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Fruitless Endeavours: Muslim Thought and Contemporary Issues

Muslim World Book Review No 4, 1996

S Parvez Manzoor

If the objective of Islamic thought is to provide a pragmatic response to the existential challenge, if its aim is to envision a future historical order that Muslims can identify as their own, if its calling is to help Muslim community make a meaningful contribution to the well-being of humanity, then, the Islamic thought of our century has not progressed much. It has produced little in the way of viable ideas and achieved few of the practical tasks it set upon itself to accomplish.Indeed, for all its energy and commitment, its rage and urgency, it has come to signify a singularly fruitless and sterile enterprise. To the most pressing issues of our day, political legitimacy, economic development, scientific and technical progress, it has retorted not with societal concern but with visionary disdain. Thus, after a century of intense reflection and debate, we are still at the beginning of our quest, having no inkling as to how an immanent Islamic order is to be conceived, let alone established. Even in terms of the seminal moral issues of our age, such as Human Rights and patriarchical repression, our response has not advanced beyond disingenuous apologetics. Fidelity to Islamic conscience demands therefore that the spurious thought of our century be properly scrutinized, nay impeached and censured. Despite their differences of intent, approach and concern, the works reported here insinuate that such an Islamic indictment is not only perfectly in order, it is also urgently called for.

Works Discussed in this Essay:


TRENDS AND ISSUES IN CONTEMPORARY ARAB THOUGHT. By Issa J. Boullata. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1990. Pp 219. $21.95. ISBN 0-7914-0195-2.
CULTURAL TRANSITIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST. Ed by Serif Mardin. E.J. Brill, Leiden, New York, Köln, 1994. Pp 278. ISBN 90-04-09873-9.
POLITICS AND REVELATION: Mawardi & After. By Hanna Mikhail. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1995. Pp 95. 29.95. ISBN 0-7486-0519-3.

Hanna Mikhail’s Politics and Revelation does not survey the current debate at all, but deals with one of the classical figures of Sunni political theory, Al-Mawardi. It is a purely academic study, a doctoral thesis that has come out in print more than two decades after its presentation at Harvard and almost two decades after the death of its author. And yet, its publication marks a self-conscious, almost clamorous entry into the cultural and political debate of our times. Never was the adage that ’every work of history is a statement about current politics’ more true than in this case: its classical canvass reveals a contemporary image and its academic cast carries a political message. The author of this treatise, Hanna Mikhail, a Palestinian freedom fighter known within the revolutionary circles as Abu Omar, was a graduate of Harvard, who taught at various American universities before joining the PLO. He died in 1976 ’giving his life to the Palestinian cause.’ Edward Said, another committed Palestinian and a daring and liberating intellect, says in the introduction to his friend Abu Omar’s posthumous work: ’When I think of the present state of affairs, with so much that has been discarded and voluntarily abandoned in our history, when the doctrines of realism and pragmatism are trumpeted by smug and shameless winners, and when a shabby, undemocratic Palestinian protectorate under Israeli rule is proclaimed as the fulfillment of our aspirations, I am also led inevitably to think of Hanna Mikhail, and in particular his dedication and principled course of action on behalf of his people.’ Such was the man who authored this study, and such is the motivation for publishing it today.

As for the work itself, it delivers, by all standards, an extremely succinct statement. The main body of the text occupies only 64 pages, to which another 24 are added in the form of bibliography, notes and appendixes, thus totalling in all a meagre 92 page - surely, something of a record for a doctoral thesis. Nevertheless, it has always been recognized that bulk is never a measure of the profundity of a work, academic or otherwise. And so is it with Abu Omar’s dissertation: it is incisive, perceptive and suggestive as few other scholarly studies dealing with the same subject. In fact, the only previous efforts it bears comparison with, in terms of imaginative daring, keenness of vision and intellectual perspicacity, are the few, equally terse, statements by H.A.R. Gibb! To recognize this is, of course, to accord Hanna Mikhail’s work the highest of accolades. His is a synoptic statement that elucidates the intimate affiliation that exists between politics and revelation not only in Al-Mawardi’s thought, but also within Sunni political culture as a whole. However, what it exposes is much less of a sacerdotal theory of divine sanction impossible to implement in a power-worshipping, sinful world, but the pragmatic foundations of a politically sagacious vision that is capable of transforming any kind of power into legitimate authority. By the imposition of a minimum of restraints, by being exercised within the outermost parameters of the Shar`ia and for the maintenance of justice, political power is channeled in the service of the faith community of Islam. The merits and demerits of Mikhail’s thesis are sure to generate a debate among scholars.

Far more interesting, for the readers of this journal at least, is the concluding statement about ’Islamic and Western Political Thought’ that inter alia impinges on the contemporary debate on modernity and political order. Mikhail is justified in claiming that medieval Islam and medieval Christendom exhibit striking similarities in their political theories, indeed even in their political practice. They both viewed themselves as universal communities in which men of religion rather than rulers claimed guardianship of faith and they both accepted that religion provided a pervasive ethical ideal and served as a legitimizer of rulers. They both were also ’pessimistic’ and anti-political in their worldview to the extent that they believed that perfect justice and bliss could not be attained in a politically constituted reality but only in the Hereafter. Politics, as Mikhail observes, did not, as with the Greeks, ’aspire to attaining the supreme good but had to be satisfied with realizing the lesser evil.’ Further, both Islam and Christianity sacralized the community and placed it above the individual. Similarly, there was equal emphasis on harmony within an essentially hierarchical conception of society. The capital difference between the two was, of course, the existence of a comprehensive divine law in the case of Islam and that of the church (a divinely sanctioned institution that not only stood apart from but also above every earthly kingdom, every temporal state) in the case of Christianity.

Despite the proclamation of a single unified vision of the ideal Islamic society, a vision which perceived no cleavage of church and state within the body-Islamic, faith and power were never totally united in the Dar al-Islam. Mikhail recognizes that this deviance from the ideal was actually as a compromise as it ’gave the rulers great leeway in governing their dominion, and largely excluded the function of government from the formulated divine law.’ (p 55. Emphasis added) The rules and ordinances of the rulers and their officials, which actually determined the functioning of the government, were, however, never ’canonized’: they never became part of the Shari`a legislation. According to Mikhail, ’the fact that ..... Muslim ideologues were hesitant to admit the existence and legitimacy of administrative regulations, let alone Roman and natural law, meant that non-Shar`i "laws" were neither elaborated nor brought into harmony with the religious ideal.’ (ibid.) However, this fact signifies to Mikhail that the world of Islam missed the opportunity to come up with its own version of the so-called ’Thomist synthesis’ of reason and revelation. Paradoxically, however, the unitary Thomist vision was instrumental in recognizing the legitimacy of the natural-human law and differentiating it from the divine law. One salutary outcome of this development was, of course, that in the West ethical injunctions came to be distinguished from the positive, enforceable laws and Aquinas could define human law ’as an act of will promulgated by him who has coercive power.’ Governance as the realm par excellence of coercive power became then a purely human affair, to be regulated by consent and rationality.

Whatever the societal benefits of this dichotomization of the human and the divine, the ethical and the legal, the coercive and the persuasive, it must be recognized that the Thomist scheme provides a Christian legitimation of the secularist project for the fulfillment of which man ultimately ’kills God.’ Little wonder that medieval Muslim theorists, who too had proposed similar distinctions between indispensable obligations (Fard `Ain) and the dispensable ones (Fard Kifaya) that could easily have evolved into the categories of the ethical and the legal, did so without disrupting the overall divinely ordained unity of the Islamic worldview. (Such a bifurcation of the classical fiqh into two subdivisions, one pertaining to the individual and her conscience (Fard `Ain) and the other pertaining to the coercive power of the community (Fard Kifaya), is still possible, indeed even desirable.) That Muslims like Aquinas did not produce a dualistic vision of the ultimate scheme of things is due to their monotheistic moorings. For, as admitted even by a hostile critic of Islam, ’In order to work for the power and glory of his earthly city, man in Islam does not have to kill God.’ Any kind of thought, Muslim or not, that does not recognize this, is spurious from the Islamic point of view.

Stockholm S Parvez Manzoor

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