Where the Islamists’ theory of political freedom comes from

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Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:23


Scientific and Political Freedom in IslamReview of Uriya Shavit, Scientific and Political Freedom in Islam. A Critical Reading of the Modernist-Apologetic School, Routledge, Abingdon Oxon-New York 2017


There are fields of research that, despite being worked by years of study, still have not been totally dug up. The ground of nineteenth/twentieth-century Islamic reformism is a case in point: the bibliography on this is, by now, boundless but various aspects are still waiting to be adequately investigated and understood. With his Scientific and Political Freedom in Islam, Uriya Shavit, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Tel Aviv, has made a two-fold contribution to an understanding of this crucial period in modern Islamic history. On the one hand, he tackles the anything but marginal issue of scientific and political freedom in reformist thought; on the other, he demonstrates how this thinking has continued in the intellectual output of a new generation of Muslim thinkers such as Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, Muhammad al-Ghazālī and Muhammad ‘Imāra, who are less well known or, at least, less studied than their predecessors.


Everything began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when European orientalists, intellectuals and political figures repeatedly accused Islam of being hostile towards both science and political freedom and, therefore, of constituting the principal obstacle to Muslim societies’ development. This triggered a series of debates in which Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Husayn al-Jisr, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashīd Ridā, the great representatives of Islamic reformism, were the protagonists. They responded to the accusations by developing a form of discourse based on a comparison between Islam and Christianity. This claimed that, whereas Europe had had to free itself from the obscurantism of religion (particularly Catholicism) in order to take the road of progress, Muslims had no reason to give up their religion in order to reckon with modernity. Indeed, unlike Christianity, Islam not only was not opposed to science but actively promoted it and so much so that its arts and forms of knowledge had inspired the European Renaissance. Secondly, since it had no clergy, Islam would be naturally immune against theocracy. Taking these two assumptions as their starting point, the reformist thinkers and their followers developed a theory of scientific and political freedom that was to become a constituent part of the Islamist movements’ ideological apparatus (for the Muslim Brothers, above all) as well as the dominant opinion amongst contemporary Muslims.


This theory adopts a concordist vision of revelation and of the Qur’an, in particular. The latter would anticipate the modern era’s great scientific discoveries and, at the same time, institute a political order that was the precursor to democracy. In cases of conflict between the letter of revelation and modern science, the contradiction should be resolved by way of an allegorical textual interpretation.


In the past, advocates of this approach have been sorted into totally different categories. For Hourani, their openness to modernity made them liberals, whereas others have described them as fundamentalists. Proposing a useful terminological clarification, Shavit prefers to define them as a “modernist-apologetic” school that is “liberal and fundamentalist at the same time and, as such, is neither liberal nor fundamentalist.” (p. 45). Modernist-apologetic Muslims are not liberal because, unlike liberal Christians, they have not “distanced their arguments from revelation as a source of definite authority,” but have, rather, “entrenched their quest for religious reform in revelation itslef” (p. 47). But they are not fundamentalist either because, unlike the American evangelicals, for example, they do not reject the modern scientific theories that conflict with the revealed texts’ literal meaning but try, instead, to show how “each and every verse of the revelation can be interpreted in a way that accommodates modern concepts.” (p. 49).


The political implication of the position adopted by the modernist-apologetic school is that, by virtue of the harmony between sharī‘a, modern thought institutions, Islam is naturaliter the guarantor of its citizens’ freedom and can thus legitimately be made the bedrock of public life. This is a theoretical construct that apparently holds together the centrality of revelation and modern acquisitions but that, in reality, is unable to keep its promises. Shavit demonstrates this by highlighting the inconsistencies, both in the area of scientific freedom and in that of political freedom. In both cases, the weak point in this perspective is the identifying of the authority deputed to establish the correspondence between the revealed law and natural or man-made laws. In the scientific context, the trajectory coursed by Darwinian evolutionism is emblematic. Rejected by al-Afghānī because it was contrary to Islam, it was considered by al-Jisr and Ridā to be a confirmation of the Qur’anic revelation’s superiority, only to be subsequently discredited by al-Ghazālī, Qaradāwī and ‘Imāra as an aberration. Apart from the instability of these thinkers’ opinions, what gives cause for perplexity is the fact that it is men of religion, rather than scientists, who are expressing their views on the validity of a scientific theory. The same goes for the question of political freedom. The modernist-apologists state that there is no theocracy in Islam and that the Islamic state is, rather, a form of democracy in which citizens have the right to give themselves the laws they want, provided that these do not conflict with sharī‘a, the primary source of legislation. But who decides about the conformity between man-made laws and revealed law? On this point, the modernist thinkers either are vague or end up evoking the need for a monitoring body composed of religious experts, something that would actually reintroduce the theocracy the existence of which they are theoretically denying. Thus, writes Shavit, “In the Islamic state, Islam must be chosen rather than imposed, but individuals only have the right to choose Islam, as any other reference is illegitimate.” (p. 139).