WLUML Dossier 19 February 1998
Muslim “Culture” and the European Tribe
Un Parisien est tout surpris quand on lui dit que les Hottentots font couper à leurs enfants mâles un testicule. Les Hottentots sont peut-être surpris que les Parisiens en gardent les deux. Voltaire
This essay derives from the contention that there are as many Islams as there are situations that sustain it. European Islam in its various forms and places is no exception. It is perhaps a measure of the potency of the imaginary Islam as it is conceived in mediatic representation and according to the spontaneous philosophy of “experts”, academics included, that this elementary contention needs to be defended at a time like ours. We can surely assume that among the permanent acquisitions of the social and human sciences is the realization that ideological and other forms of collective representation are unthinkable without internal change and structural bearing. And it is a fact that this acquisition is almost invariably put to use in the study of contemporary ideologies, mass movements and other phenomena of European histories and realities. But it is not generally put to use regarding phenomena islamica, which are regarded as generically closed, utterly exotic, repellently mysterious, utterly exceptionalist.
I do not wish to elaborate much on this pervasive and unflinching misrecognition, although I suggest, in this essay, many factors that make it prevalent. For now, I am commenting on the recent transition, most specifically in Britain, from structural considerations of immigration to a culturalist notion of ethnic diversity which has come to predominate in the past two decades and which was consecrated by the Rushdie affair. There are definite structural foundations for this transition in the demotic consciousness, and there is little mystery in this that cannot be unravelled with reference to elementary notions of ideology, in which relations of subordination and domination are sublimated,1 so that a fetishism of “culture” becomes a part of the social imaginary of advanced capitalism and its new divisions of labour on the international scale. Thus and in the first instance, primary importance must be attributed to the impossibility of socio-economic assimilation experienced by second generation immigrants born in situations of urban degradation and into marginal, declining and unskilled industry, at a time of increasing state indifference and hostility coupled with racism in the very capillaries of the “host society”.2
Added to this are pressures that push Asian Muslim (and other) shopkeepers to cater for the poorest, as slum landlords and purveyors of cheap goods, and thus take on the classic features of a middleman minority confronted with racist reactions.3 The work of the ethnic entrepreneur, operating through kinship networks which provide the basis for domestic commodity production as well as for the sweatshop, is a classic condition conducive to social involution,4 and the formation of social as well as geographical ghettos. Finally, modern communications have enhanced the sense of immigrant deracination by facilitating the illusion of truth to the realities of the country of origin, a sense reinforced by the reality, made possible by increasing globalization, of transnational economic and social networks which forms a central part of immigrant life.
Thus structural and spatial segregation and the social involution and ghetto formation lie at the basis of the culturalism that is now becoming the prevalent mode of discourse as the non-European presence in Europe, most particularly of Muslims who, for a host of reasons not connected with historical or social reality, are assumed to form a community by virtue of sharing a religion which, peculiarly, has been dubbed a “culture”. The reader will note that concrete material adduced in support of my arguments here concerns exclusively British Muslims of Pakistani origin, and it is indeed with them that the following paragraphs are chiefly concerned. Like other groups, British Muslims of Pakistani origin constitute a specific configuration of socio-economic locations. Yet generalizations about social groups in terms of religion in order to describe their specificities and to underpin factors that over determine their socio-economic and ideological positions have become habitual, although they are irresponsible, for the forces that make for social involution are not religious;5 religious difference underwrites and does not over determine social exclusivism. The hyper-Islamization of collectivities of Muslim origin has accompanied hardening tendencies to social involution premised on structural features of communities of Muslim origin. This representation, which assumes a homogeneity overriding differences between those of rural and of urban origin, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, is by no means a reflection of social reality, which is one of stunning diversity.
Some Britons of Pakistani origin, like the Kashmiris of Mirpuri origin, who predominate in Bradford, are of rural origin with hardly any social awareness of city life even in Pakistan itself. Their culture is above all rural, with Muslim religious elements incorporated within this primary determination—but Muslim religious elements of a mystical and magical character, unconnected to the legalism of the puritanical Islam of their advocates and spokesmen. Their rural origin explains the tendency to be far more socially conservative on matters such as girls’ education than Indian Muslims, for instance, who belong to a different “culture” born of different geographical, social and educational imperatives.6 Facts such as the reasonable integration of wealthier Pakistanis within their class in Britain, the regional conditions of origin and socio-economic diversities among the Pakistanis of Britain—(not to speak of British Muslims generally, certainly not a corporate group)7—are often overlooked. Also habitually ignored are the facts of class division among Pakistanis, with the religious authorities leading the representation of poorer sections as far back as the late 1970s,8 and the fact that there were forces for integration as well as for involution among British citizens of Pakistani origin before the Rushdie affair, including generous openness to knowledge, no matter how reserved, of Christianity and of the ambient society.9 In the same vein of mystification, the considerable alienation of young Pakistanis, especially girls, from their background is ignored.10 Instead, emphasis is exclusively laid on the undeniable forces for involution and ghettoization. Features observable and ascendant since 1989 are projected back into an indistinct, though very proximate past.
Of these features one might cite many indices. Some are connected with kinship networks,11 which, among Pakistanis as others, are increasingly international and encourage life in fantasy of rootedness. Others are newer. An interview with a marriage bureau owner who serves the British Pakistani community indicates a growing tendency for men in Britain to seek wives from Pakistan rather than from British-bred Pakistani women, and of the former they are choosing increasingly younger and more cloistered girls of more conservative outlook.12 Other features are the proliferation of exclusivist Muslim organizations, like Young Muslims’ annual fairs, Muslim fun fairs, Muslim medical advisory services, not to speak of an unelected Muslim parliament. With the Rushdie affair, a number of Muslim internationalist infrastructures of an educational, welfare and propaganda nature (beholden to networks controlled by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani jammat-i-islami) were put into high gear and conjured up the notion of an “Islamic community” as a distinctive and identifiable entity. But it must not be assumed that these and cognate phenomena are in any sort of continuity, direct or indirect, with the Muslim “culture” of origin, for there is no such culture at origin, and the trans-Islamism we witness is highly recherché, and specific to the present and the very recent past, as well as to Britain and to political interests articulated here in the name of Islam.
Thus the presumptions of Muslim cultural homogeneity and continuity do not correspond to social reality. Muslim reality in Britain is, rather, composed of many realities, some structural, some organizational and institutional, but which are overall highly fragmentary.13 Nevertheless, abstracted from its socio-economic bearings, European Islam, and Islam tout court, has been represented as a cohesive, homogeneous and invariant force, indeed an otherness so radical that it is possible to speak of it as a historical enemy, much in the same way as communism was addressed in some circles.14 It is represented as a repellent exoticism by mass psychological mechanisms very like those involved in anti-Semitism.15 Yet the median discourse on Islam in Britain as in Europe is not predominantly or always overtly racist or quasi-racist. What we have is a culturalist differentialism; we are presented with supposed differences of “culture” within a discourse which can be either xenophile or xenophobic:16 both are premised on irreducible and impermeable difference.
Now culture, like nature, is one of the most difficult notions to use in the social sciences. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that its increasingly pervasive and irresponsible use has come to indicate little beyond an aesthetic of otherness, and more generally a negative aesthetic of otherness, which invigilates ideological processes that oversee the constitution of specific identities under specific conditions of socio-economic confinement, buttressed by what is known, in the “host” society, as multiculturalism.
The origins of this exclusivist and differentialist notion of culture are quite straightforward. A culturalist relativism avant la lettre was available in the repertory of European social thought from the time of Romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and was counterposed to the universalist notions of civilization— “Politically, as so often in this period, it veered between radicalism and reaction and very often, in the confusion of major social change, fused elements of both”.17 Thus differentialist culturalism comprehends both a libertarian streak and a segregationism, today as well as in its places of origin, as mirror images, with anti-racist xenophilia mirroring racist xenophobia, or indeed like racist xenophobia which wants “cultures” to coexist in mere spatiality without interpenetrating. The trajectory of this notion of “culture”, in the nineteenth century, was one in the course of which it was elaborated as racism along biologistic lines,18 and the irrationalist vitalism of this notion is still its most active constituent. In the course of the past two decades, three displacements affected this notion: race became ethnicity, then culture; normative hierarchy and inequality gave way to representation in terms of difference; and xenophobia was in many circles replaced by xenophilia.19 Thus we find fused in racist and anti-racist discourse alike the concept of non-transmissible lifestyles, a concept garnered by the race relations industry, the Labour Party and professional ethnology deriving from the heritage of the German Romantic historical school and from British functionalist anthropology alike.20
It is irrelevant to the force of this differentialist culturalism that it is tied to a specific vantage point in both time and place. This is a cosmopolite, post-imperial (but not necessarily post-imperialist) North with a particular grid of misrecognition to which is commonly applied the cliché “postmodernism”.21 This is a fictitious sense of novelty and of radical diversity primed to become automatically operational as a means of ideological and representational uniformization whenever collective representations of global and local social and political conflict are called forth.22 It is shibboleth which reduces realities to Reality, expressed in bytes, and therefore amenable to manipulation; in other words, a recent form of the ideological production which had previously been termed “the end of ideology”. Culturalist differentialism is born equally in a situation of a radical notion of ascriptive individualism, a social condition which is projected on to a metaphysical screen describing universal conditions. And finally, in Britain, this condition is equally engendered by a tradition, become a knee-jerk policy of husbanding internal and external affairs, of politico ethnic and politico-cultural categorization which, in the past, resulted in the catastrophic divisions of India, Palestine and Ireland, and which today results in regarding as natural—therefore not worth the effort of resistance—both the ghettoization of Britain and “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans.
This culturalist differentialism nevertheless, and despite the individualistic liberalism of its proponents, exists in a “vicious circle of complicity” with xenophobic racism.23 It has in Britain completely internalized the Powellite notions about nations or other collectivities being predetermined boundaries of sympathy, over-determined by an instinctivism24 which does not need to present itself necessarily in terms of racial hatred: all it requires is a “discursive deracialization” underpinned by exclusivism and “arguments from genuine fears” premised on the supposed authority of “common sense”.25
Like racism, culturalist differentialism is an essential perceptive system premised on a notion of a pre-given “culture” which, like race, has no sociological definition. Culture is here an obscure term coined to schematize without precision an indeterminate reality.26 Indeed, it is the enormous advantage of this notion that it is put forward to indicate sheer difference, for in this sense it can not be disproved because it is tautological: chicken tandoori is not roast chicken; a black headscarf is not a fashion accessory; Muslim prayer is not a High Church Christmas mass.27 In all, tokens of a banal nature are taken up and affirmed as tokens - or stigmata - of difference, and differences elevated to Difference based in an absolutization of heritage which, although cultural, is attributed to a state of nature in which cultures subsist, according to this discourse.28
What remains to be done here is symptomatically and briefly to examine some aspects of another actor in this “vicious circle of complicity”, namely, the British Muslim advocates of culturalist Islamism. There is no doubt that British Muslims, most particularly those of Pakistani, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of Bengali origin, are witnessing a heightened sense of religiosity, albeit against a background of Bengali adherence to secular nationalist rather than to religious political advocacy.29 Until recently, religiosity was connected with upward social mobility among the poorest elements, and correlated to intracommunal competition.30 The Rushdie affair accelerated this tendency and made public a number of sentiments and stigmata which have become part of public mythology and hence have taken on autonomous trajectories31 in the construction of inter-communalist myths, and thus in the generation of putative identities. Initially disembodied from social practice, religious vision and ritual observance under conditions of migration to Europe takes on a certain autonomy from social processes and prescribes an autonomist notion of the religious ego and a body of allied prescriptions.32 It also proffers a fetishism of the collective self as a socio-political imperative.
Thus Islamic “culture” takes on the aspect of a psychodrama, and the serious business of inventing a culture begins, primarily by the conjuration and proclamation of tokens (stigmata to others) of exoticism, particularly ones which give a pronounced visual edge to the boundaries of exclusion/ inclusion. Basic and most plastic among these are dressing up, and exhibitionistic piety, with dramaturgical direction provided by such political or quasi-political organizations as are poised to take over this new political constituency, with the full complicity of the xenophile/xenophobic “host culture”, the one in the name of “multiculturalism”, the other with an apathetic intent closer in spirit to the advocates of this exclusivism themselves. A past is invented, sensibilities discovered. It therefore becomes possible to assert, for instance, that Rushdie’s use of the now infamous “Mahound” is provocative,33 although there is no tradition of awareness of this name in either medieval or modern Islam, and knowledge of this name was, until 1989, the preserve of a handful of Western antiquarians, who might well and justifiably object that it is far more complex than opponents of Rushdie imagine. Yet “Mahound” is given the status of “popular” knowledge quite artificially. Suddenly, we hear of “an authentically Islamic temper” and of what constitutes a “real Muslim”.34
We hear of “cultural treason” against Muslims35 and opponents of this phantasmagoric trend, like the present author, are dismissed as “Christian” because they dispute the conjurations of the Islamist party. We also encounter positions of sanctimonious sentimentalism as “Muslim sensibility” without further qualification, and are told of arcadian scenes of spring cleaning in Damascus by “Muslim housewives”,36 although Christian Damascene households are by no means less fastidious about cleanliness—and indeed Damascene Muslim micro-sociological lore, to which I can testify at first hand, regards Christian housewives as rather more fastidious than Muslims, and their houses and streets somewhat neater. An ethnographic account tells of women in Pakistani households in Oxford supervising children regarding the back room—reading the Koran only is mentioned, not homework.37 It also tells of Mughal families taking pride in their descent from Muslim conquerors, with too much accent on religion and too little on nobility38—the properly Muslim nobility consists of sayyids, not Mughals, whose title to nobility is conquest and statehood. Thus blanks in personal sanctimoniousness or naïve research are filled with fanciful material weighted towards misrecognizing reality as a constituent in the Islamist psychodrama. And the primary victim, Salman Rushdie himself, edging towards compromise at a particular moment, recast his intellectual genealogy in such a way that the Arabian Nights, the influence of which he professes, became “Islamic” literature.39
A sentimentalist view of a spurious, unsullied reality prior to the corruption of the present, or of such a fantastic reality continuing in the present, is then made into the main constituent of a political and social programme. This spurious prior reality is termed “culture”. It is neither “real” nor old, but is a recherché cluster of modes of visible behaviour which are said by certain Islamist authorities to represent the “true prior reality” - one that British Pakistani Muslims had never known until recently, for it is not only traditions that are invented, but also collective memories. The most notable title under which this politics of nostalgia for an imagined past is officiated is of course the “application” of Islamic law: a law which was never a code that could be “applied”, as the Appendix to this chapter indicates. This “law” is supposed to distinguish a genre de vie which is as impermeable as it is intransitive, and therefore deserving of the title “culture”. It is thus that the politics of nostalgia imagines a past, or a prior reality, conjures an affection for a past that never was, and turns this sentimentalist imperative into a programme to be imposed on the social and political realities of today.
All in all, therefore, we have, in the play of this psychodrama, an efflorescence of fantastic genealogies and explanations, all premised on xenophobic/ xenophile differentialism, from the flirtations of the willing Beauty and the eager Beast (such as the contributions of John Berger and David Caute to the Rushdie affair), through to the shrill xenophobia of a Fay Weldon or Anthony Burgess, across to the platitudinous liberalism of the median discourse of differentialism. But there is more than psychodrama, self-parody and caricature in this explosion of the fantasy. For we have the steady accumulation of pressure points on the education system (with a view to creating Muslim schools where girls could be properly socialized) and elsewhere with a view to detaching British Muslims, especially Asians and most particularly Pakistanis, from the mainstream of modern life, and their resocialization within a new culture of exclusivism and xenophobia. This is the impact of the calls for Muslim communalist institutions,40 with a subculture in the process of invention. Such, for instance, is the case of the Yummies (young, upwardly mobile Muslims), who stand against non-liberal
liberalism, who dress sharply in clothes to pray and play in, who cloister together in home-centred communities, immune from the vices of the ambient society, but nevertheless sharing housework.41
But British Muslims are perhaps no more than a case in point in the Europe and the Lombard League, of Jean-Marie Le Pen, of minuscule regionalism. Muslim differentialist discourse, a counter-racism or a racism in reverse, would seem appropriate in a Britain where culturalist differentialism has, as mentioned, fully internalized the Powellite conception of history as the savage play of ascriptive sympathies and antipathies, in which the “natural” condition of groups of different origins is one in which they are wholly apart, and in which any attempt to mix them would render conflict inevitable. Such is perhaps natural in a Europe that regards itself as tribal territory with precise border controls, in which nations (for some sections of their members) regard themselves as tribes, all ranged above one another according to a tributary model of subalternity. Such, in an age of dubious post modernity, is the consequence of “the new Cartesianism of the irrational”.42 And such is the natural outcome of a situation in Croatia and Serbia succinctly described by an outstanding columnist, a situation which is not alien to Western Europe except in sheer density and extent—but intensity is by definition shifting and conjunctural, and it is not clear to what extent the West European body politic is systemically immune to this: Miraculous Virgins make their scheduled appearance. Lurid posters show shafts of light touching the pommels of mysterious swords, or blazoning the talons of absurd but vicious two-headed eagles. More than a million Serbs attend a frenzied rally, on the battle site of Kosovo, where their forebears were humiliated in 1389, and hear former Communists rave in accents of wounded tribalism. Ancient insignias, totems, feudal coats of arms, talismans, oaths, rituals, icons and regalia jostle to take the field. A society long sunk in political stagnation, but nevertheless across the threshold of modernity, is convulsed: puking up great rancid chunks of undigested barbarism.43 Tribalism, xenophilia, xenophobia and Islamist exclusivism alike are premised on a very classical trope of modern European irrationalist political and social thought (hence its attractiveness to postmodernism)—right-wing Romanticism,44 with the attendant organicism of its notions of history, the corporatism of its notion of society, and the voluntarism of its notion of political action.
Blasphemy and the Character of Islamic Law
When in 1608, King James asked the jurist and parliamentarian Sir Edward Coke why it was that law could not be interpreted by any intelligent man in the light of reason, Sir Edward resorted to an argument for the technical nature of legal reason: True it is that God has endowed Your Majesty with excellent science, and great endowments of nature; but Your Majesty is not learned in the law of this your realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, of fortune of your subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason, but by the artificial reason and judgement of the law, which law is an art which requires long study and experience before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it.
A response of the same nature could be given by any jurist with technical competence in the field of Islamic law to the claims made for this law by advocates of Islamist political ideologies. These advocates claim to speak for a univocal body of legislation which is not grounded in the vast historical experience of Muslims. They also speak in terms of explicit and demonstrable commands deriving from scriptural statements without the mediation of legal reason. Finally, they give the impression, and sometimes make the utopian presumption, of a universal extraterritoriality which has no grounds in Islamic scriptures or in the historical experience of Muslims.
This may not be surprising. This advocacy is made by ideologues with at best a rudimentary knowledge of Muslim scriptures. In the case of divines with undisputed knowledge of Islamic scripture and legal texts, it arises from the suspension of such knowledge in favour of immediate ideological and political purposes. It is unfortunate that an impression of ferocious crudity and simplicity is being given of Islamic law, an impression which is certainly undeserved by the vast corpus of writings on law and legal methodology (deontic logic, analogical connections, rhetorical methods, philological and lexical procedures) stretching over centuries and vast expanses of territory, the ensemble of which is Islamic law.
Tzvetan Todorov’s On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought (transl. C. Porter, Cambridge, MA, 1993) alas only came to my attention after this article had gone to press. But I should like to signal the meticulous detail with which Todorov treats the possible transformations of essentialist relativism (chapters 2 and 3 passim, especially pp. 219 ff) and the ease with which racism can give way to culturalism (pp. 156-7). The first characteristic feature of Islamic law which ought to be indicated as a corrective concerns its technical nature. Islamic law is highly technical, indeed arcane, to those who have not sought properly to tackle its vast body of literature. Some of the great jurists such as Sarakhsi, the greatest figure in the Hanafite school to which the vast majority of Indian Subcontinent Muslims adhere (along with Afghans, Turks and the Arabs of Syria and Iraq) went to great lengths to demonstrate that his notions and procedures are so technical that they have none but a most tangential connection with ethical or dogmatic considerations.45 The divine origin of some of the utterances which enter the conveyor belt of legal reason—that is, the text of the Koran—is technically irrelevant to their legal aspect. Infractions of law are punishable in this world, infractions of divine purpose in the next. This must be the first matter to bear in mind today, when ignorance and politics are wilfully confusing Islamic law with the requirements of Islamist ideology.
The second point concerns legal innovation. Contrary to political and ideological pretensions, the historical reality of the practice of Islamic law has been one of wide latitude in opinions over specific points of law (the ikhtilaf). The corollary of this, quite naturally, is the mutability of this law in the context of changing circumstances, a mutability which does not accord with the utopian archaism of Islamist politics. And indeed, the reform of Islamic law over the past century has instituted a condition of “absolute discretion” (ijtihad mutlaq) based on the reinterpretation of scriptural and other foundation texts, in addition to what Islamic legal theory designates as the “auxiliary” sources of law: custom, public interest and equity. The prevalent trend in Muslim law reform in the present century has indeed been an attempt to generalize the classical precepts in such a manner as to have them merge with a notion of natural law; such has been the achievement of the great reformer Muhammad Abduh. In theoretical terms, Muslim jurists (though not the Shi‘a) have adopted a highly sceptical view of the finality of their judgements; hence the readiness mutually to recognize views that may be contradictory. It is recognized—though this recognition is not shared by Islamist ideologues—that it is against natural justice and natural law (which accords with divine will) to foist ordinances of relevance to the seventh century upon the twentieth.
Moreover, Islamic law is not a code. This is why the frequently heard call for its “application” is meaningless, most particularly when calls are made for the application of shari‘a —this last term does not designate law, but is a general term designating good order, much like nomos or dharma. Islamic law is a repertoire of precedents, cases and general principles, along with a body of well developed hermeneutical and paralogical techniques. In certain respects, it resembles English law quite strongly; one can study these connections (as with Germanic law) in the seminal work of the Arab world’s premier jurist of this century, A. Sanhury,46 and of his French associates, Edouard Lambert, Linant de Bellefonds and others. This characteristic nature of Islamic law reinforces its legal latitudinarianism, a fact which explains how it emerged and reigned successfully as one of the great legal systems of the world over more than twelve centuries in very different parts of the globe. Little wonder, then, that Islamic law has a predominantly objectivist character, as Sanhury and his associates have shown. This (in marked contrast to French law) reinforces its technical nature and further accentuates its being the preserve of fully trained jurists.
One final point must be mentioned. Islamic law as a corpus is predominantly private: it treats of obligation, contract, personal status (including succession) and other aspects of secular life. These are termed by Islamic jurists, huquq al-‘ibad, the rights of persons. A much smaller
corpus of public law exists under the rubric huquq Allah, the rights of God. These concern the obligations incumbent upon properly constituted Islamic polities; they are redundant in the absence of such a polity and have no extraterritorial competence, and a Muslim in partibus infidelium is a musta’min “under safe conduct”, obliged to follow the laws of his or her country of residence. Substantively, the rights of God concern protecting and maintaining the Muslim body politic through international relations both martial and pacific, and through invigilating its internal integrity by the creation of a Rechtsstaat and the suppression of ideological sedition—that is, unbelief, apostasy and the very difficult notion of blasphemy.
Apostasy as a legal notion was questioned in the Middle Ages, abolished in Ottoman territories before the middle of the nineteenth century, and regarded by the famous Muslim reformer of the present century, Muhammad Rashid Rida, as a political matter concerning the
seventh century and, as such, of no consequence to the present age; indeed, the Koran states quite unequivocally that there should be no compulsion in matters of religion (la ikraha fid-din). Unbelief and blasphemy have had different meanings and accents over the historical
experience of Muslims, although there does exist a hard core of dogmas which are universally held, regardless of their historical justification; all traditions harden in this manner. Additionally, all traditions vary, over time and place, in the severity and in the systematic character with which unbelief and dogmatic deviance are pursued. Likewise, most traditions
reach a point where doctrinal purity and univocality become redundant.
Such is the case with those parts of the world with Muslim majorities, especially in the Arab world, except for sub cultural pockets and among political minorities which espouse a fundamentalist primitivism entirely inattentive to the historical experience of Muslims and to the historical character of their law. Islam has, moreover, never had a central authority which determines rectitude and which has exclusive title to the legitimacy which renders its territories the Abode of Islam, and thus the location of the practice of the Islamic legal system. This is especially so in modern times, when the Rights of Persons have been partly incorporated into the civil codes of such countries as Egypt, Syria and Iraq (all the achievements of Sanhury), but according to modern legal principles. What was not thus incorporated has been forgotten—and even such as was codified has lost its “Islamic” and taken on an entirely civil character. The Rights of God, on the other hand, though rarely abolished in any explicit manner, have been left in abeyance and relegated for exaction in the next world.
Thus any consideration of the question of blasphemy or of heresy, be it that of Mr Rushdie or of others, must first face the historical irrelevance of his task, and must also be cognizant of its technical impossibility in the very terms of the Islamic legal corpus and system themselves. Calls for the “application of Islamic law” have no connection with the Muslim legal tradition built upon multivocality, technical competence and the existence of an executive political authority which controls the legal system. It is a political slogan, not a return to a past reality.
Source: This paper was first published in the ‘Prologue’ to Aziz Al Azmeh, Islams and Modernities, (London: Verso), pp.1-16, second edition, 1996 (first edition 1993) and is reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.
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