Comparison of the History of the Liberal Idea and the Islamic Faith

(Adapted from Simon W. Murden, Islam, the Middle East, and the New Global Hegemony (Boulder, CO.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), 212-5

The History of the Liberal Idea

The History of the Islamic Faith

In the reign of Henry II of England (1154-1189), the "rule of law" was established in books of "common law." Arbitrary rule by King John I resulted in a baronial revolt and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. The King was obliged to maintain the rule of the law and consult the barons. In 1258, Simon de Montford forced Henry III to accept the Provisions of Oxford. A fifteen-man council elected by barons assumed the key sovereign powers of the king, and an assembly of four knights elected from each English county represented the grievances of the entire realm. A parliament with powers over taxation would eventually become well established in England.

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Across northern Europe, the Protestant Reformation challenged the divine claims of kings and the ideology of Catholicism. In England, relations between Charles I and Parliament broke down into the Civil Wars (1642-1651). The king was deposed by parliamentary forces led by John Pym, Thomas Fairfax, and Oliver Cromwell. Radical republicans known as the Levellers pressed for equality, democracy, and religious tolerance, but were suppressed after "agitation" in the New Model Army. The Levellers were too far ahead of their time. Cromwell drifted toward military dictatorship. The English monarchy was restored in 1660, but political rights were reaffirmed in the "Glorious Revolution" against James II in 1688-1689. In 1689, joint monarchs William III and Mary II ratified the "Bill of Rights": it was the centerpiece of legislation that secured Parliament’s primacy over taxation and the army, denied the Crown the right to suspend the laws, and guaranteed certain rights and liberties, including religious toleration for all Protestants, elections every three years, and freedom of speech for parliamentarians. Britain led the world in the development of constitutional government.

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The Enlightenment: Natural sciences led the way to reason from the late seventeenth century, especially in the work of Issac Newton and David Hume. In Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690), John Locke proposed a social contract that included freedom of conscience and the right to property. Adam Smith theorized market economics in the Wealth of Nations (1776). In France, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau attacked the traditional and argued for the rights of the common people. In Germany, Immanuel Kant advocated religious tolerance, and in his essay Perpetual Peace (1795) claimed that the spread of democratic nations might produce a "democratic peace" across the world.

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The American and French Revolutions: The kind of radical thought expressed by Englishman Thomas Paine in Commonsense (1776) and The Rights of Man (1791-1792) was taken up in a revolt over taxation in Britain’s American colonies. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams made liberalism into a reality. The American Revolution (1775-1783) ended a colonial rule and led to the U.S. Constitution (1789); its Bill of Rights amendments (1791) became the classic statement of liberal rights, including the trial by jury and the freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly. In France, a bourgeois-led revolution overturned the ancien regime in 1789. Liberty, equality, and fraternity were promised, but the revolution was lost to the tyranny of Robespierre and Napoleon. European liberalism became inextricably associated with nationalism and the idea of national self-determination. In the Western world, democracy gradually became the norm; the franchise was extended for males, and in 1893, New Zealand became the first Western national to give women the vote in national elections. John Stuart Mill published On Liberty in 1859 and Utilitarianism in 1863 which became one of the foundations of modern liberalism.

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During the nineteenth century, the British Empire was at the center of the first truly global economic system. Britain was the most important economic and normative force in the world, although its hegemony waned as other powers caught up. The twentieth century saw an epic struggle within European civilization between the liberal West and the authoritarianism East. U.S. intervention was decisive in swinging the balance. World War I did away with absolute monarchy. World War II turned the tide on extremist nationalism. In August 1941, Britain and the United States signed the Atlantic Charter, outlining a future world based on the rule of law, self-determination, and freer trade. The Atlantic Charter underpinned the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 and the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights was agreed by the Council of Europe. The United States superseded Britain’s global role and established a liberal system capable of resisting the Soviet alternative. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan forged a liberal-capitalist revival that was to dominate the world economy. The Marxist-Leninist challenge was finally defeated in 1989. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) spoke of the global triumph of the "liberal idea" and the way in which it represented the ultimate political and economic system. Anglo-American liberalism was the ideological foundation of a globalized Western hegemony. Liberalism faced only localized resistance.

From 610 to 632 C.E., the Prophet Mohammad (570-632 C.E.) received revelation from God through the angel Gabriel. The Islamic era began in 622 C.E., when Mohammad migrated from Mecca to Medina (the hejira) to escape persecution and find a following. Mohammad’s recollections of God’s message were set down in the Qur’an, and its 114 chapter (suras) are the basis of Islamic faith and social life. God was one (tawhid), and so must be humanity’s submission. The aim of Muslims was to reach God’s paradise, and each had to account for his or her life’s deeds on a day of judgment. The perfect Muslim was the Prophet. Mohammad’s words and deeds were the sunna, later collected as the hadith.

The "five pillars" of Islamic observance are (1) the shahadah declaration ("there is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is his messenger"); (2) salah (five ritualized daily prayers oriented to Mecca); (3) zakat (alms giving); (4) sawn (dawn to sunset fasting during the month of Ramadhan); and (5) hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Muslims prayed to God directly, but mosques were built for community worship and learning. The midday prayer on Fridays—the Jumah prayer—is the most important act of weekly communal worship. All Muslims are equal under God.

The Islamic community (umma) was governed by the caliph, a ruler with both political and religious primacy. The era of the Four Rightly Guided Caliph ended in civil war. In 661 C.E., Caliph Ali (Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law) was defeated and later murdered in a revolt by the Ummayad family based in Damascus. With astonishing speed, Islamic warriors and merchants forged an empire from Spain to India.


Under the Ummayad (661-750 C.E.) and Abassid (750-1258 C.E.) Caliphates, the Qur’an and sunna were used to produce Islamic law (shari’a). It included severe penalties for particular crimes, such as apostasy, adultery, theft, and drinking alcohol. Four schools of orthodox jurisprudence deve-loped: the Hanafi, Shafii, Hanbali, and Maliki. Sunni Islam prioritized order and became traditionalist. The subordinate status of women was fixed. Islam was periodically revived by mystical Sufi cults and by fundamentalist revivals.

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The Islamic empire frag-mented, but Islamic civil-ization developed advanced philosophy and science, reaching a peak in Andalusia. Muslims came under attack. The First Crusade in 1096 inaugurated 150 years of conflict with Christendom in the Holy Land. Muslims were pushed back in the Mediterranean. In Spain, Islamic Granada was extinguished in 1492. In the east, the Mongols destroyed the huge Muslim empire of Khwarezm in the 1220s and went on to smash the Abassid Caliphate in Baghdad in 1258. Mamluk soldiers stopped the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260 and led Islamic culture from Egypt until the rise of the Ottoman Empire. In 1453, the Otto-mans stormed Christian Constantinople and made it their capital. In 1517, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks. The caliphate was transferred to the Ottoman capital. The failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 marked the end of Ottoman expansion. In India, Muslim soldiers of Mongol descent established the great Mughal empire in 1526.

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The Muslim empires were bureaucratic, and the Islamic world stagnated. Between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, European moved in. The last Mughal emperor was deposed by the British following the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Periodic attempts were made to revive Islam, including an effort to absorb liberalism. World War I ended the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France divided the Middle East into territorial states. Mustafa Kemal abolished the Ottoman Caliphate, and secular nationalism carried Muslims toward independence. Nationalism failed. Jerusalem was lost to Israel in 1967. A new militant Islam was forged by Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi. The Islamic revival took hold across the Muslim world from the 1970s, but paralyzed political and economic development.


In the line of Ali: Ali’s son, Husain, was killed by Ummayad forces at Karbala in 680 C.E. Shia Islam fragmented into sects, such as the Ismailis and Zaydis, based on adherence to different religious persona-lities, known as imams. The most important sect, the Twelvers, adhered to the twelfth and final imam, who disappeared in 873 C.E. but was expected to return as a madhi at the end of history. The Shia developed the Jaafari school of jurisprudence, as well as a far more hierarchical clergy than Sunnis.

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As a deviant minority, the were pressed to more remote regions, and developed the pacific doctrine of taqiyya (concealing their faith). The center of Shia Islam was Najaf and Karbala (now in southern Iraq), but in 1501 the Persian Safavid Empire (1501-1736) declared Shi’ism its official religion. In 1639, the border between the Safavid and Ottoman empires was fixed, approximating the present-day Iran-Iraq border. Persia eventually superseded Najaf and Karbala as the heartland of Shia Islam. Qom, Isfahan, and Mashad were the principal centers of Shia Islam in Iran.

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In the early twentieth century, Iran experienced parliamentary politics, in which Shia clergymen were involved. In 1921, the Qajar monarchy was overthrown by Reza Khan, who established the modernizing Pahlavi dynasty. In the 1950s and 1960s, Grand Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini emerged as a key figure in the opposition to the Pahlavi state. Khomeini proposed the velayat-e faqih (the guardianship of the jurisconsult). Militant Shi’ism led the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. The new Islamic state in Iran had followers in other Shia communities, but its energy was exhausted by the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Khomeini died in 1989. Conservatives and reformers battled over the future of Iranian politics. Mohammad Khatami was elected as Iranian president in 1997, with a reform agenda.

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