Liberalism and Islam: Practical Reconciliation between the Liberal State and Shiite Muslims

Does Islam accept or reject liberal political theory? Since the advent of Orientalism as a school of thought and political bias, the discourse on Islam and liberalism has been one-sided and done exclusively from a Western liberal view. Does Islam accept or reject liberal political theory? Since the advent of Orientalism as a school of thought and political bias, the discourse on Islam and liberalism has been one-sided and done exclusively from a Western liberal view. Hamid Hadji Haidar’s Liberalism and Islam: Practical Reconciliation between the Liberal State and Shiite Muslims is the first significant Muslim contribution to the discussion on the Islamic perspective of the liberal state.

The nature of the subject Haidar is exploring in his questions regarding the compatibility of Islam and liberal political thought sets the groundwork for a book heavy in theory and definition. In the beginning of the book, Haidar distinguishes between Islamic Ethical Theory and Islamic Political Theory. He further argues (correctly) that the Shia moral system is distinguished by its conviction and belief in two components to the Islamic moral system. Individual practice is more substantial and is concerned with individual self development through daily prayer, fasting in Ramadan, and an obligatory performance of the Hajj pilgrimage. The second component of the Islamic moral system according to Shias includes the values and rules intended to create an Islamic social order and concerns itself with social values, the cultivation of the family structure, criminal justice, and the foreign policy of an Islamic state. Haidar refers to the personal moral system as Islamic Ethical Theory and labels the second system which focuses on the perfection of society and relations with other societies as Islamic Political Theory.

Liberalism and Islam refers to the Shia Islam on every page and discusses in great depth its refutations and arguments against Rawl’s and Mill’s political theory. Shia Islam, as defined by the author, is “the theory that justifies the Islamic Republic of Iran in its most ideal form” (p. 6). However, the author also relies heavily and almost exclusively on the views and political theories of the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the late Imam Khomeini. The views and philosophical contributions of Allama Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Tabatabai, the most prominent Shia philosopher of our time and the greatest exegete of the Holy Qur’an in contemporary times, are also heavily featured in the book. Therefore, no qualms are presented about distilling Shia political theory and practice into the current system in Iran while also acknowledging that the belief in Imamate is the main distinguishing characteristic for Shia Muslims.

Liberalism is the legacy of the French Revolution of 1798 and has gone from being a moral philosophy that focused almost exclusively on liberty and personal freedom to a system antagonistic to religious orthodoxy. Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr further argues in Falasfatuna (Our Philosophy) that the most fundamental value of liberalism is its emphasis on personal autonomy. However, Haidar acknowledges that there has never been a consensus on how to exactly define liberalism, and as such, he focuses on the theories of the two most regarded liberal theorists: Stuart Mills and John Rawls.

Liberalism and Islam provides a thorough examination of the theories of the most studied liberal theorists and explores whether these theories can be harmonious with the Shia political theory. Haidar concludes in his research that Mill’s liberal theory is far too secular to ever be compatible with Shia Islamic political theory. While Shias agree with Mills that general philosophy should be for the purpose of truth seeking, the definition of truth in Mill’s political theory is antagonistic to that held by Shias. Furthermore, Haidar brilliantly maintains that Mill’s theory is rejected because it contends that God has no right to set moral rules for human beings. Mills further believed that freedom of action and spontaneous action and progress was the highest human utility, which subsequently could legitimize blasphemous speech. In contrast, Shias believe that while freedom of action is necessary, it should be used for the purpose of moving towards God in a spiritual journey. Mills was a proponent of the Religion of Humanity, which he deemed as a sufficient substitute for Divine religion. Instead, Shias hold firmly in the belief that Divine religion leads to a good (temporary) life on Earth and following Divine religion will lead to an eternally happy afterlife.

Haidar further contends that because Rawl’s liberal theory is mildly secular and is subsequently partially reconcilable with Shia Islamic political theory. Similar to Mills, Rawl argues in favor of absolute freedom of speech, which in the eyes of Shias is seen as an endorsement of blasphemy towards God, the Prophets, and Messengers, and the Holy Qur’an. However, Shia political theory appreciates Rawl’s preposition that Justice is the supreme social value and takes precedence over utility.

Liberalism and Islam conceptualizes that the Millian and Rawlsian liberal states should tolerate and accept Shia Muslims living in those societies and provide them with religious freedoms. However, the impetus is on Shia Muslims to respect the basic structure of these liberal societies. More importantly however, Haidar declares that Shia Islamic states and majorities at “home” must refrain from adopting the format and ideologies of the liberal states which are based on Rawlsian and Millian liberal theory, because they are unjustifiable in the eyes of Shia Islam and disregard religion, which the Shia system is based on.

Islamic Insights’ Recommendation: Hamid Hadji Haidar’s Liberalism and Islam: Practical Reconciliation between the Liberal State and Shiite Muslims is a delicately done piece of analysis that seeks to present the Shia Islamic perspective on liberal theory. Haidar is well-versed in political theory and his knowledge of Islamic literature and beliefs further enhances his argument. In the year 2010, Muslims and the West are in juxtaposition, and few Shia Muslims are able to articulate Shia political theory in an effective manner which would in effect argue that there is common ground between the two schools of thought. Haidar further provides sufficient knowledge for his reader on necessary background information in order for them to understand his arguments. In chapter one, he captures Shia beliefs in a nutshell and does an exceptional job of proving that the Holy Qur’an is a Divinely-sent form of guidance while exploring more contentious issues such as the Guardianship of the Jurist (Wilayat al-Faqih).

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  • Ali A.

    Thanks for drawing attention to this book. I am curious about the premise on which he builds his argument for that “practical reconciliation” for Shias in the “West”. Merely pragmatic, or does he have a theological basis for that too?

    Further, how is he engaging the question of collective religious rights of Muslim/Religious/Ethnic minorities within liberal-secular paradigm-s? Consider, for example, the Hijab issue in France. As Joan Scott has pointed out in her book, Politics of Veil, the discrimination against the practice of Hijab may have been motivated by Islamophobia but the issue itself was constructed within the liberal-secular discourse of the French state.

    Politics of Veil – Joan Scott

    May also find the following piece relevant:

    Questioning Liberalism, Too – Saba Mahmood

  • Shia_Angel

    Great review! This book seems interesting and very deep. Thanks for telling us about it.

  • IK

    excellent review, and thought provoking too….

  • Anwar

    …. I’m interested in reading this book! Sounds very intreresting theory..

  • Saf

    Gotta be honest with ya, not a big fan such topics but i actually enjoyed this!

    Keep it up!

  • Nourwilayah

    Excellent. great review.

  • Mustafa Shaban

    The best system in the world is not democracy, dictatorship, communism or capitalism . They are all flawed. The best system is Khilafat, the system of Allah, Prophet Muhammed SAWW and the system followed by Imam Ali (A.S). No other system can solve our problems.

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