Islam and Dignity

The loss of worldly power was perceived throughout the Arab domains as an indication of Divine disfavor. But worldly power was not what Islam was meant to be about. The revelation of Mohammed was reworked to put a curb on worldly power by constraining human rule through the man-made advent of Islamic Law. In other words, Sharia was meant to be a brake on human tyranny through the institution of a legal code. This code (Sharia) was a reworking of the Divine word through the institution of human legal interpretation.

Similarly, the revelation itself was meant to unite the disparate tribes and extinguish the call to violence through a non-prophetic succession to Mohammed’s divinely-inspired rule. Proper human governance is therefore at the very root of Islam’s mission. Yet Mohammed alone was perceived by the faithful as the supreme leader of all history’s prophets; he was equally perceived as the seal of all prophecy. Without a prophetic vehicle to revelation, the transmission of an Islamic leadership through a divinely-sanctioned leader (who could be universally recognized) became next to impossible.

Who, then, had the authority to rule the Islamic community? This has been the underlying question of the Muslim polity for the last fourteen hundred years. Was worldly success through the accumulation of power (empire) the key? Or must the leader be sanctioned through the bloodline of Mohammed? This, of course, became the essence of the schism between the Sunni and Shiite branches. The Shia believed that the divinely- sanctioned leader must be of pious lineage to the Prophet himself, whereas the Sunni recognized both spiritual and worldly power.

But what happens when both worldly power and divinely-inspired lineage fail? Like Judaism, divinely-inspired lineage never really fails; it merely retreats into a messianic limbo (the line of David) to be recreated sometime in the future. Whereas worldly power, by its very nature, ebbs and flows. By 1258, Baghdad had already fallen to the infidel Mongols, and the worldly power of the Arab Caliphate dissipated. For the last seven hundred and fifty years, the divinely-sanctioned Islamic leadership has been either hidden (to return as a Shia Messiah) or driven solely through the institution of empire and pure non-Arab political power.

By the time of the Ottoman Empire, Arab political power had been dormant for centuries. Kurds, Turks and Circassians had ruled the Middle East, and the legitimacy of the Caliphate had been vastly overtaken by the institution of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Along with the long-lasting political demise of the Arabs, the Persians too had suffered from the original Mongol invasion. The economy of the Iranian plateau had faltered due to famine, disease and imbalanced urban growth. A Persian diaspora had spread eastward, while among the Arabs, the seat of their cultural prowess shifted westward toward Cairo. Within Islam and throughout the centuries, the divinely-sanctioned power of the Caliph had shifted to the pure worldly power of the Sultans. The unity of the Islamic community through the ascendancy of a pious and powerful leader became a thing of the past.

But according to the Islamic law (Sharia), the Sultan was an equal to the dung spreader. His spiritual essence was the same as anyone else. In the eyes of Islam, worldly position held no sway. But political power can and will corrupt. And as the adage goes, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Throughout the entire history of Islamic civilization, the Islamic law had always been a curb on the potential tyranny of the Sultan. While it was clear that a Divine sanction to his rule was without justification, it was equally clear that his obligations to the faithful for a certain level of just treatment were assured through the instrumentality of the religion of Islam itself. What else could explain the advancement of the religion to the far corners of East Asia, China, South Asia and Western Africa?

In fact, as the European Age of Exploration advanced, it was the very success of Islam that most stands out. Everywhere that Christianity and Islam competed throughout the Asian-African land mass, Islam achieved adherents. Its rule held attraction. History must be judged fairly. Unlike the ravages of Christianity through the Americas and Africa, by the mid-1600’s Islamic worldly power (empire) was on the wane. From the institution of black slavery onward, Islam’s physical retreat was clear and undeniable. The slave trade and the conquest of the Americas greatly benefited Europe. It profited enormously. But unlike Islam, Christianity’s spirit regressed.

As the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing European religious wars dissipated the power of the papacy, European abstractions like the concept of the Divine Right of Kings, capital expansion, and the nation state entered into the realm of history. But at the same time, worldly political power was not the cause of the advancement of Islam. The perception of its just rule can be the only explanation. The nation state, capitalist exploitation, and the absolute rule of kings were never Islamic inventions. Throughout Islamic history, Sharia had always been the body of governance. As a Jew, I can most certainly understand the concept of religious law as a deterrent to the absolute power of tyrants. But as the Torah had a Divine authorship, Islamic law was more like a Divinely-inspired document similar to our own Talmud.

With the second advancement of European colonialism in the 1800’s, and its domination far into the 20th century, the perceived absence of Islamic worldly power began to force a dramatic change within the Islamic community. The quest for European modernity began to eat away at the very foundations of Islamic civilization. Power became more important than justice, as power alone began to be understood as Divine intent. The absolute power of the ruler, the idea of a secular state, and the nationalism of ethnicity replaced Sharia. Coups, military juntas, fascist dictatorships, Stalinist political parties, and the adoption of European anti-Semitism were the hallmarks of imitative politics throughout the Middle East and beyond. The loose boundaries of Islamic civilization were replaced by a strict European conception.

American and Soviet competition turned the Islamic world into a chessboard of competing armies and foreign ideologies. Zionism was perceived by the Arabs as a colonial monstrosity, and not what it really was: The self-determination of a people long oppressed and systematically enslaved by a war-like culture without a sense of legal justice or its universal application. This failure of Arab society to reach out and embrace the Jews was like a poisoned chalice of lost empowerment. Judaism has suffered dearly from the Arab’s misguided perception of Zionism as a European construct. If anything, Zionism originated as a desperate retreat from Europe, an attempt to reconstruct Judaic civilization as a vital cultural synthesis within the boundaries of Islamic dignity and true brotherly equality.

But the Arabs were blinded by the power of London, Berlin and Moscow. Empire, fascism and communism fascinated the Arab ruling imagination as Islamic compassion was disregarded for an early victory over the Jews. Then the Europeans and Americans needed Arab oil, but democracy was never on the agenda of the Washington plutocrats. The last thing that the oil kings and potentates wanted were equal rights and vast social investment. Better to blame the Jews. Entire Jewish populations were made refugees by kings and dictators who disregarded thousands of years of social history (Iraq and Morocco) in order to evacuate the evil Zionists. Islam slowly retreated as foreign ideologies unleashed savage domestic tyrannies against Arab people unprotected by Sharia. In this cruel neo-imperialist environment, even Islam itself morphed into Jew hatred within the mosque, as a new political Islam emerged and moderation gave way to extremism.

Now with the rise of Hamas, religious war can be the only outcome. Forget about the Americans and the Europeans. They will always plead innocent to their crimes against Muslims and Jews. It is we who must live with the consequences of our own particular madness. The more that we see each other as enemies, the more we will become enemies. I don’t begrudge my brother his religion, as long as he doesn’t deny me my rightful place within my own homeland. But I will not be conquered either by Europeans, whose history is mired in genocide and exploitation, or by Arabs who would deprive me of dignity.

Don’t talk to me of the 1967 lines; don’t insult my intelligence. Speak to me of Torah and Koran, of justice and compassion. Show me that Islam and dignity are the very stuff of the Arab community, and together we will discover a solution, and the innocent blood of brothers will finally become a dim, distant memory. Let a thousand dictators die; let the people decide who is to be king. For divinely-sanctioned rule is the rule of the people. Let this be the way of Islam, as it has now become the way of Judaism. Democracy as human dignity is both Judaic and Islamic. If dignity is the way to peace — let there be dignity.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).