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Democracy, Pluralism and Minority Rights - Part II

By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by E-mail: )

Democracy is the great slogan of our times. You can package practically anything under this wrapper, capitalism, socialism, nationalism, imperialism, you name it. The slogan is a marketing executive's dream and is next only to religion and motherhood in its appeal to the guts of the masses. The Tsunami of democratic slogans spares no one. The East and the West, the haves and the haves not, North and South, the rulers and the ruled fight their battles under this banner. They justify their actions and wrap their rhetoric in terms of democracy. It is both a shield for the oppressed and a dagger for the oppressors. Muslims are no exception to this rule.
They too justify dictatorships, one-man rule, oppression and exploitation using the language of democracy. For some time it was fashionable to use the terms "Islamic democracy" and "Social democracy". The qualifiers have now been dropped but democracy is nonetheless the guiding star, the North Pole of Muslim rhetoric. We continue our brief review of how Muslims have historically faced up to the issue of governance. The laws regulating the life of the community and of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled were established very early in Islamic history. The legacy of the early Companions was the Khilafat but soon this institution was turned into a de-facto dynasty.

The ruler was the "Malik" and the ruled were the "Riyaya". Both terms have their origin in the Qur'an. While the term Malik is often used, the term Riyaya appears to have its origin in Suratul Baqra, Ayat 104, and seems to connote a meaning similar to "shepherd". Although there is disagreement about the origin of this term, it appears that the term "Riyaya" came into political usage in the social context of the Middle East where a large portion of the population consisted of shepherds or was involved in this trade. The term "Sultan", which gradually replaced the term "Malik", is of a later historical origin and was the result of Seljuk Turkish irruption in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In previous installments we examined how consultative democracy, pluralism and minority rights were dealt with in the period of Omar ibn al Khattab and Omar bin Abdul Azeez. Here we examine the reign of Harun al Rashid and the turbulent times of Nasiruddin al Tusi. Harun al Rashid (d 809 CE) was a Mu'tazalite. In fact, he was a Mu'tazalite par excellence. The Caliph al Mansur had embraced the Mu'tazalite doctrines in 765 CE and made it the state ideology.

The darul hikmah was established in Baghdad and had been in full operation for twenty-one years before Harun ascended the throne. The books of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, the Indian mathematics of Aryabhatta and Chinese technology of papermaking and kaolin were introduced into the capital. The empire extending from Spain to the borders of China was at peace with itself. Harun, avoiding the lure of further conquests, set out to consolidate the empire and rule with justice. He sent ambassadors to Charlemagne of France and the Tang emperor of China, stabilized his borders and turned his attention to internal governance of the state. It was during this period that three of the four Sunnah schools of fiqh, the Hanafi, Maliki and Shafi', as well as the Shi' Jafariya school of fiqh, were consolidated. The application of the Shariah was codified in accordance with the demands of the times and rights and responsibilities of Muslims and non-Muslims were elaborated. The fourth school of Sunah fiqh, namely the Hanbali, did not emerge until a generation after Harun and was largely a reaction to the Mu'tazalite excesses. The Mu'tazalites were rationalists, and as such applied Greek logic and Greek philosophy to the problems of the state.

As champions of the deductive method, they were not different from the philosophers of today. However, there is no evidence to indicate that their patronage of Greek philosophy made them embrace Greek democracy. Harun, despite his piety and his open mindedness remained the "Malik", the owner and defender of the realm, which was to be bequeathed to his sons upon his death. While the rational techniques was applied with vigor to secular and sacred issues alike, the Abbasids were not prone to adopt the Greek method of elected governance, give up their privileges and hand over the reigns of state to a consultative or elected body of legists. The Zoroastrians and the Christians in the empire continued to pay the Jizya, the Muslims their zakat and agricultural taxes, the division between Darul Islam and Darul Harab hardened further, and no attempt was made to extend the principles of fiqh to Muslims living in non-Muslim lands. This situation continued for more than four hundred years thereafter. Historical Islam remained pluralistic but exclusive.

The embrace of ijtihad did not extend to lands where the khalifa was not acknowledged as the supreme temporal and spiritual authority. It was left to a non-legist, a scientist by training, to take on this monumental task. It is the historical good fortune of Muslims that some of the most far- reaching ideas have emerged from outside the circles of muftis and religious establishments. Nasiruddin al Tusi (d 1274) was one such great savant. Born into distinguished family of Tus in Persia, Nasiruddin received his early education from scholars who were fleeing the Mongol onslaught. The times were hard indeed. The hordes of Gengiz Khan had descended from the heights of Mongolia (1219) and had devastated a vast swath of territories extending from Amu Darya to the Tigris. What was left was leveled by his grandson Hulagu Khan who sacked Baghad in 1258 and trampled the last Abbasid Khalifa al Musta'sim under Mongol horses. Centers of learning were razed to the ground, libraries burned and scholars enslaved. It was not until 1262 when the Mongols were stopped at the battle of Ayn Jalut near Jerusalem by Sultan Baybars of Egypt. Nasiruddin al Tusi thus lived under the Mongols.

The governing law of the land was the Mongol Rasa, not the Islamic Shariah. It was in its darkest hour that the creative genius of Islam triumphed. An outburst of emotive spiritual energy from the great Sufi Shaikhs converted the Mongols and propelled Islam into the farthest corners of the Indian subcontinent, into Indonesia, Malaysia and sub-Saharan Africa. Nasiruddin was valued by the Mongols for his astronomical knowledge. He was the inventor of the 2-axis gimbal (used in modern space applications) and the formulator of the Tusi couple in mathematics. However, his primary contribution to Islamic civilization was his treatise, Akhlaq e Nasiri, a compendium of ethical edicts emanating from Sufi ethos and Shariah applications. He knew that when the governing authority was non-Muslim, the Shariah was non-enforceable. But Nasiruddin's genius was in using the Shariah as the sap that produces the fruit of good character, namely, akhlaq.

It was akhlaq, applicable in Islamic and non-Islamic milieu alike, not the cut and dry application of fiqh, that was the essence of Islamic life. Nasiruddin al Tusi's work took Islamic civilization away from its singular emphasis on fiqh and opened up new horizons for human civilization. His vision was transcendental. Without compromise, he incorporated the essence of the Shariah into akhlaqh and enabled Muslims to lead an Islamic life in a non-Islamic hostile milieu. The impact of akhlaq e Nasiri on history was no less profound than the ethics of Confucius. His treatise formed the basis of Mogul rule in India and enabled the Great Moguls to create a synthesis of a pluralistic Hindustani culture which was open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Its products included the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Badshahi Masjid, Hindustani music and poetry and the Urdu language. Nasiruddin al Tusi was perhaps the only genius who made a determined attempt to create an intellectual space wherein Islam could breathe, survive and prosper even if the environment was hostile. His book was required reading in Mogul schools, for all subjects, Hindus and Muslims alike.

As we shall see, the very success of al Tusi's work in the Mogul courts produced a counter reaction, which swung the pendulum back in the direction of a strict application of fiqh. The doors to a pluralistic culture which honored the rights of minorities and majorities alike were shut. Historically, fiqh has marked the reach as well as the limits of Islamic civilization. These limits were tested only once, but in the absence of ijtihad, the walls of fiqh proved to be inelastic and Islamic civilization was thrust back into its comfort zone, with fiqh as the sole barometer of Islamic life.  


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