Islam is the stereotype of the unknowable “Other” in the West today. Yet the commonality between Islam and Christianity is greater than the difference. The legacy of Crusades fought long ago lends itself to more recent political interests and ambitions that obscure that commonality. There is, no doubt, an important theological difference between Islam and Christianity: the belief held by Christians of the divinity of Christ is not held by Muslims. Yet, Muslims revere Jesus (peace be upon him) as an outstanding Prophet and Messiah, and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Christian community as “People of the Book” (i.e., as recipients of an earlier revelation). Additionally, the Qur’an (which every Muslim believes to be the actual Word of God) states: “Nearest among [people] in love to the believers will you find those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That, because among them are [people] devoted to learning and [people] who have renounced the world and they are not arrogant” (Qur’an 5:85). In the light of these facts the theological differences between these two great religions are insufficient grounds for the past violent hostility that has often occurred between the two groups or for future conflicts which some prognosticators appear to be fashioning as self-fulfilling prophecy.
For Christians who believe that their religion mandates a free society, there is a commonality between their understanding of Christianity and Qur’anic Islam that is of fundamental importance: the value of human liberty under a rule of law. This idea is unmistakable in the fundamental teachings of Islam. Further, there is circumstantial evidence that contact with Islam in the Middle Ages triggered the awareness among Western Christians of these inherent factors in their religion. This idea has been touched on in, for example, Rose Wilder Lane’s chapter on Islam in The Discovery of Freedom1 and my book, Signs in the Heavens.2 The practical subordination of the “divine right of kings” to a higher law in the West is commonly dated to the Magna Carta. Were not the nobles, persecuted by King John, impressed by what King Richard’s troops in the Holy Land saw in the example of Salahuddin (Saladin) who, following Islamic principles, subjected himself to the Islamic law?
For most of the period from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, “world trade” and “Muslim economy” were almost synonymous. Muslims freely produced and circulated literature including pre-Islamic Greek, Persian, and Hindu works. Muslim creativity was manifested in scientific and technological breakthroughs that included the development of algebra, the invention of spherical trigonometry, the discovery of the circulation of the blood, and the development of the sugar-refining industry. The Muslims introduced pluralism to statecraft by treating peaceful non-Muslim groups as protected minorities. Their internal affairs were governed by their own laws to a degree unmatched even in modern secular states. While Christians under Muslim jurisdiction have been permitted wine for their sacraments, the U.S. Supreme Court has denied American Indians a constitutional right to peyote use in their religious ceremonies.
The Islamic view of nature and of free will carries within it the necessity of a liberal political doctrine. In Islamic metaphysics, this earth is the stage on which our own willingness to submit to Divine Will is tested. To test each human being, it is necessary that people have the freedom to choose between good and evil. This imperative is seen in the Qur’an’s repeated admonition to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that his sole duty is to preach the clear message. He should neither force people to accept it nor grieve over their rejection of it: “Invite [all] to the Path of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation; and his Path and your Lord knows best who is rightly-guided. And if you retaliate [in argument], retaliate no worse than they attack you. But if you show patience, that is indeed the best course for those who are patient. And do be patient, for your patience is but from God; nor grieve over them; and distress them; and distress yourself not because of their [rhetorical] schemes. Truly, God is with those who are conscious of Him [restraining themselves] and those who do good” (16:125-128).
The fountainhead of Islamic law, the Qur’an, directs obedience to the Prophet only “in any just matter” (e.g., 60:12) and warned him “nor art thou set over them to dispose of their affairs” (39:41): “So if they dispute with you, then say ‘I have submitted my face [whole self] to God and so have those who follow me.’ And say to the People of the Book and to those who are unlearned ‘Do you also submit yourselves?’ If they do, they are in right guidance, but if they turn back, your [only] duty is to convey the Message; And in God’s sight are all His servants” (3:20).
The Qur’an declares absolutely that “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). God is sufficient to bring down the consequences of people’s evil action upon them. “Then leave Me alone with such as reject this Message: by degrees shall We punish them from directions they perceive not” (68:44). “Leave Me alone, (to deal) with the (creature) whom I created (bare and) alone” (74:11).
For men to submit their wills to other men–whether those others are clerics or the “majority”–violates the fundamental premise of Islam. The word “Islam” is Arabic for “submission to God” alone. Then, obedience to the ruler is conditional on whether his commands are just. In his inaugural address as the first Caliph, Abu Bakr reflected an attitude in sharp contrast to that of political leaders before Islam: “Now it is beyond doubt that I have been elected your Amir, although I am not better than you. Help me, if I am right; set me right if I am in the wrong; truth is a trust; falsehood a treason…Obey me as long as I obey God and His Prophet; when I disobey God and His Prophet, then obey me not.”
Because the Qur’an recognizes that man is at once rational, volitional, acquisitive, and ethical, it encourages free trade and economic progress. It prescribes moderation as the means of attaining success in this world and the next (see, e.g., verses 7:31-32, 18:46 and 17:29). It asserts that man can and should act to provide for existence on this material plane without sacrificing his moral sensibilities. Reasonable consumption is encouraged (2:168), while niggardliness (35:29), wastefulness (6:141) and extravagance (17:27) are condemned. The desire for a livelihood (4:5), for comfort (42:36), even for ornament and adornment (18:46) or protection from future uncertainty (4:9) in this world is never called evil. Private property is protected (2:188). The fulfillment of obligations is commanded (2, 177;5:1) and contract law detailed (e.g., 2:282-283). Fraud is prohibited (26:181) and clear standards of weights and measures called for (55:9).
These principles were developed by Islamic legal scholars into a politico-economic system that thrived and dominated world markets for over seven hundred years. By the fourteenth century, Islamic economic theory had reached full flower in Ibn Khaldun’s incomparable Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History.3 Ibn Khaldun concluded that the following were the legitimate functions of government: (1) defense of the community from enemy attacks; (2) enforcement of restraining laws among the people, to prevent mutual hostility and attacks upon property (including improving the safety of the roads); (3) induce the people to act in their own best interests, and …supervise general matters involving their livelihood and mutual dealings to prevent fraud; (4) oversee the mint to prevent fraud in currency; (5) exercise political leadership.4
Ironically, Ibn Khaldun’s elucidation of the economic principles that had made Islamic society economically successful came as that society was abandoning those principles. Political leaders, then as now prone to corruption, began interventions into the economy, gradually developing a loss of respect for private property and individual liberty. Muslim scholars, who until the thirteenth century had been largely independent of the government, were no longer permitted to engage in original thought (called ijtihad). The high-water mark was followed by the loss of Spain to the nascent West, whose reformers had picked up the Islamic concepts. These Western scholars were either reformers who saw justification for the new view of human freedom in original Christian doctrine from which the Church had strayed, or revolutionaries who imagined a conflict between religion and human freedom. As the West rose, the Muslim world declined to its present state. Freedom and morality are inseparable. Piety is an act of volition. One can only be good if one chooses to be good. In Islam, the order for a just (and therefore free) society is a religious requirement. Coercion is only for defense of rights: “To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;–and verily God is most powerful for their aid;–(They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right–(for no cause) except that they say, ‘Our Lord is God.’ Did God not check one people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques…” (22:39-40).
Ibn Khaldun summed up the interplay of freedom and morality when he said: “Those who, of their own free will and without any compulsion, act according to the Qur’an and the Sunnah [the practice of the Prophet] wear the turban of freedom.”5
- Rose Wilder Lane, The Discovery of Freedom (New York: Laissez-Faire, 1984).
- Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer’s Perspective on Religion and Science (Beltsville: Writers Inc., Intl., 1992).
- Wali ad-Din Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Franz Rosenthal, trans. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968).
- Ibid., v. II, p. 3.
- Quoted by Haroon Khan Sherwani in Studies in Muslim Political Thought and Administration (Lahore: Ashraf, 1959).