In the discussion thread of our recent post about Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the issue soon became: what should the attitude of the West have been toward the democratic uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere? On the one hand, as Americans it seems we ought to support democracy wherever we can; on the other, democracy will produce different results when practiced by different peoples. My own concern, which has so far been borne out by events, was that these revolts would lead directly to Islamist regimes in the region: hardly a gratifying outcome in terms of Western interests.
The ‘crux of the biscuit’ is this question: Do Western normative principles appeal to universal longings, and are therefore universally applicable across all peoples and cultures? Both liberal muticulturalists and neoconservative nation-builders seem to agree that they are.
Our commenter ‘The One-Eyed Man’ summed up with this:
…I do think that the principles in the Declaration of Independence are universal, applying to Muslims equally to Christians and everyone else.
This is a commonly held view, but with particular regard to Islam, it’s a fundamental error, of critical importance. I’ll try to explain.
As much as it may be fashionable (especially among unbelievers like me) to downplay the significance of religion in America’s founding, the Declaration of Independence explicitly expresses a Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of God, and of God’s relationship with human beings. It clearly declares this understanding in its most famous passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…
The central argument of the Declaration of Independence is that the Crown, having repeatedly infringed on the rights of its American colonists, has voided its claim to sovereignty over them. So: what does it mean for men to possess inalienable rights granted to them by God, and how is this belief distinctly Judeo-Christian?
First, this assertion reflects the belief that a loving God grants these rights as part of His covenant with mankind — a covenant made first with the Jews, and then extended to the rest of humanity by Jesus Christ. Central to both is the idea of a loving God who, loving all men as individuals, directly grants each of them the assurance of His protection. The Declaration explicitly places this direct, individual assurance from God above any earthly institution’s power to abrogate.
But the idea of a loving Creator with whom mere humans may enter into this sort of personal covenant is directly at odds with the Islamic concept of God. The Islamic God Allah is perfect, transcendent, and aloof; the idea of Allah deigning to “love” a mere human is absurd, and indeed the thought is offensive to God’s majesty. The great Islamic theologian and philosopher Abu Hāmed Mohammad ibn Mohammad al-Ghazzālī, who died in 1111 but remains probably the most influential Islamic theorist of all time, argued against this by pointing out that love implies a need, an incompleteness, on the part of the lover that can only be fulfilled by the beloved. But God is perfect, continued Ghazzali, and complete unto Himself — so the idea that He might have a longing that can only be fulfilled by reciprocal love with mortal men is an abomination, as is the notion that He would enter into an equal partnership with anyone or anything at all.
This brings us to a second point: the very idea of an irrevocable covenant, as implicit in the concept of inalienable rights, necessarily implies a limitation of God’s sovereignty: for God to make an unbreakable promise necessarily limits God’s freedom of action. But the divine Will and infinite potency of God obviously can permit no such limitation — again, the very idea is an offense and an abomination.
Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence is a product of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which in turn has at its foundation the idea of a lawful natural world. This concept also reflects the Judeo-Christian assumption of a loving God: one who, having endowed Man with the gift of reason, provided a world that operated without caprice, and that was subject to reliable regularities that human reason could comprehend. But again, this idea of a lawful Cosmos necessarily limits the freedom and sovereignty of God. Indeed al-Ghazali went so far as to say that because God’s power is infinite, His moment-by-moment attention to the world’s every minutest detail is what maintains the world’s seeming regularities, and the appearance of lawful connections between observed causes and effects is merely an illusion. If drinking water seems to alleviate thirst, it is only because God, on each occasion, has chosen to follow our drinking of water with the relief of thirst. But to imply that God’s choice in the workings of His creation is constrained by natural laws is again to suggest that God’s sovereignty is limited, and is again an abomination.
Finally, there is the Islamic concept of tawhid, or the unity of God. This idea was developed extensively by Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya, a medieval Salafist whose teachings still exert great influence. In his widely read paper A Genealogy of Radical Islam, Quintan Wiktorowicz explained (emphasis mine):
One of Ibn Taymiyya’s most important contributions to Salafi thought is his elaboration of the concept of tawhid — the unity of God. He divided the unity of God into two categories: the unity of lordship and the unity of worship. The former refers to belief in God as the sole sovereign and creator of the universe. All Muslims readily accept this. The second is affirmation of God as the only object of worship and obedience. Ibn Taymiyya reasoned that this latter component of divine unity necessitates following God’s laws. The use of human-made laws is tantamount to obeying or worshipping other than God and thus apostasy. [20th-century Muslim theologian Mawlana Abul A’la] Mawdudi adopted this position and drew a sharp bifurcation between the “party of God” and the “party of Satan,” which included Muslims who adhered to human-made law.
This idea, which is very much a part of mainstream Islamic thought throughout the world, raises an impassable barrier between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition of a distinction between divine and worldly law — the root of America’s founding principle of a separation of Church and state.
There is much more I could say about all of this, but it’s late, and this post is already long enough. I hope, however, that I have shown that it is a mistake, and betrays a dangerously superficial acquaintance with core Islamic doctrine, to imagine that bedrock American principles — in particular those Enlightenment principles expressed by Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence — apply as aptly to serious Muslims as they do to those of us raised in the Western religious and cultural tradition.