Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Sermon Against Religious Identity Politics Untethered to Ethical Calculus

 This is a draft of my sermon scheduled for today.

After the liturgical opening...

I wish to speak today about religion, ethics and politics -- in particular to explain why institutions that purport to speak for Muslims should continue to steer clear of efforts to drag them into politics.

This is not to say, naively, that religion and politics can be separated. Separation of church and state, which is one of the foundational principles of our country, means that the state cannot support or favor any particular religion above others. It does not mean separation of religion and politics. Indeed, as Gandhi has been quoted to say: "Those who believe that religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either."

My argument, in a nutshell, is this: Religion defines an ideal, ethics is practical reason guided imperfectly by that ideal, and politics is exceedingly pragmatic, which takes it several degrees away from the idealism religion, even if the two remain connected.

There is no doubt that our religion affects our politics, as the circle is closed from religion through ethics to politics and back to religious reflection. This is the rational path from religion, through ethical calculus, to politics. But there is the danger of taking a shortcut in the opposite emotional direction, directly from religion to politics without the mediation of ethical calculations. This is usually done through the emotional channel of identity politics and victimization narratives, and it is dangerous: Lamenting one's own dehumanization by others is the most direct path to dehumanizing others in turn, which leads to escalation and greater injury to oneself as well as to others. 

If we take the emotional -- rather than rational -- route, we risk polluting our ethics with the extreme pragmatism of politics, and then corrupting our religious ideals with the corrupted ethics.

This is why our religious discourse should focus on the rational connection from  religion to ethics, to reinforce the necessity of mediating our politics and other conduct through the ethical channel. Let me illustrate:


Qur'an teaches the ideal of pursuing global friendship:

و لا تستوي الحسنة و لا السيئة * إدفع بالتي هي أحسن فإذا الذي بينك و بينه عداوة كأنه و لي حميم  [فصلت ٣٣-٣٤]

[Good and bad deeds are not equal. Repel (bad deeds) with that which is better, and behold: the one who was separated by enmity may become like a loyal friend 41:33-34]

To be clear, our religion does not teach turning the other cheek, but it simultaneously forbids transgression and urges restraint and deescalation:

و إن عاقبتم فعاقبوا بمثل ما عوقبتم به و لئن صبرتم لهو خير للصابرين [النحل ١٢٦]

[And if you punish, then punish similar to how you had been punished; and yet if you exercise patience, that is better for those who are patient. 16:126]

But how do we decide on the best mix of resistance, on the one hand, and restraint in order to deescalate, on the other? Ethics is the exercise of practical reason to perform the necessary calculations. At the individual level, it produces a set of rules for personal conduct, often formalized in jurisprudence/fiqh. At the social level, it produces another set rules for social conduct, likewise formalized in jurisprudence and sometimes codified in law.

Consider Majallat Al'Ahkam Al-`Adliya, the legal code based on Hanafi jurisprudence that was applied by the Ottoman Empire in several countries, where it continues to be applied to this day, especially in family law. Article 19 of the Majallat reads as follows:

لا ضرر و لا ضرار

[No injury should be caused to others or to oneself].

This religious ideal is established as a Hadith (prophetic tradition) narrated in Al-Muwatta' of Imam Malik on the authority of Amr b. Yahia Al-Mazini, in Sunan Ibn Maja and Musnad Ahmad on the authority of Ibn `Abbas, and elsewhere. 

As such, this Canonical rule is part of our religion. But how do we apply it? In jurisprudence, some use it to forbid smoking, because it causes manifest harm to oneself and nearby others. But how about eating fatty meats? How about eating a bit more than we should? Sugar?... Obviously, jurists have to make all sorts of judgment calls when it comes to ethics, and even more judgment calls translating those ethics into jurisprudence and codified law.

Ethics and Law

Let's see how the jurists codifying the Majallat proceeded. Obviously, injuries do take place in real life, so  what do we do when the religious ideal of no injury is infeasible? Article 20 reads as follows:

الضرر يزال

[Injuries should be rectified.]

Fine and good, but how, exactly? Once an injury has taken place, correcting it most likely causes other injuries (think, for example, of affirmative action: to favor a disadvantaged minority candidate, you obviously must give them a position that someone else might have taken otherwise). Articles 25 and 27 of the Majallat help to some extent, but not really:

٢٥. الضرر لا يزال بمثله

٢٧. الضرر الأشد يزال بالضرر الأخف

[25. An injury cannot be rectified by an equal injury.

27. A greater injury may be rectified by a smaller injury.]

But now we are fully in the realm of cost-benefit analysis, with the added complication of having no purely religious metric that tells us which injury is smaller than which... 

And we haven't yet entered the murkier world of politics. But even before we get there, let's recount another juristic principle that was codified in the Majallat; article 39 states the following:

لا ينكر تغير الأحكام بتغير الأزمان

[It cannot be denied that legal rulings change because times change.]

As I have explained earlier, pragmatic calculations of politics take this periodic change of heart and ruling to an entirely different level.

This is one reason why we would not want the code to be called Majallat Al-Ahkam Al-Islamiya, or the like. We avoid the religious label in order to protect the timeless ideal while allowing human effort in ethics, law and ultimately politics to change with the times.


So now we get to politics, and take an extreme example of how bad politics can get. 

In a famous story narrated by Ibn Kathir in his historical magnum opus Al-Bidaya w Al-Nihaya, Abdul-Malik ibn Marwan was very learned in religion. When they came to tell him that he had become the Khalifa, he had a Mushaf (written Qur'an) in his lap, apparently reciting or studying the text. Once he received the news, he closed his Mushaf and said 

هذا فراق بيني و بينك

[This is when we part ways.]

Abdel-Malik considered the contested Khilafa to be a great injury to the Muslim polity, and proceeded to rectify the situation in the way that he deemed best. Despite his vicious conduct during the fight with Abdullah ibn Al-Zubair, which included bombardment of the Ka`ba, crucifixion and several other atrocities, we don't consider Abdul-Malik ibn Marwan or his ruthless minister Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf to be any less learned about religion. 

The historical vignette with the Mushaf merely indicates that Abdul-Malik recognized how politics is many layers of calculation removed from the religious ideal, as did his Umayyad predecessors and successors, each of whom we Sunnis still called Amir-ul-Mu'minin (Commander of the Faithful). It is impossible for us to know what would have happened under counterfactual historical scenarios, and leave religious judgment of those historical actions to Allah.

I will avoid getting into details of current affairs, because that would mean bringing political analysis to this sermon itself, which would undermine the message that I wish to convey. 

Nonetheless, I must acknowledge that political events have stirred very strong emotions in our community -- and some of these emotions are no doubt informed by our religious beliefs and ethical standards. The temptation is strong to take the shortcut from religious identity to politics, but we must resist that impulse.

We must continue to distinguishing between religion (the ideal that guides our striving, on which we do not wish to make any compromises), ethics (our best effort to approach that ideal, which requires some guesswork and compromise) and politics (which ventures much farther away from the religious ideal than ethics ever could). 


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