issues in Islamic law—such as apostasy, blasphemy, legal inequality, women’s rights, or political freedom—but also theological doctrines that block significant reforms related to them. And I hope this response can help clarify what I exactly argued for and why.