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Religion Library: Islam

Vision for Society

Written by: Mohammad Fadel

Title: Masjid Nawabi (Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina Source: ethical duty to command the good and forbid the evil has had the effect of making questions of political order central in the Muslim experience. The Prophet Muhammad himself acted as a lawgiver for the early Muslim community after he emigrated from his hometown of Mecca to the nearby oasis town of Medina to help bring peace after a bloody civil war. In so doing, one of his first acts was to promulgate a written agreement, signed by the various tribal groups inhabiting Medina. A central provision of this agreement was that tribal loyalty could not be used to shield individuals from liability for their breaches of the peace. In the pre-Islamic Arabian context, where tribes felt no obligations to outsiders, the notion that a member of a tribe could be held liable for a wrong committed against an individual from another tribe was a revolutionary concept.

Questions of justice, and the relationship of religion to justice, subsequently became an important concern for Muslim theologians, jurists, and philosophers. At first blush, it would appear that the twin commitments to a system of ethics rooted in revelation and to the goal of manifesting that system of ethics in the world could lead to a strictly moral conception of the state. While Islamic history certainly produced instances of such Muslim states, these tended to be exceptions rather than the rule. The reason for this lies both in the nature of internal restraints within the shariah and the practical limitations of pre-modern Muslim states.   

Fundamental norms (daruri)Secondary norms (ijtihadi)
set forth explicitly in revelationbased on scholarly interpretation
include religious doctrine
(unity of God, accountability before God)
include most doctrines and ethical obligations
also include practical obligations
("Five pillars of Islam," dietary restrictions)

Because of the role that interpretation played in the articulation of the positive norms of the shariah, substantial disagreement existed as to what the shariah required in any particular instance. The existence of principled disagreement itself served as an important check on the temptation to engage in puritanical politics. Intra-Islamic differences were also compounded by the fact that Muslim societies were generally home to several religions, and while that religious pluralism is not the same as what exists in contemporary liberal multicultural societies such as the United States or Canada, it did mean that Muslim theologians had to consider the extent to which Islamic norms could properly bind non-Muslims. They concluded that only those rules of Islamic law that were not based exclusively on religious adherence could properly bind non-Muslims. For example, non-Muslims could not be held liable for violations of the Islamic proscription against wine-drinking, but they could be held liable for the Islamic proscription against assault.


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