Islamic Law and Progressive Politics
Back in March, Kevin posted and I commented on the prosecution of Abdul Rahman for apostasy in Afghanistan. Rahman was ultimately deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, and the case was dropped. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia, published an editorial opposing the criminalization of apostasy in yesterday’s Washington Post. Wahid makes several arguments, based on text (“Such punishments run counter to the clear Koranic injunction ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256)”), history (“during the early history of Islam, the Agreement of Hudaibiyah between Muhammad and his rivals stipulated that any Muslim who converted out of Islam would be allowed to depart freely to join the non-Muslim community”), and general principles (“al-umuru bi maqashidiha (‘Every problem [should be addressed] in accordance with its purpose’)” and “al-hukm-u yadullu ma’a illatihi wujudan wa adaman (‘The law is formulated in accordance with circumstances’)”).
Wahid’s legal arguments are ultimately less interesting than his perspective on the relationship between Islamic law and politics. In Wahid’s view, religious extremists are merely “masquerading as traditional Muslims” but that “[t]heir objective is raw political power.” “Muslim theologians must revise their understanding of Islamic law” and we must all work to “ensure the triumph . . . of the ‘right’ understanding of Islam.” The desire to reclaim Islamic law from conservatives, fundamentalists, and extremists is increasingly widespread. So too is the adoption by progressives of the conservative narrative of purity and corruption, as well as of the conservative strategy of dismissing opposing interpretations as mere politics.
Reading Wahid’s editorial, I was reminded of this essay by Abdou Filali-Ansary, who worries that serious scholarly engagement with the legal arguments of extremists risks legitimizing their arguments as reasonable and sincerely held and portraying the extremists as acting in good faith. [For a somewhat related discussion see here] Like Wahid, Filali-Ansary worries that extremists’ legal arguments “allow them to camouflage their very worldly thirst for power.” But Filali-Ansary goes further, arguing that jurisprudential debates are at best a distraction and that progressive causes are not well-served by couching their aspirations in legal language:
The most essential questions that humans face today – those that engender the deepest conflicts – have nothing to do with theology. They concern disputes over territory, political power, definitions of rights, and distribution of wealth. The means of discussing these questions is known to all and is expressed in all religions and all languages. The evils most deeply resented – in all societies – are injustice, despotism, corruption, and poverty. We all understand what these mean, and how certain people must live with them on a daily basis.
Both Wahid and Filali-Ansary think the legal arguments of extremists are politically motivated, but while Wahid thinks the best response is better jurisprudence Filali-Ansary thinks the best response is better politics.
There is a middle ground. Wahid suggests that outside the four corners of the Qur’an Islamic law is highly indeterminate and largely reflects past or present political choices. Perhaps both authors would be satisfied with an interpretive approach that opened up space for political discourse by emphasizing ambiguity and narrowing the reach of Islamic law to its clearest applications. Such an approach would deny clear legal support to progressives and their opponents alike, leaving their disputes to settlement by direct moral argument. [For those following the parallels with debates in constitutional theory, the last position recalls James Bradley Thayer’s “clear mistake rule,” while Filali-Ansary plays the role of Jeremy Waldron.]
In any event, the proper relationship between Islamic law and political discourse remains unresolved. But Comments are open, so I’m sure that won’t last long.