Islamic institutions and Muslims intellectuals – stirred by the 2011 uprisings and by the rise of extremism -- started an unprecedented debate on the relationship between faith and freedom

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:54:32

We will hear talk of jihadism for many years to come. However, this edition of Oasis wants to look beyond it, at a Middle East that, after decades of Islamist cultural hegemony, is seeking to turn the page. Even in Saudi Arabia the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, has announced a new season, economically and politically but also at the cultural and religious level. The feasibility of the Saudi proclamation still needs to be proven, but it is unlikely that the religious reform invoked by so many will be truly achieved if it does not take seriously the demand that surfaced in 2011: “freedom”. After years of jihadist violence, sectarian politics and neo-authoritarian drifts, this is the only point of departure. Otherwise, there will not be any departure at all and the current situation will disintegrate into total war.


In reality, this demand has accompanied the last century and a half of Arab and Islamic history, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, when reformist thought centred its reflections on how to restrain arbitrary government. The most significant text from that period was the Syrian ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Kawākibī’s book-manifesto on despotism, an excerpt from which we are proposing in the Classics section. It was to remain a point of reference for subsequent generations and fuelled the political theory of an entire generation of Islamist ideologues and intellectuals.


The antidote to tyranny that Islamists propose – a system bound to divine law, deemed to be the most solid guarantee to human freedom – ends up in the blind alley of theocracy, however. And so, precisely in reaction to the Islamist pressure, the reflection on freedom is seeking new pathways nowadays. One of these leads in the direction of an epistemological break with what the French Muslim intellectual Omero Marongiu-Perria calls the hegemony paradigm: a world vision structured around dominating and dominated people. Developed during the Middle Ages, this paradigm still conditions the positive law in contemporary Islamic countries. Emran El-Badawi, executive director of IQSA (International Qur’anic Studies Association), proposes a variation of this renewal formula: an opening of Qur’anic studies (and Islamic scientific output more generally) to the modern instruments of critical enquiry that, thwarted by the official institutions, have found a channel for expression on internet and the social and satellite networks.


And then there is also the “secular” solution proposed by those who do not necessarily suggest new readings of Islam but entrust the protection of civil and political liberties to the mechanisms of the modern legal tradition. This is what the Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi did recently when, in a decision that caught the Islamic party Ennahda on the back foot, he amended marriage law and opened the country up to the possibility of gender equality in inheritance, as Rolla Scolari recounts in her reportage. And this is the road that Mohamed-Chérif Ferjani suggests for a Tunisia that, after a post-revolutionary period dominated by cultural warfare between Islamists and secularists, is currently debating how to apply a Constitution in which defence of the sacred co-exists with the protection of freedom of conscience. The subject of freedom is particularly dear to Christians living in the Arab world: they have made it their cause for more than two centuries. And understandably, since their future depends on it. The need to fight the pseudo-caliphate has led the official religious institutions (in Egypt and Morocco, first and foremost) to begin talking again – perhaps with an extra tad of conviction induced by the fall-out from al-Baghdādī and Co. – about citizenship and equal rights for Muslims and non-Muslims. This subject is discussed by Salim Daccache through a reading of the documents al-Azhar has produced in this context.


In sum, a debate does exist but it progresses slowly: not only because of the difficult economic and political conditions, but also because there is still no cultural perspective that seems to be able to resolve the alienating “tradition/modernity” alternative in a new synthesis. Muhammad Jābir al-Ansārī, one of the most important contemporary Arab philosophers and, at the same time, one of the least known in the West, understood this several decades ago. As early as the 1970s, Ansārī was identifying in Arab-Islamic culture a strong propensity to overcome contradictions and lacerating tragedy through a conciliation process that harmonised extremes. If, during the classical era, this straining towards a harmonious unification had permitted the assimilation of the Greek contribution (and Aristotelian logic, in particular), modern Islamic thought has not yet managed to engage fully with the revolution occurring in Western reason, which has abandoned Aristotelian objectivism and favours the dialectic of opposites.


In their quest for a new synthesis, Muslims are not lacking tools, however. During the first centuries, theologians and philosophers were engaged in profound reflection about human free will and the relationship between human freedom and God’s freedom: a reflection that is reconstructed in this edition by Maria De Cillis’ article. Are human acts free or predetermined? Is there a justice by which God, too, is bound or are human beings fatally subjected to an unfathomable and arbitrary will? Faithful to the concordist tendency recognised by Ansārī, Sunni Islam developed a compromise solution that aimed at safeguarding both human freedom and divine omnipotence but that ended up decreeing the latter’s supremacy over the former. The debate has been re-opened in the modern era, but only in order to jump directly to the practical consequences: the recovery – in the face of a paralyzing fatalism – of a freedom of initiative and a dynamism capable of fighting despotic regimes from the inside and of standing up to colonial pressure from the outside. And yet, there is no true political liberation without an appropriate anthropological foundation; one that thinks of human beings as free subjects vis-à-vis God and the world. This, too, is one of the lessons that, albeit in the negative, the Arab springs entrust to us.


A final (and not marginal) observation can be made. Classical Islam’s reflections on freedom – of which the letter attributed to Hasan al-Basrī, translated in the Classics section, is a particularly felicitous example – arose and developed in close contact with Christian theology, which was influenced, in its turn, by classical Islam, as Bishop Theodore Abū Qurrah’s short, ninth-century treatise “On Freedom” demonstrates. That conversation then petered out, giving way to other subjects. It seems that the time has now come to follow this “blocked path” once again and the first way of doing so is to clear the field of mutual misunderstandings. Mustafa Akyol’s article, with which we have chosen to open this edition, shows just how decisive this reflection may be for our times. It is a journey worth starting out on again.