Human Rights and Islamic Philosophy
When speaking of Islam, in the absence of open dialogue we are often submerged into the deep prejudice towards Muslims promoted by mainstream media and politicians alike. As a result, all that which we are exposed to of the ‘Muslim world’ is the negative features and aspects represented by particular groups and individuals, rarely acknowledging the positive features.
In addition to this prejudice, we are also promoters of what Edward Said termed Orientalism, a way in which Eurocentrism has informed our intellect of how to perceive the Orient. Most recently in the UK, for instance, Sadiq Khan’s bid to become London Mayor was tainted with his supposed affiliation with extremists. In France a female Muslim convert was disbarred from school for wearing a skirt that was too long, suggesting religious symbolism which is illegal in France. In the U.S. an Iraqi student speaking Arabic was removed from his flight because he ‘sounded’ like a terrorist.
It is then understandable when both Muslims and non-Muslims alike associate negative stories involving Muslims as being fixed within the doctrines of Islam, drawing their own conclusions especially when they are victims of Muslim extremism. Thus we find marches by Leftist groups in the West (and East) condemning the threats posed by shari’a (literal meaning ‘path to the water’) and in response some Muslims arguing for its implementation.
Consequently, the argument arises that Muslims or rather Islam is incompatible with the West, as Samuel Huntington once highlighted in 1993, describing it as a ‘clash of civilisations’. A similar accusation, made a century or so ago, was also pointed at Jews in Europe, which inspired Theodor Herzl to begin the Zionist movement in 1897, therefore inspiring the creation of a Jewish homeland – Israel.
Such arguments almost always begin with shari’a as a reference point,further exaggerated and intensified by Islamist terrorist groups and authoritarian regimes. Shari’a however is not a list or set of fixed rules, more often than not, the Quranic verses that specify a ruling do so via recommendations or advice.
For example, in the case of polygamy, the verse (Ch4: v3) begins with ‘marry women in twos, threes and fours’ and it ends with a suggestion that it is better to marry only one. Whereas the hadiths (collections of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and acts) are so vast in number, there are hundreds of thousands of sayings, that there is an ongoing debate about what content is authentic or forged.
Then, there is the issue with context. As the Qur’an (the Recitation) is revealed to a particular group of people (though implied for the world), it contains within it particular idiosyncrasies that are specific to the time and people. The former is evidenced by the ‘Meccan verses’ referring to war and the latter in reference to traditions such as polygamy, which is also mentioned in Biblical narrations preceding Islam. If we are to then apply every incident and resulting act to modern times, the likelihood is that they would be incomparable.
Similarly the hadiths are also specific to the time and people, such as advice concerning female genital mutilation or punishment for adultery via stoning, and therefore are not always applicable or to be trusted completely.
Yet despite this, according to Professor Noah Feldman, the shari’a was not only specific to the context, but also one of the most humane legal frameworks at the time; due to the lack of policing, stricter punishments served as deterrents. After all, this was an age where infanticide was an accepted tradition, but was nevertheless immediately abolished by the Qur’an.
To overcome this problem of context and relevance, Islamic philosophers like Al Farabi, Al Kindi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd sought to use falsafa (philosophy) to better understand or rather re-interpret Islam. In the case of Ibn Rushd, who laid out the conditions for doing so in his On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy in the twelfth century, there was a strong emphasis on rationalising one’s faith and evading dominant narratives, which were often popularised beliefs led by the ulema (scholars of shari’a, which are often Imams).
This is most evident in countries where shari’a is implemented alongside traditional practices and yet differs from regime to regime. For instance, in Pakistan The Council on Islamic Ideology recently proposed husbands should be allowed to beat their spouses ‘lightly’ though it was rejected by Pakistani authorities. Whereas in Saudi Arabia rulings from the highest authorities are often implemented directly under religious pretenses, such as whether or not women can operate vehicles, and if they can open a bank account alone.
For this reason, the Muslim philosophers (faylasufs) put forward the notion as explained by Karen Armstrong “that rationalism represented the most advanced form of religion”, while further adding “they had no intention of abolishing religion, but wanted to purify it of what they regarded as primitive and parochial elements”.
However, in some contemporary Muslim communities this idea of falsafa is regarded as heresy due to its link with Ancient Greek pagan culture, and thus it has failed to challenge the authority of the ulema.
In most present day non-academic Muslim communities the faylasufs are non-existent. Whilst falsafa may have declined, along with the Islamic empire near to the end of the twelfth century, there are some who currently argue that the laws and traditions concerning citizens were returned to antiquity due to the processes of colonialism.
For example, Akbar S. Ahmed states that colonialism “further exaggerated…the already existing sexual divisions” by imposing foreign values and destroying native ones. Ahmed references how the Mughal princesses were reduced to prostitution under British colonial rule, adding to the perceptions of Muslim women in the West.
Edward Said and Frantz Fanon argued similarly on the role of colonialism and decolonisation. Furthermore, these statements and ideologies have also found their way into colonial influenced modern constitutions. In Morocco for instance, rapists could be pardoned if their victims (women) were to marry them, as highlighted by the suicide of Amina Filali in 2012; this law can be traced back to Morocco's former colonial power, France.
Nevertheless, with or without colonialism and the added impacts of a post-9/11 world, Muslims are often perceived to lack consistency with contemporary [Eurocentric] human rights while also being commonly affiliated with such inconsistencies. This of course has been dominated by the role of conservative regimes, and most prevalently the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), prompting both Muslims and non-Muslims alike to condemn any hint of extremism, including the utterance of shari’a.
As a result, the likes of ISIS have exposed what the faylasufs had sought to remove or at least challenge, whereby human rights propagated by the ulema are incorrectly applied, taken to the extreme or completely abolished.
So, according to the faylasufs, how do Muslims reconcile shari’a with contemporary human rights? The early twentieth century Egyptian Muslim reformer, Muhammad Abduh, best explains the modern experience for Muslims and human rights. Commenting on his visit to Europe, Abduh reportedly said,
“I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I came back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam”.
For this reason, it is not surprising many Muslims from all over the world are emigrating to the West, and even Muslim refugees evading wars find comfort in the very places that according to a few should be alien. This has also been met with an increase in conversions to Islam in Europe despite the surrounding negative portrayal of the faith.
Shari’a is therefore not alien to contemporary human rights, it already exists within the framework of human rights, whether it is Eurocentric or not.
Like Muslim authorities, not all global governments consistently apply particular human rights equally or justly. Human rights offenses have occurred through the use of torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (Iraq), as well as in other cases such as the occupation of Palestine, which have been deemed illegal by the United Nations, yet have been justified by a few.
The general historical link between Islam and Europe further proves the similarities and compromises between two worlds that today are deemed far apart. As Marcel Boisard argued in 1980, “the legal influence of Islamic Arabic civilization on Europe at its awakening seems, however, to be incontestable”. Boisard’s claim can be attributed to the father of European Liberalism, John Locke.
As a student Locke was highly influenced by his teacher Edward Pococke, as he himself confessed. Pococke had studied in Syria, from where he brought back more than 400 Arabic manuscripts to the University of Oxford. A similar influence is also said to be had on Thomas Aquinas, the Christian philosopher who translated much of Ibn Rushd’s commentaries concerning Aristotle.
Thus, when viewed from the perspective of the faylasufs, the issue becomes a cultural and/or contextual one in regards to Muslims and human rights. This is further evidenced by the numerous schools of thought including the Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, Hanbali, Ahmadiyyah, Wahabi and many more, which are followed uniquely by different ethnicities.
To the faylasufs, these sects are what divide Islam from Muslims, when Islam is not so far apart from the West as we are told to believe.