Comparing Classical American with Classical Islamic Thought: A Review of Omar Tarazi
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane
“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.” What is wrong with this statement?
The first half is thoroughly Islamic and thoroughly American. Civilizations fall when pessimists see growing inequities and fail to respond as agents of change. Civilizations rise when optimists follow a higher vision and challenge the status quo. Arnold Toynbee devoted his seven-volume history of civilizations to prove this thesis of challenge and response. The higher vision is always theological in the sense of seeking transcendent truth and it is always axiological in the commitment to translate ultimate truth into immanent justice.
Jeremy Henzell-Thomas writes that leaders lead and followers follow in response to hopeful visions of the future and that whoever relies on divine help in doing the Will of God can not be pessimistic. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Even if you would know that the world will end tomorrow, go out and plant a tree.” Furthermore, the world might not end tomorrow. The Qur’an reminds us that God merely says “Be” and it “is”. The source of permanent optimism is the desire to do the Will of God because humans plan, but God is the best Planner.
Now, how about the second half of the introductory sentence of this review, namely, “building the institutions of a new collectivism dedicated to human progress.” Certainly, the institutional environment determines how successful individual persons can be in doing good. Working alone at simply being a good person may warrant heaven but it won’t accomplish much on earth toward the pursuit of truth and justice if the institutions of society pose barriers to constructive change. Human societies are in constant need of reformation and always will be. The spiritual bottom line, as Rabbi Michael Lerner emphasizes, is the ultimate motivation and source of change. But, charity alone can serve merely to entrench unjust economic and political institutions. Perfecting defective institutions is equally important.
What is wrong with institutions designed to promote a new collectivism dedicated to human progress? This can be a semantic trap to undermine and replace transcendence with immanence as the ultimate purpose of human existence. 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 human drive for perfection, which is built into our human nature, is why we seek progress. But, when we lose the sense of the sacred in an ultimately transcendent reality, progress inevitably mutates into progressivism as the utopian pursuit of secular ideologies that deny the ultimate meaning and means of human purpose.
The essence of error in the modern world is the syndrome of collectivism and progressivism, which sometimes hides under the label “liberalism” and even “human rights.” A syndrome, according to Webster’s dictionary is “a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality.” The tendency to regard this abnormality as normal and even desirable is what makes it particularly malignant.
The three major characteristics of this malignancy, as pointed out on page 91 of my article, “Human Rights in Traditionalist Islam,” The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Winter 2008, are: “the imposition of centralized secular power as a method of modernization without the concept of community-based coherence and responsibility behind it, the propagation of atomistic individualism as a means to societal transformation without a recognition of the value of the individual person, and the accompanying attempt to impose an omniverous collectivity without an appreciation of the responsibility and value of free community, ... all of which have created a worldwide crisis in identity and authority, as well as a search for a higher reality and a willingness to live for this reality and even to die for it.”
The cancerous evil of secular humanism in its manifestation as collectivism and progressivism 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, and all the Founders of America prophetically warned against.
The most dangerous form of collectivism is religious because this justifies the militant polytheism of sectarian tribalism as ordained by God. 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.
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, despite principled protests by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, 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 proscribing religion in the public square, just as much as institutionalizing it, 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.
Tarazi’s future research is designed to further develop this theme by exploring the role of justice as the overarching paradigm of purpose for the founding of America. Justice is enshrined in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, where justice comes first among among the five purposes of the Great American Experiment and freedom comes last as merely one of the four products of the first. Unfortunately, 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 task of Tarazi’s research is 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, often with 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 U.S. Supreme Court cases extensively, as well as American political icons over the years, as his sources for American history and for understanding the vision of America’s Founders. 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 loving awareness of the divine.” This summarizes all the wisdom that America has to offer the world but seems to be rapidly losing.
The task of Islamic scholars in the world today is to develop the maqasid al shari’ah, the universal principles of Islamic thought, as the best means to revive natural law, because natural law includes divine revelation (haqq al yaqin) together with modern science (‘ain al yaqin) and the human faculties to process them both (‘ilm al yaqin) 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 provides a brilliant example of what must be highlighted in this encyclopedia as guidance for academics in all religions and as the focus for comparing classical American and classical Islamic thought in the never ending search for the Will of God.