By Aloysious Mowe
Visiting Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center
Sufi Mohammed and the Taliban betray a studied ignorance of Islamic scripture, law, and history, in the claims that they make for the imposition of Shari’a in Pakistan. In his repudiation of Pakistan’s democratic institutions, Mohammed is quoted as saying that “the Qur’an says supporting an infidel system is a great sin.” He does not substantiate this because he cannot do so: the Qur’an makes no mention of an Islamic state, does not prescribe any system of government, and is silent even about the structure and nature of religious authority in Islam (hence the enduring divide between the Sunni and the Shia branches of Islam, which began with a disagreement about who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad, and how this succession should be managed). That a democratic political system that makes room for a plurality of views and beliefs is un-Islamic has yet to be demonstrated. It is because they cannot convince that the Taliban resort to violence and intimidation.
Pope Benedict XVI’s address in Regensburg in September 2006 is probably doomed to lie on the garbage heap of history because of the hostile reception it received when the Pope cited derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad made by the Emperor Manuel II Paleologus. It is regrettable that poor advice and worse management on the part of his closest collaborators resulted in the burial of Pope Benedict’s important message in Regensburg about religious belief and violence.
Manuel II decried the use of force and violence in religion because violence is incompatible with the nature of God: “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature…Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats…To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…” For Benedict, the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.
Benedict connects the Greek word for “reason” – “Logos” – with the “Logos” of Christian theology, which describes the Christ, the self-revelation of God, as “the Word”. He says, “Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.” Discourse about belief, whether between different faiths or within a faith community, should be grounded in persuasion and reasoned discussion.
The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes individual responsibility in matters of belief. “Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good, whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger” (17:15). There is no sense here of a state or a juridical system that metes out punishment to sinners. Instead there is an invitation to righteousness, and if there is punishment it comes from God, though only after God has mercifully sent a messenger to warn the people. The locus classicus for such a situation is that of Jonah sent to warn the people of Nineveh. Jonah was an instrument of persuasion, not an agent of destruction.
This theme recurs in Qur’an 36:17, where God’s messengers say to a hostile crowd to whom they have been sent to call back to the right path: “Our duty is only to deliver the message to you.” We find in another place, Qur’an 35:18-26, a summing up of the Prophet’s mission. He is sent as a bearer of good news and warning, just as every faith community has had a messenger sent by God to bring them to righteousness.
Punishment lies not in the hands of these representatives of God. They are sent “only to warn”, and every person must bear his own burden and be responsible for his own destiny. Coercion has no place in religious belief. The Qur’an says this forcefully in 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.”
This recurring theme of personal responsibility and non-coercion is consistent with the Qur’an’s attitude towards apostates. Despite the fact that some radical Muslims insist that death is the only proper penalty for those who apostatize from Islam, the fact is that the Qur’an, while bemoaning those who leave the true faith, never prescribes a penalty for apostasy in this life. In fact, it is clear from 4:137, which refers to those who leave the faith, then return to it, but then leave again, that apostates are assumed to be living peacefully and unmolested in the community of believers. How else could they have the opportunity to apostatize a second time?
The Muslim scholar, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, writes in “Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a,” that religious observance can only be genuine if it is not subject to coercion via the State’s imposition of Islamic law: “In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state.” Compliance with God’s law cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions, nor should there be a possibility that it be faked simply to appease the state’s officials. “Belief in Islam,” says An-Na’im, “or any other religion, logically requires the possibility of disbelief, because belief has no value if it is coerced.”
An-Na’im does not suggest a separation of religious belief from public policy. The state is a political institution that is supposed to be influenced by the interests and concerns of its citizens, and this includes their religious and ethical commitments. The proper realm for religious conviction, however, is not the state but politics, which is the art of persuasion and negotiation in questions of policy. The state itself should remain resolutely secular, meaning that it is neutral regarding doctrine, and that its essential institutions and concepts, such as constitutionalism, human rights, and equal citizenship, act to safeguard the human rights of minorities, even minorities of one.
Those who wish to impose Islamic law on all and sundry act as though the Shari’a is a clear and unambiguous artifact known in all places and for all times by every Muslim person. Islamic law has never functioned in this manner. There has long been a multiplicity of schools of law in Islam, each with its own method and doctrine, and often disagreeing with one another on even basic matters that the uninformed take to be immutable and essential Islamic rules, such as those regulating the consumption of alcohol. Islamic law is not laid down; rather, it is worked out in the dynamic interplay between different schools, between scholars of the past and those in the present, between one text and another.
An-Na’im reminds us that the exercise of state power always involves individual human actors, each one of whom has a personal perspective on the matters at hand. The process of formulating and implementing public policy and legislation therefore “is subject to human error and fallibility, which means that it can always be challenged or questioned without violating the direct and immediate divine will of God.” It is for this reason, says An-Na’im, that public policy and legislation should be supported by civic reason rather than through state coercion.
It is characteristic of Islamic law that legal opinions and judgments are classically closed by the formula, Allahu ‘alam: God knows best. It is that space for error in the all too human effort to articulate a divine law that the Taliban seek to close off. In doing so, they set themselves against the wisdom of Islamic tradition.
Aloysious Mowe, S.J., is International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.
By Aloysious Mowe |
April 23, 2009; 9:12 AM ET
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