Humans Are God's Stewards on Earth

Gudrun Krämer, Islam scholar at the Freie Universität of Berlin, delves into the traditional Islamic view of the relationship between the individual, society and the State.

Contemporary discussions of Islam, human rights and democracy frequently refer to what the Koran and the Sunna - Mohammed's writings and recorded acts - "have to say on the subject". Yet the normative tradition founded on these texts contains only general advice on "just" action, and offers no coherent conception of the relationship between the individual, society and the state. Although some Muslims may wish to see it as such, the Koran is not the constitution of an Islamic state. Consequently, we can only ask what contemporary Muslim people (of both sexes) "have to say" about human rights and democracy, and how these stand in relation to the aforementioned normative texts.

G.Krämer Foto: BR-Online

​​Prof. Dr. Gudrun Krämer, born 1953, is head of the department for Islam Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. She has taught at universities in Bonn, Kairo, Bologna, Paris and Hamburg
Photo: BR-Online Of particular interest in this context are those "Islamist" theorists and activists who are expressly working towards the establishment of an "Islamic order". Such a system would be expected to replace "inauthentic" Western models and ensure cultural authenticity, social justice and collective strength. In the age of globalisation, the desire for cultural authenticity has become more important than ever before. With this in mind, it probably shouldn't surprise us that Islamists seem more interested in the legitimacy of a democratic system within the framework of their own religious and legal traditions than in the efficiency or productivity of such a society. From Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to the supporters of the Malaysian PAS, Sunni Muslims are mainly committed to the enforcement of the Sharia - a legal and ethical code that is only inadequately described in the words "Islamic law", and which has far-reaching consequences for the legitimation of civil and political rights and obligations. For these rights and obligations are derived from a belief in the sovereignty of the people - and for this there is no place in the Sharia, a theocentric system based on the will and the law of God. The norms and values of the Sharia form the basis and the benchmark for individual behaviour and social order. By contrast, the form of a polity based on the Sharia is of only secondary importance; nowadays, only a few people desire the restoration of the Caliphate (which was abolished after the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1924). Thus the oft-repeated formula, "Islam is religion and state" ("al-islam din wa-daula"), does not imply that Islam dictates a particular form of government, but merely that it includes and has a normative influence upon political action, too.

Caliphate and Sharia

An orientation towards the Sharia allows more room for change and development in the social and political spheres than a fixation on the Caliphate. It also makes it easier to adapt to different conditions, and even to introduce new organisational forms originally developed in the non-Islamic world - provided these can be accommodated within the framework of the Sharia. For Muslims believe that the Sharia was created by God and is merely interpreted or "put into practice" by humankind.

In fact, most Islamist authors deal with political institutions and procedures in a fairly brief and generalised manner. Yet it's remarkable how these writers insist on the need for political controls and for collective political decision-making, as the Koran and the Sunna themselves offer few points of contact for such distinctively modern concerns.

A central role is played by the principle of consultation ("shura"), which the Koran recommends to Muslims whenever they have to deal with any important matter. Shura, however, is a method, a way of proceeding, and certainly not any kind of an institution. Nonetheless, many contemporary Muslims equate shura with the institutions of parliament. In their view, parliamentary democracy may be accepted as a contemporary form of shura - as long as it remains within the orbit of Islam. There is still controversy, however, about the specific details of democratic organisational form. For example: although the principle of majority rule has no tradition in Islam, many contemporary Muslims support it - provided the majority makes no "un-Islamic" decisions. Classical teaching also allows the separation of powers, at least in the sense that the authority wielded by a ruler (which is per se indivisible) may at times be delegated; nowadays, indeed, many Muslims support such a separation of powers. (According to strict Islamic teaching, however, there is in fact no place for a legislative branch - for God has already laid down the norms, values and laws of life, and mankind need only "apply" these.)Law and responsibility

Nonetheless, in the modern view, this application of divine law may well take place within the framework of a parliamentary system - and it's noteworthy that this system's representatives may indeed be elected MPs, and not just Muslim clerics and lawyers ("ulama"). "The proper conduct of government" is regarded quite generally as a great good. Admittedly, the mechanisms of political power, parliamentary control and democratic participation are often only vaguely elaborated. The functions and boundaries of political opposition, for instance, have seldom been worked out systematically.

There has been more fundamental discussion of the normative grounds of both "Islamic" and democratic-pluralist systems. Democracy cannot be reduced to a mere set of procedures and institutions, such as pluralism, competition and participation; instead, it presupposes certain value judgments and legal conceptions, and there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that these can only take root and flourish in a Christian / Western environment. Here, too, interesting new approaches can be discerned even amongst Islamist thinkers. In these circles, it is strongly emphasised that the rule of law is essentially guaranteed within the framework of a Sharia-based Islamist system; yet the rule of law does not necessarily entail equality and civil liberties. Certainly, though, many Muslims do derive the idea of human rights from the Koran, which refers to the dignity of human beings endowed by God with certain rights and responsibilities.

Under divine law, however, the freedom and autonomy of the individual has its limits; and in such areas as sexuality, art and science, these limits are very strictly defined. There are also grave restrictions on religious liberty (for Muslims!). According to Islamic law, apostasy - lapsing or seceding from the Muslim faith - is subject to a number of civil-law sanctions, such as forfeiture of the right to inherit or pass on goods. Indeed, apostasy may actually be punished by death.

In general, a stronger emphasis is placed on the responsibilities of an individual than on his or her rights. Islamists are particularly fond of making urgent appeals to the religious or social accountability of individuals. According to the Koran, each human being has been placed on earth as God's representative or steward ("khalifa" = caliph). People are expected to be conscious of the responsibility this incurs, and to fit into the community harmoniously. From such a perspective, individualism is neither encouraged nor seen as worth striving for. The public good is of greater importance than the interests of the individual; and Islamists are not alone in thinking that individualism can all too easily collapse into divisive and destructive egotism.

Freedom within limits

This does not rule out the possibility of a plurality of opinions, interests and social groupings. Indeed, in this respect, the Islamic world can boast a much more favourable historical balance than Europe. While dissidents and religious minorities were victimized in Europe from the Middle Ages right up until modern times, persecution has been a rare exception in the Islamic countries. Indeed, according to a statement by the prophet Mohammed, a community is "graced" by differences of opinion. As we have already pointed out, however, this freedom is not limitless. Contemporary authors recognise the right to freedom of speech and assembly "within the boundaries of Islam".

A definition of these boundaries is naturally also an expression of social and political power-relationships, and "anti-Islamic" forces are normally beyond the pale. And while the principle of pluralism was consolidated in the legal schools at a very early stage, the various different views and interpretations of Islamic norms and values have hardly been given any kind of institutionalised form up to now.

Today, many Islamists continue to reject political parties. It's not for nothing that Islamist groups tend to avoid calling themselves "parties", preferring designations such as "Community", "Union", or - at most - "Front". The ideal of a unified Muslim community remains paramount, perhaps precisely because the plurality that actually exists is not always without its tensions.Problematic equality

The principle of equality is the source of considerable difficulties. According to Islamic teachings, all human beings (or at least the "faithful" among them) are equal before God - but not before the law, where women and non-Muslims do not enjoy equivalent treatment. This applies particularly to the laws affecting marriage and inheritance. The predominant view is that men and women have complementary roles in society. The woman is first and foremost housewife and mother, and may take on further tasks only after fulfilling these primary duties, and then only with the consent of her legal guardian (who is normally her husband). As regards non-Muslims: in a break with classical views on the status of "dhimmis"(protected minorities), they are now frequently granted "the same rights and duties", while remaining excluded from holding certain offices.

Traditional concepts

First and foremost, non-Muslims are excluded from holding the position of Head of State, for it is felt that they cannot represent a Muslim-dominated community. Secondly, they may not hold judicial office, since judges apply the Sharia, to which non-Muslims are not always subject. This limited discrimination goes beyond traditional concepts of tolerance, yet it still doesn't accord with the principle of equality.

All in all, then, the picture is mixed. As regards the "techniques" of political organisation, Islamists have clearly progressed beyond classical models: the Caliphate is now far from being a mandatory norm.

Yet many Muslims seek to distinguish between techniques and values - and in the case of the latter, they strive to maintain restrictions they see as divinely preordained and thus inviolable. This limits the rights of liberty and equality enjoyed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Of course, "divine" norms are interpreted and put into practice by human beings, and it goes without saying that these people are also formed by the societies they live in. Self-evidently, this applies to Islamists as much as to anyone else; and although they may speak in the name of Islam, they have no monopoly on its interpretation. As a consequence, the relationship between Islam, human rights and democracy will continue to be a subject of controversy.

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

Source: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte; (c) 2002 Gudrun Krämer