The Synergy of Libertarianism and Islam

AFFAIRS OF RELIGION AND AFFAIRS OF STATE

Address by M. ZUHDI JASSER, Chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy
Delivered to the Economics Discussion Group of Phoenix, Phoenix, Arizona, October 19, 2005

When it comes to libertarian ideology and its synergy with Islam, mine is a minority opinion within the “current” Muslim community. My prayer is that it is a majority opinion within the Muslim conscience.

It is my belief as a Muslim that libertarianism is a prerequisite for piety and for a pure unadulterated relationship with God. Faith must be personal in order to be “faith”. Moreover, what is faith?—but a belief in that which cannot be proven but does exist and for which one may be held accountable? Islam as I know it and practice it is a personal faith without encumbrance external to my own physical being, to myself. It is unencumbered by clergy, or a man-made hierarchy.

It is my belief as a Muslim that liberty is necessary for religion and religion is necessary for liberty.

The independent nature of this relationship is at the core of the success of both ideologies—a virtual covalent bond.

What is Islam as a religion? What is Islam to me?

Islam is derived from the root term selama, “to surrender or submit” to God. Thus, in reference to the relationship of the soul with God, the almighty creator, the soul is only at “peace” [selam] if it has completely submitted to the will of God. One will achieve the ultimate free will—the purest of liberty and truth—if a Muslim has submitted to God. The crux of the matter is thus what is exactly meant by this submission. I could elaborate ad nauseam about what this concept is “not”. But today I will only focus on what it “is” to me. I will focus on what my faith is, in forming who I am as a libertarian Muslim.

Interestingly, while we may have a few quibbles on whether I tow the line of libertarianism in areas of a forward foreign policy or accepting government payments in my medical practice, I believe the area in my life in which I am a strict uncompromising libertarian is in my relationship with God. This relationship is unidirectional. While I am a creation of God, my understanding and manifestation of that relationship is entirely created by me and enacted by me. The vehicle of internal harmony which I utilize to achieve peace in my relationship with God is one based on the Truth that my perception of God is that He is real and all encompassing, omnipresent, omnipotent, and all empowering in a divine humility. In the absence of a belief in a Creator and the free will He (the Creator) placed within me to choose to believe in Him, I am left inexorably with the emptiness of self-worship (this is a binary formula similar to many other binary choices in life). The presupposition of His creation is initiated with Free Will (Liberty).

In the Koran, God tells Muslims—“If I so desired to I could have forced you to believe, but I did not.” Thus to believe in God and his faith is to believe an individual’s choice is his or hers alone and must be free of coercion or else the entire faith is abrogated and irreconcilable. The purity of this choice, this liberty to believe, is unequaled in life for it is this choice over which all else is measured and over which I believe, as a believer, I will be judged in the Hereafter. The existence of a Day of a Judgment by the creator establishes the binary nature of life. Good and bad, joy and sadness, or pleasure and pain without both we know neither.

The decision, or any of our exercises of freedom and free will, are meaningless if they are not finalized with a judgment or an observation from the Creator. Joy is meaningless without pain. Love is meaningless without hate or apathy. This choice and final arbitration is the ultimate chance and the ultimate test of liberty. While we always seek to understand life, to understand God is to have that comfort of an explanation for all that in life which defies explanation no matter how hard I try. This is the submission. With liberty as the core truth upon which we all agree, the variation of that Truth whether the God of Abraham through Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, or any other faith is very personal with all being possibly the ‘right path’.

Relevant historical landmarks of the Islamic faith

The religion of Islam was brought to this world from God, Muslims believe through a revelation transmitted by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed beginning in 610 C.E. and ending in 633 C.E. This revelation intermittently was compiled to form the Muslim holy book—the Holy Qur’an. The faith was not revealed to Jews or Christians in order to convert them, but rather to the pagans of Arabia who had no moral code, and wallowed in materialism, arrogance, ignorance, and tribalism.

In the Qur’an, God retells many of the stories of Judaism and Christianity to the Muslims of Arabia from Adam to Abraham to Moses to Jesus.

Mohammed wore many hats, and in reading the Qur’an one notes that it is very clear in the passages when God is referring to Mohammed as His Prophet, as His Messenger, or as the head of state. This shared role certainly stretches one’s ability to purely separate the concepts of religion and state. But in the scheme of history, the revelation of Islam had been a profound step forward in the journey toward liberty and in the journey to separate that of this world from that of the next. The creation of the city-state of Medina and its compact with the many tribes of various faiths in the region rests in history as one of man’s greatest steps forward in establishing an example of pluralism and a governmental contract guaranteeing liberty and freedom from government and of religion regardless of faith. This was based upon a foundation of Islamic law, the sharia. So a knowledge of the legal processes of the faith of Islam was prerequisite.

For centuries this foundation became the basis of a new global liberty. Many in fact fled Europe to escape the persecution of medieval Christianity of the time in exchange for the open society of the Islamic world. Paul Johnson, in the History of the Jews refers to this period in the 12th Century as the Golden Age of Judaism. Islamic renaissance brought forward Greek philosophy, new sciences of algebra, applied mathematics, astronomy, advanced medicine (Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine), and a cumulative experiential law based upon local precedents with little central authority.

The positive contributions to the world of Islamic society from 650 to 1500 are numerous and are the subjects of treatises. But, what followed is also a complicated history which through a number of stages led to the deconstruction of the Muslim community.

With the Ottoman Empire closed were the days of religious ijtihad—the interpretation of Islamic scripture in light of modern day understanding. The independence of religious centers of higher learning was a thing of the past. The dynamic nature of religious law in a precedent system similar to that of western courts of today was no more under the militarized Ottomans. This culminated in Ataturk outlawing the Arabic language and stifling any ability for attempts at ijtihad.

The Twentieth Century brought Muslims a colonial change, a change which distanced them even further from a modern interpretation of their faith. After the World Wars the abrupt withdrawal of foreign forces left some hope for democracy and freedom, but the vacuum and demilitarization of the people empowered coups and installed dictatorships across the Middle East. These dictatorships and oil monarchies ultimately completed the destruction of Muslim civilization, institutionalized corruption, and brought much of the community back to pre-Islamic tribalism, and moral vacancy. The only religious institutions fostered were those which catered to the despots and fostered radicalism. Witness the spread of salafism, Wahhabism, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the litany of other fundamentalist ideologies and their offspring militant organizations. The exploitation of the religion of Islam for political divisiveness spread throughout the Muslim world. Political Islam (Islamism) was born and remains the primary affliction of the Muslim world.

That which is sacred is above the scientific and the rational which is open to critique and deconstruction. As Abdelkarim Soroush, author of Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: the Writings of Abdelkarim Soroush states, “religious geometry or religious thermodynamics are possible in only as far as one presupposes that the world has a common source of truth otherwise the ‘religious’ is separate from science.” He further asks, “How can human beings fraught with error create ‘infallible’ governments or churches?”

Dr. Soroush further states, Religion in Islam from the Qur’an is “a language of duties not rights”. Humans are simply being given commandments by a supreme authority in a language of sharia’ (rules of God transmitted to Muslims no different from ‘mitzvot” of Judaism). But yet it remains that the ultimate acceptance and governance is still divinely individual—in point of fact libertarian.
If one were to sit down and write rules for one’s own home, even though there is a strict set of rules, it would still be libertarian since the introduction, acceptance, continuation or the end of the rules would remain voluntary. While much of the Qur’an is rules, the acceptance of them is purely individual and is to be left inviolable by society.

The Muslim concept of sin and forgiveness as it relates to liberty

To a Muslim, infants are born pure and sin-free without need for baptism. In fact, it is felt in Islamic theology that children who die before the age of reason, age of true choice or liberty, are not judged by God negatively for any reason and are believed to go to heaven by His decision as a result of their purity. Once beyond the age when the superego and the soul understand right from wrong, at death an individual awaits God’s judgment.

Muslims believe that life’s actions are the ultimate barometer of faith on earth. In the end, Muslim theology imparts that God will judge these actions in a “bal¬anced” fashion with an all-encompassing assessment of our good and bad deeds of our life. The only beliefs judged are those in regards to Him. The others are opinions related to this earth and are part of the shades of gray of human interac¬tions. On earth it is not obligations but a measure of gain and loss as measured by a number of issues form one’s intentions to the final arbiter—God.

Thus, individuals choose alone, and sin alone. No one else, not even the parent will be there on the day of Judgment to bear the sin (thus the major deviation from Christianity over ‘salvation’ or ‘Jesus taking on our sins’ or ‘the assurance of heaven based only on salvation—there is no assurances of heaven in Islam regardless of what some may say). Confes¬sion or absolution of sins by a third party is antithetical to Islam. The need for baptism to wash away sins of birth is also not in line with the essence of Islamic concepts of faith, liberty. The analogy of Adam choosing sin and thus we are all born to sin is also antithetical to Islamic concepts of sin and purity at birth.

As I stated at the outset, it is my belief as a Muslim that liberty is necessary for religion and religion is necessary for liberty. The independent nature of this relationship is at the core of the success of both ideologies—a supernatural covalent bond. In the first, as I mentioned, the loss of liberty negates actual faith and God’s tests or challenges of free will then become rote actions of coercion. In the second, religion brings with it the definition of a value system or morality which forms the superego and allows society to function in security in the absence of the ‘state’.

Now ‘Godless’ individuals can have a similar value system as a utilitarian argument. However, it is my belief that engrained within free will is an arrogance, a vacuum of humility, which without reigning in by religion and by a ‘fear’ or put more precisely a ‘respect’ for God, could not otherwise lead to a globally moral society. We have seen this in the pagan societies before Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is in a way absurd to assume that the freedom, and liberty of today’s society and our great advancements came from anywhere else other than as a result of a pious Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture albeit after wresting control away from religion (but still in the ever-presence of religion and its values). To say that atheism or paganism can now be successful whether or not moral, is like allowing the Chinese to claim a benefit from globalization and then saying that their communism created the success of their free markets.

Complete Equality of all human beings

Islam has no ‘church structure’, no institutional, hierarchy: all human beings are equal (even the Messengers of God)

This lack of institutionalization is certainly not obvious to a student of the so-called Muslim world, but as a devout libertarian Muslim, it’s the only way I see my faith. The Koran is the only direct communication of the creator with Muslims and nothing else represents him. Thus the communication was one way via our messenger just as prior messengers and now we communicate personally in the other direction through prayer. This communication, this relationship would be inexorably altered if an intermediary were to step in with constricting rules as to the mechanism or ‘permission.’ In the end if it is clear that God will judge individuals on Judgment in isolation from anyone else, then they must be free of any hierarchical control or interpretative leadership.

In fact, in my own tradition of Sunni Islam (as compared to Shia) it is felt that ‘ceremonial’ practice is discouraged since it empowers a pseudo-clergy which may in the end interfere in this liberal relationship between an individual and God. From this innate close relationship comes the need to maintain its pure monotheism. Thus, in Islam one finds a distinct differentiation or theological disagreement with the Christian concept of the Trinity. The supernatural power and nature of God in his spirit is acknowledged but never separated from his oneness (tawhid). The Qur’an strictly describes that God begets none and is not begotten. This variant understanding of Jesus Christ as messenger of God in Islam versus son of God in Christianity is the primary theological difference between the faiths.

Thus, one understands the prohibition in Islam of giving God a human characteristic and also the prohibition of a picture of any of the prophets or deification of individuals no matter how great or pious.

The Legal Tradition of Islam

The sharia evolved in Islam as a legal framework from which to enact the moral guidance of God as enumerated in the Qur’an. This was lent to over centuries by scholars and jurists schooled in the religious law. The evolution was similar to the development of any precedent based juristic law. Just as our own American law evolved side by side with the original U.S. Constitution, religious law can evolve similarly side by side with the Qur’an. Its dynamic modernization is reflected off of the original intent of the primary document and its current understanding. This is with the most important caveat that these two legal systems should remain completely separate.
br />This separation is the essence of the conflict between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world of the twenty-first century. I am an originalist in U.S. law and separately and similarly a classically liberal originalist and modernist in my own interpretation of the Holy Qur’an.

Accepting and rejecting Islam

While history of the spread of Islam is rife with assertions of the meanings of ‘jihad’, in today’s world it is clear that this word, jihad is one of a militaristic coercion of religion. Based on the libertarian ideology of faith which I practice, any individual who expresses vocally let alone physically a need to change another individual has violated his own faith. Faith is simply limited to God’s role with that individual. Any interference by any other individual violates the whole premise of faith in God.

In my understanding of my own faith of Islam, even the correction of minor transgressions of religious law are forbid¬den between individuals for our moral behavior teaches us to honor individual independence and teach by subtle example not by coercion or even suggestion.

Free markets and Islam

The very nature of Islamic banking is free of collectivism and inherently decentralized. Profit-making, the invisible hand, and the ‘virtue of selfishness” are all precepts to which I find no conflict within my faith and in fact I find encourage¬ment within my faith.

I am going to use an analogy to the Islamic injunction against clergy. God states in the Qur’an, that he created natural needs of hunger, thirst, and intimacy and the clerical need to remain celibate is unnatural and violates the virtue of the sanctity of marriage. Free markets are the same. As long as we utilize our wealth in moral ways investment in capitalistic institutions is very Islamic and encouraged.

Some cite the prohibition of interest as anti-capitalistic. First of all, it is strictly usury which is discussed. Since lower interest rates could be interpreted as fees by simple semantic changes. But the intent of the theological argument is that all parties in a financial capital risk in fact share the risk. There should be no involved parties insulated from risk in the free market. For example, Islamic charity is prescribed to be 2.5% of one’s savings (assets). Thus, the more one spends and the less one hoards, the less charity God commands us to spend. This seems to be a resounding endorsement of the free market and concept of ‘virtue of selfishness’.

It is interesting to also note that Rose Wilder Lane in her book, Islam and the Discovery of Freedom cites the period of the introduction of Islam into the Arabian peninsula as one of the three major revolutions in man toward capitalism and free markets.

Libertarianism and Islam

Is Islam, is this a system of government? Islamism most certainly is while Islam most certainly is not. Islam does carry a set of laws and thus has an inherent rule of law which is inherent also within that which we understand as classical liberalism or libertarianism. But this is separate and without government.

Religion is negated by the abrogation of free will to the state. Actions prescribed by God, once they are prescribed by the state no longer become actions of faith but are actions of slavery imposed by a state. From charity to civic service to morality in dress and conduct, freedom and liberty allow one to exercise a moral faith. Just as libertarianism is abrogated by governmental control so to is a pious individually practiced Islam.

The concept of inalienable rights is a deeply religious one which without this foundation one could argue we should rather have a Darwinian society of the survival of the fittest rather than the freest.

Predicated upon the Muslim belief of God passing judgment is that this judgment is not only over the test of life’s challenges and of one’s moral failures and successes as an independent soul but upon the specific utilization of an individual’s gifts. Society if it were to make rules could never create a situation other than in complete liberty where an individual’s gifts from God are tested without encumbrance.

The actions of prayer, fasting, paying alms to the poor, pilgrimage to Mecca, and bearing witness to one God must be entirely free in order to be real. Coerced virtues are no longer virtues.

A society based upon liberty and free markets is predicated upon the presence of a moral code and the inherent trust of all of the participants (as Fukayama eloquently writes about in Trust). Thus, the more individually pious a society is, the more able they are to practice a libertarian philosophy within the society. The less pious and thus, the less ethical they are, the more autocracy they may need.

Working within the acts of this earth—studying this earth and its sciences is equivalent in Islam to reading the book of God. Both are in fact felt to be a form of communicating with God, the God of Abraham. This stimulation of human creativity is at its depth very free market, very libertarian and very Muslim. For Muslims are taught that creativity in science, nature, technology, art is equivalent to communicating with God.

This is one Muslim’s view of his own faith. It is not only of interest because it is compelling to me, but the spread of a libertarian ideology within the Muslim community, the ummah, is one of the primary issues of the day. As we look at the threats to American and western security, the radical Islamists do not hate the west because of our affluence or of our free markets. They have been able to form an image of America and the west which the rank and file Muslim views as “godless”.

The Islamists of the Muslim community (perhaps the majority of the ummah) have equated the separation of religion and state with the absence of religion. I believe it is rather the contrary—the most pious system for a society. They have equated the separation of religion and state as immoral. I believe it is rather the contrary—the most moral system for society. They have equated the separation of religion and state with a distance from God. I believe there is no society which permits a closer more genuine un-coerced relationship with God than one founded upon libertarian principles.

It is for this reason that my parents fled the oppression of the Syrian government in the 1960’s in order to come to America and live the American dream. I was raised believ¬ing and experiencing the fact that in no other place on earth do I have the freedom and the liberty to practice my faith unencumbered by government as I do in the United States. While we do see a sadly increasingly interventional government into our daily lives, the fact is until this very day, that scriptural and theological argumentation are not part of our governmental lawmaking in America. We simply use the logic of our human interactions to enact our values. It is this system which political Islam detests and it is this system which I as a freedom-loving classically liberal Muslim love.

My hope is that other libertarian Muslims wherever they may be wake-up and realize that their day has come now to be accounted and lead the ideological battle waged by Islamists against Muslims who separate the affairs of religion from the affairs of the state.

Thank you for your time and attention.


This speech was delivered to the Economics Discussion Group of Phoenix, Arizona on October 19, 2005.

It was published recently in Vital Speeches of the Day, May 2006, VOL. LXXII, No. 14-15. Subscriptions and copies can be obtained from the publishers website.

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