Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
1. ‘Progress’ and ‘Tradition’
Perhaps nothing differentiates the moral ecology of the modern world from that of the pre-modern more than the issue of slavery. Once taken for granted as an ineradicable, though unfortunate, feature of human life, it has now been ‘abolished’, at least from the range of morally tolerable institutions. It has gone from being merely ‘a sad fact of life’ (as most of us now might view poverty), to an absolute wrong. It is common to hear the reminder that, ‘people long ago did not believe slavery was wrong, but now we know that it is.’ This describes a fundamental shift in moral framework, from one based on mere belief to one based on knowledge, and entails that the wrongfulness of slavery was a matter of fact all along, even when nobody (or very few) knew, just as the world was round even when everyone thought it was flat.
For that reason, we often find this observation used as a premise in an argument against moral relativism; that is, the view that morality is essentially a matter of collective convention, and therefore relative to the culture or society in question. What is right in one culture may be wrong in another, and there is no absolute fact about what is right or wrong for all. The argument against it is that, if moral relativism is true then slavery would have been right when the vast majority of people believed it was; but we know that slavery is always wrong for everyone, no matter what they or their culture believe about it. Therefore, moral relativism is false. Instead, the truth lies with moral objectivism: the belief that there are facts about what is morally right and wrong, that are independent of our collective opinions and so are true for all people and cultures, whatever their beliefs about the matter happen to be.
On the other hand, people have made the same observation in defense of moral relativism. Once, they say, nobody believed slavery was wrong, but for us it is. This is shows how radically moral views can change over time. Eventually, future generations will view our moral values as outrageous and backward. So how can we say that we are right and they will be wrong? We can only judge them by our own cultural standards, just as they can only judge us by theirs. There is no neutral standard by which to judge whose cultural standards are right. Therefore, morality is relative.
A consequence of moral objectivism about the wrongfulness of slavery appears to be that the vast majority of people before its abolition were either morally wrong or ignorant. A consequence of moral relativism appears to be that, objectively, no society is any more right or wrong than any other, even though each is ‘right’ from its own viewpoint. For any religious or moral tradition that traces its roots to a pre-modern moral source, this raises challenging questions. If objectivism about the wrongfulness of slavery is true, and if the founders and moral exemplars of those traditions failed to either recognize the evil of slavery or having recognized its evil did not call for its abolition, then this seems to obviate any moral role for them in the lives of modern people. For what can those who have universally condemned and abolished slavery possibly learn about justice and morality, from those who either did not understand or did not face up to the evil of that institution? On the other hand, if moral relativism is true, then no real moral learning is possible in the first place, since there is simply no fact of the matter to learn. Moral education is simply the indoctrination into one or another equally subjective and ultimately arbitrary cultural perspective. The third option for a pre-modern tradition is to adopt moral objectivism, maintaining that its historical moral exemplars and sources do provide objective knowledge of right and wrong, but that they did not deem slavery wrong simply because it is not objectively wrong.
Like Jews, Catholics, and others who trace their cultural heritage to pre-modern roots, Muslims have responded to this challenge in a variety of ways. While labels are less often useful than not, these approaches have been categorized among Muslims (as among others) as either ‘traditionalist’ or ‘progressive’, a distinction which has seen new currency in contemporary discourse (largely through social media) among Muslim minority communities in the west. This seems related to the political situation, where we have seen alliances between Muslims and ‘liberal’ or ‘left’-leaning activists ready to defend the civil rights of Muslims, among others, against threats emanating from the election of Trump, and which have caused unease among Muslims who find the moral orientation of many of these allies at odds with Islamic values. Should a Muslim join a march in defense of the rights of Muslims, blacks, and gays, or is it better to stay home from the march in order to avoid supporting the gay lifestyle? Should we set our hopes on finding common ground on ‘family’ values with the Christian Right, or should we join the fight for civil rights, even for those whose lifestyle choices are against Islamic values? A simplistic understanding of the labels might identify ‘traditionalists’ as those who tend toward the former, and ‘progressives’ as those who tend toward the latter.
In the contemporary Muslim community, however, it is a bit more complicated. For there are some who call themselves ‘traditionalists’ in order to distinguish themselves from those we might call ‘fundamentalists’ (or the ‘salafis’). The basis of this difference is that, while the ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘salafis’ claim to be returning to a pristine, original form of Islam succeeded by corruption and schism, the traditionalists claim to draw on a rich, diverse, and continuous religious and intellectual tradition. For this reason, the traditionalist at times seems more ‘progressive’ at least in the sense that, given the diversity of what they have to draw from, they should find more interpretive ‘wiggle room’ to accommodate modern sensibilities into Muslim life. Yet ‘traditionalists’ quite often accuse ‘salafis’ of being, in spite of themselves, a thoroughly modern phenomenon, and a root cause of extremism, terrorism, and other modern evils that have appeared among Muslims.
For ‘progressives’ the difference is insignificant, for both traditionalists and salafis hearken back to ‘obsolete’ historical sources for religious and moral guidance, which are at best irrelevant and at worst severely harmful for modern life. Progressives urge Muslims to be at the cutting edge of social activism and moral progress. Neither side, then, can consistently adopt moral relativism. For the notion of ‘progress’ means change for the better, so if there is no objective ‘better’ then there is no such thing as real, objective ‘progress’; one’s progress is another’s regress, so to speak. Both traditionalists and progressives are committed to some or another form of moral objectivism. On the face of it, it seems the progressives are committed to the view that modern moral principles are the objective truth, or at least, closer to it than the pre-modern, while the traditionalists are committed to preserving the moral authority of their pre-modern sources. When ‘traditionalists’ (here including ‘salafis’) express concern that Muslim moral judgment remains rooted in historical sources, progressives often levy the charge against them, of being ‘essentialists’ about Islam, but it is not always clear what they mean by this. In the interests of a more constructive discussion, then, we should pause to consider the idea of essentialism, its meaning, and its implications.
Essentialism is the position that things have ‘essences’; that is, certain necessary features without which they would not be the kind of things they are. In this context, essentialism is usually opposed to social constructivism about the thing in question, which is the view that the thing is or is not, is determined by social convention rather than any independent fact. One need not adopt essentialism or anti-essentialism about everything. We might think a fish without gills is just not a fish, so that there is an essence of fish that includes having gills, but consider a group of schoolchildren randomly divided into ‘red team’ and ‘blue team’. Few would imagine that there is an essence of red team. Being on red team is not essential to the being of any of its members. If we move a member of red team to blue team, he will not cease being himself, the way a fish would if we turned one into a sandwich. So one can be essentialist about fish without being so about ‘red team.’
Aside from explaining how at least some things are the types of things they are, as matter of independent fact, essentialism does two other things. First, it explains how there can be diverse individuals of the same type. Second, it explains how something can change and yet remain itself. By distinguishing the essential from the accidental (that is, features of a thing that are not necessary for being what it is), we can understand that, though there is a huge variety of fish in the sea, they are still all fish. Likewise, we can understand that this very same big catch was once a small hatchling. It did not cease to exist when it became larger, but it will when it becomes dinner. In order for there to be diverse fish, and for the same fish to change and yet remain itself, there must be a difference between the essential (that which makes it what it is) and the accidental (that which can change without compromising its existence).
If we deny that a thing is what it is because of some features that make it so, then unless we conclude that it is not a thing at all, there must be some explanation of how it is what it is. When some classical Islamic theologians opposed the Aristotelian form of essentialism prevalent at the time, it was to assert that things are what they are through the eternal will of God, and to resist the implication that there are any eternal facts about what makes something this or that independent of God. In the context of contemporary opposition to essentialism, however, this Islamic theological position is for all relevant purposes equivalent to essentialism. For in this context, when people oppose essentialism about something, they typically do so in favor of the positon that it is a historically contingent social construct, and therefore that there is no fact of the matter, independent of human convention.
For example, they may argue that while a fish is a fish because of some natural fact discoverable by ‘hard’ science, gender is, like being on ‘red team’, thoroughly a result of human decision. Anti-essentialism about something implies that what the thing is does not depend on any fact of the matter independent of social convention, and is therefore contingent on historical changes in how we ‘carve up’ the world with our language and social practice. If we all started to call fish birds, and classified them as a type of bird that flies in the water, it will not change the kind of thing fish are. We will just be wrong about them. On the other hand, if the class agrees to rename their teams (or their genders) and redistribute their members, there is just nothing for them to be right or wrong about.
Typically, people taking ‘anti-essentialist’ positions have moral and social norms in mind, not fish. This often ignores that many of the same philosophical considerations and arguments leading to constructivism about moral norms are also applicable to ‘scientific’ facts. Philosophers of science, for example, discuss whether the classification schemes used by natural science (for example as species, genus, etc.) reflect independent facts about how things are organized in nature, or whether they are merely a matter of scientific convention. This is not to say that an anti-essentialism about moral and social norms entails anti-essentialist about scientific terms; but only that if not, one needs an account of how the considerations leading to the former do not also lead to the latter.
Restricting our focus to moral and social norms, we should note a difference between adopting anti-essentialism in a merely descriptive sense, as opposed to a normative sense. Adopting anti-essentialism about something in a merely descriptive sense is merely to observe that the thing in question is a social construct. Adopting the position in a normative sense involves the additional assertion that we ought to treat the thing as a social construct, and that it is morally wrong to do otherwise. Anti-essentialism about something in the normative sense is not compatible with a constructivist position about moral norms in general. If we say there is something we ought not to be essentialist about, then by necessity we must be essentialist about something.
Consider an anti-essentialist stance taken in a purely descriptive sense. For example, one might observe that gender is a social construct, though the conventional norm in some society is to treat gender as if it were essential, while another society’s conventional norm might be to treat gender as a construct, and since in both cases the norm on how to treat gender is conventional there is no essentially correct norm. Things are different if one makes a prescriptive claim that society ought to treat gender (or anything else) as a construct rather than an essence. This entails that the society that treats gender as a construct is essentially correct, while those who treat it as an essence are wrong. In this context, those who adopt anti-essentialism usually do so in the normative sense, presumably in virtue of the observation that gender is a construct, combined with a general moral principle that societies ought not to treat constructs as essences. This inevitably involves essentialism about something. For instance, the rationale for such a principle will likely be that, a society that treats a construct as an essence unjustly constrains the freedom and autonomy of its individual members, by imposing social conventions with no basis in reality. This entails that ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’ has an essence, of and in reference to which, we may understand the imposition of a social convention as a violation, independently of what any prevailing social convention happens to be, about what freedom and autonomy mean.
3. A Matter for Further Reflection
Recently, one of our scholars, Jonathon Brown of Georgetown University, spoke on the topic of slavery in Islam. One of his main points, as I understand it, was that not only the moral status but also the concept of slavery itself is historically contingent. It would therefore be inappropriate to make a moral judgment of the institution of ‘slavery’ in Islamic history, based on the moral standard and concept of ‘slavery’ operative in our modern context. The stance was predictably controversial. The objection was made that the problematic position was a direct result of ‘essentialism’ about Islam; that is, the presumption that ‘Islam’ (and by extension the ‘Islamic’ position on slavery) is ‘monolithic’ and unchangeable. This objection brought into sharp relief what is at stake.
The position that the modern moral judgement against slavery is absolutely and universally valid means that the same moral judgment applies to all times and places. Then Islam must share that judgment or be wrong. Yet the history of Islamic jurisprudence and social practice does not appear to reflect such a judgment. If so, then in order to avoid condemnation, Islam must be something that can change. Thus, the essentiality and universality of modern concepts and moral judgments about slavery (among other things) demands that we treat ‘Islamic’ moral concepts and judgments as historically contingent social constructs. Alternatively, the universal validity of Islamic legal and moral concepts demands that we treat modern concepts and moral judgments as historically contingent social constructs. Neither side here can base their case for the historicity of the opposing paradigm on a general philosophical position of anti-essentialism and historicism about moral concepts and judgments. For, if all moral concepts and judgments are historically contingent social conventions, then none can be universally valid. A position of global historicism undermines everything that either side stands on and seeks to defend. If all moral norms are historically contingent, then moral relativism follows, and neither Islamic, nor modern values can be universally valid.
Of course, essentialism about something does not entail that it cannot change at all. Thus, the fact that Islam has an essence – that there is something it is, which is not contingent on human convention – does not preclude that the Islamic position on a matter can respond to different contextual conditions. Essentialism, again, attempts to provide an explanation of how a thing can remain itself in spite of diversity over time and space. Therefore, if we can understand an essence of Islamic morality as distinct from its accidental features, then we can understand an independent, eternal Islamic moral truth compatible, logically and morally, with variations in the Islamic position on something (like slavery) in diverse historical conditions. Specifically, we would be able to understand the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, as not simply what he did do in his circumstances, but as what he would do in the varying circumstances in which human beings find themselves. Thus, the fact that he did hold slaves need not entail that he would hold slaves in all circumstances. This opens the possibility of coherently drawing the conclusion that in some circumstances the Sunnah opposes slavery. An advantage of this view, for both the progressive and the traditionalist, is that it allows us to make sense of claims for the flexibility of the Shari’a, and for the possibility of a range of diverse yet valid Islamic positions on various matters, without losing our religion.
For anti-essentialism about Islam entails, that it is not a message from God. For courtesy’s sake, we need not comment further on the implications of that. Suffice it to say, that a Muslim progressive, at most, can only oppose essentialism for something they understand as a historically contingent interpretation of Islam, arguing that something taken as essential to Islamic values is in fact accidental to it. He may argue that his interlocutors are mistaken what is essentially Islamic, that is, but not that nothing at all is. Unfortunately, we do not usually see the charge of essentialism levied with that sort of nuance. This is likely because in adopting anti-essentialism, progressives are usually following the lead of post-colonial scholars like Edward Said, who rightly criticized as essentialist, Orientalist objectifications that negate the agency and dynamism of Muslims and other non-western cultures. Without detracting from the respect due to Said’s scholarship, he was not particularly concerned with defending the proposition that Islam is a message from God.
The suggestion (and it is not new) is that, applying the universally valid, essential Islamic moral principles to contingent historical conditions leads to historically contingent Islamic moral positions on matters, which are potentially diverse, but valid nonetheless, in virtue of being rooted in those essential principles. To justify this hypothesis, though, it seems we must be able to understand what the essential principles are, as distinct and independent from the historically conditions in which they are applied, and explain how they give rise to the ethical positions they do under those conditions. It is not clear that this is possible. For how would we know that what we think is the essence of Islamic morality is not really just the contingent result of its application under our own conditions?
At any rate, this model might allow both ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ to argue with some sincerity that the Islamic position on slavery, in today’s context, is the same as the modern moral stance against it. If we can apply modern concepts and judgments to evaluate pre-modern historical conditions, however, then these modern values are universally valid. Anyone who accepts this but also accepts that there are essential Islamic values must necessarily conclude that essential Islamic values just are modern values. It follows that all the moral norms of Islamic history are invalid, and not just in today’s context but under all historical conditions.
For consider the plea, that under historical conditions, our modern sensibilities about slavery, for example, were simply not possible to realize. This would not be sustainable if we take the modern moral judgment against slavery as universally valid. For that entails that the judgment is valid in all circumstances, but a central theme of modern moral thought (and indeed any rationalist ethics) is that ‘ought implies can.’ There is no such thing as a moral duty impossible to fulfill. Thus, it cannot be that pre-modern people were wrong not to have abolished slavery, if doing so was in fact impossible for them. It seems that, if someone takes modern values as universally valid, then he must either reject the principle that ‘ought implies can’ (and contradict most modern moral thought), or he must insist that the abolition of slavery was possible for them. Either way, the implication seems to be that we must hold historical Islam in contempt. There seems to be no coherent way for a Muslim progressive to take modern moral values as universally valid. If Islam is a message from God, modern values must be historically contingent. This means, importantly, that we cannot use modern values as a sort of guide for distinguishing the ‘essential’ Islamic values from their historically contingent interpretations.
Traditionalists should have no problem with that. Most of us, traditionalists and progressives alike, can and should agree that the abolition of slavery is preferable to its continuation. Perhaps the argument that this was not possible under pre-modern conditions is sustainable. Yet, even so, the traditionalist have some questions to answer. Modern historical conditions are generally not popular with them. The hallmark of traditionalists is to take certain historical conditions of Islam as an ideal, if not vastly superior to modernity. The attitude that everything is going downhill as time passes, is almost a pillar of their outlook. Yet if the abolition of slavery is indeed preferable to its continuation, and as significantly preferable as most of us (I should hope) agree it is, then the historical conditions that make it possible must be significantly preferable to those under which it is not possible. Then we should reconsider our often globally negative assessment of modernity. If there are essential Islamic values independent of any particular, historical expression of those values, then this should not pose a problem. That which makes it possible to realize a previously unrealizable essential Islamic value cannot be without merit.
 This is a deeper question than I have space to explore here. Perhaps it relates to the classical theological discussion about Divine Speech.