- January 15, 2008
Comparing Classical American with Classical Islamic Thought: A Review of Omar Tarazi
The major cause of civilizational dissolution over the past couple of hundred years is the elevation of “a new collectivism dedicated to human progress” to the status of a false god. This is the watchword of progressivism. Progressivism has come to mean the utopian pursuit of secular ideologies as the ultimate means and meaning of human purpose. Collectivism has come to mean the denial of meaning for the human person and for the communities that embody it. Collectivism elevates artificial ideological constructs, including the “state” and the “business corporation,” as the ultimate actors in the human drama and as substitutes for God.
The essence of error in the modern world is captured in the single sentence:
“Instead of bemoaning the state of the world, we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism dedicated to human progress.” This sentence represents a classically modernist syndrome. A syndrome, according to Webster’s dictionary is “a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality.” This is what Joseph Ratzinger very rightly was berating in his Regensburg colloquy shortly after his accession as Pope Benedict XVI to the leadership of the Roman Catholic magisterium. He seemed to know next to nothing about classical Islam, but he accurately described the same evils that all revelation, including the Qur’an, prophetically warned against.
This is what the Founders of America were berating as the major cause of evil in the world and is precisely what the Great American Experiment was inaugurated to combat. This is also what every divine revelation has posited as the core of all evil, even though during the historical period of divine revelation few understood it as such since humankind had not “progressed” to the level where such evil was possible or even conceivable.
The most dangerous form of collectivism is religious because this justifies as ordained by God the militant polytheism of sectarian tribalism. This is what the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were designed to prevent. Only slightly less malignant is the new religion of secular humanism, which declares that the individual, not God, is the ultimate sovereign and that therefore positivist law invented by human beings, whether by majority rule or by totalitarian fiat, is the only criterion to determine ultimate truth and human rights.
Perhaps the most brilliant and fascinating analysis of Islamic law ever penned makes the point that in 1940 the U.S. Supreme Court suddenly reversed all the teachings of America’s Founders and from then on declared secular fundamentalism to be the official religion of America. This almost book-length analysis by Omar Tarazi ([email protected]) is entitled Managing Religious Conflict in the Muslim World: Lessons from America’s Founding Fathers. Its major thesis is that the case law of the U.S. Supreme Court during its first century and a half beautifully upheld the quintessentially Islamic jurisprudence that had existed in theory from the very beginning but had rarely ever been put into practice.
Tarazi’s theme, which has to be read in detail for adequate understanding, is that the more recent interventionist approach of the U.S. Supreme Court to regulate the dynamics of religion and government contradicts the “free market” approach of America’s Founders, who limited the power of the federal government in such matters in order to give greater leeway to experimentation at lower levels of government so that, in Qur’anic terms, truth can prevail over error. Tarazi makes it clear that the radical Islamist doctrine of institutionalizing religion in the public square is un-Islamic not merely because it inevitably denies freedom of religion but because it denies the role of community in the adaptation of religion through ijtihad to diversity of place and time, which is the greatest genius of classical Islamic jurisprudence.
The major gap in Tarazi’s magnum opus is his failure to highlight or even to mention the role of justice as the overarching paradigm of purpose for the founding of America, as enshrined in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, where justice comes first among the five purposes and freedom comes last as merely one of the four products of the first. This oversight is perhaps natural since the very concept of justice is anathema to any democracy of special interests and to the academic world of relativism euphemized as “pragmatic realism.”
The second major gap is Tarazi’s failure to address natural law as the Founders’ universal paradigm of thought. The early Supreme Court cases until 1940 spoke of religion in the generic sense of belief in God and human dependence on Him, but often in the sense of Christianity as part of the Common Law. This ecumenical definition as the essence of good governance was designed to prevent the establishment of sectarianism in restricting religion to tribalistic concepts. In addition, this broad definition of religion was supported as essential to promote community cohesion, without which no nation can survive. Tarazi quotes a huge quantity of U.S. Supreme Court cases, as well as American political icons over the years, but they are all summarized in Thomas Jefferson’s famous wisdom: “A people can remain free only if they are properly educated. Education consists primarily in learning virtue. And no people can remain virtuous unless both their private and public lives are infused with awareness of the divine.” This summarizes all the wisdom that America has to offer the world but has seemed to have long since forgotten.
The task of Islamic scholars in the world today is to revive natural law, which includes at its highest level divine revelation, as the source of justice in both theory and practice. This is the task of the Encyclopedia of Natural Law that the International Institute of Islamic Thought would like to prepare over the next few years and then maintain as a constantly developing wikipedia of the best scholarship. Tarazi is a brilliant example of what must be highlighted in this encyclopedia as guidance for academics in all religions, because he offers so much substance even though he has not yet fitted his ijtihad into the framework of justice and natural law that derive ultimately from the Will of God.