In the thirteenth century, when the non-Muslim Mongols had taken possession of Baghdad, their ruler Hulegu Khan is said to have assembled the religious scholars in the city and posed a loaded question to them: according to their law, which alternative is preferable, the disbelieving ruler who is just or the Muslim ruler who is unjust? After moments of anguished reflection, one well known scholar took the lead by signing his name to the response, “the disbelieving ruler who is just.” Others are said to have followed suit in endorsing this answer.
Just and accountable government has long been considered essential in Islamic political and religious thought. The Qur’an states that the righteous “inherit the earth,” righteous in this case referring to the morally upright rather than the members of any privileged confessional community. A righteous and just leader ruling by at least the tacit consent of the people and liable to being deposed for unrighteous conduct remained the ideal for most Muslims through much of the Middle Ages, even though dynastic rule replaced limited elective rule only about thirty years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. That thirty year period of non-dynastic rule became hallowed, however, in the collective Muslim memory as the golden era of just and legitimate leadership.
The consequences of this memory could have potentially far-reaching repercussions for the reshaping of the Islamic world today. The Qur’anic concept of shura refers to “consultation” among people in public affairs, including political governance, and was practiced in particular by the second caliph Umar during the critical thirty year period. It is a term that resonates positively with many contemporary Muslims who wistfully recognize the intrinsic value of this sacred concept but find it rarely applied in the polities they inhabit today. Contrary to certain popular caricatures, Muslims are not somehow genetically predisposed to accept tyranny and religious absolutism. There is a healthy respect for honest, reasoned dissensus within the Islamic tradition; this attitude finds reflection in the saying attributed to the Prophet, “There is mercy in the differences of my community.”
With the historical insight and interpretive rigor, one can discover common ground between the modern Western ideal of democratic pluralism and the praxis of various pre-modern Muslim societies. Long before the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution were formulated, medieval Muslim jurists developed what may be called an Islamic bill of rights meant to ensure state protection of individual life, religion, intellect, property, and personal dignity. Non-Muslims such as Jews and Christians (later Zoroastrians and others as well) also had specific rights in the Muslim community. Above all, they had the right to practice their religion upon payment of a poll-tax to the Islamic state (from which priests, other clerics, and the poor were exempt) and were consequently freed from serving in the military. The Qu’ran after all counsels, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Within roughly twenty years after the Prophet’s death, Islam lay claim to the former domains of Byzantine and Persian empires in Persia, Syria-Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt.
It is important to point out that territorial expansion did not mean forcible conversion of the conquered peoples. The populations of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, for example, remained largely Christian for about two centuries after the early Islamic conquests. Individual Christians and Jews sometimes obtained high positions in Muslim administrations throughout the medieval period. Syriac speaking Christians were employed by their Muslim patrons in eighth and ninth century Baghdad to translate Greek manuscripts into Arabic; their inclusion in the intellectual life of medieval Islam helped preserve the wisdom of the ancient world. Centuries later, Jews fleeing from the “excesses” of the Spanish Reconquista would find refuge in Muslim Ottoman lands and establish thriving communities there. Clearly, the Qur’an’s injunction to show tolerance towards people of other, particularly Abrahamic, faiths was frequently heeded by those who revered it as sacred scripture.
To deny these lived realities of the Islamic past, which point to what we would term in today’s jargon a respect for pluralism and religious diversity, is to practice a kind of intellectual violence against Islam. Muslim extremists who insist that the Qur’an calls for relentless warfare against non-Muslims without just cause or provocation merely to propagate Islam and certain Western opinion makers who unthinkingly accept and report their rhetoric as authentically Islamic are both doing history a great disservice. Muslim extremist fringe groups with their desperate cult of martyrdom are overreacting to current political contingencies and disregarding any scriptural imperative. It is worthy of note that the Qur’an does not even have a word for martyr; the word “shahid,” now commonly understood to mean “a martyr,” refers only to an eyewitness or a legal witness in Qur’anic usage. Only in later extra Qur’anic tradition, as a result of extraneous influence, did the term “shahid” come to mean bearing witness for the faith, particularly by laying down one’s life, much like the Greek derived English word “martyr.”
The question thus remains: if there is much in the history of Muslims that may be understood to be consonant with the objectives of civil society, how and why did it go awry? Zeal for political power and corruption on the part of many ruling elites throughout history, and debilitating encounters with Western colonialism and secular modernity in recent times are prominent among the constellation of reasons advanced to explain this current state of affairs.
There has in fact never been a better time for collective introspection and moral housecleaning. A contrite Christian Europe after the debacle of the Holocaust was forced to question some of its interpretive traditions and their moral and social consequences. After the atrocities of September 11, the virulently militant underbelly of political Islam can and should be eviscerated by debunking the interpretive strand that is in clear violation of the most basic precepts of Islam, fosters the glorification of violence and self-immolation. In its stead, reflective Muslims must engage in a process of recovery and revalorization of genuine Islamic core values, such as consultative government, religious tolerance, respect for pluralism and peaceful coexistence with diverse peoples. The compatibility of these core values with those of civil society imparts both urgency and legitimacy to this process.
Asma Afsaruddin is Assistant Professor of Classics at Notre Dame and a Fellow of the Kroc Institute. Her scholarly research focuses on the early religious and political history of Islam, Qur’an and hadith studies, and classical and modern Arabic literature. She recently published Excellence and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2002). This article is adapted from “Recovering the Core Values of Islam,” published in Muslim Democrat, vol.4, no. 1, January 2002.