There are few current questions about international developments as important as the ones concerning the future of what, rather optimistically, has been called the Arab Spring. Will this series of popular uprisings indeed lead to a new era of democracy and progress in the Middle East? Or will it rather lead to an era of violence and totalitarianism inspired by a Jihadist version of Islam? Obviously either outcome will be affected by a variety of factors, many of them with little if any relation to religion. I would like to suggest that a controversy which preoccupied Islamic philosophers a thousand years ago may have a surprising relevance to this alternative.
The recently published 12th volume of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, a helpful series put out by the Hudson Institute, revolves around the same alternative. The ongoing election in Egypt has brought the matter into urgent attention. While the election process is dragging on, and while the role of the military remains unclear, there has been the alarming success at the polls of the Muslim Brotherhood, which of late has been making liberal noises, and the various groupings of radical Salafist movements who have made very few such concessions. At this time of writing the two groupings appear to have gathered about 60% of the votes. The political party set up by the Brotherhood has deliberately defined itself in terms of the so-called “Turkish model”—supposedly a liberal democracy inspired by “Islamic values”, but definitely not based on shariah law. Recent domestic and international behavior by the Erdogan government in Turkey is beginning to put some question marks behind this definition of the “model”. Still, at least in aspiration this “model” has more liberal potential than anything the Salafists would like to put in place.
The same alternative between more moderate Islamic regimes and unabashedly fundamentalist ones prevails throughout the Muslim world. What, at least for the moment, seems to be off the table is the prospect of secular regimes with some liberal credentials. (It is ironic that the last secular regime still standing, albeit wobblingly, is the one in Syria—with zero liberal credentials). It is not that there are no liberal voices in the Muslim world, even in Iran and Saudi Arabia. But, with the exception of Indonesia and Turkey, they do not have a broadly popular following. As to the secularized intellectuals with whom Western interlocutors are most comfortable, they have no following at all. It is therefore plausible that, if one is to have hopes for liberal democracy in the Muslim world, one will have to pin these hopes on individuals and movements who define themselves within a decidedly Islamic discourse.
Muslims and others like to point out that the Bible contains enough bloodthirsty teachings to compete with any Salafist ideology. Judaism has moderated these teachings early on, and then profited (if that’s the word) from the fact that there was no sovereign Jewish state in all the centuries from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans to the establishment of the modern state of Israel—no state which, even if it wanted to, would have been able, for example, to inflict the criminal penalties enjoined in the Book of Leviticus. The New Testament is less carnivorous than the Hebrew Bible, but the history of Christianity, from its establishment in the Roman state onward, shows that Christians have had little difficulty legitimating every kind of violence and bloodshed in theological terms. Yet, at least in modern times, there have been sophisticated efforts to separate the core messages of Biblical revelation from various passages, which are deemed to be morally offensive but which can be ascribed to the contingencies of their historical context. I think that the advent of modern historical scholarship has greatly helped this process of separating core and periphery in the scriptural texts. Liberal Protestants have been in the forefront of this development, followed (initially with some reluctance) by Catholics, and then by liberal Jews. Of course there continues resistance in all branches of the “Abrahamic tradition” by conservatives who insist on the “inerrancy” of the scriptural texts.
Such a development is much more difficult in the case of Islam. I think that a major reason for this is the Muslim understanding of the Quran. It is misleading to compare the Quran with the Bible. For most Muslims, the Quran is “inerrant” to a degree far beyond the understanding of this term by even very conservative Christians or Jews. It has been suggested that Christians, rather than comparing the Quran with the Bible, should compare the Quran with Christ—especially the Christ described in the prologue to the Gospel of John—the Christ who is the Word (Logos): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Thus it is very instructive that the earliest controversies among Islamic scholars concerned the question of whether the Quran was eternal or created—a question which curiously resembles the Christological controversies of the first centuries of Christian history.
All Muslims agree that the Quran (the Arabic word means “recitation”) was revealed to Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel) between 610 and 632 CE—the period spans the time that Muhammad spent in Mecca, under constant threat of persecution by the local authorities troubled by his message, and the time in Medina, when he was head of state and military leader. The angel commanded Muhammad to recite (iqra) the words being revealed. It is unclear how many of these texts were originally transmitted orally and how many were quickly written down. All the texts were assembled in the book now known as the Quran after the death of Muhammad, under the authority of the Caliph (“commander of the faithful”) Abu Bakr. Other traditions about sayings and actions of the Prophet, so-called hadith, were collected separately. They have less than revelatory status, but are nevertheless authoritative. The chain of evidence, leading back to the time of the Prophet, is carefully guarded. The debates as to whether the Quran was eternal or created began at some time in the first century after Muhammad’s death. I think that the majority view ever since has favored the eternity of the Quran—it was with God from the beginning, as was the Johanine Logos. It is the minority view, ascribing created status to the Quran, which is particularly relevant in the present situation.
To a modern outsider these are quite obscure debates (as are the ones that agitated the early Christian councils, from Nicaea to Chalcedon). Why are these debates still important? I can claim no competence in Islamic scholarship, but it seems to me that the question can be answered: If the Quran is co-eternal with God, it has a higher degree of literal infallibility (“inerrancy”) than if it is a creation of God. There are different schools of Quranic interpretation (tafsir), including the highly symbolic interpretations engaged in by Sufis. But it seems to me that a greater range of interpretation is opened up if the Quran is understood as part of God’s creation rather than part of God’s essence. This is particularly important in interpreting the difference between the chapters coming, respectively, from the Mecca and the Medina period. The passages most often quoted by more liberal Muslims come from the former period—those most troubling to liberals come from the latter. Islamic scholars have always acknowledged the difference, but if every passage is equally infallible, it is difficult to give due acknowledgment to the different historical contexts. What is more, once such a broader interpretation is allowed, one is then enabled to differentiate between the core and the periphery of the faith. No non-Muslim is entitled to decide what is core and what periphery in the Islamic faith. Certainly God’s justice is central to Muhammad’s prophecy, including its full exercise on the Day of Judgment. But it is relevant that every chapter (sura) of the Quran begins with the formula “In the name of God the compassionate, who practices compassion” (bismillah al-rahman al-rahim – both adjectives are modifications of the Arabic root for compassion, rahm, distinguishing compassion as an inherent quality and as a form of action). I would think that an Islamic legitimation of liberal democracy, with its panoply of human rights, would put God’s compassion along with his justice at the core of the faith.
An early school of Islamic philosophy was the Mu’tazila, which was cultivated between the 8th and 10th centuries, centered in Basra and Baghdad. The Mutazilites, strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, emphasized the use of reason in interpreting the Quran. They distinguished the core content of the revelation and its historical deviations. And, significantly, they asserted that the Quran was created, not eternal. I find it equally significant that one of the foremost reformist Muslim thinkers today has described himself as a “neo-Mutazilite”. Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian scholar, was close to the Islamic Revolution in its early days, but became more and more critical of the regime that emerged from it. A victim of repression in his home country, he has been teaching at Harvard and other American universities. He is known as an interpreter of the great Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi, but he has written extensively on the relation of Islam to the modern world. He has distinguished between the “essential” and the “accidental” elements in a religious tradition. And he has advocated what he calls “religious democracy”—in the event a regime inspired by Islam but not based on shariah law, guaranteeing all the rights of liberal democracy, including full religious freedom—and very significantly including the right to change one’s religion.
History is not an ongoing philosophical seminar. The future of the Arab Spring and of the Middle East in general will be crucially affected by many factors far removed from concerns of religion or theoretical thought—such as the price of oil, the progress of nuclear proliferation, or the decline of American military and political power. But ideas do matter. It is important to understand that those who wish to combine their Muslim faith with aspirations toward liberal democracy have decidedly Islamic ideas to support their agenda.