Last update: 2020-03-30 15:01:46
From 9 to 11 December 2019 I had the privilege to participate in the Forum for promoting peace in Muslim societies in Abu Dhabi. This important event, launched in 2014 and now in its sixth edition, gathered more than 500 people under the guidance of Shaykh Bin Bayyah, the president of the Emirati Fatwa Council. Scheduled for the conclusion of the Year of Tolerance, the meeting’s participants included several ministers of religious affairs, muftis, ulama, professors of Islamic universities, but also some non-Islamic realities—including Oasis— and a significant group of rabbis.
In particular, the Forum was chosen as the venue to unveil the Charter of the New Alliance of Virtue. Presented in a previous draft in Washington, D.C. in February 2018, the Charter was inspired by the American Peace Caravan and adds to an already-rich series of declarations produced by the Islamic side in the last years: such as the Declaration on Human Fraternity (February 2019) and the Marrakesh declaration (January 2016).
The first reason why this document is worth attention, even before its contents, is the universal plan that it adopts. The Charter sets out to transcend the frontiers of the “Abrahamitic faiths” by referring, from its very name, to a relatively lesser-known episode from the life of Muhammad, which is worth quoting extensively.
A defrauded merchant
According to the Islamic tradition, when Muhammad was about 20 years old a grave injustice involving one of the Quraysh leaders happened in Mecca. Quraysh was the dominant tribe in the town and Muhammed belonged to a clan from this tribe.
As the medieval exegete Ibn Kathīr (1301-1373) recounts, “A man from Zabīd arrived at Mecca with his merchandise. [The Meccan notable] al-‘Ās Ibn Wā’il bought his wares, but he did not pay him the price agreed. The man from Zabīd asked a faction of the Quraysh for help […], but, far from supporting him […], they even threatened him. Seeing that things were turning bad, the man ascended Mount Abū Qubays at sunrise, while Quraysh were gathering around the Ka‘ba, and shouted in a loud voice:
O people of Fihr, a wronged one dwells in the valley of Mecca
With his merchandise, weeping over his house and his faraway family,
a pilgrim who, his hair disheveled, did not perform his pilgrimage.
O men and you all who stay in the blessed precincts, sacredness is for the noble one,
But there is no sacredness for the clothes of a defrauder.
At this, al-Zubayr Ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib stood up and cried: “This must stop!” He gathered with Hāshim, Zahra and Taym Ibn Murra in the house of ‘Abd Allāh Ibn Ǧud‘ān. After he prepared them a meal, they made an alliance, in the holy month of Dhū l-Qa‘da, committing themselves before God: “We will be allied (lit. ‘one hand’) with the wronged against the wrongdoer until he receives his fair share, and as long as the sea lasts and as long as mounts Thabīr and Hirā’ stay firm. And we will give each other mutual sustenance.”
The Quraysh called this covenant “alliance of the Fudūl” because “they entered into an additional covenant” (dakhalū fī fadl min al-amr). Then they went to al-‘Ās Ibn Wā’il, stripped him of the merchandise, and returned it to the man of Zabīd.”
Towards natural law
Islamic origin narratives brim with details, and the Western reader can be easily confounded by the profusion of nouns and places. In this story, however, there are two important points, regardless of its historicity.
In the first place, the covenant is situated before the beginning of Muhammad’s preaching, in a context which, if we believe Islamic tradition, would still have been almost completely pagan. Exactly for this reason—and this is the second element— the covenant contractors do not appeal to revelation. Instead, they have recourse to a natural understanding of justice: “We will be allied with the wronged against the wrongdoer.”
In early Islamic theology one of the most controversial issues was exactly the relation between the Law (Shariah) and the good. To express this in a kind of tongue-twister: are acts good because the Shariah commands them, or does Shariah command them because they are good? After lengthy discussions, Sunnism answered the question according to the first alternative, which is consistent with the prevailing voluntarism of the Ash‘arite theological school. No good or evil would therefore exist in themselves, but through His revelation God would set the ethical criteria of human acts. While this position has the seeming merit of emphasizing divine freedom—at the price of making it a freedom without form, though— it does have the serious shortcoming of precluding any ethical conversation with non-Muslims. Or more precisely: it keeps the door partially open to Jews and Christians insofar as they share some revealed prescriptions, but it closes it altogether to those who are positioning themselves outside of a theistic perspective. And in today’s world this is no small problem.
Staying clear from any reference to this medieval debate, the extensors of the Charter presented in Abu Dhabi chose to implicitly move towards a reactivation of what Catholic thought would call ‘natural law.’ They were able to do so thanks to a fantastic ace in the hole: the explicit approbation of the covenant by the Prophet of Islam. According to the esteemed traditionist al-Humaydī (d. 834), Muhammad said: “In the house of ‘Abd Allāh Ibn Jud‘ān I witnessed a covenant which, were it proposed to me now in Islam, I would certainly subscribe to: they agreed to give to each one his own share and to efface any form of injustice and oppression.”
Through this quotation, the priority of the scriptural element is preserved—a thing which made the signing of the document possible for an audience of ulama mostly belonging, at least theoretically, to the Ash‘arite school. At the same time, a pronouncement is found in Scripture favoring the idea of natural law.
Upon closer look, it is the same procedure that was followed in the Marrakesh Declaration, in which the modern concept of citizenship was islamically sanctioned through a reference to the so-called Constitution of Medina. The difference, though, is that this time the reference appears much more fitting. In fact, while seeing the foundations of a modern State in the Pact of Medina—or even the first Constitution in the history of humanity—is an anachronistic operation born out of the trend of tawfiqiyya (‘concordism’) which besets contemporary Islamic thought, a clear reference to an idea of natural law is indeed present in the story of the defrauded merchant from Zabīd.
Furthermore, while the Medina Constitution has remained a dead letter in classic Islamic jurisprudence, where the far less advantageous Pact of ‘Umar became the standard reference, the Alliance of Virtue can boast of at least one instance of practical application. It would indeed have been invoked by Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn (d. 680), to claim an estate usurped by al-Walīd Ibn ‘Utba, the Umayyad governor of Medina. According to the celebrated biographer Ibn Ishāq, Husayn would have sent word to the governor: “If you are not dealing with me equitably, I’ll grab my sword, stand up in the mosque of God’s Messenger, and call on the Alliance of Virtue.” The threat would have had an immediate effect: “When the news reached al-Walīd Ibn ʿUtba, the governor did justice to Husayn and gave him full satisfaction.”
Limits and Silences
As anticipated, it is this framing in terms of ‘natural’ law, open to all mankind, that represents the most interesting and innovative aspect of the declaration. Some of the rabbis who participated in the Forum rightly compared it to the Noahic covenant, the primordial alliance that in Judaism serves as the foundation for relations between Jews and non-Jews. It is therefore telling that the document was signed also by some representatives of the Sikhs and Yazidis, the latter considered in traditional Islamic jurisprudence as pagans (and for this reason ferociously persecuted during ISIS’ terror regime).
This significant openness must, however, be tempered by two caveats: the first, of a more philological nature, concerns the meaning of the Arabic name of the covenant, Hilf al-fudūl. Sources explain it in different ways. For al-Suhaylī (1114-1185), it is the “Alliance of Justice” in reference to the fudūl or surplus that the contractors committed themselves to return. For Ibn Qutayba (828-899) it means the “Alliance of the [three] Fadl-s,” understood as the proper noun of the three most notable signers, an explanation quoted and adopted also by the medieval dictionary Lisān al-‘arab. Finally the term could also mean “additional alliance” because, as the end of Ibn Kathīr’s passage suggests, the Hilf al-fudūl would be a supplementary pact in relation to the more ancient alliance of the Mutayyabīn, and as such subscribed only by a faction of the Quraysh. Thus, the translation as Alliance of Virtue is evocative, but not literal.
But more importantly, and moving to the contents of the document itself, one cannot but observe the absence of an explicit declaration in favor of religious freedom. In this regard, the Charter that was circulated among the participants in the Forum presented a discrepancy between its English and Arabic versions. Article 4.2 stated in its English formulation: “There is no compulsion of religion or belief—people have the right to choose their beliefs and to practice their faith,” while the Arabic merely stated “There is no compulsion in faith,” a partial quotation of the well-known Qur’anic verse 2:256.
True, even the English formula did not completely settle the issue of religious freedom, as one could claim that, while people are free to choose their religion, a religion might envisage among its clauses the impossibility of abandoning it. Nevertheless, some of the non-Muslim signers present at the Forum, including the secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance, hailed it as a significant step forward. After some hesitations, though, it was the more prudent Arabic formulation that prevailed, and the final English version was corrected accordingly. The Charter therefore does not bring anything new to the controversial issue of freedom of conscience in Islam.
A religious reform (but don’t call it that)
The Charter of the New Alliance of Virtue was born out of a mediation between diverse attitudes and perceptions, as evidenced not only by the initial disparity between the Arabic and English texts, but also by the audience’s rich pluriformity in terms of languages, doctrinal orientations, and even dress. Obviously, the political dimension must not be underestimated, in this case consisting of a complex triangulation between American religious leaders mostly of Evangelical inspiration (albeit with some high-level Catholic presence, such as the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, His Eminence Cardinal Onaiyekan), a high-profile Jewish delegation, and finally the partnership, more and more apparent, between the Emirates, Saudi Arabia—here represented by the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, al-Issa—and Morocco, a significant Sub-Saharan African and Southern Asian presence and an equally eloquent Turkish and Iranian absence.
It is clear that, without a critical re-reading of the Islamic juridical tradition, some principles enounced in the Charter will remain open to various interpretations and therefore of little effect in practice. In particular, and as far as religious freedom is concerned, one may legitimately ask whether the document represents the maximum concession possible for a line of thought which places itself in explicit continuity with pre-modern jurisprudential tradition. That being said, and while the missed opportunity for a declaration in support of religious freedom is regrettable, I believe it is preferable—and also more equitable—to consider the glass half-full, i.e. to acknowledge the significant opening towards an ethics rooted in the common human experience anterior to revelation.
At the end of the 19th century, reformist theologian Muhammad ‘Abduh wrote in his Epistle of Divine Unity: “Law came to clarify reality, not to create the good.” Though not obviously, the 500 ulama who gathered in Abu Dhabi approved of his position. And this is no small thing, considering that groups of fighters belonging to the so-called Islamic State are still operative not very far from the Emirates, in Iraq and Syria.
In his lively intervention during the Forum, the Lebanese intellectual Ridwan al-Sayyid observed that, for the first time, Sunni religious institutions had taken the lead of reform (islāh), while in the past they had almost always embraced staunchly conservative positions. “They do not call it a religious reform—he concluded—but it is a religious reform.” Maybe the Lebanese thinker expressed a wish in the form of a constative utterance. It remains in any case an important fact.