Can Citizens of Muslim Societies ever be Free? A critical analysis of M.J.Thompson’s Islam, Rights and Ethical Life

Malick Elias

Micheal J. Thompson, in his ‘Islam, Rights, and Ethical Life: The problem of Political Modernity in the Muslim World’ (Theoria: vol.57, ps.100-125, 2011) identified two broad theories which he states seeks to explain the lack of political modernity in Arab Islamic societies. First, there is the economic development approach which argues that the lack of it in Arab Islamic societies has prevented the domain of civil society from forming providing no opposition to authoritarian institutions (Zubaida 1992, 2001a; Bellin 1994a; Anderson 1995; Ibrahim 2002) The second explanation is that the value system of Islam as a religion is ‘anathema’ to modern forms of politics, thereby shaping non democratic and even authoritarian institutions. (Fish 2002; Barakat 1993; Korany 1994; Zakaria 2003). Thompson explains that both of these theories taken on their own are ‘inadequate’ and set about exploring ‘modernity’ in a different way, to offer an alternative explanation of Islam’s relationship with political modernity. It is important to note here that the real question that Thompson is exploring here is Islam’s relationship with Democracy. To what extent does Democracy represent ‘Political Modernity’ or ‘Modernity’ in the realm of politics is the sum of a form of ‘Democracy’ are questions needed to be explored in themselves.

Thompson begins his hypothesis proposing that the core political and cultural problem “lies in a substantive lack of development of the concept of rights.” (p.100) The concept of ‘Rights’ as he puts it is not merely juridical or political, but rights which relates to ‘ethical life.’ Now since the term ‘ethical life’ is key towards understanding the main thrust of his paper, it is best to single out how he defines this:

“By ethical life I mean the ways in which moral categories are organised and legitimated by a society and its members. Ethical life therefore refers to the pattern these moral categories take and form a structure of values and norms,habits, and practices that orient individuals, their actions, sanction certain institutions, condition their social practices, and so on, based on the ways the structure of moral categories are binding upon them. Ethical life defines the normative relations of concepts such as the individual and its sphere of action, that of the community, of the state, of sacred and profane, and so on. The emergence of individual, subjective rights therefore frays the cohesion of traditional value systems which Islamic moral tradition provides. In this sense, rights not only find no firm foundation in Islamic political or ethical thought, a significant boundary also exists to their political development since it would cause a crisis within the ethical life of the society as whole as well as the system of social, cultural and political institutions. The relation to modernity is therefore doubly complex since Islamic culture—to varying degrees—offers some degree of resistance to the corrosive effects of modernity while at the same time restraining some of its more progressive features.” (p.100)

The underlying message from this quote is that the concept of individual rights in Islam is unclear. Having deduced that much, he wants us to be cautious about reducing his arguments to mere questions of ‘Individual  or Human Rights.’ Thompson wants us to ask such questions as: What is the value of the individual in Islam? Or how does Islam order and categorise the concept of personal freedom in social life, for instance?  At the start of his paper he cleverly advances the term ‘Political Modernity’ to mask his real intention to explore ‘Islam and Social and Cultural Modernity.’ He later states:

“I believe that the content of political life is perhaps even more dependent upon the moral structure of society and the ways that it integrates and forms the ethical-political value of its members.” (p.101)

Which brings us back to the value laden-ness of the concept ‘Modernity,’ which in common parlance connotes ‘Westernisation.’ Because Thompson is attempting to explore Islam’s ethical position on individual rights he struggles to detach himself from his own cultural prejudices and therefore his intellectual journeying between worlds, the Islamic and the Western secular other, exposes the neosecularist premise of his approach. I say ‘neosecularist,’ but he distances himself from this accusation, claiming:

“This is why I place emphasis on the concept of rights – political rights which are grounded in a new normative sense of political freedom for moral agents, i.e, modern ethical-life – as opposed to modernisation, secularisation, or the maturation of natural science alone as a bridge to political modernity.” (p.105)

Throughout his thesis he anticipates the pitfalls or counter-arguments against his approach. But it is clearly difficult for him to serve both masters. It would have been better for him to begin his thesis by stating that modernity, means being modern and being modern means to have progressed away from Theocratic Feudalist societies towards a socially liberated democratic society. Every step throughout his paper, he finds it necessary to clarify and defend his position.

“The view of political modernity I take here is one that is a solution to the problem of social modernisation (which means): the fragmentation of traditional moral world-views into a form of politics which can successfully resolve the conflicts of different interests and moral world views that emerge from the processes of modernisation and institutional change brought on by the urbanisation, industrialisation, as well as their respective pathologies.” (p.101)

Thompson is obviously attempting to shape the discourse, which not only provides an explanation for the reasons behind Islamic Revolutions or the Western media preferred coinage ‘Arab Spring Revolutions’ (which in his view is the transformation of Islamic societies from nomocentric moral paradigms to a rights based moral paradigms), but assumes the role of guiding  ‘Political Islamic movements towards Modernity. For example he adds:

“Concepts of the good, fairness, and justice are moral views which are binding on the habits and practices of the community as a whole suppressing the emergence of a rights-based moral paradigm which emphasises the autonomy of ethical subjectivity and the need to adapt Islamic theology to the needs of modernity.” (p.102)

Do not get me wrong. I am not ridiculing his assumptions about whether Islam has a grounded concept of the rights of the individual. I applaud his bravery to make such assumptions, especially, without referring to the collective views or claims of Islamist on the topic itself. Moreover, Thompson, not known for being an Orientalist, is at least acknowledging that change has to emerge from within and not imposed from outside of the ethical life of the societies its seeks to change.

Regarding change from within, he argues that “an emphasis on rationalist and humanist interpretations of Islamic theology and tradition are essentially useless in coming to terms with modernity.’ (p.103) This is essentially so, to him, because he sees the coexistence of Islam as a religion in the public space of politics to be incompatible as the former will ultimately justify forms of authoritarian regimes.

So what are the limits of Islam to Modernity? In Thompson’s mindset the first and foremost is ‘religious morality’ as opposed to civic morality. Secondly, Islam is seen as a religion and thus it provides no sustainable solutions to questions of individual rights and true freedom of conscience and beliefs. Thirdly, Islam as opposed to Christianity he suggests provide absolutist solutions. This he argues is because Islam recognises no devision between the spiritual and worldly aspects of life. Thus religious identity in Islam is political identity. Fourth, religions and in particular Islam discredits a “core dimension of modernity, ethical autonomy.” (p.111) Fifth, duties, habits and responsibilities are conditioned by Islamic Law (Shari’ah), which subscribes to a “transcendent standard” and not an ontological one. Sixth, Islam does not see people as ethical agents and the source of morality. Seventh, he cites an Islamic reformist thinker’s quote that the language of the Holy Quran is of duties and not rights. Much more can be deduced from Thompson’s list of the limitations of Islam towards individual rights and freedoms, but the aforementioned is sufficient.

As a Muslim observer on the development and transformation of Islamic thought Thompson’s discourse offers many explanations of the malaise of social and political realities in the Middle East, vis-à-vis the synthesis of Islam with that of ‘Modernity.’ For example, his perceived limits of Islam to transform Muslim societies to be truly democratic (modern), produces uneven development. “…small portions of elites …. (who) begin(s) to move toward modern forms of association while broader swaths of the population still maintain traditional, communal forms of social cohesion (p.117),” ultimately leading to social conflict at some point in time. This therefore gives rise to authoritarianism to suppress social conflict. It is not difficult for anyone to see this pattern of uneven development in many parts of the Muslim world. But is his conclusion as simple as to leave Islam or ‘religion’ out of the political space as many liberal Muslims in the Muslim world misconstrue along with their peers in the West?

Thompson is unsure which is better, the excessive emphasis on nomocentrism in Islamic ethical life or the excessive emphasis on the individual and subjectivity in Western discourse and suggests that this debate continues in the West today between liberian and communitarian communities. He does believe however, “that by focusing on the problem of the development of rights as a framework for individual, social and political transformation … is crucial to break the cycle authoritarianism” and uneven development and begin the building of strong democratic institutions.

As I conclude, I reflect upon the perceived individual rights and freedoms that the West enjoys and which Muslim societies are being denied. It is safe to claim that all Muslims understand that each person is responsible for their own deeds and choices in front of Allah.

“If you disbelieve, know well that Allah has no need of you. Yet He does not like unbelief in His servants. But if you are thankful, your thankfulness will please Him. No one shall bear another’s burden. You are destined to return to your Lord and He will tell you what you used to do. He is well aware even of what lies hidden in your breasts.” [The Holy Quran, 39:7]

The criticisms levied against Islam by Western observers are predominantly on matters of Women’s rights and the perceived absence of Human Rights. On the question of women’s rights the Hijaab or Muslim dress code is seen as an antithesis of modernity and representative of Islamic ethical life. Often masked by calls for women rights to full and equal treatment before the law in matters of employment in high office, freedom of choice on marriage and divorce and full inheritance. A range of issues Thompson would agree stem from the nomocentric religious ethical psychology of Islam. What he has not mentioned in his thesis are  the distinct cultural paternal as opposed to maternal pathologies of both Western and Eastern cultures, which Islam has bought a sense of justice and harmony to, since the pre-islamic pasts of these societies. I am sure that he would agree that when Islamic values come to dominate those currently in the West that Islam in the West would appear much different to that as practiced in the context of rights and freedoms in the Arab Muslim World.

On the question of Human Rights, what is seen as anti modern by Westerners, is the discomfort Islamist policy makers feel towards alcohol, a socially acceptable drug in the West, but one in contravention with explicit Quranic injunction.  Also, the social acceptance and open expression of sexual choices, which remain ‘in the closet’ in Muslim societies. Similarly, the choice not to believe in Islam or to be an apostate is seen another antithesis to human and individual rights and freedoms.

Allah’s eternal response – previously mentioned – to the ungratefulness of some of His servants has and will always be, one is free to choose one’s  destiny and manner of living, but each will eventually be judged for his or her choices and actions in the next life. Furthermore, contrary to what he believes the doctrine of Rights is embedded in Islamic theology and political thought. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) once made a distinction between the rights of humans towards their Creator and the Rights of the Creator towards His creation. When asked what the difference was between the two, the Holy Prophet replied that the servants right owed to God was to worship Him alone and God’s rights towards His servants was that if they did that to the exclusion of others, they will earn the right to enter paradise. Moreover, it once came to the attention of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) that Abu Dhardaa excelled in the observation of some of the rights of Allah to the neglect of his family, health and guests to which the Prophet said: “Your God has rights over you, your body has rights over you and your family has rights over you so therefore give to each their due rights.” (Hadith Juhayfah Wahb ibn ‘Abdullah, mentioned in Bukhari and Muslim) Based upon similar statements Muslim scholarship past and present have identified two categories of rights in Islam the right humans had towards their Creator, which was simple to have Faith in God and live by His ordinances and the rights humans had towards each other in society, which has been best summed up in Imaan Ash-Shaatibi’s (d.1388) understanding of al-Maqaasid ash-Shar’e or the Philosophy of Islamic Law, that stressed the legal protection of the public interest or Maslaha of society. Hence, Thompson’s claim of the lack of any firm foundation of rights in Political Islamic thought is based upon the current ill practice of Muslim nations and not upon Islamic sources.

The failure of ‘Liberalism’ in the Muslim world is not due to the limitations of Islam or to its resistance to modernity, but instead the lack of adherence to communitarian values, which Islam favours over selfish individualism in the name of liberalism.

“And We want to confer our favour upon those who are oppressed in the land and many them the leaders and inheritors therein.” [The Holy Quran, 28:5]

Islam is not against liberal values, because it stands in the middle of opposing views, but good riddance to the days when liberals purported that the place of religion in the private sphere of life and that individual choice and freedom belongs in the public space. No, Islam calls upon all to restrict all individual choices and freedoms which are contrary to the public good, deemed so, by the overall objectives of the Shariah, to the private domain. So individual sexual preferences and expressions, which are contrary to the values of Islam remain in the bedroom and are not expressed through the media in film, entertainment, billboards and or public displays of affection. Thompson’s theory does offer some explaining power on the discourse of Islam and individual rights, and a useful theoretical device for measuring the balance of liberal and communitarian values in Muslim societies which claim subscription to Democracy, but falls short of providing any real cross-cultural solutions detached from a Western conception of rights and freedom.


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Malick Elias

The vision of 'Vivaislam' is to provide a space for Muslim and non-Muslim activists to air their voices on how best to organise and manage their world. The aim is to focus upon recommending solutions to issues of social injustices, freedoms and citizenship facing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies, rather than offering descriptions of problems. It is our hope that these voices will reach the echelons of power and influence.