Is Islam Compatible With Democracy and Human Rights? Part II

Her whole book shows that  "distinctive Islamic criteria have been used to cut back on the freedoms guaranteed in international law " [2]; she herself shows that, at certain stage of Islamic history,, one Islamic doctrine prevailed which hindered the development of human rights. [Quotes 2 and 4, above]

Second, to argue in the above way is as illogical as arguing that because human rights were violated in pre - 1989 Soviet Russia, where Communism was the State philosophy, and are equally violated in today's, 1994, Ukraine, where communism is no longer the State philosophy then the Human rights violations in the former Soviet Union had nothing to do with the philosophy of Soviet Communism.

She rejects the view that " Islamic culture froze in its premodern formulation "[12], and yet she herself  tells us (see quote 4, above) that certain premodern values have predominated for more than a millennium. I have already quoted Schacht and Hurgronje on the way Islamic law did become fixed and immutable, I shall quote Bousquet to the same effect:

             D ' une part, il est certain que le systeme du fiqh n'est plus susceptible d'adaptation: il est fige depuis longtemps: depuis des siecles, les memes manuels servent dans l'enseignement a exposer les principes de la volont‚ d' Allah,telle qu'elle a ‚t‚ d‚duite par les Docteurs des livres sacr‚s; cette interpr‚tation est definitive et immuable " [R Psych des Peuples III, 1950] (" frozen" would be an acceptable translation of  " fig‚ ") 

There are recognisable Sharia laws,not dependent on perverse  or illegitimate readings of the Koran and the Sunna, concerning women, non-Muslims and religious freedom, which no amount of interpretation or re-interpretation is going to make palatable to someone committed to the principles of International Human Rights.  On women, for example, we may quote a writer referred to by Ms Mayer in a footnote, Ghassan Ascha: " Islam is not the sole factor in the repression of the Muslim woman, but it constitutes without any doubt a fundamental cause, and remains a major obstacle to the evolution of this situation ".Here there is no equivocation, no evasive attempts to exonerate Islam.

Even, if we concede that Muslim conservatives have interpreted the Sharia in their own way, what gives us  the right to say that their interpretation is the inauthentic one, and that of the liberal Muslims    authentic? Who is going to decide what is authentic Islam?  For many scholars, the Sharia remains the epitome of Islamic civilisation. Finally, the Sharia maybe open to interpretation BUT IT IS NOT INFINITELY ELASTIC EITHER.

Happily, Ms. Mayer's commendable efforts not to offend Muslim sensibilities, though leading her into contradictory statements, has not prevented her from showing, in thorough detail, how Islamic schemes of human rights are woefully inadequate for the protection of the International Human Rights.


The major obstacle, in Islam, to any move towards International Human Rights is God., or to put it more precisely, in the words of Hurgronje[60],it is the reverence for the sources, the Koran and the Sunna.  In the  Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights [UIDHR], we are told that it is Divine Revelation that has given " the legal and moral framework within which to establish and regulate human institutions and relationships ".The authors of the UIDHR belittle human reason, which is deemed to be an inadequate guide in the affairs of mankind, and they insist that the " teachings of Islam  represent the quintessence of Divine guidance in its final and perfect form ".

Therefore, as Ms. Mayer points out, it is not surprising that any challenges to Islamic law are ruled out a priori by the authors of the UIDHR.  Hence the Sharia remains impregnable.

Islam will never achieve democracy and human rights if it insists on the unadulterated application of the Sharia, and so long as there is no separation of religion and state. 

To look for Islamic antecedents for the International Human Rights principles may seem necessary to make the latter acceptable to a deeply conservative civilisation and tradition, but  are ultimately a waste of time, an exercise in mental gymnastics.  This strategy  has led to much intellectual dishonesty,  and  has left the problem where it was __ " the real Islam is democratic "; " the real Islam treats women as equal to men "; etc.. The real problem, whether the Sharia is any longer acceptable, has been left untouched. In my view, IT IS A FUNDAMENTAL MISTAKE TO LOOK FOR ISLAMIC ANTECEDENTS for the International Human Rights principles; not simply because there are no such antecedents, but because to argue in such a way is to play into the hands of the ulama, the  obscurantist  religious class.  It is to fight on their (i.e. the ulama's) own terrain. For every text adduced by the friends of democracy to show that there is no incompatibility between Islam and Human rights, the ulama will produce half a dozen others, showing the contrary. If the compatibilitists do not find any antecedents, will they then abandon these principles? The principles of Human Rights are autonomous, universal and do not depend on any appeal to divine authority.  These principles are rational, and can be argued for without recourse to supernatural knowledge.  In fact, the compatibilitists accepted the validity of the principles prior to their search for their spurious antecedents.


Progress towards liberal democracy with respect for international human rights in the Muslim world will depend on the radical and critical reappraisal of the dogmatic foundations of Islam, rigorous self-criticism that eschews comforting delusions of a glorious past, of a Golden Age of total Muslim victory in all spheres; the separation of religion and state and the adoption of secularism. But secularism will never be adopted as long as it is seen as a Western "disease", until the Muslim world has laid aside its unjustified, irrational, and ultimately destructive fear and loathing of the West and comes to a just recognition of the West's true values, and to a deep understanding of the philosophical foundations of liberalism and democracy; and what the West has already taught it, and what it can still teach it.


Irrational Fear and Loathing of the West:

It is paradoxical that Muslims often wish to point out the influence of Islam in the making of modern Europe, to the Muslim contribution towards the very civilisation they profess to despise. The Americans would not have walked on the moon, we are told, if it had not been for the 'Arab contributions to  the exact sciences". At the same time, the West is denounced as being shallow, materialistic, decadent, irreligious and scientific. This scientific materialism is contrasted with the Muslim's own putative superior spirituality and profundity. (How blind obedience to a book constitutes spirituality is not clear.) Even to talk of the influence of Islam on the West is to betray an inferiority complex, as though only those aspects of Islam were worthy of note that went in to the making of the West. And, of course, it reveals the Muslims' sense of present failure and inadequacy.

As Pryce-Jones put it, "If the Arabs had high scientific achievements to their credit, whe did they leave the Europeans exclusively to benefit from them? What kind of a scientific tradition could it have been that apparently stopped dead in its tracks? Do such apologetic sentiments have purposes of self - deception in the face of distressing truth? Is it really the dreadful fate of Arabs not to be the men their fathers were?"

Muslims will continue to despise "scientific research and discovery" if they persist in seeing "science" as "unspiritual". But as Popper and others have pointed out science should not be confounded with technology, science, indeed is a spiritual activity: "For science is not merely a collection of facts about electricity, etc.; it is one of the most important spiritual movements of our day". [OS ii 283, 284] Lewis Wolpert makes the same observation:" Science is one of humankind's greatest and most beautiful achievements..."

It is unfortunate that many Muslim intellectuals have swallowed whole the shallow criticisms of "Orientalism". Far from being the tool of imperialism, western scholars gave back to Muslims their culture, that is to say, western scholarship, in its disinterested pursuit of truth and knowledge, revealed to the Muslims themselves aspects of their culture and history that would have been otherwise lost; gave them a deeper understanding of Islamic civilisation. It was intellectual inquiry and curiosity that motivated years of study and research - indeed a whole lifetime - amongst a group of scholars now despised as "Orientalists".

The story of the apparent burning of the Alexandrian library by the Muslims is a perfect example of why mistrust of western scholarship is totally misplaced. According to the traditional account, after the conquest of Alexandria in 641, the caliph Umar ordered the great library to be destroyed; "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed". The books were then used to heat the furnaces of the numerous bath-houses of the city.

Far from being a Western fabrication to blacken Islam's reputation, this story was a late 12th century Muslim invention, to justify the burning of heretical Ismaili books. In the words of Lewis, "the original sources of the story are Muslim... Not the creation, but the demolition of the myth was the achievement of European scholarship, which from the 18th century to the present day has rejected the story as false and absurd, and thus exonerated the Caliph Umar and the early Muslims from this libel ". [Sep 2, 1990 NYRB] 

Polemical denunciation of Western "materialism" also blinds Muslims to the spiritual achievements of the West, and denies Muslims access to the rich heritage of Europe which should be the patrimony and cause of pride of all mankind, as much as the rich architectural heritage of Islam, for example, is the cause of human pride and wonder. The music of Mozart and Beethoven, the art of the Renaissance should be as much the object of study in Islamic seats of learning as Islamic philosophy: secularism should open up the intellectual horizons of Muslims, who, at present, are fed a daily diet of misrepresentation of what Western culture stands for. Far from being a culture of "nihilism" or selfishness, the West is full of humanitarian impulses, from the creation of the Red Cross to "Medecins Sans FrontiŠres". 

The unwillingness to acknowledge any intellectual debts to the West, and unwillingness that leads to vain searches for Islamic antecedents for human rights, for example, is absurd in the extreme in view of the different elements that have gone into the making of Islam. I have already cited the influence of Talmudic Judaism, Syriac Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. The influence of Greek philosophy and science is also well-known. The crescent, the emblem of Islam, was originally the symbol of sovereignty in the city of Byzantium. The Arabic script, which was developed at a late date, may well have been invented by Christian, missionaries; and ultimately derived from the Phoenician alphabet, via Nabatean and Aramaic.

Islamic art and architecture owes an enormous debt to the rich and ancient traditions of the Near East with which the Arabs came into contact after the rapid conquests of th 7th century. As the recognised scholar of Islamic architecture, K.A.C. Creswell, put it rather bluntly, "Arabia, at the rise of Islam, does not appear to have possessed anything worthy of the name of architecture". Grabar and Ettinghausen also point out that the "the conquering Arabs, with few artistic traditions of their own and a limited doctrine on art, penetrated a world which was not only immensely rich in artistic themes and forms yet universal in its vocabulary, but also, at this particular juncture of its history, had charges its forms with unusual intensity".

The famous Dome of the Rock (691 A.D.) in Jerusalem, one of the earliest Islamic monument, is obviously influenced by the centrally planned buildings known as "martyria", and bears a close relationship to the Christian sanctuaries of the Ascension and the Anastasis. The interior equally owes a great deal to the Christian art of Syria and Palestine, and Byzantine.

As for the minaret, Creswell has shown that it was derived architecturally from Syrian church towers (Creswell III) 

Ettinghausen in a chapter pointedly entitled "Byzantine Art In Islamic Garb" in his classic work on Arab painting writes: 

"...during the Umayyad period the two major elements of Arab painting were classical and Iranian; these elements existed side by side and, apart from a deliberate choice of subject matte, showed no Islamic slant. In the subsequent Abbasis period the Iranian [i.e. non-Islamic or pre-Islamic Iran] element became prevalent. (At the end of the 12th century), the classical element again predominates, this time by way of Byzantine inspiration".

As for Islamic Law itself, here is Schacht on the influences that created it: "... Elements originating from Roman and Byzantine law, from the canon law of the Eastern Churches, from Talmudic and rabbinic law, and from Sasanian law, infiltrated into the nascent religious law of Islam during its period of incubation, to appear in the doctrines of the second [Muslim]/eighth century [A.D.]".  

As the Arab philosopher, Al Kindi, said: " We ought not to be ashamed of applauding the truth, nor appropriating the truth FROM WHATEVER SOURCE IT MAY COME, EVEN IF IT BE FROM REMOTE RACES AND NATIONS ALIEN TO US.  There is nothing that beseems the seeker after truth better than truth itself." The great Averroes made the same point: " So if someone else has already enquired into this matter, it is clear that we ought to look at what our predecessor has said to help us in our own undertaking, alike whether that previous investigator was of the same religion as ourselves or not.  For in regard to the instrument by which our reasoning is precisely refined it is immaterial to consider, touching its property of refining, whether that instrument was invented by a co-religionist of oure or by one who did not share our faith; the only proviso is that it fulfils the condition of being sound and efficacious ".

NO CIVILISATION IS PURE, there are no more pure civilisations than there are pure races. Nabokov one said we are all a salad of racial genes, this is even more true of civilisations; civilisations are a salad of cultural genes, different intermenetrating, inter-influencing strands. Most civilisations have not developed in isolation, there has always been an exchange of material goods AND ideas. Nor have civilisations remained absolutely static and unchanging in all their aspects. Traditions change and evolve, they do not emerge ready-made, fully-formed out of nowhere; foreign influences are absorbed and assimilated and transmuted. What we take to be ancient traditions deeply rooted in a national past often turn out to be foreign imports of recent origins - this is particularly true of "national culinary dishes"; most spices have originated in the East and have traveled westwards; and contrary to what many believe, red cillies, now thought to be an essential ingredient in any Indian dish, are not a native of Indian but were introduced there by the Portuguese in the 16th century. (The "traditional" British Christmas is not more than a hundred years old). Conversely what we take to be "alien" turns out to be homegrown. What emerges is still something unique to the absorbing culture. The various strands that went into the making of Islamic civilisation, nonetheless, produced an original, distinct culture that had not existed before. As Braudel said, a great civilisation can be recognised not only by its refusal to borrow but also by its ability to receive and borrow. Despite the apparent stagnation of the Islamic world, and its conservative nature, modern Western ideas have been penetrating Islmaic culture in more ways than one cares to admit. The influence, especially since the 19th centure, of Western literature on Arabic literature is an obvious example - the Noble Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz is know, after all, as the Arab Balzac.

Unfortunately, these ideas have failed to reach the majority of the people in Muslim countries. Here intellectuals and national leaders have failed to educate the people in the principles of liberalism and democracy. At this stage in world history, in this age of globalism, to cut oneself off from cultural influences, even if it were possible, SIMPLY because they are seen to be from the West, is childish in the extreme. The works of BEethoven are as much a legacy for the whole of mankind as the works of Ibn Kholdun or the architecture of the Alhambra.  In the past, a simple increase in knowledge has led to a change in a culture. In the last century and a half there has been an enormous increase in knowledge, objective knowledge that is of universal validity; this scientific knowledge cannot but have an impact on every single culture on earth. Traditions are not necessarily "good", simply because they are ancient or well-established, as Von Hayek put it, "Follies and abuses are no better for having long been established principles of policy". [Hayek 410] The British intervened in the affairs of an alien culture and abolished the ancient and curel tradition of suttee, whereby a widow had to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. This must be considered a step forward in the lot of women and the moral progress of mankind.  ALl the above four pages are but a preparation for a plea in favour of secularism, whose Western provenance is not a rational justification for its rejection. As Al Masudi said  "Whatever is good should be recognized, whether it is found  in friend or foe. " 


 In Defence of Secularism

In the last hundred years there have been more defences of liberalism in the Muslim world than most people realise.  Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), the founder of modern Egypt, is often considered the first secularist in the Arab world. In Turkey there was Prince Sabaheddin (died 1948) who advocated individualism, federalism and decentralization. In Egypt, there was the disciple of Mill, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963) who defended the right of individuals, argued for the separation of powers, safeguards against the encroachment of the State in the lives of individuals, the freedom of the press.  

However, the most recent impassioned plea for secularism comes from Fouad Zakariya, writing in 1989, after the Rushdie affair. Zakariya, an Egyptian philosopher teaching at the University of Kuwait, laments the fact that the principles of  Islamic religious dogma have never been critically examined, that there is no single periodical devoted entirely to secular thought in Arabic. Zakariya believes that the values embodied in secularism - rationalism, critical spirit, scientific rigour, intellectual independence - are of universal validity.  He believes that there were Muslims in the past who fought for the same values - he cites the Mutazilites, al Farabi, Averroes, Ibn al Haytham.  

Secularism is absolutely necessary, concludes Zakariya, especially for those societies threatened by any kind of authoritarian and medieval way of thinking. Since the Muslim world is still plunged in the Dark Ages, secularism is needed more than ever.