Human Rights and Tolerance within Islam: Legal, Political, and Spiritual Perspectives
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane
Tolerance and Human Rights: The Quintessential Oxymoron
One of the reputed proto-founders of the Great American Experiment, Cicero, stated two thousand years ago: “Before one begins the discussion of anything whatsoever, one should first define one’s terms.”
As suggested by the American expert in the psychology of communication, Patricia Nur Abdallah, the generic word “respect” is better than tolerance in defining the approach to human rights in Islam, namely, respect for individual and community responsibilities and for the human rights that derive from them.
The generic word “respect” reflects three different levels of a new paradigm of thought. They range from tolerance at the bottom as the least inclusive level, and diversity at an intermediate level, all the way to pluralism as the most inclusive level and in this sense as the opposite of tolerance.
Basic tolerance means merely, “I hate you, but I won’t kill you yet.” Diversity means, “I can’t stand you, but you are here so I can’t do much about it.” Pluralism means, “We welcome you. We have so much to learn from each other, because we each have so much to offer.”
Thomas Kuhn’s path-breaking study in 1969 introduced the concept that paradigm shifts are the motor of history. As established frameworks of thought, such as tolerance, prove their own bankruptcy, new paradigms, like pluralism, emerge to explain and shape reality.
One of the best explorations of this subject, published in 2003 by Yale University Press, is William R. Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal. The well-known scholar, David Hollinger of U.C. Berkeley, writes: “This is the most ambitious book yet from the dean of historians of religion in the United States: a wonderfully discerning exploration of how Americans have variously confronted and tried to evade the challenge of religious diversity.”
The thesis of Hutchison’s book is that pluralism has never been institutionalized in America, much as Americans like to pride themselves on being a model of religious freedom. Calling for “new models for understanding,” Hutchison distinguishes “between a fact or condition called diversity and an ideal or impulse for which the best term is pluralism. The modern definition of pluralism as signifying an actual welcoming of diversity is a modern concept, which modern historians like to project back, without evidence, into American history.”
He observes that the very ideas of religious freedom and pluralism have evolved throughout American history in stages, of which the major ones in this “quietly persistent process of redefinition” are “pluralism as toleration, pluralism as inclusion, and pluralism as participation.”
Perhaps Hutchison’s most controversial conclusion, because it results in recommendations, is that the “melting pot” ideal “operated to suppress differences far more than to respect and utilize them.” He clearly details the lack of freedom inherent in pressures for “assimilation,” which amounts to both individual and community suicide. Although he has no specific recommendations, the thrust of the entire book advocates what should be called “integration.” This term, which he does not use, means that individuals of each group in society proactively bring the wisdom of their tradition to enrich the overall society in which they live. Hutchison instead uses the term “participation.” “Pluralism by participation,” he writes, “implies a mandate for individuals and groups … to share responsibility for the forming and implementing of the society’s agenda.”
The most extreme and most sophisticated example of patronizing intolerance in contemporary America, because it most starkly illustrates the reversal of truth and falsehood, was Michael Novak’s seminal article in the April 2003 issue of America’s leading journal on religion in public life, First Things. Its founder, Bishop Richard John Neuhaus, a convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism, changed the environment in Washington by his enormously influential book, The Naked Public Square. This journal and its elite pundits are today the world’s most influential force in shaping policy toward the role of religion, including Islam.
Michael Novak’s article, entitled “The Faith of the Founding,” represents an entirely new approach to Islam, because it is based not on
generalizing from the actions of extremist Muslims but on denial of the basic fundamentals of Islam as a religion. The newest strategy is to single out the essential truths of Islam, deny that they exist, and assert that their absence constitutes the Islamic threat. This sophisticated strategy may be more effective over the long run than are the simplistic claims of Pat Robertson and Franklyn Graham that Muslims are bandits and are programmed by their vicious cult to kill the infidels, meaning anyone who opposes their plans of global conquest.
“Only Judaism and Christianity,” writes Novak, “have a doctrine of God as Spirit and Truth, Who created the world in order to invite these creatures endowed with intelligence and conscience to enter into friendship with Him. Only the Jewish and Christian God made human beings free, halts the power of Caesar at the boundaries of the human soul, and has commissioned human beings to build civilizations worthy of the liberty He has endowed in them.”
Novak contends that even though some Muslims may be good, Islam is inherently bad because it does not recognize a direct relationship of the person with God and therefore can have no conception of human rights or of government limited by recognition of the sovereignty of God. He rejects as a fraud precisely all that Muslims have always said are the central teachings of their faith. By portraying Islam thus as inimical to the very foundation of America, this scion of the Neo-Con intellectual elite casts Islam as a mortal threat to everything good in the world.
This kind of extremism is dangerous because it constitutes ideological aggression much worse than the simple invasion and attempted occupation of another people’s land with the stated aim of saving the world from chaos. This intellectual and spiritual aggression denies the possibility of pluralism, regards diversity as problematic, and views tolerance only as a tactic in a war to the finish against evil. This is precisely the kind of aggression that stokes the fires of extremism among its targeted victims and necessarily leads the most alienated among them to respond in desperation with the tools of terrorism.
Human Rights in Islam from the Legal Perspective
We will address human rights in Islam from three different perspectives: legal, political, and spiritual. The Islamic legal perspective on human rights was developed over the course of centuries through Islamic jurisprudence, which is known as the roots or ‘usul of the Islamic shari’ah. And then we will address the political perspective and the practical matter that throughout much of Islamdom’s history the Islamic call for political freedom has been observed primarily in the breech.
Any discussion of human rights in Islam or in any other civilization should begin with recognition that the concept of human rights is new in the history of human thought. This concept is a product of the secular thought that originated in the European Renaissance, which was a unique movement to liberate humankind from religion. Most people in the world still view human rights in a religious context. Within this context, which is universal in human history, human rights have always been explored and developed as part of the higher concept of justice.
Justice is perhaps the most universal value in all civilizations, which is why there is so much negative reaction to the failure of American policy-makers to include freedom and democracy within the concept of justice as a higher paradigm of thought.
Both Sunnis and Shi’a have a common foundation in their classical reliance on justice as central to their Islamic faith, and they have a common need to re-emphasize this in order to apply Islam as a constructive force in the world. They also need to appreciate the central role of justice in the founding of America so that they can work to revive classical American and classical Islamic thought as the common heritage of Western civilization and indeed of all civilizations.
Justice assumes the existence of a truth higher than man-made positivist law. In fact, justice is merely an expression of this truth. The recognition of a source of truth that transcends the material of the here and now raises the question of linkage between the immanent and the transcendent, between the lower and the higher levels of reality, between “contingent existence” and “Absolute Being.”
The major purpose of religion and of prophets as intermediaries between God and man is to raise our natural awareness of the multi-dimensional nature of reality. Jesus, whom Muslims call the Prophet of Love, taught that as a manifestation of the divine he was an essential link. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This statement of ultimate reality and of the means to access it is just as true today as it was when Jesus spoke it 2,000 years ago and is perhaps even more needed, now that we have entered the most militantly polytheistic period of human history.
The study of justice in Islam is a distinct discipline. Although it has never had a distinct name, just as many Islamic disciplines did not have a name until centuries after they existed in fact, the best term for the Islamic study of justice might be ‘Ilm al ‘Adl. The direct English translation is simply “knowledge of justice,” which might connote a finished product with all the challenges in the past. In fact, the classical study of justice is heuristic in the sense that it seeks knowledge about the sources, nature, and praxis of justice, with the challenges lying more in the present as a means to build on the best of the past in search of a better future.
The simplest definition of ‘ilm al ‘adl is the search for transcendent justice as a source of wisdom to be manifested or embodied in a set of essential principles for a universal code of human responsibilities and rights. Only when people observe their moral responsibilities can any rights become real.
The purpose of all religion is to empower the truth, which exists independently of human beings but requires religion in order to be translated into principles of compassionate justice. The search for truth at the higher esoteric level is known in Jafari jurisprudence as ‘ilm al taqwa (knowledge of the One through love). The search to make it manifest at the exoteric or outward level, in the sense of balance through the coherence of diversity known as tawhid, may be identified as the major object of ‘ilm al ‘adl.
These two pursuits, the esoteric and the exoteric, as both the classical Islamic thinkers and their counterparts, Saint Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, defined them, have ultimate meaning only as they fulfill each other. This is the essence of Islamic thought and of every world religion.
Justice is a normative phenomenon in that its applications must derive from higher norms or purposes. Rules and regulations applied without guidance from their higher purposes can produce injustice. In Islamic jurisprudence the guiding norms are known as the maqasid or purposes of Islamic law, or as the dururiyat or essentials, or as the kulliyat or universal principles.
Justice is important for Muslims because they consider that it is the translation of truth into practice and that therefore justice is nothing more than the Will of God, as indicated in the Qur’anic ayah from Surah al An’am, 6:115, tama’at kalimatu Rabbika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The word of Your Lord is perfected and completed in truth and justice.” Its nature and substance, however, must be sought out through deduction from the three sources of knowledge, namely, 1) haqq al yaqin, known as Revelation; 2) ‘ain al yaqin, known as natural law or the sunnatu Allahi; and some jurists would say also from 3) ‘ilm al yaqin, which is the human intellectual processing of the first two sources.
In highly simplified explanation, the architectonics of justice in the Islamic shari’ah consist of a hierarchy of levels proceeding from the general to the specific, the highest known as maqasid; the intermediate or secondary level known as the hajiyat; and the tertiary level known as tahsiniyat, which might be compared to the specific courses of action in program planning.
The number and even the meaning of the maqasid are flexible, ranging from a generally accepted five a thousand years ago to seven or more in later centuries. Differences in interpretation depend in part on whether one is referring to the maqasid narrowly as law or more broadly as functional guidelines for public policy. The strictest definitions are called maslaha al mu’tabara, the broader as istislah, and the broadest as istihsan.
We may identify at least seven irreducibly highest principles. In highest priority, these start with haqq al din, which for six hundred years until the present third millennium was ossified in the Sunni portion of the Muslim world to mean “protection of true belief,” but in recent decades has been expanded by the greatest modern scholars, following the lead of Shaykh Ibn Ashur in the first half of the twentieth century, to mean “freedom of religion.”
Next come three sets of pairs. The first pair consists of haqq al haya and haqq al nasl, which mean the duties, respectively, to respect the human person and life itself and to respect the nuclear family and communities at every level that derive from the sacredness of the human person. The first one, haqq al haya, includes the elaborate set of principles that define the limitations of just war. The second one includes the principle of subsidiarity, which recognizes that legitimacy expands upwards from community or nation to state, and not the reverse.
The second set consists of three responsibilities that deal with institutionalizing economic and political justice. These are, respectively, haqq al mal and haqq al hurriya. Both economic and political justice are based on the principles of freedom through both subsidiarity and self-determination. It must be said that, more often than not, this second pair of responsibilities throughout much of Islamdom has been observed in the breech. And even when the principles are acknowledged, the derivative lower levels of institutionalized implementation have been ignored.
The third pair of maqasid consists of haqq al karama, which is the duty to respect human dignity, especially in freedom of religion and gender equity, and the duty to respect knowledge, including the secondary level of implementation known as freedom of thought, publication, and assembly.
Political Rights in Islam from the Theoretical Perspective
In addressing human rights in Islam from the political perspective, one must distinguish between theory and practice. The two human rights most emphasized today from the political perspective are religious freedom and political freedom, with gender equity a close third. Religious freedom has been respected in practice historically better in Islamdom than it has in Christendom, but the opposite has been true in recent centuries for political freedom in the sense of institutionalizing representative government.
The universal principle of political freedom, known as haqq al hurriya in Islamic jurisprudence, has always been understood as a call for self-determination by individual persons and by the communities in which they find their social identities. The secondary level of hajjiyat calls first of all for khilafa. This provides that the highest responsibility both of those who govern and those who are governed is to God. The idea is that people should be governed by people who are governed by God. This is basic to Thomas Jefferson’s teaching that a people can remain free only if they are educated, that education consists primarily in learning virtue, and that a people can remain virtuous only if both their private and their public lives are infused with awareness of God.
The next of the second-level principles of haqq al hurriya or political freedom is shura, which calls for responsive governance and for political institutions to assure that the government is a servant of the people rather than the reverse.
The third requirement is known as ijma, which is the duty of every citizen and especially of the opinion leaders to seek consensus on a preferred political agenda and to reach compromises on the means to pursue this agenda in specific policies and courses of action.
Institutionalizing these three second-level requirements of political freedom is important because self-determination as the framework of haqq al hurriya is based on the principle known in Western moral theology as “subsidiarity.”
This provides that all problems should be resolved at the lowest political levels, with resort to higher levels only when resolution is otherwise impossible. The concept of subsidiarity comes from two of the other primary principles in the Islamic code of human rights. The first of these two is haqq al haya, which provides that the highest level of human sovereignty, subject only to the Sovereignty of God, is the human person. This, in turn, gives rise to the correlative principle of haqq al nasl, which provides for the derivative sovereignty of the human community in ascending levels all the way to entire civilizations and the even to the human species.
Respect for both personal and community-based sovereignty is the root of the Islamic concept of ittihad, which refers to the unity that can result from the decentralization of political power through federalism or the looser concept of confederalism. Since political power follows the economic power of ownership, in Iraq, for example, decentralized political legitimacy might be operationalized best by privatizing ownership of Iraqi oil in equal shares of inalienable voting stock to the ultimate level of sovereignty, namely, to every person resident in an Iraqi federation.
This option has been considered at the highest levels of the U.S. government and resoundingly rejected. Such pulverization of concentrated economic power would undermine the efforts of American occupation authorities to centralize political power. Unfortunately, such top-down centralization and modernization have forced tribally-based communities into competition with each other either to control the American-imposed central government or to destroy it.
The same intractable problem has been created in Afghanistan, according to Selig Harrison, who is the long-time South Asia bureau chief at the Washington Post and is now Director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy. Writing in his January 30th column entitled “Discarding an Afghan Opportunity,” Harrison laments that the U.S.-backed Karzai government has been “rushing to create a centralized regime instead of keying the process [of unification] to the gradual development of a national economic infrastructure” in which every person has a personal stake.
The real problem is that the concentration of economic and political power at the behest of foreign interests is considered by both Iraqis and Afghanis and by most of the rest of the world as a denial of justice.
Even in the Holy Land we see a strategy to create two centralized governments in what may become two ghetto states rather than to promote a decentralized economy of mutual advantage as the means to develop a regional Abraham Federation based on acknowledgement that for more than a thousand years Muslims and Jews were each other’s most reliable friends and could be again. This option has been advanced and detailed by the Center for Economic and Social Justice now for almost a quarter century.
Ironically, one of the principal victims of such a strategy of centralized global management is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who provided his own epitaph after his talk at the Davos World Economic Forum on January 28th, 2007. According to David Ignatius’s column, “The Blair He Could Have Been,” in the Washington Post of January 31, 2007, Blair lamented, “The West’s fine talk of democracy and freedom has little meaning if it is not anchored in a sense of justice. Without such bedrock values, the grand goals of the Atlantic Alliance are empty.”
Political Freedom in Muslim Practice
This sad note introduces the practical aspects of political freedom and more generally of human rights in Islamdom. Unfortunately, the praxis or political reality of human rights in the Muslim world is a mirror image of Prime Minister Blair’s swan song about the practice of human rights by the West.
The major issue in contemporary Muslim thought is the role of the state. Like human rights, the concept of the state is a relatively recent Western construct. It arose as a means to end the Thirty Years War at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 by accepting human power rather than God as the highest authority in human affairs. The state is a secular construct that recognizes the corporate or collectivist identity of its citizens as the basis of legitimate power. As I learned in the introductory course on international law at Harvard Law School, the state by definition has a monopoly of coercion, and its geographical jurisdiction extends as far as it can control more than fifty percent of the population in a given territory. This legitimizes the political principle of “might makes right,” which would seem to be inevitable once one rejects justice as a restraining principle.
What happens when radicals in any religion begin to talk about creating a religious state? In effect they are talking about substituting themselves for God. Whether this is to be a so-called Islamic State, or a Jewish State, or a Christian or Hindu state, makes no difference. The inevitable result must be the denial of human rights.
The fountain of such extremism is the paradigm of thought popularized by Syed Qutb. He was the Muslim Brotherhood’s equivalent of Lenin in the sense that he redirected toward absolutism the Sufi-like movement begun by his enlightened mentor, Hassan al Banna, who functioned perhaps as the equivalent of the Brotherhood’s Karl Marx. Qutb’s doctrine was embodied in his declaration that, “There is only one place on earth that can be called the House of Islam (dar al islam), and it is that place where an Islamic state is established and the shari’ah is the authority and God’s laws are observed. … The rest of the world is the House of War (dar al harb).
Modern extremists may use different words, like dar al zulm, the land of evil, or dar al kufr, the land of those who are going to hell because they deliberately reject the truth, but the substance of their war is the same, namely, to invent and instigate a clash of civilizations and to declare a holy war with the slogan “no substitute for victory.”
Syed Qutb’s openly political paradigm of thought differs little from the openly religious paradigm of the radical puritanical reformers, whether anti-establishment like the Salafis in Saudi Arabia, or pro-establishment like the fascist Wahhabis. The ultimate aim of them all is the acquisition of absolute power here on earth. The basis of right versus wrong becomes the relativistic reduction of justice to one’s own narrow self-interest in a clash with everyone else, so that blowing up Jewish babies and oneself can be easily justified and even sanctified in the pursuit of a higher cause.
The modernist solution to felt injustice has always been to seek power. Failure in this pursuit can turn moderates into extremists, and failure to secure justice once one has grabbed power can generate still more extremism from the victims of the political quest.
Lord Acton declared that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This generalization is too abbreviated. The quest for power corrupts more than its possession, because madness comes from the arrogance of believing that one can acquire absolute power and keep it. This applies to both economic and political power, especially when the addict pursues each form of power limitlessly in order to augment the other.
Failure in the impossible quest for absolute power redoubles the madness. Since it is in human nature to seek the absolute, the quest for material power can turn into a false god. As the utopias of the twentieth century confirm, false gods of whatever kind in the world are the primary source of evil.
Terrorism has arisen as the new threat to civilization because the “terrorists” know that all the dominant paradigms of the twentieth century are bankrupt. In their hopeless rage they will not consider even the possibility of anything else, other than their own blind rampage of destruction. What they do not know is that they are creatures of this bankruptcy. They are part of the problem, not of the solution. Terrorists are products of Western cultural disintegration, even though they will die for the illusion that they are not.
The roots of terrorism predate the so-called “Islamic” phenomenon. This is brilliantly explained in Abdul Hakim Murad’s article, “Bombing without Moonlight: The Origins of Suicidal Terrorism.” In a companion article, entitled “The Mechanics of Terror,” in the Spring 2005 issue of Islamica, published in Jordan, Jibril Hambel writes: “The actual root cause is the real or imagined failure of a code of beliefs or set of social conditions, [which has produced] a moral/ethical/philosophical vacuum that self-styled reformers and modern-day prophets feel compelled to redress.”
This phenomenon can be observed during the last hundred years in a succession of failed ideologies, ranging from Communism, to Nazism, to apocalyptic Zionism and Wahhabi polytheism, to the more extreme forms of tribalistic Neo-Conservatism. The failure of movements for freedom and democracy without a higher framework of transcendent justice exposes their followers to the hollowness of their own values and to the contradictions in their own hopes. They resort to nihilistic violence in order to show commitment to the values they lack. Further failure only escalates the vicious circle.
Ignorance of the true solution taught by all the Prophets is why terrorists resort to terror and why their targets resort to terrorist counter-terrorism. They have no alternative but to destroy each other and themselves in the process, like scorpions in a bottle.
Deconstructing Pax Islamica
When President George W. Bush first took office, he called for a global Pax America, but was cautioned to replace this with Pax Universalis. Later he followed Henry Kissinger’s advice to avoid such utopian terms altogether until the world correlation of forces had prepared the way for a new international law conducive to such a goal. In his op ed position paper on August 12th, 2002, in the Washington Post, Kissinger abandoned his usual real politik by calling for an immediate invasion of Iraq specifically to introduce such a new international law.
Many Islamists in recent decades have called for an Islamic state, but they are referring to the so-called Islamization of specific states, not to the Islamization of the entire world. The most radical of all the Muslims, however, have never had any qualms about their call for a global Pax Islamica, which they call the khilafat. Most of them are former socialists and they are familiar with the Marxist doctrine that the dialectical forces of history will bring about the victory of the proletariat and the end of history. As converts to their unique sect among those who want to politicize Islam, these utopian extremists, most notably Osama bin Laden, believe that Allah has commissioned them to bring about the end of history through the imposition of a global Caliphate. Adopting the modern language of European secular humanism, Pan-Islamist extremists now call for a global “Islamic state” to be created through Muslim conquest of the world by a single ruler.
This issue of a global caliphate is not new in Islamdom. In fact, as a contentious issue it has never disappeared since it first surfaced more than a thousand years ago. The major issue is not whether there should be a universal or global caliphate but what it should be.
Ironically, the extremists’ chosen source for much of their extremism is Ibn Taymiya, the Hanbali jurist, who lived at the time of the Mongol invasion seven hundred years ago. He developed a sophisticated understanding about the Islamic doctrine of the khilafat that demolishes the extremists of his day and of ours. As a Sufi who opposed the extremism then spreading among the Sufis of his day, Ibn Taymiya was a political theorist who died in prison for opposing the extremism both of tyrants and of their opponents. He was in fact a model of those who both understand the sources of extremism and the means to counter it. His mission was to deconstruct extremist teachings doctrinally in order to marginalize their adherents.
One of his modern students, Naveed Shaykh, in his new book, The New Politics of Islam: Pan-Islamic Foreign Policy in a World of States, writes rather poetically that extremism comes when pan-Islamists operationalize a unity of belief in a human community of monist monolithism rather than in a boundless love for all of God’s creation in a transcendent Islamic cosmopolis. Extremism comes when people substitute a political institution for themselves as the highest instrument and agent of God in the world, when they call for a return of the Caliphate in its imperial form embodied in the Ottoman dispensation. It comes when they call for what Shah Wali Allah of India in the 18th century called the khilafat dhahira or external and exoteric caliphate in place of the khilafat batina or esoteric caliphate formed by the spiritual heirs of the prophets, who are the sages, saints, and righteous scholars.
In the late Abbasid period of classical Islam, according to Naveed Sheikh, “The political scientists of the day delegitimized both institutional exclusivism and, critically, centralization of political power by disallowing the theophanic descent of celestial sovereignty into any human institution.” In other words, they denied the ultimate sovereignty claimed by modern states since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which elevated states to the ultimate level of sovereignty, in place of the divine, thereby relegating religion to the periphery of public life or excluding it and with it morality altogether.
The late Abbasid scholars, faced with a gradual process of creeping despotism, denied the divine right not only of kings but of every human institution, and they condemned the worship of power and privilege that had brought corruption upon the earth. For insisting on this foundation principle of Islam, as detailed in Chapter 59, “The Scholar’s Road,” in Khalid Abou el-Fadl’s book, Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam, the greatest scholars throughout Muslim history were imprisoned, some for years and decades. This is precisely why Muslims traditionally have considered them to be great.
Ibn Taymiya, completed the process of deconstructing the ontological fatalism of caliphatic thought by restricting the role of the caliphate to what probably the greatest Islamic thinker of all time, Abu Hamid al Ghazali, had called an ummatic umbrella functioning only to protect the functional integrity of Islamic thought rather than to govern politically. Ibn Taymiya asserted that the unity of the Muslim community depended not on any symbolism represented by the Caliph, much less on any caliphal political authority, but on “confessional solidarity of each autonomous entity within an Islamic whole.” In other words, the Muslim umma or global community is a body of purpose based on worship of God. By contending that the monopoly of coercion that resides in political governance is not philosophically constituted, Ibn Taymiya rendered political unification and the caliphate redundant.
The very concept of an Islamic State and even of political Islam is a prime example of Westoxification, especially in its jihadic incarnation as the pursuit of justice through power and the pursuit of power eventually as an end in itself. By drawing religion into the pursuit of power such political Muslims preempt those who would bring the wisdom of higher religion into the public square. The very concept of political Islam reveals a Western mindset with a totalitarian leaning based on a level of tolerance that denies the very concept of human rights.
The Islamic Spiritual Perspective on Human Rights
Contrary to the assertion by Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, the spiritual perspective on human rights is shared equally and entirely by the greatest traditionalist thinkers in both Christianity and Islam, as well as in Judaism. They recognize a direct relationship of the person with God and therefore conceive of human rights as sacred, including the right of persons and communities to a government that is limited by the sovereignty of God.
Above all, they recognize that the practice of morality, traditionally known as the virtues, is the purpose of spiritual wisdom. In the language of Christianity this means that moral theology is united with dogmatic theology in a single discipline of knowledge.
Perhaps the best discussion of religion by Christian theologians relevant to Islamic jurisprudence may be found in the treatise by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., in his 479-page magnum opus entitled Christian Perfection and Contemplation According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, Tan Books, Rockford, Illinois, 2003, translated and reprinted from the original French Perfection chretienne et contemplation, 1937.
Of all the most eminent Christian scholars of the past two millennia, these two, writing respectively seven hundred and four hundred years ago, were probably most familiar with Islam. St. Thomas wrote that the master of masters in philosophy and moral theology was Avicenna (Ibn Sina), through whom he absorbed Aristotelian methodology.
According to Miguel Asin Palacios in his book Saint John of the Cross and Islam, translated by Douglas and Yoder, Vantage Press, 1981, the Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, borrowed his entire methodology and terminology from Shaykh Abu’l Hassan al-Shadhili, who was a contemporary of St. Thomas. Shaykh Shadhili of North Africa founded what came to be known as the Shadhiliyyah Sufi Order, which is the only great tariqa to originate outside of Central and Southwest Asia and is ancestral to many of the modern Sufi paths in Europe and America.
St. Thomas and St. John of the Cross are usually considered to be opposites in that St. Thomas emphasized the rational basis of faith, whereas St. John of the Cross emphasized the higher level of infused wisdom. Together with all the Muslim theologians, theosophists, and jurisprudents, both St. Thomas and St. John agreed that there could not possibly be any contradiction between faith and reason, and that if one saw an appearance of such then one’s understanding of at least one of the two must be wrong.
All of these wise thinkers, however, went far beyond the negative belief that there could be no contradiction between the truth that God reveals though nature and the truth that he reveals through human intermediaries, known as prophets. They also believed that each of these two sources of truth is designed to reveal and enrich the other and that they both have a common purpose.
Father Garrigou-Lagrange compellingly demonstrates that St. Thomas and Saint John of the Cross agreed on everything and that only the materialist mind could fail to understand Saint Thomas’s insistence that the purpose of every person and of moral theology is a closer “union with God.” Muslims call this union wahdat al wujjud. One may debate the extent to which this concept of union with God is more epistemological than ontological, that is, whether the experience is more subjective than objective. My extensive discussion on the subject in http://www.theamericanmuslim.org entit,led “Wahdat al Wujud: Fact or Fiction,” suggests that merely discussing this issue intellectually obscures the value of the experience both for the individual person and as a source for a higher perspective on human rights.
This background would cast doubt on the supposition that three months before he died St. Thomas became a Muslim when a gift of contemplation from the Holy Spirit (ruh al quddus in Islamic terms) caused him to terminate his multi-volume Summa Theologica in mid sentence and refer to all he had ever written as “only straw” in comparison with what he now beheld. He was ordered to appear before the Pope in the Vatican and supposedly was murdered along the way. This is sheer speculation designed to undermine appreciation of the common essences of the Christian and Islamic religions.
Like classical Islamic jurisprudents, St. Thomas taught that “dogmatic theology,” which deals with what one can know only by revelation from Ultimate Being, i.e. God, such as life after death, must be considered together with moral theology as a single science. Moral theology deals with ethics and the virtues in human action and interactions in the world of Existence, as distinct from the higher level of Being. The virtues can be known by human reason based on observation in the material order of reality, but Revelation has enlightened and ordained them to a supernatural end.
These two methods, the deductive or analytical from the higher world of Being and the inductive or synthetical from the lower world of Existence must be combined, because they have the same end. This end is based on the mystery of God, known best through infused contemplative prayer in the realization that God is closer to the soul than it is to itself. This is expressed in the Qur’an by the statement, Wa nahnu aqrabu ‘alayhi min habil al warid, “We are closer to him [the human person] than is his own jugular vein.”
This union of Existence and Being provides the context also for a favorite prayer of the Prophet Muhammad, who used the word hubb for love of God: Allahhumma, asaluka hubbaka wa hubba man yuhibbuka was hubba kuli ‘amali yuqaribuni ila hubbika. Translated, this means, “Oh Allah, I ask you for your love, and for the love of those who love You, and for the love of everything and every action that will bring me closer to Your Love.”
The theme and purpose of Father LaGrange’s major life work was to revive St. Thomas’s teaching that ascetical and mystical theology is nothing but the application of broad moral theology to the direction of souls toward ever closer union with God. This, in fact, might be considered to be the Christian definition of religion.
If one’s personal relation of loving submission to God, which Muslims call taqwa, is the essence of higher religion, then the human right known as freedom of religion is axiomatic. The ultimate freedom is when one’s only desire, as Thomas Merton once put it, is to become the person that one is, in other words, to become the person that God created one to be. This includes the freedom not to do so.
This spiritual perspective, which raises human rights to the sacred level as ultimate ends of existence, necessarily implies also the opposite. Any perspective that raises an ideology of power to the practical level of an ultimate end and rejects justice even as a concept in foreign policy, inevitably will lead from cosmos to chaos.