David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

I mentioned in my previous blog (highlighting the work of Bishop Kenneth Cragg) that we had just reached an ominous signpost on the way to a warmer, more hostile planet. The atmosphere’s concentration of CO2 had just topped 400 parts-per-million. Now, what can you and I do about slowing down this rush toward a truly frightening world ahead?

I’ll start with some practical steps (they’ll simply be reminders for most of you) and offer more resources; then I’ll take a step back, ending with a needed strategy for us as a human family on a global scale.


Reducing my carbon footprint

Wikia.com has a “wiki” called “Green Wiki.” Read through their "101 Tips" for reducing one’s carbon footprint. True to their mission to multiply knowledge by pooling resources by anyone for anyone (they now manage 200,000 wikis worldwide – and this is separate from, though related to Wikipedia), this page has a dizzying number of great links on the topic of sustainability.

If you want to start with fewer steps to digest, try Public Radio’s "15 Ways" to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Just to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, let me give you just five – ones that I hadn’t thought about much before:


            1. “Try to use something other than black plastic garbage bags. The black bags can't be recycled because of their black pigment. If possible, use white bags or better yet no bags.”

            2. Millie Jefferson on Public Radio says “Chuck your Microwave,” but she’s really saying, “Avoid buying and use ready-made frozen meals.” Makes sense: “Cook fresh food when you can, and you'll also find yourself eating out less often.” The Green Wiki says, “Use a microwave to heat and cook food; microwaves are more efficient than regular ovens and hobs.” And if you’re using an oven, always put your food on the highest tray, where there is the most heat.

            3. I have friends who are vegetarian, and even some who are vegans. I get it. The production of meat is very inefficient; it pollutes the planet; and it often means tragic abuse of animal rights. But we moved into my 86-year-old mother-in-law’s house and we care for her daily needs. She loves her meat and with other challenges to face, that is not one worth fighting over. So I like this gradual approach: “Eat one less serving of meat a week. Use a cheese-free alternative each week. Cheese is an animal product and has the same carbon cost as meat. Cattle release a great deal of methane into the atmosphere. Consider unendangered fish, beans, and soy as replacements for beef, dairy, and fowl protein.”

            4. “Stop watering your lawn. Grow a garden instead. Lawns require lawnmowers, which require fuel. Gardens allow you to grow veggies which require less trips to the produce section.” Again, in our case we can’t change everything overnight, but we do have a good vegetable garden and the next step is to start composting.

            5. “Avoid unnecessary trips to the store, do grocery shopping monthly or at most weekly. This will save you money as well.” Oh, the discipline of keeping a running list of things to buy, so you don’t have to keep going back to the store!!


But really, the old adage “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” covers most of the ground you’ll need to cover for a while! We all have to make an effort to buy less, fix what we have, and work harder at recycling what we have used. And, by the way, maybe you shouldn’t buy that hybrid car you’re drooling over … the energy and resources necessary to produce it might better be offset if you kept driving your present car several more years.

I’d love to have solar panels installed on my roof. Hopefully, we’ll be able to pull this off financially at some point. Also, I’d be thrilled to convince my church to do that – many are doing just that in our state. But all in good time. What I’m saying here is that the biggest gain for our planet will come from humans switching to clean and renewable sources of energy. We have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.


Breaking the grip of fossil fuels

I referred to Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special Adviser to the UN General Secretary on environmental issues. Besides his professorship in two areas at Columbia University (Sustainable Development and Health Policy and Management), he directs their Earth Institute and, more significantly, the UN-sponsored Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Pay attention to what he writes, including a recent OpEd piece in the New York Times on where the world economy should be heading.

Here’s his pithy summary of the toxic link between carbon emissions and climate change:   


Several gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, warm the planet as their concentrations in the atmosphere increase. As the world economy grows, so do emissions of these gases, accelerating the pace of human-caused climate change.

The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. Most CO2 emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – for energy, global consumption of which is rising as the world economy grows. As a result, we are on a path to very dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Twenty years ago, the world agreed to reduce sharply emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, but little progress has been made. Instead, the rapid growth of the emerging economies, especially coal-burning China, has caused global CO2 emissions to soar.


Plainly, and with all urgency, we have to move to a low-carbon global economy. There are two solutions, Sachs says, but neither has been developed on a wide scale:


The first is to shift massively from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, especially wind power and solar power. Some countries will also continue to use nuclear power. (Hydroelectric power generation emits no CO2, but there are only a few remaining places in the world where it can be expanded without major environmental or social costs.)

The second solution is to capture CO2 emissions for storage underground. But this technology, called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), is not yet proven on a large scale. One approach is to capture the CO2 at the power plant as the coal or gas is burned. Another is to capture it directly from the air using specially designed chemical processes. Either way, CCS will require significant investment in further research and development before it becomes a viable technology. 


So the greatest obstacle is time … and politics. In a more recent article he writes, “America is still the land of Big Oil. Americans are bombarded by industry-funded media downplaying climate change, while countries that are much poorer in fossil fuels are already making the necessary transition to a low-carbon future.”

The two hopeful models are in Europe. France has turned to nuclear energy, while Germany (courageously, I might add) has massively invested in clean, renewable energy, mostly wind and solar. But different countries, with their own unique set of natural resources and political realities, will have to choose their own path to de-carbonizing their economies.

He then adds, “…but we will all need to get to the same place: a new energy system built on low-carbon sources, electrification of vehicles, and smart, energy-efficient buildings and cities.”

And by the way, Sachs points out the mirage represented by the current rush to natural gas – a phenomenon that is transforming the economy of my own state of Pennsylvania:


“Even the much-heralded shale-gas revolution is a lot of hype – similar to the gold rushes and stock bubbles of the past. Shale-gas wells deplete far more rapidly than conventional fields do. And they are environmentally dirty to boot.”


In the end, natural gas, though less carbon-intensive than coal or oil, still sends tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. No, we desperately need to be weaned off of all fossil fuels!


Getting radical

I’m not the activist I sometimes wish I could be. But again, within the limits of my family and work responsibilities, I participated in two marches in 2003 and 2004 protesting the war in Iraq and I'm always writing letters to politicians and signing petitions. We all do what we can!

But in closing, I’ll leave you with a taste for what some people are doing to fight the iron grip Big Industry maintains on the high-carbon status quo.

Bill McKibben teaches environmental science at Lehigh University but is best known for his books in this field and his activism. Founder of 350.org, McKibben is organizing a concerted campaign this summer to nonviolently pressure the powers that be on several related issues. You can read about it on jointhesummerheat.org:

This past week we humans crossed an ominous threshold. The concentration of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a level considered dangerous only twenty years ago – 400 parts per million. Caleb Sharf, Director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, represents the scientific consensus when stating that this increase in CO2 emissions is man-made:


This is seen most starkly if we take a look at a rather longer timeline – made using ice-core measurements of atmospheric CO2 (since our ancestors weren’t monitoring the atmosphere for us). It begins going uphill just around 1760 – the start of the Industrial Revolution . . . Although CO2 concentrations have been far from stable over the past 800,000 years, they take a sharp upward turn right in line with the rise of industrialized human civilization.”


Still, Sharf continues, you’d have to go back at least 3 million years. Before that, CO2 concentrations were likely 5 to 20 times higher than now. But remember, there were no humans then either! The last million years or so with its low concentrations of CO2 were the ideal window for our species to develop. That’s a bit scary, when you think about it:


The fascinating but rather terrifying thing is that we’ve now gone global, and we’ve learned how to extract vast amounts of energy from our environment, driven by an extraordinary ability to innovate and survive. By doing so we’ve altered that window, significantly changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere. And although I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, simple physics tells us what’s going to happen next . You cannot deny basic thermodynamics.”


Five years in the making, the findings of one particular study  of global temperatures over the last two millennia was released last month. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Program had 87 scientists from 24 countries closely monitored the temperature trends, continent by continent. They discovered that despite regional differences all the factors driving a general cooling suddenly lost their power to cool the Earth around 1900. Why? I quote from my source in the Christian Science Monitor:


“The research wasn't designed to identify the cause of the warming trend, which climate researchers say has been triggered by a buildup of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – as humans burned increasing amounts of fossil fuel and altered the landscape in ways that released CO2.

Still, it's hard to explain 20th-century warming without including the influence of rising CO2 levels, because the factors driving the cooling were still present, notes Darrell Kaufman, a researcher at Northern Arizona University and one of the lead authors on the paper formally reporting the results in the journal Nature Geoscience.”


The 400-parts-per-million milestone is, in any case, an ominous one. The New York Times article that day had more details than Sharf’s, and was, as you might expect, more dramatic: “Carbon Dioxide Level Passes Long-Feared Milestone.” It quotes Columbia University Earth scientist Maureen E. Raymo who quipped, “It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster.”

Some of the angst, understandably, comes from the fact that the oceans back in the Pliocene (over 3 million years ago) were 60 to 80 feet higher than today! Most scientists try not to sound too strident, however. Ralph Keeting, who heads up the climate change program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, put it cautiously that day: “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds.”

The point is, humans have put their intelligence and ingenuity to use with great gusto – without expending much wisdom in the process – and are tampering with the intricate ecological balance the Creator himself engineered for his creatures. Human beings, God’s designated representatives of his honor and purposes on Earth, have obviously lost their way. Images of the sorcerer’s apprentice come to mind. As Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals, puts it, 


“Dangerous changes in climate have already begun. If the world continues on its current trajectory, global temperatures will eventually rise by several degrees centigrade, causing higher sea levels, mega-storms, severe heat waves, massive crop failures, extreme droughts, heavy flooding, and a sharp loss of biodiversity.”


Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who died at age 99 last November, is the theologian and author who first taught me about the trusteeship of creation. I noticed again and again that this theme ran throughout his many books. I really did my best to return the favor in my own book on this topic, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. He then graciously accepted to write a Preface to it.

I fondly remember visiting him in his Oxford apartment in 2008. He insisted (as was his habit) on cooking dinner for me that evening. I came back for what was to be a lovely visit full of stimulating discussion. I noticed as well that his typewriter had a page half typed in it (no computers, please!). “Oh, that’s my latest project,” he said humbly. As it turned out, he had at least eight books published in his nineties!

Christopher Lamb, another Anglican academic, who has written the most about Cragg over the years, fittingly said this about him in his eulogy:


“Kenneth Cragg’s life work was summed up in the title of his best-known book, The Call of the Minaret, first published in 1956 and still in print.  In it he not only opened up for Christians a deeper understanding of the world of Islam, but summoned them to hear the implications of that call for themselves.  In an engagement with Islam extending over 70 years as missionary, scholar, bishop and friend, he earned the respect of Muslims for his knowledge of the Qur’an and the gratitude of Christians for showing how a deep familiarity with things Islamic can go hand in hand with unabashed witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  His conviction was that the logic of all that was true and honourable in Islam should lead Muslims to Christ.”


I have in many places commented on the stunning parallels in Bible and Qur’an on the issue of the human trusteeship, and most recently in a glossy journal issue on religion and ecology published in Qatar by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. I will only echo three of his points from the Qur’an as I close this blog.

Adam and Eve have just disobeyed God and eaten from the forbidden tree. Both are equally guilty in the Qur’anic narrative. Both are equally forgiven – but both are still expelled from the heavenly garden and sent to earth. As Q. 2:36 puts it, “on earth will be your dwelling place.” Yet before the disobedience story, verse 30 had God announcing to the angels that he was sending Adam on earth as his khalifa – his “caliph,” his representative, his trustee. Cragg, then, is right to connect this mission to “colonize” the earth (literally, in Q. 11:61) with the couple’s mandate to do so as God’s trustees.

The first point Cragg makes is that humans can only fulfill this calling as worshippers of God – his servants (‘abid, plural of ‘abd). So a trustee is first and foremost one who submits to God in reverence and obedience. His imperium, as Cragg has it, or his mandate to rule the Earth (using the gifts God gave him in the first place) should be carried out as an act of worship:

The role of man as khalïfa both validates his empire and expects his empire and expects his hallowing, and both in essential unity. For if he wielded no mastery he could bring no submission. He would have nothing to offer or to consecrate. His very culture and all his works are the substance of his Godward obligation” (The Mind of the Qur’an: Chapters in Reflection, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973, p. 141).

The second point is that being sent to manage the earth is to fulfill the role of tenants. The Arabic root of the verb ista’mara “combines the same twin ideas of time-occupancy and place tenancy and yields terms for a span of years and for an abode, a dwelling, an establishment . . . Men in this sense are all empire builders, exploiting the occasions of the years and of the lands, and all by the Divine design and leave” (The Privilege of Man: A Theme in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, London: The Athlone Press, 1968, p. 32).

Finally, says Cragg, this temporary residency on earth according to the Qur’an has a built-in accountability factor. Writing this in 1973, there wasn’t the same urgency as now, but God’s judgment is there, waiting in the wings: “Nature offers both delight and duty but only in unison. Economy and ecology, wealth and habitation, are as it were a constant interrogation of his environment by the mind of man. The questioner is himself questioned” (The Mind of the Qur’an, p. 153).

What is clear for us now is that human arrogance, greed and selfishness has brought us to the brink of ecological doom. We are passing on a planet to our children that will be more and more unfit to inhabit. It’s the only one we have.

Next time I will explain, as I’m sure many of you know already, what are some of the steps we can take to mitigate the crisis before us. So far the French and Germans are ahead of the curve. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

Is God just? If you look at all the injustices of this world – innocents suffering everywhere, powerful oppressing weak at will, and evil systems suffocating the righteous – the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. That’s the problem of evil (how to reconcile an all-powerful God with the doctrine that he is also good or totally just). I won’t tackle that here. All religions and all comprehensive systems of thought (like Marxism) have to offer some kind of solution (a “theodicy”) to this – God or no God.

Yet both Bible and Qur’an present God as just – and never more so than on the Day of Reckoning, the Last Day, or the Final Judgment.

But first, let me back up a bit. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians) God’s justice is represented on earth by the king. This is nicely expressed in the beginning of Psalm 72 (ascribed to Solomon):


“Give your love of justice to the king, O God,

            and righteousness to the king’s son.

Help him judge your people in the right way;

Let the poor always be treated fairly” (vs. 1-2).


So God’s nature includes the virtue of justice. Some of you know this was a hotly debated topic in the third to fifth Islamic centuries, when the rationalists, called Mu’tazilites (mu’tazila in Arabic), made this point one of their five chief distinctives. God is just; justice is an objective value (they were avid students of Greek philosophy); God is bound to act justly; e.g., he can’t send a good person to hell or admit a bad person into heaven.

Readers who have read some of my work on contemporary Islamic law will know how important this last point is. It’s about ethics (the theory of the good) and it goes back to Plato: is an act good because it is good in itself (it partakes in objective goodness); or is it good because the gods say it is? All reformist stirrings in the field of Islamic law today gravitate toward ethical objectivism (the Mu’tazilite position, especially in their confident assertion that the primary objective of the Shari’a is to promote the welfare – maslaha – of human beings). Meanwhile, the traditional position of ethical voluntarism (only revelation can tell us what is right and wrong) is losing ground. Though not among ultra-conservatives like the Salafis.

Despite these debates, however, both Qur’an and Bible honor God as the epitome of the righteous judge.

The later Psalms, for instance, tell of God coming to judge the earth. Here is a good example:


“Tell all the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’

The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.

He will judge all peoples fairly.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!

Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!

Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!

Let the trees of the forest rustle with praise

before the Lord, for he is coming!

He is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with justice,

and the nations with his truth” (Ps. 96:10-13 NLT).


Notice how justice is here associated with truth. A righteous judge gives a true verdict. He will not be bribed by the powerful and rich. Whether poor or rich, the guilty are punished and the innocent vindicated. Sadly, in human society, this is not always so. Long before Israel’s theology was sure about an afterlife and even less about divine judgment after death, the prophet Isaiah offered this poignant prayer:


“All night long I search for you;

            in the morning I earnestly seek for God.

For only when you come to judge the earth will people learn what is right” (Isaiah 26:9 NLT).


So we come to the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, where in both texts God’s verdict is absolutely fair and just. Only God, after all, can know all of a person’s actions; only he can fathom a person’s secret thoughts, desires and motivations. Thus only the Almighty can exemplify perfect justice.

Probably because the Meccans were primarily business people, the Qur’an uses commercial imagery (all quotes from the Abdel Haleem translation):


“We will set up the scales of justice for the Day of Resurrection so that no one can be wronged in the least, and if there should be even the weight of a mustard seed, We shall bring it out: We take excellent account” (Q. 21:47).

“On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s-weight of evil will see that” (Q. 99:6-7).

“On a Day when people will be like scattered moths and the mountains like tufts of wool, the one whose good deeds are heavy on the scales will have a pleasing life, but the one whose good deeds are light will have the Bottomless Pit for his home” (Q. 101:4-9).


Yet, whatever the imagery used, the judgment is based on deeds:


“How will they fare when We gather them together for a Day of which there is no doubt, when every soul will be paid in full for what it has done, and they will not be wronged?” (Q. 3:25).

“The record of their deeds will be laid open and you will see the guilty, dismayed at what they contain, saying, ‘Woe to us! What a record is this! It does not leave any deed, small or large, unaccounted for!’ They will find everything they ever did laid in front of them: your Lord will not be unjust to anyone” (Q. 18:49).


Now to the Bible. The classic text in the New Testament is in the book of Revelation:


“And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:11-15 NLT).


The Apostle Paul speaks in similar terms:


“For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeing after the glory and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness” (Rom. 2:5-8 NLT).


Jesus himself taught very clearly and consistently this same message. “Come and follow me,” he told his would-be disciples. Faith, of course, is crucial too. But faith rolled up into obedience is the only kind of true faith. As Jesus said near the end of his Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter” (Mat. 7:21). You can know a tree only by the fruit it produces, Jesus often told his disciples. Deeds count enormously.

Here the Protestant in me shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Verses I was weaned on include:


“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NLT).

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Eph. 3:8-10).


But this is the point of hermeneutics. You have to bring together all the disparate strands and make sense of the whole. Jesus’ step-brother James (according to most commentators) weds faith and good works in a similar way that Paul does in the above verse: “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works” (James 2:26).

But this is not just a “Christian problem.” Both Muslims and Christians believe that God is full of mercy and forgives the sinners who repent. Salvation in the end comes by God’s grace. Where they disagree is on what basis God forgives. The Qur’an says that God sovereignly chooses to forgive out of his own mercy – thus temporarily laying aside his justice for a greater good. But since one never knows ahead of time, better to pray for an intercessor on that Day, preferably the Prophet himself.

The New Testament is clear that repentance and faith must be focused on the God who sent Jesus, the sinless man, to die for humanity’s sins. Then he vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead and appointing him to be Judge on the Last Day. Genuine faith in Jesus, which includes the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide and empower the believer in this new life, is what saves.

Intriguingly, it is on the topic of Judgment Day that we find the most dramatic convergence between the two faith traditions. The following parable of Jesus finds an almost exact parallel in a hadith reported by Abu Hurayra in Sahih Muslim’s collection (I mention this in the last pages of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text). It is a passage well worth meditating by both communities. In doing so, we will find ourselves actively engaged side by side to meet the needs of the poor and to relieve the pain of those suffering the most, like Pastor Bob Roberts said to a group of dignitaries this week in Doha:


When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”


Then the King (obviously God in the story) turns to those who had not cared for those in need and says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45). And they were sent away to destruction. God’s just verdict had been passed.

This concludes my blogs on the justice lectures I delivered in Singapore in January 2013. We started with some of the best theoreticians of secular justice in the political arena and then dealt with Jesus’ teaching on justice. Last time we looked at the centrality of justice both in the Qur’an and in Muslim practice. We continue and conclude with the work of some key figures in Malaysia.

My main point here is that though justice may be everyone’s slogan, Muslims see it working out in radically different ways, depending on which current of thought they choose to follow. And each current reads the Qur’an differently – it’s about hermeneutics.

But first, what has the rising tide of conservative Islam in Malaysia done to change family law and what might this say to us about hermeneutics? Might there be a “disconnect” between female aspirations for greater justice and the greater restrictions on their agency imposed by male ulama (jurists/Islamic scholars)?


Today’s Muslim “disconnect”

A recent article bordering on law and sociology deals with the modern tension between Islamic law in Malaysia and the status of women (“Islamic Law, Women’s Rights, and Popular Consciousness in Malaysia,” by Tamir Mustafa in Law & Social Inquiry, 2012).

Mustafa notes that in the 19th and 20th centuries family law was codified in Muslim countries “in a manner that provides women with fewer rights than men” – a process “that was both selective and partial” (1). He then adds, “Far from advancing the legal status of women, legal codification actually narrowed the range of rights women could claim, at least in theory, in classical Islamic jurisprudence.”

Today, however, we are witnessing “a new mode of political engagement.” He continues, “… some of the most promising initiatives for expanding women’s rights in the Muslim world lie with activists who explain that the Islamic legal tradition is not a uniform legal code, but a diverse body of jurisprudence that affords multiple guidelines for human relations, some of which are better suited to particular times and places than others” (1).

Zainah Anwar, the founder of a particularly influential Malaysian NGO, Sisters in Islam, states that “[v]ery often Muslim women who demand justice and want to change discriminatory laws and practices are told ‘this is God’s law’ and therefore not open to negotiation and change.” As a result of this erroneous understanding of “Islam,” she contends, “the laws concerning marriage, divorce, child custody and a host of other issues critical to women’s well-being are effectively taken off the table as matters of public policy” (2).

In fact, for activists like Anwar, the biggest factor behind the disconnect between Islamic principles and practice is the reality of the modern nation-state. Traditionally, “The distinction between fiqh [the jurisprudence of the ulama] and siyasa [the policies of the rulers] helped distinguish the sphere of religious doctrine from the sphere of public policy” (6). This practical separation of mosque and state had another reason as well: “Fiqh had thrived, in all its diversity, largely due to the limited administrative capacity of the rulers” (7). Modern state bureaucracies, however, project a good deal more power!

Take a specific issue, that of the institutionalization of family status law in Malaysia. Between the arrival of the British in 1874 and the 1990s “Malaysia went substantially further [than other Muslim countries] in building state institutions with a monopoly on religious interpretation” (11). The net effect was a hardening of legal positions and a heightening of gender injustice.

According the 1984 Family Law Act, a mother’s custody of her boy ceases at 7 and at 9 for her daughter (Art. 84). On the issue of child custody, conditions were stipulated for a mother’s loss of custody, while no conditions were stated for a father (Art. 83).

In a nationwide survey on “popular legal consciousness,” conducted in 2009 through the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, 82% of respondents agreed with this statement: “Islam provides a complete set of laws for human conduct and each of these laws has stayed the same, without being changed by people, since the time of the Prophet.” This goes completely against the historical facts, exclaims Mustafa – Islamic law evolved over times and incurred many changes, whether between its various schools or within them.

These popular misconceptions, he goes on, “have significant implications for democratic deliberation on a host of substantive issues, of which women’s rights is just one important example” (13). This raises a wider issue – how the sacred texts are interpreted and how as a result the theoretical side of Islamic law is especially being rethought today (see "Emerging Voices").


The Hermeneutical divide

I have often written about the crucial nature of the interaction between text, reader and author – and at great length in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text (which I just heard will come out in paperback this fall!). I say more here, but first I need to backtrack a bit.

In March 2006 I presented a paper on Islam and globalization at a conference at the University of Wisconsin. The paper was highlighting a scholar I have written a good deal more about since then, the Malaysian social scientist, Chandra Muzaffar. Now Professor of Global Studies at the Science University of Malaysia, he is best known as the long-time President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).

Muzaffar himself got a hold of my paper through the Internet and contacted me. He then invited me to participate in an international conference (2008) he was sponsoring in Kuala Lumpur on the theme, “Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace.” The conference itself was opened by Prime Minister Ahmad Badawi, and on the third day I was privileged to be one of two respondents for Muzaffar’s closing address, “Towards a Universal Spiritual and Moral Vision of Justice and Peace.”

When I heard that Prof. Chandra Muzaffar was giving two morning lectures at the Pathways conference in Singapore, I was thrilled. Appropriately, I determined to use the recent book (of which he had kindly sent me a copy) in my third lecture on justice, Muslims Today: Changes within, Challenges without (2011) [see this Pakistani blog reviewing the book].

In his first chapter, “The Concept of Equality in Islamic Thought,” he engages his Muslim readers by asserting that his ideas belong to “mainstream thinking,” to the “consensual middle” (11). As in other religious traditions, he adds, Muslims display a variety of positions and perspectives.

One aspect of justice is equality of everyone before the law. This should be the case in Islamic law as well, but when it comes to gender, this is not often the case. Parroting a typical conservative answer to this objection he writes, “One can argue, for instance, that the so-called inequalities exist because of the natural state of affairs. As an example, men have to lead; women have secondary roles in certain areas. This is integral to God’s plan. It is part of His perennial plan” (12).

“There is a flaw in this argument,” Muzaffar notes. “We know that there is no natural law about man’s leadership. . . . Indeed, women are as rational or irrational as men are.” Put otherwise, there is no social scientific or biological evidence today to support such a thesis. Issues of this kind should surely be resolved on the basis of reason. The same goes for calls to Muslim unity on the basis of Islam’s exclusive monopoly on religious truth. And this especially applies to any kind of discrimination between people on the basis of ethnicity or social class. Equality, he believes, should trump any kind of discriminatory judgment.

“But you’re going against specific texts in the Qur’an,” another Muslim might reply. This is how Muzaffar answers that objection:


“The Quran has a twofold purpose. First, it enunciates a universal message relevant for all times and pertinent to human beings in all circumstances. This it does by laying out eternal values and principles which one discovers through reflection and analysis of specific verses and the overall thrust of the Holy Book. Second, to make this exposition of a universal message meaningful to a particular people who had to practise it and, thereby, establish its validity for future generations, the Quran draws upon ideas and institutions, laws and lores which belonged to that specific, time-bound, place-bound context” (14).


This is the kind of reasoning that Pakistani-American scholar Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) developed in his books. The universal message of Islam as revealed to and applied by the Prophet Muhammad in his 7th-century Arabian context was above all a message of liberation and dignity of the human being, irrespective of sex, race or class. What is needed for today, then, is a focus on these universal values and their application to the drastically different context of today’s humanity. Revelation, then, has to be unpacked from its early historical embodiment and repackaged to meet the needs of present day society.

So Muzaffar continues with this line of argument. “Indeed, as far as the position of women goes, there is no denying that the spirit of the Quranic message is irrevocably committed to liberation. It is the failure of succeeding generations to continue with these reforms – to transform the spirit of the message into the letter of the law – that one should condemn” (15).

In the end, how one interprets the Qur’an and Sunna is everything. Of course, “a far more progressive” interpretation of the sources is possible; just as “a more retrogressive conception” can be made of the consensual middle’s position (19). As you can see, there is a direct contrast between those who hold to the letter of the law come what may, and those who want to emphasize the spirit of the revelation which may lead one to discard the letter of the law, at least in some cases.

The divide, then, is between a textualist (text-centered) and a values-based hermeneutic. The latter is the “progressive” approach. Muzaffar puts it this way: “… progressive Islam emphasizes the spirit rather than the details contained in the scriptures … It is the underlying philosophy that it cherishes the most, the reasoning, the thinking, the emotion behind a particular instruction or prohibition” (19).

One therefore has to look at the historical and sociological context of a text, seeking to “understand the values and principles of Islam.” In turn, this involves “separating the contextual from the perennial” and focusing on the “unchanging fundamentals.” This will enable the Muslim to bring into view “Islam as an evolutionary, dynamic movement through time.”

Here Muzaffar comes back to his previous remark that in the spirit of early (and “authentic,” as he sees it) Islam, Muslims should enter into dialog with people of other faiths or no faith and should intentionally incorporate new knowledge from other intellectual traditions. Several Muslim currents today have become frankly xenophobic and unhealthily focused inward. This is wrongheaded, he laments.

More than ever today, Muslims should be displaying greater openness to other spiritual traditions. And here is where Muzaffar, despite his assertions to the contrary, leaves the “consensual middle.” I mean, how many Muslims would actually agree with his statement that “God is one, and Truth is indivisible” (20). By this Muzaffar is affirming with one of the great American scholars of religion, Huston Smith, that Truth is the summit of a mountain toward which in the end all religious traditions converge. No religion can claim a monopoly on truth or salvation.

Muzaffar, to be sure, is not the only Muslim scholar to hold to this view of theological pluralism. With regard to religion and ecology, I’ve written about the great Iranian-American philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who as a follower of the "Perennial Philosophy" also embraces this perspective. But it’s definitely a minority position.

Still, when it comes to hermeneutics or different readings of the Islamic sacred texts – including, of course, efforts to “reform” Islamic jurisprudence – you will find a wide spectrum of approaches today. My review of Mohammad Farooq’s recent book on Muslim law certainly underscores this point.

So as I conclude this series on justice by reminding us that “justice” as the convergences of such ideals as fairness, dignity for all human beings, human rights and equality before the law, and especially vindication, redress and affirmative action for the downtrodden – justice is a basic aspiration that all people share. Can religion become an engine for greater justice and harmony for humankind today? One can find stunning examples in both directions.

On this issue though, I believe Chandra Muzaffar is right, and perhaps this applies to all religious traditions. The danger comes from those who are stuck in the past and especially on past interpretations of the letter of sacred texts. In his words,


. . . conservative Islam “is obsessed with scriptural details, [a position] that negates reason and reflection, that is opposed to distinguishing the contextual from the perennial, that refuses to admit fresh currents of thought, that denies the need for interaction with other religions, that encourages, if unwittingly, static, fixed attitudes and beliefs which in reality repudiate universal truths” (20).

I now come to my last Singapore lecture on justice – the first was a secular version through the lens of philosophers John Rawls and Agnes Heller; the second on Jesus and justice with the help of Yale’s Nicholas Wolterstorff; and now I end with a two-part peek into some debates Muslims are having with one another on justice, human rights and ethics. And this, with special attention to Southeast Asia, since my lecture was given in Singapore.

An oversimplification, to be sure, but a saying with more than a grain of truth to it is this: love is the central value of Christianity corresponding to justice in Islam.

You might retort that 113 out of 114 of the Qur’an’s suras (chapters) start with the formula, “In the name of the Merciful, the Compassionate” (the besmallah) and that God’s mercy runs all the way through its pages, including this striking verse about God’s merciful nature, “Your Sustainer has willed upon Himself the law of grace and mercy” (6:54 Asad). Literally, “your Lord has written mercy upon Himself.” And so mercy should be the candidate. I think not.


Justice, a central qur’anic theme

As someone who specializes in reading Islamic texts and who seeks to understand some of the crosscurrents of Islamic thought today, I would have to say that justice is the highest value in Muslim discourse. Here is a quote from one of the most respected scholars of Islamic law today – an Afghan who has been teaching in Malaysia for three decades – Mohammad Hashim Kamali (see the above picture and source):


“The demand for providing justice at every level of society features very prominently in the Qur’an. At every level, be it personal or public, in dealing with friends or foes, Muslims and non-Muslims, both in words and deeds, the Muslims are urged to be fair and just. Justice is an integral part of the faith and upholding the principle of justice is not confined to the courtroom environment or to a set of formal injunctions but commands a high priority in the order of Islamic moral and spiritual values.”


You will find about fifty qur’anic verses on justice (using one of the two synonyms, ‘adl and qist), and hundreds of verses on injustice (zulm). One of the most explicit and oft-quoted verses is this one:


“O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor; for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well acquainted with all that you do” (Q. 4:135).


Even in just one verse you can see how broadly justice has to be defined. The allusion to “the lusts of your hearts” points in the direction of personal righteousness, which we encountered in the teaching of Jesus as well. In fact, we discovered that the Greek word used in classical Greek literature, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) and in the New Testament itself, the words dikaios (just) and diakaiosuné (justice) refer both to righteousness and justice.

Kamali in his 2001 book, Freedom, Justice and Equality in Islam, defines justice as “placing something in its rightful place … according equal treatment to others or reaching a state of equilibrium in transactions with them” (p. 103). Interestingly, he sees justice as “a universal value” that is understood in roughly the same way across “the major traditions of the world.”

Among the kinds of justice he discusses in his book are procedural justice (how fairly a court system works); commutative justice (fair sentencing by judges); retributive justice (meting out penalties for crimes committed); corrective justice (similar to former, but focused on the rehabilitation of prisoners); political justice (discussed in my first blog); and distributive justice (an even distribution of social, economic and political goods among a population). That last category covers what we often refer to as “social justice,” the main theme of my first two blogs.

While care for the poor, the orphans and the widows figures prominently in the Qur’an (and most obviously in the institution of zakat – see my blog on this issue), there is also much about personal righteousness defined as “not transgressing the bounds” or “limits” (hudud). For instance, “Whoever transgresses the limits of God does verily wrong his own soul” (Q. 65:1). Or this, “These are the limits ordained by God. So do not violate them. If any do violate the God-ordained limits, verily they are the transgressors” (Q. 2:229).

The Qur’an teaches that people are created according to a good pattern (fitra, Q. 30:30) and that this good nature has its roots in a “primordial covenant” by which God convened all of Adam’s descendants before him as souls and made them solemnly testify that he indeed is their “Lord” (Q. 7:172, 173). And though Satan seeks to entrap humankind from all sides, righteous people are able to resist him. Muslims agree with Jews that there is no such thing as “original sin” – and hence, no need for “the cross,” or the Christian concept of redemption.

That said, human beings easily “gravitate down to the earth and follow their own desires” (Q. 7:176). And when they refuse to ascend the heights of purity and godliness (taqwa, lit. “fear of God,” or “guarding oneself” or “God consciousness”), they allow themselves to be dragged down to the level of their base instincts and hence transgress “the limits of God.” This in turn causes the evil committed to fall back on its perpetrators. It is, in the language of the Qur’an, to visit “injustice on oneself” (zulm al-nafs). So justice, or righteousness, consists in becoming a person of taqwa, that is, someone who obeys God and is wise enough to balance those demands with the challenge of daily life on earth. This ability to submit to God while giving earthly concerns their proper place is how humans give God his rightful place. It’s about justice – keeping God’s justice intact and thereby not harming one's self.

Yet talk about “the limits” in Islamic law quickly brings up the issue of the hudud (“limits”), or the “fixed penalties” – penalties which can vary somewhat between the various schools of law for theft, highway robbery, adultery, fornication, alcohol, apostasy. For many reasons, these apply to few Muslims in the world today (see “Severe Penalties and Human Rights”). So what is the relationship between Shari’a, Islamic law, and justice in an “Islamic state”? Muslims covering the spectrum between Salafis, moderate islamists and secular Muslims will naturally offer different answers. I turn here to Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s view in his contribution to a recent book, Justice & Rights: Christian and Muslim Perspectives.


Kamali on Shari’a, justice and constitutionalism

In his chapter entitled “The Ruler and the Ruled,” Kamali starts with two qur’anic verses about political leaders:


“Allah commands you to render the trusts (al-amanat) to whom they are due and when you judge among the people, you judge with justice … Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those in charge of the affairs (uli’l-amr) among you. If you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. This is better and more becoming in the end” (Q. 4: 58-9).


Clearly then, the duty of the ruled is to obey the ruler, but this is conditioned on the ruler faithfully discharging “the trusts.” The emphasis here is on his accountability to God – and therefore, his obligation to govern with justice. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), a respected jurist and theologian, commented on these “the trusts.” They are fulfilled, he writes, when selected officials are both qualified and honest and when they ensure a fair distribution of wealth in the community. This is because justice is the key “trust.” He then cites Umar, the second caliph (successor to the Prophet), who disbursed state monies to compensate people based on their service and to help those in need, depending on their financial condition.

Kamali also explains “the trust” in relation to the qur’anic concepts of wakil and wakala (trustee and fiduciary contract), which for him implies a theory of representation. The expression “those in charge of affairs among you” implies “that leadership in an Islamic polity must arise from the community itself. An imposition of power from outside the Muslim community cannot therefore be in conformity with the Qur’anic vision of leadership.” Of course, this points to a democratic body politic.

Traditional Islamic polities certainly had structures of accountability in place, but it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that better “opportunities for organized opposition and criticism of the government in power” were established. Yet, he notes, “constitutionalism in the postcolonial period in the Muslim world has been less successful than it has been in the West.”

Striking a note reminiscent of Agnes Heller’s article (in the first blog), Kamali argues that justice starts with the individual (ruler or ruled), and then is applied to all strata and spheres of society, though it must also be tempered by ihsan (kindness). So leniency should be applied whenever possible.

Kamali then turns to the issue of Shari’a courts. Contrary to what many believe, he argues, they are civilian, not “religious.” For “justice in Islam transcends the barriers of religion and creed … The religious affiliation to litigants is not a factor to be taken into account in trial procedures, presentation of evidence, and adjudication.” In fact there is no contradiction between an “Islamic” polity and modern constitutional states. Quite the contrary, he avers:


       “Modern constitutional law is entrenched in the idea of commitment to the rule of law and the imposition of limits on the coercive power of government, protection of civil liberties, and accountability in government. In this sense, constitutionalism is in substantial harmony with the value structure of Islam. Contemporary constitutions tend to embody, to a large extent, organized forms of consultation and bay’a [oath of loyalty], and laws and rules that are duly ratified by the people’s elected representatives may be seen as the embodiment of the command of the uli’l-amr.”


In my lecture I then inserted a brief introduction to the idea of Shari’a, something you can pick up in a previous blog on the topic. These bullets are relevant to the next installment of this lecture:


*** Shari’a is God’s revealed path in the Qur’an and Sunna leading to blessing in this life and salvation in the next; yet it was never codified (like a law code enacted by a parliament in a modern nation state)

*** Shari’a always remained an ideal, particularly on the political level; it is just about silent on what we call “constitutional law” today

*** Shari’a was interpreted by the jurists (the ulama) in their various schools of law and they formed a particular class of leaders whose religious authority usually stood as a complement to the rulers’ authority; sometimes they stood in opposition to the rulers

*** Islamic jurisprudence was used over the centuries to justify a wide variety of political arrangements; today there are three kinds of Muslim-majority states:

Dual legal system: government is secular, but people can choose to use Shari’a courts for family and financial disputes (Nigeria, Kenya, Qatar, and UK – since late 2008)

Government under God: Islam official religion and Shari’a is “a” or “the” source of legislation: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq

Completely secular: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Chad, Somalia and Senegal


But why does it seem that with the growing religiosity of Muslims worldwide (like people of other faith traditions) over the last forty years Shari’a gets interpreted in more restrictive ways? Here’s an interesting case study just out on Malaysia. This creates a “disconnect,” argues the author, a clash between the aspiration for greater freedom and the reality of more intrusive “religious laws” (see next blog for this and the series’ conclusion).

21 March 2013

Jesus and Justice

In the first lecture I touched on political justice as theorized in the works of philosophers John Rawls and Agnes Heller. But far from locking us into theoretical considerations, their thinking helped us reflect on the current turmoil in Egypt. In the midst of the specific historic challenges Egyptians face in 2013, its leaders have to find a just balance between the drive to give equal political access to all (the democratic ethos) and the mission to ensure that minorities also have a voice (the liberal ethos).

I had agreed with Heller who stated that beyond the need for good institutions to be in place, justice in politics can only be served by “good and decent” leaders who follow high ethical values recognized universally. In this lecture, turning to Christianity, I focus on this personal dimension of justice, which always runs parallel to the wider issue of justice on a collective scale.

We will use as our guide Nicholas Wolterstorff (b. 1932), Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University (retired 2002), who devoted the last decade to the issue of justice, both in the Bible and in today’s political arena. In particular, we will look at his widely acclaimed 2008 book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs. His philosophical grounding of justice in humanity’s “inherent rights” stands in contrast to mainstream ideas of justice as “right order.” Philosopher Richard J. Bernstein claims that “Wolterstorff’s Justice is the most impressive book since John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.”



But first, a little background is called for. In a couple of chapters on the Old Testament, Wolterstorff had summarized his findings in two simple phrases:


1. God always acts justly and seeks to bring about justice in human society

2. God holds people accountable for doing justice


Coming to the New Testament he declares, “Justice, along with its negative, injustice, is one of the main themes in the New Testament . . . In this world of ours, persons are wronged, justice is breached. That is the ever-present context of the New Testament writings” (96).

So the Hebrew Bible theme of God’s jealous love for the poor and his calling the oppressors to account continues in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The new Pope Francis I is surely in line with his Master’s vision as he calls for a “Church of the Poor.” God’s justice is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, but with a deep irony. Jesus is God’s Messiah sent to inaugurate God’s reign of justice; yet God’s messenger falls victim to injustice -- an injustice willed by God as his Son’s ultimate sacrifice, through which he sides forever with all the world’s victims. More on this later.

The word used in Greek philosophical literature for “justice” (like in Plato’s Republic) is dikaiosuné, and for “just” dikaios. It is the same word used in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament known in Jesus’ day) and in the New Testament to translate two different yet related concepts: righteousness (a personal quality) and justice (a wider concept involving relationships between people). But Christians have tended to translate this term in either case as “righteousness.” And that creates a distortion of Jesus’ message.

Look at how the term is used in the Beatitudes (Jesus’ eight “blessings” at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount). The first instance is this, ““Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosuné), for they will be filled.” Many translations use “justice” instead of “righteousness.” But in the second instance, “righteousness” doesn’t make sense at all: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:6, 10). Why would you be persecuted for being devout and God-fearing? It’s more likely that you had defended the rights of the oppressed and thus stepped on the toes of the mighty.

Wolterstorff says that dikaiosuné can be translated by both terms and that one has to look at the context to see which one is most appropriate. Unfortunately, translators have tended to take “justice” out of the picture.


Jesus fulfills the Old Testament narrative

There is a story line you can trace throughout the Bible from a Christian perspective. Jesus is the promised Messiah intimated from the beginning, announced in the calling of Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, and then clearly predicted by the many prophets who followed before and after the exile. Noted New Testament scholar Richard Hays writes about Luke’s important contribution in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament:


“The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are two parts of a single grand literary work in which Luke tells the story of salvation history in a stately and gracious manner. God’s mighty act of deliverance through Jesus Christ is narrated as an epic, in such a way that the church might discover its location in human history, particularly within the history of God’s dealings with his people Israel (112)”


Wolterstorff singles out three of the Old Testament themes regarding the coming Messiah -- themes that Jesus consciously fulfills:


1. The one who brings justice

In the classic passage Jesus chose to read in his hometown synagogue he quotes from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-20).

Startled by his first sentence (“The scripture you’ve just heard is fulfilled this very day”), his male audience look at him unconvinced. Jesus tells them what they’re thinking, “You will undoubtedly quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself’ – meaning , ‘Do miracles here in your hometown like those you did in Capernaum.’ But I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown” (vs. 23-24).

Then they become enraged as Jesus tells them they are just as hardened spiritually as their ancestors in the days of the prophet Elijah who chose a foreign widow (in today’s Lebanon) to display God’s power and mercy; or in the days of his successor Elisha who healed a Syrian general of his leprosy. They tried to kill Jesus then and there.

Later, when John the Baptist began to doubt Jesus’ mission in prison, Jesus let his envoys observe his work for a while and sent them back saying, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22).

Significantly, in the Isaiah reading that Jesus read from chapter 61, he had added a phrase (“let the oppressed go free”) from chapter 58. Here’s the exact passage, where the prophet chides his people about fasting without caring for the poor and the downtrodden:


“No, this is not the kind of fasting I want:

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;

lighten the burden of those who work for you.

Let the oppressed go free

and remove the chains that bind people.

Share your food with the hungry,

and give shelter to the homeless …” (Isaiah 58:6-7).


Matthew understands Jesus’ ministry in the same way; further on in his gospel he quotes from another of Isaiah’s five “servant songs:


   “Look at my Servant … He is my chosen one …

     I have put my Spirit upon him.

     He will bring justice to the nations.

     He will not shout or raise his voice in public.

     He will not crush the weakest reed

         or put out a flickering candle.

     He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.

     He will not falter or lose heart

until justice prevails throughout the earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4).


Most commentators see in the last line of Jesus’ synagogue reading (“that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,” lit. “the year of the Lord’s favor) a promise to restore the Year of Jubilee, all but forgotten by the Jews in history. According to Moses' law, every 49th year all debts had to be released, land went back to the original owners, and all agricultural land had to lay fallow.

Luke too makes clear Jesus’ concern for the poor (not just “poor in spirit”):


“God blesses you who are poor,

   for the kingdom of God is yours.

God blesses those who are hungry now,

   for in due time you will laugh” (Luke 6:20-21).


Luke is the only gospel to tell the parable of Lazarus and the rich man “who was dressed in fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” while poor Lazarus lay covered with sores, wishing he could just eat some crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. After death, their fortunes are reversed. Angels carry Lazarus to Abraham’s side, while the rich man is tormented in “the place of the dead.” He realizes too late that he didn’t “repent of his sins and turn to God” (Luke 16:30).


2. Jesus as innocent

I’ve written before that by far Isaiah is the prophet Jesus quotes the most. Luke especially picks up the theme of Isaiah 53, the last of the “servant songs,” in which God’s righteous servant is crushed for his people’s sins:


“My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot,

like a root in dry ground . . .

He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief . . .

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;

it was our sorrows that weighed him down.

And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,

a punishment for his own sins.

But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.

He was beaten so we could be whole.

He was whipped so we could be healed.

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.

We have left God’s paths to follow our own.

Yet the Lord laid on his the sins of us all . . .

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,

he did not open his mouth.

Unjustly condemned he was led away” (Isaiah 53:2, 3-8 NLT).


Consider these events during and after Jesus’ passion:

3 times Pilate, the Roman governor, declares Jesus “innocent” (Luke 23: 4, 14, 22)

One of the criminals on the cross rebukes his comrade on the other side of Jesus, “Do you not fear God? … And we indeed have been condemned justly … but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40-41).

Luke again in Acts speaks of Jesus as the innocent martyr; for instance, in the speech that leads to his martyrdom Stephen accuses his hearers of killing “the innocent one (dikaios)” (Acts 8:33).


3. Jesus as King

Right from the beginning, and throughout the four gospels, Jesus announces the coming of God’s kingdom in his person: “The time promised by God has come at last! The Kingdom of God is near! Repent and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15)

Luke recounts the same discourse on Jesus’ lips, “Yet know this: the Kingdom of God has come near” (10:11). Further on in the gospel Jesus declares, “In fact, the Kingdom of God is among you” (17:21).

Often it’s non-Jews who recognize Jesus’ kingship. Think of the three Magi, or wise men, who traveled from the east and, upon coming into Jerusalem, ask King Herod, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” (Mat. 2:2) Matthew in recounting the story of his birth also quotes from the prophet Micah (5:2):


“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

you are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,

for from you shall come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel” (quoted in Mat. 2:6).


To any Jew at the time, Messiah was to come and rule – and rule with justice, as we read in Psalm 72:


“Give your king justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son.

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice …

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people …”


So perhaps Pilate, knowing this fact about the Jews, used it to spite the Jews who had strong-armed him to crucify Jesus. He made sure that Jesus died with this sign over his head, “King of the Jews.” But what none of those witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion realized that day – from the Roman governor to the Jewish leaders, from his own followers (mostly women) to the gawkers standing by – was the magnitude of the cosmic event unfolding before them.


A Larger Story of Justice

Yet the cosmic dimension of Jesus’ death didn’t appear till two days later – when the disciples finally investigated the news that the women had brought them of an empty tomb. Wolterstorff frames this overarching biblical narrative in terms of justice/injustice:


“That very same Jesus who is identified as the one sent by God to inaugurate the reign of justice himself became a victim of gross injustice. Though innocent of the charges lodged against him, he who came to lift up the downtrodden was himself handed over to be executed in the company of a pair of common criminals, thereby consigned to the lowest rung of the downtrodden. Were it not for Jesus’ resurrection, the entire story would have been profoundly ironic, with massive delusion at its core. As it is, Jesus’ becoming the victim of injustice proved not the end of the story but a central episode in a larger story of victory rather than defeat for the cause of justice. For one who accepts Chalcedonian Christology, the victim was not only human but divine” (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, p. 129).


The redemptive power of Jesus’ death is a central theme of the Apostle Paul’s writings. One of many passages on this reads, For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:20-21 NLT).

The cross is where most graphically for Christians justice and love meet. Justice as law is satisfied in the perfect Son of Adam’s sacrifice, just as God’s forgiveness is released through the cross to embrace all humanity.

After I finished this lecture at the conference sponsored by Pathways for Mutual Respect at the National University of Singapore, the first hand to go up was that of Professor Syed Farid Alatas, a sociologist who directs the Department of Malay Studies at the NUS. He made several positive comments and then this remark: "What you say about Jesus, justice and the cross, reminds me very much of the meaning of Karbala for the Shia community. Both cases are about redemptive suffering."

It's true in my experience that Shia Muslims identify more readily with Jesus' work of redemption on the cross. After all, their identity as Shias is deeply rooted in the martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet's grandson at Karbala. Still, as I will show in my next blog, the theme of justice for Muslims plays out very differently -- though in the end, when it comes to righting wrongs in the world, both communities sense a similar calling from God.


Closing remarks

Wolterstorff’s research on justice continued with another book Justice in Love (2011), which highlights the dignity of the human person, and hence, the inherent rights of all people. But that’s a topic for another day.

I started this blog by reminding you of the first one, and particularly about the necessity of having just people in positions of leadership as a prerequisite for a just society. That’s why Jesus, whose birth still marks the western calendar, is such an important contributor to our topic. Gandhi himself, the great founder of the modern nonviolent movement, wrote:

“The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount…. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me…. The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West…. Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., as many of you would know, took inspiration from Gandhi’s use of Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to injustice. What is lesser known is the impact of Jesus on African American women seeking to abolish slavery and later fighting the injustices of continuing racial discrimination in the 20th century. We owe a debt to Bettye Collier-Thomas, who wrote a fascinating book on this topic: Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African American Women and Religion.

Perhaps these are the most appropriate words to wrap up our thoughts on Jesus and justice:

“Black men and women shared experiences of oppression. However, the impact of slavery on black women was distinctly different. Set apart by their sex, black women were more exposed to sexual violence and misuse of their bodies for breeding and other purposes. Used as sex objects and beasts of burden but determined to survive, many women viewed the Bible as a source of inspiration. It became an instrument of freedom and survival and a tool for development of literacy. Within the confines of slavery black women developed boundless spirituality and adopted the Bible as their guide, and Jesus Christ as their personal savior” (xxv).

Islamic law in this new century is in a state of flux. Granted, venerable institutions that are a millennium old don’t change overnight. As it turned out, the recalibrations made out of necessity in many nineteenth-century Muslim countries were not enough to stem the tide of secularization in the postcolonial period. Though each of the fifty six member states of the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) have taken different paths to incorporate at least some elements of traditional Islamic law, the attacks on American soil in 2001 seem to have jolted many to rethink key issues, including legal theory.

I say this, only because of the dramatic and unprecedented international agreements made by Muslim leaders and scholars from all traditions between 2005 and 2006. Under the aegis of the Jordanian crown, the Amman Message movement produced a consensus document signed by Sunni, Shia, Ibadi, and Sufi luminaries on three foundational questions: Who is a Muslim? Can a Muslim declare another Muslim an infidel (the act of takfir)? Who is qualified to pronounce a legal opinion (fatwa) and what counts as adequate qualification?

The last question, of course, is about how Islamic law is supposed to function. The longer statement recognizes eight schools of law and sets up minimum training standards for becoming a legal expert, and in this case, a mufti.

You’re probably thinking this was aimed at the bin Laden types who issue controversial fatwas without any qualification. You’re right. But there’s much more to this. It’s also about 1) boosting the role of the ulama (traditional Islamic scholars who were jurists but much more too), whose status has been dramatically eroded in the last two hundred years; 2) stemming the tide of revolutionary change advocated by more progressive intellectuals.

So the issue of reformism (islah) is in the air once again. First used in the nineteenth century, and most famously by the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh, islah could also be translated “reformation.” Post 9/11, of course, many westerners have called for an “Islamic Reformation – referring to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. But nowhere in the world do people like outsiders telling them they need to set their house in order.

A recent book, by contrast, was written by an insider telling other insiders (Muslims) that Islamic law needs serious revamping – a weighty charge that faces an extra hurdle from the fact that he is not one of the traditional ulama, the gatekeepers of Islamic jurisprudence. Mohammad Omar Farooq earned a PhD in economics at the University of Tennessee, taught in the US for more than a decade and is now the Head of the Centre for Islamic Finance at the Bahrain Institute for Banking and Finance.

Farooq’s book is entitled Toward our Reformation: From Legalism to Value-Oriented Islamic Law and Jurisprudence.

Let me say from the onset that the publisher is a conservative Muslim think tank, the IIIT (The International Institute of Islamic Thought) in Virginia, with branches in London, Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere. They know this is controversial material, but they obviously believe this is a message that needs to get out.

Besides, the IIIT has bent over backwards to solicit eight “testimonials” at the end of the book (or “endorsements” by recognized scholars), a Foreword by a pioneer of Islamic finance, Mohammad Nejatullah Siddiqi, and a substantial Preface by one of the most respected legal theorists within the “Islamization of Knowledge” movement of which the IIIT is the leading light. This book is important to them.

So why the need for reformation? Farooq’s answer is all the abuse, misapplication and distortion of the Islamic Shari’a on the part of states and individual ulama alike. As a result, the Shari’a “is being used to rubber stamp extremist, violent behavior, the abuse of women, and the unfair control and imprisonment of human beings” (p. 16). Speaking of South Asia in particular, he writes that the following are “prevalent”: “[t]he torture and persecution of brides over their dowry, the throwing of acid onto girls who do not either want to accept a proposal of marriage or to concede to extramarital sex, the practice of honor killings and so on …” (p. 86).

Yet Farooq reserves his most stinging criticism for what he sees as the root problem – the general tendency in Islamic legal circles over the centuries toward “legalism and literalism,” that is, a focus on rules and regulations based on texts to the detriment of a consideration of the values promoted by the texts which will necessarily find different expressions in different times and climes.

Perhaps the most damning case is about slavery. Though the Qur’an in many places expressly promotes the unconditional dignity of every human being under God, “[t]he classical orthodox position erroneously argues that the Prophet never specifically or categorically prohibited the practice [of slavery]” (p. 193). Thus, the clear injunction forbidding the enslaving of freemen was turned on its head to mean that people already enslaved or captives of war were meant to remain in that condition. In turn this attitude led to the preposterous position of Imam Malik that the hadd penalty for drinking wine was reduced to half for a slave and to the Hanafi rule that a slave could marry up to two wives. In essence, a slave is worth half the value of a free person.

In light of these and many more rather egregious applications of Islamic law, Farooq broaches the topic of reformation in four steps. The first three (chapters 3 to 5) consist of dispelling long-held and deeply cherished Muslim myths about the uses of hadith, ijma’ (consensus) and qiyas (analogical reasoning). In other words, out of the four traditional sources of Shari’a only one is “divine” and therefore entirely reliable. He insists again and again that the Prophet’s Sunna is absolutely essential to the proper guidance of the Muslim community. Yet less than a dozen ahadith are mutawatir (containing a reliable chain of transmission; nearly all prophetic reports are in fact ahad). This means that the second source of knowledge for the Shari’a is “probabilistic.”

As for the two sources of jurisprudence that involve more direct human involvement, ijma’ and qiyas, their reliability turns out to be very shaky in his eyes. If even the most reliable of ahadith cannot be seen as “divine” (only the Qur’an is God’s direct word), how much more so these human tools which are so tentative by definition. Leaning as he does throughout the book on a number of scholars (with a number of block quotations that is so high and voluminous as to recall a dissertation), Farooq agrees with Abdulhamid AbuSulayman that “the simple, traditional concept of Ijma is no longer suitable for a non-classical social system” (p. 164). In fact (now quoting from Ziauddin Sardar), the early “democratic spirit” of the Islamic community was soon hijacked by “the clerics and religious scholars” who “removed the people from the equation” – with the result that “authoritarianism, theocracy and despotism reigns supreme in the Muslim world” (p. 163).

Just as with many other domains of human knowledge, law progresses largely on the basis of analogical reasoning. So there’s no denying that qiyas has played a key role over time in the development of Islamic law. Still, as Farooq deftly demonstrates, Muslim scholars disagreed about many aspects of this tool. For instance, what constitutes the ‘illa, or the reason for a particular command or prohibition in the first case? And on what basis can one extrapolate it from the text? Then what is the relationship between the original case (asl) and the new case? How many conditions must be present for that connection to be established? In the end, no clear consensus existed about any of these issues.

That said, the main problem with the way both ijma’ and qiyas were used by the ulama was that they came to be seen as infallible means of discerning God’s will for humanity. Worse yet, their tunnel vision reduced Islamic jurisprudence to texts and the mechanics of deriving new laws from them without any reference to the divine intentions behind them. “Text-centeredness” engendered the kind of legalism that has reduced the “application of Shari’a” in several Muslim countries to “a few harsh laws and punishments under authoritarian regimes devoid of reference to broader Islamic values and principles” (p. 225).

Farooq’s positive strategy, therefore, or his fourth step toward renewal, is laid out in his last chapter, “Islamic Fiqh (Law) and the Neglected Empirical Foundation.” To be fair, his first step was already anticipated in the second chapter under the heading, “Value-Orientation” (pp. 63-90), where he offered thirteen values emanating from the Qur’an and the “Prophetic legacy.” The last one could have served as a transition to the last chapter: “Embracing Life-Experience As Part of the Collective Learning Curve.”

Indeed, as the Qur’an urges its readers to “observe, think and reflect” on the world around them, Islamic law will remain stultified and irrelevant unless it incorporates not just the values stemming from the Divine Will but also a keen and curious exploration of the various phenomena surrounding us, whether in the physical world or the dynamics of human society, as Ibn Khaldun did long ago. And in particular, Farooq the economist pleads with his readers to learn from the social sciences. If they do, he argues, they will understand that the prohibition of riba in the Qur’an is meant to curb exploitive practices that bear down on the poor. But research shows that if all kinds of interest are banned, it is unlikely any economy can be grown and inflation tamed.

At bottom, this book is promoting a new usul al-fiqh – though without starting from scratch. The author’s antagonists are the “traditionalists” or “puritans” (see his very long quote from Khaled Abou El Fadl, pp. 62-3) for whom the medieval consensus of the four Sunni schools of law is “Shari’a” and therefore sacrosanct.

Farooq, obviously in the company of many other specialists (along a spectrum running from conservative to much more progressive), is advocating a fresh legal philosophy and methodology with

(a) the Qur’an as the only reference point;

(b) an approach that shuns traditional ijtihad in favor of diligent research into real life conditions of society; and with a firm moral compass calibrated with the values and purposes of Allah as revealed in the Qur’an.

Interestingly, he is also no longer in favor of using the term “maqasid al-Shari’a,” since it’s a jurisprudential term vulnerable to legalistic “takeovers.” Farooq would rather use the more theologically meaningful term “maqasid al-Islam,” or the higher purposes of Islam.

This last point also highlights one of the work’s weaknesses. Farooq raises many important questions and in my estimation makes an excellent case for rethinking Islamic legal theory. At the same time, there is much ambivalence and ambiguity in the solutions he proposes. A central issue revolves around the word “Shari’a,” conspicuously absent from the title. Perhaps his indignation over the abuse of this word in so many countries of late has led him to leave it aside and just focus on “Islamic law.” In any case, at times he uses it as God’s Will writ large in contradistinction to fiqh, the human-driven application of that will in the jurisprudence of the various schools of law. Elsewhere he writes that “the Shari’ah is essentially a human construct” (p. 93).

And then about the hudud penalties, he rails against the way they are applied in some places, but for someone who so emphasizes human solidarity and universal values he nevertheless implies they still need to be applied.

Let me point out, however, that he takes Yusuf Qaradawi to task (see my recent blog on him and my paper on him in Resources) on the issue of suicide bombers inside Israel and capital punishment for apostasy. Still, Farooq needs to state his position on the hudud more clearly.

Understandably, as Farooq has raised a host of far-reaching questions, he can only go so far in solving them in one book. As all of his quotations and all the endorsements included in the book amply attest, many others are moving in similar directions. Rethinking – or “reforming” – Islamic law in the present context is, after all, a collective enterprise.

This may seem like a boring title, but it speaks directly to the instability, turmoil and even violence that flagship states Tunisia and Egypt are experiencing two years after their “revolutions.” Mounting distrust between the two islamist regimes and their secular opposition parties has so widened this decades-long divide that it now threatens the very survival of their democratic institutions.

At stake is the viability of a religious-secular dialog that seems to be the only means to assure a peaceful transition from decades of autocratic rule responsible for egregious violations of human rights to some form of “liberal democracy.” This is the first of three blogs on justice, which follow a trimmed-down version of the lectures I presented in Singapore in January 2013.

John Rawls’ classic statement of political justice

 By far the most influential scholar in political philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century was the Harvard and Oxford professor John Rawls (d. 2002). His classic book, A Theory of Justice (1971), set the tone for all future discussions. Still, his many critics had mounted such good arguments that he responded to several of them in his 1993 book, Political Liberalism. Allow me to briefly summarize the issues involved.

Rawls is famous for defining justice as “fairness.” A state makes a covenant, a compact with its citizens to treat them as equally and fairly as possible. This is a social contract approach, meant to bring about the good of all citizens. To achieve this, he resorts to his idea of a “veil of ignorance”: let’s posit a group of citizens, he says, who somehow are able to blank out their own class, religious and ethnic conditions and values, and make together rational decisions about the good of the whole. This hypothetical condition then enables them to define together in a disinterested way what the “good life” might be for their society. He then argues that they would agree to this two-fold proposition:

(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

This “basic liberty,” as he defines it, includes “freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of association, the right to representative government, the right to form and join political parties, the right to personal property, and the rights and liberties necessary to secure the rule of law.” But it excludes economic rights, unlike what is stipulated in one of the two UN covenants that form the International Bill of Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the other being the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – both came into force in 1976).

But let it be said too that both communism and pure laissez-faire capitalism are unjust, in that they either rob people of their freedoms or leave whole swaths of the population without equal access to society’s resources (starting with education), and thus depriving them of the means to compete fairly for the positions they may aspire to.

In a series of lectures published in 1993 under the title Political Liberalism Rawls set out to answer several of his critics’ points, and especially this one:

“How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?” (p. 4)

So Rawls, years after offering a basic framework for looking at justice as fairness (A Theory of Justice), is now trying to define what he means by justice in a political context. He now recognizes that the gulf between holders of different religious convictions and political ideologies is wider than he once thought. One of the concepts that he uses turns out to be very relevant for seeing how more traditional Muslims might function in a liberal state. It’s the idea of an “overlapping consensus” – that is, though subscribing to different “religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines,” citizens could agree on some common values.

This is exactly what University of Toronto law professor Mohammad Fadel does in a 2012 article on “Muslim Reformists, Female Citizenship, and the Public Accommodation of Islam in Liberal Democracy." His starting point is a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the basis of three cases involving Muslim claimants, which gives member states the opportunity to discriminate against Muslims because, it has decided, Islam at its core is incompatible with liberal democracy. In order to refute that position Fadel uses the writings of two reformist Muslim scholars on the issue of women and politics. In the process he refers to Rawls concept of “overlapping consensus”:


“In the Rawlsian account, an overlapping consensus exists when a majority of the politically active citizens of a society endorse, for reasons they individually consider morally compelling (even if such reasons are likely to be in fact philosophically incompatible), the constitutional essentials of the well-ordered society. An overlapping consensus is distinct from a modus vivendi in so far as in the latter, political stability derives solely from a contingent balance of power” (p. 4).


What he means by “modus vivendi” is that these people submit to the constitution only because they are forced to do so. But if their party were to gain power, they would do everything possible to change the constitution. This attitude only contributes to instability, says Rawls. So if a large contingent of European Muslims swears allegiance to the political order of their respective European countries only as a tactic dictated by their present weakness in the polls, this would not constitute a genuine overlapping consensus.

Both scholars chosen by Fadel for his argument come with stellar conservative credentials – both trained at Cairo’s al-Azhar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi (I have been writing about) and Abd al-Halim Abu Shuqqa, once a disciple of the Salafi star, Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999). Both have international followings, though Qaradawi to a much greater extent, and with the added advantage of being a counselor to Muslim leaders in Europe. At the same time, both argue for the equality of men and women before the law and the permissibility of women to run for political office, while mounting a spirited critique of traditional Islamic gender norms. Hence Fadel can claim that there is no basis for the ECHR to assume that Islamic law is “stable and invariable.”

This is because, while the source of Islamic law is rooted in God’s will and therefore immutable in a theological sense, its mechanism for adapting its rules to changing societal conditions (ijtihad) also has legal and moral dimensions. Though he does not say it, Fadel is referring to the common distinction nowadays between “Shari’a” as God’s moral standards for human society and fiqh, the human interpretation of the sacred texts and their application to specific social contexts. The rulings of fiqh, therefore, not only vary from school to school, but are constantly changing, by definition.

So Rawls’ conception of justice as an ideal debated and hammered out by social agents from diverse perspectives would also provide hope for solving today’s tensions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, where the gulf between religious and secular has dramatically increased. But there is another element that is needed in this discussion, and here we are indebted to Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller.


Justice as balancing “liberalism” and “democracy”

A prominent Marxist philosopher in her early career in Budapest, Heller’s views evolved with the 1968 Soviet invasion and she was among several who lost their university jobs. Along with other thinkers she chose exile to Australia in 1977. Then in 1986 she settled in New York City as a professor at the New School University.

Heller is also an interesting thinker, because as a young Eastern-European Jew she had to confront the Holocaust. Like many others around her she decided there was no God and chose Marxism as her “metanarrative” – that is, as a framework to explain the deeper questions of human existence. I have no idea about her present thoughts on religion, except that like others who think about the wider sociopolitical issues of today, she takes into account the fact that humanity as a whole remains religious at the core.

I ran across a 2000 article of hers while researching this topic and immediately found it compelling: “The Complexity of Justice: A Challenge to the 21st Century” (Journal of Ethical Theory and Practice, vol. 3, 3rd issue, pp. 247-62).

The two great engines of modern politics, she writes, are democracy and liberalism. Each one embodies a “substantive value,” a specific ethos, that is, each one projects an ideal that resonates with people around the world. But the problem is that they stand in tension – a creative tension that must be kept in balance, if we want to avoid either tyranny or chaos. But first, what does she mean by those two terms?

The best way to understand democracy is to contrast it with liberalism: “… personal freedom is the central value of liberalism whereas political equality is the central value of democracy. In fact, liberalism recognizes the validity of all values that can be interpreted as liberties, whereas democracy stands for the equality of those liberties” (250).

But this egalitarian ethos of democracy can lead it to persecute minorities:


“Since majority decision is the principle of just decision in a democracy unless liberal principles will also be upheld, democracy will always develop in the direction of more and more substantive regulations. For example, it will increase the tendency to cut the heads of tall poppies, that is to destroy a cultural elite if there exists one, or to prevent its emergence if it does not yet exist, it will prevent immigration and excludes different kinds of minorities from the body of the people or nation” (251).


The liberal ethos, by contrast, is not a collective one, but an individual one: personal freedom. The rule, in principle, is that personal freedom cannot be expanded if it infringes upon someone else’s freedom. “The main ethical norms of the liberal creed is independent (free) thinking, the Kantian Selbstdenken – our obligation to think with our own mind – further, the virtue of toleration and finally, that the respect to the person and his/her personal dignity” (252).

Historically, the enemies of the liberal creed in Europe were both Church and state, which was in the hands of an aristocracy. Today however, particularly in the USA, it collides with the democratic ethos: free thought for the individual often collides with the principle that the majority is always right. The liberal ethos’ greatest historical achievement was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the documents that followed which provided the contours of international law.

Still, the liberal creed is both a blessing and a liability: “Constitutionally guaranteed liberties established already a balance against a too substantive and totalitarian development of democracy. Interestingly, it was still the further substantive expansion of the territory of ‘rights’ that opened the way towards the increasing formalization of liberalism” (252).

Thus both the liberal and the democratic currents tend to pile up legislation and regulations to bolster their own values, which are often at cross-purposes. Justice is precisely that quality which elected officials in all three branches of government display when they sort out matters arising in a way that balances both ideals – hence, “the complexity of justice” in a democratic polity. In Heller’s words,


“If in a country at a given time democracy and liberalism are kept somehow in balance (that is, if the probability of regaining this balance is maintained) and both democracy and liberalism remain true to their substantive values – without expanding them over the other's field – this country at this time has such political institutions in the framework of which politicians will behave, if not necessarily as decent persons but at least as decent politicians, they will perform their tasks, they will live up to their responsibilities, honor the laws, irrespective of their character and motivations. As we said, more is not to be expected. But this balance between liberalism and democracy is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain” (250).


Turning the tide of self-serving “democracies”

But how can this justice be forthcoming if politicians are only interested in getting reelected, in holding on to the privileges that come with power, and thus focusing only on short term problems in their respective societies? This is a burning question not just for the Arab world or for Africa, but for the United States and everywhere else. This is how she puts the question:


“Provided that in the balance of democracy and liberalism the pendulum of modernity swings too much in one extreme direction, where are the powers that may be able to push the pendulum back so that liberalism and democracy may come again into a momentary balance? Or rather, which are those powers? Since we are speaking about the presence or absence of a democratic and a liberal ethos, the powers we have in mind must be of an ethical kind”


Leaning on the great German philosopher Hegel (d. 1831), Heller writes that for justice to be served collectively there must be synergy between three different powers: law, ethical life and morality. She tells the story of the son in Sweden who drove his father to the hospital after he had a heart attack and then to the social security office to claim his gas money for the trip! That is a good example of the dangers of over-regulation. The rule of law is necessary, but never an end in itself. The Swedish story reminds us that if “law takes care of everything, personal support, charity, magnanimity, magnificence, liberality, caring becomes obsolete.”

With regard to the ethical life perhaps the most important arena is the family. Laws can seek to clamp down on the abuse of children or domestic violence, but if love is absent in the first place, a family becomes dysfunctional and even destructive. But how do you change an abusive father? Bringing an offender to court is necessary, she agrees. But law cannot make up for a lack of ethics at the foundation of society, in the family. She explains,


“Humiliation in public is as bad as humiliation in private, it is not the compensation for the former. It is true that ethics, the power of the ethical, cannot entirely redress injustice in this field. But love is gone, trust is gone, faith is gone. It is questionable what is more worth, whether the gains make up for the losses.”


The third power is morality, the personal dimension. Though not said explicitly, she likely means that the ethical fabric of society is maintained and nourished by “good, decent people.” In her words,


“Neither the democratic ethos, nor the liberal ethos can explain why someone should be a decent, a good, a moral person, although both will insist that one must accept their ethical recipes in order to do the right thing. However, morality has an ontological priority to ethics and law. For one has to be a decent person first to ask the question: what is the right thing for me to do? Ethics answers this question, whereas law mainly tells you what you should avoid. Needless to say morality also has an ontological priority to all religions and philosophies. One can draw the strength for being (becoming) good from various sources – among them from moral philosophies, religions, or from the democratic and the liberal ethos – but what matters most, or rather what alone matters is for what purpose one is drawing one's strength” (259).


So we come to the crux of the issue: democracy, people nearly everywhere feel today, is the best framework for securing a just society, because the greatest number of citizens have a say on how they should be ruled in light of the specific constraints of their own state at the time. But democracy is only a framework. If the state moves too much in the direction of the democratic ethos, it becomes dictatorial, especially for minorities. If on the other hand, it veers too much in the direction of liberalism, chaos might ensue. What society urgently needs at its core are “good, decent and moral” people.

So what is justice in a healthy society? As Heller sees it,


“This is why and how morality takes care (or, at least, can take care) of the restoration of the balance between the ethos of liberalism and of democracy, in times when the pendulum swings too extremely into one or the other direction. Justice in this most general sense is the condition of doing justice. To keep the democratic and the liberal ethos in balance is justice in this sense. For whether the pendulum swings in the direction of one extreme or into the other – personal freedom is always curtailed” (259).


A couple of thoughts about Egypt

So how does this discussion about justice shed light on Egypt’s post-revolution, post-constitution turmoil? If anything, Egypt’s current challenges perfectly illustrate the “complexity” of “doing justice” in any state, let along one that was abruptly catapulted out of sixty years of dictatorship. And don’t forget that several key institutions set up by the former regime are still in place: their equivalent to the Supreme Court, the Ministry of the Interior (or the police forces), and the army – which still controls between 10 and 45% of the national economy!

To make things worse, President Morsi, faced as he is with a devastating economic crisis, is negotiating a $4.5 billion loan package with the International Monetary Fund. He also has to remain on the good side of the US in order to keep the yearly $2 billion in aid stipulated by the 1978 Camp David Accords brokered by President Jimmy Carter. To say that Morsi risks falling off a perilous tightrope – with little wiggle room for preserving national independence – is an understatement.

Remember too that the US constitution was written under similar post-revolutionary duress and that it took over a dozen amendments and two hundred years to make sure it protected basic human rights. Oh yes, and Britain never did write a constitution, like Egypt’s neighbor Israel.

Three quick points to close:


1. Heller’s emphasis on the importance of morality as imbedded in one’s culture is very relevant here. It can draw its strength, she writes, from “all religions and philosophies.” In fact, religion is the first candidate globally, even for the least religious places like Europe, where morality still flows from the religious legacy of the past. Egypt, by contrast, is very religious, whether you speak of Muslims or Christians (ten percent). Here sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh, an Egyptian American who happened to be spending a sabbatical in Cairo when the revolution broke out, points out the fact that the constitution, though approved by 64% of the electorate, was hastily written by the islamists, with 22 out of the 100 members of the assembly having walked out. On the my “Sociology of Islam” listserv I follow he wrote last week,


“Also we should not forget that while the constitution should ideally be based on consensus, when Egyptian voted in the largest numbers in the first free elections in their modern history, the majority chose what reflected a traditional conservative leaning in society. So what surprise is there for that constituency to want to see, quite legitimately, its own worldview strongly represented in the constitution? This obviously should not mean trampling on the rights of the minority, but a lot of the condemnations of this constitutions I have seen seem to make the opposite point: only liberal values should be upheld when they contradict some traditional conservative values, even if the former may be those of a minority or just of a bunch of intellectuals.”


2. Though the process of drafting the constitution was clearly undemocratic, the text itself, despite some illiberal articles and some dangerously vague formulations might not have been much different had all sides participated (read one Egyptian journalist’s view). It guarantees a host of personal and corporate liberties, including freedom of the press, of association, and assembly. The full rights of Christians and Jews are recognized (but for no other faiths, however); and gender equality is upheld. My point is that an effort is being made to accommodate the “liberal ethos” by seeking to protect minorities and women. Still, it clearly falls short, as another Egyptian paper points out in some detail. But perhaps it would help to compare some of its stipulations with those of its predecessor, the 1971 constitution, that was never followed in practice).


3. In the final analysis, Agnes Heller is right about the elusive nature of justice. She would say that above all Egypt needs good and decent political actors to heal the present rifts and move the process forward. Can Morsi make some credible overtures to the opposition and get both sides to work together? Justice for the people – which includes balancing the democratic and the liberal ideals – can only come from upright and courageous leaders.


I’m sure Morsi could use your prayers right now!

Egypt’s outgoing Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa is upbeat about healing his nation’s divided political forces. I’m sure Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II is equally inclined, though for now he has openly criticized the present regime and its constitution. Evangelicals, it would seem, have invested more effort in negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet despite the real tensions of the moment, over the long haul Morsi can count on the religious establishment to nudge him toward national reconciliation. After all, and to a large extent, this is a project of Muslim-Christian cooperation crucial for a whole region in which religion directly sustains the moral fiber of its society and the viability of its democratic institutions.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, women in the US military have often been in combat roles, a little-known fact until this past week when gender equality in the line of fire became official Pentagon policy. Staff Sgt. Keesha Dentino, an explosives-dog handler for the famous Old Guard infantry regiment at Fort Myers, in an interview with the Washington Post said she welcomes the new ruling. Doing battle officially “is something that I would enjoy,” she said. It’s about an individual’s ability to deal with stress. “It’s dependent upon the person and not necessarily the gender.”

While on combat patrols in Afghanistan, she noticed that when she had proved to the local women that she too was a woman, many of the usual barriers fell. They were especially curious, she recalled, “to know why it is that I’m able to be around other men,” she said. “They’re restricted in that culture. To see a woman out there kind of being treated equally by men is unheard of to them. So they’re very intrigued by that.”

Notice on the one hand the constant pressure a human rights ideal puts on governments to achieve more equality. Let’s call it here “modern egalitarianism.” Though not all agree, in effect Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had little choice in decreeing the right of women to join combat units. For some time – and admittedly aided by the nature of two wars in which any routine patrol might find itself on the front lines – women have been doing combat shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades. Understandably, they were crying out to be recognized and given equal pay and opportunities for advancement.

On the other hand, Afghan women in the countryside were justifiably amazed to see women and men in such close quarters doing a job on an equal footing – a job which in their culture is reserved exclusively for men. That’s the point – “in their culture.” As I see it, religion has little to do with this. But then, how do you draw the line between religion and culture? We’re back to the discussions of the two previous blogs.

This is the third and last installment in this series. Using many current events and debates, I have argued that though there is definite collusion between religion and the unequal treatment of women, neither is it a clear cause and effect relationship, nor is the relationship in every case possible to establish at all. Cultural beliefs and practices (especially the impunity with which men do violence to women), authoritarian regimes and outside pressures (western colonialism was one example), and often the hardships imposed by grinding poverty – all of these and more are factors that increase the suffering of women the world over.


India, the US and everywhere

Since my last blog in this series the world has been riveted by a storm of popular protests in India, and mostly by women. No wonder. It was sparked by the gang-rape of the 23-year old medical student in a New Delhi bus on December 16, 2012. Her boy friend was seriously injured as well and both were dumped into the street naked. For weeks and weeks, crowds poured into the streets of many Indian cities protesting the lack of police protection and the impunity with which men commit crimes against women.

The picture above you shows female students protesting the rape of a village woman by one of the leaders of the ruling Congress Party. News of other rapes and despicable acts of violence against women suddenly began to flow more freely than usual, sending more and more people to vent their anger in the streets.

Not all of the protests are democratic in nature or show an appreciation for the constitution and the rule of law. A lawyer and seasoned women’s rights activist, Flavia Agnes, pointed out that many are calling for sex offenders to be castrated or executed. Their frustration is understandable, however, in a country where “only about 25 percent of rape cases resulted in convictions in 2010, and conviction rates were less than 10 percent in some states last year.”

“What is needed,” said Agnes, “are nonsensational, small measures. Getting women better access to the police station, getting the medical reports done sensitively.” Still, she adds, this groundswell of protest is a boon for women. A senior police officer contacted her to find out more about her organization, Majlis, and how they could partner to get more women to report crimes at their local police station. Also, one party has already vowed not to field candidates charged with rape. Agnes concluded, “For some reason, this rape has caught the national imagination. If that means the government and police cannot ignore this issue anymore, that’s a good thing.”

According to a Gallup poll conducted in the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, women feel less safe in the streets after the “Arab Spring,” and in particularly so in Tunisia and Egypt. Dalia Ziada heads up the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. The revolution, she said, was a call for greater economic and political freedom, but it was not about women’s rights. And with the breakdown of law and order women more than ever before are suffering sexual assaults in the streets. Since the fall of 2011 in several Egyptian cities vigilante groups composed mostly of males have been patrolling the streets to confront men who harass women. They’ve been overwhelmed in the recent explosion of anger across Egypt at the end of January 2013.

Meanwhile, in the United States, legislation to reauthorize the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been stalled. The new bi-partisan bill, co-authored by senators Leahy and Crapo, was passed by the Senate in April 2012, but is still held up in January 2013 in the Republican-led House, mostly because the help to victims of abuse (like shelters or legal help) would be offered regardless of sexual orientation or immigration status.

Republicans reject in particular the issuing of special visas (called U-visas) to undocumented immigrants victims of sexual assaults or domestic violence. The New York Times urges the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, to use all his power to help pass this law, with or without this provision. It will save women’s lives and deliver justice, particularly through its provision to reduce "the inexcusable national backlog of untested rape kits."

Faith-based groups are also getting the word out. The Presbyterian Church USA devoted a website to advocate for this law to be reenacted. This is part of the letter they suggest their member use to urge their members of Congress to take action:


“I believe that God wants health and wholeness for all of us, including a home and world free from violence.

We must ensure that victims of violence have access to the services they need and that perpetrators of violence must be held accountable.

This legislation builds on the past successes of VAWA, increasing effectiveness and reaching more victims and provides law enforcement with more tools for protecting victims from their batterers.”


I mentioned in the last blog protests in Latin America seeking to bolster the protection of women victims of violence. No doubt, human societies across the globe (and likely from time immemorial) struggle to curb the aggressive domination by males of the opposite sex. And like the Presbyterian initiative above, people of faith have joined other activists to make their voices heard.


The issue of Muslim exceptionalism

In this three-part series I’ve emphasized the broad scope of patriarchy, both geographically and across religious boundaries. Still Muslim societies are often singled out as being the worst offenders, whether it was the Taliban fiercely misogynist policies of the 1990s, the news that the Saudi state now sends automatic text messages to inform males that their female dependents have crossed the border, the shooting of the 14-year-old Pakistani advocate for the education of girls in her country, or the recent imposition of extreme forms of Sharia law in northern Mali.

In the first blog we saw how the Muslim Brotherhood actually curried favor with the masses through its patriarchal discourse and programs. Egypt, like other societies in that part of the world remains very traditional in its outlook. So what is dictated by Islamic law (interpreted narrowly) is difficult to disentangle from traditional near eastern culture. Though perhaps in Saudi Arabia, where the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia is enforced by the religious police (the mutawa) and where people today are more openly pushing back against its well-known excesses, religion and culture may be easier to distinguish. The king’s latest promise to deploy women agents of the mutawa, however, seems unlikely to curb the kingdom’s zeal to patrol and control how women dress, who accompanies them in public, and whether they perform their prayers at the set time.

Some new research sheds light on the phenomenon of “Islamic exceptionalism.” A young Professor of Comparative Political Science at the University of California (Berkeley), M. Steven Fish, has done us all an immense favor. Specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe he later branched out and spent a sabbatical year in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. The result was a brashly ambitious work, Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence (Oxford U. Press, 2011). The reviews were glowing. UCLA’s noted scholar of Islamic law, Khaled Abou El Fadl, gushes, “This book is a profound achievement. Reading it has been an eye-opening experience to the point that I feel that I will never be able to approach my own work and scholarship in the same way.” A good review in pdf form by San Diego State political scientist Ahmet T. Kuru is available here.

So how are Muslim-majority countries distinct from other ones? Fish’s data-driven analysis of the issues reveals some surprises. First, Muslims are not more religiously observant than people of other faith. For instance, in France only 10% of Christians and 10% of Muslims attend weekly services. The same parity holds for the USA, though at 40%. In Muslim countries the numbers are higher, but not significantly so.

 Second, the Muslim observance of zakat (the prescribed “poor tax”) seems to make Muslim-majority countries distinctly more egalitarian, with less of a gap between rich and poor. Third, Muslim societies have lower rates of homicide, which, he notes, may correlate to the previous point. Fourth, statistics on terrorism do point to a prevalence of Muslim-initiated attacks on civilians between 1994 and 2008 (74 out of 136). Yet fifth, there seems to be no evidence that Muslims oppose the separation of religion and state more than others.

Finally, on our topic of patriarchy, there does seem to be a Muslim exceptionalism. In a variety of surveys Muslims show much more of an inclination to favor men in relation to employment and educational opportunities. Further, and here I follow Kuru’s assessment of Fish’s book: “It stresses the exceptionally higher gender gaps in income, literacy, and political positions in Muslim societies. Gender inequality is a deep problem that all societies, especially Muslim-majority societies, should take seriously.” Then follows a point which Kuru will dispute:


“Yet, one variable Fish employs—the level of healthy life expectation—makes me extra curious, because providing ‘inferior health care’ for females (p. 203) is much worse than patriarchy. Fish notes that females in Muslim countries have a substantially smaller healthy life expectancy advantage than they do in Christian countries.”


Kuru goes to the World Health Organization (WHO) webpage and combs through the country statistics, arguing that the data turns out to be more significantly related to regions than to religions. Nevertheless, the gender gap still stands out more starkly in Muslim societies than elsewhere, he avers.

Fish recently teamed up with Danielle N. Lussier from Grenell College for an article entitled, “Men, Muslims, and Attitudes towards Sex-Based Inequality.” This is a statistically sophisticated analysis that goes far beyond what I can tackle in this blog. But the following percentages corresponding to these three questions give a good idea of the direction the research is going:


1. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl” (Muslims: 38.4%; non-Muslims: 17.7%).

2. Percentage who “agree” that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a right to a job than women” (Muslims: 68.2%; non-Muslims: 29.0%).

3. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “on the whole, men make better political leaders than women” (Muslims: 70.9%; non-Muslims: 40.3%).


I will have to come back on this article at a later date. Suffice it to say here that Muslim distinctiveness on gender-based inequality seems to be entrenched. Perhaps this is why one finds such a vibrant civil society led mostly by women scholars who devote their lives to reversing these trends.


Muslim initiatives to curb violence and promote gender equality

Many courageous and creative Muslim women could be cited here, but one in particular stands out in my mind because of her global reach. Zainah Anwar was born into the family of a prominent Malay politician (b. 1965) and early on decided she wanted to be a journalist, and a non-conformist one at that. She has never married, preferring to devote herself to her lifetime calling – fighting for justice and human rights, and particularly for women in Muslim contexts.

With a background in journalism, international law and diplomacy (Boston University and Tufts University) Anwar worked seven years for the Institute of Strategic and International Studies and then a couple of years at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. But then in 1987 back in Malaysia with a group of like-minded lawyers, scholars and activists, she began to turn her attention to the plight of women both in the state-run courts and the Shari’a courts. One of those scholars, an African-American Muslim from Philadelphia, Amina Wadud, teaching in Kuala Lumpur at the time, was one of those who challenged Anwar to study the Qur’an with fresh eyes. That process led this group to found an NGO Anwar would lead for two decades, Sisters in Islam (SIS).

In an interview with the Malaysian Star newspaper as she was leaving her SIS executive director post in 2008, Anwar mused about her discovery of the Qur’an’s egalitarian message. It began as she discovered that the same Qur’anic verse that gives permission for men to marry up to four wives (Q. 4:3) then adds, “If you fear you cannot be equitable [to them], then marry only one.” Then further on in the same sura (Women), we read, “You will never be able to treat your wives with equal fairness, however you may desire to do so.” Muhammad Abduh, the great Egyptian reformer (d. 1905), was perhaps the first to write that God’s intention was monogamy, whereas he would only tolerate polygamy in times when many men had been slain in battle, as was the case when these verses were revealed.

Anwar called this moment “an epiphany”: “It was that kind of questioning that made us want to read the Quran with a new lens. It was a liberating process understanding that the Quran speaks to women and is lifting and empowering.”

I encourage you to go to the SIS website and click on “Knowledge Resources.” Then click on “Muslim Family Law.” Toward the bottom of the page you will find an item, “Best Practices on Muslim family law issues.” There you will discover an illuminating comparison between current Malaysian practices and what SIS considers “the best” practices elsewhere. Every comparative rubric starts with Morocco, where in 2004 the king was able to get through parliament one of the most progressive family law rulings anywhere in the Muslim world. Tunisia, Indonesia and other countries are also represented.

I have no doubt but that Zainah Anwar was one of the movers and shakers behind the historic 2006 WISE Conference in New York.WISE is a global forum for Muslim feminist scholars and activists and this conference provided the launching pad for the movement. According to their website,


“The inaugural WISE conference convened 150 of the most accomplished Muslim women scholars, activists, artists, and religious and civil society leaders from 25 countries – spanning Afghanistan, Jordan, Senegal and Morocco to Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium and the US. The gathering facilitated seminal discussions on the unique challenges facing Muslim women globally and developing concrete tools for realizing the vision of an Islamic expression of gender equality and justice. Collectively, these leaders assessed the needs of their specific constituencies, identified ways to expand their own work and developed recommendations for creating an effective global change movement.”


Their first publication is endorsed by a wide spectrum of female Muslim scholars, “Jihad against Violence: Women’s Struggle for Peace” and is well worth studying in detail. It can be downloaded here.

In the United States one of WISE’s prime movers is the illustrious imam of the Manhattan mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who developed the 13-story “Park 51 Islamic Center” that opened in November 2011. It is open to people of all faiths, and like the other activities Abdul Rauf promotes through his Cordoba Initiative, it is meant to serve the cause of interfaith dialog. Unsurprisingly, the Cordoba Initiative’s motto is “Amplifying Voices of Moderation,” and Park51 includes a 9/11 memorial. Rauf’s new book is entitled Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America.

Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, an immigrant from the Kashmir area of India, has been very active with WISE even before its inception. With her husband she co-founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) which includes “youth and women’s empowerment” as one of its core values. A spin-off of the Cordoba Initiative, it seeks inspiration from the apex of Spain’s Islamic civilization to foster “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration.” ASMA also functions as an American chapter of WISE.

These activists are not preaching in the desert, however. Women in the Arab world in particular have been emboldened by the popular stirrings of 2011. One of the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 2012, Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, thanked all Arab women for their fight for equal rights. Then she added, “The solution to women's issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together. . . . Our civilization is called human civilization, and is not attributed only to men or women.”


Closing words

This concludes our three-part exploration of religion and patriarchy, probably leaving you with more questions than answers. In a way, I’m glad for that. Nothing is more destructive to the fabric of a more peaceful global society than the strident voices of those who take their own opinions as the TRUTH. People of faith should indeed be convinced of the veracity of their own tradition’s creeds, but this leaves a whole lot more truth about the world God created to discover, and in particular the world of human beings He empowered, so that they would manage this good earth with justice and compassion.

So we need one another as fellow trustees of the earth. Gender inequality and the resulting violence perpetrated against women is a planetary problem we can only tackle together. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s celebrate initiatives like SIS, WISE, ASMA, and the work of many other religious and secular groups of all kinds. Only then will be able to make headway.

Two things just happened that will come together in this blog. First, I came back from Singapore, where I lectured on the theme of justice from a secular, Christian and Muslim perspective. This was for Pathways for Mutual Understanding’s first Institute in Asia. Second, my review of David Bertaina’s 2011 book, Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East, was just published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (Vol. 30, #1).

Don’t worry, I’m still mulling over my third (and last) installment of “Religion and Patriarchy,” but here I start a series of four blogs on justice in interreligious dialog.


Some questions arising from the past

Debates between people of different faiths can be documented as far back as ancient Greece. Plato and other Greek writers offer us numerous examples of these, as do the Romans before and after the advent of Christianity. Also, right before the Islamic era, Christians around the Mediterranean left some fascinating traces of conversations and debates with Jews. It’s not surprising, then, that around twenty documents in the “dialogue genre” written either in Syriac or Arabic have come to light from the seventh to the eleventh century CE.

David Bertaina, from the History Department of the University of Illinois (Springfield), offers an enlightening discussion of these as he sorts them out according to purpose, authors and occasions. As I read him, he leaves us with at least two applications for today:

The first is that, unlike many of the official interreligious dialogs of today – which are often impoverished due to the liberal ethos of “neutrality” – those dialogs were robust, confrontational and polemical at times, but each side willing to stake its case on truth claims many were willing to die for. Some of those were directed to their own communities – and never so urgently conveyed as those of the eighth and ninth centuries by Christian leaders trying to stem the growing tide of conversion to Islam. Others were directed to the “religious other,” with the intent to persuade, consciously engaging in evangelism on one side and da’wa on the other.

The second application is Bertaina’s finding that in interfaith dialog the playing field is rarely even. Issues of power always crop up to cloud the conversation, particularly for one side. During that period of an ascending and then supremely confident Islamic imperial power whether in Baghdad or Islamic Spain, Christians displayed noticeable anxiety on the issue of conversion and at times about their own powerlessness. This, he writes, must be seen as comparable to the situation of Muslims today in the west, who particularly after the 2001 attacks, have often felt under siege. I would add that the bold initiative represented by the 2007 “Common Word” letter fits into the category of a community under pressure seeking to restart a dialog as an equal partner.

The first example of Muslim-Christian dialog is reflected in the Qur’an itself, in which many passages echo and respond to assertions made by the Christians both of Mecca and Medina. In a whole chapter devoted to this topic, Bertaina argues from many examples that there was a lively conversation attested by the Qur’an during the short period of Muhammad’s prophetic ministry. You have to allow, he maintains, that there were more Christians that many have so far assumed, and that they were in fact quite vocal.

Bertaina also unearths several early (“proto-”) Shi’i dialogs that, while trying to rebut Christian claims like the one about the divinity of Christ, simultaneously serve to affirm the superiority of the “virtues of Ali” over any figure the Sunnis might put forward. No religious community is monolithic and interconfessional dialog always brings to the fore the fault lines of one’s own community. On the positive side, the Common Word letter sparked a series of encounters not just with Catholics but also with evangelical Christians in the US and the UK. In turn, that initiative had a polarizing effect in some evangelical circles.

Among several kinds of dialogs that Bertaina highlights in his chapters, we find the “theological education and didactic,” the “hagiographic,” and the “scriptural reinterpretation” modes. Those of course were mostly directed to religious insiders. Still, the one event that captured the imagination of medieval Christians is the one Bertaina emphasizes the most – and rightly so. This is when for two days in 829 Theodore Abu Qurra, Bishop of Harran, debated with the Caliph al-Ma’mun and several Muslim scholars at his court. More than anything, the several texts that mention this dialog agree in their depiction of a passionate and yet courteous dialogue, in which both sides know and search the other’s scriptures to better communicate their own convictions. Interestingly, Christian writers of later centuries saw this encounter as the high water mark of a free and respectful dialog between the two communities.

I’ll join with Bertaina in his masterful work to commend to you this kind of encounter today. And in many ways, Pathways’ Singapore Institute lived up to these ideals in both form and content. Allow me to explain.


A fruitful Asian encounter between Muslims and Christians in 2013

As you can read on their website, “Pathways for Mutual Respect, in cooperation with The Yale Center for Faith & Culture, anticipates welcoming another outstanding group of emerging leaders from around the globe to our Singapore Institute, entitled Faith & Society – Leadership Amidst Controversy.”

As you can see, Pathways specializes in training promising young leaders. That will be my first point: this was a group of impressive leaders, both Muslim (11) and Christian (8), from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Then I’ll touch on the depth of interaction, and finally on the prospects for future cooperation.

The overwhelming majority of the region’s population is Muslim – both the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago. These Muslims were well represented here, including several academics and a few more NGO leaders. Citing just a few examples, two were top-level leaders in Malaysia’s largest Islamic youth movement (ABIM) and one of them had been president of the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Organizations (PKPIM). Like most of the others, he is still in his thirties. A Malaysian female journalist with almost twenty years of experience writing on socioreligious issues for several newspapers, and the author of two books on Muslims of the region, offered a more secular perspective. One Malaysian Christian teaches political science in a private university and is an active participant in Muslim-Christian dialogs.

Three academics were among the Indonesians, including one teaching Shari’a at a law school in Bandung who has founded a youth movement called “Peace Generation.” Another is a regional leader of the 30 million-member Nahdatul Ulama organization. The only Indonesian Christian worked as a business consultant/trainer, co-founded a consortium of over 5,000 small businesses, and sits on the board of several international NGOs promoting “value-driven businesses.”

Two of the Singaporean Christians present are evangelical pastors, while one woman is a Catholic who worked for poverty alleviation in the Philippines and Vietnam. One Muslim participant obtained a PhD in sociology from the University of Birmingham and now directs a center that specializes in developing the aspirations and skills of the Malay youth of Singapore. Another is a PhD candidate in the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore, with already two books to his name and numerous articles published in all three countries.

What about the program of the five-day Institute, you ask? It was framed by two highly respected regional academics. Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, one of Malaysia’s best-known public intellectuals kicked off the program with two lectures on “The Challenge of Leadership in a Multi-Faith Society.” Much was taken from the Malaysian context, but as founder and president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST ) Muzaffar was also able to give participants a global perspective on issues that must be tackled. There were other lecturers from the region, to be sure, but let me note the excellent contribution of our host, Syed Farid Alatas, Head of the Malay Studies Department and member of the executive committee of UNESCO’s International Sociological Association, who addressed the group on the challenges facing Muslim communities and helped introduce the final discussion on future directions.

There was a lot more than lectures, however. Participants benefited from various activities (like visiting the Harmony Centre of Singapore, a mosque with an ambitious interfaith component), including large group and small group discussions and special exercises led by Pathways founder and sociologist John Hartley and his team.

My second point relates to the net effect of this intensive interpersonal interaction: on several occasions there were open discussions on the thorny issue of proselytism from both sides – or, if you prefer, the inner imperative of each tradition to share its faith with religious others, hoping to convince them to adopt it as their own. One morning session was devoted to a role play exercise in which both sides had to divide up into “liberals” and “conservatives” (whatever that meant in each case), agree on a particular course of action to resolve a contentious issue of proselytism that was rocking the community; then they had to send a representative to negotiate a solution with the other side.

The outcome was instructive. Both sides were frustrated there wasn’t enough time to resolve the prickly issue at hand. No wonder, since the question of missionary activity is the one that by far generates the most emotion (especially on the Muslim side – remember how Christians felt in the Abbasid Empire around the ninth and tenth centuries CE?). By sitting down and talking about the issue openly and candidly, both sides can dispel misunderstandings and decide on common sense rules all can follow. Building trust is key; and the best way to do this is to invest time in building personal relationships long before problems have a chance to blow up out of proportion.

Was there any discussion of one another’s scriptures, as in the case of the dialog at the court of Abbasid caliph al-Ma’amun? There was, though it was not the focus of the Institute. My second and third lectures were about Jesus and justice, and justice in the Muslim tradition respectively (to be explored in subsequent blogs). Still, let me say that however limited the theological discussions were, the door was widely opened for future conversations on this issue. Besides, working together for the empowerment of the poor and marginalized will automatically increase the desire to hear more about what motivates and nourishes the action of our partners of another faith. And no, we shouldn’t avoid talking through the more contentious differences; but we do so on the basis of trust and friendship, and with the desire to listen, understand and be enriched through the process in our own faith.

Finally, what practical outcomes are likely to follow from these meetings? People were meeting at the last session in three country groups, brainstorming about how they could contribute to each other’s ongoing interfaith efforts and how they could initiate new programs. Many ideas were mentioned, and I’m certain that the ensuing conversation will produce several concrete projects.

For all of its great challenges and specters, our world of 2013 is so much more promising than past ones for those who commit to working for peace, and particularly for those doing so as people of faith linking hands and hearts with those of other traditions. History shows that the greatest experiments of interreligious dialog in the medieval world took place in the Muslim realms of Granada and Baghdad. Today we have the tools and opportunities to take this to a higher level. Pathways’ Singapore Institute confirmed that for me. May God bless the many other initiatives underway around our globe!