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Islamic Identity and the Struggle for Justice.

Reviewed by Robert Ashmore

The ten essays published under this title are revised versions of papers presented in a symposium held at Cornell University in 1987. Although one-fifth of humanity is Muslim, the faith of these billion or more people remains a mystery to many, especially in the United States. It is especially helpful, therefore, to have authorities on the subject explain Islam to non-believers - all the more because media and politicians in the United States often caricature Islam for partisan purposes.

This book is appropriately divided into two parts: the first analyzing justice as an ideal, and the second discussing the reality, that is the actual practice of justice in various Islamic societies. In the first part, Islamic justice is explained and then compared with Jewish and Christian ideals.

In their introduction the editors explain that the first goal of Islam is to install justice. This priority, Fazlur Rahman notes in the succeeding essay, derives from an initial revelation to the Prophet Muhammad that "there is one God and one humanity," the Qur'anic ideal thus being to unite humankind on an egalitarian basis. Mahmoud Ayoub develops in greater detail the Islamic concept of justice, indicating that it contains both the idea of equality and that of steering a middle course between too much and too little. This is reminiscent of Aristotle's famous doctrine of the mean, according to which moral virtue stands between the extremes of excess and deficiency.

Neither the Qur'an nor the Prophet left a clear political model to follow, Ayoub explains. But it is puzzling to read, "Just laws had to be devised, but they were devised not on the basis of what ought to be but on what had to happen post facto in the Muslim community" (p. 25). From a moral point of view, I would argue, the justice of laws is identical with what they ought to be. Perhaps Ayoub is talking about what is taken to be just in this or that community, and he is surely correct that the strength or power of the ruler determines what is just in a positivistic sense.

In a short essay by Rabbi Laurence Edwards, Judaism is interpreted to reflect that God's justice is balanced by mercy. In Leviticus 19 the Jews are commanded: "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of our citizens; you shall love him as yourself...." One might expect far different treatment of modern-day Palestinians were the State of Israel to take seriously God's demand in the Torah that judgment should show no partiality.

The Christian concept of justice, Rev. Byron Haines emphasizes, distinguishes between the just as simply the law of the land, and the just as what conforms to God's law. Disobedience is justified to the extent that positive law is in conflict with the divine. That is a point, I might add, that was well-developed by Aquinas in the Middle Ages and is reflected in contemporary natural law theory as practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Haines correctly argues that the Christian belief about sin and its redemption in Christ, although not accepted by Jews and Muslims, is crucial to the Christian discussion of justice. Since God's saving act in Christ is fundamental doctrine, not to be traded off for interdenominational concord, I find it curious that Haines goes on to adopt just such a compromising view. He claims that faith differences "do not allow Christians to judge...their belief superior to other religious beliefs." But then he reverts back to saying, "Because we believe our faith to be true for us, it is therefore true for all people" (p. 37). Can Haines have it both ways?

M. Raquibuz Zaman contributes a very informative essay on economic justice in Islam, and he looks at cases in Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. One is struck by Islamic insistence that economic resources be used for the common good. This requirement falls both upon the individual and the state, the latter's duty being to create jobs, combat poverty and protect natural resources. The fact that in many Muslim countries the wealth of a few is increasing at the expense of the poor is testimony to the gap between theory and practice. Tama Sonn points out that Islamic modernism early on identified the source of weakness in the Muslim world as religious laxity. Nevertheless, Sonn seems persuaded by those who argue that "there is nothing in secular nationalism that conflicts with Islamic socio-moral goals" (p.74).

Nimat Barazangi builds a powerful case for her claim that practices in Muslim countries which subordinate women, e.g., by banishing them from mosques, violate the principle of al-Khilafah - understood as the viceregency of all humans to God without distinction of race or gender or culture. Particular practices have replaced Qur'anic principles, she argues, and injustice to women is the consequence.

In this volume's concluding essay, Ali Mazrui reviews Israel's development of a nuclear capability with French and American complicity, and then Israel's deep involvement with apartheid South Africa in perfecting the latter's nuclear power. Because both countries used their technological superiority to bully their neighbors, Mazrui reasons that the way to achieve a ban on nuclear weapons might be though horizontal proliferation. That is, only if more Third World countries acquire nuclear capability will the major powers become serious about a universal ban.

Although the essays in this collection are of uneven quality, and some are entirely too brief to satisfy the most serious readers, this volume will provide for many a welcome introduction to Islamic thought and practice on the subject of justice.

Robert Ashmore is a professor of philosophy at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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Author:Ashmore, Robert
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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