Saturday, June 25, 2011

One Cheer for Islam

A detail I have noticed in news stories about the current Syrian unrest is that demonstrations tend to happen on Fridays—because that is when people are already assembled in their mosques. I think that illustrates one desirable effect of religions, including Islam, even from the standpoint of someone like me who doesn't agree with any of them.

A religion is an ideology, and as such is a competitor with other ideologies such as nationalism. The Syrian government feels free to do a lot of things. But it isn't free to simply tear down all the mosques and announce that assemblies on Friday are illegal and will be punished.

In the Syrian case the situation is complicated by the fact that the government is dominated by an arguably heretical Muslim sect, which limits its ability to co-opt the major Islamic groups within the country—contrast that to the situation in Iran, where the government is controlled by the majority Twelver Shia sect. During the Nazi period, the Christian churches did not, so far as I can judge, do an awful lot to constrain what the governments were doing, although of course some individual Christians did. But still competition, even limited competition, is valuable. Even in Iran, I suspect the government is to some degree constrained by the fact that prominent Shia scholars have reputations and from them authority that doesn't derive directly from any official position.


Anonymous said...

Nationalism is very bad but some kinds of religious teachings can be worse. Living under sharia law seems like a nightmare from what I hear.

David Friedman said...

I think we get a biased picture of Sharia. It's not a modern legal code, the basic rules having been in theory frozen about a thousand years ago. But neither is it, by historical standards, a particularly bad legal code.

One part of the theoretical structure is separation of state and law. In theory, law is not the creation of the government but the discovery of legal scholars, based on a variety of religious sources--Koran and (mostly) Hadith, traditions of what Mohammed and his companions did and said.

In practice, quite a lot of the hadith may be spurious, created to justify rules that originated elsewhere. And in practice, there is quite a lot of state made law even in the traditional system. But the idea of separating state from law is in some ways an attractive one.

As some evidence of how far past legal systems stray from our sense of justice, consider Periclean Athens, which a lot of moderns hold up as a shining example. If a man died with no male heirs but a daughter as heiress, she was legally required to marry the closest male relative who would have her (subject to the incest limits), even if she was already married and had to divorce her husband to do it.