Few Muslims would dispute the notion that Islam should guide their private as well as public lives, since the Koran and the Sunna, the tradition of the prophet Muhammad, the two primary sources of Islam’s religious law, or Shari’a, provide instructions on virtually every aspect of life.
Muslims differ, however, on the varying readings of what shari’a means, and hence the diverse Islamic schools of jurisprudence, or Fiqh. The wide spectrum of Fiqh schools in Sunni and Shi’ite Islam varies across two key dimensions: interpretation (verbatim vs socially conditioned interpretation) and authority (identity of those able to make interpretation and the nature of their political power).
The Arab Spring, however, exposed both the hypocrisy of the established religious authorities, who issued fatwas against the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and the bankruptcy of the radical militants’ ideology. Arabs who protested in the streets across religious, age and gender divisions were motivated by aspiration for the universal values of freedom – a consensus even the staunchest of Islamists cannot ignore.
Sunni schools endorse whoever the Muslim community chooses to lead them as legitimate ruler, while Shi’ite Islam assigns religious and political leadership to the descendants of the prophet (as infallible imams), on behalf of which the Shi’ite scholars act as agents. Moderate Sunni schools (Hanafi and Maliki), as well as some Shi’ite schools adopt socially conditioned interpretations based on logical deduction by scholars, while the conservative Sunni schools (Hanbali) adopt a strict version of verbatim interpretation. In reality, however, the Islamic world has been divided into three classes: secular government that consigns religion to personal life (Egypt); ostensibly religious, but essentially secular government that sanctions intrusive authority of clerics (Saudi Arabia); and outright religious government (Iran).
Ironically, rival Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran both invoke
shari’a to maintain their dictatorial regimes and oppress political
freedoms using the same maxim – rebelling against authority is rebelling
against what God has instituted, as sovereignty belongs to God and not
to the people. Combined with the discriminatory practices against women
and non-Muslim minorities, as well as the electoral victories of
anti-Western Islamists based on the example of “one man, one vote, one
time,” in Sudan, Gaza and Algeria, this has given rise to the notion
that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible.
Shari’a has also been invoked for purposes other than domestic
oppression. Iran’s deception of the international community with regard
to its nuclear program is believed to stem from the Shi’ite concept of
taqqiya – permission for believers to hide the truth from nonbelievers
to protect the religion – which is arguably justified in the Koran
(3:28; 16: 106).
It is no wonder, then, that there are those who misunderstand this to
mean that Islam permits devout Muslims to deliberately cheat non-Muslims
to promote the religion of Islam any time and anywhere.
Even worse, shari’a has been invoked by radical, militant Islamist
groups, such as al-Qaida, to justify committing terror attacks against
non-Muslim civilians in the West, as well as against their fellow
Muslims, under the guise of jihad. Here, jihad is understood as the duty
of every Muslim to wage war against all non- Muslims with the ultimate
aim of the ruling the world.
This pattern of the abuse of shari’a by authoritarian Muslim rulers and
militant groups bring us back to the two key dimensions of Fiqh schools:
interpretation and authority. Works of radical Islamic theorists as
well as regime-co-opted religion are essentially the product of a
selective interpretation process that at one time adopts explanations
provided by medieval clerics, and at another makes an independent
interpretation, according to the current political agenda, and not
Less known in the mainstream is a great legacy of moderate Islamic
scholars who warned against this abusive process long time ago. Muhammad
Abdu, the enlightened Islamic scholar of the 19th century, viewed
reason as the ultimate virtue of Islam. He believed that therefore any
dogma contradicting the morals or core values of Islam – justice,
consultative governance and mercy – should be ruled out. On the subject
of authority, Ali Abdel-Raziq of the early 20th century argued
persuasively in his 1925 seminal treatise, Islam and the Foundations of
Governance, that Islam does not suggest any particular type of
government, religious or otherwise, because the prophet’s divine mission
has been to establish a community of believers, not a body politic.
The relevance of the above discussion to the ongoing, groundbreaking
developments in the Arab-Islamic world and the West cannot be
exaggerated. On the one hand, Islamists have an unprecedented window of
opportunity that, if utilized properly, would allow them not only to
revive the religion of Islam in a constructive and beneficial way, but
also to present the world with an example to be emulated.
Islamist forces in the Arab world should introduce a face of Islam that
shows the deeper and truer meaning of jihad – one’s internal struggle to
maintain faith, and the struggle to improve the Muslim community. This
is especially true at a time when people are becoming wary about
allowing the boundaries of politics and religion to blur, raising
legitimate questions about what Islamist rule has brought to Iran
(oppressed people whose nation’s resources are squandered by the
political elite and wasted on exporting terrorism, building nuclear
armament and revolution-export business) or the Sudan (poor, oppressed
people having their nation split into two after a long, bloody and
Initial signs in the right direction have already appeared in
revolutionary Egypt, where ideologues of Jamat al-Islamiyya, who took up
arms against the Mubarak regime in the 1980s and the 1990s, now search
for a form of Islamic liberalism that is inclusive of other political
forces in society. In Tunisia and Libya, where Islamists are expected to
dominate the next elections, leaders and citizens tend to reject the
Saudi and Taliban models – seen as sheer dictatorships – opting instead
for the Malaysian and Indonesian ones that combine Islam and democracy.
If this approach is given the means to mature into coherent policy, it
could lead to the emergence of a democratic Islamic state model that
would respond to the reforms Muslim societies require, and turn Samuel
Huntington’s clash of civilizations prophecy into a mere academic
The economic turbulence that many Western democracies are experiencing
and the growing gap between the rich and poor in most economically
advanced nations raises questions about the sustainability of the
world’s economic system. Islamic banking is becoming an increasingly
attractive alternative since its interest-free finance – based on
shari’a prohibition of payment for loans of money – responds to the very
dilemmas that caused the current global economic crisis: lending
capital and mortgage transactions.
This could lead the already growing Islamic banking model to thrive
worldwide, and offer some example of modifying business practices with
the rules of shari’a.
Despite the decades-long abuse of shari’a to justify oppression,
deception and terror, and despite the fact that democracy is a
Westernborn concept, Islam and liberal democracy are essentially
congruent. In his 2004 book Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Khaled
Abou El Fadl of UCLA brilliantly departs from the traditional approach
to this case – i.e., asserting that ideas of representation between
leaders and led are commended in the Koran (42:38) – and adheres to the
core values of Islam, including diversity and justice, which resonate
with those of liberal democracy and human rights. It is these works of
Abdu, Abdel-Raziq and Abu El Fadl, and their application to contemporary
concrete needs of the people that would lead to the revival of an
Islamic world that lives in peace and could potentially make a
significant contribution to civilization.
The rising Arab youth want to be free and live with dignity without
abandoning their Islamic roots. Thus, it is not the mere adoption of
Western values of democracy and human rights that will determine the
successes of the newly emerging Arab regimes as a result of the Arab
Spring, but how well these values are incorporated into the Islamic way
of life.The writer is professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He
teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.