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Religion Library: Islam

Vision for Society

Written by: Mohammad Fadel

In addition to the shariah's role in establishing and sustaining a kind of pluralism, pre-modern Islamic states were institutionally weak relative to modern states. As a practical matter, therefore, they lacked the resources to engage in campaigns intended to enforce rigorously the demands of a religiously-inspired code of conduct. Here too, however, the norms of the shariah played an important role in restricting the power of the state to become an intrusive enforcer of morality. The primary shariah value that operated to prevent the rise of moralistic regimes was the commitment to individual privacy; the public—even one that is just according to religious standards—has no right to search for sin in order to suppress it. The state, therefore, had no right to barge into homes looking for illicit activities such as wine drinking. Private spaces were largely immune from state interference, even as public spaces continued to be regulated in conformity with Islamic norms and even though as individuals, Muslims would remain morally accountable to God for their conduct in those spaces that were beyond the reach of the state. 

Muslim Ethical Obligations
Politicalpower of the state to regulate the conduct of its citizens through law
Expressiveobligation of individuals to commend good conduct and condemn evil conduct
Moralobligation of each Muslim to love good and reject evil in their hearts

Finally, as mentioned above, the paradigm for just interaction in Islamic law was contractual. As a result, this gives Islamic law a rights-respecting sensibility, something that was also important in reducing the power of moralizing political movements. While it would be anachronistic to suggest that pre-modern Islamic law had the same conception of individual rights as the modern liberal state, where it did recognize individuals' rights, those rights were robustly protected. Islamic conceptions of public justice generally had to respect the notion that the means chosen to pursue the "good" had to be consistent with the rights of individuals, particularly their right to some sort of judicial hearing. Government officials, except in cases of relatively minor violations such as deceptive trading practices, could only enforce the law through courts. Likewise, Islamic law also barred the vigilante justice of individuals, recognizing vigilantism itself as a crime.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is Islam concerned with justice?
2.     How are non-Muslims bound to Islamic norms?
3.     How is private life separated from Islamic state control?


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