Field Notes article

Opening a Conversation with Abdulaziz Sachedina

I am very grateful indeed to have been able to take the time over the summer to read two of Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina’s books: Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Principles and Application and Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights. Each book was a fascinating read, and they have left me not only impressed with his huge erudition but also anxious to ask some questions about what he envisages as his project for the modernisation of Islam (a loaded expression which he may not like!). So in the interests of brevity, let me summarise first of all some of what I take to be Sachedina’s core programme before posing six questions which I hope he will be able to answer in a subsequent blog.

It is often said that whereas theology is the master-discipline of Christianity, fiqh (jurisprudence) is the core intellectual project of Islam. In that sense, Islam and Judaism share a certain aire de famille. In the modern age, this poses quite a problem for Islam. Shari’a law is derived in large part from textual sources (i.e. the Qur’an and the hadith) which appeared in a particular context. Now, if you live in a markedly different context — say that of 21st Century Europe or America — you have to undertake some serious interpretive work to apply those revealed texts if you want to be able to say to yourself with any confidence that you have been faithful to the intention of the divine legislator. Such an interpretative enterprise requires the use of reason.

A Catholic Christian would find this a very natural thing to do. On the whole, we don’t expect to derive detailed “dos and don’ts” from the pages of scripture. Instead, we tend to extract moral principles and values from scriptural teaching and then apply them in a concrete situation. It’s that move away from the concrete and particular to a conceptual, abstract level which the discourse of law tends to resist.

Sachedina is not the only Muslim to criticise his own religious tradition for over-stressing the category of law. Particularly in his survey of the way in which contemporary Muslim scholars have tried to apply the revealed texts to complex bioethical questions which Muhammad’s contemporaries would not even have been able to dream of, Sachedina expresses impatience and calls for a new Islamic discipline equal to the task of helping Muslims to discern God’s will and to obey it: a discipline he calls Islamic social ethics.

This goes hand in hand with a call for Muslims to pay greater attention to reason, echoing the approach of the old school of theology called mu’tazilism which assigned an important role to the human capacity to work out what God would want of His creatures without always having recourse to revelation. Sachedina also shows a certain exasperation with what he calls the seminary discourse, which I take to be a reference to the traditional Sunni and Shi’i law schools which train experts in Islamic law. This is down to their reluctance to ask deep questions about what is really at stake in complex ethical problems. Instead, they are prone to apply concepts of dubious relevance without a sufficiently rigorous analysis of the context either of the original revelatory text or of the contemporary moral problem. A really interesting example he cites, interesting for a Catholic that is, is with regard to IVF and the question of “spare embryos”. Traditional approaches to this question, he argues, are shallow and unconvincing because there is no traditional ethical discourse which allows the moral status of an embryo to be analysed.

I find all of this exceedingly interesting and, as a Catholic, rather promising, both in terms of a step forward in the way Muslims approach complex ethical questions and because of the possibility this holds out for deeper dialogue and engagement between Muslims and Christians on moral matters. After all, if moral solutions are only to be found in laws derived from stories about prophets and holy people, all we can hope to do is to compare narratives and regret the lack of shared sources. Dialogue withers away. But ethical principles, the practice of the virtues, the discussion of ends and means etc. lend themselves to extended reflection and discussion. Dialogue becomes meaningful and obviously fruitful. So it is in a highly sympathetic spirit that I ask the following questions in an attempt to explore the implications of what Sachedina is proposing.

1. What, in his opinion, is fundamentally at stake in this new “ethical turn” in terms of an underlying commitment to the powers of reason? Can we really hope to know what is good for us even without revelation? If not, what is the role of revelation?

2. And is there a theological corollary too? If human beings can determine, even up to a point, the good in terms of their own human flourishing, is a Muslim entitled to believe that God always wills that flourishing and so can be said to endorse the results of correct ethical reasoning? If so, on what basis might a Muslim make that claim?

3. The change he seems to be proposing is of huge significance. What is driving his project? Is it the conviction that Islam has to come to terms with a dominant culture, that of modernity, which does its intellectual work in the terms of ethical discourse? Or is fiqh-centredness an essential shortcoming of the way the religion has developed and which can now be addressed thanks to purely contingent contextual factors?

4. I am intrigued by his impatience with “seminary discourse”; in some ways it echoes the salafi approach which asks Muslims to put aside the accretions of the traditional law schools and return to the original sources of Islam, though in Sachedina’s case it is a recovery of rationalism that is sought. Still, as a Catholic I rather value tradition — not for sentimental reasons, but because of its capacity to problematize and complexify, to tame and to incorporate the fruits and insights of reason. I tend to see any puritanical wishing-away of tradition as naïve. So here is a big question: might there be a need within contemporary Islamic thought for a deeper theoretical understanding of the value and role of tradition?

5. When I speak to Muslim intellectuals about the rationale behind that crucial option the Sunni world took to marginalise free-floating reason as a source of law, they usually point to the way in which mu‘tazilism was exploited for political purposes by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma‘mun. For us Muslims, they say, rationalism is associated with oppression, not freedom. So, I just wonder, how does a rationalist Muslim (if Sachedina accepts the epithet) deal with this ancient reservation.

6. And finally, a question that leads on from that: what of the place of obedience in Islam? I get the impression that for many Muslims obedience has a positive religious value and significance. They don’t just do what God wants them to do but it is important that they do it because it’s what God wants. In other words, there is an element relating to one’s intention. My concern with any kind of religious rationalism is that it is a secularising move in that it renders the remembrance of God redundant. So again, what does Sachedina make of that?

Damian Howard
Damian Howard SJis Lecturer in Theology at Heythrop College, University of London. His research engages with Islamic theology and contemporary Islamic thought, drawing parallels and contrasts with the concepts and experiences that shape the Christian tradition. He is the author of Being Human in Islam: The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview(2011), which examines the impact of the evolutionary worldview on Islamic conceptions of human identity.

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