Thursday, February 10, 2011

Modernism and Fundamentalism in Islam. Part 4

This continues what I started in Modernism and Fundamentalism in Islam. Part 1. The previous installment was Part 3.

I am reading Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam. A Reader, edited by Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2002. All citations refer to that book, unless otherwise stated.

Now I continue reading the book's "Part One: Islamic Modernism", specifically that part's section "III. Islam and Western Civilization".

This section consists of only two articles. The first is "Social Liberalism and Laissez-Faire Capitalism" by an "anonymous Mu'tazilite Muslim". It was originally published 1877-1880. The author of the article argues for changes in Muslim societies that would mimic the so-called Western culture. He is clearly worried about the economic situation of Muslims, and blames it on Islamic customs and the Islamic (Common) Law.

It has never been understood by the great majorit of the people that the apparent benefits that the poorer classes get from a rich man's expensive style of living are only temporary and, in the end, wholly illusive. They do not understand that the fund, which goes to the remuneration of labor, is the result only of saving and economy, and that profuse expenditure is therefore in the end injurious to the laboring classes. [...] And Mahomedan theologians and moralists, while they say nothing against extravagance in expenditure, have invariably held up thrifty and economical habits to contempt and derision. So that, from a desire to deserve and preserve the respect of their neighbours, Mahomedansa have, in the course of time, acquired the character of spendthrifts. (p. 125.)

In Muslim culture, if I have correctly understood it, spending lots of money on lavish parties, gifts, and charity, as well as other similar things, has been seen as a way of distributing wealth to the poor, the workers, and the community in general. This was the customary expectation also in medieval Christendom. Unfortunately, it was bad for business, as that requires capital. The article's writer is making a case for long-sighted capitalism, as an improvement on the culture that short-sightedly opposes saving.

Wherever there is a Musalman [sic] family possessing wealth from the time of the Moslem government, the wealth was originally either a religious or a political grant. It was never acquired by havits of economy: in the one case the wealth was acquired by administrative, political, or military activity; in the other, it was gained by selfish piety and pompous ascetism. (p. 126.)

In other words, Muslims have not been businessmen. They have not been investors. They have simply acquired grants from those in power, and presumably the wealth from those grants has been fundamentally tied to the productivity of cultivated land, or some other basic production.

Our habits of listlessness and inactivity are also partly due to the peculiar belief in predestination that we hold. This doctrine prevails amonts other people and in other countries, but owing to moral and historical causes its hold is not so strong as among Musalmans. (p. 126.)

The lack of (economic) activity, innovation, capitalistic hoarding of wealth, and in general lack of a business-oriented attitude seem to be the author's targets. What exactly is meant by predestination here is unclear, but I would guess it more likely means something like determinism in mundane matters, rather than something like the doctrine of the predestination of the soul, such as in Calvinism. Those Christian protestants, after all, were well suited for business, were they not?

[O]ne large source of wealth is entirely closed to the Mahomedans -- I mean interest on money lent. [...] When we see how the business of banking facilitates commerce and how it renders possible the creation of new trades and industries, it becomes apparent how, amongst the Mahomedans, the connection of religion purely so-called with subjects altogether foreign to it -- with criminal law, civil law, laws of inheritance, laws of property, laws of contracts, laws of bequests -- has acted most injuriously on their material interests. And as material interests act as well as depend largely upon mental and moral interests, it follows therefore that we have suffered mentally and morally as well as in a wordly point of view from the connection of our Religion with law. (p. 126.)

The Medieval Christians had the same problem, because of the condemnation of "usury" in the Bible. They circumvented that with in my opinion amounts to sensible rhetoric. The anonymous writer of the article argues for interests rates by appeal to basically the same things the Christians appealed to -- because it clearly makes sense:

The capitalist of trader must obtain a recompense for his abstinence -- for having refrained from spending away the capital on his own gratification. Every trade has some or other risk incidental to it; the capitalist must indemnify himself for this risk. Lastly the capitalist must be recompensed for the labor and inconvenience that her undertoes in conducting and managing the business. Reward of abstinence, insurance against risk, and wages of superintendence make up the profits of a trade. (p. 127.)

It is my understanding that the Biblical condemnation of usury was based on the understanding that only the poor have to borrow money, and even they only borrowed because they needed to feed themselves and there was no alternative. Thus demanding that they pay interest in addition to paying it back was a way of taking an unfair advantage of the weak, a despicable thing to do. The morally excellent thing to do would have been to simply give the poor what they needed, without requiring any kind of compensation for it.

Possibly this kind of social situation is behind traditional Islamic views on the matter as well. But in the present era, it is not only the poor who want to borrow money. In order to start a business (or buy a house), you usually need more capital than you own, so you have to get a loan. This way, economic activity often requires loans. But, as the author points out, "if lending money or any trade offered comparatively inadequate returns to the abstinence, risk, and exertion, persons engaging in it would give up their business and invest their capital in trades that yielded better returns" (p. 127). In other words, the one giving the loan must also benefit from doing so, or else no one will do so. Which in turn will stiffle economic activity.

We have seen how the prohibition of interest, instead of relieving those classes for whose benefit it is intended, does actually injure them; but what is much more serious is that it retards the formation of the habit of abstinence and economy and that of postponing immediate gratification to future happiness, and prevents the development of the spirit of self-denial and self-control and that of prudence and self-responsibility. (p. 128.)

Instead of protecting the poor from exploitation by the rich, the prohibition seems to actually be a major cause of poverty for Muslim societies, according to the anonymous writer. There is another religious reason for that poverty:

Another and a more active cause of our poverty is to be found in our laws of inheritance -- both testamentary and intestate. A large estate is under our laws of intestate succession so divided and subdivided that in two or three generations each share comes to represent the barest subsistence. And, what is worse, there is no proper law of testamentary disposition of property to control and modify operatin of this minute subdivision. (p. 128.)

Again, this situation is reminiscent of that of Early Medieval Europe, especially the Franks. But primogeniture was adopted throughout Christendom (as far as I know) by the High Middle Ages. It was pretty much continued to the 19th Century, unless I'm mistaken, although along with the use of legally valid "last will and testaments" to ensure some controll of one's property after one's passing in the way of all flesh. Of course, the majority of people have always been so poor that there has been little point in trying to divide one's property among one's survivors.

The existing laws of inheritance are practically unjust. For when a person dies, some of his children may be old and educated enough to earn a respectable livelyhood; others may be too young or inexperienced to be able to earn anything -- to give equal shares to both is decidedly an unjust apportionment. (p. 128.)

The writer could have added to this the inequal treatment of females under that same law, but what he does mention already seems clearly unjust.

And, what is worse than all, these and all other similar laws have been taken out of the domain of progress by being improperly connected with Religion. They have been made part and parcel of Revealed Religion and are believed on the authority of an ignorant, superstitious, and intolerant priesthood to lie beyond the limits of progress. In truth, however, there is no real connection between Religion and the laws, social, civil, or political, under which a community lives. Religious truths transcend the powers of human understanding, while laws, being phenomenal relations, are amenable to experience. (p. 129.)

I readily agree that religion will prevent or at least hinder progress in social issues as in other areas, if it claims to tell the absolute truth about matters related to those areas. Laws must be amenable, and chosen in accordance to the best arguments available -- in other words secular.

The writer continues to argue that the law of bequest must be altered not only into a more just form, but also to enable to creation of larger properties, instead of forcing their subdivisions into minute portions:

There are thus three ways in which a larger property acts favorably. First, by strenghtening habits of diligence and economy and developing the sense of self-responsibility, in other words by raising the character and elevating the moral nature of man. Second, by increasing the desire for wealth and therefore by increasing wealth and establishing a high standard of comfort and living. And, third, by increasing the resources available for education and therefore by diffusing knowledge and establishing a high standard of education and mental attainment. (p. 130.)

To some extent this is easy to agree with, but in the present era one can ask if this really works out quite as nicely as imagined by the anonymous writer? I believe there is much greed involved with large property and wealth. It is surely not a sign of elevated morality. It seems that education is not at all of interest to the contemporary affluent, who only see it as a means to economic gain. It seems that education is considered an intrinsic value only by academic professionals these days.

In any case, the writer believes that wealth is key for the benefit of society, and Muslims desperately need to change their attitudes, customs, and laws, in order to achieve economic progress. This is quite possibly true even now, 130 years after the article was first published. This requires the severing of religion from such political and economic matters. (p. 132 - 133.)

The second article in this section is "Islam and Civilization" by Muhammad Fard Wajdi (1875-1954). I cannot comprehend the choice of including this article anymore than I can comprehend its title. It is some of the worst religious apologetics on the subject of science & religion that I have seen, and completely useless. And not only because it is so badly outdated. Because my desire in this project is to find common ground with Muslims, I will let this useless article pass without further comment.

Continue to Part 5.

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