Chapter 13 Intersections of Islam and Anarchism

The following are two guest essays selected from Davi Barker’s excellent book “Voluntary Islam”

Islam and the discovery of freedom

I read the entirety of “Islam and the Discovery of Freedom” by Rose Wilder Lane on a direct flight from San Francisco to New Hampshire. I literally cried as she chronicled the great liberty of the past being eclipsed by tyranny. In my heart I found a new love for my friend and teacher Imam Suhaib Webb, whose Islamic literacy class gave me the tools necessary to better grasp the meaning of the commentary by Dr. Imad-adDeen Ahmad. Born in 1886, Rose Wilder Lane is regarded as one of the founding mothers of the libertarian movement. Her book The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority is said to have been written from beginning to end in “a white heat” and consequently contains numerous historical (but not philosophical) errors. Dissatisfied, and perhaps embarrassed, by these errors, Lane withdrew it from publication, but in her wisdom she devoted a chapter to Islam’s contributions to the philosophy of liberty. Now that chapter is available with commentary provided by Dr. Imad-ad-Deen Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute. He corrects her minor historical and theological errors, but further bolsters her thesis that the golden age of Islamic civilization was the product of its abundant liberty, and its downfall was the result of its decline into tyranny.

Lane begins by summarizing Abraham’s message as,

“there is only one God, who has blessed mankind with freewill. They bear accountability for their righteous or evil actions. The pagan gods do not exist, and do not control the affairs of mankind.”

She regards this as the first great attempt to liberate mankind from illegitimate authority, and describes history as a struggle between this conviction, that human beings are self-controlling and individually responsible, and attempts by earthly authorities to make themselves into false gods over mankind. She regards Muhammad’s message as the second great attempt to establish liberty on Earth. I found her description of the Prophet as a practical, humorous, friendly business executive to be utterly refreshing. In Muhammad’s view, according to Lane, priests corrupted the pure message of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus when they assumed authority to control mankind. It was therefore incumbent upon mankind to establish a direct relationship to God without priests. This recognition of mankind as individually volitional beings laid the foundation for what Lane calls the world’s first scientific civilization in the modern sense. She writes,

“whenever authority was weak, men opened schools of science,”

because in the Islamic world view there was no distinction between sacred and profane knowledge. All Truth is from God. Lane describes the earliest Islamic universities as marketplaces of knowledge like the bazaars. Men of knowledge came to sell their instruction in open forum, and students were free to wander about listening. When they decided upon a teacher, they met privately to establish a curriculum and agree upon fees. These universities were privately funded and virtually without State regulation. They were regulated by reputation. A teacher’s success or failure hinged upon the market demand for the knowledge he sold. If the student was dissatisfied, he simply left to find another teacher, and when he’d had his fill of education, he left school to apply his knowledge. Lane writes,

“Europeans were not able to impose upon that university any tinge of the European belief that minds acquire knowledge, not by actively seeking to know, but by passively being taught whatever Authority decides that they should know.”

The result was an explosion of human energy that led to advanced mathematics, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, cosmetics, hygiene, art, and philosophy that appeared like utter magic to medieval Europeans.

Beyond schools, there were also hospitals, libraries, paved roads, and whole water irrigation networks built and maintained by similar private foundations. All institutions and infrastructure that might characterize an advanced civilization were produced without State intervention. Even law was developed by scholars independent of government. Law was not legislated, but discovered the same way that natural scientists discover the laws of physical, chemical, and biological systems. A judge, or qadi, was independent of the State. To keep his reputation for wisdom, he had to find ways to settle disputes that satisfied everyone’s sense of justice. No single organization, religious, social, or political, extended over the whole civilization. No monopoly means no State by modern definitions. Lane makes the argument, quite effectively in fact, that through Italy the Muslims gave Europe the enlightenment, and through Spain the Muslims gave Europe the maps, the navigational tools, and the love for freedom that drove them to the New World.

In Muslim Spain, generations of European Christians and Jews experienced freedom of thought and conscience unprecedented anywhere else in Europe. In the century after Granada fell and Spain returned to Catholic rule, the Spaniards were less submissive to government than any other Europeans, and it was during that century that Spaniards explored and conquered the New World. Lane suggests it was the love of freedom learned from the Muslims that drove free-thinking Europeans away from tyranny and across the Atlantic Ocean. Most Muslims fled to Muslim lands, but those who stayed in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism and came to be called Moriscos.

There was doubt about the sincerity of their conversion when they persisted in their Islamic customs such as reading … and bathing. The State responded by burning libraries, and prohibiting the Moriscos from bathing secretly in their homes. The Spanish Inquisition began in large part to expose secret Muslims in Spain, and uncover the “Apostasies and Treasons of the Moriscos.” In 1602, among the charges against the Moriscos was that they “commended nothing so much as that liberty of conscience in all matters of religion, which the Turks and all other Mohammedans suffer their subjects to enjoy.” What the investigation found was that freedom of thought, skepticism of government, and passion for freedom had infected Spaniards who had never been Muslim. So, naturally, those Christians accustomed to this freedom, who could not abide such religious persecution, fled to the New World. According to Lane, Muslims “forgot the God of Abraham” sometime in the 16th century, and rejected the personal responsibility of freedom. Islamic civilization began to resemble the rest of Europe as a static society of controlling authority. But the mantle of liberty had been passed to the Americans directly from the Muslims in Spain. Lane regards the American Revolution as the third and most current attempt to establish a free society on Earth, where political conditions would not hinder mankind’s natural inclination toward scientific progress. Many Muslims will speak of the Islamic golden age as an invitation to non-Muslims to challenge their stereotypes of Islam. This is not my aim. I intend to look to this glorious past and imagine what progress we are capable of if only we demand the freedom from tyranny they had in those days. Unfortunately, Lane offers virtually no explanation for why the Muslim world changed. But if we’re ever to reclaim the liberty we have lost, it’s important that we don’t try to manage the symptoms and instead diagnose the disease. It’s important that we acknowledge that the success of the past was not achieved by central authority, but by living in conditions where human energy was free from control.

Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists

I came across an article titled “Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists” by Patricia Crone, scholar of early Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, which centers around a discussion that was taking place in Basra in southern Iraq in the 800s. There was a general consensus that the Abbasid Caliphate, which controlled a vast empire from Baghdad, had become corrupt and tyrannical. So the question among the scholars became how the community should respond to a leader who had become “all too reminiscent of Pharaoh,” as Crone puts it. This article was originally published in 2000 in the Past & Present journal.

But in light of the Arab Spring, I think it’s valuable to pick up the discussion where they left off. The mainstream opinions are broadly categorized as activists and quietists by Crone. The activists held that when a leader lost legitimacy, it was obligatory to stage a violent revolution and install a new legitimate leader. The quietists held that civil war was worse than oppression and it was obligatory to patiently persevere under tyranny. You had to obey the tyrant, or at the most, resist passively. For whatever reason, the quietist position has been and remains the dominant position, even though it contradicts the opinion of Muhammad’s companion Abu Bakr, who said upon his inauguration,

“Obey me as long as I obey God and His Prophet. But if I disobey God’s command or His Prophet, then no obedience is incumbent upon you.”

The quietist position undoubtedly has contributed to the current state of political affairs in Muslim majority countries. Unfettered State power is and always will be expanding State power. There was a third category of solutions they were exploring that Crone calls “anarchist.” Most of these were what Crone calls “reluctant anarchists,” in that they believed that the society could function without the Caliph.

For them, anarchism was not an ideal they hoped to achieve, but the acknowledgment that the ideal, the Medina Caliphate, was lost, and could not be restored. They proposed a kind of evolutionary anarchism. They made no proposal to abolish private property, except to say that the illegitimacy of the ruler spoiled the validity of titles to property, presumably those granted by the ruler. This may be similar to the way some modern libertarians view eminent domain, corporate title, and intellectual property as invalid. Predominantly it was factions among the Mu’tazilites, the Kharijites, and the Sufis who proposed that if leaders kept turning into tyrants, perhaps they’d be better off without leaders at all.

Essentially they argued that the Caliph must be agreed upon by the entire community, either unanimously or by consensus, and that without this, no legitimate Caliph could exist. It was widely accepted that God did not impose obligations that were impossible to fulfill, so it was reasoned that there was no obligation to establish a legitimate Caliph, although hardly any of them denied the possibility of one emerging in the future. But in the meantime alternatives had to be explored. Some pointed out that the Bedouins had got along fine without rulers.

Crone writes,

“anarchists were clearly drawing on the tribal tradition which lies behind all early Islamic political thought of the type which may be loosely identified as libertarian.”

Crone didn’t specify this in the article, but this view of the Caliphate is consistent with the hadith in which the Prophet informed us that after him would be leaders who followed his example, then there would be kings, and then there would be tyrants. If you accept this hadith, it’s clear that we have progressed from Caliphs to kings, and hard to argue we haven’t progressed from kings to tyrants.

Viewed this way, any attempt to reestablish the Caliphate by force could only result in further tyranny. Their specific reasons for arguing against the Caliphate is not particularly relevant to us today, as there has not been a Caliphate, legitimate of otherwise, since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The reality for us is that this is less an intellectual exercise than a practical necessity, especially in light of the tenuous grip the current tyrannies hold over their people.

Their proposed solutions of the “reluctant anarchists” ranged from a radical decentralization of public authority to a complete dissolution of public authority. A subset of proposals involved replacing the Caliph with elected officials, the argument being that if you polled enough people, you minimized the danger of bias and collusion that had become the signature of the Caliphate. These proposals could be called “minarchist” in modern parlance. They proposed that people could elect trustworthy and learned leaders within their local communities, the argument being that there could never be unanimous agreement upon one leader of the Muslims, and one could not assess the quality of candidates at great distances.

These leaders could either be completely independent of one another, or they could be joined together in a federation, the argument being that independent leaders would forever be fighting with their neighbors. This is strikingly reminiscent of the federalist vs. anti-federalist debate that took place in the American colonies 1,000 years later. Some minarchists viewed these elected officials as temporary, only remaining in office when legal disputes arose, or when an enemy invaded. When the problem was resolved they would lose their positions, much as an imam does when he has finished leading prayer, and society could return to statelessness. This is very similar to the stateless judicial system in Somalia today, which we will discuss next. Admittedly the minarchist proposals were not really anarchist. They advocated abolishing the form of government to which they had grown accustomed and replacing it with systems with far more public participation. Most of them were proposing new forms of government for which they had no historical precedent. But there were still some who were true anarchists in that they wanted a complete dissolution of public authority. Some argued that a sufficiently moral society would have no need for authority, while others argued that because society was not sufficiently moral, they couldn’t have a legitimate authority. Either way, they believed that the welfare of society would be best if people were only left alone. The most prominent group calling for the complete abolition of the State was a minority sect called the Najdiyya. They argued that so long as there was not sufficient agreement to establish a legitimate Caliph, there could never be enough to establish law at all. Even the consensus of scholars could not be a source of law in a community where no unified consensus existed anyway. To the Najdiyya every individual was responsible for his own salvation, and entitled to his own legal interpretations through independent reasoning (ijtihad). Indeed, any intellectual tradition must be built on this foundation, because in order to persuade others to adopt it, you must first appeal to their independent reasoning.

The Najdiyya not only demanded political independence, but complete intellectual independence, because believers were, as the Prophet said, “like the teeth of a comb,” and therefore should have no master but God himself. Divine law could be conceived of as the natural law, available to all mankind, like fingerprints in the clay of Adam. Crone calls this “radical libertarianism,” and as far as I can tell, it is one of the first appearances of it in history. None of the anarchists or minarchists explained how to put their proposals into practice while the State still existed. They merely speculated, leaving it to future generations to implement their radical reform. We may be those generations. None of them proposed fomenting rebellion, happy to enjoy the comforts the State provided its intellectuals. Only the Sufis avoided material comforts, but their solution was simply to transcend politics and seek meaning in other pursuits, not to revolt. However, in 817 anarchy was foisted upon them when the government in Baghdad collapsed. A civil war had ousted the previous Caliph and the influence of the new Caliph hadn’t been established yet. Chaos ensued, and the public responded, as many would have predicted, by forming a vigilante group to protect private property, maintain commerce, and allow the meek to move freely through Baghdad. This is exactly the kind of spontaneous order we saw in Egypt when police in plainclothes picked fights and looted stores. Civilians self-organized into neighborhood watch programs to protect each other. We see now what they saw then: in the absence of public authority there is a natural emergence of order out of chaos without central planning. The Muslim anarchists of the ninth century concluded, as many have in the modern world, “that when people are forced to rely on themselves, they discover talents they did not know they had.”

Chapter 14 – Intersections of Buddhism and Anarchism