The publication in 1943 of Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority was one of the first statements of modern American libertarianism. She was a famous journalist, novelist, and world traveler, who was also known as the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie series of novels. Lane helped her mother in the writing of those novels, and some readers have seen libertarian themes in those Little House novels.
The Discovery of Freedom presented all of human history as a struggle between Freedom and Authority. She argued that every individual human being is naturally free in generating and controlling his human energy to satisfy his natural desires by making human life on earth safer, healthier, longer, and more enjoyable. And yet, she also argued, individuals cannot succeed in this without the cooperation of other human beings, and thus all men are brothers in their need to combine their energies in order to live; and so any man who injures another injures himself. This creates the problem of how to control the combined energies of many individuals for satisfying the desires of all. Every individual controls his human energy in accordance with his personal view of the desirable or the good, and this belief in a standard of value is a religious faith. “This is true,” Lane observed, “whether his God is the God of Abraham and Christ, or Reason or Destiny or History or Astrology or Economic Determinism or the Survival of the Fittest, or any other god by any other name” (xxiv-xxv). For most human beings throughout recorded human history, over the past 6,000 years, this religious faith has been a pagan faith in a universe controlled by an Authority, which controls the energy of all individuals. Those who have this pagan faith in Authority do not know that all men are naturally free.
Lane left open the possibility that in the prehistoric world, “perhaps all men once knew that men are free” (73). Notice what this implies. Throughout most of human evolutionary history, when human beings lived in hunter-gatherer bands, they probably “knew that men are free,” because in hunter-gatherer societies, all adults are equally free. Some people are leaders, but they cannot command others to obey their orders. Leadership depends on the leaders winning the consent of all in the group.
In modern Lockean liberal political thought, this is the “state of nature.” With the establishment of agrarian states some 6,000 years ago, this hunter-gatherer state of nature in which all men were equally free was lost. A modern Lockean liberal social order is the attempt to approximate that original condition of individual liberty and equality.
Over the six millennia of recorded human history, Lane believed, there have been three such attempts to teach the fact that all men are naturally free. The first attempt was by Abraham and his descendants, who denied the existence of the pagan gods who were thought to control everything, and who affirmed the existence of the one God who is the Creator and Judge of everything, but who leaves individual human beings free to choose good or evil, and who unites all individuals as brothers who prosper only in combining their energies for mutual benefit.
The second attempt to teach the fact of individual freedom was by Muhammad, who agreed with Abraham in denying the Authority of the pagan gods and in affirming the one God who wants all individuals to take responsibility for their lives.
The third attempt was by the American revolutionaries who asserted the natural freedom of all men, so that no government has Authority over men, and that just government exists only by the consent of individuals for securing their natural freedom.
Many of Lane’s readers have been surprised by her claim that Muhammad’s religion is one of the three great historical moments in the struggle of Freedom against Authority. After all, hasn’t Islam often promoted authoritarian social orders that suppress individual liberty? And don’t we see that today in the authoritarian violence of the Islamic State and other Islamist movements directed ultimately to establishing a world-wide Caliphate? Don’t we also see that in Islamic authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia?
Lane saw a libertarian teaching in Muhammad’s religion–and particularly in the Quran as the divinely revealed text of his religion–that explained for her the extraordinary creativity of Islamic civilization during its first eight hundred years. In recent years, some classical liberal scholars have offered evidence and argumentation to support her view of Islamic libertarianism. One of the best examples of this is Mustafa Akyol’s Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (2013). Akyol is a Turkish Muslim and a classical liberal who sees a tradition of liberal or libertarian thought that can be rooted in the Quran, as opposed to the traditions of Islamic authoritarianism that have little or no grounding in the Quran.
Lane stressed that Muhammad was a merchant engaged in global trade, and that the Islamic empire created free trading networks from India to Spain. She also stressed the importance in the Quran (2:256) of the teaching that there is to be “no compulsion in religion” (Lane, p. 86), because genuine religious belief must be by the free choice of individuals. She noted that many Muslim societies protected religious liberty, so that Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Zoroastrians could live in peace. Moreover, this freedom allowed for free exchange in commerce, science, and technology. This promoted rapid urbanization. By the year 800, the Islamic Middle East had thirteen cities with populations over 50,000, while Europe had only one–Rome.
In Iraq, a school of Islamic theologians known as the Mutazilites argued that God’s Creation operated by rational laws that could be studied by science or philosophy. And thus faith and reason were compatible. This allowed Muslim philosophers like Alfarabi and Averroes to transmit the ideas of the ancient Greek philosophers to the Muslim world and then to medieval Christendom. In al-Andalus, the Muslim kingdom in Spain, Muslims, Jews, and Christians could meet to translate and study the texts of Plato and Aristotle.
There are many verses in the Quran that speak about fighting in war for the true religion, and Muhammad was a military leader. These are the verses quoted by Muslim authoritarians–like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State–to justify holy war against infidels and apostates. But Lane suggested that these militant verses can be read as affirming the justice of only defensive wars–particularly, Muhammad’s wars of defense against the pagan armies that attempted to destroy his new monotheistic religion. As the Quran says, “permission to fight is given to those who are fought against” (22:39).
The militancy of Islamist terrorism today is not rooted in the Quran but in the tribalism of Arab cultural traditions. The Quran warns about this: “The desert Arabs are more obdurate in disbelief and hypocrisy, and more likely not to know the limits which God has sent down to His Messenger” (9:97).
A few years ago, I taught a series of three courses on “The Politics of the Old Testament,” “The Politics of the New Testament,” and “The Politics of the Quran.” What I found most surprising in reading the Quran with my students was how so much of what many of us identified as Islamic theocratic authoritarianism–particularly, in the enforcement of the Islamic law of Sharia–was not found in the Quran. Most of the repressive rules of Sharia–such as stoning adulterers, punishing drinkers, killing apostates and blasphemers, honor killings, female genital mutilation, the rule of a global caliphate, and the punishment of sinful behavior by “religious police”–were not found in the Quran, because they arose hundreds of years after Muhammad’s death through the traditions that were justified through the Haddiths (the reports of Muhammad’s sayings and doings). There is great disagreement among Islamic scholars over the interpretation of the Haddiths and even over the authenticity of these reports about Muhammad. Moreover, in treating Muhammad’s words and deeds as sacred, and thus exalting Muhammad to superhuman status, the tradition of the Hadiths denies the teaching of the Quran that Muhammad was only a human being and not divine. “I am only a human being like yourselves,” Muhammad declared. “It is only revealed to me that your god is One God” (18:110). Thus, the revelation of the Quran is divine, but Muhammad is not.
Akyol has shown that those Muslims who look to the divinely revealed Quran as more authoritative than the Haddiths can follow a liberal or libertarian view of Islam like that taken by Lane. One of the first expressions of such Islamic liberalism was by the Murjiites.
Muhammad died in 632 without leaving any instructions for identifying who would take his place as leader. The Muslim community decided that the most prominent of Muhammad’s companions should lead them. Abu Bakr became the first “caliph” (the “successor” of Muhammad). Abu Bakr’s “caliphate” was followed by those of Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Sunni Muslims regard these four as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” but Shiite Muslims believe that Ali (the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad) was the only true successor, and that the other three were usurpers. In 657, Muslims fell into a sectarian civil war, with Ali leading one army and Muawiyah leading another. In addition to this factional split between Sunnis and Shiites, a third faction–the Kharijites or “the Dissenters”–condemned both Ali and Muawiyah as infidels, and a Kharijite assassinated Ali in 701. Muawiyah then established the Umayyid dynasty, which was supported by the Sunnis, who became the mainstream of the Muslim community. (The tense conflicts today between the Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia and the Shiite regime of Iran is one example of how persistent this sectarian split is.)
Thus, within one generation after the death of Muhammad, Muslims were killing one another, because they had combined religious authority and political power, and so their disagreements over religious authority became violent political conflicts. One way to resolve this problem would be to separate religion and politics, so that political rule would be secular, and religious belief would be left up to individual choice, without anyone being allowed to enforce religious doctrines through compulsion. Although these ideas of pluralism and secularity might seem to be modern ideas that were not developed until much later in history, the Murjiite school of Muslim theology came close to these ideas in the first century of Islamic history.
The Arabic word irja means “postponing.” Some Muslim scholars became identified as Murjiites or “postponers,” because they argued that human beings could not judge who were the true believers, and that this should be “postponed” until the afterlife, when God would judge this and punish the unbelievers in Hell and reward the believers in Heaven. This sort of reasoning supports religious tolerance and religious liberty, because it is argued that true piety depends on a personal voluntary faith by individuals that cannot be enforced by social coercion, that it is arrogant for any human beings to assume that they can judge who are the true believers, and that only God in the afterlife can judge the inward heart of believers and unbelievers.
Similar reasoning was developed in the seventeenth century by Roger Williams and John Locke in arguing that the New Testament does not teach the compulsory enforcement of religious belief, and thus supports religious toleration and liberty in this earthly life, with the understanding that God will judge us in the afterlife. Jesus made it clear that his kingdom was not of this world, and so he had come into the world not to establish theocratic government, but to save those who might enter the kingdom of Heaven after death. The Murjiites reached the same conclusion about the Quran.
They could cite the verse of the Quran about “no compulsion in religion” (2:256). They could also quote another declaration of the Quran: “Had God willed, He would have made you a single community. Every one of you will return to God, and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed” (5:51). Moreover, it is said that many questions are “held in suspense for the command of God, whether He will punish them, or turn in mercy to them: and God is All-Knowing, Wise” (9:106).
The Quran teaches that when people defy or ridicule God’s message, “you are not to sit with them,” which suggests that believers should peacefully shun their critics and leave their punishment to God (4:140). If God were to punish human beings for all of their wrongdoings, not a single human being would be left alive. Instead, God postpones His judgment (16:61). The Quran recommends: “Say this–oh, you that reject faith, I worship not what you worship. Nor will you worship what I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:1-6). Unbelievers are threatened with eternal punishment in Hell. But in this life, people are free to choose their own way. “It is the truth from your Lord,” the Quran teaches, “so let whoever wishes have belief, and whoever wishes be an unbeliever” (18:29).
When I taught my course on the politics of the Quran, one of the students was a devout Muslim who often quoted these verses from the Quran to prove her claim that the theocratic Islamist radicals were violating the Quran’s teaching. Although she never identified herself as taking the libertarian position of the Murjiites, that’s what she was doing.
Akyol shows how this Islamic libertarianism of the Murjiites was first lost with the triumph of the Islamic traditionalists, and then revived in the Ottoman Empire of the nineteenth century, and then again revived in Turkey in the early 1980s. In 1856, the Ottoman sultan declared: “As all forms of religion are and shall be freely professed in my dominions, no subject of my empire shall be hindered in the exercise of the religion that he professes, nor shall he be in any way annoyed on this account. No one shall be compelled to change their religion” (Akyol, 151). An intellectual group called the Young Ottomans openly argued for liberal reforms that would secure individual liberty and representative government. In 1877, the first Ottoman Parliament was elected, and more than one-third of its seats were filled by non-Muslims.
This Ottoman liberal era was brought to an end by the First World War. The victorious European powers broke up the Ottoman Empire. After a War of Liberation (1919-1922) for Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and he abolished the caliphate in 1924. Those supporting Ataturk formed the Republican People’s Party (RPP), which promoted authoritarian secularism, in which the public expression of religious belief was suppressed by government. The opposing party–the Progressive Republic Party (PRP)–promoted liberal policies, including respect for religious liberty. The Kemalist government shut down the PRP, because its policy of “respect for religious beliefs and ideas” would “encourage religious reactionaries.” Radical Islamism arose at this time as a revolt against Kemalish secularism and directed to establishing Islamic theocracy.
The middle path between the secularist state and the theocratic state was Islamic liberalism, which was rediscovered in Turkey in 1983 when Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party won national elections. Ozal’s policies were based on “the three freedoms”–ideas, religion, and enterprise. He was supported by liberal intellectuals who were secular but not secularists. He was the first Turkish prime minister to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. He showed that Muslims could enjoy religious freedom in a liberal state.
After Ozal’s death in 1993, a political Islamist movement led by Necmeddin Erbakan attempted to establish an Islamist regime. Acting against this movement, the Kemalist military launched a coup to overthrow the government in 1997 and then to repress the Islamist groups.
In 2002, Akyol claims, another revival of Islamic liberalism began with the electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Tayyip Erdogan, which promoted an Islamic liberal capitalism that rejected both secularist authoritarianism and Islamic authoritarianism. Some Turkish liberal intellectuals advanced the idea of Homo Islamicus–which combined the ideas of free markets, free thought, and Islamic ethics.
Here is where Akyol’s story becomes implausible to me, because he is silent about the brutal authoritarianism of Erdogan, which includes the suppression of journalists who disagree with him. When judges inquired into the corrupt practices of Erdogan’s family, he banned Twitter and YouTube for reposting news of the judicial inquiries.
Libertarians like Lane and Akyol can argue that what all individuals need to live a fulfilling life is the liberty to think and act as one chooses, which includes the liberty to search for God. In a libertarian society, the government does not enforce coercively any particular religious beliefs and practices, but government does secure the liberty of all individuals choose their religious identity. So, those Muslims who wish to live by Sharia can do so, as long as those rules of Sharia are accepted voluntarily and without compulsion. For example, since 2008, Muslims in the United Kingdom have been free to go to Sharia courts for the enforcement of Muslim family law. Similarly, in the United States, and some other Western countries, Orthodox Jews can live according to the Halakha, their religious code. In the United States, employees of Christian organizations can sign contracts that have clauses in which they agree that any contractual disputes will be resolved by Christian arbitration agencies that follow biblical principles.
The Murjiites show how deep such libertarian thinking is in the history of Islam. And while most Muslims today have probably never heard of the Murijiites, many if not most Muslims today have adopted the libertarianism of the Murjiites. In fact, the Islamic State has recognized this as a great threat to its Islamist authoritarianism. Dabiq is the monthly magazine of Islamic State propaganda. In the eighth issue (March 2015), there is a long article on “Irja, The Most Dangerous Bid’ah.” Bid’ah means “innovation,” and it’s the word used for “heresy.” Irja refers to the Murjiite heresy of “postponing” God’s judgment. The article warns that even many of the jihadist factions are not coercively enforcing Sharia in the territories that they have taken, because many Muslims resist the harsh rules of Sharia as too oppressive. In condemning the Murjiites as heretics, the article quotes from various Islamic scholars, but it does not cite specific verses of the Quran, not does it answer the Murjiite arguments based on the Quran.
Perhaps the best evidence in the Quran for the position of Islamic theocracy is the teaching that believers have a duty to “command the right and forbid the wrong” (3:104, 3:110, 9:71), which might be read as requiring the compulsory enforcement of the harshest rules of Sharia. But the Quran does not specify exactly what is meant by commanding the right and forbidding the wrong. Some Islamic scholars have argued that this means little more than separating the believers from the unbelievers, so that commanding the right means choosing to worship Allah, and forbidding the wrong means refusing to worship any other god. And when one considers this in the context of all the verses cited by the Murjiites indicating that there is to be no coercion in religious belief, the Islamist position looks weak.
This confirms the strength of the Murjiite arguments for reading the Quran as supporting liberalism. Similarly, as I have argued in some posts, there are good arguments for the liberal interpretation of the New Testament as supporting the liberal principles of secular politics, religious liberty, and the privatization of religious belief. Most Christians today–including the Catholic Church–have embraced the liberal interpretation of the Bible, just as many Muslims have embraced the liberal interpretation of the Quran.
As Akyol has indicated in a recent article in the New York Times, the article in Dabiq shows that many devout Muslims have become Murjiite liberals without realizing it, because they have embraced the Quran’s teaching of “no compulsion in religion” as an Islamic basis for adopting Western libertarianism.
The battle against the Islamic State and the other Islamist radicals is not as much a military battle as it is an intellectual or theological battle of ideas. The defeat of theocratic Islamism in that battle of ideas will come with the triumph of Islamic libertarianism.
Consider how the libertarian understanding of religious liberty and pluralism would apply to the current controversy over the possible firing of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, who has expressed support for Muslims by wearing a hijab and saying that they worship the same God as Christians like herself.
At Wheaton College, all employees of the school must agree to affirm a “Statement of Faith.” Administrators at the school say that Professor Hawkins has refused to explain how her statements about Islam can be consistent with her affirmation of that statement of Christian doctrines. Consequently, they have begun proceedings for having her fired.
Wheaton’s “Statement of Faith” affirms belief in “one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life,” and in Jesus Christ as “true God and true man, existing in one person.” These Christian doctrines are clearly rejected by the Quran. Jesus is said to be a prophet of God and an apostle to Israel (3:49-51; 6:85). But Jesus is not divine and not the son of God. To affirm the trinitarian conception of God as “eternally existing in three persons” is said to be blasphemy, because it denies the oneness of God (5:19, 75-80). Therefore, to affirm Wheaton’s statement of faith, Professor Hawkins must reject Islam as a false religion. If she refuses to do this, then the College can rightly fire her for violating the terms of her contract with the College.
This is an expression of religious liberty and pluralism, because the College is not exerting compulsion on Professor Hawkins. Joining the religious community of the College is a voluntary act that requires agreeing to the statement of faith. If she refuses that agreement, she can be expelled from the community, but as long as she is not punished with violent coercion, she retains her religious liberty. She is free to join a Christian community or a Muslim community that does not affirm the divinity of Jesus.
Islamic libertarianism would support the same arrangement. Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other religious believers would be free to join religious communities that could enforce the voluntary affirmation of the community’s doctrines. But there would be no compulsion. And the determination as to which community was enforcing the doctrines of the true religion would be left up to God exercising His judgment in the afterlife.
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Akyol summarizes his argument in a TED talk here. His New York Times article is here.
The article in Dabiq can be found here.
Some of the arguments for Islamic libertarianism are elaborated at the “Muslims4Liberty” website.
Some of my previous posts on the evolutionary psychology of religious liberty and toleration in classical liberalism can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.