Development of Doctrine in Islam

Development of Doctrine in IslamAfter-Dinner Remarks at the Witherspoon Institute Princeton, New Jersey May 6, 2011

After-dinner talk must be lighter, especially after so rich, deep, and complex a conference. Congratulations to our leaders. It has been wonderful.

Still we need a breather, no? ... Well, wise men say that in Japan every talk must begin with an apology, but in the United States every talk must begin with a joke. Tonight I have to begin with an apology, because I do not have a joke. Well, yes, there is actually a good one.

Have you heard the story about Bin Laden’s three surprises on arriving at the Gate of Paradise? Alas, the surprise was not that he was not met by seventy-two sloe-eyed virgins; he had had his suspicions about that for a long time. Rather, his first surprise was that the Gatekeeper of Paradise was St. Peter. His second was that Peter cleared Bin Laden for immediate entrance into Paradise.

The third surprise awaiting him was an impressive but angry man with a powdered white wig, 6’4” tall, with long arms and large hands, who took Bin Laden by the throat and said, “I am the father of this country – and those Twin Towers you ignited in a great orange flame – you can’t do that to my people!” Lanky, auburn-haired Tom Jefferson knelt down behind Bin Laden, then Washington pushed Bin Laden over him.

Heavy little Jimmy Madison sat on Bin Laden’s belly, and pounded him with two hands. Patrick Henry stepped up and beat Bin Laden’s face with the leafy branch of a willow tree. George Mason and John Randolph joined in. James Monroe spat on Bin Laden.

Bin Laden staggered away. “Allah, Allah! This is not what you promised me at all!” Then a voice from the heavens boomed, “I said, seventy-two sloe-eyed Virginians. What did you think I said?”

I have chosen for tonight’s talk one of the most important themes of this new century, Religious Liberty – in particular, the Development of Doctrine in Islam. For this theme, it would be much better to hear from a deep, learned, widely experienced and wise scholar-statesman. But our organizers made one little mistake. For this dinner, they invited someone who is, let alone on Islam, not an expert in anything. You all know that I have written a lot of books and papers on a lot of subjects having to do with culture, politics, and economics. You know I have a wee bit of experience, too, in getting a declaration on religious liberty through the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in 1981, after 37 years of futile attempts.

My one claim to a tiny bit of fame is that over the last 50 years I have made a few discoveries in several fields that much better scholars had missed, from “nonhistorical orthodoxy” at the Second Vatican to a theology of sports, and the creative role to be assigned to capitalism in Catholic social doctrine. You can see from the record that it has been hard for me to concentrate in any one area.

Ever since my first years in college, the vocation that seemed to be handed to me was to be a kind of pioneer, an explorer, in many fields on the boundaries of (Jewish and) Christian faith and reason, on the darkness of the experience of nothingness, and the joy in helping at least a little to build up a new civilization on the ashes left by World War II. And so it is with tonight’s topic: No expert, but with a tiny bit of experience in several fields.

At Catholic University in grad school I had the privilege of taking a course from Msgr. Joseph Fenton, the tough but unpopular antagonist to John Courtney Murray on religious liberty, one of those who alerted Rome of the “dangers” of Murray’s teachings. Msgr. Fenton knew I sided with Murray – I had already published on that. But he enjoyed repartee with me, and rather favored me in class, even giving me a book to review for the journal he edited on pastoral theology. So I was very early at the center of the American Catholic argument on religious liberty.

Reporting from Rome during the Second Vatican Council, I recorded the first passionate stirrings of the discussion of religious liberty at the Council, and followed the backstage private debates at individual episcopal conferences. That is where I first heard the name Karol Wojtyla, the new and youngest ever cardinal of Krakow, and his fresh insistence that the episcopal conferences of Central and Eastern Europe must have a declaration of religious liberty from the Council. Some say his cool intellectual passion did more than anything else to sway Paul VI to throw his weight in favor of bringing that issue to a vote, even though powerful forces (especially but not only) in the Latin world feared greatly that it would lead to relativism and religious indifferentism.

In a word, I saw firsthand how the Catholic Church needed a “development of doctrine” – and quickly – on religious liberty. As an American, I was acutely aware of how late it was in coming. I could not help rejoicing, later, at the powerful similarities between key passages of the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty and central lines of argument in James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. A line-by-line comparison makes stunning reading.[1]

1. A Not-So-Bold Prediction

Tonight, however, my brief talk is about an analogous development of doctrine. This is the development that is already happening in the dozens of Islamic countries, especially in the 18 key ones of the Middle East. We watch the news and see it happening – every night since January in Egypt, then exploding in Libya, and then back the other way into bloody Syria. And who can forget last autumn’s heroic rebellion in Iran, in the name of liberation from the cruel tyranny of the Mullahs, a rebellion crushed without mercy.

So far in 2011, we have lived through a sudden and startling rebellion against tyranny all along the southern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean, once the stronghold of the early Christian church from Antioch to Alexandria to Hippo. Some have objected that these battles today are rebellions against tyranny, but so far not for democracy nor human rights nor religious liberty. That may be true.

Yet Benjamin Franklin did say in 1776, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” Rebellion against tyrants is not a sufficient vision, but it is a necessary and even great step on the way – the positive way toward religious liberty and respect for all other human rights. And this small step, combined with other background factors, does allow us to make what some will regard as a bold prediction, although I do not consider it bold at all.

My prediction is this: By the year 2020, rough and painful human experience will lead the Islamic nations of the Mediterranean Basin to resound with positive cries for Democracy, Human Rights, Individual Liberty, and the Dignity of Every Muslim Man, Woman, and Child. By 2020, Islamic peoples will be crying out publicly in favor of regimes that allow men and women to act from reflection and choice, and to live as peoples who are free and adult and responsible, and are eager to show initiative and unprecedented creativity.

Even if you don’t believe me, mark my words, please. There are a great many reasons, not often brought to light, that suggest that this prediction is likely to come true. “Come on!” some of you may say. “There is no tradition for these developments in the Islamic Middle East.” In Islam, it is true, there are only weak traditions about the very possibility of a “development of doctrine.” Still…

Ever since 1991, a large number of shrewd Arab observers have noted that the progress of one partially successful election after another, and the quick and successful removal of Saddam Hussein, the megalomaniac and sadistic tyrant of Iraq, stimulated the publication of far more books and articles published in the Arab world on freedom, human rights, and democracy than during the preceding five hundred years. It is as if millions, watching these events unfold on television, suddenly asked themselves, why can’t we govern ourselves by our own consent? Why can’t we reach our own constitutional accommodation between Islam and the state, each one preventing the other from totally dominating our societies?

Further, I want to predict two broad paths up which this development of doctrine, both in religious and in political thinking, will slowly but inexorably gain power in the Arab states. The first path is the long, slow development of five or more principles rooted deep in Islamic theology and concrete practice for many centuries now.

2. The First Path Propelling Development

Since tonight’s occasion is an after-dinner talk, it would be wrong to develop in detail the many factors operating in the faith and practice of Islam today. These political and historical experiences have unfolded across three great continents from the Far East to the Middle East to Africa, in dozens of different Muslim lands, in many climates, in a rich geographical and topographical variety, within vastly different cultural and political histories. The body of practical experience lived through by Islamic cultures for more than a millennium is vast and diverse. Whoever speaks today of Islamic culture as though it is only one thing is committing an enormous intellectual error.

Although briefly, I have treated of many of these differences in The Universal Hunger for Liberty. [2] Please allow me to paraphrase or quote from two or three passages from that book, through which I must linger on two abiding characteristics of Muslim thought. The first is the unusually high version of transcendence which Muslim theology has long reverenced in Allah; and, second, is the profound assumption buried in the ethic of Islam: the assumption that the fundamental fact in Islamic religious and moral life is personal liberty.

On the first characteristic: Allah is so great, so beyond measure, so beyond compare, that his greatness is a warning to any mere mortal spokesman about his own shortsightedness and inadequacy in the face of Allah. The greatness of Allah relativizes all human pretensions. No matter how wealthy or powerful a human being is, in comparison with Allah, this is as nothing. “Allahu Akbar!” opens the mind to the possibility that only Allah knows all the paths that lead to him, and that women and men would do well to respect the freedom of religious conscience of all persons. For Muslims, Islam is the one true religion, but no single Muslim can claim to know all the mysterious paths along which Allah leads all the other peoples of the earth. Historically, the super-transcendence of the Islamic doctrine of God has not been made as prominent as it might be. But perhaps it has lain fallow these many years so that its true beauty might flower in, as it were, a delayed springtime for Islam worldwide.

In this respect, let me cite just one impressive scholarly observation:

If God had willed, He could surely have made you one people, professing one faith, but He did not do so. He wished to try and test you. So try to compete with one another in good deeds. Unto God you shall return, all together. And He will tell you the truth about what you have been disputing.[3]

Islam speaks constantly of rewards and punishments not only after death but also in this life. Such assertions make no sense at all if Muslim theology does not assume personal choice, on which such rewards and punishments are meted out. The doctrine of personal liberty and responsibility may remain largely implicit, not nearly often enough explicit, in Muslim tradition and catechesis. But without it as a foundation, the central preaching of Islam about reward versus punishment makes no sense whatever. For example, as Ismail al-Faruqi wrote in 1992:

Fulfillment of his vocation is the only condition Islam knows for man’s salvation. Either it is his own doing or it is worthless. Nobody can do the job for him, not even God, without rendering him a puppet. This follows from the nature of moral action, namely, it is not itself moral unless it is freely willed and undertaken to completion by a free agent. Without the initiative and effort of man, all moral worth or value falls to the ground.[4]

Though they are diverse, Muslim cultures worldwide share a dozen or so characteristics rooted in their theological and scriptural tradition – cultural resources that make these settings hospitable to democratic transformations. A number of scholars have identified and written on these.

Bernard Lewis, for example, points to five features of the Muslim culture. First: “Islamic tradition strongly disapproves of arbitrary rule.” Lewis adds that in Islamic tradition the exercise of political power is conceived of “as a contract, creating bonds of mutual obligation between the ruler and the ruled.” Other writers emphasize at this point the great efforts that Muslim rulers are expected to go through to achieve consensus among all branches of society.[5]

The second resource Lewis notes is the need for continuing consent: “The contract can be dissolved if the ruler fails to fulfill or ceases to be capable of fulfilling his obligations.”

The third is the Islamic notion of civil disobedience, namely, that “if the sovereign commands something that is sinful, the duty of obedience lapses.” One Hadith says: “Do not obey a creature against his Creator.” Another adds: “There is no duty to obedience in sin.”

The fourth resource is the principle of accepting diversity. As the Prophet says, “Difference of opinion within my community is a sign of God’s mercy.”

The fifth resource is the traditional stress on the dignity and humility of all citizens. Dignity gives all citizens a place and a right to be taken seriously. Humility applies to the great and the mighty as well as to the ordinary person. The transcendence of the Almighty Creator is an efficient equalizer.

Similarly, in an essay on “Reviving Middle Eastern Liberalism,” Saad Eddin Ibrahim points to a hundred-year period between 1850 and 1952, when there flourished in Egypt a liberal age that was the light of the modern Muslim world. During that time, civil society was defined as “a free space within which people can assemble, work together, express themselves, organize, and pursue shared interests in an open and peaceful manner.”[6]

Finally, one of the most important of the young Muslim scholars in the United States, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of the UCLA School of Law, has summarized many of his writings on Muslim developments in religious liberty, democracy, and human rights in a fairly succinct paragraph that deserves quoting in full:

My argument for democracy draws on six basic ideas: 1) Human beings are God’s vicegerents on earth; 2) this vicegerency is the basis of individual responsibility; 3) individual responsibility and vicegerency provide the basis for human rights and equality; 4) human beings in general, and Muslims specifically, have a fundamental obligation to foster justice (and more generally to command right and forbid wrong), and to preserve and promote God’s law; 5) divine law must be distinguished from fallible human interpretations; and 6) the state should not pretend to embody divine sovereignty and majesty.[7]

The materials embodied so briefly here are very rich, and largely unplumbed by thematization and careful theoretical development. A huge amount of work in accomplishing this theoretical exploration and formulation lies before this and the next generation. But let us now return to the second propellant of a rapid development of doctrine.

3. The Second and Overwhelming Propellant: the Via Negativa

The second path is what I call the Via Negativa, which is constituted by intense persecution, violence, and suffering. It is probably true that during the last 60 years, ever since the end of World War II, the human rights of few peoples on earth have been so neglected by the larger world as those of the Muslim Middle East. The Soviets could not credibly defend the rights of the peoples of the Middle East, while abusing so badly the rights of their own people. The Western nations did not wish to create social and political turmoil in a region whose oil and strategic position at the crossroads of three great continents were of such delicate importance to free societies. The peoples of the Arab societies were left to suffer alone from cruel and merciless leaders, close scrutiny of their private persons by the secret police of the regime, the security agents of local jurisdictions, and the religious police. The liberties of whole peoples were tightly restrained. Muslim suffering went without empathy, without notice, and above all without relief from outside.

To be yet more specific, millions of Arabs have died by violence (mostly at each other’s hands) during the last 60 years. Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands have rotted in ghastly jails. In some places, nearly all signs of independent civic life have been smothered out.

The pressure of this intense suffering will probably be the most powerful incentive for finding a new politics of liberty and dignity in the Middle East. The Via Negativa will teach irresistible lessons that no development of abstract doctrine can match, just as often before in history, intense suffering has led to rapid development of religious and political doctrine. So it will here. Human nature itself will support it.


[1] Alongside Dignitatis Humanae, see the texts from Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religions Assessments and Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. See Appendix I.

For some official Declarations issued by the U.S. Congress and the President of the United States, which exemplify how religious the official reasoning of U.S. political authorities at the Founding were, see Appendix II.

[2] See chapter 9, “Can Islam Come to Terms with Democracy?” in The Universal Hunger for Liberty (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

[3] Mumtaz Ahmad, “Islam and Religious Liberty,” quoted in The Universal Hunger for Liberty, 212.

[4] Ismail al-Faruqi, Al Tawhid: Its Implication for Thought and Life (Herndon, Va.: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992), 7.

[5] Cf. David Smock, “Islam & Democracy,” Special Report 93 (Washington: D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2002), 4.

[6] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “Reviving Middle Eastern Liberalism,” Journal of Democracy 14, no. 4 (October 2003): 8.

[7] Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy,” Boston Review (April/May 2003). (accessed April 29, 2011).