What’s this—a post on Stuart’s old blog? I had stopped posting, either here or at the new one, but I’ve needed to distract myself today and I read something that rather annoyed me, so I thought I’d spend my morning writing a rebuttal. And as the new blog will shortly die for lack of support (I host that one directly, and can’t be bothered keeping it up), we’re back to this blog.
This article is question is from Tom Holland (no, not that Tom Holland, who could be annoyed by him?) here on Unherd and discusses the historical background to France’s problematic relationship with Islam.
My beef is that the article, though insightful and informative on the topic of the French state and its relationship with Enlightenment ideals, is inaccurate and misleading in its representation of Islam.
That there is a contemporary tension between certain forms of radical Islam and the “secularity” of the French state is hardly news, but in attempting to historicize it, Holland shows ignorance and incuriosity of Islam, relying instead on tired old tropes. Throughout the essay, Holland presents Islam as a single unchanging monolith that is bent upon theocracy, where the literal laws set down in the Qurʾan are the only acceptable laws, and where freedom of religion is an affront. In contemporary terms this is problematic, as historicization it is simply wrong. Indeed, what Holland does, really, is to historicize France, the Enlightenment, and secular/natural law (in their Western forms), whilst contrasting them with a monolithic, unchanging, unhistorical, and entirely fictional entity, “Islam.”
The first warning sign is, to be honest, one that shows a wider ignorance of religious matters—the misuse of the word “theodicy,” which Holland appears to believe means something to do with the relationship between religion and law, whereas it has precisely zero to do with law, being the study/justification of the existence of evil in a world created by an omnipotent and loving God.
But it is quickly followed by this:
The concept of human rights was an alien one to Islam. Muslims, traditionally, had not believed in natural law. There were only laws authored by God.
This is wildly inaccurate in its implication that the explicit laws as revealed in the Qurʾan are (and always have been), to all Muslims, the only acceptable laws (possibly supplemented by the sunnah, it’s unclear where Holland thinks the sunnah fits in here, and he does not even mention hadith). In fact, Islam has long discussed the existence of objective ethical rules derivable from nature without direct revelation, and deducible by reason from observation of the natural world.
For those Muslims who support this view (for, astonishingly, Islam is not an intellectual monolith) there are ethical principles deducible from nature. They are, ultimately, from God; but God has ordered nature such that the simple application of reason to observation would allow one to extrapolate them. This is roughly the Islamic equivalent of the scholastic concept of naturaliter Christian such as was derived from Rom 1:20 and 2:14–15, and from which the Western “secular” concept of natural law was in turn derived. In this view, the express revelation that is the Qurʾan is an explicit laying out of (and partial supplementation to, see below) principles and laws already available in nature, God’s first revelation. Indeed, the Arabic word for a “verse” of the Qurʾan is ayah, which does not refer literally to verse, but to a “sign”; the same term is used for those natural phenomena which are held to show the existence and laws of God. These Muslims, then, believe in natural law. They may have also believed that, as Muslims, they had an explicit law revealed to them via the Prophet, but to those who had not received explicit revelation, natural law existed and was sufficient.
Islam, then, has long discussed the principles that underlie the concept of natural law as a universal law that can be derived by reason and observation of nature. Christianity, too, has dallied with natural law with the official view of the Catholic church still being (I think) the Thomist position which is remarkably similar: that revelation confirms reason, and plenty of Protestant churches take a similar line.
Yet Holland reserves for Islam the claim that they had not, “traditionally,” believed in natural law. Why is this? I think he has misunderstood—on behalf of Islam—the concept of natural law.
Well, it seems to me that there are two ways we could classify natural law: as laws, the origin of which is unknown or irrelevant, that can be arrived at by secular reasoning alone, and laws that can be arrived at by secular reasoning that are themselves of secular origin—that were explicitly not authored by a deity. Both religions have strong traditions endorsing the former; both religions would reject the latter. Holland—as is clear from his contrasting of “natural law” to “laws authored by God” holds only Islam to the tighter definition of natural law, that it must be atheistic rather than secular. As we will see below, this is the stereotype he is immersed in: that Muslims are incapable of the separation religion and reason. Yet this is not really—as far as I understand it—what natural law entails and, indeed, in Christendom as in Islam, discussion of natural law began within religion, not in opposition to it.
In the basic claim that there are objective laws deducible by pure reason or by reason applied to the observation of nature, Islam engaged with (though not universally agreed with) the concept of natural law before Christendom did and has continued to do so. It would reject a formulation of natural law that was explicitly atheistic—but then so would Christianity. And it is worth noting that the most famous statement of the some of the principles of natural law is that men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
It is, therefore, simply a gross inaccuracy to say “Muslims had not believed in natural law.” They might not have believed in atheistic natural law, but then neither does the US Declaration of Independence and—at least Holland seems to appreciate this—given how conveniently co-extensive our contemporaneous UN natural law is with the principles of the dominant religion in the culture of those who propounded them, we should really ask ourselves whether our contemporary natural law is so very free of religious underpinning.
Moving on, Holland states:
It was [the] lack [of laws], in the opinion of medieval Muslim jurists, that served to condemn Christianity as an inadequate and superceded revelation.
This much is true—but the operative word here is revelation. That God’s explicit laws are revealed in the Qurʾan to Muslims is not in question (to Muslims); but this does not mean that Muslims consider this explicit, revealed law to be binding upon all other people. Some have, yes, but to many other the purpose of the explicit revelation to Muslims is not so that they further impose it on others, but so that they be an exemplar to them—the Qurʾanic ayah 2:143 is often held up to support this view, rendered by Arberry as “Thus We appointed you a midmost [or: just] nation that you might be witnesses to the people, and that the Messenger might be a witness to you.” So under this view the failure of Christianity to prescribe laws was, indeed, a failure; but a failure of revelation, with the understanding that the specific purpose of revelation is to create an elect, exemplar community held to higher standards—an idea, of course, that already existed in the precursor of both religions. Not all Muslims adhere to this view. Some believe that the explicit law as set out in the Qurʾan should be mandated for all. I do not defend those Muslims, and I condemn those who commit atrocities in furtherance of this view. But I object, strongly, to the idea that this is Islam any more than the warped ideals of a white supremacist Christian fundamentalist in America who guns down a church of Black worshippers is Christianity.
Holland goes on to characterize the views of these “medieval Muslim jurists”:
Christians were forever changing their minds, devising new law codes, revising the ones they already had. How were such people possibly to be taken seriously?
This is ludicrous in its implication that Muslims had a sure, certain, unchanging, and inviolable concept of law. The medieval jurists to whom he has just referred were not—here we go again—a monolith, but would have adhered to one of a number of different schools (now generally grouped into a Big Four) who constantly disputed and revised (and dispute and revise) their interpretation of the sunnah and exegesis (or the impossibility thereof) of the Qurʾan. The hadith—reports concerning the sayings and the actions of the Prophet that form the evidential basis for sunnah—were extensively analysed and worked over. Indeed, as a historian, Holland should recognize that systematic analysis of sources was a historiographic invention of the Muslim world, with the most famous hadith collector, al-Bukhari, using chains of transmission to reduce his corpus of 600,000 to just 7,500 that he considered “safe.” The Ashʿari school of jurisprudence, in particular, sees intellectual enquiry as mandated by the Qurʾan, and that therefore interpretation of the Qurʾan (tafsir) and that of the hadith is a constant work in progress. Holland presents as monolithic and unchanging an intellectual tradition that was and can be discursive and developmental.
It is easy to see how Holland steps from the inaccurate belief that in Islam (that monolith, Islam) the only acceptable law is the explicit law of the Qur‘an to another widely-spead misconception that he appears to hold: that as a consequence of this, to Muslims theocracy is the only acceptable mode of governance and that freedom of religion is unacceptable.
Holland characterizes modern Islamic states, when secular, as “apeing” the secular order of the West, implying that Islam did not or could not develop its own secular orders (and, somewhat derogatorily, it seems to me from that verb that Holland thinks that they are incapable of doing secularism “properly” when they do do it). Once again, this is a grotesque failure of historical understanding of Islam (not to mention somewhat derogatory). It is almost as if Holland views the historical Caliphate[s] as being constituted according to the twisted—and widely condemned, within Islam as well as without—views of ISIS, instead of having conducted any kind of historical investigation into the development of Islamic polity.
In fact, from relatively early on in the Caliphate, a contrast between secular rule and religious was pretty manifest. Though the community was nominally led by the caliph, the inheritor of the mantle of Muhammad, fairly early on there began to emerge the ʿulamaʾ, the scholars, who arrogated to themselves the right to pronounce upon matters of religious law, so much so that the caliph Al-Maʿmun (r. 813–833) introduced a show-down with them, pronouncing himself, as the inheritor of the Prophet’s mantle, the sole authority on the interpretation of religion, and introducing an Inquisition to impose a particular article of belief upon the population. That article of belief—that the Qurʾan is created—is now considered heretical, and the Inquisition was terminated by his successor. The famed scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who refused to submit and was tortured and imprisoned, is lauded as a hero. Indeed, as an educated and devout man lauded for undergoing extreme penalties rather than compromise his faith to the dictates of a secular lord who believes himself entitled to dictate on religious matters, Ibn Hanbal bears striking comparison with Sir Thomas More. However, Ibn Hanbal survived and the attempted reforms he opposed collapsed: it was al-Maʿmun’s immediate successor, al-Muʿtasim, who abandoned the Inquisition and the heretical statement of belief, and in doing so conceded limits to the earthly monarch’s capacity to dictate on matters of religion.
As a consequence, from al-Maʿmum on, the caliph was an increasing secular role. Interpretation of religious laws fell to the scholars who—as we have seen—were far from monolithic, falling into a number of different schools, which varied in their reasoning (or lack thereof) and exegesis (or ditto). The position of the later caliphs—exaggerated still further as central control became increasingly impossible and the Caliphate split into multiple polities in practical if not official terms—is not so very different from the experience of the pre-Reformation European monarch, secular lord of their domain, but with little ability to rule in religious matters. Indeed, the pre-Reformation European system was more monolithic than the effective republics of Islam in that there was, in the person of the Pope, a single, unquestionable voice of religion which could not be challenged nor ignored. For many in Sunni Islam at least, such a single, unquestionable voice of religious authority has not existed since the “Rightly-Guided” caliphs.
All of this is not to say that there are or were not Muslims who adhere to the idea of a theocracy. Shiʿa Islam—with its concept of the Imam—is entirely committed to the idea of the political leader as religious leader (indeed, al-Maʿmum was suspected of Shiʿism). However in Shiʿa Islam that leadership is solely inherited in a line of biological descent from the Prophet and as, at present, that line is unknown (“occluded”), mankind must make alternative arrangements. Ironically, there are those who argue that the alternative arrangements most supported by the Qurʾan are … well, representative democracy. (Though, of course, real power lies elsewhere, and it is a mere fig leaf, in the Shiʿa nation of Iran there is a Parliament so representative that it has by law delegates to represent the (unfortunate) ethno-religious minorities of Jews, Zoroastrians, Assyrians, and Armenians.) But the point is that, if historicization is what we’re doing here, then opinions within the Muslim world have widely varied on whether the political leader is entitled to theocratic status (or vice versa), but the historical reality on the ground very far from a monolith of theocracy until the West came along to provide secular democracy to “ape.”
When Holland states that contemporary Muslim radicals “level the same charge” as those monolithic medieval Muslim jutists against the West of “taking earthly legislators as their lords rather than God,” he is creating a false historical thread of support for universalist theocracy in both principle and practise which is simply not held out. Of course, theocracy has always had its advocates—in Christianity as much as Islam—but the strong implication of Holland’s argumentation is that it is natural to and historically evident in Islam. The radicals who do propound it think this too, of course. But it hardly behoves us to follow the argumentation of religious extremists, and the evidence is quite the contrary: that the Islamic world was uncoupling state from religion long before contemporary Islamic countries “aped” our “secularism.”
One cannot deny a noticeable amount theocratic thinking evident in some parts of the Islamic contemporary world, but the point is that—especially in an essay concerned with historicization—it is simply wrong to suggest that it has always been so. Holland would do well to research the emergence (for emergence it is, not continuation) of Pan-Islamism (and the role of the British state therein).
Finally, I want to look at this idea that Islam is affronted by, or at least uncomprehending of, French freedom of religion. Holland, again, is good on historicization of the Western half of the situation, situating French freedom of religion as deriving from the post-Revolutionary state’s treatment of the Jewish population. But he then states:
Today, in France, Muslims are expected to subscribe to a very similar orthodoxy. Islam as it was classically understood — a framework for regulating every aspect of human existence – could have no place in a country proud of its secularism: its laïcité.
This is a complete failure of historicization from the Islamic perspective. States ruled by Islamic leaders allowed some freedom of religion centuries before it was dreamt up in the West and long before the fig-leaves that are the non-Muslim Iranian MPs. The Crusaders who slaughtered their way to the gates of Jerusalem (with the occasional massacre of Jews on their way) to claim it for “Christendom” arrived at a city where Jews could still freely practice their faith as long as they paid the jizyah tax (and the same had previously applied to Christians).
Indeed, Holland references the jizyah—the tax paid by Christian and Jews within Islamic polities—but seems to entirely fail to appreciate that its simple existence indicates a religious plurality in Muslim polities that he paints as entirely inimical to Islam. Of course there was not equality, but there was toleration of diversity, with the minority religions expected to adhere to the laws and norms of the state. Not perfect freedom of religion, but back in Europe, Jews were, as noted, being slaughtered and expelled from whole countries, and the continent was building up to an extended paroxysm of violence over whether a piece of bread was actually a piece of bread or just looked like one.
Far from being incomprehending of the situation in France where (purportedly) Muslims are free to practice their religion as long they assimilate to secular French society with its implicit Judeo-Christian values and law code (however much it may protest them to be otherwise), historically-aware Muslims might see it in a parallel to the caliphates (the actual caliphates, not the fantasy Caliphate of ISIS), where freedom of religion is granted to a limited extent with a clear state religion providing the framework for the secular laws, or even to Cordoba in its so-called “Golden Age”, where Jewish figures such as Moses ibn Ezra could make significant contributions to the culture.
To say that French freedom of religion very much places one religion more equal than the others, or that French laws purportedly ensuring public secularity can often look like anti-Muslim discrimination is not to justify the atrocities that have taken place for, ultimately, violent theocracy-fantasizing nutjobs are violent theocracy-fantasizing nutjobs whatever religion they profess and however they justify to themselves their violence. But, conversely, to suggest that Islam is fundamentally inimical to and uncomprehending of a secular state which trades freedom of belief for public conformity is to completely ignore the actual history of Muslim-run countries, where, over the course of history, this has been more often the norm than in Europe. I do not argue that French anti-Muslim policies inevitably give rise to atrocities such as these; but it is equally incorrect to suggest that Islam has an inbuilt anti-secularism that performs the same function from the direction.
The immense disservice that Holland has performed in this essay is to historicize and explain French secularism, while inaccurately (and, I’m afraid to say, rather crassly) reducing “Islam” to a single, monolithic theocracy-oriented stereotype, presuming that the fantasies of today’s violent extremists are representative of, and contiguous with, the dominant thread of Islam, with a strong implication that such outrages as have been recently in the news are, though extreme, a product of a universal and unchanging view of the relationship between state and religion in Islam. This is wrong, unhistorical, and—to put it mildly—unhelpful.