Sep 23, 2011
By Jeff Katz
Our message to the Arab and larger Muslim world since 9/11, based on our cherished notion of Liberty, has fallen on deaf ears. The Arab Spring, for example, seems thus far to be more about replacing corrupt despots than about installing democratic institutions.
The brewing controversy over Palestinian statehood at the UN has avoided the fact that free elections in the Palestinian areas were suspended in the wake of Hamas’ 2006 electoral victories. There is and has been no push, and certainly no urgency, in the Arab or Muslim world for the installation of democratic institutions in the Palestinian autonomous areas. Why?
The answer may lie in the worldview of Islam shared widely by both religious and secular Muslims, but ignored in the West.
Many interpretations of Islam are fatalistic, and view Allah as the One who wills everything by specific decree and is responsible for all that occurs, down to the most minute action. Absent is the powerful idea of human free will that shapes the post-Enlightenment Western mindset.
Thus, a call to freedom may sounds empty – if not heretical – to many a Muslim ear, as it implies that the future is of human determination, not Allah’s.
To the extent America’s message is based on Liberty, then, a view of America as a denier of God’s will may find support among those who believe that such liberty detracts from, or is inconsistent with, God’s supremacy. How surprising this may seem to a typical American, who associates only good with the general notion of Liberty.
There are teachings in Islam, for example, denying causation, in the sense that the fall of a cup from one’s weakened grip is not due to the person’s momentary lapse of concentration, but rather to a specific decree of Allah’s that the cup should fall, which happens to occur at the moment one’s hand releases the cup. This deterministic notion is largely incompatible with Western notions of self-determination and personal freedom.
The ideals of the European Enlightenment and Renaissance, to fully develop the human personality based on human effort, has not been embraced by many sectors of the Muslim world as it has been in most of the Christian and Jewish worlds, some of whose thinkers have explained that human freedom itself is God’s will, thus reconciling the tension between an omniscient God and free will by teaching that it is God’s will that humankind be free.
It would be a mistake to continue to ignore this important difference between the Western and Islamic mindset.
We must bridge the gap between the Western mindset that we are masters of our own destiny (“our future lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”—Shakespeare) and the mindset that nothing done by humans can alter the divine will.
The chasm must somehow be bridged.
Ironically, before the European Enlightenment, it was Arab and Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages who studied and translated classical Greek philosophy and science, bringing these to the attention of Europeans who then developed the ideas that led to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Enlightened Arab thinkers of the Middle Ages, such as Abu Nasr al-Farabi and Averroes (ibn Rushd), had great impact on the development of Western thought. They heavily influenced the work of pivotal Western thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Moses Maimonides.
A clarion call should be sounded by moderate Muslim leaders to re-awaken that prior enlightened Muslim mindset that so enriched the West, especially among the young. Revered Muslim thinkers of centuries past should be reintroduced by Muslim and Western scholars into the contemporary Islamic debate as a moderating and modernizing force with historical authority.
Al-Farabi, for example, speaks of Muslim jurists appealing to generally accepted rational notions where these do not expressly contradict hadith (prophetic traditions). This old yet modernist call is echoed in the current debate within Islam as to the continued vitality of ijtihad (interpretation and application of traditional Islamic legal principles to new circumstances) as a mechanism for reform in today’s Muslim world. Excellent ideas from the golden age of Islam mustn’t be lost.
Further, we should engage the Muslim world in terms of accepting what has occurred, in terms of the particular unfolding of events that has occurred – i.e., in a manner more consistent with its notions of Providence.
There is an elaborate contemporary mosaic of ijtihad-inspired fatwas on which to draw. Fatwas liberalizing Shariah law on interest payments, home mortgages and car loans, among others, have allowed Western-style financing previously considered taboo. Although most of these are currently found in the economic arena, nothing in principle should restrict their scope to that realm.
Perhaps one day an ijtihad-inspired pluralism will emerge throughout the Muslim world.
That would be an Arab Spring really worth celebrating.
Filed Under: Jeff Katz
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