THE ISLAMIC MIDDLE WAY
a Lecture by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
delivered on March 21, 1999
at the Islamic Society of Boston, Wayland, MA
on the Tenth Anniversary of the Center for Faith and Science Exchange
the Center for Faith and Science Exchange
the Boston Theological Seminary
and the Islamic Council of New England
I was very impressed when I stumbled across the quote "'All things in moderation,' said the Prophet" in a novel by the great science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein. A certain school of commentators in the media try to give the impression that Islam is the religion of extremism. Islam is the religion of moderation in almost all things. It not moderate in its monotheism, and as Rose Wilder Lane pointed out in Islam and the Discovery of Freedom (Beltsville, MD: amana, 1997) the Prophet was not moderate on cleanliness, insisting that prayers are invalid unless you are clean when you recite them. Islam would also agree with Senator Barry Goldwater that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, as well. Yet, with a few exceptions, Islam is the religion of moderation, including on the three subjects that are the topic of this talk.
What are the extremes on these topics, that Islam can be said to take a moderate position between? When it comes to economy we can look at the extremes of conspicuous consumption versus asceticism. Regarding Technology, we can look at Prometheanism versus the Luddites. I refer here to the view that some have taken the Greek myth of Prometheus: Technology constitutes a rebellion against God (or the gods, in the original Greek story), and technology is raised to the status of a new god that people worship. At the other extreme, the Luddites were people who at the time of the Industrial Revolution in England were so opposed to the technology which rendered their old jobs obsolete, they would smash new machines that were put on the market and destroy them. They have their analogs in today’s world as well. Then, in the issue of ecology, we also have extremes. On one hand is the view of man’s dominion over the earth. And on the other extreme, a kind of religion of earth-worship, where the earth is viewed not only as an organic body, as the famous Gaia hypothesizes, but as a goddess to be worshipped by mankind.
Before I get into the discussion of how Islam takes the moderate position between these extremes, I want to mention another element that is constantly touching on all of these issues, rampant materialism and the absence of spirituality from the world view of so much of the modern. We saw this world view develop and evolve in the West and come into the form that we see today through a critical point in French Enlightenment at the time of the French Revolution. The myth that religion and science are inherently opposed to one another has become the dominant worldview today. It came about because of an accident of western history that I dealt with in my book Signs in the Heavens (Beltsville, MD: Writers Inc., Intl., 1992). The way that Europe emerged from the Dark Ages was through contact with Islamic science and religion. These two were associated together in the minds of the European Church, which attempted the suppression of both, and branded anyone who embraced the sciences that came out of the Muslim world as people who were opposed to the Church, opposed to religion and opposed to God and spirituality.
This crisis provokes three reactions in the West. Some people accepted that dichotomy and chose materialism over spirituality or chose secularism over faith. Others chose faith over secularism and, in a sense of rejecting science, became the progenitors of today’s Fundamentalists. There was the third group, which attempted to reconcile the two, and was the source of the Catholic Renewal and the Protestant Reformation. But this tension, this struggle, continued and got worse and it got especially severe during the French Enlightenment. During that period the reaction against the old ways of doing things became quite extreme. It became extreme in many respects, including a transformation in the perception of the very nature of science. Ancient scientists looked upon reason as the dominant way of knowing the world. The Muslim progenitors of modern science sought a balance between reason and empiricism. The French Enlightenment produced people who looked at empirical data as the way of knowing the world. And they would turn towards the encyclopedias, trying to accumulate as much data as they can. The idea was that knowledge consisted of nothing more than the collection of a large number of data points about the material world. So this was becoming equivalent to knowledge. The idea of some higher level of knowledge, some level of wisdom, was beginning to vanish from the conception of the understanding of reality.
But more important and more relevant to our subject is the fact that in the French Enlightenment you began to get a certain arrogance in the humanism. A view that felt that man was so perfectible that solutions to all problems could be designed, and that man was capable of designing all solutions, leading to the concept of social engineering. Notice the connection to the mechanistic view of the world that preceded the French Enlightenment. But before the French Enlightenment, this view was restricted to the world of physics; people had begun to view the material world, as a world of mechanisms. During the French Enlightenment they began to carry over this analogy out of the material world, the inanimate material world, into the animate world, into biology. Biology began to be seen as a mechanism. And then in its extreme form, in Darwinism, even the evolution of life itself was viewed as a mechanism. Just an accidental consequence of mechanical forces at play, no design at all. With the ultimate source of universal design, God, having been excluded from the picture, the only source of design in the material world had to be man, and man’s presumed ability for social engineering was put forward to replace any attempt to understand Divine Law that governs human affairs. In the post-modern period, even man’s ability to design is rejected. We end up with a total subjectivism that says that there is no objective reality at all and there almost is no point in trying to resolve any problems because they are unsolvable.
This idea that you can take the principals of engineering that work so well in mechanics and apply them to society brings us about to many of the problems that we have to confront today. In particular, I want to emphasize the difference between rule-based systems and command-based systems. Polytheism is a command-based view of the divinity. It purports that there are gods who go around giving orders and that what we see in the natural world about us and in our spiritual world is nothing more than the orders of these conflicting gods. It is opposed to the monotheistic view that there is a singular Creator who has harmonized all of the cosmos in accord with His set of rules and it is these rules rather than capricious commands that determine how the system operates. Now, it turns out this opposition between rule-based and command-based systems becomes very important in modern thinking not only in the theological area, but in the areas having to do with the engineering, with evolution, with politics and with economics, all kinds of processes.
I want to begin with the Holy Scripture of the Qur’an and go back to a fundamental question before we get into the details of economics, technology and ecology, and ask a primary question we have to address before we discuss those questions. Why are we here? I don’t mean why are you here and why am I here giving this lecture (although in a sense I suppose that is a subsidiary question to the broader question). Why are we here at all? What is man’s purpose on Earth? Here is the explanation we find in the Qur’an (This is a translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, except that I have restored the Arabic word khalîfa for Ali's translation of "vicegerent." I do this for a number of reasons, foremost because this word, khalifa has been somewhat misused historically, and I think it is good to remind ourselves the context of word, that we who are Muslims might appreciate its precise meaning.):
"Behold thy Lord said to the angels, I will create a khalîfa on earth. They said, will Thy place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy Holy Name? He said, ‘I know which ye know not.’"
The word khalîfa comes from the root meaning a successor. In this form, khalifa more properly means a trustee, someone who is entrusted with something. So God is saying, "I am creating the earth and I am going to create a being who I am going to entrust to take care of it." The implication is that He is going to give this being those God-like powers of freedom of will in order to be able to be the trustee. You can’t be the trustee of something unless you are given the ability and the freedom to make decisions about it. And God says I am going to create a creature and I am going to give him the ability and the freedom to make decisions about what to do with My Earth that I have created. And I am going to place him there. And the angels, who themselves have no freedom of will and can only do what God has ordered them, don’t understand. So they ask, "You say that You are going to place a creature who can do evil things and who can shed blood on this beautiful earth that You have created; while we, the angels, we just celebrate Your Holy Name. We do whatever You want us to do, whatever is good." The implication is, Why not put the angels in charge of the earth. But God’s response is, "I know what you do not know."
"And He taught Adam the nature of all things. And He placed them before the angels and said, ‘Tell me the nature of these if you are right.’"
Now, Adam, the prototype of mankind, is given, along with his free will, the ability to acquire knowledge and to understand. And so God has given Adam the knowledge of the nature of things. And He turns to the angels, and said, If you think that a being without free wil can serve as my trustee, tell me the nature of things.
"The angels said, 'Glory to Thee, of knowledge we have none, save what Thou hast taught us. In truth it is Thou who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom.'"
The angels, of course, do not know the nature of things. They can only know what God directly reveals to them.
"He said, Oh, Adam, tell them their natures. When he told them, God said, did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth and I know what you reveal and what you conceal."
God is saying that giving Adam the freedom of will is a necessary element of being the trustee, in order for him to be able to acquire the knowledge that he needs. He needs to have the freedom to be that trustee. And now the crunch:
"And behold We said to the angels, bow down to Adam, and they bowed down. Not so Iblis. He was haughty and refused and was of those who reject faith."
Iblis, as he is referred to here, is the Devil, not an angel, according to Islamic theology. I know the Christian theology is that he is a fallen angel. In Islamic theology, he is a jinn, a kind of another creature that God created, that like man has free will. This particular jinn was very arrogant. He would hang around with the angels because he thought he was of very exalted status, which, in another passage causes God to ask to him, "Why did you not bow down when I told the angels to bow down?" His arrogant, and materialistic, reply is, "Because I am made of fire and he is made of clay," as if material substance had any consequence or significance in this issue. The point of the present passage is that God told the angels, these perfect creatures who obey God exactly, to bow down to this creature He created who could conceivably make mistakes who is weak but who had that marvelous gift of freedom of will. So what God is saying is that man is created not below the angels, but above the angels.
Now, why this is important is because it touches on all our issues. Man has a purpose on Earth. We are the khalifa. And when I say we are the khalifa, I mean each individual human being, male and female is God’s representative, God’s vicegerent on earth, the one whom He has entrusted. We are here with a mission. Like the Blues Brothers say in the movie of the same name, "We are on a mission from God." Well, we are. Every one of us is on a mission from God, if we can just remember it. I don’t want to turn this into a sermon, but it is true that the Qur'an does say that the name for man in Arabic, and it is used in the Qur'an, "nâs." And nâs comes from the root word in Arabic meaning "he forgot". And the Qur'an repeats over and over again, it is not that man is evil. Muslims do not believe in original sin. We do not believe that human beings are born evil. We believe that human beings are born weak. We have a tendency to forget why we are here. The reason we are given religion is to remind us. That is the reason we are given all of these rituals. Some people will say, "I can see why religion would have ethical guidance, but what’s with all of these rituals?" Well, the rituals are there because we need reminders. The Muslim will pray five times a day, fast one full month out of the year, and give 2 1/2% of his wealth to charity. You do these things to keep reminding yourself why you are here; because otherwise we are weak and we forget; we get seduced by this material world. It was created to be a stage upon which we act, and instead we elevate it to the be-all and the end-all, which it is not.
It should be obvious that whatever Islam has to say about economics, technology and ecology, comes in the form of guidance for us to perform our duties as the khalifa, to take care of god's Creation. I say take care, but I don’t want to translate khalifa as caretaker. It is too limited a concept. The gospels report that Jesus (peace be upon him) told the story about the master who gives his servants each ten talents and tells them to take care of them. One of them wraps it up and buries it in the earth. And the master is not satisfied even though the talent has been protected. What he meant was to take care of it, not just to protect it but make use of it. Be productive, get something out of it. This is our view of what it means to be the khalîfa.
Therefore, when we look at Islamic economics, we find that the Qur'an’s viewpoint and the view of the Prophet himself, as well as Islamic law, is neither asceticism nor is it conspicuous consumerism. We are not to deny the benefits of this world, nor are we to allow wealth to dazzle us into forgetting our obligations to God. It is the middle course. The attitude of the Qur'an towards economic wealth is that it is in-itself neither good nor bad. What makes wealth good or bad are the answers to two questions: How did you earn it? What are you going to do with it now that you have it? If you acquired the wealth in harmful ways, by robbing from people, by defrauding people, by engaging in unfair, exploitative practices, or selling products that diminish or destroy the user, your wealth is of no benefit to you. It is a chain around your neck. The Prophet said, "Whoever usurps the land of another unjustly. his neck will be encircled with it down the seven earths (on the Day of Resurrection)." If, instead, you get it in a halâl (permitted) fashion, and you spend it for a good purpose–and good purpose can be for your own improvement, for that of the benefit of your family, or of the society or community, something that is helpful or positive or constructive–then it is a good thing.
The problem with wealth unfortunately is that it tends to dazzle us. We become worshippers of Mammon. Islamic law has produced very specific means of keeping Islam at middle path. The Qur'an has a verse that says of the Christian ascetics:
We sent after them Jesus the son of Mary and bestowed on him the Gospel; and We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him Compassion and Mercy. But the monasticism which they invented for themselves We did not prescribe for them: (We commanded) only the seeking for the Good pleasure of God; but that they did not foster as they should have done.Islamic law has developed very specific criteria to act as guides to assist us in following this middle course. First, we are encouraged to engaged in trade. Indeed, unlike religions that have a hostile view of the businessman, our Prophet was a businessman. And his wife was a very successful businesswoman. He worked for her before their marriage. She proposed to him because she was so impressed with his success in marketing her goods in a caravan to Syria. Her servant reported that Muhammad had earned the unprecedented profit by in an honorable manner. Muhammad accepted her proposal, holding neither the fact that she was fifteen years his senior nor her superior wealth against her.
Here we see that the businessman (or woman) is not necessarily someone to look down on. He can be someone to look up to when he is honest, and when he, like Muhammed, uses his acquired wealth in living the path of God, or the doing of good deeds. In the Qur'an itself, you find rules for having sound contracts, denunciations of fraud and of theft, etc. Basic laws needed in order to have an effective functioning trade economy can be found in the Islamic law. For that reason the Muslim society was an extremely productive and successful society during the classical era. World trade was synonymous with Muslim trade for hundreds of years. We also find in the example of the Prophet many beneficial practices. For example, money was always hard money. The early Muslims never engaged in debasing currency, nor did they use unbacked paper money, which has caused so many problems in modern times.
There is an issue that I don’t want to devote much time to here, but which I certainly have to mention it. Islam is opposed to ribâ, usually translated as usury, but which includes all over-charging. The overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars interpret any interest on loans to be a form of usury. I have elsewhere argued that this interpretation is unsupportable, but that is a peripheral issue for us today. Let us simply note that the fundamental principle behind the prohibition of ribâ is the prohibition of any kind of malicious practices that would have an undermining effect on a healthy economy. Let me give you one example of something that in the Prophetic traditions (hadîth) which is called ribâ but which is not interest and is not what you normally think of as usury. An early companion of the Poprhet named Bilal gave the Prophet some very high quality dates as a gift. The Prophet asked where he got the dates. Bilal said, I had some inferior type of dates and exchanged two for one…" The Prophet said, "Beware! Beware! This is definitely Riba! Don't do so, but if you want to buy (a superior kind of dates) sell the inferior dates for money and then buy the superior kind of dates with that money." Some have looked at this Hadith and concluded that barter for like for like is prohibited in Islam. I don’t think that is exactly right. What it does say is that if you are going to exchange goods of different quality, you want to make absolutely sure that the exchange is at the market price. The best way to do that is to sell the one and buy the other. And so this means that he was encouraging a money-based economy, which is extremely helpful for a productive economic society.
We also see that Islamic laws pay a lot of attention to land and we
have a number of variety and classifications of land. This is also a complicated
topic, but I want to point out, because it is relevant to the issue of
the that there is a land called "harîm" which is preserved
for development. Normally the kinds of land are developed land and undeveloped
land. In Islamic law, developed land belongs to the person who has developed
it. Or, if it is abandoned land, it can be assigned in tracts to purchasers
or users or rented in exchange for a land tax called "kharâj"
or in the case of the Muslims for that part of their Zakat called "ushr."
The point is that the use of land is very well studied and analyzed in
law. But there is also waste land or dead land which becomes the property
of whoever develops it. So you can make wasteland your property by putting
it to some good use. This is equivalent to the American concept of homesteading.
But there is also harîm land (from the root meaning prohibited)
which can either be public or private land, prohibited from development
in order to preserve the remaining land. An example of private harîm
land is the border around my home, which is also mine even though I do
not develop it. But I can leave it as a buffer zone as a means of providing
myself with a kind of air space in order to live in comfort without having
to develop every square inch of property to make it mine. Similarly, the
government can set aside tracts of land to serve preservationist purposes,
but there are restrictions. The government cannot go overboard and go beyond
what is needed for it’s legitimate environmental purposes in order to keep
people off the land and artificially increase the price of land and land
Technology has a spiritual dimension from the Muslim point of view. Perhaps the best example of moderation in technology is Islamic medicine. Medieval medicine in the Dark Ages in the West was very anti-technology. Here is an example from my book Signs in the Heavens:
Usamah Ibn Mundqidh, a twelfth-century Muslim world traveler from Syria, [reported] that in medieval Europe patients were often treated by priests without any knowledge of medical science. Even European "physicians" seemed more influenced by theologically-tinged superstition than by clinical research. Usamah learned the following story from an Arab Christian physician who had offered to treat a woman afflicted with imbecility. The physician prescribed a change of diet, but a European physician protested his methods. The European diagnosed the problem as a demon in the woman's head and ordered her hair be shaved off. She returned to her normal diet (of garlic and mustard), and her condition worsened.
The physician then said, "The devil has penetrated her head." He therefore took a razor, made a deep cruciform incision on it, peeled off the skin at the middle of the incision until the bone of the skull was exposed and rubbed it with salt. The woman ... expired instantly.
Despite his low opinion of European medicine in general, it is significant that Usamah did adopt those popular remedies he found there which he judged to be safe and effective.At the other extreme, we often find in modern medicine a purely material approach to the issue of people’s health. The patient will go in; they will run a battery of tests and take blood pressure and take blood samples, or whatever. Everything is done at the lab. When the results come back, you can look up a prescription of drugs in a table. For the Muslim physicians in the classical era, they would come and talk to a patient. They would look at it from all three points of view, the physical, the mental and the spiritual. They were not only interested in tests to judge for one’s physical state; but they also wanted to know, "what is happening in your life. Tell me about your husband, tell me about your children, tell me about what stresses are going on." Now there is an emerging movement looking into this holistic approach, saying, "The body is a chemical factory. The body itself is capable of producing medicines spontaneously to meet the ills, when someone’s spiritual attitude is positive." That is a direction that the Islamic worldview would very much admire and encourage. You’ve got to look at the whole person and their mental state and spiritual state and as well as the physical tests. There is nothing wrong with physical test and you will not find any Muslim anywhere that is against them. What they wll be against is thinking that that is sufficient, that you have done all you need to do by taking these physical tests.
We now turn to the environment. Again, Islam takes a moderate view between the extremes that I call Properterianism and Gaiaism. And Propertarianism is the view that because private property is such a good thing and has so many benefits, that therefore essentially everything should be looked at as private property, and there should be no restrictions on what one does with one’s private property whatsoever. Taken to its extreme in a reductio ad absurdum, this would be to say that since I am properly, under American law, allowed to own a gun and I am allowed to own bullets, that I have a right to shoot my bullets into anybody in this room. But even under American law this is a ridiculous conclusion. American law recognizes that my right to own and use bullets gives me no right to shoot them into other people or their property; why shouldn't it recognize that my right to own a factory doesn't give me the right to pollute other people's air or water with its emissions? The question is where does one draw the line?
At the other extreme is the modern idolatry that says that the world itself is a goddess, and we should worship this goddess and we should not do anything to infringe upon this goddess’ health. It puts the earth itself above the interest of humankind. I often marvel that anyone can speak of "man versus nature." They forget that man is part of nature. We are part of the eco-system. What we have to do is be aware of our role as the khalîfa and not act blindly but to be constantly be reminded and consider what are the consequences of our actions.
When we look at the concerns of the environmentalists, we see that they can be divided into different areas. One is about the treatment of animals. One is concern about the issues of pollution: water and land and air. Another is about some indirect effects to the environment around us, things like global warming, etc. The Propertarian point of view would be animals are private property of their owners and the owners can do whatever they wants with their private property. The Gaian view–the extreme other view–is that animals have the same rights as people. The Islamic view is in the middle. Animals have rights. Animals rights are not identical with human rights, because animals are not the khalîfa. However, there are things you cannot do to an animal even though the animal may be your property. For example, you cannot impose purposeless cruelties upon an animal. A Propertarian would say, "Why not? I have a right if I get pleasure out of torturing my dog, who are you to stop me." Well, the answer is that that dog feels pain no less and no more than you do. Therefore he has the same right to be free of frivolous and unwarranted pain that you do. You have certain rights the dog doesn’t have because of your intelligence, but your right to be free from cruelty has nothing to do with your intelligence. It has to do with the fact that you can feel pain; and that no one should subject you to this purposeless pain. Therefore, yes, you have no right to torture an animal. We find in the hadîth of the Prophet that you have no right to overburden animals. If you have a camel and you use it to haul your merchandise to Syria, this is permitted as long as you put on the camel what it can bear. Would you want God to put on you more than you can bear in this life? Of course you would not. You should treat the animals with the same dignity that you expect God to treat you. If you are above the animals because of your intelligence, God is way above you beyond even that in His Intelligence. So be not unjust to the animals any more than you would want God to be unjust to you. Yet, you do have the right to use the camel to carry goods to Syria. Those who would argue that using a camel for labor, or its hair for a sweater, or its meat for food, is somehow unjust exploitation, do not make sense.
What about the issue of the trees, of the forest. I have to admit I am a tree lover. The Prophet (PBUH) put a great emphasis on trees, so much so, that when he wanted to make a point about acts of charity and their importance, he used the planting of trees as an example. He said that when you die your record book is closed on what you have done and you can accrue no more credits, with three exceptions. One exception was that if you had planted a tree that continues to give shade and fruit for the benefit of the people. Another is if you had written a book so that people can read the book and benefit from it. The third was if you had raised a pious child who would pray for you. These three examples really point to a single principle. You can get credit if whatever you have done continues to give benefit after you are gone. It doesn’t have to be a tree or a book or a child. It can be anything that continues to give benefit. And so this was the motivation for the establishment the awqâf, or charitable endowments. Muslims would donate part of their wealth to what we would today call a charitable trust. They could do this before death or in their will as a bequest. They would write a charter for a trust and give a designation and a purpose of mission for the trust–what good it would do for the benefit of mankind. They set up hospitals, schools, parks, fountains, mosques, even canals. They would appoint trustees who would be in charge of it and a mechanism for the passing on of the trusteeship to future trustees as the need arose. This was actually how the infrastructure of the classical Muslim world was built up because they didn’t have nation-states in those days. Even when the ruler wanted to construct some public benefit, he would usually do it by setting up a waqf by that same mechanism. And this was a method by which you could indeed grow trees. You could make a forest preserve or a parkland. It is a mechanism for providing for those harîm purposes that the society needs.
Now let us turn to pollution. I asked before why is it that American law recognizes a natural limit on my right to spray bullets into the environment but no natural limit on my right to spray pollutants into the environment? Why does it require that pollution be dealt with by special legislation? The answer lies in an enormous legal error made in eighteenth century England. The owner of an apple orchard sued the owner of a factory because the factory’s smokestacks were producing so much pollution, they were destroying the farmer’s apple trees. The court ruled against the farmer. The court argued that in view of the fact that the jobs provided by the factory were so important, and that the wealth that it was contributing to society was so important, that the public good required the farmer’s trees suffer. I think this was a major mistake within the boundaries of western law; but certainly from Islamic law such a decision would be utterly unacceptable. In the first place, of course, you are using the damage to the farmer’s property to subsidize the factory, which is inexcusable. But, you also had to look at the trees not only the value they had to the farmer; but their value to the society as a whole as part of the general environment.
Finally, there is the issue of more subtle damages to the environment,
things like global warming. In my own mind I still haven’t made a decision
on the issue of global warming. I have not been persuaded by what I have
seen in the data. However, that fact in itself raises an important issue.
At what point is the community justified in infringing upon the activities
of the individual? I think under Islamic law, it has been made clear that
the burden of proof is on the community. In Islamic law, everything is
permitted except what is explicitly prohibited. If you are going to infringe
on somebody’s liberty, the burden is to show where the damage is and to
prove it conclusively. We have the issue of proper investigation. Under
Islamic law you must always meet the standards of proof which can be very,
very difficult depending on what you are talking about. I'll give you an
example that is a social issue rather than an environmental issue, but
it makes my point rather clearly. In matters of sex crimes the burden of
proof in Islamic law is very high. You cannot convict somebody of adultery
unless you can produce four eye-witnesses. Islamic law tries to balance
the social welfare of the community against the right of privacy of the
individual. It does this by making the punishments severe but making the
rules of evidence very strict as well. So it makes it clear that it is
the social welfare that is being addressed here, that it is not some authoritarian
type of command structure that is trying to sacrifice the privacy of the
individuals in the society.
Well, how do we deal with these issues? We return to the issue of spirituality. The best way to deal with all of these issues is by an internalization of the law. You want people to take a moderate path. You want them to be productive, to increase their wealth and to use it for a good purpose; but not be dazzled by the wealth so that they are willing to engage in forbidden activities or harmful activities. How do you do this? Well, you could have a set of laws and a network of spies who go out on society and follow people around and see what they are doing. This is not a good way for a number of reasons. Not only is it inefficient, but it is itself unspiritual. The ideal method is for people to adopt these laws internally so that they actually love the law. They approve of the law, they appreciate it, and they feel within their souls the importance of these kinds of laws. How do you enforce a law that prohibits the cruelty of animals? A Muslim tradition of unknown origin goes: If you must kill a pest, try to do it with the first blow. And if you swat and a fly and only maim it on the first blow, to feel a pang and say Oh, God, forgive me that I have made this fly to suffer.
In this respect, one must admire the American Indians. Native Americans treated all Creation as a brotherhood under the Great Spirit. They would kill animals for food, but not wantonly. When the Indian would kill an animal, he would first apologize to it, and say, "I am sorry my brother," and then proceed with the kill. For that reason, in Islam (as in Judaism) there is a certain ritual that is required when you kill animals for food because you must be aware of the gravity of what you are doing and you must do it in the most humane manner possible.
Looking back at all that I have said, I would like to talk about the difference between a view of scarcity and a view of abundance. In economics we talk about scarcity because for any given good, we can think of so many uses to which we would like to put it, that there isn’t enough to go around. But in Islam, we also think about abundance. For all the good with which God has blessed us, it diminishes his wealth less than dipping a needle in the ocean diminishes the water in the ocean. God offers us abundance and yet there is scarcity. How do we reconcile these concepts? I think this was rather well explained by Warren Brooks, a Christian economist who wrote a book called, The Economy in Mind. About a hundred years ago, the Austrian economist Carl Menger proved that the value of economic goods is subjective. It is in the mind. Until then, most economists, whether they were right-wing or left-wing economists, thought that labor was the source of value. Menger showed that it is not. If you were to give me a canvas and some paint brushes and paint and canvas here, I could work for two hours and I could produce something that not one of you would offer me a nickel for. But Picasso, in ten minutes, with the same materials could produce something that some of you would mortgage your house on. What is the difference? The difference is in what you see in those paintings. But some of you, when your child comes home from school with a painting in water colors, you would pay more for that than the Picasso. It is in your mind.
One time I was so disgusted with all the get-rich quick schemes that you see advertised on the internet and in newspaper classifieds, that I thought up my own idea for a get-rich quick scheme. I would publish a little ad saying, "Send ten dollars and I will send you an explanation of how you can become rich instantly, guaranteed or your money back if you could prove that I am wrong." You would send me the ten dollars and I would send you just a single sheet of paper on which it says, let’s first define our terms, what does it mean to be rich? I define rich to mean someone who can afford to have anything he wants. Most people would agree. Then, the secret to becoming rich, instantly, is to want only what you can afford. I think you all owe me ten dollars now.
There is an important point here. That it is in our mind and in our understanding that value originates. That subjective value gets turned into economic value when we have a market. A market is a place where we all get together and we compare the different goods we have and how much they are worth to each of us, and we start to trade. All of sudden, wonderful things happen. All of our wealth increases because there are all of these voluntary exchanges where each exchange results in both parties increasing their wealth to a superior position from what they started in. But this will only happen if you have a set of rules that guarantees that these exchanges are truly voluntary. How can an exchange not be voluntary? Well, if I take that gun I mentioned before and I point it at you and I say, you trade that coat for this pen in my pocket or I’ll shoot you; then obviously that exchange is going to result in a loss for him. That is not an allowed exchange. That is prohibited by the market rules. Fraud also results in a loss to one side and also would be a prohibited exchange. If I told you, I’ll trade this computer for your jacket. You say, hey, that sounds like a good deal to me; but then you get it home and you find out that the computer doesn’t work, you’ve been defrauded. Similarly I would say that an exchange that results in a degradation of the environment, a provable degradation of the environment, will also be a prohibited exchange. Suppose I offer you some money if you will cut down some trees in a certain location and cutting down those trees results in the erosion of a neighboring farmer’s field. Now it is true that I’ve gained and you’ve gained, but the farmer has lost and he was never even consulted about it.
We have a principal here. I think that that principal is one that takes a central role in the Islamic law. Remember we are God’s khalîfa. We are here to take care of, in a productive way, God’s wonderful, abundant gifts that He has given us and to increase that abundance. God says, "Let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual good-will" (4:22). And it says to seek the bounties of God (e.g., 17:12). You know, we don’t have a sabbath. Some people refer to Friday as the sabbath in Islam. We don’t have a sabbath. Sabbath is the day you are not supposed to work. Friday is the day of congregational prayer. The Qur'an says, "O ye who believe! when the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday (the Day of Assembly) hasten earnestly to the Remembrance of God and leave off business (and traffic): that is best for you if ye but knew! And when the Prayer is finished then may ye disperse through the land and seek of the Bounty of Allah: and celebrate the Praises of God often (and without stint): that ye may prosper." Engaging in productive business is part of Islam. Doing good in this life is part of Islam. Christians, too, have the concept of a "calling." God gives us a calling and the calling may be to be a businessman. Whether we are scientists, engineers, artists, whatever it is, if we do it in a way that is positive for the benefit of everybody in society, then indeed we are fulfilling our role as the khalîfa. And the whole of Islamic law is a commentary on how one can best do that. I say the words I have said; and I ask for God’s forgiveness. And I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. Thank you very much.
Assad (a high school senior): What would you say is the largest contribution of Islam to this country’s economics today.
Dr. Ahmad: I think the largest contribution; and it may not seem like economics at the beginning, is the concept of rule of law. In America, we have one of the most highly developed and refined concepts of rule of law. Americans trace that back to the Magna Carta in Britain. But the people don’t go back and ask, well where did the Magna Carta come from. Anyone who was raised here must know that the Magna Carta was a document that essentially said that King John had to respect the rights under the law of the nobility of England. And it said that the king was not above the law; which for Western Europe was a new concept. Western Europe got many of its ideas from ancient Greece and Rome, and the ancient Greeks and Romans did not feel that the ruler was above the law. The ruler could invent the laws and he could excuse himself from the laws if he wanted to. The idea of the Magna Carta came from two sources: One was in Spain which in the proceeding century had been re-conquered by the Christians driving the Muslims out. As the Christian conquerors would come to a certain area, the Christians who lived in those areas, and who had been guaranteed their rights under Christian law by the Muslims, said to the Christian conquerors coming in, we will agree to let you rule us; but you have to sign this agreement saying that our rights under the law will be guaranteed and that you will not put yourselves above the law. The British were influenced by what they saw in the Crusades when they went to fight Saladin. Although though Saladin was a hated enemy of the Crusaders, he was a man whose gallantry, chivalry and submission to his law, the Islamic law, was so impressive that he was romanticized in the literature of his enemies. And you can still read this romantic literature about Saladin in the west. While these nobles were there fighting Saladin; back home, King John was raising taxes in inexcusable ways and engaging in other violations of what they perceived to be the British law. When they came back, they took what they had seen and nativized it. They said we want to be ruled by the law, the British law that you King John are not above, and we want you to sign a document saying that that is the fact and that you will observe that. Why do I say that this came from the Islamic world? Is it just this coincidence of the little Magna Cartas in Spain and the fact that the nobility has just returned from the Crusades? When we search to find where do we have the first clear, unambiguous statement that the king or the ruler is not above the law, it turns out that it is Abu Bakr, the first khalîfa. (Now I am using the word khalîfa in the sense of the temporal ruler of the Muslim world.) When Muhammad passed away, Abu Bakr was elected to be his successor in ruling the Muslim community. In his inaugural address, he said. "Now it is beyond doubt that I have been elected your Amir, although I am not better than you. Help me, if I am right; set me right if I am in the wrong; truth is a trust; falsehood a treason…. Obey me as long as I obey God and His Prophet; when I disobey God and His Prophet, then obey me not." Here is a man who is saying, for the first time in history I believe, that something other than disobeying the ruler is treason. For him treason would be to allow him to depart from the law and not correct him. I think that is the most important single element, because without rule of law a free market system is impossible. Rule of law as opposed to rule by men. The law is a fixed thing difficult to change, whereas the whims of men change all of the time. It is the difference between a rule-based and a command-based system.
Questioner: I’ve been aware of the antagonisms between scientists and European or Christian churches, and I wondered if there were antagonisms between Islam and scientists in history?
Dr. Ahmad: Not really. There have been claims made–and you will see in the literature from time to time–about certain scholars whose books were burned or whose work was condemned. In every case those were books of philosophy. Books of science were never suppressed, no matter what they said. The respect that Muslims had for scientific study of nature as legitimate pursuit, just as legitimate as the scientific work of the rational study of the Qur'an. It is highlighted for me in the example from the great scholar, al-Biruni. Al-Biruni was probably the greatest of the Muslim scientists, one the greatest scientist who ever lived. He was serving as the wazîr for a certain sultan. A man, a traveler, came to the sultan’s court and said that there was a place in the north where the sun would stay above the horizon all day long. And the sultan was so shocked to hear this, he said to the man, you are trying to make fun of our religion. If the sun is above the horizon all day long, how do we have the time for the sunset prayer? Al-Biruni came to the man’s defense. He said the man is absolutely right and explained to the sultan how, because the earth is round and the sun it varies in its height–in the summer it is higher in the sky and the winter it is lower in the sky–that in fact that when you went to the North Pole you would see the sun in the summer months in sky all the time.
More often than not, this attitude was extended even into religious disputes. Consider this rather remarkable exchange between a Muslim scholar who was a relative of the khalifa and an opponent of his on religious issues:
... bring forward all the arguments you wish and say whatever you please and speak your mind freely. Now that you are safe and free to say whatever you please appoint some arbitrator who will impartially judge between us and lean only towards the truth and be free from the empery of passion, and that arbitrator shall be Reason, whereby God makes us responsible for our own rewards and punishments. Herein I have dealt justly with you and have given you full security and am ready to accept whatever decision Reason may give for me or against me. For "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and I have only invited you to accept our faith willingly and of your own accord and have pointed out the hideousness of your present belief. Peace be with you and the blessings of God!Questioner: What is happening in the Middle East with the Islamic countries? How can we interact with them and what should our foreign policy be to allow this picture you've given us to come about again.
Dr. Ahmad: In my book Islam and the West: A Dialog (Springfield, VA: UASR, 1998), you will see that the Muslims of the East fear that all the West seeks to do is to exploit their resources and have no real interest in their welfare. They will point to example for to which there is really no answer. For example, the West says to the Muslim world "It is to your own interest to have democracy. Any Islamic scholar will tell you that Islam and democracy are not incompatible, so why don't you Muslims just adopt democracy. So the Algerians have a free election, and the Islamists win. The Algerian military steps in and arrests the winners of the election. What does the West do? France sends in arms to facilitate the suppression of the democratic processes and the United States issues wishy-washy statements from you must guess which side they're on. So, there's a great suspicion. I don't think any form of interventionism of any sort is the best way for the West to influence the Muslim world. There are really only two things we can do. One is to take St. Augustine's advice and be a city on the hill. Once the United States was admired by the entire world. That was before we became a world power. They saw how happy and propserous Americans were and their religious freedom and wanted to emulate America. Why has that changed? We supported the shah of Iran, we supported, initially Saddam Hussein. We turned against King Hussain when he tried to warn us that the bombing of Iraq would not serve our best interests. And don't let me get started on our support of Israel's human rights abuses, it's occupation of Palestine and Lebanon and illegal annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. That by itself is enough to explain Muslim hostility. It goes on and on.
The American government doesn't have to do anything. The way America can really help is the evolution of Islamic thought within America. I love speaking to groups like this, apart from the interfaith diversity, because of the ethnic diversity of the Muslims themselves. The things I speak about when I talk about Islamic law are things that people who come from a culturally homogeneous country which has recently emerged from a colonial experience have a hard time understanding. When questioned about un-Islamic practices, like female genital mutilation, their attitude, even though it is an attitude condemned in the Qur'an, is: "This what our fathers did. It must be part of our religion." Here in the United States, I'm from Palestine and maybe the man next to me is from Pakistan. Maybe his father did things differently from the way my father did. Which is correct? We must go back to the Qur'an and look at the traditions of the Prophet and the writings of the great scholars, and in the end "accept whatever decision Reason may give" for or against us, to quote the scholar I mentioned above.
Questioner: What about form criticism, issues of interpretation, and of scribal errancy?
Dr. Ahmad: We could devote an entire lecture to this very interesting
question. The textual authenticity of the Qur'an is not an issue for Muslims
the way the textual authenticity of the Bible is for Christians. Some Western
scholars have tried to claim it is, but they are not scholars with good
credentials. They are unfamiliar with the history of textual criticism
within Islam. Really knowledgable Western scholars like Frederick Denny,
who have published books on the scriptures of the many world religions,
you will see that there is little room for doubt about the letter of the
text because of the history of its compilation and preservation. Unlike
the Bible which was canonized in the fourth century after Christ (pbuh),
the Qur'an was canonized by the Prophet's own companions while thousands
who had memorized the Qur'an were still alive. The first khalîfa,
Abu Bakr commissioned a committee headed by the Prophet's chief scribe,
Zaid ibn Thabit to write down the Qur'an less than two years after the
Prophet's death precisely to prevent the textual corruptions which Muslims
believed to have entered the Bible. A short time later, the Third khalîfa,
Uthman, fearing that dialectical differences might become the source of
textual uncertainty commissioned a new committee, skilled in the Quraish
dialect, with the same chair, Zaid ibn Thabit, to canonize a single edition
in the Prophet's own dialect. Since that day there is no disagreement on
a single letter of the Qur'an, not even between Sunni and Shi`a Muslims.
This still leaves the issue of interpretation. That is a source of controversy.
There are those who say that the interpretation of the Prophet and of the
early Muslim community is the only acceptable interpretation and we don’t
care what new knowledge you have, there is no way that they could be wrong.
Then you have others at the other extreme, who say that the text of the
Qur'an is the revelation from God and what it means is for us to understand
according to our own lights. Since Islam encourages moderation, I like
to take a middle position. I like to say that we must be informed by the
understanding of earlier generations, but we are not bound to it. If we
have certain knowledge that requires us to reject an earlier interpretation,
then we must reject it. I can point to a hadîth of the Prophet
himself that points in that direction. Asked how to know what is the right
thing to do the Prophet said three times: "Ask yourself for a decision,
ask your heart for a decision." He then added: "Righteousness is that with
which the soul is tranquil and the heart is tranquil, but sin is that which
rouses suspicion in the soul and is perplexing in the breast, even if people
give you a decision in its favor."
Questioner: The concept of intergenerational theft has become an important concept among both secular and intergenerational environmentalists. Use by our current generation of all fossil fuels by our generation is a theft from our children and grandchildren who also ought to have use of that.
Dr. Ahmad: This is an argument raised by those with an inadequate understanding of economics. If you have a proper legal framework–this is a necessary condition–then, the future economic value of goods will be taken into account by the market process. Let's say that I own an oil field and I know that if I pump the oil field I'll get a certain price for it on the market. But if I'm a successful owner, I must make calculations of the future value of that oil. If the future value of that oil is worth more that the future value of that oil–discounted, although I don't want to open the issue of interest–then I will make a decision on whether to leave it there or pump it out. Some people simply don't believe that markets can work that efficiently. To those people, I say look at history. Does anybody here remember "the oil crisis." In the 1970's there were articles everywhere saying, "We're running out of oil. There will be no oil left by 2050." And those were the conservative estimates, some said we would run out of oil by 2020. The reason we had an oil crisis was not because people do not want to take into account the future value of oil. It was because there was government interference in the marketplace that distorted the price signals, preventing people from properly comparing future value against present value.
There were two sources of this interference. One was the oil depletion allowance, a subsidy to pump now rather than to save. There was another element, not sufficiently appreciated. It is a bit complicated but I want to describe it to you because of its importance. It has to do with the issue of sound money I mentioned in my talk. The United States used to be on a gold standard, which, from the Islamic point of view is the proper monetary system because gold has a utility in the marketplace that gives it a value as money. People will always accept gold because they know they can trade it for something else later. Paper currency is nothing but a promise to pay something later. American paper money used to be a promise to pay gold, or an equivalent amount of silver (they used to call them silver certificates). American currency was the strongest in the world because other governments were generally not as good as the United States government in backing their currencies. There was an agreement called the Bretton Woods agreement in which a number of countries got together and said, since the dollar is so sound, we are not going to back our currencies at all, we will just guarantee convertibility into dollars. This made the United States the printer of currency for the world and they had a powerful incentive to print more dollars than they had gold or silver to redeem it with, which they did.
Initially the overage was small, but during the Vietnam War, when they had an enormous need to finance that disaster, it was easier to print dollars than to raise taxes and inflame a population that was already divided over the continuation of that debacle. As they printed more money with less backing there was increasing inflation in the United States. Foreign producers of oil initially felt insulated from that inflation because they were told that they could redeem their dollars in a specified quantity of gold at any time. They were doing their calculations of future value against current value in the mistaken belief that the price they were being paid then was high. In America, everything was getting expensive except gold–which Americans are not allowed to own, and the price of which was artificially depressed by the government,–and oil, which was tied to the depressed price of gold by the fraudulent promise of convertibility to the foreign oil producers, still at 18 cents per gallon. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration attempted to ward off criticism that America was exporting its inflation with token devaluation of the dollar. Then, in 1973, the oil embargo imposed by the Arab and Muslim states in response to America's support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War brought down the house of cards.
When you refuse to sell something a black market arises, but the black market price is the free market price. People are stunned when the prince of oil jumps up to catch up with the American domestic inflation. Stunned, dollar-holders demand that America make good on its promise to redeem their dollars in gold. Knowing that there is not enough gold to do this, Nixon "closes the gold window." The prices of gold and oil both rise. Politicians respond to the complaint of the consumers by freezing the prices of oil. Every time you freeze the price of something you below its market price you induce a shortage so, unsurprisingly, there is suddenly an oil shortage. The shortages cause doomsayers to come out of the closet prophesying that we shall run out of oil. We will not run out of oil. As long as you do not engage in these kinds of price distortions, as the supply of oil goes down, the price will go up–gradually, not suddenly as it did then. As the price goes up, entrepreneurs are induced to look for oil substitutes. What shall it be? Solar energy? Geothermal? Something ingenious that none of us in this room could possibly foresee? I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn't be an academic, I'd be an entrepreneur making money.
Questioner: My question has to do with the modern practice of Capitalism and how you see that from an Islamic point of view?
Dr. Ahmad: Unfortunately, you've asked a question too complicated for the time remaining and I must give you an oversimplified answer. This word Capitalism is used ambiguously. It was invented by Karl Marx as a pejorative term to describe the economic system of the West. Some people use it to mean a free market while others associate it with a lust for accumulating huge amounts of money. Islam definitely favors a free market, but it definitely is critical of the lust for money. Under Capitalism you can make money either by entrepreneurial activity or you can make money by lending money that you already have. An entrepreneur looks at markets, finds needs that must be met, arranges resources to meet the need, and makes a profit on the arrangement. A Capitalist lends money and makes money on the interest regardless of the productivity of the enterprise to which he lends it. People get confused because usually one is both a capitalist and an entrepreneur, using one's own money in an enterprise. It is for this reason that most Muslims think that lending at interest is prohibited. They understand why an entrepreneur should make money by investing and taking risks, but they do not see why a capitalist should make money by merely lending it for a guaranteed return.
Questioner: In India and Pakistan we have consumed all the greenery and as a result we have salinity. In the 1240's the Black Plague was caused by exhaustion of the Black Forest. In 1869, the European governments divided Africa in fear of running short of coal. I would like your comments.
Dr. Ahmad: Justice requires that you have a legal system that requires the participants in the market place take into account all the costs of their transactions. If a legal system allows some persons to cut down forests without bearing the costs of the damages they thus impose upon others, then the system is unjust and un-Islamic. They have not earned a profit, they have simply stolen wealth from their victims.
Rev. Smith-Moran: On behalf of F&SE and the Boston Theological Institute, I am especially delighted to thank the Islamic Council of New England and the Islamic Center of Boston and Dr. Ahmad for his wonderful two-part seminar.