Monday, 11 February 2008

Shari'ah: Why Williams was wrong

Now boiled down to Rowan and Islam for Dummies.

One of the reasons why I believe Rowan Williams’s speech on Islam and English law was wrong theologically is that Shari’ah is not something to which, from an Islamic perspective, you can take a piecemeal approach.

As the Archbishop noted, Shari’ah springs from within a religious community. Let me quote, then, from a member of that community, albeit one who is regarded by many as ‘extreme’:

No doubt the Shari’ah is best since it comes from God; the laws of His creatures can hardly be compared to the laws given by the Creator. But this point is not the basis of the Islamic call. The basis of the message is that one should accept the Shari’ah without any question and reject all other laws in any shape or form. This is Islam. There is no other meaning of Islam. (Milestones, Sayed Qutb)

Moreover, according to Qutb, the introduction of Shari’ah is not something in addition to the spread of Islam. On the contrary, the character of Islam is,

... a universal proclamation of the freedom of man from servitude to other men, the establishment of the sovereignty of God and His Lordship throughout the world, the end of man's arrogance and selfishness, and the implementation of the rule of the Divine Shari’ah in human affairs.

Notice: Islam, and with it, the implementation of Shari’ah, is the liberation of ‘man from servitude to other men’.

Thus, if I have understood both the Archbishop and Qutb correctly, Rowan Williams’s proposals concerning Shari’ah, far from recognizing the legitimate concerns of the Muslim community, are a contradiction in terms. To ‘allow’ Shari’ah a place in English law is to deny the meaning of Shari’ah itself. How can the creature ‘allow’ the creator a degree of sway over life? What ‘right’ do human lawmakers of human laws have to make a little room here and there for the Divine Law?

I am surprised there has not been more comment from the Islamic community to this effect!

But there is a second reason why Rowan Williams was theologically wrong, and that is that the Christian approach to Muslims should surely be neither to bring them further under the laws of Islam, nor to offer them the scraps from the table of modern secularism, but to offer them the gospel.

Here, it should be pointed out, Christianity is itself in tension with the state, and this is a further point at which Dr Williams’s analysis may be questioned. English society is one which has been deeply influenced by Christianity in the past, but is now falling under the sway of ‘secularism’.

The result, whilst hailed by some as itself a form of ‘liberation’, is actually the beginnings of a new dictatorship, for what we have is not liberation from the law but the imposition of new laws in place of the old. In fact, this ‘liberation’ has seen an explosion of law-making.

By contrast, the Christian gospel is blatantly at odds with the law. We must remember that when the New Testament speaks of ‘the law’, it refers generally to a social system almost identical with that conceived under the title of Shari’ah. Yet at every point it defines itself in contradiction to that system. The ‘curse of the law’ is thus not only the guilt and punishment the law entailed, but, in the end, the law itself. The final verdict of the New Testament on the law is that “the law was our guardian leading us to Christ so that we could be made right with God through faith.”

If there is an issue the Church of England needs to address in this regard, it is surely that in its relationship with the State, it has too often assumed in the past that the law is a supplement to the gospel. Thus it has sought at various times in the past to enforce both churchgoing and religious conformity through the legal apparatus.

We should be thankful those days have passed. However, we now face a real challenge as to what should be the Christian attitude to the law — and, of course, to the State which is responsible for making and enforcing that law. The Anglican church enshrines in its formularies and liturgies the conviction that the monarch is the rightful ruler of both spiritual and temporal ‘estates’. In our modern culture that has been taken to mean that the national government can pass laws to which all are subject.

Dr Williams rightly raised questions about the extent to which this ‘legal monopoly’ is justified, and as he himself said, “theology still waits for us around the corner of these debates.” However, we cannot assume that Christians necessarily find themselves generally comfortable with the existing arrangements and that only ‘minorities’ do not. On the contrary, there is much for Christians to dispute in the way society is developing.

From a Christian perspective, for example, it might be argued that the best policy would be a ‘minimalist’ approach to the law. The modern lawmaker is, after all, believed by all to be no better morally or intellectually than those for whom the laws are made. What, then, gives the lawmaker the right to rule the rest of us? As Rowan Williams indicated, ‘democracy’ is not the answer, if by this we mean, in effect, the absolute right of the majority to tell the minority what to do.

But in any case, the Christian answer to society’s ills (and law exists primarily to address ‘ills’) is the gospel — an inescapably religious message which, ultimately, contradicts all other messages. We may suggest to a ‘secular’ state that it might give some regard to minority religious views. We must never give the impression, however, that if this is done then the Church’s responsibility has been fulfilled.

Unless we doubt the gospel itself, then for the Church to suggest that what the Muslim community needs is elbow room for Shari’ah is, finally, a failure of love. Equally, for the Church to imagine that it can live easily under the law in a State which rejects Christ is a failure of imagination!

Revd John P Richardson
11 February 2008

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