Islamic Law and Liberal Democracy

Professor Clark Lombardi, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington, led an interesting conversation yesterday at the Center for Law and Global Affairs at Sandra Day O’Connor Law School about the relationship between Islamic law and liberal democracy.

The three main questions he identified were:

1. What are the substantive rules of Islamic law? i.e. Are they liberal or illiberal?

2. Is the procedure of generating Islamic law democratic? i.e. do people vote?

3. Is there something about Islamization that hurts or helps democratization?

Finding the best possible interpretation or the most likely answer to God’s rules essentially uses a democratic process, though Islamic law isn’t necessarily inherently democratic, Lombardi said.

It can be read by those with extremely liberal views to those with extremely illiberal views.

Example: Al-Qaeda enforced its own illiberal views of law, without any sort of classical training or scholarly experience, which shows why their understanding of Islam led to such horrible consequences.

Sources of Islamic law are the Qur’an, Hadith, ijmaa-consensus, qiyas-analogous reasoning

Important words to understand:

sharia: path, sacred law of Islam

fiqh: jurisprudence

usool ul fiqh: principles of jurisprudence

shura: counsel

Current events to look at:

-Blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, especially the fact that many of the country’s young lawyers supported the assassin

-Oklahoma’s anti-Sharia amendment

-Sudanese government, secession and referendum

-Tunisia’s uprising and overthrow of its ruler, Ben Ali

-Lebanon’s government and political instability

An interesting figure Lombardi mentioned he has become “obsessed” with researching is the 1960 Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Alvin Cornelius, who was interestingly a Roman Catholic.

He strongly believed that the thought process of empowering people to Islamize in his country would actually help the process of liberalization, so he rejected the forces of secular dictatorship for an Islamist regime.

What a fascinating idea for a non-Muslim to strive for democratization through means other than secular methods. I am eager to read more about Justice Cornelius and his work on the ethics of democracy and law in Pakistan as well as Islamic law.

Lombardi called Malaysia and Indonesia as the countries to watch for the future of Islamic liberalism and political movements, but the question is will people listen to the Islamic liberal thinkers? Are they gaining respect, authority and recognition?

The people who are interpreting Islamic law and writing rulings seem to be closed off into elite, exclusive circles away from the masses thereby having an unfair and dangerous monopoly. But Lombardi brought up a good point that in the US and liberal democracies, there are guilds and lawyers associations, judge appointments etc. so our legal system is somewhat closed off from the general public as well, but we still consider them part of the democratic process.

It’s important to note that each country, with its own political and social circumstances, has a more liberal or illiberal view of law and democracy and Lombardi said the challenge is to get them to have a dialogue between Muslim judges to establish consensus and unity.

So looking on, I am interested to find countries using Islamic law to support and reinforce human rights and other traditional democratic/liberal norms, because there hasn’t been any substantive, empirical documentation that compares and contrasts how Islamic countries institute Sharia law for different situations.

I also want to discover Muslim thinkers with “progressive” ideas about the relationship between democracy and Islam and what the public’s reception to their work is. If you know of any, please let me know!

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