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David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Here I begin a three-part comparative look at the theme of God’s glory in the Qur’an and the Bible. I haven’t seen this done before, but the idea came to me recently as I was meditating on II Corinthians 5. God as light is a central concept in both traditions and extending this metaphor to God’s glory will enable us to tease out some fascinating convergences and contrasts.


The divine light in the Qur’an

The Qur’an never states “God is light,” but two verses speak of his light illuminating the heavens and the earth. The lesser-known of the two verses describes the Last Day. I’ll quote the whole passage to give you a feel for the wider theme of God’s glory – a combination of ultimate power, righteousness and justice:

“These people have no grasp of God’s true measure.

On the Day of Resurrection, the whole earth will be in His grip.

The heavens will be rolled up in His right hand – Glory be to Him!

He is far above the partners they ascribe to Him! –

The trumpet will be sounded, and everyone in the heavens and earth will fall down senseless except those God spares.

It will be sounded once again and they will be on their feet, looking on.

The earth will shine with the light of its Lord; the Record of Deeds will be laid open; the  prophets and witnesses will be brought in.

Fair judgment will be given between them; they will not be wronged and every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done.

He knows best what they do” (Q. 39:67-70).

God’s absolute sovereignty is underlined through the images of the earth being in his hand (“in his grip,” heavens “rolled up in His right hand”); his loftiness (“high above the partners they ascribe to Him”); people knocked down senseless by the first sound of God’s Trumpet; the second blowing of the Trumpet brings them to their feet; the radiance of God’s light illuminating the earth. Notice too the expression, “Glory be to Him!” (subḥānahu). The noun subḥān is one of the words for glory, though it is more in the sense of “praise ascribed to God.” That expression is found 41 times in the Qur’an, and the verb “to praise,” or “glorify” God (sabbaḥa ) occurs 38 times.

[There are two other words in Arabic often translated as “glory” in the Qur’an. The first is ʿizza (but it leans more toward the idea of power). Four times you find the expression, “Glory altogether belongs to God!” (Q. 4:139; 10:65; 35:10; 63:8). And once you find this title for God: “Your Lord, the Lord of Glory, is far above what they attribute to Him” (37:180). The word most used for “glory” in the Arabic Bible (majd), however, doesn’t appear in the Qur’an – just its derivative, the adjective majīd : twice used for God, the All-glorious (Q. 11:73; 85:15); and twice used for the Qur’an: “the glorious Qur’an” (Q. 50:1; 85:21)].

Now the second verse, by far the most famous one on this topic – and undeniably one of the most beautiful verses in the Qur’an – is the “Light verse” (Q. 24:75), giving its title to that sura (chapter), “Light” (nūr) Here it is in the most common English translation for at least two generations, that by Yusuf Ali:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.”

Volumes have been written on this one verse, partly because of its poetic beauty and evocative imagery. That said, it is also open to many possible interpretations. God is beyond all human description; he is “transcendent,” since he is infinitely greater than anything he creates, including humankind, the pinnacle of his creation and his earthly trustees. Hence, you don’t read “God is light” (though this verse is the source for nūr  – Light – as one of the Beautiful Names of God). Instead, he is “the Light of the heavens and the earth.” Put otherwise, his luminous brilliance infuses all his creation.

Then follows the parable of the recess in the medieval wall of a house (the niche) wherein an olive oil lamp was placed to light up the house. The lamp in turn is encased in beautifully chiseled glass, which allows the glow of the flame to be refracted in multiple gleams. Hence the image of a “brilliant star”; then also the flame’s source, olive oil, leads to the picture of the olive tree, perhaps even the original tree in the Garden of creation, the Tree of Life. So light allows the earthly pilgrim to travel on the straight path that leads to life, and thus avoiding the side paths marked for destruction. So many images and symbols all wrapped together in such a short passage!

Referring to the context of this verse, Yusuf Ali comments, “Embedded within certain directions concerning a refined domestic and social life, comes this glorious parable of Light, which contains layer upon layer of allegorical truth about spiritual mysteries. No notes can do adequate justice to its full meaning.”

The word “allegorical” is intentional. Ali adds all manner of detail which I cannot reproduce here. So is the word “mysteries” – in fact, it’s the mystical side of Islam, the seekers of hidden knowledge (gnosis) in the Sufi tradition who have made the most of this verse. Arguably the greatest Sunni scholar of all, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), was able to bring together in his own person and writings three hitherto incompatible currents – mainstream Sunni theology and law, the mystical tradition of Sufism, and Islamic philosophy (though significantly trimmed down). Ghazali wrote a famous book on this verse, Mishkat al-anwār (“The Niche of Lights”), using Neo-Platonic philosophy in a Sufi vein and a hadith about God saying to Moses that he speaks to him through 70,000 veils. If you peel through the layers of his esoteric mysticism, you encounter a man who through years of ascetic practices and spiritual disciplines is hungry to know God intimately. The Sufi saint (walī) is indeed the person who has achieved a high degree of union with God.

The Shi’i branch of Islam, as opposed to the majority Sunnis, has consistently kept open the doors of philosophy and rationalism. It is mostly in that vein that the Shi’i scholars have kept alive the Sufi tradition. By far the largest segment of Shia are Twelvers – think of Iran and Iraq. But the next branch is that of the Seveners, or the Ismailis, who are led by the Aga Khan, the Harvard-trained scholar and philanthropist extraordinaire. When it comes to the Qur’an, the Ismailis are known for their esoteric interpretations – that is, digging to find the secret meanings beneath the more obvious surface ones.

Here is an excerpt from the Aga Khan’s interpretation of the “Light verse.” Notice his style, an interesting combination of rationalism and mysticism. For him the niche is the human body, “whose function is to transmit to the human mind through its five sensory mediums, the external world. The Lamp is the entire life-force or the living spirit, whose first layer is the Glass or the mind, which is subtler than the body.” This leads him to see the olive tree as the heart, because it “manufactures” the oil. It is the reasoning spirit, but also “the seat of human emotions and feelings.” As such, the heart places man as a participant in two worlds – the physical world and the elevated spheres of the spiritual world. The oil it produces is “the essential fuel to ignite and enkindle the light of divine illumination in man.” So the human being is the lantern, which remains dormant until set alight by the divine spark:

“That moment is a moment of awakening, when man sees himself as Himself. That moment is a moment of rebirths, for man is reborn a superman, a prophet. That is his true birth, the birth of an ever living spirit, the dawn of Cosmic Consciousness, in which his past, present, future all become one. In that moment man achieves his ultimate Destiny – the Spiritual union with God.”


Other glimpses of God’s light in the Qur’an

As we learned above, God’s light can only be perceived by humans as it is reflected in creation. But this idea makes it very suitable for describing divine revelation. Ten verses use the metaphor of light to refer to the Qur’an itself. It is “an illuminating book” (munīr) (Q. 3:184; 22:8; 35:25). Then seven other verses use the word nūr, light (Q. 4:174; 5:15; 7:157; 9:32; 42:52; 61:8; 64:8). One example: “People, convincing proof has come to you from your Lord and We have sent a clear light down to you” (Q. 4:174 Abdel Haleem).

Notice that revelation in the Qur’an is always a “sending down” (nazzala). Part of that idea is due to the ancient near-eastern idea of eternal tablets in heaven that are then brought down to humans. Another reason relates to the symbol of light – just as the sun’s rays illumine and bring life to the earth, so God’s revelation brings down his blessing and salvation to humanity.

Notice too that the Qur’an uses the word “light” to describe the Torah (5:44; 6:91) and the Gospel (5:46). But we have to look elsewhere to find the idea of God’s glory.


God’s glory in the Qur’an

As you might have guessed, light is related to glory in both Qur’an and Bible. One of the most common Qur’anic words is aya (pl. ayāt), meaning either a verse in the Qur’an or a sign of God in Creation. In this respect, there is one interesting story that deals with the theme of glory – Moses called by God to climb Mount Sinai in order to receive the law. One detail in the Qur’an is conflated with an event in the Bible that happens later, when the people are just about to embark on their trek to the Promised Land. In both cases, Moses asks God to show himself to him – but in the Exodus narrative Moses specifically asks to see God’s glory.

Here I will follow an unlikely guide into this topic – the Shi’i scholar who ignited and then led the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini. I invite you to read the article in its entirety, taken from a Shi’i digital library based in Pakistan.

The title is “The Relationship between Allah and His Creation” and at the heart of his meditation is the long passage about Moses in Sura 7 (“The Heights,” al-Aʿrāf). Recall my earlier statement that a hadith mentions 70,000 veils standing between Moses and God. Yet Moses is the only prophet who spoke directly with God, his title being the kalīm Allāh. Though Khomeini mentions this at one stage, his aim here is to explain the relationship between Creator and the created. It is nothing like father and son, or like the sun and its rays, or a person and her mental states. Rather, an infinite chasm separate the two; nevertheless, in this encounter between God and Moses for forty days on Mount Sinai, God replies to Moses’ request in the following manner:

“‘You will never see Me, but look at that mountain: if it remains standing firm, you will see Me,’ and when his Lord revealed Himself (lit. “was transfigured,” or “glorified”) to the mountain, He made it crumble: Moses fell down unconscious. When he recovered, he said, ‘Glory be to You! To You I turn in repentance! I am the first to believe!’” (Q. 7:143 Abdel Haleem).

As we will discover in the next blog, this is very close to the notion of God’s glory in Bible – except for the details of when and how this took place. In both cases, though, God is infinitely greater than humanity or any other element of the created order. There is therefore a powerful radiance to his presence when he appears in any form. In a similar expression to the one used in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, when God displays his glory to the mountain, it disintegrates and Moses is knocked out. Still, this is a unique episode in the Qur’an.

What strikes Khomeini is the prophet Moses’ mystical experience. Leading up to this, he writes about the names of God, best exemplified in the besmallah (the formula that precedes all 114 suras but one): “In the name of the Raḥmān and the Raḥīm.” He puts it this way:

“The glory of Allah's Exalted Name is revealed in everything. Allah's name Raḥmān (Beneficent) is the reflection of His beneficence in the state of action and His name Raḥīm (Merciful) is the reflection of His mercy in the state of action.”

Now follow his Sufi meditation on these names. For him they represent stages, steps that climb upwards, as each stage of spiritual initiation is successfully completed. This points to a “higher philosophy,” one that only the Sufi saints, “the friends of Allah, can grasp and put to use. Hence his own mystical interpretation of this verse:

“As for the Prophets the Qur'an says at one place: And when his Lord revealed His glory to the mountain, He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless (Surah al-Aʿrāf, 7:143). When Allah imparted special spiritual training to Moses he said to Allah: 'My lord, let me see you.' Obviously an eminent Prophet cannot ask for seeing Allah with his physical eyes. Therefore his request must have been for a kind of seeing appropriate to the seer and the object to be seen. But even this kind of seeing was not possible, Moses said to Allah: 'My Lord! Let me see you.' The answer was: 'you will not see Me.' Allah further said: 'But gaze upon the mountain.’

What is meant by the mountain here? Does it signify Mount Sinai? Was it that the glory that could not be revealed to Moses, could be revealed to this mountain? If some other people had been present at the Mount Sinai at that time, could they also see the revelation of Allah's glory? The sentence, 'Gaze upon the mountain' implies a promise. Allah said: 'You cannot see Me. But gaze upon the mountain. If it stands still in its place, then you will see Me.' (Surah al-A'raf, 7:143) There is a possibility that the mountain here might have meant the remnant of egoism still left in Moses. As the result of the revelation of glory the mountain was smashed. In other words the egoism of Moses was completely done away with. 'And Moses fell down senseless.' That means that Moses reached the stage of completely passing away of his human attributes [sic].”


Final thought

Such a short article cannot do justice to the topic. I hope, however, to have uncovered for you at least the main idea of God’s light in the Qur’an – how it emanates from his person as rays from the sun and turns all of Creation into signs (ayāt) of his glory. Again, it is so appropriate that in Arabic ayāt refers both to God’s Signs embedded in Creation and the verses of the Book which he sent down to humankind.

The other point I have stressed is the persistent mystical strain in the Islamic tradition. Sufism is much more central to the Islamic experience historically than even many Muslims realize today. The Light Verse sits at the heart of it, and the prophet Moses represents the archetype of the person who leaves everything behind in order to climb up the arduous steps of spiritual purification and training, aiming to reach one day the glorious goal – union with God. That said, the Prophet Muhammad, as the Seal of the Prophets, is even greater. In his Night Journey he was taken up to the very presence of God above the seven heavens (though it’s not by chance that Moses was on the top level and that he is the one who prods him to bargain with God from 50 required prayers a day down to 5!).

Nevertheless, the idea of God’s glory in Creation also reveals the biggest contrast between Qur’an and Bible. Whereas the created order is indeed a collection of signs pointing to God’s glory (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20), and whereas the Bible sees itself as God’s inspired word, in the person of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, God enters creation as the Eternal Word. John in the Prologue of his gospel puts it this way:

“So the Word became human and made his home among us.

He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.

And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT).

More on this shortly.

For over a year now I’ve added to this file labeled “drones.” Yes, I’m distraught at the thought that the White House with the advice of intelligence agencies systematically kills people deemed “terrorists” with missiles fired by drones. Our president just made a policy speech on the issue this week and despite the good news that there will be better oversight by other branches of government (and his clarifying that this is no “war”), drones will continue to be the weapon of choice for fighting al-Qaeda and their ilk.

First, I’ll make some comments about drones and then widen the debate about “empire” itself.


Why Drones are a very bad idea

Here are four of some of the most salient reasons I’ve gleaned from my readings:

1. Targeted killings outside of war: this is the legality issue. With 52 strikes in Pakistan under the Bush Administration and over 280 during Obama’s tenure, scant attention was ever given to established rules of international law. War has to be declared, and then very specific standards apply for lethal engagement. Afghanistan is the only country out of four where drones are being used that is officially at war. That said, most of the strikes have been in Pakistan, with others in Somalia and Yemen. Worse yet, there have been many “double tap” strikes – strike once and when people come to rescue the wounded, another missile goes off. This only multiplies the number of civilian casualties, a point to be made later.

In September 2012 Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, announced in a speech at Harvard University that the UN would set up an investigations unit in Geneva to gather more facts about these secretive operations and determine their legality. Emmerson said,

The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

The most extensive study of this issue was jointly made by Stanford University and the State University of New York. It demolished the prevailing narrative of surgically precise strikes with minimal collateral damage. You can read all the details on their dedicated site (sorry, no longer available; great stats here). Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

“Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones.”

2. Civilian deaths and terrorized populations: the Stanford/NYU study claims that “there is significant evidence that drone strikes have injured and killed civilians”:

“The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports  that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.”

That of course has been a reoccurring complaint and source of great anger in Afghanistan as well. But think of the populations, like in northwest Pakistan, where most of these attacks have taken place. Recall in your mind the panic and terror of New York residents in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and multiply that several times. This is a bit long, but it’s essential for us to try and put ourselves in these people’s situation:

“Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.”

See also the chilling interviews in an article published by The Atlantic.

3. Their effectiveness in keeping the US safe is seriously in doubt: for one, the percentage of terrorist operatives killed in these strikes in relation to total casualties is around 2%. But too, drones have proven to be a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda and associates. Undoubtedly this was one of the reasons that led President Obama to announce a new drone program with more oversight and transparency .

4. Such flouting of international law could set a dangerous precedent: this is how the Stanford/NYU study put it:

“US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments. As drone manufacturers and officials successfully reduce export control barriers, and as more countries develop lethal drone technologies, these risks increase.”

China and Japan are already jostling for position in an ominous “drone race” in their conflict over the Diaoyu (Chinese) or Senkaku (Japanese) islands. The new conservative (and bellicose) administration of Shinzo Abe in Japan is ratcheting up military spending and is acquiring US drones. Meanwhile, China’s defense budget has skyrocketed – over 600% from 2002 to 2011 and it is now developing its own drones. According to The Guardian, “A 2012 report by the Pentagon acknowledged long-standing rumours that China was developing a new generation of stealth drones, called Anjian, or Dark Sword, whose capabilities could surpass those of the US's fleet.”

If that isn’t alarming enough, you can peer into the future of warfare, when robots will definitely rule. A BBC article  quotes Brookings Institute warfare specialist Peter W. Singer. For him, the arrival of drones, or “robot warriors,” “raises profound questions”:

“Every so often in history, you get a technology that comes along that's a game changer. They're things like gunpowder, they're things like the machine gun, the atomic bomb, the computer – and robotics is one of those. When we say it can be a game changer, it means that it affects everything from the tactics that people use on the ground, to the doctrine, how we organise our forces, to bigger questions of politics, law, ethics, when and where we go to war."

These “profound questions” are also about the wider context of the US deployment of drones in the “war against terror.” President Jimmy Carter wrote a candid and courageous OpEd in the New York Times a year ago, “A Cruel and Unusual Record.” The opening salvo is his thesis: “The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.” Targeted killings – and especially of US citizens, indefinite detaining of suspects in places like Guantánamo Bay, torture, warrantless wiretapping and government surveillance of its citizens – these are some of the human rights abuses Carter notes that have come on the heels of 9/11. He adds,

“At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”


Musings about a waning empire

A columnist for the British daily The Independent, Owen Jones, waxed eloquent about the world’s “last remaining superpower now at its weakest since World War II” (the war, I might add, that sealed the fate of the moribund British empire):

“Coupled with the US's ongoing failure to pressure Israel into accepting a just peace with the Palestinians, no wonder there is rising global anger at Obama. But of course, the issue isn't Obama, any more than it was Bush before him. The issue is US power. But despite its best efforts – and as menacing as it can be for Pakistani villagers and Bahraini democrats – its power is in decline. The US share of global economic output was nearly a quarter in 1991; today, it represents less than a fifth. The financial crash has accelerated the ongoing drain in US economic power to the East. Latin America, regarded as the US's backyard since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine claimed it for the US sphere of influence, is now dominated by governments demanding a break from the free-market Washington Consensus. And the Iraq war not only undermined US military prestige and invincibility, it perversely boosted Iran's power in the Middle East.”

I’ll close with a startling book review by a young and fiery Christian scholar, Eugene McCarraher, whose book, The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination, will soon come out. Amazingly, several phrases of his review appear on the cover of the journal in which it is published, Books & Culture (May/June 2013 issue), an evangelical publication. McCarraher is here commenting on a widely acclaimed book, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011).

Just a quick parenthesis on Graeber … He was an assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at Yale, widely popular with students and with a string of publications in his field. In 2005 he was told his contract would not be renewed – most likely for political reasons. For one thing, he wrote about anthropology as an anarchist. Also, he’s a veteran of the antiglobalization movement and more recently the scholarly voice of the Occupy Wall Street Movement internationally (see this article for more details).

Back to our associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University, Eugene McCarraher, whose work closely parallels that of Graeber’s. They both see capitalism as an insidious tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie (the “Plutocracy”), a tool that in the case of America has also enabled it to extend and bolster its far-reaching empire. That is the point of my own “Resources” entry on this site, "The Dark Side of Empire."

In this blog dealing with the drone war, I have emphasized the violent nature of the American empire. Here I end with a sobering reminder, not just that empires wax and wane – that’s been a staple of human history – but that our religious leaders are either eerily silent about its moral abuses or enthusiastically cheering them on. I think President Carter (still teaching Sunday School, I believe) would agree with much of this stinging indictment of the church’s endorsement of “the Chrapitalist gospel”:

“Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of ‘American exceptionalism.’the sanctimonious and blood-splattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal founts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.”

Certainly, this is not the Jesus I know. Human Trustees as a project is a vision of Jesus calling all peoples to love God and love their neighbors – and in so doing, care for the earth and all its creatures entrusted to them. That also means promoting peace and conflict resolution wherever possible. There’s got to be a better way than killer drones.

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.