Islam with a Heart

Islam with a Heart

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Islam with a Heart[1]

Emad El-Din Shahin

“وما ارسلناك الا رحمة للعالمين”

“We have Sent you but a Mercy to Humankind” Qur’an

“إنما انا رحمة مهداة”

“I am but a gift of Mercy” Prophet Muhammad

“الناس صنفان : إما اخ لك في الدين أو نظيرك في الخلق” على كرم الله وجه

“People are of Two kinds: Your Brother in Faith or Your Equal in Creation” Ali Ibn Abi Talib


What I am trying to accomplish is to revisit the connection between Islam and politics and place both within a humanistic and ethical framework. While I am not challenging the significance of governance (hukm) within the Islamic legal and historical contexts, I seek to shift the focus of our intellectual attention, at least at this critical juncture, away from the state to the human being and from law to ethics.

My main argument is that the human being, and not the state, should be at the core of Islamist political activity… and that ethics should be the foundation of our new perspectives of the Shari`a. These two domains were in fact at the heart of the Muslim intellectual endeavors during the Renaissance of Islam in the 10th century and the essence of the movement of Islamic modernism since the beginning of the twentieth century. These two movements were universal in appeal, humanistic in focus, inclusive in practice, and ethical in essence. I am hoping that my lecture today can help reclaim some of these values.

The integration of religion and politics in our modern time is often viewed as anachronistic and problematic. The separation of religion and state has often been suggested as a requisite for modern forms of association. Secularism is presumed as a necessary worldview for democracy to function properly, for pluralism to thrive, and for toleration to withstand the pressure of bigotry and prejudice. Aside from the empirical inconclusiveness of this argument, this certainly poses a challenge to faith-based movements and communities that uphold religion as a valid basis for an alternative worldview and for achieving an indigenous type of modernity.

This is even more complicated in the case of political Islam, which has increasingly been viewed as exclusive, violent, and lacking in concern for human rights. Islamists are doubly challenged by the secularist premises. They must meet the challenge of modernizing their societies within an authentic framework, on the one hand, and persuasively present an ethical theory for reconstructing a modern Islamic society, on the other.

A recent movement that came closest to reaching this goal was the movement of Islamic modernism that emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century in some Muslim countries. (I will address some of it tenets later). Great reformers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad `Abduh (1849-1905), Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1617-1898) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), tried to reconcile Islam and modernity, refine and elevate the character of the Muslim individual, and transform that individual into an active agent for change. Sadly, later Islamic movements marginalized such individuals. Salafists suspend their rational capacity; activists subdue the individuals to the service of the organization; and militants sacrifice them to misconstrued doctrines and blind violence. This is not the reformed Muslim individual that we seek.

As the great Iranian thinker Ali Shari`ati aspired:

We wish to have a school of thought and action…which both…responds to our philosophical needs,…and at the same time develops a thinking being who is accepted by the world,…recognized by civilization and the new culture of the world. (

Admittedly, the current reassertion of Islam in politics and society has created clear tensions that require immediate attention. Minorities fear for their basic rights should Islamists come to power; women fear that an Islamic government would impinge on their private life; secular governments view and treat Islamists as their nemesis and antithesis; and external actors prefer to back up a repressive status quo in Muslim societies than deal with the uncertainty and unpredictability of political Islam.

I will argue here that Islamist takeover of states and the establishment of Islamic governments is unlikely to resolve the Islamist dilemma (that is, to modernize while making faith relevant). What is needed is a creative framework that succeeds in projecting a new system of ethical and universal values that the educated and activist Muslim can share with the rest of the community, and that the Muslim community can in turn share with the rest of humanity.

I will try to present here an Islamic-based framework of universal values that Muslims can share and promote.

To do that, I will use two models: historical and Qur’anic. First, I will shed some light on Islam’s humanistic legacy that is often overlooked, and then I will present a Qur’anic-based framework of universal values that can function as basis of a new perspective on the law and Muslim relations with others. For the humanistic legacy in Islam, I will discuss five main elements: the value of the human being; cosmopolitanism and the unity of humanity; the attainment of happiness; the value of reason and knowledge; and the mutual cooperation of humanity to achieve happiness. As for the universal framework, I intend to focus on the dignity of the human being; justice and excellence; pluralism; and individual and public liberties.

Islam’s Humanistic Legacy

The use of the term “humanism” and “humanistic” in a religious context is germane, yet risky. The concept is often misunderstood, mishandled and manipulated. It immediately recalls historical animosities and intellectual distrust. Enlightenment and secular humanisms have manifested hostility toward religion and religious authorities. Both have placed human beings in sharp contradiction to God and nature, which “in their pursuit of happiness” and endeavor to replace God and conquer nature, have subjected individuals to a perpetual state of conflict, anxiety, and uncertainty.

This is not the humanism I am concerned with. The humanism I am suggesting is religious in orientation and Islamic in legacy and spirit. It derives its inspiration from the Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet, and Muslim history, as well as from external sources (Greek, Aristotelian philosophy in particular, and others). These humanistic tendencies reached their apogee in Islam in a movement that emerged in the 10th century under the Abbasid caliphate and the Buyahid rulers. It marked what George Makdisi, Joel Kraemer, and Mohamed Arkoun label the “Renaissance of Islam.” This movement epitomized the intellectual and cultural flowering within Islamic civilization in Abbasid Baghdad.

Tenth century Baghdad was a vivid and bustling intellectual and cultural center. It was a cosmopolitan city—a hub for intellectuals and philosophers from different religious and doctrinal backgrounds. Scholars, thinkers and skeptics, driven by their pursuit of truth, love for reason, and curiosity, engaged in lively debates and candid refutations without fear or intimidation.

The humanistic movement within Islam was not secular. It was a clear synthesis of Muslim traditions and external philosophies. Muslim humanists glorified reason, affirmed the value of the human being, appreciated natural phenomena and empiricism, and stressed the concept of human progress, yet they were committed Muslims. Commenting on their approach, Lenn Goodman explains that,

Perhaps what binds together figures like Miskawayh, Farabi, Avicenna, Hamadani, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Khaldun is their ability to examine the tradition they live in, to look at it both sympathetically and critically, and to select, develop, and combine values and ideas that are conducive to human understanding, human growth, and human flourishing.” (2003, 27).

The great Muslim Philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) saw no contradiction between rational reasoning and the essence of the revelation. According to him, truth cannot contradict truth, but both (rational reasoning and revelation] are mutually re-enforcing. (See Dallmayr 2002, 121-146).

But what are the main tents of the humanistic tendencies within Islam?

We can discern five features: The first is the value of human beings as the center of the universe; second, cosmopolitanism and the unity of humanity (wihdat al-khalq); third, attainment of happiness (tahsil al-sa`ada); fourth, knowledge and reason as the driving force for the attainment of happiness and progress; fifth, universal cooperation to achieve global happiness (al-ta`aun fi al-insaniya).

1. The Value of the Human Being

Classical Islamic humanists viewed the individual (insan) as the center of being. They placed much confidence in the ability of individuals to perfect themselves and were concerned with equipping human beings with the skills necessary to improve their character and attain happiness. They viewed human beings as an accurate image of God and thus deserving to be entrusted to fulfill His will on earth, capable of reaching perfection and acquiring the highest ethical values.

Ibn Miskawayh, a towering 10th century moralist, expected a refined individual to possess certain positive ethical virtues: faith, moderation, justice, wisdom, tactfulness, generosity, nobility, and courtesy (Ibn Miskawayh, The Refinement of Character).

 2. Cosmopolitanism and the Unity of Humanity

Muslim humanists believed in the unity and common destiny of humankind. They were driven by a genuine cosmopolitan spirit that reflected their love for humanity. The concept of humanity (insaniya) was a central theme in al-Farabi’s (872-951) thought and work. According to Joel Kraemer “The …philosophers displayed the quality of philanthropia.”

Reflecting a universal outlook, the Brethren of Purity describe the ideal individual as, “Persian by breading, Arabian in faith, Hanafite (thus, moderate) in his Islam, Iraqi in culture, Hebrew in lore, Christian in manners, Damascene in piety, Greek in sciences, Indian in contemplation, Sufi in intimations, regal in character, masterful in thoughts, and divine in insight” (Goodman 2003, 24).

 3. The Attainment of Happiness

Muslim philosophers shared a genuine concern over human beings, their anxiety and happiness. It is remarkable to come across book titles such as al-Kindi’s [801-871] On Freedom from Grief; al-Farabi’s The Attainment of Happiness; Abul al-Hassan al-`Amiri’s Happiness and the Generation of Happiness; and al-Ghazali’s The Chemistry of Happiness. Influenced by Greek philosophy, these Muslim intellectuals wrote extensively on the nature of happiness and the means to achieve it.

The Muslim philosopher al-Kindi tried to set human beings in harmony with nature and provide individuals with the practical skills to overcome their sorrows. According to al-Farabi, and the rest of the philosophers, the ultimate goal of human beings is to attain happiness. The essence of this happiness is to connect to God, the source of all beauty, goodness, and virtue. Al-Farabi contends:

Since what is intended by man’s existence is that he attains supreme happiness, he—in order to achieve it—needs to know what happiness is, make it his end, and hold it before his eyes. Then, after that, he needs to know the things he ought to do to attain happiness, and then do these actions.

(Al-Farabi, The Principles of Beings (Kitab al-Siyäsat al-Madanïyyah), pp. 47-48 (ca. 940 CE)(F. Najjar transl.)

But what are the means to attain happiness?

4. The Value of Knowledge and Reason

Muslim thinkers viewed humans as rational beings capable of attaining happiness through knowledge, reason and education, and global cooperation.

Happiness could only be attained through the refinement of character (tahdhib al-akhlaq) and the acquisition of (adab)–paedia. Adab refers to the human knowledge and conduct leading to happiness. It refers to an educational process that cultivates in the individual specific moral virtues, knowledge, urbanity, nobility, etiquette, and civility (Moosa 2005, 208-210).

Muslim philosophers believed in education as the greatest good and highest ideal that humans should seek. They synthesized a system of knowledge and reasoning in which religious sciences were combined with philosophical and rational thinking leading to the elevation of empirical perspectives and logical induction. This spirit permeated the natural sciences as well as theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, mysticism, historiography, poetry, and music.

The ideal education, according to Ibn Miskawayh, occurs when the young happen to be brought up according to the education of the religious law (adab al-Shari`a) carrying out its duties until they become habituated in them. There follows the study of ethical works, which confirms the good habits (adab) and acquired virtues in the soul by proofs. Then comes the study of arithmetic and geometry, accustoming individuals to veracious speech and valid proof. So they advance until they reach the ultimate level of humanity, becoming perfectly happy (Kraemer, 151).

 5. Cooperation of Humanity to Achieve Happiness

Muslim humanists hoped to promote cooperation among humankind as the best way to achieve collective happiness. Ibn Miskawayh believed that the attainment of human perfection (al-kamal al-insani) was only possible through mutual cooperation. (Miskawayh 1962, 14).

Al-Farabi envisions an ideal human community comprising the entire inhabited world (ma`mura)…In his vision of world peace in a perfect world state, al-Farabi argued that, “Beings like men, who belong to the same species…have to cease fighting one another; for they are bound by…common humanity.” He believed that “true cooperation can only be achieved by a permanent bond, by natural affection (tahabub/philia) and concord (I’tilaf/homonoia).” (Kraemer 1984, 162 and 163-164).

All these features strongly impacted Arab and Islamic culture and continued to influence the intellectual formulations of later Muslim reformers.

 Twentieth Century Muslim Modernists

Twentieth century Islamic modernists, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad `Abduh, and Muhammad Iqbal tried to infuse many of the humanistic values I discussed above into their programs of reform. They were driven by a deep concern for the internal decay that was disintegrating the Muslim ummah and the external threat that was snatching its territories. As part of their reformist orientations, they hoped to achieve a synthesis between Islam and modernity, text and reason, and devise an ethical framework that contains the values of progress and elevates the collective character of Muslims. While maintaining a strong belief in Islam as containing the necessary civic and moral virtues leading to progress and civilization, they tried to transform the normative and static beliefs of the individual into a dynamic system of social thought and action.

Jamal al-Din Afghani

The great twentieth century Islamic reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was deeply concerned with restoring Muslim viability and reconciling Islam and modernity. He believed that Islam contained the necessary virtues for reestablishing a vibrant civilization. Unlike modern Europeans, what Muslims needed was not to abandon religion but to understand it correctly. To do so Muslims must have the will to progress. They need to appreciate the virtues of monotheism, equality, reason, independent reasoning (ijtihad), and science (Afghani, Esposito and Voll 2007, 14; Kiddie 1983, 105).

Muhammad `Abduh

Afghani’s disciple, Muhammad `Abduh, believed that true civilization was compatible with Islam and based his plan of reform on two main pillars: first, the significant role of religion in the life of nation, and secondly, the need for intellectual reform to generate a new social system of thought and action to equip Muslims with the necessary virtues of a modern life. `Abduh was convinced that society progresses by moral laws and civic virtues (such as justice, equality, individual and collective responsibility, and participation). He believed that the Qur’an contained all of these values and it is the Muslims’ duty to return to the true religion and regenerate them. However, Muslims must maintain a critical perspective, reconcile Islam and reason, abandon imitation, and utilize the adaptability of Islam to the fullest. Abduh believed that “God has sent two books to men, one created, which is nature, and one revealed, which is the Qur’an. The latter leads us to investigate the former by means of the intelligence which was given to us” (Khadduri 1983, 63).


The Indian Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal regarded reason and science as allies of revelation, love, emotion, and inspiration in the evolution of the human spirit. Ali Shari`ati wrote affectionately about Iqbal and his approach. Iqbal’s work and thought, according to Shari`ati, pay “careful attention to this world and the material needs of humanity, yet give the human being a heart.”

Now I turn to the Question of whether Islam Needs New Luthers?

Recently, Western media has focused on a number of Muslim intellectuals, philosophers, and thinkers who realize the urgent need for reform within Islam and try to undertake a “Radical Reform,” or a complete “Reformation.” Some have been hailed in the Western media and academic circles as the “Luthers” of Islam. Though intellectuals like the Iranians Abdol Karim Soroush and Muhammad Mojtahed Shabastiri, the Algerian Muhammad Arkoun, the Sudanese Abdullai al-Naim, and the Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abuzeid approach the issue of reform from different perspectives, they all focus on the Qura’n (the text) and try to “humanize” and “historicize” it in order to generate fresh insights into Islam and the application of its rules in modern time. For these intellectuals, Islam needs more than a reform; it needs a reformation similar to 16th and 17th century Europe and a sweeping force of Enlightenment. Perhaps because of their radical and secularizing orientations they attract more attention in the West.

Other reformers or progressive Muslims, like the late Fazlur Rahman, Abd al-Aziz Sachadina, Khalid Abou El Fadl, Tariq Ramadan take a different approach and seek to undertake reform on the basis of Islamic frameworks.

My approach differs from the radical reformers. I believe that what Islam needs is not radical reformation or new Luthers, but a reform within Islamic frameworks.

 Islam’s Universal Values

Islam endorses certain universal values that need to shape our modern ethical frameworks and perception of the law. Universal here refers to overarching and general values and concepts that the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet endorse for all human beings, and not particularly for Muslims, regardless of their color, race, gender, and religion. Hence, they acquire a general applicability and enforcement.

What are these universal values? I will focus here on four and explain their practical implications: 1) the dignity of the human being and free will; 2) pluralism; 3) justice; and 4) individual and public liberties. As directly driven from the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, these concepts would have a resilient impact on the attitudes of Muslims and can resonate better with them because they reflect the general will. They become not only a system of laws, but a religious, moral, legal, individual and societal obligation.

1. The first value is the Dignity of the Human Being: This value in Islam, like in Christianity, is universal and non-exclusive. It pertains to all human beings, regardless of their beliefs, religion, race, or origin. The Qur’an asserts the dignity of the children of Adam (17:70). This dignity is manifested by certain capacities foremost among them are reason and free-will. Dignifying humankind requires the respect and protection of the well-being and the free choice of the individual (Quran, 18:29). According to the Islamic tradition, belief and obligations are based on reason [`aql]; and therefore, are not to be subjected to coercion (ikrah). That is why the Qur’an highlights the universal rule, “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” (2:256).

It is not the task or the duty of Muslims to convert the entire universe into one Muslim community, but they are obliged to protect the diversity of human beings.[2]

2. Pluralism and Toleration of Diversity: Another universal value of Islam is the equal origin of all humans, regardless of their color, race or ethnicity. The Qur’an refers to humankind as created from a single soul (4:1). Muslims are supposed to perceive diversity and pluralism as a divine design and a natural reality that is meant for a purpose. The recognition of diversity goes beyond mere forbearance or resignation, it allows for mutual acceptance, toleration and appreciation of difference.

3. Justice (`adl) and Excellence (ihsan): A third central value is justice. It is a cardinal objective of the Shari`a. Like human dignity, it is a universal, irreducible value that applies to everyone. Justice implies diversity of sides, differing views, and thus requires impartiality. The injunctions to adhere to justice take a variety of forms, ranging from establishing justice–in the best of ways–to pursuing this value with those from whom one differs, or even dislikes.

4. Finally, Individual and Public Liberties: It is often argued that Islam is a religion of duties and not rights. Though it might recognize communal and public rights, it overlooks the liberties and rights of the individual. Therefore, Islam has not been able to promote a system that recognizes human rights. This argument is popular, but is incorrect. Based on the universal principles discussed above, the Shari`a grants the individual certain irrevocable civic, political and social rights. Individual rights include security of life and property, protection of honor and dignity, sanctity and security of private life against state violation, security of personal freedoms, protection of religious sentiments, and equality of all Muslims and non-Muslims before the law. Political rights comprise the right to protest against tyranny, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of conscience and conviction, protection from arbitrary imprisonment, and the right to participate in public life. Socio-economic rights entail the right to the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, education) (Mawdudi 1976, 25-37). These rights are not that different from Western classifications. In comparison to the post-colonial modern nation state, the classical Islamic state has never been as intrusive and interventionist as the modern state (Goitein 1970, 101-116).

What are the practical implications of my discussion of the humanistic and universal values in Islam and the need to anchor the Shari`a on an ethical theory?

 The Shari`a and Ethics

The Shari`a, commonly and inaccurately translated as ‘Islamic law’, is a more comprehensive system than legal injunctions and juristic procedures. The law is just one aspect of the Shari`a, whose general principles are contained in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions. The Shari`a is an entire way of life. It refers to the guidance, precepts, rules and ethical values that God has ordained and obligated Muslims to follow in their relationship with Him, their mutual interactions, and their relations with others (Shaltut 2007, 29). J. Anderson makes an interesting point on how the Shari`a is wide in scope. He explains, “[The Shari`a] covers an enormous field which would not be regarded as law at all in any modern classification. Every human act is regarded as characterized, to some degree, by husn [moral beauty] or qubh [ugliness]… conformity or deformity; and these qualities can only be known by divine revelation” (1957, 14).

There is a growing awareness among Muslim intellectuals and scholars today of the need for an ethical theory or a moral framework that should underlie our contemporary understanding of the Shari`a and its legal dimensions. This is crucial for reformulating our understanding of the legal injunctions and the interconnection between the law and our modern time. Fazlur Rahman argues that, “The need for an ethical system, guided by rational criticism and insights, has never been greater in the Muslim world than it is today” (1985, 13).

In fact, Muslim intellectuals and theologians past and present have made serious attempts to construct a modern moral theory of Islam on the basis of the Qur’an. As Ebrahim Moosa’s superb work on al-Ghazali illustrates, al-Ghazali’s seminal work Revival of the Sciences of Religion aimed at reconstructing an ethical framework that guides the legal aspects of the Shari’a, links ethics to jurisprudence, and reforms the moral conduct of Muslims. Muhammad `Abduh’s plan of reform sought to devise a comprehensive system of ethics based on the model of al-Ghazali.

Among contemporaries, one should mention the work of Syed Ameer Ali, B.A. Dar, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Sayyid Hussein Nasr, Nadeem al-Jisr, Taha Abd al-Rahman, Khalid Abou El Fadl, Tariq Ramadan, Ebrahim Moosa, Souhail Hashmi and others, who try to stress the ethical aspects of the Shari`a and construct a reformist framework on ethical grounds. However, the most systematic study was done by Shaykh Abdullah Diraz in his book La Morale Du Koran. Shaykh Diraz succeeded in building a comprehensive ethical theory, with values and principles that were entirely driven from the Qur’an (Diraz 234-276).

Viewing the Shari`a through moral virtues and universal values has an immediate practical implication in addressing some of the challenges that Muslim intellectuals are currently facing particularly with the issues of freedom, pluralism, citizenship, democracy, woman, relations with the outside, and the ethics of war and peace in Islam. In other places, I have applied this framework to the concept of toleration in a modern Islamist polity and to the issues of democracy and the rule of law. I will be happy to discuss these in detail in the Q and A.

However, this project ought to be even broader than that. These values need to be taken to the grassroots level. An important means is the Friday sermons which are effective pedagogical avenues for instilling these values into the average Muslim.

What I tried to accomplish in this lecture today was to rely on the Qur’anic precepts, the traditions of the Prophet, and the Muslim historical legacy to present a humanistic and ethical outlook and draw certain universal values that can shape our worldview and redirect our understanding of the Shari`a and contemporary issues. My objective at the present is to shift the focus away from the state and politics to the Muslim individual, community, and ethics.

This approach looks at the Shari`a through an ethical framework that can reshape Muslims attitudes towards the law, society, and change. It address Shari`a in a balanced way which is governed by the divine and the human, justice and compassion, freedom and commitment, rights and duties, and individual and collective responsibility (Diraz, 226). Hopefully, understanding and upholding certain universal values, such as the dignity of the human being, pluralism, justice, and individual and public freedoms as central to our formulation of the law and Muslim attitudes would generate a worldview that is more reflective of the true essence of Islam.


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[1]Based on my Henry R. Luce Inaugural Lecture on March 25, 2010, University of Notre Dame

[2] Muhammad Jalal Keshk has an original interpretation of Jihad as a means to preserve pluralism and diversity. See his book, Al-Jihad, al-Aqaliya, wa al-Anajeel.

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