Matthew Kaemingk: Welcome to Zealots at the Gate, a podcast of Comment magazine. I’m Matthew Kaemingk.
Shadi Hamid: I’m Shadi Hamid.
Matthew Kaemingk: Together we research, politics, religion, and the future of democracy at Fuller Seminary’s Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life.
Shadi Hamid: We are writing a book together. This podcast represents an informal space where we can talk about how to live with deep difference. Thanks so much for joining us.
Make sure to subscribe to Zealots at the Gate, wherever you listen to podcasts. Please leave us a review on your favourite podcast platform. If you want to reach us, you can connect with us on Twitter at the hashtag #zealotspod, or you can email us at email@example.com. We do check those regularly, so we do welcome your thoughts and, of course, your criticisms as well. You can expect a sincere exchange of ideas, and we look forward to hearing from you.
For those of you who are new to the pod, Matt and I are good friends. That said, maybe we shouldn’t be. We’re sort of not the normal combo. Matt’s Christian. I’m Muslim. Matt’s conservative. I’m liberal, for the most part, I think. Matt’s white. I’m Brownish. Matt studies theology. I study political science. Matt’s from the rural Northwest. I’m actually from an urban Northeast, elite, liberal enclave, so there’s that too.
Our identity markers indicate that we shouldn’t be friends or people who get along a lot, but we are. And that’s what is special about this podcast. We explore deep difference. Difference isn’t a problem; it’s something we like. Not only is it just Matt and I today. We have a special treat for all of you today, our first Muslim guest to the podcast. His name is Mohammad Fadel. He is a professor of law at the University of Toronto. He’s a specialist in Islamic legal history and Islamic classical tradition more broadly.
We’re excited to have him because Matt and I, as part of our reading, where we go back and forth and give each other . . . I give him Muslim readings. He gives me Christian readings. Mohammad Fadel has figured prominently in those readings. We’ve read a number of his articles. I would say he’s one of the preeminent Islamic legal historians, so we’re very excited to have him. Now, Matt’s been excited to talk to Mohammad because he has a question from a Christian perspective. Maybe, Matt, I’ll hand it over to you to get us going.
Matthew Kaemingk: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Professor Fadel, for being on the podcast. In preparation for our conversation today, we read one of your articles, which is extensive and robust and a wonderful introduction to a conversation between Islamic political and legal history and Rawlsian liberalism. The title is “The True, the Good and the Reasonable,” and it was published in 2008. It’s a wonderful article.
Just as a little bit of background: Shadi and I, we were both college students studying political science when 9/11 happened, and so we came up in studying law, politics, international relations in this post-9/11 world in which we were thinking a lot about the relationship between religion and politics. This particular article is set within that post-9/11 world in which you are putting modern liberalism, a lot of John Rawls, into conversation with Islamic history, law, and politics.
One of the things that was going on quite a bit during that period of time was the question of, Can Islam coexist within liberal, democratic societies? Is Islam compatible with democracy itself? This particular article dives into that question. One of the things that I can remember, and I can see in a lot of the literature was the suggestion that Islam needs to go through a European enlightenment. Islam needs to discover reason and rationality like the Europeans did.
It seemed to me that in your article you are actually suggesting that Islam doesn’t need Europe for reason. In fact, Islam itself has a long history of rationality when thinking about politics. I wonder if, perhaps for our Christian listeners who have a very light understanding of Islamic history, to be generous—I wonder if you could talk just a little bit about the ways in which reason and rationality was functioning within early Islamic discussions around politics and law, just as a way of getting us started.
Mohammad Fadel: Right. I think it’s an excellent question. I think one of the things that is maybe underappreciated in Islamic history is that Muslims experienced religious civil wars in the first century of Islam. In the genealogy of liberalism, the religious wars of the seventeenth century and sixteenth century are considered foundational. You could say that Muslims experienced that too in the first and second century of Islam. That experience of religious civil strife gave rise to the kind of, what I would argue, the synthesis of reason in religion that you see in the Sunni tradition, and so, much like religious civil wars in Europe, created a dynamic toward liberalism.
I would say that the religious civil wars in the first 150 years of Muslim history catalyzed theological discussion in Islam in a way that generated . . . eventually would lead to the synthesis that led to Sunnism, with this particular commitment to rational argumentation and a particular approach to politics that emphasized, let’s say, principled, non-violent opposition, as opposed to messianic kind of politics that would justify armed revolution.
In the first 150 years, there actually were a lot of violent messianic religious movements, and Sunnism was a reaction against that. It strove for a middle path between, let’s just say, blind obedience to authority and messianic politics. It did that through the medium of law. So it elevated law to become the supreme arbiter of normativity within Muslim politics, what Marshall Hodgson called Islamdom. This law itself required a certain kind of conception of theology as being rationally accessible.
This is, I think, a very important point because of the universality of Islam, particularly after the Abbasid Revolution and its cosmopolitan character. It was no longer an ethnic Arab religion, but it became truly sort of cosmopolitan. You needed to have some conception of theology that was equally cosmopolitan, and so that required a foundational commitment to rationality as the basis for belief. These are the kinds of political and intellectual factors that catalyzed the rise of what I call dialectical theology, what in Arabic is known as kalam—also in conjunction with the fact that there’s a sociological fact of just, really, a very large amount of real pluralism in the early Caliphate.
People don’t realize this now because they look at the Middle East and North Africa as overwhelmingly Muslim, which it is today. But in the second Islamic century, let’s say the eighth century, the Common Era, ninth century Common Era, Muslims were a small minority of the region between Iberia and the Indian subcontinent. It only became a Muslim majority region gradually over time. So Muslims were in dialogue; I mean, they were rulers, but they were also in dialogue and debate with all sorts of non-Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, other sorts of pagans. This was a cauldron of different sorts of theologies, philosophies, et cetera. I think that all sort of came together to create this particular synthesis, in which reason had to play a very important role to justify the privileges that Muslims had.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, so on that, if I could just follow up. Going on with that, in your article, you use an analogy or a word picture that I think is particularly helpful in understanding an Islamic conception of the state. That is, you talk about the guards or soldiers along the pilgrimage path—that the role of the state is to provide safety, security, order, and freedom so that Muslims can pursue a faithful life. The conception of the state is relatively minimalistic; it guards or it keeps the people safe as they are going on their pilgrimage.
I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how you’re able to keep such a minimalistic understanding of the state rather than filling the state with lots of religious content and with a religious mission in society. How do you make that distinction between, I guess, a private faith and a minimalistic state?
Mohammad Fadel: Right. Well, these things are relative. In the premodern era, of course, the state had very important religious functions as well. You’re giving the example of pilgrimage. One of the fundamental responsibilities of the state was to organize the pilgrimage—not simply to provide physical security, but also to appoint people to lead the pilgrimage, et cetera, et cetera, so I don’t want listeners to misunderstand that.
It was a minimalist state in the following sense, that public officials were not considered to have some kind of priestly functions. They didn’t interpret religion in any kind of privileged way, but they did have an institutional role in allowing religion to flourish. In Sunni Islam, certain public rituals like Friday prayer requires the ruler to organize it, but the ruler has no special insights into what religion means. I think this is the point, that the ruler is an instrument of the community rather than an instrument of God.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, yeah. That distinction is . . . I mean, we find that within the Jewish tradition, the distinction between the king and the priest. Similarly in the Christian tradition. How is it that Muslims within this specific tradition humble the sultan or the political leader? How do you keep the political leader from spilling into those other functions?
Mohammad Fadel: Well, I think just, again, I said that in this particular synthesis of Sunnism, the law is the most important mediator. The simple idea is that the ruler is always constituted through and by the law. When the ruler goes beyond what the law permits, he’s quite literally no longer a ruler.
Sultan is not a person; it’s an office. In order to act as a sultan, you have to be acting in a way that is consistent with the law. If you’re not acting in a way that’s consistent with the law, you’re just a person, and you’re subject to the norms that the law applies to you. That’s how I would explain that answer, or answer your question.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: This, I think, raises some really interesting questions about, What are the ends of politics? What is the purpose of the state? In some of our previous discussions, Matt and I have talked about whether democracy is a means to other ends or an end unto itself. As you know, Mohammad, that’s been one of my preoccupations, and we’ve fought a bit on Twitter about that. If I can just characterize Matt’s view, as I understand it, is that what he calls “public justice” is the purpose of the state. That’s what the state should try to bring about. I’m a little bit more agnostic about particular outcomes, at least in the contemporary moment, but that’s a little bit of an aside.
But I am interested in the idea of a limited state—and you talk about that in a number of your different articles—because in the end you need to have a minimum level of economic security. You need people to not be poor, because if they’re poor and struggling and desperate, they’re not going to be able to focus on religion and becoming closer to God. They need to be in a state of peace because if they’re constantly fighting or in the thrall of some dictator’s designs, then, again, they won’t actually be able to freely pursue their relationship with God, and that would presumably undermine their prospects for salvation.
I bring up the word salvation here because I do recall an exchange you had as part of the Boston Review symposium on the challenge of democracy in Islam, and we’ll include a link in the show notes to the article we mentioned earlier as well to this exchange. It’s really interesting. If I recall—and correct me if I’m getting this a little bit wrong; it’s been a while—you talk about the importance of enabling the right circumstances for salvation. Then another scholar comes back and says, basically, “Mohammad, this emphasis on salvation is actually an example of Christian influence. The idea of being saved is not actually predominant in the Islamic tradition or in Islamic history as it was actually experienced.” I know there’s a lot there, but maybe tell us a little bit more about, what are the ultimate ends of the state in the normative Islamic tradition?
Mohammad Fadel: Right. Well, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that for standard Muslim political theorists in the Middle Ages, the Caliphate was the superior form of government because it secured both secular happiness and happiness in the next life. So Muslims did not use the word salvation. I will say salvation’s probably a Christian term. But they used the word sa’adah, which is happiness, borrowed from Greek philosophy. They thought that the ultimate end of politics was to secure happiness, and happiness had two dimensions. It had a secular dimension, or you could say a temporal dimension, a profane dimension, a corporeal dimension, and it had an otherworldly dimension. The Caliphate is superior to the philosophical alternative (because that’s the main ideological opponent) because the philosophical conception of the state, from the Muslim perspective, failed to secure otherworldly happiness because it suffered from metaphysical error.
Shadi Hamid: Sorry. What alternatives do you have in mind here, specifically?
Mohammad Fadel: You know, like Aristotelian ideas of politics, or Platonic ideals of politics, what the Muslims called falsafa—philosophy, Greek philosophy. Now, there’s a third category, which is the lowest form of politics, which Ibn Khaldun just calls mulk, just primitive dominion. That’s the worst form of politics we call tyranny, where the state exists for the happiness of the ruler.
There’s a famous fourth-century philosopher, and I think I mentioned him briefly in that article you guys cited. His name is Abu al-Hassan al-Amiri, and he writes a book called Declaring the Virtues of Islam. He has a discussion of politics, and he contrasts the Abbasid Caliphate with the Zoroastrian state. He says the Zoroastrians, it was a caste system. It was people were born into certain places in society and could not move. Everything was determined by the place of your . . . your social position was determined by your birth. Religion was purely authoritarian. It did not have any rational teachings, and you were prohibited, if you weren’t a priest, basically, from religious speculation, on pain of punishment.
Whereas Islam changes all this. It gets rid of a caste system. It creates rational foundations for belief, et cetera, et cetera. Then when you look at its politics, it’s a state. The Caliphate, he says, exists for the happiness of its subjects, in contrast to tyrannies. He calls it taghallub, which comes from the Arabic word “power,” ghaliba, which exists solely for the happiness of the ruler, achieved through his domination of others. The Caliphate is justified because of the happiness it brings its subjects, according to Amiri. I think that’s a fairly common conceit, and so whether you want to call that salvation, or happiness, I think that’s just kind of like word games. There’s this idea that humans have a true set of ends, and that the best state helps human beings achieve those true ends of being human.
Matthew Kaemingk: Shadi, did you have a follow-up on that, or can I push us in a new direction here?
Shadi Hamid: Oh, yeah, yeah. Go ahead.
Matthew Kaemingk: Okay.
Shadi Hamid: Let’s hear it, Matt.
Matthew Kaemingk: Professor Fadel, one of the conversations that Shadi and I have had is the challenge of the modern nation-state as having a massive scope and level of power over society that was not the case for medieval Christian or Islamic kingdoms. By and large, kings and sultans didn’t have the direct reach into the households of their citizens that the modern nation-state does. In your land of Canada, the state has control over schools and hospitals and charities, and is directing Canadian life in a wide variety of ways. There are civil servants everywhere, and this is creating clashes for religious minorities.
Here in the United States we have clashes over what is taught in schools, what is done in hospitals, and so forth. The modern nation-state itself—its scope is vast compared to simply guards along the way of a pilgrimage. It seems to me, in your article, you really are making the case that Islam and liberalism can in some way coexist. But it seems to me that liberalism doesn’t always behave in such a humble, small way, but it actually can be quite expansive in its goals of reforming society, so I’m wondering . . . Here, Shadi’s encouraging me to push you a little bit. I’m wondering, is it really such an easy thing for Islam and liberalism to coexist, as you suggest in the article?
Mohammad Fadel: Well, I hope I didn’t give you the impression that it’s easy to coexist. I think one of the whole points of Rawls’s theorizing is that it’s not easy to coexist. It takes work. It requires certain kinds of moral dispositions. It’s not natural. Rawls talks about toleration as being a discovery. It’s not an instinct. I want to dispense with the idea that pluralism and liberal conditions is easy.
There’s always the temptation to oppress, so Rawls recognizes the possibility of a comprehensive liberalism that doesn’t respect the limits of political liberalism. I think he calls that the fact of oppression—I can’t remember what word it is. But this is one thing that draws me to Rawls; he says that all conceptions of the good have to respect certain limits on their applicability in order for political liberalism to survive and remain a stable, constitutional order of our time, including liberalism.
You’re suggesting that the modern liberal state is not respecting certain kinds of boundaries. I think probably I would agree with that, with respect to certain kinds of questions, certain particulars, but the problem is the following—
Matthew Kaemingk: Can you give us an example? Can you give us an example?
Mohammad Fadel: Hold on. Let me just say the theoretical problem.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, okay.
Mohammad Fadel: The theoretical problem is liberalism doesn’t have a clear idea about the line between the private and the public. The division between the private and the public, although it is absolutely fundamental to liberalism, the content of what’s private and what’s public is not settled by any kind of clear, philosophical principle. The reason for this—I think this is the reason for this—is because in modern liberalism, unlike, let’s say, eighteenth-century liberalism . . . This is maybe tying back to your point about the minimalist state.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, when we were all agrarian societies in which 99 percent of us were struggling just to survive, states were very weak. We were basically responsible for ourselves for almost everything. That all changes with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, massive increases in population. Division of labour is incredibly more complicated today than it was 250 years ago, before capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. In some ways life is a lot more secure, but in other ways life is a lot more fragile.
I live in the city. There’s probably maybe five million people in the Greater Toronto area. Now, think about problems like feeding five million people in a semi-arctic environment. It’s kind of crazy to think that this many people can live this far north. We don’t grow our own food. All the necessities of life we depend on others to provide us, but it works.
Matthew Kaemingk: God did not intend for people to live that far north, I think we can all agree.
Mohammad Fadel: It works because we have a very highly efficient social division of labour, and that can only be sustained because you have a certain kind of state. The state today, yes, has to go a lot deeper into society, but that’s because the nature of our political economy requires it to. That’s why it’s very hard to know precisely what the correct boundaries of the private and the public are, because we’re also a system . . . A modern, liberal state is not just about protecting rights in a negative sense. It’s also about promoting a system of cooperation, because if that system of cooperation breaks down, we literally starve.
I can’t go to my backyard and milk a cow, or harvest some grain, or anything. I’m completely dependent on this system of this division of labour being sustained and sustainable. So because we are so dependent on social cooperation . . . Political theorists always noted that we have to have cooperation. Aristotle said a man can’t live by himself; he’s either an animal, a beast, or a god, if he can get along by himself. But the degree of our dependence on others, under modern conditions, is much greater than it was two hundred years ago. Right? And so, of course—
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, that is the pressure. That’s the pressure for uniformity, right? To make people uniform so that they cooperate.
Mohammad Fadel: Yeah, so we have to . . . The demands of cooperation now are so much greater, and that’s why the state has to do things like have schools. You talk about the Canadian government is in our schools. That’s kind of a weird way of looking at it because there wouldn’t be schools if the Canadian government didn’t build them and fund them. Well, why does it do that? Well, because we have to have citizens who are capable of running a modern economy. Even though it’s not in the constitution that there has to be schools, as a constitutional right, you can’t imagine a modern state existing without these schools because you couldn’t have the cooperation necessary to reproduce society without an educated population.
Things that 250 years ago would be considered within the domain of the family are now in the heart of what’s a public concern. We can’t be indifferent to the education of our neighbours because we depend on them for so much more. This is the dilemma. This is the dilemma of life in a market economy, a post-capitalist market economy.
Shadi Hamid: Well, let me put a finer point on this dilemma because part of what you’ve tried to do in your work is to find some kind of accommodation with liberalism. As you said, it’s not easy, but I think there’s another way of looking at it, which is to say, “Is it necessary? Is it something Muslims should do?” As we’re already talking about—the state may be necessary, and the state may have to expand, but then that does mean the state is going to be involved in substantive questions about the good life.
Even if we wish it were otherwise, this is simply a fact that it’s hard for classical liberalism to stay classical. Because of the expansion of the state and the expanding domain of what government does, more questions are going to come under the purview of the liberal state or regime. As we’re seeing, certainly in the US, Canada, elsewhere, these are more expansive visions that get involved in foundational religious questions.
Obviously, we don’t have to get into all the background about how there are tens of millions of Christians in the US who feel that they can’t be fully and outwardly and publicly Christian under an increasingly, quote, unquote, liberal or secular American society, for example. Also, the recent example in Canada of medically assisted suicide, which Americans are just starting to hear about through Ross Douthat’s recent column in the New York Times.
Anyway, there’s a number of examples, but I’m wondering, what would you say to Muslims who are intrigued by what you’re saying, but may also just be like, “Well, why should we do this? Why do we have to do this if it requires some kind of trade-off?”
Mohammad Fadel: Right. Well, one of the things I talked about in “The True, the Good and the Reasonable” is that the idea of trade-offs is present in Islamic jurisprudence from a very early period. Lots of theologians said that that’s just a feature of being a human being—that by being a human being and living in the profane world, just to simplify it, or put it in lay language, you can’t get everything that you want. Real life always requires human beings to make trade-offs. Sometimes, it’s a trade-off between two good things. You can’t have both at the same time. Sometimes, the trade-off is trying to figure out which two horrible things do you want to avoid most. Sometimes, it’s a trade-off of a mildly desirable thing against a horrifically bad thing. Life is always going to involve trade-offs of one sort or the other. That’s according to these theologians. That’s just a function of the limited nature of humanity, because we’re not infinite beings. That’s kind of a simple way of thinking about the problem.
The deeper way, the way that Rawls asked people to think about it, is to say, look, if you accept the idea that you can’t get everything that you want—and that’s not because of liberalism, that’s because of being a human being—what liberalism can do is it can secure the things that you consider the most important for you to flourish as a human being, from a moral perspective. Ans do if liberalism can secure the highest moral goods for you, from your position, then it deserves, it’s entitled to your moral support. Yeah, we can’t give you everything, but nobody can ever give you everything. That shouldn’t be the criterion.
The criterion shouldn’t be: Can liberalism give everything that an orthodox Muslim would want in a perfect society? Because even a perfect Muslim society couldn’t give an orthodox Muslim that. The question is, again from a Rawlsian perspective is, can I give you the most important things that you consider valuable to you?
Shadi Hamid: I suppose the question is, does liberalism actually secure the highest moral good for individuals? That seems to me to be an open question.
Mohammad Fadel: Yeah, okay. That’s fair.
Shadi Hamid: I mean, for example—and this goes back to the question of the ends of the state—if in a classical Islamic ideal, and also empirically, the state was concerned with facilitating sa’adah, or happiness, which does include some conception of salvation, clearly the liberal state isn’t trying to secure that end. It’s not necessarily trying to secure happiness in the next life, and maybe in some ways is even undermining some of the channels with which to pursue orthodox conceptions of religion—that if you feel that you can’t act certain ways religiously under a liberal state, that may, in fact, affect your chances for the salvation that you seek.
If an orthodox and let’s say particularly conservative sort of Muslim in America is thinking, “Well, liberalism is good in some ways because it allows me to avoid outright despotism, for example, but on the other hand, it doesn’t allow me to pursue this broader conception of happiness that includes a life beyond this one,” then it’s not a question of getting everything they want. It’s a question of which things they prioritize over others.
Mohammad Fadel: Well, I agree with you. If it were the case that liberalism, or forget about liberalism, any kind of regime that places affirmative obstacles to a Muslim, or any sort of adherent of a religion from performing those positive . . . from living that portion of his life or her life in a way that she believes is fundamental to her moral flourishing, then liberalism can’t be attractive to that person, right?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah.
Mohammad Fadel: Now, the question is, is that really happening? Now, let me back up and say even Rawls would say that not every worthwhile conception of human flourishing can flourish in every kind of regime. He takes for granted that there might be some worthwhile ways of living that can’t survive in a liberal regime. There is a reality of some kind of loss.
Now, when I look at Islam as a particular sort of comprehensive doctrine, to use Rawlsian language, there are some conceptions of orthodox Islam that clearly cannot flourish in a liberal state. I’m not talking about some kind of extreme ISIS conception. I’m just talking about something like Hanbali Islam. Hanbali Islam says that you should pray not just five times a day; you should pray five times a day in a mosque. Now, that’s just not going to be practical from the perspective of the demands that social cooperation requires in a modern, liberal state.
One could say, yeah, there’s nothing repugnant in principle about this Hanbali conception, but that’s a way of life that will be lost in a modern, liberal state. Whereas other conceptions, other schools of jurisprudence, who equally say you have to pray five times a day, but they say you can pray by yourself. You don’t have to do it in a mosque. That’s an equally Islamic conception, but it can be compatible with liberal cooperation in a way that the Hanbali conception isn’t, right? So—
Matthew Kaemingk: Professor . . .
Mohammad Fadel: Yeah.
Matthew Kaemingk: Go ahead.
Mohammad Fadel: I was just going to say, there’s always loss.
Matthew Kaemingk: I want to paint a scenario of loss for you, and I’d love to hear a Rawlsian reflection on it, if you will. A Muslim girl would like to wear her hijab in a public space, and because of some public law, she’s not permitted to do that. We’re aware of many scenarios in which this has happened. In defending herself in a courtroom, she is expected to say something like, “I have a right to wear this because it is an expression of my personal beliefs. I have the freedom to express my personal beliefs, and so I want to wear this hijab,” even though that would not be how she would truly express herself.
The reason why she’s wearing the hijab is not out of personal expression or personal freedom but out of deep devotion, wanting to submit herself to Allah. So she is engaging in a translation. She’s speaking liberal language in the public square, rather than speaking her true moral language. Here, it’s essentially expected that she speak a sort of moral-political Esperanto that is not hers. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about, do you think that that’s good for society, that religious minorities need to speak in liberal terms in public spaces?
Mohammad Fadel: Right. Well, that’s not strictly speaking, from my perspective, a problem of liberalism. It’s a problem of any kind of system that’s committed to a rule of law idea. Any kind of society that’s committed to a rule of law idea requires people to formulate their claims in the language of the law. In practice, in reality, most people don’t know anything about the language of the law. That’s why they hire lawyers. Lawyers will always make their arguments using precisely this kind of translation.
My father, one time, was involved in a lawsuit, and even though he won, when he read what the court had to say, he found it kind of offensive. I tried to explain to him, “Well, no, you shouldn’t misunderstand it because the way it works in the law is we assume everything they’re saying about you is true, and then we determine whether or not there’s a claim.” All he could see was that they were saying these things that he knew were to be false were true, and that was making him angry.
This problem of translation is universal when it comes to any kind of regime that’s going to be rights-based. Now, does that mean that when people make claims, they’re being inauthentic because they have to make their claims in a language that is not theirs? It proves too much, from my perspective. Maybe this woman doesn’t understand the difference between a freedom of expression claim and a freedom of religion claim. The important thing is the law honoring her subjectivity. If not, is it possible to do it in another way that would be more respectful of her, consistent with the idea of a rule of law? Because the rule of law, by definition, treats us as fungible people.
I don’t know if you saw this piece of mine. It’s a blog piece on Contending Modernities. I talk about this concept that the Hanafis have about, what’s the grounds for human inviolability? They talk about moral inviolability and legal inviolability. Moral inviolability is foundational—it makes us human beings. But moral inviolability in and of itself is only vindicated by God in the next life.
Legal inviolability, the kind of rights that law gives you, remedies when your body is trespassed against—that’s secondary to our true human nature because it treats us as a thing. The point is that you can’t assign value to the human body without treating it as a thing, as a commodity, by assuming that people are fungible. That’s contrary to our nature, but law depends on this. Law depends on our ability to treat what in reality are all unique persons, to treat them as though they’re the same. That’s the root of the problem that I think you’re raising, Matthew. It’s just, again, the cost of being human.
Matthew Kaemingk: Right, right. I got one last one here for you, and then I’ll let Shadi get in here. I’ve got so many more questions. This is great. You mentioned earlier that it is very difficult to live in a pluralistic society. It actually requires a lot of us, tolerance. Living as you do in Toronto, a global, very diverse city itself, moving through those streets, passing people with deep religious, political, economic, cultural, racial differences, it requires certain virtues, as Rawls talks about. It requires a certain democratic character.
It seems to me that Western, liberal democracy is short on character these days. It’s short on the sort of virtues that it needs to sustain itself. People are losing patience with democracy, and our capacity for tolerance seems to be waning. I’m wondering, for Islamic citizens in pluralistic societies, how might they cultivate democratic virtues? How might their faith help them develop patience with their Jewish and their atheist and their Christian neighbours? How might they develop a generosity of spirit? Because democratic liberalism requires a certain generosity of spirit that, I would argue . . . Rawls can’t inspire hospitality. He’s not a very inspiring writer. He would not be a good preacher, would he?
Mohammad Fadel: Yeah. Well, again, okay, I’ll get to your answer, but I’ll give a short defense of Rawls here. Rawls is not trying to replace religion. I think people need to realize this. He is depending, his whole argument depends on the existence of a vibrant background culture in which people are sustaining these virtues through their adherence to much thicker conceptions of the good than political liberalism can allow for the state. This is where I see the great contradiction. What worries me most is not that we have too many competing, conflicting theologies or convictions, but that because most people lack any serious convictions, we are prone to really demagogic politics. That’s what worries me more.
Now, going back to Islam. What kind of resources does Islam offer Muslims for the generosity of spirit that democracy requires? I think that’s a great question. I think the Quran provides some really important insights into how to talk to people who are profoundly wrong, from your perspective, but they are your brethren in humanity. There are lots of verses in the Quran that talk about inviting others to your way with comely speech, with wisdom, through persuasion, through trying to identify points of commonality, saying, “Look, Christians, Jews, you don’t accept Muhammad, fine, but let’s agree that insofar as we all believe in one God, and we all believe we’re accountable to God, we will not enslave one another.”
This is important because I think one of the problems that you have with liberal toleration is that liberal toleration has the propensity to become licentious, in the sense that people confuse toleration with a kind of noncommittalness to truth. So Rawls is . . . again, defending Rawls. Rawls wants to be very clear that religious freedom is not the same as what he calls “religious indifferentism.” He thinks that it’s possible to affirm religious freedom while at the same time affirming truth in religion. Because he says if you deny the possibility of truth in religion, then you’re going to write off religious people as democratic citizens.
There’s another problem. I don’t think he focuses on this too much, but I think it concerns me. If you divorce truth from religion, which I do think is sociologically happening in places like the United States and Canada, then you’re having a broader impact of just making people indifferent to truth generally.
I think this is one of the biggest problems that we have in our democracy. We talk about a post-truth world. Well, yeah, because we have confused tolerance with truth. We think that the way you achieve tolerance is by denying the existence of truth, instead of learning to live with people that we consider to be in error. Because now we believe that saying somebody is in error is intolerant, but that’s not classically how we view toleration. If toleration effaces the distinction between truth and falsehood, then there’s nothing to tolerate. Tolerance implies that you’re accepting something despite a defect in it. If there’s no such thing as true or false, then toleration is meaningless because everything’s the same. This, I think, represents the real threat to democratic discourse because democratic discourse requires citizens to be able to exercise judgment. If we get rid of the idea of true judgements and false judgments, then we have really serious problems.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. That’s great because I think that this point that conviction is actually a good thing for democratic health is actually underappreciated. We assume that we suffer from too much conviction, and too much conviction leads to excessive polarization, and so on. But if anyone has been on Twitter or seen the superficiality of our debates, that superficiality suggests that people aren’t actually acting based on deep, abiding convictions based on comprehensive doctrines. Maybe if they had more of that, first of all, conversations would probably be more substantive, but also perhaps less polarized.
I do want to just use this juncture to circle back to questions around reason and rationality in Islamic understanding because I think that there is an assumption that liberalism, or what we today consider the liberal tradition or liberalism, is synonymous with reason and rationality in that, as Matthew said earlier, religion tends to be associated with irrationality and mysticism of a sort.
This makes me think of other things that you’ve talked about, Mohammad, in your work, which is how maybe, in some ways, Islam has become more rationality-oriented than it even used to be initially. I’m thinking here about changes that happened in the twentieth century, that there was a certain strain of Islamic apologetics that felt very insecure around the dominance of Western, secular ideologies, and there was a conscious effort on the part of early twentieth-century Islamic reformers to go out of their way to say that Islam not only was a reasonable and rational religion, but that it was actually more reasonable and more rational than Christianity was.
If you look at authors, theologians like Rashid Rida, for example, who does quite a lot of this, and I just pulled up . . . For example, Rida says, “Islam is, quote, unquote, the religion of reason. It is the ally of the sciences. It is nearer to mankind’s innate disposition and intelligence.” He also tells his readers, “You may come to know your religion’s truths through logical proof and evidence.” In contrast, he portrays Christianity as a religion of magical thinking. He says, for example, that the word reason is not mentioned in the Bible.
I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but whatever, so I’m just interested in that . . . This, I think, is an important thing to mention because I think it turns a lot of conceptions of Islam upside down. When you think about twentieth-century developments in Islam, you think Islamism, all of these Islamist movements who want to copy and paste the seventh century. But one thing that I always try to remind people is that if you look at modern Islamism—and Islamism only exists in the modern period because, for reasons we don’t have to get into—it’s very consciously trying to make Islam reasonable and practical because they want to show that Islam has something to say for the modern era.
It fits into a lot of what we’ve said about the role of the state, that Islam feels a need to catch up, and these Islamic thinkers are basically emphasizing the centrality of reason in Islam. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. One is that the emphasis on rationality can oftentimes lead one in an illiberal direction, because ultimately people like Rida are, to one degree or another, Islamist thinkers. They want to put the role of Islam and Islamic law in a central place in public life and politics.
I’m also wondering about this because one thing that Matt and I have discussed a lot through our readings is the sense that I have as a Muslim that . . . I was raised with Islam as having a certain kind of mathematical precision. Even the way I remember people at Sunday school talking about good deeds and bad deeds. It was literally mathematical that if you did this good deed, you would get twenty-seven times the reward. Even the way to get to heaven is that you want to maximize your good deeds, and then you’ll have a very direct, mathematical balancing. Where talking to Christians, including Matt, this is very much not their conception of how salvation works, and obviously conceptions of God’s grace and mystery, and the kind of paradoxes that are inherent in the Trinity, and all of that sort of thing.
I’m wondering, how do you feel about this broader issue of whether Islam has become too rational or too reason-oriented and, in some ways, that has actually contributed to the clash between Islam and liberalism in a kind of counterintuitive way?
Mohammad Fadel: Ah, there’s a lot there, Shadi, so let me back up and just make some more general observations, and try to get more particular. First, we started off talking about my article “The True, the Good and the Reasonable.” “The True, the Good and the Reasonable” discusses a certain strain of Islamic theological and legal reasoning, which I consider to be the dominant orthodox strain. I think it’s a faithful account of that, but it’s not the universal understanding of Islam. There’s other strains of Islam, so there’s certainly a fideistic strand in Islam that’s—
Shadi Hamid: Can you just say what that is for the uninitiated?
Mohammad Fadel: Yeah. The important thing is to follow text, literally for the sake of following text, without trying to put it in some kind of overarching rationalist framework, right?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, so, “God says it. I do it.”
Mohammad Fadel: Exactly.
Matthew Kaemingk: Very simple, yeah.
Mohammad Fadel: “God says it. I believe it. That’s it.” Right? Without—
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, we have that in Christianity too.
Mohammad Fadel: There’s definitely a strain of fideism in Islam. I don’t want to have your listeners think that that doesn’t exist. That’s definitely, definitely there. I would say one of the problems of modern Islam is that the fideistic strand is very strong in modern Islam because of weak educational institutions. That’s a whole different kind of story. The other issue is that, say, around the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth centuries, a certain kind of philosophical mysticism gained greater and greater influence in Muslim societies.
Earlier theologians, many of the theologians I discuss in that article, categorically reject the role of inspiration in religious truth. They think inspiration is arbitrary; it’s subjective. There’s no way of knowing whether inspiration is true or false. Anybody can claim to be inspired, et cetera. And so the only means of knowing God or anything is through reason, through rational demonstration. Later theologians become much more sympathetic to the idea of inspiration and mystical experience as a source of knowledge. One of the consequences of that, particularly in the Ottoman era, like if you look in Egypt, is a lot less emphasis is placed on formal education, so that to be book-educated is to be not educated at all.
There is also a rise of a kind of mystical sense of knowledge. It’s not irrational so much as it’s superrational. It’s not fideistic in the sense that all we care about is what God said. No. Because according to them, reason identifies some kind of domain above the sensible, and that if you are sufficiently purified as a soul, you can access that directly. So that’s also present, particularly in Ottoman society.
All these different trends exist, so when Muḥammad Abduh and Rashid Rida are writing, they’re writing primarily against these two other strains of Islam, fideism and this kind of mystical philosophy type stuff. Now, their anti-Christian polemics is, I think, a very old Muslim trope. Muslim theology, from the get-go, has criticized Christianity as being just not rationally coherent. You can talk about the Trinity how many times you want; it just doesn’t fit together. And so Muslims have always accused Christianity of being a religion of pure authority. That’s also why classical Muslim theology rejects authority as the basis of religious knowledge.
It’s complicated, but I would say that I don’t think we can say that modern Islamism is a development of the rationality, the rationalist tradition in Islam. Partially it is, particularly in apologetics, but in terms of practical life it’s strongly fideist. That’s why lots of these revivalist movements are so into having a beard, wearing a thobe and rolling it up to a certain height, because there’s also this very strong fideist element in it as well. It’s also very anti-mysticism, the fideist part.
As you know, in Egypt, you still have the strong mystical strain. I don’t want to bore Matthew about this, but you know Sheikh Ali Gomaa. He talks about, at the time of the coup, how the prophet was appearing to people in saints’ dreams, telling the army to do all this crazy stuff. So I wish that the rationalism was dominant.
Matthew Kaemingk: That doesn’t sound boring at all. I want to hear about that.
Mohammad Fadel: I consider it to be the predominant strain, but it’s the scholarly strain. It’s not necessarily sociologically dominant.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. Maybe just as we wrap up here, Matthew, I’m just curious how that discussion of pure authority supposedly in Christianity, how that strikes you. Maybe we just tease that out briefly, because I think that was really interesting for me to hear. Maybe just before that, Mohammad, what would you say is the orthodox view of Christianity as you understand it today? If you had to describe the most correct Muslim position on this question of Christianity’s otherworldliness or magical aspects, how would you describe it?
Mohammad Fadel: Well, I think that the orthodox view, Muslim view of Christianity is that Christianity teaches a most excellent, practical ethic but, forgive me, blasphemous theological teachings. The idea of God becoming corporeal is blasphemous, much less God being crucified, God’s blood—all of those theological doctrines are considered to be paradigmatically blasphemous, but that Christian practical ethics are quite noble. The Quran talks about a kind of love between Muslims and Christians based on the excellent virtues of Christians, at the same time telling them, “Your beliefs, they’re not justifiable.”
Matthew Kaemingk: Can you say a little bit more about the authority challenge of Christianity? Can you tease that out just a little bit more so I can understand that part?
Mohammad Fadel: I think what they mean is that Christian doctrines about Jesus, about God existing as a Trinity—none of these doctrines can be justified from reason; they can’t be understood through reason. So the only way you can take them as true is based on authority. And so they say that that can’t be right, that can’t be true. Right?
Matthew Kaemingk: Okay. Yeah, okay.
Mohammad Fadel: That religious truth must be rationally justifiable.
Matthew Kaemingk: Okay. Shadi, you want me to respond to that exactly how?
Shadi Hamid: No, I’m just curious, anything about what Mohammad said. I’m just curious how that struck you because we’ve talked about these issues quite a lot, more informally, this question of rationality versus mystery, and how that even affects, as I alluded to earlier, Christian understandings of salvation, which aren’t really dependent on a kind of scale approach, and much more dependent on God’s grace and the act of saving.
Mohammad Fadel: But Shadi, if I could interrupt.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, yeah.
Mohammad Fadel: There’s a very strong strain of that in Islam too. Right?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, yeah, but I would say it’s been obscured, to some extent, by some more modernist approaches.
Mohammad Fadel: Yeah, and there’s obviously, there’s plenty of teachings that suggest precise rewards for things, but there are also lots and lots of things that say that nobody goes to heaven based on simply deeds, and that grace is always required, if only to do the good deeds. Right? Anyway, sorry.
Matthew Kaemingk: That’s a whole ’nother podcast. We’re going to have to talk about that. Yeah, I think in general, Shadi, my response to the “Christians rely on authority” . . . Obviously Christianity is a massive, global religion with a lot of diversity. There are some Christians who really love rationality and logic, and believe in the power of reason to explain a lot of the Christian faith. They have a high level of confidence in rationality to lead a person very close to faith, and others are much more skeptical of the ability of reason to lead a person to the Christian faith.
I myself really do value reason in many areas of my life, but I would just answer personally here. I think that life itself has a lot of absurdity to it, a lot of irrationality to it. In some ways, the absurdity of the cross, the scandal of it, is something that I find quite beautiful. That God would die for his creature fundamentally doesn’t make sense, and that’s why I like it. It’s hard for me to explain, but you and I had had this long conversation about law and grace, and how can God be lawful and just, and yet also be gracious and forgiving.
We went back and forth, back and forth. Ultimately, I was not able to logically, rationally tie everything together. That did not fill me with a sense of failure or fear. That actually was encouraging to me, and so, I guess, relying on the authority of Jesus, and relying on God rather than my own reason, is something that helps me rest. A Christian understanding of faith might be better translated as trust, placing a trust in something that you cannot fully prove.
It’s difficult to fully explain in this short period of time, but I think that I am drawn a bit to the absurdity of the Christian faith rather than its rationality. That said, Christians are going to respond to that question in a wide variety of ways. Maybe we’ll have a Christian on who really loves reason a lot to . . .
Shadi Hamid: Maybe this is a good place to end because I think it really does highlight that . . . This might be obvious to listeners, but it’s just worth reiterating that when we talk about Islam and Muslims, we’re talking about an incredibly rich and diverse tradition. As Mohammad pointed out, you do have these strains that are in conversation with each other. As Matthew just said, you can find Christians who lean towards a greater emphasis on reason and rationality, and others who are more comfortable embracing the mystery.
It’s also worth noting it’s not my strain of Islam, but there are very mystical approaches to Islam that are still quite popular in different parts of the Muslim world that do, as Mohammad said, offer a trans-rational or supra-rational approach—that there is something beyond reason; there is something beyond logic. And where, personally, the role of love isn’t as central in my own conception of Islam, in other conceptions of Islam love and the mystery that comes with love (and here I’m talking about love of the Beloved—i.e, God) can be quite paramount in Muslims’ conception of their own religion.
At some basic level, it depends what kind of individual Muslim you’re talking about, and how they choose to pursue their own religious practice. Obviously, that goes for most, actually all religions, I would say, so with that . . . Oh, Mohammad, I see Mohammad is . . . Yeah.
Mohammad Fadel: Can I just say one thing?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah.
Mohammad Fadel: Just because I think it would be useful just to point this out. We don’t necessarily remember this very often today, but Islamic conceptions of God and rational religion were actually quite important in the Enlightenment, and quite influential in English-language deism. Denise Spellberg has a book about Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. It’s a lot more than just Thomas Jefferson and the Quran. It’s basically about the role Islam played in English cultural life, both in England and in the colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She gives a really good overview of the way Islam was represented both as like a bête noire among fideist Protestants but also as the ideal of rational religion from the perspective of philosophers and deists.
Matthew Kaemingk: Oh, man. Now I know who to blame for deism in the West. It was Muslims’ fault.
Mohammad Fadel: Yes, yes, no, no, no. Yes, oftentimes they were blamed. Yes, it’s true that Islam was used by critics of deism to say, “See, if you’re going down the deist route, you’re becoming Muslim.” Any case, so—
Matthew Kaemingk: Okay, awesome.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. That’s a really good thing to mention. I think we have a wonderful reading list from this episode for listeners. We do have Denise Spellberg’s really excellent book on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes and also a link to Mohammad’s articles that we discussed. I guess we did talk about John Rawls a lot, so maybe we’ll also include, for those of you who are like, “Why do they keep on talking about this guy, John Rawls?” . . . I guess, among other things, he’s the preeminent American liberal theorist of the twentieth century. I’ll choose what to include, but maybe we can include the expanded edition of Political Liberalism by John Rawls for anyone who wants to dive into that. It includes his excellent essay, which is maybe a good entry point, which is called “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” since we did talk about public reason quite a bit. This was awesome, Mohammad. Thanks so much.
Mohammad Fadel: My pleasure.
Shadi Hamid: Thanks.
Mohammad Fadel: It was a lot of fun.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, yeah. Thanks to all of you for listening to Zealots at the Gate. If you like what you heard, which we hope you did, you can learn more about the podcast and Comment magazine, of which we are a part, at Comment.org, where you’ll find illuminating essays on politics, culture, and faith.
We do want to hear from you. Connect with us over Twitter at my handle, @shadihamid, which is my first and last name, and @matthewkaemingk. Please note the Dutch spelling in his last name if you want to talk to him. Or you can write to us at the hashtag #zealotspod, and we will keep an eye on that, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you. Our thanks as well to our sponsor, Fuller Seminary’s Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life.
Matthew Kaemingk: Hey, thank you so much, Professor Fadel. It was a real pleasure to be with you.
Mohammad Fadel: Okay. My pleasure. It was a lot of fun.
Matthew Kaemingk: Thanks, Mohammad. Zealots at the Gate is hosted by Comment magazine, produced by Allie Crummy, audience strategy by Matt Crummy, and editorial direction by Anne Snyder. I’m Matthew Kaemingk.
Shadi Hamid: And I’m Shadi Hamid. Thanks for listening. Bye, everyone.
Matthew Kaemingk: Bye.