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Hindhuism, Buddhism, Islam and European                                         Humanitarianism

Introductory Outline

The impact of the West

The Response of  Westernisation
 Internal reform of the religion as a response to western ideas
The Zealot Reaction to the Western Impact

Hindusim and the ideas underlying Western humanitarianism

Caste, Untouchability and Hindu Social Practices

The European influence

Buddhism and the ideas underlying Western Humanitarianism

Islam and the ideas underlying Western Humanitarianism

Multiracialism in early Islam

Islam and religious toleration

The Shari’a and its critical place in Islam – Background to the Islamic reaction to humanitarian ideas
The shari’a and areas of humanitarian action

Criminal Punishments

The treatment of women
Saudi Arabia
The decline and rise of the sharia
Contemporary Treatment of Women and Criminal Punishments

The future of Islamicism?


Introductory Outline

In this study (which includes the three accompanying essays) I wish to examine the extent to which the great eastern religions embody or reject the ideas and values underlying the European humanitarian movement.

These are first that each human being is morally significant and of equal moral significance. We may describe this as individualism, which is a convenient description provided one keeps in mind that ‘individualism’ has connotations of economic behaviour not relevant to the humanitarian ideal. Second, is the ethic of active compassion, an ethic chiefly deriving from the New Testament ethic of love. To describe it as christian is therefore not inaccurate although its primacy has not always been favoured by institutional christianity. Finally, is the idea of social and legal reform as a means of improving humanity. This rested upon the assumption that human improvement depended upon changes to the environment or to education.*  This idea was not christian – it had its genesis in the Enlightenment – but it was the fusion of this idea with the ethic of active compassion which was critical to the humanitarian movement.

We must in examining these religions look not only to whether they embody these specific humanitarian ideas or values but also, more broadly, for other ideas or values held by them which might be either a stimulus to humanitarianism or incompatible with it.

Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity were all salvation religions. In each, conceptions about salvation affected beliefs about the place the individual should occupy in society. Salvation religions may or may not accord  significance to the individual person but if they do it is likely that that significance will only relate to and depend upon the person’s supposed continued existence after death.*  The means of attaining salvation may be this-worldly but the focus of living becomes directed to one’s future after death.  Social inequalities or social injustices in the present world are at most regrettable irrelevancies, to be accepted with resignation.  It is true a salvation ethic does not necessarily have this consequence as we know from evangelical christianity (for whom salvation came as an identifiable event before death).  Salvation may become an impetus to human social action.  But the evangelicals were exceptional in this respect.

One sees the point graphically in Hindu India where millions upon millions have been prepared throughout the centuries to accept their subordinate status in the hope of liberation from the grim cycle of birth and rebirth.  For the Hindu, salvation ‑ the liberation from the cycle of rebirth ‑ is to be attained through performance of caste duty.  That is so even though it involves accepting a status of lifetime subordination and inferiority.  The inequality in the caste system is not merely social.  Certain inferior castes are relegated to a condition of sub-humanity.  Their mere presence is polluting.  Others are outside the caste system altogether.  Inequality is thus fundamental.  Only through observing the conditions of imposed inequality may salvation be attained.  Individual autonomy is denied as unthinkable in favour of the collective discipline of the caste. 

Buddhism, Islam and Catholic Christianity differ from Hinduism in that they proclaim the equal capacity of all believers to attain salvation.*

Religions, like Islam and christianity, which believe in a transcendental God may be distinguished from those in which the divine element is to be found immanent in human beings or in the totality of Nature.  The essence of a transcendental, personal God is the giving of commands.  The central sin is thus disobedience and for this there must be punishment.  Accordingly, for Christianity and for Islam, Hell formed a natural part of their religious cosmology. 

In Islam ‘the doctrine which most powerfully gripped him (Mohammed) and which, through him was most vividly impressed upon the mind of Islam in all later ages, was the doctrine of the Last Judgement’.*

The fear of God’s ‘wrath to come’ dominated Mohammed’s thought throughout his later life.  God is the omnipotent master.  At the Last Judgement every human being will be put upon trial.  A great balance will be poised by the angel Gabriel who will judge the good and evil actions of each person’s life.  What happens will depend upon the preponderance of either scale.  Retribution will be exacted for every wrong or injury.  The wicked will ‘go to hell burning in fire, they shall enter it on the day of Judgement and they shall by no means be absent from it’.*

‘Jehenman is a region fraught with all kinds of horrors.  The very trees have writhing serpents for branches, bearing forth fruit the heads of deamons… the fierce angel Thabeck, that is to say, the executioner presides over this region of terror’.*  It is not difficult to see how such a cosmology would support the Shari’a.*

Islam and christianity have though a different emphasis in attitude towards forgiveness.  Islam stresses God’s omnipotence.  The God of the New Testament (although not the Old) is a forgiving God, as represented in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.*

Both religions depended upon the fear and even terror of the after-life.  In both, their attitude is dependent upon obedience or disobedience and is based upon rewards and punishment.  But the God of Christianity is readier to mitigate omnipotence with forgiveness.  Mohammed never intercedes with God on behalf of sinful man.  Nor is there any church or other institution in Islam which claims that authority.  This is thus very different from Catholic Christianity where the church (and only the church) may, through the confession and sacrament of Penance, grant absolution from sins.*

Unlike all those religions the European Enlightenment held that the individual person had moral significance on grounds having nothing to do with salvation.  Significance attached to the individual in this world.  For that reason the treatment of a human being ‘here and now’ had to accord with his or her moral significance. 

Ultimately European thought owed its non-salvation philosophy and ethics, as reflected in the Enlightenment, to the Greeks.  To the Greeks the critical element giving human beings significance was the faculty of reason.  Stoicism affirmed the equal significance of each individual human being because of this.  But stoicism never allowed for autonomy - the active expression of itself by the individual personality.  Stoic individualism was tied to an ethic of renunciation.  Reason demanded that a person live conformably with Nature.  That required temperance, fortitude, courage and endurance of pain and suffering ‑ the mastery of pleasure and pain.  Affirmation of human individuality implicit in autonomy came with the Renaissance.  But this strong sense of individuality, exemplified in the great figures of the renaissance, was not accompanied by any underlying philosophy.*  That had to await the Enlightenment when, in Kants’ words, man would emerge ‘from self-imposed infancy’.  Natural law then re-focused on social matters.*

One important factor in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that all believed in a sacred text: in Islam this is particularly so as the Koran is regarded as the unmediated word of God. Mohammed is a ‘voice’ uttering Gods’ words.*

All religions holding to a sacred text accept to a greater or less degree a divine command doctrine of ethics. The good is defined exclusively by virtue of it being God’s command rather than because of something immanent in the thing commanded; the latter may be, and often is, used to explain the divine command but it is not that which makes it ethically imperative. The way in which the text embodying the ethics of these religions is interpreted is critical to isolating the relationship between the beliefs and the humanitarian ideal.

Historically, a literal construction is favoured by those who suggest that any other interpretation would derogate from the deity’s sovereignty. This has a particular edge in the case of the Koran because its text embodies God’s precise words. But by the nature of language the meaning of a word is not always or even usually fixed and invariable. Even where the core meaning is clear a word is often surrounded by a penumbra of meaning which gives elasticity to its interpretation. Even upon a supposedly literal construction the text may not have a single, incontrovertible meaning. The Biblical injunction, ‘compel them to come in’, used for centuries to justify persecution, did not, as Pierre Bayle pointed out, necessarily bear the meaning relied upon. What is called a literal interpretation of the text is rather a traditionally accepted meaning which purports to have been arrived at upon a literal construction.

An alternative mode of interpretation is the liberal construction. In that case interpretation does not just allow a freer use of words but relies upon context, history and linguistics to arrive at the meaning of the text. It may be said, paradoxically, that the search is less for the meaning of the words than for what the words mean.

These approaches to interpretation can affect the relationship of the sacred text to the ideas of humanitarianism with which we are concerned.

A command or prohibition may be categorical. By ‘categorical’ we mean that the command is absolute and exceptionless. The Biblical command, ‘Thou shalt not kill” is of this order. Such a command is to be contrasted with a direction to observe a general principle. ‘Love thy neighbour’ is an example. It is true such an injunction is absolute. Indeed Jesus makes it clear that it even extends to one’s enemies. But it is a principle requiring application to differing circumstances and thus different conduct may be consistent with adherence to it.

A retributive God is greatly supported by, if not dependent upon, categorical ethical rules.  Such a God is a punishing not a forgiving God.  Any infraction will receive from the deity its due punishment.  The idea of a loving and forgiving father and the ethic of compassion are supported by ethical principles.  Those principles are derived from the text just as much as the Ten Commandments but they come from its spirit and intent.

Another consideration to which a sacred text gives rise is whether obedience or disobedience to it involves a mental element such as motive or intent or whether the requirement to obey the command is strict so that absence of intent is irrelevant. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly drew attention to this distinction, contrasting the ‘old law’ with his own teaching. A strict construction of a command excluding the need for intention is more consistent with a retributive conception of ethics.

Related to this is whether the sacred text contemplates punishment in the event of disobedience. Both the Koran and the New Testament believe in a Day of Judgement and the remission of an offender to Hell, but christianity allows for intercession on behalf of the repentant sinner.

Aside from the implications of differing modes of interpretation – liberal or strict – a very relevant question is how tolerantly those holding opposing interpretations of the sacred text are treated and what persons or bodies – Church, individual believer, ulema or imam – may claim exclusive authority to interpret the sacred text.

In christianity the belief attributed by the New Testament to the Ethiopian eunuch that ‘Jesus Christ was the Son of God’ triggered endless disputation about the sense in which Jesus was both God and Man or one or the other. Between the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. the Church was racked with division over the Arian and Monosophyte controversies. And it was not until the middle of the fifth century that orthodox doctrines on the incarnation and the Trinity were at all settled. That century however witnessed the fierce disputes between Augustine and Pelagius on the nature of original sin and deep division over the filioque. Bitterness and acrimony over doctrine deriving from the interpretation of the New Testament led to persecution.*

The final aspect – and in some ways the most important – is the extent to which the sacred text is to be regarded as the exclusive source of truth or whether reason may be an alternative to revelation.  Medieval christianity regarded reason as subordinate to revelation and yet, in recognizing natural law which was dependent upon reason as being divinely ordained, the medieval theologians opened the way for reason to supplant faith. Empirical observation and deductions from it were treated as an alternative and even superior source of truth to the sacred text. Eventually, the idea of physical causation would, in Europe, discredit divine intervention in the physical world.

As we shall see in the discussion on Islam this was far less so in that case. Islamic science declined from the eleventh century. “Whilst the orthodoxy of early Islam tolerated the sciences, we may say that, from the time of the famous religious teacher, al-Ghazali onwards, this tolerance gave place to persecution of these studies because they lead to loss of belief in the origin of the world and in the creator”.*

Broadly, from the thirteenth century Reason was stifled in Islam.  The Koran was to be interpreted in a literal sense as commonly used in Arabic speech. In the absence of a clear statement or tradition most jurists had recourse to qiyas, that is, analogy to existing principles.  Even this was rejected by some jurists as introducing an element of human judgement. The right of individual interpretation (ijtihad) which once existed was narrowed to clear gaps until after some centuries scholars were able to say that the ‘gate of ijtihad’ was shut once and for all.

The impact of the West

  In this Introduction I have sought to outline those considerations common to all three eastern religions in relation to the humanitarian ideal.  One, to which we must now come, is the impact of the West upon them and the societies to which they belonged.  Without question this was traumatic and not merely in the military and technological superiority evident in colonial dominance, but in the sweep of western ideas which penetrated India, the Middle East, and indeed, the whole of the non-western world.  This became especially so following the French Revolution when the ideas of the European Enlightenment were brought to those countries by Napoleonic invasion and colonial dominance.*

Some of these ideas had nothing to do with humanitarianism – nationalism and political liberty for example – but European humanitarian ideas were included within the ‘reception’.

Evangelical administrators, especially in India, were influential.  Thus during the colonial administration of British India, suttee was prohibited (1829); slavery was gradually abolished (the number of slaves in 19th century India had been estimated at 8-9 million) and female infanticide was made a criminal offence.

But what we are concerned with here is not western imposed social action but western ideas.  Stated broadly there were three responses to the western cultural invasion: westernisation; internal reform of the religion or a zealot rejection of western ideas (which varied in intensity).

The Response of  Westernisation

Kemalist Turkey most clearly exemplifies the response of westernisation.  “The new regime abolished the organised institutions of Islam.  The Ottoman Sultanate was abolished in 1923 and the Caliphate in 1924.  … ‘Ulama’ were put under the control of a new office of religious affairs.  In 1925 the Sufi orders were declared illegal* and disbanded.  In 1927 the wearing of fez was forbidden… in the course of this period, a new family law based upon the Swiss legal code replaced the shari’a* … thus, Islam was ‘disestablished’ and deprived of a role in public life …”*

It must not be supposed however that westernisation could only be introduced by authoritarian rule.  It may, as in the case of India, be introduced by a political elite with the support of the masses.  Nehru-led India became a secular State at independence, its constitution embodying provisions against untouchability, caste, and discrimination against women, Nehru himself fiercely secular combating his colleague Patel’s anti-Muslim communalism.

Westernisation is not to be equated with humanitarianism but westernisation did mean that certain ideas, particularly those of the Enlightenment, were able to be introduced and overcome certain traditional beliefs incompatible with humanitarianism.  One of these was that social conditions must be amended to eliminate artificial constraints on social equality. 

 Internal reform of the religion as a response to western ideas

Reform of a religion does not depend upon there having been some external stimulus such as that of an intruding foreign culture.  The protestant reformation is an obvious instance.  But if reform is in fact a response to the impact of a foreign culture we naturally look to see what strands of that culture have been received by the religion with or without modification or, on the other hand, which have been rejected.

During the 19th century the reception of western ideas by Hinduism and Islam were so extensive as to make reformism seem little different from the response of westernisation which we have discussed. 

Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), the earliest Hindu reformer, held high office in the East India Company.  Greatly influenced by European liberalism and humanism he became convinced that radical reform of Hinduism was necessary.  He founded the Brahma Samaj which attacked the caste system and proclaimed social equality, especially for women. 

The most significant Muslim reformer in 19th century India was Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) who taught that Islam conformed with nature and that there was no contradiction between it and modern science.  In 1875 he founded a famous college at Aligarh in which religious education and science were combined.*  Sayyid Ahmad Khan caused Muslims to look critically at their social ethics.  “Muslim intellectuals were becoming acutely aware of the social evils linked with such practices as slavery and unregulated polygamy and divorce.”*  He and followers such as Sayyid Amir Ali held that such practices as slavery, polygamy and divorce by repudiation were contrary to the Koran and that later schools of theologians were responsible for them. 

Another very important reformist figure in the late 19th century was the Egyptian Mohammad Abduh (1849-1905).  He was Chief Legal Officer in the British Colonial Administration and in that capacity revised the shari’a, cutting out many of the irrational customs which had been absorbed into the law based upon the shari’a during the Ottoman period.  He drafted a penal code to replace the hadd punishments of the Koran.

Many reform proposals were very western and, in terms of the religion, heterodox.  Thus Sayyid Amir Ali, in emphasising the importance of Mohammad, questioned whether the Koran emanated directly from God.  And Iranian intellectuals Mulkum Khan (1833-1908) and Aqua Khan Kirmani (1853-1896) urged Iranians to acquire a western education and replace the shari’a with a modern secular legal code.*

But their purpose was always religious reform.  Unlike the westernisers they were never attracted to westernisation for its own sake.  Even Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan accepted that “no word of the traditionist or exegete can be regarded as authentic in opposition to it (the Koran).”.

It was natural that these reformers should seek to identify their reforms with the indigenous religion.  Thus Ram Mohan Roy, in founding the Brahma Samaj, linked the reforms which the movement advocated to the Upanishads.  In Islam, the champion of the greatly improved status for woman, Qasim Amin, was a Paris-educated Egyptian lawyer.  In his work Tahrir al-Mar’ah (the Liberation of Women) (1899) he advocated abolition of the veil and attacked polygamy and divorce vehemently.  But he claimed that this accorded with the principle of equality embodied in early Islam. 

These ideas may have been compatible with the early forms of the ancient religions but the idea of social reform was not indigenous.  It was European-derived.  Increasingly, a more critical view was taken of western culture.  Humanitarian reform tendencies were often combined with attempts to purify the religion by returning it to its ancient roots.  Thus the Arya Samaj, founded by Dayanand Saraswati preached an aggressive and proselytising Hinduism, on a Vedic basis.  “It was an appeal to the alleged pristine purity of Vedic Hinduism.”*  But the Arya Samaj accompanied this with great efforts in the social and educational fields. 

Possibly the clearest example of what may be described as a ‘selective’ reformer was Ghandi.  Ghandi sought to reform Hinduism and was prompted to do so by western influence.  He was less influenced by the Enlightenment than the Sermon on the Mount and Ruskin’s Unto this Last.  Accordingly, he rejected legislative or constitutional measures to remove untouchability.  At the same time Ghandi had imbibed the western moral principle of spiritual equality which led him to oppose caste distinctions, untouchability, child marriage and the inequality of women.

The Syrian Shaikh Rashid Rida (1865-1935), a student of Mohammad Abduh, sought reform but was as opposed to Kemalist westernisation as he was to Sufiism.  This led him to move towards a rigid monotheism and a puritan fundamentalism.  He founded the Salafiya movement. 

Here we are poised on the difference between a reformist movement and zealotism. 

The Zealot Reaction to the Western Impact* 

In what follows I shall elaborate principally on Islamic zealotism.  I do so because its emphasis upon the shari’a and intolerance of any form of secularism would expunge development of the humanitarian ideal within Islam.  However it should not be supposed that Hinduism has lacked a zealot reaction.  Hindu zealotism was not a response to the West but to Islam.  That, perhaps, is an oversimplification.  More precisely, it was the equality accorded to Muslims in the Indian secular state which stimulated Hindu zealotism.  That equality was derived from the West.* 

The first effective and aggressive zealotist movement was the Muslim Brotherhood begun in Egypt by a school teacher, Hasan al-Banna, who had been influenced by the increasingly conservative Rashid Rida to whom we have referred.  The Brotherhood was formed in 1929 and its initial aim was the destruction of the British inspired secular constitution of 1923.  In effect it repudiated the reformism of Muhammed Abduh.  Members not only campaigned against the government of King Farouk but pledged to put Koranic law into practice in their own lives.  Brothers “adopted religious dress, strictly practised the ibadah (Islamic personal law) and violently attacked nominal Muslims who drank alcohol … or adopted other types of Western behaviour.”.*  During the 30s and 40s the Brotherhood engaged in occasional terrorism.  They became increasingly radicalised by the Palestinian crisis.  In 1948 the Egyptian Prime Minister, Nuqrashi Pasha, was assassinated by a Brotherhood member and Hasan al-Banna was killed by security services in retaliation during the following year.*

We now come to the key theorist of Islamic fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb, a member of the Brotherhood. 

The Brotherhood clashed with Egyptian leader Nasser and, following an attempted assassination, Nasser retaliated by hanging six leading Brothers, gaoling others and forcing many into exile, mostly to Saudi Arabia and Palestine.  Qutb was among those gaoled and during his time in prison he wrote his most influential work Signposts.  Qutb’s book was published throughout the Muslim world.  He was eventually hanged by Nasser in 1966.  Qutb himself had been influenced by a Pakistani scholar and journalist, Abul ‘ala Maududi whose works became available in Arabic translation in the 1950s.  Muslims, Maududi taught, must band together to fight western secularism and he called for a universal jihad.  It was Maududi who elevated jihad to a central tenet of Islam.*

Qutb reflected Maududi in being repelled by Western secularism, an attitude which had hardened with him by a time at a United States university.  But it was not just secularism which he feared and abhorred.  He analysed Western society and concluded that its main vice was the separation of science or nature from religion.  His main antipathy was not Western imperialism, its looser sexual mores about which he had written prudishly, but the separation of church and state.  What Signposts did was to provide a theoretical justification for jihad becoming not merely personal or national but an international obligation.  It was not therefore Western imperialism and colonial government at which he railed but the concern that Western liberal, and we must add, humanitarian, ideas were encircling Islam so as to result in it being confined to the mosque and to occasions of ritual.  He therefore called for a world-wide Koranic state.*

Aggressive zealotism now had its philosopher, but wide as Qutb’s influence was from Algeria to Pakistan, the first capture of a modern state came not from Sunni but from Shia fundamentalists.  The Iranian Revolution of 1979 gave zealotism an enormous boost.  In his work, The Coming of the Jurists, Khomeini called for the establishment of an Islamic Republic controlled by the Ulama as the divinely guided ‘viceroy’ of Allah whose teachings would be passed by word of mouth through a network of Mullahs and Ayatollahs.  This was facilitated in Iran by the constitution of Ulama in Shiism as institutionally separate and in it having considerable wealth and social power. 

Islamic zealotism has in recent decades become violently aggressive.  What is material to our discussion is the emphasis which this has now placed upon the Shari’a which, during the immediately preceding reformist phase, was being steadily modified or replaced. 

Qutb accepted that the Shari’a involved severe punishment.  He “cited the Koran on the punishments for killing or wounding; ‘a life for a life, and eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear’.  Fornication, too, was a serious crime because, in his words, ‘it involves an attack on honour and a contempt for sanctity and an encouragement of profligacy in society.’  Shari’a specified the punishments here as well.  ‘The penalty for this must be severe; for married men and women it is stoning to death; for unmarried men and women it is flogging, 100 lashes, which in cases is fatal.’  False accusations were likewise serious.  ‘A punishment of 80 lashes is fixed for those who falsely accuse a chaste woman’.  As for those who threaten the general security of society their punishment is ‘to be put to death, to be crucified, to have their hands and feet cut off, or to be banished from the country’.

Qutb refused to regard these punishments as barbarous or primitive.  Shari’a, in his view, meant liberation.  In his view, other societies, drawing on non-Koranic principles, forced people to obey haughty masters and man-made law.  Those societies forced people to worship their own rulers and to do as they said – even if the rulers were democratically chosen.  Under Shari’a, no one was being forced to obey mere humans.  Shari’a, in Qutb’s view meant ‘the abolition of man-made laws’.  In the resurrected caliphate, every person would be ‘free from servitude to others’.”.*

The discussions of the three religions which follow are part of a composite study but may be read as separate essays.


Hindusim and the ideas underlying Western humanitarianism

Hinduism, the river through which the long civilisation of India flows, is more a way of life than a religion, governing in the minutest detail the totality of the lives of those who adhere to it.

Hinduism does not derive from some historically identifiable teacher of divine authority.  The brahmans of the late Vedic period, the authors of the Upanishads (900 – 600 B.C.), developed a pantheistic conception of the universe from the prevailing polytheism of aryan religious beliefs.  The only reality in which they believed was the unity of life.  This was the Brahman-Atman, the universal soul, to which all life belongs.  Our perception of individual separateness was, they believed, an illusion – maya.  The goal of the brahman was to expel that illusion.  The seemingly separate individual soul would thereby become reabsorbed into the universal soul.  That could be achieved by the way of knowledge ‑ knowledge of the Brahman-Atman.  To attain this required (a) extinction of the senses through renunciation, thereby destroying the false appearance of separateness, for it is through the senses that we become attached to the self and thus harbour the illusion of its separate existence and (b) meditation upon the Atman to the exclusion of all distracting influences.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains this process clearly:

“The attainment of final emancipation (is) dependent upon perfect knowledge of the divine essence.  This knowledge can only be obtained by complete abstraction of the mind from external objects and intense meditation upon the divinity which presupposes extinction of all sensual instincts by means of austere practices.  The chosen few who succeed in gaining complete mastery over their senses, and full knowledge of their divine nature, become absorbed into the universal soul immediately on the dissolution of the body.  The pantheistic doctrine which thus forms the foundation of the Brahmanical system of belief found its complete exposition in Vedanta philosophy.”*

This aristocratic-philosophic conception of the universe was evolved by the brahmans.  They were the priests of the aryans, a central Asian people, who invaded Northern India from Afghanistan some time before 1500 B.C.  The invasion was a process rather than a single irruption.  We know something of the aryans through their hymns – the Vedas – although even now our knowledge is tantalisingly incomplete (1).  Priestly authority among the aryans depended upon sacred knowledge possessed exclusively by the brahmans.  It was the sacerdotal knowledge of ritual and sacrifice through which the Gods were propitiated.  Eventually and gradually, this evolved into the philosophic conception we have described.

The brahmans recognised that an abstract colourless deity like the Atman would gain no hold on the people.  They therefore incorporated into their aryan pantheon the gods of the Daisyu or Dravidian people whom they had conquered.  As early as the Upanishads, popular Hinduism was moving towards the worship of Krishna, an avatar or reincarnation of Vishnu.  Also, Siva, one of the chief Gods of the original inhabitants became one of the three major Gods of Hinduism, representing the generative power symbolised by the lingam which is worshipped today all over India.  All of these Gods, including their consorts, such as Paravati, were worshipped, not as abstractions but as concrete figures in temples.  Contact with the God was made by looking the sculptured figure directly in the eye.

The brahmans had further acceded to popular feeling by recognising, as early as in the Vedas, that bhakti, or, devotion to the Gods, was an alternative to knowledge as a means of self-realisation.

It was the Bhagavadgita (completed 100 B.C.), more than any other sacred work, which reconciled Brahmanism with popular forms of Hinduism.  The Gita includes the ancient means to salvation ‑ the way of knowledge which had been formulated in the Upanishads (jnana yoga) and the way of devotion (bhakti yoga).  Indeed, bhakti yoga, which was probably Dravidian in origin, is emphasised.  The idea of devotion and complete self-surrender appealed to non-brahmans who were able by prayer, offerings and benevolences, to attain salvation.

However, the chief message of the Bhagavadgita was its elaboration upon the way of action ‑ Karma Yoga ‑ as a means of self-realisation.  Through Karma Yoga Hinduism becomes ethical in the sense of imposing moral duties.  Jnana Yoga was directed only to the attainment of a personal spiritual status.  Salvation was attained not through action in the world but withdrawal from it.  Bahkti Yoga, even as developed later in the eleventh century by Ramanuja, assumed a personal deity to whom one submitted in self-surrender, not a God who required ethical action.

Karma Yoga was concerned with action and with duty.

In the famous dialogue between Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, as recorded in the Gita, Arjuna is instructed by Krishna that he must perform his Kshatrya duty.  A person must not be influenced by the fruits of action but by an absolute sense of duty.  ‘Thy business is with action only, never with its fruits, so let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor be thou unto inaction attached.’  This dialogue takes place when an historic battle is about to begin.  Arjuna is tempted to desert his post of duty when he sees before  him all his kinsmen who would have to be slain before victory could be secured.  Krishna reprimands him, pointing out the higher way of dispassionately discharging his duty.  Krishna answers Arjuna thus:

“Thou dost feel pity where pity has no place.  Wise men feel no pity for what dies or what lives.”

During most of their dialogue Krishna preaches complete detachment:  ‘I am indifferent to all born things; there is none whom I hate, none whom I love’.  Of this, Arnold Toynbee has written:  ‘as a moral achievement it is overwhelming, but it has a disconcerting moral corollary; for perfect detachment casts out pity, and therefore love, as inexorably as it purges away all the evil passions’.

Dharma – which can best be translated as ‘duty’ – was the central message of the Gita and became the central conception of Hinduism.  It was inseparably linked with caste.  The duty to be performed was ‘caste’ duty

Caste, Untouchability and Hindu Social Practices

We find the first mention of the traditional classes in one of the late Vedas.  The brahmans, as priests, issued from the mouth of the primeval creator, the kshyatra or warriors from the creators’ arms and the vaisyas, as the common people, from the creators’ loins.*  We do know that in the Vedic Age the classes were fluid in membership.  This was also true of their relative authority.  It was by no means certain that the brahmans would establish dominance over the kshyatras.  A very considerable struggle took place in aryan society before that was resolved.  Had the brahmans not been successful the caste system would have developed very differently and would probably not have had its immense religious significance.

There was a fourth class – the sudras – whose function was to serve the other three classes, in effect as slaves.  The sudras were said to have proceeded from the feet of the primeval creator.  The sudras were denied any hope of salvation.  They were forbidden from obtaining the sacred knowledge which the other twice-born classes could acquire.  In fact it was an offence for a brahman to recite the Vedas in the presence of a sudra.*

The sudras differed from the other three classes in another way.  They were the descendants of the original daisyu who had been conquered by the aryans.  They were distinguishable from the aryans by their darker skin.  We thus have introduced into the aryan class system a group of slaves who were born into their inferiority by racial difference and who were identifiable by their darker colour.  The Vedas themselves referred to the classes as ‘varna’, the sanscrit word for ‘colour’.

It was in the interests of the brahmans to maintain the exclusiveness of their sacred knowledge.  From the time of the Vedas certain religious offices were becoming hereditary.  Class was turning into caste.  Although kyshatra and vaisya were twice-born and thus theoretically capable of realising union with the Brahman-Atman, the brahmans alone had the secret knowledge of ritual and sacrifice necessary to achieve it.  Also, although jnana marga may have been open to the other two classes, the long period of renunciation and celibacy made it unattractive.

By the first century A.D. the caste system had chrystallised.  When we speak of the caste system we refer not so much to the four broad classes which had come down from the Vedic period, although these continued to provide its framework; and the authority of the brahmans always remained central.  But the caste system means primarily the jatis or subcastes which were slotted into the four main classes as they evolved.

Membership of a jati was confined to those who had been born members of it and included as its members all persons who had been born into it.  The jati was thus an endogamous group – intermarriage was permitted only within the group.  All members of one’s jati were kinsmen.  Also, all male members ordinarily followed, from generation to generation, a traditional occupation.  Each jati comprised a number of ‘joint’ families.  A ‘joint’ family was an exogamous group (marriage must take place outside the group) to which the family property belonged in a joint or almost corporate sense.  Jatis would be grouped together under one or other of the main classes.  Over time thousands of jatis were formed.  It was an aspect of the assimilative process of Hinduism.  As each invasion swept down from the north each racial or linguistic group was absorbed into and took its place in the caste system.  ‘The genius of India’, as Jawaharlal Nehru said, ‘is synthesis’.

Each member of a jati became bound from birth to death by an intricate array of rules, jati-dharma.  What constituted dharma had been laid down in the dharmasastras, commencing about the sixth century B.C. and culminating in the Code of Manu about the beginning of the christian era.  Dharma thus evolved concurrently with caste.  In the Code of Manu it was stated that ‘obedience to caste rules is the very essence of dharma’. 

What linked dharma to caste was the doctrine of Karma.  Each soul was reborn into a succession of physical bodies until it attained liberation from rebirth.  By the doctrine of Karma each action inevitably produced its own reaction.  Therefore, each action in performance of dharma or in breach of dharma would receive its reward or retribution by determining the form of one’s rebirth and, if reborn as a human being, the caste into which one would be reborn.  One could not in this life escape from one’s hereditary caste but the application of Karma to our actions would dictate what happens in the next.  Hence dharma or right action, as understood by the Hindu, came to be equated with adherence to caste discipline.

The caste rules which dharma enjoined were not rules of ethics.  To a large extent they were concerned with pollution and the avoidance of pollution (2).  Pollution for the Hindu had an overriding importance which, on the face of it, had nothing to do with hygiene.  Food was believed capable of transmitting spiritual infection.  Taboo on sharing food with an outsider was a protection against that.  Each jati had complex rules for determining who may cook the food which its members might eat and who could serve them water.  A high caste brahman, for example, would eat grain cooked in water only if the cook were another high caste brahman.  Caste would also determine what may be eaten.  The higher the caste the more restrictive the diet.  The highest caste ate only vegetables.  The traditional Hindu regards the elimination of dirt as the avoidance of a contagion which is essentially spiritual.  Death and decay are polluting.  Accordingly, occupations associated with funerals are low caste.  All human emissions are polluting.  Thus, lavatory attendants and midwives are low caste.  It followed that contact with such low caste occupations would be contaminating; hence the caste rules forbidding inter-marrying, inter-dining and even physical contact.  ‘Members of the Chandala caste would not leave their isolated quarters or villages without striking a wooden clapper to warn of their contaminating approach.’*

A caste was autonomous in enforcing dharma.  It possessed judicial authority, including power to punish very severely any breach of its rules.  ‘Generally speaking, the offences of which a caste panchayat will take cognizance are of the following kinds. Offences against commensal taboos, which prevent members of the caste from eating, drinking, or smoking with members of another caste or at least of other castes regarded by the prohibiting caste as lower in social status than themselves, are undoubtedly the most important, for transgression of one member of the caste if unknown and unpunished may affect the whole caste with pollution through its commensality with the rest.  Offences involving sex or breaches of the marriage rules ….’.*

There was a large group of human beings who had no caste.  They fell outside Hindu society.  These were the untouchables.  The untouchable is an outcaste.  The outcaste is excluded because he or she is a polluting agent and this is so through birth.  The untouchables’ children will just as inevitably be outcastes.  Birth into the group renders him or her unclean.  In fact, it is the group collectively which is polluted.

Untouchability, as it existed between 1790 and 1820, was described by a French priest, Abbé Dubois.  Dubois came to India after the French Revolution and lived there for many years.  He wrote his ‘Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies’ in the early years of the nineteenth century and thus during British rule. His description is important because it refers to a period before reforms had commenced.

“There are certain classes, however, who, owing to the depths of degradation into which they have fallen, are looked upon as almost another race of beings, altogether outside the pale of society; and they are perfectly ready to acknowledge their own comparative inferiority.  The best known and most numerous of these castes is the Parayer, as it is called in Tamil, the word from which the European name pariah is derived…  Throughout the whole of India the Parayers are looked upon as slaves by other castes, and are treated with great harshness.  Hardly anywhere are they allowed to cultivate the soil for their own benefit, but are obliged to hire themselves out to other castes, who in return for a minimum wage exact the hardest tasks from them.  Furthermore, their masters may beat them at pleasure; the poor wretches having no rights either to complain or to obtain redress for that or any other ill-treatment.  Their masters may impose on them. In fact these Parayers are the born slaves of India; and had I to choose between the two sad fates of being a slave in one of our colonies or a Parayer here, I should unhesitatingly prefer the former… However, notwithstanding the miserable condition of these wretched Parayers they are never heard to murmur or complain of their low estate.  Still less do they ever dream of trying to improve their lot by combining together and forcing the other classes to treat them with that common respect which one man owes to another.  The idea that he was born to be in subjection to the other castes is so ingrained in his mind that it never occurs to the Parayer to think that his fate is anything but irrevocable.  Nothing will ever persuade him that men are all made of the same clay, or that he has the right to insist on better treatment that that which is meted out to him.  They live in hopeless poverty, and the greater number lack sufficient means to procure even the coarsest clothing.  They go about almost naked, or at best clothed in the most hideous rags.

They live from hand to mouth the whole year round, and rarely know one day how they will procure food for the next… The contempt and aversion with which other castes ‑ and particularly the Brahmans ‑ regard these unfortunate people are carried to such an excess that in many places their presence, or even their footprints, are considered sufficient to defile the whole neighbourhood.  They are forbidden to cross a street in which Brahmans are living.  Should they be so ill-advised as to do so, the latter would have the right not to strike them themselves, because they could not do so without defilement, or even touch them with the end of a long stick, but to order them to be severely beaten by other people…  Anyone who has been touched, whether inadvertently or purposely, by a Parayer is defiled by that single act, and may hold no communication with any person whatsoever until he has been purified by bathing, or by other ceremonies more or less important according to the status and customs of his caste.  It would be contamination to eat with any members of this class; to touch food prepared by them or even to drink water which they have drawn; to use an earthen vessel which they have held in their hands, to set foot inside one of their houses, or to allow them to enter houses other than their own.  Each of these acts would contaminate the person effected by it and before being readmitted to his own caste such a person would have to go through many exacting and expensive formalities.”

Dubois was writing of the 1820s.  His editor, writing for the 1906 edition of ‘Hindu Manners and Customs’, added, in a footnote, that ‘even to this day a Parayer is not allowed to pass a Brahman street in a village, though nobody can prevent, or prevents his approaching or passing by a Brahman’s house in towns’.  As late as the 1930s, in Tamilnand, a caste existed, the very sight of which was polluting, so that its members were compelled to live nocturnally.  ‘They are not allowed to come out in the day time because their sight is considered to be polluting ‑ eventually they were induced to emerge for an interview with their whole bodies shaking and trembling.’*

The European influence

It would seem that there was no protest against the condition of untouchability before the arrival of the British.  The effect of new ideas absorbed through the Europeans in the early nineteenth century was to change the intellectual climate of India.  These ideas included humanitarianism and were fostered both by evangelicals such as Charles Grant and utilitarians such as James Mill.  A process of self-introspection within Hinduism began.  The leading figure was Ram Mohan Roy (1772 – 1833).  Roy founded the Brahma Sabha in 1828.  The Brahma Sabha was an attempt to purge Hinduism of idolatory.  Ram Mohan Roy came from a Brahman family.  He was given a liberal education in Sanscrit, Persian, Arabic and English.  He was sure that Hinduism was in need of the most urgent reform.  The Brahma Sabha was the forerunner to the Brahmo-Samaj which is referred to in greater detail below.  Ram Mohan Roy was the principal influence upon the Governor General, Lord Bentinck in the abolition of Suttee.  In 1820 he had written ‘The Precepts of Jesus’.  In 1822, he published a book entitled ‘Brief Remarks Regarding Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Rites of Females’ in which he argued in favour of the equality of women, a notion utterly foreign to traditional Hinduism.  In education he was strongly on the side of those like Lord Macaulay who favoured introduction of an English system of education.

Ram Mohan Roy’s work was continued by Debendranath Tagore who founded the Brahmo-Samaj in 1845.  It became the chief social reform movement in Hinduism.  The Bramo Samaj denounced caste, describing it as ‘the supreme root of all our social evils’.

In 1875, Dayanand Sanasvati (1824-1883) founded the Arya-Samaj.  It was characterised by love for the welfare of society.  One of the ten articles of the creed of the Arya-Samaj for example is that  ‘the primary object of the Samaj is to do good to the world, by improving the physical, spiritual and social condition of mankind.’

Next came the dominant late nineteenth century figure of Vivekenanda (1862-1902) who, in May 1897, founded the Ramakrishna missions for the relief of the poor and of the wretched.

Let us return to refer briefly to the history of untouchability before independence.  Untouchability was singled out by Gandhi in a sensational speech in 1915, shortly after his return to India.  He said ‘in so far as I have been able to study Hinduism outside India, I have felt that it is no part of real Hinduism to have in its fold a mass of people whom I would call untouchables’.  Shortly afterwards he admitted an untouchable family into his Satyagraha Ashram.  At the Indian National Congress in 1917 and again at Nagpur in 1920 the removal of untouchability was called for in Congress resolutions.  Presiding at the Suppressed Classes Conference on 13 April 1921 Gandhi said ‘I regard untouchability as the greatest blot on Hinduism’.  And again, in October 1927 he said ‘untouchability poisons Hinduism’.

In 1932 Gandhi began his epic Fast against untouchability.  Recognising the irrationality of Hindu attitudes towards pollution, Gandhi began his crusade by demonstratively cleaning the latrines in the ashram and singing the beauties of bowel functions.  The miracle Gandhi hoped for took place.  All over India untouchables were welcomed without restriction into Hindu temples.  Untouchability Abolition Week was observed throughout India from the 27th September to the 2nd October 1932.  But it did not last.  The old practices returned.  Dr Ambedkar, an untouchable himself and leader of the All-India Depressed Classes Association, insisted, contrary to Gandhi, on separate representation for the untouchables.  He believed that power, not an alteration in upper caste attitudes would alone bring about a permanent change.  The efforts of organised untouchability, under Ambedkar’s leadership, resulted in the Constitution at Independence providing for special privileges and reservations of quotas for untouchables in legislatures, in civil services and in educational institutions.

The goal of philosophical Hinduism was spiritual perfection through withdrawal from the world requiring from its adherents a kind of spiritual athleticism but rarely compassion and even less social reform.

At the social level inhumane practices such as suttee and child marriage, briefly discussed at end-notes 3 and 4, were only abolished or modified as a result of the influence of European humanitarian ideas. The method chosen – legal and institutional reform – was characteristic of the nineteenth century humanitarian movement (5).This was as true of Dr Ambedkar’s striving for special legislative allocations for untouchables as of Ram Mohan Roy’s representations to Lord Bentinck to abolish suttee and child marriage.

Traditional Hinduism embedded caste in the quest of millions for salvation.Acceptance of its manifest inequalities became for them a mandatory duty. And so we come to untouchablity – Ghandi’s ‘blot’ on Hinduism. It was, if not inevitable, a natural corollary of the caste system. Abolition was generally western in approach.Only Ghandi’s attempt to remove it by internal purification stands as distinctively Hindu.



(1)       To a large extent one can only speculate on how the caste system achieved its final form.  Clearly the original influence was brahmanical religion and authority, but the eventual form of the system appears to have been related to the interaction of the aryans with the subject daisyu.  This of course took place over many centuries.  Southern India became subject to aryan control quite late.

            The aryans were a pastoral people.  The Indus river civilisation was principally agrarian with most of its population clustered in villages around the cities.  Still, it was a highly specialised economy with craftsmen producing goods for both the home market and foreign trade.  The two Indus river cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harrapa engaged in a flourishing trade as far as the Middle East.  It would seem that these cities fell to the aryans.  Although there is evidence of internal decay preceding the aryan invasions, ‘there cannot be much doubt that the aryan invasion was responsible for the downfall of the Indus river civilisations’.*  The aryans moved steadily eastwards and by the ninth century B.C. the centre of power had shifted to the Ganges Valley.

            It was inevitable that the dominant aryans should, upon settling down, be influenced by the division of labour practised by the urbanised Dravidians.  The original four classes of the pastoral aryans lacked reality in the urbanised world.  The use of money meant new and entirely different occupations which did not obviously fit into the four classes; for example merchants.  These new occupations had to be fitted into the caste hierarchy but not so as to prejudice the dominance of the brahmans.

            It was not though just a matter of the variety of new occupations which had to be reconciled with the hereditary caste system.  The need to consolidate division of labour was also evident.  Within daisyu society, the joint family system had sought to meet this need by requiring the male members within it to follow an hereditary occupation.  It may be that this intertwined with the aryan class/caste system so that one of the chief characteristics of the evolving jatis was an hereditary occupation.

(2)       Taboos based upon uncleanliness are not unique to Hinduism.  Uncleanliness taboos are a feature of primitive religion and are present also in certain higher religions, notably the Mosaic law.  Nevertheless the Hindu aversion to pollution is quite distinctive in its extremity.  The ritual of cleanliness is defined in enormous detail including both morning and evening ablutions and bowel action.  The Brahman manual Nitya Karma devotes 23 paragraphs of its first section to this subject.  In Deuteronomy there are only two (xxiii, 12, 13)*   The laws of Manu composed 2,500 years ago enjoin a Brahman ‘never (to) bathe in tanks belonging to other men; if he bathes (in such a one), he is tainted by a portion of the guilt of him who made the tank (iv, 201)’.  ‘Let him never eat food … which has been touched by a menstruating woman, nor that which has been pecked at by birds or touched by a dog, nor food at which a cow has smelt.’

            The idea of pollution is instilled into the Indian child at the early age of toilet training.  There he learns about faecal pollution resulting from menstruation.  The left hand is reserved for toilet ablutions.  It is therefore considered unfit and unclean to touch food.  Accordingly, it is kept as far as possible out of sight during meals.  In addition, a child is taught that for three days every month, during menstruation, the mother withdraws into seclusion having become an agent of pollution herself.  The child is taught that if he or she were to come into contact with a woman during this period (who may be his or her mother) that that would be a shameful thing.  But Hinduism was confronted by the evident need for polluting occupations to be carried out.  Those who had contact with slaughtered cows, such as tanners and cobblers, or human excrement, such as in the removal of night soil, or of dirty linen, especially if in contact with menstruation had to be recognised.  What was necessary, given the consequences of pollution, was to keep these specialists in unclean occupations isolated and non-contaminated.  At this point untouchability links with caste.  For what is distinctive is that the capacity to contaminate attaches to an endogamous group.  The thousands of jatis within Hindu society are or were traditionally endogamous groups born to carry out prescribed occupations.  The result may seem paradoxical but the outcastes were caste-ified.  (Possibly the only analogy with any other formed society in which ‘unclean’ groups are formed by birth are the Eta of Japan and the Pagoda slaves of Burma).

(3)       Suttee refers to a widow’s self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre.  The practice originated at the time of the Rig Veda (second millennium B.C.).  By the sixth century B.C. It had become quite common all over India.  Although, in a formal sense, suttee was voluntary, very considerable pressure was placed upon widows.  Only through death on the funeral pyre could the widow be reunited with her husband and avoid the shame of being a widow.  As Dubois*  has written ‘a widow has to be in mourning till her death… doomed to perpetual widowhood, cast out of society, stamped with the seal of contumely…’.  Dubois described suttee that he witnessed as follows:

            “She was obliged, according to custom, to walk three times round the pile, two of her nearest neighbours supporting her by the arms.  She accomplished the first round with tottering steps; during the second her strength wholly forsook her … then, at last senseless and unconscious she was cast upon the corpse of her husband.  The Brahmans, emptying the contents of their vessels on the dry wood, applied their torches, and in a winking of an eye the whole fire was ablaze”.

            It appears that, as with public executions in England, the scene was attended by great crowds.

            Dubois said that in 1817 there were 706 sutees in the Bengal presidency.  It was abolished by Lord Bentinck, the Governor General, in 1829, but he took this action very much at the instance of Ram Mohan Roy.  Notwithstanding English aversion to sutee there was great hesitation in interfering with Hindu society.

(4)       Child marriage had long been a feature of Hindu society.  A pundit Ishwan Chundra Vidysagar, a scholar and reformer, raised his name against it and as a result of his efforts an Act was passed in 1860 providing that the age of consent for girls should be ten years of age.  Dubois*  describes the situation that prevailed at the time this Act was passed: ‘A young Brahman should, ordinarily speaking, be married when he is about 16 years of age, but the ceremony is often postponed until he is older than this.  The wife chosen for him is generally 5, 7, or at the utmost 9 years old. … When once a girl has passed the marriageable age, it is very difficult for her to find a husband.  In this caste (ie the Brahmans) there is often an enormous difference in age between the husband and the wife.  It is no uncommon thing to see an old man of 60 or more, having lost his first wife, marry for the second time a little girl of 5 or 6 years old, and even prefer her to girls of mature age.  What is the result of this?  The husband generally dies long before the wife, and often even before she has attained the age which would allow him to exercise his rights as a husband.  So the poor girl has become a widow before she has become a wife, and, as the custom of her caste she may not marry again.’  The Brahmo-samaj took up the case for removing this evil.  In April 1871 experts reported that in their opinion the appropriate minimum age was 16.  In 1872 an Act was passed which ‘abolished early marriages, made polygamy penal and sanctioned widow and inter-caste marriages’.  Both the Brahmo-samaj and Arya-samaj sought to encourage people to delay marriages.

(5)       The opposite to a philosophy of human improvement through changed social environment is an ethic of inner spiritual perfection or an ethic of relief of suffering and distress through charity.

            The first of these regards the ‘world’ as at best irrelevant and as at worst positively harmful.  Changed social conditions are thus viewed with hostility or indifference.

            Such an ethic has pervaded Indian history but always at an elite level requiring from its adherents an all-consuming spiritual athleticism.  It is practised by the brahman Hindus and, during the Buddhist period, by theravada monks.  Celibacy frequently accompanies such an ethic.  The ethic assumes that social conditions remain unchanged. 

            Such an ethic is not of course unique to non-western thought.  The medieval christian church endorsed charity to the ‘miserables personae’, widows and orphans but forcefully opposed any change to the social order resulting in a redistribution of wealth, especially the church’s wealth, as advocated by movements such as the Waldenses and Taborites.  A more contemporary example of this approach is that of the Salvation Army in nineteenth century England.


Buddhism and the ideas underlying Western Humanitarianism 

During the time of the late Vedas and Upanishads (900-600B.C.) religious rites and ceremonies were supervised by the Brahmans. 

Gautama, the Buddha, was born about 563 B.C., a prince in a kingdom at the foot of the Himalayas.  Buddha was thus a kshyatra, born in this period of Brahmanical control.  It was also a period in which caste and caste discipline were beginning to become established.

Buddha saw omnipresent suffering in the streets of the royal city in which he lived and it was the suffering he witnessed which led him to renounce his royal heritage.  Buddha turned to Hindu asceticism and a life of self-mortification.  After seven years he rejected this way to salvation.  Then followed a lengthy period of meditation after which he achieved enlightenment.  The rest of his life was spent in teaching his message.

Unlike the non-Indian religions the ethic of Buddhism is not one of rules laid down by a transcendent deity.  What the Buddha taught were principles derived from the nature of ultimate reality as he perceived it.

Buddha rejected caste and denied, without qualification, the religious authority claimed by the Brahmans and their status as divine intermediaries.  Holiness was not a matter of birth.  ‘I call not a man a Brahman because he was born from a certain family or mother, for he may be proud and he may be wealthy.  The man who is free from possessions and free from desires ‑ him I call a Brahman’.  And, he added, it is ‘not by birth does one become a brahmana, by deeds one becomes an outcaste, by deeds one becomes a brahmana’.

Nor was racialism a criterion of virtue in Buddhism.  As the Buddha said, ‘it is not races altogether, but of persons individually, that we can speak as noble (arya) or ignoble (non-arya) because there will be some ignobles among the aryas and some nobles among the an-aryas’.

He taught that the cause of suffering was attachment to our desires and to ourselves.  Suffering would cease only when that attachment was utterly extinguished.  To Buddha there was no separable entity such as the soul.  What we think of as the soul is really a process or force consisting of sensations and desires.  It flows like a current through our own and various succeeding lives.  The Buddhist nivarna is the extinction of attachment and may be likened to the turning off of the electric current.

The question is how is this to be achieved?  It is achieved by following the noble eightfold path.

One of its precepts is to refrain from the taking of life.  ‘The righteous monk is sympathetic and merciful and strives with friendly feeling for the good of all living things’.  This doctrine of harmlessness to all life or ahimsa was originated by Mahavira (540 B.C.-468 B.C.), a contemporary of the Buddha and founder of Jainism.  The Jains became a movement within Hinduism ending hunting, bloody sacrifices and the eating of meat. In time the Jains came to hold ahimsa in a very extreme form.  No Jain would knowingly kill or harm the tiniest of insects.  It was their duty not to trample unawares on creeping things.

Ahimsa is the moral ancestor of Ghandian non-violence and is important in any contrasting comparison with western thought through its extension to non-human life.  At this point though, we wish to focus on why, as the doctrine implies, life is regarded as morally significant to the Jain and Buddhist and what is the extent of that significance?*

It is evident that the ahimsa commandment presupposes the like nature of all beings and would thus seem to have its basis in a respect for all beings.  In the Ayaramgasutta, a Jaina text from about the 3rd or 4th century BC, ahimsa is preached as ‘all saints (arhats) and Lords (bhagavats) in the past, in the present and in the future, they all say thus and declare thus:  one may not kill, nor ill-use, nor insult, nor torment, nor persecute any kind of living being, any kind of creature, any kind of thing having a soul, any kind of beings.  That is the pure eternal, enduring commandment of religion which has been proclaimed by the sages who comprehend the world.’  In the 12th century A.D. the poet Hemacandra praised non-killing in a poem to King Kumarapala, who had been converted to Jainism: ‘Ahimsa is like a loving mother of all beings.’

And so there is this long tradition of ahimsa and its link to concern for living things.

Albert Schweitzer held though – and this is important for our purpose – that the commandment does not arise out of compassion.  “The most ancient Indian thought hardly knows sympathy with animal creation … the commandment not to kill and not to harm does not arise then, from a feeling of compassion, but from the idea of keeping undefiled from the world.”* 

Perhaps we see what Schweitzer was getting at, when we look at some of the more extreme practices of ahimsa.  Thus Jain monks tie cloth in front of their mouths so that when they breathe they might not swallow tiny creatures in the air.*  And Jains gave up farming because it was impossible to dig without damaging minute living things. Mahavira and his followers held to a particularly strong version of the theory of transmigration.  Karma operates automatically by the deeds we do.  These generate particles of matter known as ajiva which enter the soul, soiling it.  The most dangerous source of Karma for a Jain is violence to other living things.  To hurt any living being, each of which has a soul, is to injure one’s own soul by making defilement, ajiva, adhere to it.  And so non-injury to other life thereby preserves the purity of one’s own soul. One cannot but feel that the kind of aversions of the Jains as those mentioned above were prompted by personal spiritual purity rather than sympathy or compassion for the minute creatures.

In his work on Indian life and thought*, Richard Lannoy said “by this (ahimsa) Buddha does not imply active love, for active love feeds attachment to earthly cares and though Buddhism is an ethic of inner perfection like the teaching of Christ, it does not promote active compassion”.

Albert Schweitzer wrote that the idea of reform – of social change to bring about a humanitarian objective was foreign to Buddha.

“The thought of reforming society is as far from Buddha as St Paul.  Both see their vocation only in leading man out of the earthly and holding up before him the perfection which he ought to reach.  The terrestrial world is for them something doomed to pass away.  To trouble about the improvement of worldly conditions seems to them as little opportune as to undertake repairs in a house that is about to be pulled down.  That is why the Buddha does not attack the validity of the caste distinctions in ordinary life; and why Paul is not led by the principle of christian love to demand the abolition of slavery.”

To this though there is an exception:  Asoka, Emperor of India from 274-232 B.C.

The Mauryan empire, India’s first great empire, was founded by Chandragupta, who seized the throne of the Magadha Kingdom in 322 B.C. and proceeded to annex Northern and Central India.  Asoka was Chandragupta’s grandson.  He extended the empire south to Kalinga, which he conquered.  From 269 B.C. to 232 B.C. he ruled an empire extending from Kashmir in the North to southern India.  After the conquest of the Kalinga, Asoka turned to Buddhism which thereafter became central to his life.  He was remorseful about the massacre of the Kalinga which followed their defeat.  He renounced war and thereafter governed the empire by pursuing a policy of welfare.  Public hospitals were constructed throughout.  The centre of government was Pataliputra, modern Patna.  Four great universities were established at Taxila, Mathura, Ujjain, in central India, and Nalanda, near Patna.  These attracted thousands of students not only from India but from distant countries such as China. 

Asoka forbade the killing of animals which were neither used nor eaten’.  He himself gave up the hunt which had been Chandragupta’s favourite sport.  The doctrine of ahimsa, which he advocated, furthered the spread of vegetarianism in India.  Asoka engaged in Buddhist evangelisation, taking Buddhism to Sri Lanka from where it spread to South East Asia.  He put forward his philosophy of government in a series of rock inscriptions and pillars which were distributed all over India. 

Describing Asoka’s reign in his ‘The Outline of History’,* H.G. Wells said that he (Asoka) ‘organised a great digging of wells in India and the planting of trees for shade.  He appointed officers for the supervision of charitable works.  He founded hospitals and public gardens.  He had gardens made for the growing of medicinal herbs… he created a ministry for the care of aborigines and subject races.  He made provision for the education of women.’  Asoka took great pride in the social services he established: thus one inscription reads ‘on the roads I have had Banyan trees planted which will give shade to beasts and men’. 

We have thus in ancient India a philosophy of government, modern in approach but based upon Buddhism.  Novel to countries of Therevada Buddhism it turned Buddhist teaching from non-worldly concerns into a philosophy of social action.  This was, if not unique, rare in Hindu and Buddhist India.  Shortly before his death Asoka became a lay brother. 

Asoka’s rule was an exception to Schweizer’s generalisation but it does not affect that generalisation’s overall validity.*  What it does show is that Buddhism, in whatever form, is pivoted upon the problem of suffering and that it was not such a big step to move from a life negating extinction of the cause of suffering – desire and attachment – to action for the relief of suffering.

This is to some extent exemplified by the Mahayana sect of Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism became formulated doctrine identifiably separate from Therevada at the Great Council convened by Kanishka, Emperor of the Kushan Empire in about 78 A.D.  But divisions in the Sangha went back further, even before Asoka. 

Buddha’s original appeal lay in his rejection of caste and his teaching that everybody was capable of liberation from re-birth.  Brahman opposition only made the Buddha’s teaching more popular, especially in Magadha, the area around Patna and Benares. 

But there were aspects which made Therevada Buddhism unpalatable.  In its teaching, karma was inflexible.  Consequence followed inexorably upon action.  There was no relief other than through ones own efforts and observance of the Eight-fold Path.  Certainly no God was at hand to intercede and assist the believer in reaching salvation.  And salvation itself, nirvana, was negation, the extinction of attachment or desire.  There was no such thing as immortality.

The precise element in Therevada Buddhism which concerns us – and in respect of which we need to examine Mahayana for any contrasting doctrine – is that neither compassion nor charity played any role in the attainment of nirvana.  (The Eight-fold Path in its description of ‘Right Action’ only ‘forbids a person to do harm to any living thing’). 

The sheer difficulty in attaining nirvana and the denial of the soul stirred dispute among the monks (bhikkhus) but nothing more so than the absence of a god or gods in an India which was still largely brahmanical.  Buddha himself had made clear he was not a god and forbade any images of himself.

The historical rise of the Mahayana:  During Asoka’s reign (273-232 B.C.), Buddhism developed a more distinctly religious character.  Veneration of greatly respected Buddhists and of the Buddha himself was accentuated by the practice of building stupas to venerate deceased Buddhas who were highly respected.  Shrines appeared throughout the Mauryan Empire.  Asoka extended the empire into Northern India and Afghanistan where it came into contact with Greek and Iranian influences.  In the north was the Indo-Greek Empire of Bactria (c. 200 B.C.) which originated from the descendants of the Greek remnant of Alexanders’ conquests.  Worship of images was dear to Hellenic civilisation.  Iranian religion and art were equally directed to the personification of Gods.  Before this time Buddha had only been represented by symbols but from about the second century B.C. the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, to which we will refer, began to be depicted figuratively. 

The Mauryan Empire collapsed quite suddenly shortly after Asoka’s death (185 B.C.).  The Bactrian king, Demetrius, swept through north west India and the Punjab, capturing the Mauryan capital Patiluputria (modern day Patna) in 175 B.C.  Demetrius and his successor Menander protected Buddhists from their Hindu rivals in the situation of the collapsed Mauryan Empire.  But this did not prevent Graeco-Iranian religious and artistic influences to deify the Buddha.  At about the same time Brahmans were infiltrating the Sangha.  Within Hinduism, bhakti had become an increasing influence and this gathered momentum with the Bhagavadgita in the first century B.C.  Bhakti was devotion to the divine but emotionally went further involving participation by the worshipper in the divine. 

But no matter how important these doctrinal influences tending towards deification, Mahayana would never have become predominant but for the Kushan Empire.  The Kushana conquered the Bactrians in the first century A.D.  They were a central Asian clan of the Yue-Chi, Iranian nomads, who had been forced east by the Huns only to return and found a great empire which lasted for three centuries.  The Kushans conquered most of northern and central India.  Their empire extended from Lake Aral to China. 

The Kushan Empire was a Buddhist empire.  Artistically, it was the period of the Ghandara style, named after the holy Buddhist city of Ghandara (modern Kandahar in Afghanistan) in which Buddha and Bodhisattvas were the main objects to be depicted not merely for artistic purposes but for veneration. 

Doctrinal disputes and debates continued among the Sangha and Kanishka (like Constantine in relation to christianity a few centuries later) convened a Council in Kashmir hoping to reintegrate the diverging streams of thought.  He failed in this but the effect of the Council was to establish the Mahayana not only as a recognised school of Buddhism but in numerical terms at least, the major sect. 

The Council approved the Mahayana and thereafter the Kushan Empire did much to spread it although it was not intolerant of the Therevada.  It was Mahayana which radiated from northern India through Tibet, central Asia, China and eventually Japan.  Chiefly this was through the great Buddhist universities, particularly Nalanda, near Patna, to which many foreigners came.  But also the Kushan Empire bordered China and Mahayana Buddhism was taken along with commerce and trade from central Asia by the Great Silk road through Chinese Turkestan to China. 

In China the Han Empire was shortly to collapse.  China became divided and the people were in turmoil.  In that situation Confucianism was no longer an attractive philosophy.  People sought other-worldly salvation from their travail.  To some extent they found it in Taoism but Taoism was too encumbered by magic, purification and dietetics to be fully satisfying.  Mahayana Buddhism was a spiritual answer enabling salvation to be attained by veneration of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas.  The works of the second century Indian Mahayana philosopher Nargajuna were translated into Chinese.  The language of Taoism – the Tao, for example – proved useful in the translation of the sanscrit Buddhist works. 

Against the background of this historical description it is necessary to turn to the central concept of Mahayana Buddhism – the Bodhisattvas.

The Bodhisattvas:  A Bodhisattva is a being so successful in non-attachment that when he is about to attain nirvana he deliberately refrains from taking the step of self-annihilation.  Because of his love for humanity he renounces nirvana in order to help other living beings.  The Bodhisattvas, inspired by pity (karuna) help those who display devotion to him to attain nirvana.  These Bodhisattvas originating with the Buddha were like a succession of messiahs who by their love of humanity came to save mankind.  The effect upon the doctrine of karma was immense.  It represented a rejection of universal retributive justice.

On the face of it this would seem to be a quite different religion from the original Therevada Buddhism.*  But we can see the connection.  Buddha was himself recognised as a Bodhisattva and in a spirit of love for the suffering world he had said that we was prepared to assume everybody’s karma if that would bring relief to the world. 

Nevertheless the humanitarianism of Mahayana, especially as it evolved, was limited.  True it attributed compassion to the Bodhisattvas and that in itself gave affirmative kindliness an ethical dimension it did not have in Theravada Buddhism and the Bodhisattva ideal led those who sought to become Bodhisattvas to show the kind of love the ideal embodied.  But this was not the predominant tendency.  A pantheon of Bodhisattvas evolved in popular belief.  These were reverenced, their images worshipped, prayers in bhakti-like devotion were made to them and it was upon them that all hopes of salvation rested.  Salvation was not extinction but resembled a christian heaven.  Of the Bodhisattvas, Amitabha was beloved by the people but numerous others proliferated during the first few centuries of the christian era.  Later in Japan, in the twelfth century, devotion to the Bodhisattvas was taken to the extreme and faith alone in the Bodhisattvas would gain salvation.  This was extreme.  Nevertheless it had become the tendency. 

Bhakti and the struggle for salvation submerged the ethic of Maha-Karuna (great compassion) of the Bodhisattvas.


Islam and the ideas underlying Western Humanitarianism

Fundamental to an understanding of Islam is the kind of society into which Mohammed was born, in which he lived and which he did so much to transform.  The society was one of kinship.  It was based upon the blood tie.  The bond between kinsmen was equalled only by their shared antagonism to other tribes and clans.  Mohammed’s great achievement was to expunge the blood tie and the mutual antipathies which accompanied it and substitute the umma or community of the faith.

The body of believers makes up the community of Islam.

“Those who profess belief in the Only God (Allah), in the mission of Muhammad and adhere to the few precepts he taught belong by right to the ‘People’ or ‘Community’ (Ummah) of Muhammad, which supersedes the ancient ummah, or tribe founded on kinship”.*

Multiracialism in early Islam

Arnold Toynbee said that “the extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam …”*  From the outset the umma was a brotherhood.  As Abu Bakr, the first caliph or deputy of Mohammed said, ‘brethren in the faith, partners in the sharing of booty, allies against the common foe’.  Such a brotherhood implied equality.  On his last pilgrimage to Mecca, Mohammed in a famous sermon gave the setting for this, “Allah says: ‘O Mankind, We have created you from a male and a female, and We have made you into families and tribes that you may recognize one another.  Verily, the most honourable in the sight of Allah is he who is most righteous amongst you.  A coloured man has no superiority over a white man, nor a white man over a coloured man, nor an Arab over a non-Arab, except for righteousness.  O People, your Lives, your honours, and your properties are to be respected by one another till the Day of Reckoning comes…”

During the astonishing first twenty-five years following the prophet’s death, the Arabs conquered Damascas (635); Jerusalem, Mesopotamia and Babylon (640); Persia, including Isfahan (643); Alexandria (642); Egypt (639-641); Tripoli (647) and Cyprus (649) – an area 2500 miles long and 300 to 600 miles wide and, not long afterwards, Spain (712-752).  The Community had to digest Syrians, Egyptians, Afghans, Persians and Indians.  The Arabs met this challenge.

It is true that the Umayyads gave priority throughout their empire to Arabs.  Non-Arab Muslims were treated as inferior.  They were not accepted socially and to gain social acceptance they had to attach themselves to an Arab family as clients or malawi.  Nor were they able to enjoy the very considerable spoils of Islam’s conquests.  Even christian and Jewish Arabs were granted privileges over non-Arab Muslims.

It was the grievances arising from this which largely contributed to the overthrow of the Umayyads by Persian Muslims led by Al-Abbas and to the establishment of the Abbasid Calpihate in 750 A.D.  Arabs no longer retained their social dominance.  In the East they were absorbed by the better educated non-Arabs.

Nevertheless, the culture of medieval Islam was multiracial.  In his work, A History of Medieval Islam, J.J. Saunders described this as follows: … ”Arabs, Syrians, Jews, Persians, Turks, Egyptians, Berbers, Spaniards, all contributed to it (medieval Islam).  One of its leading philosophers, al-Kindi, was an Arab of the tribe of Kinda (as his name implies), al-Farabi, a Neo-Platonist and commentator on Artistotle, a Turk from Transoxonia, Ibn Sina or Avicenna, perhaps the finest scientific thinker of Islam, a Persian from Bukhara, and Ibn Rushd, best known under his Europeanised name, Averroes, a Spanish Moor from Cordova.  A remarkable feature of Arabic philosophical literature is that much of it was written by Jews.  As the Jewish religion, like the Christian, was a tolerated one among the Muslims, Jews were found settled in almost all the great cities of Islam, where they learnt to write Arabic and to share in the vigorous intellectual life around them.  In Spain they acted as mediators between the Muslim and Christian Spanish cultures, helping Christian scholars to translate Arabic works into Latin and to making them available to the then backwards West.  Spain was also the birthplace of Maimonides, ‘the second Moses’, perhaps the acutest jewish thinker before Spinoza, who was born in Cordova in 1135 and died in Cairo in 1204.  Guide to the Perplexed, a bold attempt to reconcile reason and religious faith, finds readers to this day.”*

Islam and religious toleration

A Muslim who repudiates his or her faith is guilty of apostasy, a criminal offence punishable by death.  Apostasy may be direct or indirect and may be inferred.* *

In the course of its many conquests Islam has not typically taken the course of compelling the conversion of non-believers.  And yet, although not subject to physical coercion, many of Islam’s new subjects did convert.

Conversion was relatively easy. In fact the ease with which conversion could be made led to deep divisions within the Umma. The Kharijis, a fanatical and conservative sect, feared dilution of the faith and insisted that the convertee’s behaviour should conform strictly to Koranic commands as a precondition to conversion.  This vehemently held position was rejected by the Umayyad Caliphs for whom the simple recitation of the shahada: “there is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God” allowed conversion. The Kharijis were violently repressed.

Inducement and mildly coercive persuasion proved more effective than force. In many instances the invaders were welcomed precisely because of their religious toleration. Nestorians in Syria and Monophysites in Egypt had been bitterly persecuted by the Byzantines.  Their Muslim conquerors were received with relief.

But importantly conversion, although not necessary to avoid death, was necessary in order to escape taxation and social discrimination. The taxes imposed were the Jizya, a Poll Tax, and the Kharaj, a tax on land which the Jewish, christian and Zoroastrian subjects were required to pay. Avoidance of taxation and a desire for social equality thus led to many conversions*.

Many conversions took place.  It remains true that many did not convert and  that in Babylonia,Spain, North Africa, Egypt and Ottoman Turkey Jewish and christian minorities lived  without fear of violence.  In the Umayyad period Jews were allowed to choose a leader, the exilarch, who was responsible for administering the community fairly at that time the Jewish settlement in Mesopotamia “was a kind of oligarchic state within a state”.*

A Muslim force comprising Arabs and Berbers (mainly Berbers) crossed into Spain in 711 A.D. The arrival of the Muslim force at Cordoba, under Musa, is a moving example of Islamic toleration:

“ When Musa’s men reached Cordoba, the first thing they saw was a late Visigothic Church – St Vincent – a curious mixture of Late Roman and Byzantine styles, built on the temple of Janus, near the Roman bridge … The Moslems did not attack the Church, or plunder it, or burn it, or pull it down. They bought it – half of it; and while the christians were allowed to keep one end for Church services, the Moslems used the other end as a mosque. And they went on sharing it with the christians for the space of forty years. Then in 785 Abd- Al – Rahman I, the first Emir descended from the Caliph, bought the other half of the Church from the christians, and built part of the mosque, which is in Cordoba today.”*

A large number of Visigothic christians did convert to Islam without compulsion. Muslim Spain remained tolerant of Jews and christians, at first as a Umayyad outpost and then after 750 A.D. as a relatively autonomous province of the Abbasid empire ruled by an Emir responsible to Baghdad.*

At the other end of Islam but three centuries later a similar spirit of toleration prevailed. Babur (1526), the first Moghul Emperor of India, allowed Hindus to rebuild their temples after the Ghuriat depredations and to practise their religion freely. Akbar, the greatest of the Moghuls, founded his own religion – a curious mixture of a number of religions, and although his son Jahingar restored Islam to its pre-eminence he allowed other religions to be practised.*

The Ottoman Empire accepted the ‘protected minorities’. The ruling elites of the empire included Balkan christians: in particular, Greek christians of the Phanar district of Constantinople became senior government officials and bankers. Ironically, Spanish Jews fleeing from catholic persecution were welcomed in Constantinople. In 1839 the Sultan, in proclaiming the Hatt-I-sherif, sought to affirm that all religious groups were equal.*

Why were Muslims relatively tolerant towards other religions among the people they had conquered especially in contrast with medieval christianity? (see end note (1)).  How does this toleration sit with Jihad?

It is true that ‘Jihad’ does not necessarily mean holy war but simply striving or struggle. But it is also clear that when used by the Prophet at Medina its meaning was military. A duty was imposed “to wage holy war against infidels and apostates. Jihad is your duty under any Ruler, be he godly or wicked.”  Death in jihad leads to martyrdom and eventually eternal bliss.

The first consideration is that Mohammed expressly laid down tolerance was to be allowed to Jews and christians. “ Surely those who believe and those who are Jews, and the christians and the sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from the Lord …”. Mohammad was rejected by the Jews in Medina* and he was angered by their refusal to recognise Jesus as a Prophet, although he himself, like the Jews, opposed the claim of the christians that Jesus was the Son of God (sura19 88-92). But Moses and Jesus were both seen by Mohammad as his predecessors who had also been sent by Allah. Judaism and Christianity were incomplete but followers of these Faiths were to be treated benignly.

Important also was the extent of the Empire and its cosmopolitanism. The construction of Baghdad was commenced in August 762. It became the centre of the Empire and reflected Islam’s Golden Age. What was needed was peace throughout Islams’ vast domains. This could never be achieved if the Caliphs and Emirs  maintained the kind of rigid intolerance advocated by the Kharijis.

Islamic tolerance, always a matter of degree, did not derive from any doubts about or philosophic reservations to Islam’s excusive claim to the truth.*

Before the eighteenth century christian intolerance and active persecution exceeded any displayed by Islam. In the early centuries, as a religion which held that faith – correct belief – was the only pathway to salvation, there were intense antagonisms over doctrine, not least over the relationship of Jesus Christ, born a man, to God the Father. The intensity of disputation over matters of doctrine continued, but added to this was a question of authority as to who could conclusively decide these matters.  The claim by the Papacy to interpret exclusively christianity’s sacred text was itself disputed.

Throughout the reformation, Europe was racked with persecution and war. A number of factors, apart from the sheer exhaustion exemplified in the Thirty Years War, led to the religious toleration which most of the Western World accepts today as axiomatic.

Protestants had, without perhaps fully realising the implications, premised their position on the right of every individual to believe what his conscience told him, free from restraint ecclesiastical of secular. Milton articulated it. “ No church, could impose the sense of scripture to another man’s conscience” and Locke was later to express it that each person was exclusively entitled “ to the care of his own soul”.

At the same time, during the seventeenth century, the Scientific Revolution in Europe, introduced the idea of physical causation as a source of truth. Rationalism, as a way of thinking, was not necessarily incompatible with religion – as instanced by latitudinarianism in the Church of England — but it is incompatible with force and coercion.

Finally, the very strength of the prime institutions in Europe, Church and State, proved in the long run to be an advantage to toleration. During the reformation the various ecclesiastical antagonists sought the support of Princes governing the new, strong, centralised nation states.  Europe was prostrate after the religious wars but there remained an institutional clarity facilitating an accommodation between church and state. From the Middle Ages the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, pitted against each other, were clearly identifiable institutions representative of the religious and secular arms. Accordingly, what became known as the separation of church and state, was an intelligible arrangement. There were clear bodies whose functions could be separated. Church and state recognized each other’s functions and agreed not to interfere with the other. Implicit in the arrangement was that public functions belonged to the state. Religion was a private affair. This doctrine was given effect not completely but pretty much throughout Europe, and in America was given constitutional force. And, except perhaps in the field of education, it has worked.

Islam was very different. Religious minorities under Muslim rule might be tolerated but this was a matter of sufferance not of right, at least not until fairly late in the Ottoman Empire, under the millet system.*  Functionally, “ for early Islam there was little or no distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘religion’. In the Koran the two aspects are found side by side, or rather interwoven one with the other, and so likewise in the hadith.”.*

The primary function of the ulema in the Islamic State is to uphold and interpret the sharia and to that extent it qualifies the authority of the state. But the ulema do not constitute an institution. “There is no ‘church’ in Islam, no formally instituted body empowered to supervise or dictate the religious agenda—comparable to the Papacy. Eventually, religious authority was entrusted to the ulema, a class of scholars whose role as guardians and interpreters of the tradition is much closer to rabbis than christian priests”.*  Likewise, Bernard Lewis has commented, “one cannot speak of the mosque as one can speak of a church – of an institution with its hierarchy and law, in contrast to the State”.*  In Europe and America, once freedom of conscience was granted together with its corollary the right of assembly to worship, the other incidents in the separation of church and state followed.*

To conclude: in the course of its expansion and the establishing of empires Islam refrained, on the whole, from active persecution and forcible conversion.  Certainly in these respects it contrasted favourably with christian Europe during the long period from the first Crusade to the reconquista.  Also, unlike medieval christianity, it was not antisemitic.

Nevertheless, at least before the impact of the European Enlightenment it was never suggested all religions should be treated equally.  There was a degree of social discrimination, often substantial, in the treatment of religious minorities.  Muslims were the only full citizens in the Islamic state.  Believers in divinely revealed scripture, most christians and Jews, were entitled to the status of dhimma, a special compact with the state by virtue of which they were guaranteed security of person and property and a certain degree of authority to practise their own religion and exchange for the payment of certain specific taxes.  Such toleration as was allowed was not founded upon any claim of right. 

The Shari’a and its critical place in Islam – Background to the Islamic reaction to humanitarian ideas

The shari’a and the way it has been interpreted and applied is critical to the question whether Islam has embodied or rejected humanitarian ideas.

With only slight oversimplification the shari’a may be likened to the church in catholic christianity. In Islam it is the sacred text and not any institution which is of pivotal authority.

The shari’a has two sources: the Koran and the sunna. The Koran was collected and recorded soon after the Prophet’s death. The sunna comprised the hadiths.  These were sayings or actions by Mohammad.  They embodied moral precepts “considered as second in importance only to the Quran”. The sunna remained an oral tradition for a long time whilst stringent endeavours were undertaken to verify the hadiths. Only after some centuries were two traditions of the hadiths treated as canonical. These were the sahihain of Al-Bukari and Muslim Ibn Hajjaj.*

The shari’a must be viewed quite differently from the way we look at western law. The shari’a (what is prescribed) comprehends the totality of a Muslim’s life. Allah, through the Koran, revealed universal laws which govern not just the affairs of men but the laws of nature. ‘The law, which is the constitution of the Community, cannot be other than the Will of God revealed through the Prophet’.*

Western law is a relatively autonomous body of rules which can be separated from religious proscriptions, moral rules and the requirements of social behaviour. Its function is secular. No religious imprimatur was necessary to give it legitimacy. This was so in England from the dominance of the Royal Courts and on the Continent well before codification.

In Islam it is difficult to separate law from religion when one has a code of law emanating directly from God. And it is not easy to treat law as an autonomous field of social regulation when it covers the whole range of human conduct from that proscribed as criminal or civil, to religious ritual and social etiquette.*  “The very notion of something that is separate or even separable from religious authority expressed in Christian languages by terms such as lay, temporal, or secular, is totally alien to Islamic thought and practice.”*

It is evident that the sharia and the way it has been interpreted and applied which is critical to whether Islam embodies or rejects humanitarian ideas.

A brief history of the interpretation of sharia: The shari’a was always important in Islam but it was not until the ninth century it attained pre-eminence. This coincided with the paramountcy of the ulema and the corresponding diminution in the authority of the Caliphs.

The first Caliphs, although chosen by the Umma, inherited the spiritual authority of Mohammed. They also exercised his secular power which as the empire expanded was very considerable. Local Governors delegated their judicial authority to Judges called Qadis. These at first tended to rely upon local custom in delivering their decisions. Nor was there any uniformity in interpretation. The result was considerable diversity and uncertainty. This concerned the ulema who saw the Prophet’s teaching fragmented or even disregarded where local custom was preferred.

In this situation scholars grouped together and formed schools of Islamic law, eventually consolidating in the principal four to which we refer below.

These legal scholars became the focus of Islamic legal developments.  “From Abbasid times onwards it is upon the jurist .. that attention must focus”.*  If a particular point of law arose the Qadi would consult the ulema who would pronounce upon it in a fatwa to which the Qadi would give effect.  The jurists though were never State officials and in the period of which we are speaking were not subject to the Caliph. Only very much later in Ottoman times did the ulema come within the bureaucracy.

From early times the Caliph claimed to be not merely the political ruler but the spiritual head of the umma.  The battleground of the struggle between the caliphate and ulema centred upon Hellenic thought and its influence in early Islam. In overrunning Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia the Arabs quickly came into contact with and absorbed the Greek books and learning preserved by the Byzantines and others, like the Syrians, who came within the empire.

Greek logic, in particular, made an impact on the entire Islamic world including the legal scholars with the exception, as we shall see, of Hanbali, but it was especially favoured by the Caliphs in their struggle with the ulema.

A few decades before the Abbasids came to power (750), a new  theological school, the Mutazalites, became influential. They drew upon Greek logic. They shocked popular Muslim belief by denying that the Koran, the Word of God, was eternal. They asserted that the Koran was created and that there was ‘time’ before it existed. They were able to argue that its supposed uncreated quality contradicted a basic principle set out in the Koran itself that God alone was eternal.

The Caliph Al-Mamun believed firmly in the Mutazalite thesis that the Koran was created.  This served to emphasise the religious importance of the Caliph by implying that the Quran as a created thing was like all created things subject to caliphal interpretation. He ordered the chief books of Greek philosophy, science and history to be translated into Arabic – a task mainly carried out by Syriac-speaking christians. He established the minha, a kind of inquisition, which required public officials to acknowledge the Mutazalite doctrine. Muslim scholars were forced to adhere to it. Only Ahmad ben Hanbali refused.

The struggle was protracted and, although during the caliphate of Al-Mamun it appeared the caliphate would win, this was not the result. The puritan dogmatism of the Mutazalites contributed to their ultimate defeat. In 848-849 the thesis that the Koran was the uncreated word of God was universally accepted.

The importance of this was not a mere matter of recondite doctrine. The defeat of the caliphate proved irreversible and never again was it to claim primary authority in the interpretation of the shari’a. That was the preserve of the ulema, and never again was there to be any qualification, express or implied, to the divine origin of the sacred text.

The Koran to which the first jurists turned their attention as a revered and sacred text was not a legislative instrument. Interpretation of some kind was essential. Moreover the collection of the hadiths was a progressive exercise and was not complete until the ninth century.  The process of reaching the correct interpretation was described as ijtihad or the striving for the sacred truth. In carrying this out the early jurists were allowed a fair measure of discretion. They were permitted to use their own personal reasoning or ra’y, aided by the recently discovered Greek logic.

This necessary creative element led however to diversity. “Verses of the Quran, for example, urge husbands to make a fair provision for wives they have repudiated. Ibn Hujayra, who was Qadi of Cairo from 688 to 702, considered such a provision to be obligatory and fixed its amount at three dinars. But in 733 a later Qadi of Cairo, Tawba Ibn Namir, decided that the Quranic injunction was directed only to the individual’s conscience and that a husband who refused to pay such compensation could not be compelled to do so”.*

One way by which this diversity was curbed was by requiring that the application of logic should be restricted to analogy either with the text or the principle underlying it. These analogies were known as qiyas.

And both certainty in interpretation and the new authority of the jurists were sought to be given effect by the concept of ijima.  Ijima meant what was agreed or consensus.  From the earliest years following the Prophet’s death it had been recognised that the consensus of the umma or entire community validated an interpretation of the Koran or verification of a hadith.  This authority deriving from ijima devolved upon the ulema.

But unanimity among the ulema was not possible.  Eventually four schools of interpretation were formed and accepted.  The first three were the Hanafis (after Abu Hanifa [699-767]); the Malidis (after Maliki ben Anas [7-3-795] and the Shafi (after Al Shafi [767-800]).

Whilst these three schools put forward differing interpretations the method of interpretation was substantially the same although it is true that the Shafi placed more emphasis on the text and less on ra’y than the earlier schools.

The fourth school, that of Ahmad ben Hanbali (780-855), did differ materially in method.  Hanbali was absolute in his rejection of human reason and that even applied to the qiyas. It will be recalled that Hanbali was the only jurist to reject the Caliph Al-Mamun’s attempt to impose Mutazalite doctrine. He denied the Quran was created and affirmed the transcendent authority of the written word. As the greatest hadith scholar of his time he emerged as leader of the umma. We shall come to Hanbali’s influence on Islam centuries later.

In the tenth century there was an accommodation between the four schools – the Hanifa and Maliki agreeing to a restraint on ijtihad and the Hanbali to a limited application of qiyas.  From this time it was said that “the gate of ijtihad” was closed.

As Gibb explained, “when, therefore, a consensus of opinions had been attained by the scholars of the second and third centuries on any given point, the promulgation of new ideas on the exposition of the relevant texts of the Koran and Hadith was as good as forbidden. Their decisions were irrevocable. The right of individual interpretation (ijtihad) was … confined to the points on which no general agreement had been reached .. The great  majority of Muslim doctors held that the ‘gate of ijtihad’ was shut once and for all…”*

This consensus had been brought about by the final and authoritative collection of the hadiths and also because of ijima and the dominance of the ulema in deciding upon the meaning of the text. “ From a positive and creative principle it (ijima) was forced into a negative and repressive use.”*

By the eleventh century when the ‘gate of ijtihad’ was closed the dominance of the literally construed text faced a different kind of challenge in Sufiism.  Sufi mysticism sought to achieve a union with God directly and emotionally. It saw Allah as a God who loved his creatures and wanted them to come near to him. It was a very different God from the ‘divine command’ Allah of the sunni ulema.

Sufism was beginning to take shape in the ninth century and thereafter remained unreconciled to Islamic orthodoxy until the twelfth century. The shari’a emphasised externals and ritual; Sufiism, subjective piety.  In general orthodox Islam looked to the letter of the Koran, the Sufis to its spirit.*  That it became reconciled was largely attributable to the great theologian Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111). In his works as a scholar and in his life as a Sufi, he gained acceptance for Sufism. “ In the early days, the ulema had been alarmed by Sufism, and regarded it as a dangerous fringe movement. Now Al-Ghazzali urged the religious scholars to practise the contemplative ritual that the Sufi mystics had developed and to promote this interior spirituality at the same time as they propagated the external rules of the shariah”.*

At the same time as bringing about this reconciliation of Sufism and orthodox Sunni, Al-Ghazzali made a fierce attack on rationalism advanced by the philosophers. He wanted to root out any tendency to supplant revelation with reason as a source of truth such as that evident in the statement of Al- Kindi that “we should not be ashamed to recognize truth and assimilate it, from whatever quarter it may reach us, even though it may come from earlier generations and foreign bodies.”  Al-Ghazzali opened his criticism on the philosophers with a book called The Incoherence of Philosophers. In it he said that the decay of faith in Islam was due to the respect which people showed to Socrates, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle and others.*  Al-Ghazzali’s work was met by a riposte from the great Spanish philosopher, Averroes (1129-1198) in a work called The Incoherence of the Incoherence. Dialectically it was a sound rebuttal but it made little impact on Al-Ghazzali’s influence.

And so by the twelfth century the sacred text was dominant, a free reading of it was substantially excluded and the divine command ethic embodied in it was accepted.  Al-Ghazzali had ensured that sharia externalism and sufi subjectivism could live side by side but he did so at the expense of reason as an independent source of truth or interpretation.  His emphasis was upon revelation.*

Comparison and contrasts with medieval christianity: Medieval christianity faced a similar question as to the status of human reason in relation to Biblical revelation. In the result it took a somewhat different direction and the difference is significant for our purpose.

St. Thomas Aquinas held reason to be a source of divine law. Reason was an alternative, if subordinate, source of truth.  God instilled reason into men’s minds so that the law would be known by them naturally.*

There were two important consequences. On this view of reason natural law emanated from God. Aquinas recognized God’s revealed law as declared (lex divina) and the law of nature (lex naturalus). Divine law did not descend solely from external commands but was immanent in man himself. As the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, affirmed, ‘natural law is discoverable by human reason’.  It followed that each human being had a ‘divine’ significance which the law of nature reflected. And natural law, secularised, eventually gave rise to natural rights.

The shari’a bears a superficial similarity to natural law.  Like natural law it was superior to positive law but it was also, as has been said, the ‘highway’ of divine command. The jurists who systematised Koranic Law took as a starting point “a conviction of the human imperfection of human reason and its inability to apprehend by its sole powers the real nature of good”.*

The other important consequence of the difference is that reason gave rise to rationalism and a more scientific approach to scripture in a freer reading of it.*

What therefore is fundamental in considering the shari’a and beyond that the approach of Islam to humanitarian ideas, is this very different attitude to human reason.

“Behind christian Europe lay the science and rationalism of classical Greece.  Nothing like this lay behind Islam. The spirit of Islam was not rational in the sense of the term in that God is beyond reason and his ordering of the universe is to be accepted rather than explained.  True knowledge is that of God and his Law, and the Law embraces all human activity”.*

The shari’a and areas of humanitarian action

In his major work Signposts Sayyid Qutb, the leading teacher of modern Islamicism, called for the shari’a to be the vanguard of the renovation of Islam and the world-wide Koranic State.

It is therefore useful to examine the shari’a and to do so in relation to certain areas of action where the ideals of humanitarianism have become the controlling ethic in Europe — criminal punishments and the treatment of women.

Criminal Punishments

The shari’a punishment for murder or attempted murder is beheading. For theft, amputation of the right hand: “as for the thief, both man and woman, chop off their hand. It is the reward for their own deeds and exemplary punishment from Allah”.*  Surah 24:1-7 deals with sexual behaviour. “As for the fornicator or fornicatress, flog each of them (giving) a hundred stripes .. and those who accuse free women then do not bring four witnesses, flog them (giving) eighty stripes ….” Stoning, which became the punishment for adultery, does not appear expressly in the Koran. The Verse on Stoning was said to have belonged to some missing verses which could not be found when Uthman was compiling the Koran. Certainly though the first Caliphs punished adultery by stoning.

 Homicide was essentially civil. The relatives of the victim would determine the victim’s fate by insisting on death or choosing blood money in satisfaction. One of the main objects of the Koran was to encourage the payment and receipt of blood money. “They (Quranic teachings) urged the aggrieved party to accept compensation in money rather than blood, and ruled that if blood retaliation were insisted upon, only the culprit himself could be slain, rather than any male relative”.*

To understand sharia treatment of crimes and punishments we must understand what Mohammed was seeking to achieve: his aim was to bring an end to the seemingly endless feuds of rival tribes and their quest for revenge.

The Arabian Bedouin lived in ‘tight-nit’ kinship groups, patriarchal families consisting of father, son and other like families grouped together in clans: “ each clan was fundamentally an independent unit … if a member was harmed, the clan would avenge him.”*

What Mohammed intended and very largely achieved was the replacement of unregulated revenge with retaliation or Qisas.  The more severe punishments were, in accordance with the doctrine of Qisas, known as ‘hadd, the Arabic for ‘limitation’. The ‘hadd’ were intended to ‘limit’ the erratic revenge of the tribal feud.

To be effective the ‘hadd’ punishments needed to be proportionate to what had been lost by the victims and their group as a result of the offence. Moreover, the penalties needed to be sufficiently severe to afford satisfaction to the victim and his kin.

The talionic principle embodied in the ‘hadd’ was by no means novel. The Law of Exodus laid down ‘an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn and bruise for bruise.’ Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said of the Twelve Tables that “ they approved the inhuman and unequal principle of retaliation : and the forfeit of an eye for eye, a tooth for tooth, a limb for limb, is rigorously exacted unless the offender can redeem his pardon by three hundred pounds of copper”.*

For Mohammed the lex talionis was intended to eliminate the blood tie which had been the foundation of Arab tribalism and to substitute for it the umma, the community of believers.*  In tribal societies it was the group which had suffered loss from an offence and therefore it was the group which required satisfaction. Hence the need for an equivalence or, failing that, a proportionality between the penalty inflicted and the harm suffered. It is thus somewhat of a misnomer to use the term ‘punishment’. It is not so much punishment for the offence but reparation to the victim or his kin for their loss, a loss which is satisfied by imposition of a penalty.

It is not surprising that Europe should have undergone a similar process in eliminating self-help although Europe moved rather more rapidly to establish a regime of monetary compensation.  “To force the injured man or the slain man’s kinsfolk to accept a monetary compensation instead of resorting to reprisals is a main aim of the lawgiver”.*  And so Ethelbert, King of Kent, provided a comprehensive tariff of monetary compensation – the wergild – to be paid to the victim or kin, covering every possible limb or part of the body starting with the hair on the head.

In Europe the increasing authority of the State led to it, rather than victim or kin, taking over the enforcement of what we would now call the criminal law. Gradually, very gradually, punishment became divorced from reparation for loss.

Then into European justice came a new and different idea – that for an individual person to commit an offence he or she had to be ‘guilty’. It was not sufficient to have caused death, injury or other harm. The person must have been responsible for it. This was a quite different perspective from that of the kinship societies of self-help whether in Mohammed’s Arabia or Anglo-Saxon England where satisfaction for the loss was all that mattered and it was immaterial if the person causing the loss had done so wilfully, intentionally, negligently or otherwise.

The Canon Law was initially responsible for the introduction of this idea into Europe. The ecclesiastical jurisdiction penetrated every part of Europe. The Church was not concerned with harm or loss but with sin. Sin required guilt. Accordingly, the revered legal maxim “actus non facit nisi mens sit rea” originating with St Augustine became a general requirement for a serious criminal offence. There must be mens rea or intent.

This European idea that a person should not be guilty of an offence unless criminally responsible did not at first affect punishment. Medieval punishments were brutal and the retributive emphasis remained until the 18th century.  One reason was that imprisonment was not a typical form of punishment and it is not easy to relate the quantum of punishment to the offender’s responsibility if the allowable punishments are restricted to death or other act of physical violence imposed upon the offender(except in the case of flogging).

But it was the eighteenth century Enlightenment and particularly Cesare Beccaria who led Europe, with the aid of Voltaire, to look at punishment rationally and to ask what were the objects of punishment and how could these be rationally satisfied. These are questions which traditional Islamic jurisprudence seems never to have asked.

Sharia punishments of beheading, amputation, flogging and the imposition of the death penalty as a public spectacle do not nor do they purport to be commensurate with individual guilt. They are based upon a kind of rough equation with the physical harm caused. Not the offender’s guilt but the approximation of penalty to group harm or, more crudely, to the part of the body which committed the offence, and so in the case of theft the hand that took the thing is cut off.

These punishments are unforgiving. Punishment seems to loom large in the Muslim mind. Every thought and action of a Muslim is recorded by Allah’s Angels. There will be no escape on the Day of Judgement. There is no place for redemption of the individual.  Shari’a punishments depart from the central tenet of the humanitarian ideal. They deny the offender’s human personality by the infliction of punishment indifferently to his or her moral responsibility.

The treatment of women

Sura 4:31 of the Holy Koran states that “men have authority over women because God has made one superior to the other. So good women are obedient….”. The most important principle in relations between men and women is Qawama (Guardianship and Authority). Sura 4:34 says that Qawama derives from “the advantage they (men) have over them (women) and because they  (men)  spend their property in supporting them (women)”.

The imbalance of rights between women and men under the shari’a is historically related to the times when it was enunciated and the tribal character of the society to which it applied. In fact it was more protective of women and less discriminatory than the customary laws which had previously prevailed.

“The Quran .. granted women certain specific rights that they did not enjoy in pre-Islamic Arabia. A woman was now able to hold property in her own name, and was not expected contribute to the support of the household from her property . She was given the right to inherit up to a quarter of her husband’s estate, and, in case of divorce, retained the agreed-upon tribal gift. In addition, the Quran tried to protect women from hasty and willful divorces, by urging delay, reconciliation and mediation by families”.*

Turning then to the more particular provisions in the shari’a governing the relations of men and women

The object of marriage is procreation and that is reflected in the word for marriage which connotes the sexual act. The text, “women are your tillage” generally conveys the idea.

The woman’s father or other guardian enters into the marriage on her behalf and so a virgin may be forced to marry a man of her father’s choice.*  The fourth sura describes the woman’s father or husband as her master with a right to beat her if she does not obey: : “And those you fear may be rebellious, admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them.”*

A man has the right to marry up to four wives and take any number of concubines. He was enjoined to treat them kindly and impartially.

A husband is entitled to divorce any of his wives at will by making a declaration to that effect on three occasions within which there is a waiting period for pregnancy.  Under Hanafi law his power is near-absolute. Even if the statement of divorce was made in jest or whilst drunk it remains effective* but the husband’s dowry given on marriage may be retained by her.*

Important to the status of women is the notion of hijab, the veil.  This goes further than requiring women to cover their bodies and faces in public. According to the Islamicist interpretation of verses 24:31; 33;33* and verses 33:53 and 33:59* women are supposed to stay at home except in case of urgent necessity. When they are permitted to venture beyond the home, they must do so with their bodies and faces covered.

In courts of law the shari’a holds women to be incompetent witnesses in major criminal cases. In civil cases it needs two women witnesses to equate to one male witness.

Diya, monetary compensation payable to victims of violent crimes or their surviving kin is less for female than for male victims.

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia the shari’a has not undergone the variations experienced in other Muslim countries. That together with the importance of Saudi Arabia and its influence justify it being treated separately in this essay.

In the eighteenth century, Abd-Al-Wahhab led a revivalist movement to rid Islam in Arabia of Sufiism and Saint Worship and cleanse the Holy sites of Mecca and Medina of Sufi influence.His revivalism was based upon the puritan Hanbali school, one of the original schools of jurists, which advocated a strict literalism in the application of the Koran. The Wahhabis sought and obtained support from the House of Saud who were then merely local Emirs. In their revivalist zeal the Saudis took up arms, defeating the Ottomans, and swept through eastern and central Arabia bringing Wahabbi Islam with them. The Saudis were eventually defeated and subdued by Mohammmed Ali,an Egyptian, on behalf of the Ottomans in 1818. Barely a century later Ibn Saud united the tribes, conquered those opposing him and in 1932 established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia throughout the entire area. Oil production commenced in 1939.

“ The Wahhabi outbreak was only an extreme expression of a tendency which can be traced in many parts of Islam in the course of the eighteenth century; and with the passing of its actively intolerant phase, its principles reinforced the movement for the return to the pure monotheism of the early Muslim church.”*

Saudi Arabia is uncompromisingly fundamentalist.  This approach to Islam was not an innovation in Arabia.  In the first five decades after the Prophet’s death the Arabs led by a group of Mohammed’s relatives and followers had fought a bitter and unsuccessful war against the newer Syrian and Persian converts. This group were the Kharijis.  Their descendants today are the Bedouin Ibadites, who, although comprising only 5% of the Saudi Arabian population, wield considerable influence in maintaining the State’s fundamentalism. The Wahabbi’s themselves had adopted the rigid Hanbali polemic of the 14th century cleric, Ibn Taimiya. We must keep this in mind. Fundamentalism is indigenous and mainstream to Islam in a way less so of christianity, at least since the 18th century.

The shari’a has reigned supreme. Its hadd punishments and treatment of women remains relatively unmodified. This is an important difference with most other Muslim countries, particularly those who have been colonised. Saudi fundamentalism has remained impregnable against the impact of the Western culture and its own oil wealth.

The strict hadd penal code is enforced.  This includes beheadings,* hand amputations,* flogging,* and stoning for adultery. The size of the stones to be used in this form of ritual execution is strictly laid down in hadith. To ensure the death is slow and painful stones must be no smaller than a chicken pea and no larger than a date stone.

The pardoning by the kin in return for recompense betrays the tribal character of the punishments.  The relatives of the victim have suffered a loss which must be satisfied and their feelings of revenge must be assuaged.

The decline and rise of the sharia


In the 19th and 20th centuries Islam was confronted by ideas of the European Enlightenment. The shari’a was quite evidently not compatible with these ideas.  The treatment of offences bore unmistakeable traces of their tribal origins.  Certain of the hadd punishments, such as amputation of the hand for theft or stoning for adultery were simply not acceptable on humanitarian grounds to Western-educated Muslim elites.

A practical problem of significance concerned the burden and mode of proof. The burden of proof upon the prosecution for hadd offences was strict.  It had to produce two male, adult, Muslim witnesses whose moral integrity and religious probity were unquestioned to testify to their direct knowledge of the truth of the facts asserted. If the prosecution failed to prove the charge in this way the defendant was offered an oath of denial and, if he made the oath, would usually obtain judgement.

These kinds of requirements, adapted to the needs of a tribal society, were thought by western influenced Muslims to be inappropriate to a modern Islamic state. Governments began delegating criminal jurisdiction to an official other than a Qadi.

By the beginning of the 20th century most Islamic states had abandoned shari’a criminal law and replaced it with western-type criminal codes. The notable exceptions were the laws of those countries on the Arabian peninsula, pre-eminently Saudi Arabia.*

The conditions of Muslim women and the traditional construction of the sacred text which sought to justify them caused particular concern. One possible course was to jettison Islam in this area entirely. That was the course taken in modern Turkey, where the sharia was simply replaced by the Swiss legal code. But this was exceptional. Islamic reformers sought to avoid outright westernisation by re-interpreting the Koran and sunna consistently with the equality which they believed was justified by them and they resorted to stratagems to avoid rather than repeal the shari’a.*

As we have mentioned, Qasim Amin, a leading Egyptian thinker published a work in 1899 advocating the emancipation of women. In it he argued that the decline in Islamic power had resulted from the oppression of women. The basis of a sound society, he said, was the family. Once women were made mute and powerless family life deteriorated. Qasim Amin claimed that the harem and the veil were alien to Islam’s true spirit and pointed out that Koranic law had allowed women to control their own property long before such an idea had been accepted in Europe.

Thus the reformers believed it was possible and indeed right to draw upon wider Koranic principles. One such principle was the principle of equality among the umma which we have mentioned (and because of which racialism is unknown to Islam). Such an approach was adopted, as we shall see, by Sayyid Ali, in respect of slavery.  This approach was adopted both generally and in relation to the status of women by the Sudanese reformer Ustadh Mahmoud Mohammed Taha. He emphasised the historical nature of the text and the interpretations that had been placed upon it. He observed that equality between men and women in the 8th and 9th centuries would have been wholly impractical and that the text of the Koran was interpreted by the ulama in accordance with those realities.*  As a result in his opinion certain verses were emphasised and others de-emphasised and the underlying principle was lost. To adhere slavishly now to those interpretations would be to fail to recognise the reasons underlying the text. If these are re-examined afresh in the light of present conditions a quite different position equally validated by the Koran and sunna emerges.
The principle of qawama – the guardianship of men over women – based on verse 4:34 – depended, it was said, upon two conditions: men’s advantage over and financial support of women. It was contended that neither of these conditions – advantages of physical and financial power – apply, or necessarily apply, in the modern world.

Accordingly, a Muslim should give effect to the basal principle of equality and not to particular texts dealing with detailed circumstances expressed in terms of their own times.

An example of the suggested approach is that of the ‘ Verse of the Sword’ (9:5), ‘Slay the polytheists wherever you shall find them’. This verse is claimed to be inconsistent with 124 other verses in the Koran commanding tolerance. The reconciliation suggested is that the sword is to be given effect only when there is an enemy seeking to destroy Islam. The principle of tolerance is otherwise overriding.*

Accordingly, from about the middle of the nineteenth century and for about a century thereafter the shari’a was replaced or circumscribed in most of the Islamic world. The modernist reformers were in the ascendant. Whether through outright westernisation or reform within Islam, humanitarian ideas, particularly that of the moral equality of all human beings were prominent. Not least in this was the abolition of slavery.

Notwithstanding the general principle of equality among believers, Islam permitted slavery. “According to Islamic Law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious equality – unbelievers, slaves and women.”*  Slavery was a recognized institution in Islam but, unlike slavery in ancient Rome or in European colonial empires, the slave had a status recognized by law and this was closely regulated. Perhaps because of this and also because the Koran enjoined that slaves were to be treated with kindness, European observers in the 19th century, such as Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, commented upon the relative “mildness of Middle Eastern slavery”.*

Nevertheless, it was not until late in the 19th century that a prominent Muslim thinker should declare slavery to be contrary to Islam’s own principle of equality. This was Sayyid Amir Ali in his work, The Spirit of Islam, published in 1891. Amir Ali “carried his liberalism to the point of regarding the Koran as the work of Mohammed, but he has not been followed in this by the general body of modernists who still maintain the orthodox doctrine of the Koran as the literal word of God.”*

The nineteenth century was the high water mark of the abolitionist movement led by humanitarian reformers. Eventually slavery was abolished in all Muslim countries, only Arabia holding out. This was due to western influence and in some cases coercion.

The British Government brought pressure to bear on Seyid-bin-Sultan who ruled the Muscat in the Persian Gulf and Zanzibar in 1812 to end the lucrative export trade in slaves from East Africa to Arabia, Iran and India. By 1840, after a number of agreements were entered into by him gradually restricting the slave trade, the trade was abolished. Organised slave bands operating in the interior of Africa were eventually controlled by the British in the late 1890’s. Slavery in Nigeria and the Eastern Sudan was not finally brought under control until the early part of the 20th century. During the latter part of the 19th century the French eliminated slavery in North Africa. Only in Arabia in the Islamic world did slavery remain. In 1936 King ibn Saud issued a decree formally regulating slavery within his dominions. But even in the 1950’s there was an influx of slaves into Saudi Arabia. Slavery was finally abolished by King Feisal (1964-1975).

Islamicism and the revival of the shari’a:  The change from the generally humanising tendencies within Islam during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries has been dramatic. What led to this?

Bernard Lewis’s thesis is that the principal factor was Islam’s anguished reaction to its inferiority to western military and political power. Certainly Islam has been in palpable retreat for more than two centuries. This more recent inferiority contradicts Islam’s dominant position in relation to the christian West throughout much of the first thousand years of its existence. Moreover, infidel superiority is in defiant variance to the will of Allah.*  Perhaps the decisive historical event in the contemporary situation was the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the aftermath, with the formation of colonial and client states in the Middle East. Into this mix and intensely compounding Islamic humiliation was the introduction into Palestine of the State of Israel. The defeat of the invading Arab armies in 1948 was profoundly humiliating, leading shortly thereafter to insurrection in Egypt. If we except Ataturk’s hurling back of the Greeks in Anatolia in 1923, the Arab world seems to have experienced one retreat after another over the past 100 years.

At first, despite this, there was no counter-reaction by Islam to its generally Herodian approach to westernisation.

The struggles against colonialism favoured nationalism. National self-determination was a western idea. The establishment of nation states in the post war period had the effect of subduing, although by no means eliminating, Islamicism. The military and western educated elites retained their authority and influence during this period.  “In general, Islam was disestablished, and law and education passed out of religious hands into state control or were left as parallel but secondary systems of private adjudication and instruction.”*  Nationalism penetrated deep so that it tended to “replace loyalties to parochial family, village, and religious associations…”.*

But even during the high-water mark of the independence movement, nationalism and Islam were a subtle mix. The ‘emotional power of nationalism in the Muslim world’ came from a capacity to ‘to transform it into an ethnically defined secular society’ and ‘channel the force of Muslim faith into nationalism’. Turks, Algerians and Palestinians thought of their national identities as an expression of themselves as Muslims.

Since the 1970’s there has been a reaction. Muslims have sought to renew Islam by a return to its origins. This has entailed a rejection of western secularism and an increasingly zealot approach to both Islam itself and the rejected non-Islamic world. There are certain explanations for these changes. Thinkers who led this change of approach were the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the Pakistani Sayyid Maududi.  As mentioned in the introduction, Sayyid Qutb was hanged by Nasser in 1966 and thereby Islamicism acquired a martyr. Their teachings were not only fundamentalist but jihadist with their overtones of violence. The devastating defeat at the hands of Israel in the six day war in 1967 was yet a further humiliation. At the same time there was a shift in effective leadership away from the western educated elites.

Apart from particular events a deeper consideration has been the relative failure of many of the newly independent states and the dashed hopes which have resulted, especially among the unrelieved poor in the Muslim world. Despair has turned to anger as widespread corruption in the new governments became evident. The masses turned away from westernised leaders to the ulama or other teachers. They began to harbour a deep-seated hostility to western culture. As Ira M. Lapidus has said, “in cultural terms” the Islamic revival “was a counter attack against European and American values such as individualism, materialistic consumerism, the independence of women, sexual liberty, religious and moral relativism and pop culture”.*  These anti-western sentiments did not however prevent the ulama from exploiting western gadgets such as the audio recorder and distributing very effectively sermons preached in the mosques at Friday prayers.

Although the Islamic revival is in one sense a movement generated by contemporary antipathy to the West it is important to remember that revivals are historically typical in Islam. The form of the contemporary Islamic revival reflects the aims of earlier revivals. Like them it seeks a return to fundamentals, the early Islam of the first Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs and to a reading of the Koran unencrusted with the exegeses of the scholars. This was true of Ibn Taymiyah in the 14th century as it is of the Wahabi movement in Arabia in the 18th. Neither were a reaction to a foreign culture. The antagonism of the Wahabis was directed against the Sufis, an Islamic sect. And yet the fiery fundamentalism of Ibn Taymiyah is emulated in the late 20th century Islamic revival proclaimed by Sayyid Qutb.

The Islamicist revival gathered pace in the 1970’s. In 1977 Pakistan rejected the secular foundations upon which the State had been essentially founded in 1947. A military junta under General Zia al-Haq, with the support of the fundamentalist Ja’mat-I-Islami Party, sought to islamise the State and its institutions. Unquestionably the Iranian Revolution was a seminal event in the revival of Islamicism notwithstanding it was Shi’ah. It signified the overthrow of a hated westerniser who owed his throne to American intervention in the 1950’s and had then commenced upon a programme of rapid westernisation, particularly in the area of Land Reform. The mullahs had felt threatened. The Shah was opposed by the secularists for his denial of democracy and the harshness of Savak, his secret police, and he had antagonised the religious hierarchy by his reforms. His oldest critic, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had moved from Najaf to Paris returned to the welcome of millions to establish ‘Ulama’ rule.  In the same year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan which was to play an even greater part in the Islamic revival. The Soviet Union was to withdraw, defeated by the Islamic Mujahadeen, in 1989.  After civil strife the Taliban, the most fanatical of fundamentalists, formed a government.  Concurrently with the war against the Soviets thousands of young men emerged from the madarasas, financed by Saudi Arabia oil reserves and encouraged by Pakistani Intelligence, to take Islamicism to its ultimate jihadist expression in the events of the 11th September 2001.

Our concern is with one aspect of this revival. And that is the reintroduction of the shari’a by many of the countries influenced by the Islamic revival.

Saudi Arabia has always applied the shari’a  along with some of the Gulf States , although in some cases it has been adopted it by them in a less extreme form than the Hanbali school in Saudi Arabia.  With the 1970’s, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Northern Nigeria have all introduced the shari’a , in many instances replacing a criminal and family law based upon a European model. Almost all States with substantial Muslim populations have faced pressures to introduce some form of shari’a.

 Contemporary Treatment of Women and Criminal Punishments

It is not possible in this study to give a complete description or even a detailed summary of the operation of the re-introduced shari’a in these countries in the key areas of treatment of women and criminal punishments. The following comment and cases do provide a sample of what has occurred and is occurring:

Afghanistan - Women and the Taliban

“ The Taliban had closed down all the Girl’s Schools and women were rarely permitted to venture out of their homes, even for shopping. The Taliban had banned every conceivable kind of entertainment including music, TV, Videos, cards, kite-flying and most sports and games”.*

“In case women are required to go outside the residence for the purposes of education, social needs or social services they should cover themselves in accordance with Sharia regulation. If women are going outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming clothes to show themselves, they will be cursed by the Islamic Sharia and should never expect to go to heaven … The Religious Police (Munkrat) have the responsibility to struggle against these social problems and will continue their effort until evil is finished.” Taliban Decree, 1996.


Stoning: Article 102 of the Iranian Penal Code provides that men will be buried to their waists and women to their breasts. Article 104 provides with reference to the penalty of adultery that the stones used should “ not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones.”

Flogging :“It was evening rush hour in Fatemi Square, a busy intersection in the heart of Iran’s capital. Suddenly, cars swerved to block the road, and dozens of Security officers fanned out through the crowd. Five young men, already in custody were stripped to the waist…Someone read over a loud speaker that these men had been drunk in public and harassed girls in a pack, and under Islamic law they would be punished with 80 lashes each. ‘They started at the ankles and went all the way up their backs with a long leather whip’, said a shopkeeper”.*

In January 2004 a man and a woman convicted of conducting a brothel were sentenced to 13 years imprisonment with 155 lashes followed by death by hanging in the one case and 10 years with 80 lashes to be followed by death in the other.*

Mohsen Mofidi was arrested by the morality police in July 2003 at his home in Tehran. Mohsen was convicted of possession of a medicine containing alcohol, having consumed alcohol some 20 years previously, being in possession of a satellite disc and of having aided and abetted his sisters’ corruption (having boy friends) He was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment to be followed by 80 lashes. His sisters were sentenced but fled the country. On the 1st February 2004 the sentence of imprisonment was commuted, this being the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.  The sentence of flogging was then carried out. In return for a bribe Mohsen was allowed to keep his shirt on during the lashing but he died the following day.*

Amputation: Reza Nazaarit  convicted of armed uprising against the Islamic regime and theft was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz to amputation of the right foot and left leg.*

Other inhumane punishments: On the 9th June 2005 the Supreme Court of Iran dismissed an appeal against the punishment of eye-gouging and ordered the sentence  be carried out. Vahid had been convicted in 1993, when 16 years old, of deliberately pouring acid from a battery on the face of another youth, blinding him.  Vahid maintained throughout his trial that the attack was not intentional and that the battery lid had opened accidentally during an argument. The trial court rejected this defence and ordered that Vahid’s eyes be sprayed with acid. Vahid’s lawyer appealed, arguing that the rest if his face would be damaged by the acid. The appeal court  ruled that Vahid’s eyes be surgically gouged out in order not to damage his face. The highly retributive nature of Islamic punishments is manifest in this case, particularly in the demand of the victim’s family that Vahid pay three billion Rials ($300,000) as diyeh (blood money) to escape punishment but Vahid has reportedly said tat he does not have that much money.


In 1999 the Governor of Nigeria’s Northern Zampara State, Sani Yerima, announced that his State would adopt the shari’a. Since its introduction in 2000 only 12 of Nigeria’s 31 States have adopted it but the Nigerian President Obsanje is beholden to these northern States electorally:

Stoning: Amina Lawal was sentenced to be stoned to death by a shari’a court at Bakori in Katsina State for having had a baby outside of marriage. She was sentenced to death by stoning to be carried out once she had weaned her daughter. Ultimately her appeal to Nigeria’s highest Court was successful.

Amputation:  Jangebe, a peasant, was convicted of stealing a cow, had his hand amputated. It was ordered that the amputation be carried out by a doctor and under an anaesthetic.

Flogging:  A teenage girl, Bariya Maguzu, was given 100 lashes for fornication. She alleged she had been raped by three men. The Islamic Court did not believe her and added to the number of lashes she would otherwise have received.


The Hudood Ordinance President Zia Ul Huk introduced in 1979 gave effect to shari’a law in regard to such offences as adultery and fornication and imposed similar penalties for rape and prostitution. The law operated particularly harshly upon women. Under the Zina Ordinance a conviction for rape or adultery requires either a confession by the accused or the evidence of four witnesses who are Muslim men and abstain from major sins. Zafrani Bibi walked into the police station of Kerri Sheikhan in Pakistan’s North West Frontier to complain of rape. In Bibi’s case the Judge ruled the medical evidence showed no sign of  force and that her pregnancy was evidence of her adultery. Thereupon the Judge ruled: “Reluctantly, I hereby sentence the accused Zafran Bibi to stoning to death and that she be stoned to death in a public place.”

There have been some heart-rending cases of Honour Killings which seem so prevalent in Pakistan, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reporting that in 1998 and 1999 more than 850 women were killed by their husbands, brothers, fathers or other relatives in the Punjab.

The future of Islamicism?

The final question is whether there is any prospect of a reversion from Islamicism? Is what we are witnessing an aberration or is it something more fundamental and permanent?  Is there any prospect of internal change?

In the abstract one can say that Islam could turn back from its Islamicist trend.

As Fernand Braudel pointed out at the inception of his discussion of christianity, “all religions evolve. All in their different ways, however, are separate worlds, with their own loyalties, their own permanence and their own frames of reference.”*  One need only think of a Roman catholic nun, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Calvinist preacher, a Quaker conscientious objector and a Jehovah’s Witness all of whom, excepting perhaps the Jehovahs Witness, claim to be christian and to represent true christianity.

In Islam there is and has been the same variety of sects. Perhaps nothing demonstrates the extent of variation within Islam than Sufiism. “Sufiism, which began in the seventh century as a quest for individual spiritual redemption, became by the 8th century a collective movement”.*  Sufi mysticism seems as remote from Wahhabi fundamentalism as a Quaker meeting from a Catholic Mass. Further, to emphasise the flexibility of Islam. Ira Lapidus refers to liberal Islam which “ is characterised by its stress upon the need  for independent thought on religious matters, ijtihad … the liberal approach accepts that there are necessarily a variety of ways to interpret Quaranic texts.”. Thus, Muhammad Arkoun in Paris and Abdouh Karim Souroush in Iran condemned the Taliban in regard to “ the repression and virtual house arrest of women, the suppression of minorities and the demand that Muslim men grow beards.”*

It would be vain therefore and show a disregard of historical development to insist that Islam and Islamicism are now permanently married together.

And yet it is not easy to imagine a reversal in the foreseeable future of the fundamentalist trend with its jihadist overtones.

There are, I think, four considerations why this is so: the pseudo-literalism in interpretation of the text deriving from its divine character; the charge of  westernisation which could be levelled at any reforms suggested; the geo-political importance of Saudi Arabia and the economic hopelessness of many of the educated young, particularly in the middle east:

(a)        Although the Koran is regarded by almost all Muslims as the literal Word of God there was in the early centuries, out of necessity, a period of  relative freedom in its interpretation (ijtihad). During this period the hadiths were collected and authoritatively defined. Certainty was achieved by ijima, the consensus of the ulama and agreement that each of the four schools were equally legitimate. At this point further interpretation was forbidden (ijtihad).*  And by that time certain legal texts which were then published were treated as authoritative.

            Reform needs a more liberal approach similar to that described by Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf. In introducing his influential monthly journal, The Islamic Literature in 1948 he said, “what we should do is evolve fresh principles of historical and rational criticism, re-examine and re-codify the existing corpus of tradition, and then proceed on the basis of holy Quran and the hadith so selected and codified towards a modification of Islamic laws”

            It is difficult to believe that any Islamic scholar could have written that only a little over 50 years ago.. There are two difficulties in modern Islam adopting this position. One is that the ulama have a vested interest in maintaining the ancient learning. “What would become of the host of ulama, the muftis and the qadis and so on, were it admitted that the shari’a was an invention of the centuries after the prophet’s death?”*  The other is, as Malise Ruthven has pointed out, that “the difficulty facing the modernists is those who take the text at face value, refusing to deconstruct it to suit current social trends or fashions, are often closer to its original meaning and purpose.” This may overstate the situation. It is not unreasonable in construing a text in an historical period to look behind its particular applications to the society of that period to its underlying principles. However it is true that historically Islam has tended to reject this approach.*

(b)       A further difficulty is that any movement towards reform faces the rebuke that it is western, the product of the hated ‘crusaders’. All the modern humiliations of Islam and its ancient antagonisms are poured into this rejection of reform. It is this which distinguishes the current revivalism from those such as the 18th century Wahhabi movement which have preceded it. Desecration of true Islam emanates from an external source not from an internal sect denying true belief.

(c)        Next is the geopolitical prominence and wealth of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia stands in striking refutation of the facile proposition that societies become more liberal as they achieve wealth. The Kingdom’s fundamentalism has remained unshaken both before and since oil was produced in 1939.It is not jihadist. Indeed it has been a target for terrorism but it did export islamicism by financing the madarasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan before the 11th of September 2001. And today, “by the estimate of an elementary schoolteacher in Riyadh, Islamic studies make up 30% of the actual curriculum. But another 20 per cent creeps into text books on history, science, Arabic and so forth.”*  One does not see much scope for change.

            The International Crisis Group, Saudi Arabia Report of 14th July 2004, stated:

            “Some reforms – curbs on the power of Wahabbi clerics, major changes in the status of women – most urgently desired by the West are least likely to be carried out soon. This is largely a problem of the regime’s own making, the product of decades of accommodation to ultra-conservative views in the educational and social spheres. But to insist that it rapidly unmake it would underestimate how extensively a puritanical brand of Islam has permeated society”.

(d)       The final consideration concerns poverty throughout large parts of the world of Islam, particularly the middle east. What is explosive is not just poverty but the large number of tertiary educated men and women, mostly urban, who cannot realise their  potential and are reduced to unemployment or to seemingly suffer the indignity of a lifelong menial occupation.

These are strong negative considerations against change. And yet within Islam powerful voices have been raised against Islamicism. Many of these are women: the talkative but brave Irshad Manji, author of ‘The Trouble with Islam: A Call for Honesty and Change, and the Sisters of Islam in Malaysia which have campaigned for women’s rights. Turning upon the acceptance by Muslim men of arranged marriages and their claim to entitlement to beat their wives, they shrewdly rely upon the literalism of Islam, highlighting the passage in the Koran, ”You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness…on the contrary, live with them on a footing of kindness and equity.”


(1)       Christian persecution – The Crusades and Torture:  In 1095 Pope Urban II preached the first crusade at the Council of Clermont.  He proclaimed a Holy War against the Muslims, a war for the Cross, or Crusade, with recovery of the Holy Sepulchre as its final aim.  In his sermon to the assembly the Pope emphasised the anguish of the Greek christians under Seljuk control.  He also pronounced that any sinner killed doing this work of God of recovering the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem would gain automatic absolution and would receive salvation in the next world.  His audience greeted his oration with cries of ‘God wills it’.  Thousands of volunteers took a solemn oath to fulfill their mission.  The first crusade moved from Edessa, took Antioch and, finally, in 1099, entered Jerusalem.  There the Crusaders massacred its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.  A contemporary account of the christian entry into Jerusalem is as follows: ‘But now that our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen.  Some of our men … cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames.  Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city.  It was necessary to pick ones way over the bodies of men and horses.  But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon … indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, since it has suffered so long from their blasphemies’.

            One may contrast this ‘christian’ butchery with the restraint shown by Saladin when he recaptured Jerusalem ninety years later.

            The first crusade was a calamity for the Jews who thereafter faced prolonged intolerance punctuated by frequent persecution.  The Church authorised the ghettoes which became a feature of Europe.  By the 16th century anti-Jewish legislation had become general.  The Jews were forced to wear a yellow identifying badge, were forbidden to eat with christians and were compelled to step aside whenever a christian passed them on the street[ For the disaster the Crusades brought to Europe, to christianity and to Islam,see The First Crusdade, A New History, Free Press and The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, Jonathan Phillips, Jonathan Cape.]

            The Albigenses of the south of France set up an anti-sacerdotal movement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  The Count of Toulouse refused to rid his territory of them.  The Pope, Innocent III, thereupon preached a Crusade against the Albigenses which led to awful massacres.  This Crusade was confirmed by the Bull ad Extirpanda (1252).  The Albigenses were in effect exterminated.  It was then laid down that no sovereign should hold territory unless heresy was extirpated within that sovereign’s territory.

            The Inquisition may be said to date from the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).  That Council was concerned that the systematic preaching of false doctrine, such as had occurred in the south of France, should not spread.  This required a new approach.  It was decided to take heresy out of the hands of the local Bishops and direct appropriate action from Rome.  (The Fourth Lateran Council also decreed that ‘we legislate that such people (Jews and Saracens) of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times be distinguished by their garb from other people, for it can be read that even Moses enjoined this upon them (Lev 19:19))’.

            The Inquisition was formally founded by Gregory IX in 1223 and fully established by Innocent IV in 1252.  Its object was to suppress heresy.  It extended throughout Europe, other than England and Scotland.  Nevertheless, ordinances of Henry IV and Henry V prescribed the stake for heresy.  The last Englishmen burnt for heresy were Legate and Whitman in 1611.

            The purpose of the Inquisition’s inquiry was not so much to ascertain whether particular offences had been committed but whether tendencies had been shown or demonstrated.  The inquiry was in secret.  From the thirteenth century torture was allowed. 

            The Church had originally opposed torture and the canon law would not admit into proceedings evidence extorted by it.  Innocent IV however approved its use and by the Bull ad Extirpanda gave effect to his clear view that such a mode of proof was admissible.  Urban IV confirmed its usage.  In 1312, however, the Council of Vienna directed that excessive cruelty be suppressed.  It decreed that all confessions in the torture chamber had subsequently to be ‘freely’ confirmed. 

            The rack was a frequent instrument of torture and was used by both the Inquisition and protestants.  Its operation was described by an Englishman, William Lithgow, who was racked by the Spanish Inquisition in 1620:  ‘I was brought to the rack then mounted on top of it.  My legs were drawn through the two sides of the three-planked rack.  A chord was tied about my ankles.  As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two planks burst asunder the sinews … and the lids of my knees were crushed.  My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam … my groans were vehement … and blood sprang from my arms …  Being loosed from these pinnacles of pain I was hard fast set on the floor with the incessant exhortation ‘Confess.  Confess’.’.

            Torture by the Inquisition was prohibited by the Pope in 1816.  Torture as a mode of obtaining evidence was condemned by Pius XII during his pontificate (1939-1958). 

            Burning at the stake for heresy did not originate with the Inquisition but with the Emperor Frederick II.  Nevertheless the stake remained the punishment for heresy for the next three hundred years.  Burning at the stake was never carried out by the Church but by the civil power.  The Church was forbidden by Biblical authority from shedding blood.  In theory therefore the civil authority was allowed a discretion as to whether it would carry out the sentence but in substance it carried it out invariably in order to avoid the accusation of being partial to heresy. 

            The Spanish Inquisition was established towards the end of the 15th century.  At the opening of the previous century Castile and Portugal still had no Inquisition.  For long, the three religions – christianity, islam and judaism – had lived in  mutual tolerance, symbolised by the great mosque at Cordoba, which contained both church and mosque.  The Papacy looked with disfavour on this indifference towards Jews and Moors.  At the same time, Jews, who were the prime commercial class of Spain and who held high administrative posts, excited popular envy and hostility.  During the 13th and 14th centuries an increasing number of massacres of Jews took place.  And an increasing number of Jews converted.  Hostility towards them remained at the time when Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile united their territories in a joint Kingdom (1479).  Religious zeal and the pursuit of popular support led Isabella to seek the establishment in Spain of the Inquisition.

            As described in the latest edition of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, ‘in 1478 they (Isabella and Ferdinand) first obtained a papal bull from Sixtus IV setting up the Inquisition to deal with the supposedly evil influence of the Jews and conversos.  Since the Spanish Inquisition was constituted as a royal court, all appointments were made by the Crown.  Too late, Sixtus IV realised the enormous ecclesiastical powers that he had given away and the moral dangers inherent in an institution the proceedings of which were secret and that did not allow appeals to Rome’.

            With its army of familiares, who were exempt from normal jurisdiction and who acted both as bodyguards and informers of the inquisitors, and with its combination of civil and ecclesiastical powers, the Spanish Inquisition became a formidable armoury of royal absolutism.  The Supreme Council of the Inquisition .. was the only formal institution set up by the Catholic Monarchs for all their kingdoms together.  Nevertheless, they thought of it primarily in religious and not in political terms.  The Inquisition’s secret procedures, its eagerness to accept denunciations, its use of torture, the absence of counsel for the accused, the lack of any right to confront hostile witnesses, and the practice of confiscating the property of those who were condemned and sharing it between the Inquisition, the crown, and the accusers --- all this inspired great terror, as indeed it was meant to do.  The number of those condemned for heresy was never very large and has often been exaggerated by Protestant writers.  But during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs several thousand conversos were condemned and burned for Judaising practices.  The whole family of the philosopher and humanist Juan Luis Vives was wiped out in this way.  Many more thousands of conversos escaped similar fates only be fleeing the country.  Many Roman Catholics in Spain opposed the introduction of the Inquisition, and the Neapolitans and Milanese (who prided themselves on their catholicism and who were supported by the popes) later successfully resisted attempts by their Spanish rulers to impose the Spanish Inquisition on them.  Even in Spain itself it was the sumptuous autos-da-fé, the ceremonial sentencings and executions of heretics, rather than the institution and its members that seem to have been popular.  But most Spaniards never seem to have understood the horror and revulsion that this institution aroused in the rest of Europe.

            The first inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, himself from a converso family, at once started a propaganda campaign against the Jews.  In 1492 he persuaded Isabella to expel all Jews who refused to be baptised.  Isabella and her contemporaries looked upon the expulsion of about 1,700,000 of her subjects as a ‘pious duty’.  See generally, Reformation, Europe House Divided,  The Iberian exception, MacCulloch, Penguin, p.58.  For a comprehensive description of the Spanish Inquisition and the part played by Torquemada, see Grayling, op.cit. pp.25-33.

            A number of historians have recently sought to ‘correct’ protestant exaggerations about the Inquisition.  One wonders whether they have not veered to the other extreme.  It is no doubt relevant that the number of autos-da-fé were exaggerated but it is curious to minimise the disgust excited by the part that public displays of burning of human beings should have taken place at all.  As long ago as 1944 the Professor of Spanish at Cambridge University, J. B. Trend, stated that ‘leniency to the Inquisition has become fashionable’ and one suspects that, although there has been protestant exaggeration in the past, this leniency continues.  Aside from the special aspects of the Spanish Inquisition, what is evident is that the Inquisition was established by the Church for the persecution of contrary religious belief and that it carried out its work more or less thoroughly over three centuries.

(2)       The first stones in the construction of Baghdad were turned in August 762.  Some 100,000 workers assembled from every corner of Islam, worked for four years to complete the city.  The first hospital was constructed upon the order of Harun-al-Rashid in 792 and five other hospitals were established during the tenth century.  The first university, the famous Nizami university of Baghdad was founded in 1065 (by Nizami-i-Mulk, friend of Omar Khayam).

            The finest Muslim hospitals were built in Damascus and Cairo.  The Damascus hospital was in fact built before that in Baghdad having been founded by the Caliph Al-Walid in 707 and the great hospital in Cairo was established in 872 by the Governor Ibn Tulun and still existed 600 years later.

            All of these hospitals were superbly organized.*



*           “All action rests upon an assumption … However disguised, that social conditions have been solely responsible for the vices and misery which exists and that institutions can be so changed as to abolish misery and vice”, J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress, Dover, pp 165-176.


*           This is by no means invariable.  The Jewish messianic Kingdom of Heaven was a triumphant reign in this world by a descendant of King David to restore God’s chosen people.  The Calvinist was certainly and deeply concerned about his future existence but saw his worldly wealth as evidence of belonging to the Elect.  But overall the focus was other-wordly.  As salvation became linked with ethical rather than ritualistic preconditions the rationalisation of suffering ‘encountered increasing difficulties’.  Individually “‘undeserved’ woe was all too frequent; not ‘good’ but ‘bad’ men succeeded.”  One naturally turned to a better life in the hereafter, Max Weber, ‘The Social Psychology of the World Religions’, Edited essays, Gerth & Mills, Routledge, and Kegan Paul, p.267


*           It is evident that we are not speaking of social equality.  Further, the reference is specifically to Catholic Christianity.  Calvinism proclaimed the doctrine that the Elect alone could be ‘saved’. 


*           Gibb, Mohammedanism, op. cit., pp.39-40.


*           sura 82.


*           Washington Irving, Life of Mohammed, The Everyman Library, p.249.


*           It is true that other passages in the Koran stress forgiveness and Allah’s mercy.  Thus sura xii, 53 says that ‘My Lord hath compassion; verily my Lord is forgiving, compassionate’.  But the overriding emphasis is on God’s omnipotence and on retribution.


*           ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I don’t deserve to be called your son…’ - but he is nevertheless welcomed, Luke xv 18,19.


*           The Council of Trent stated the Catholic doctrine on confession: ‘from the institution of the sacrament of Penance… the universal Church has always understood that the complete confession of sins was also instituted by the Lord, and is by Divine Law necessary for all who have fallen after baptism; for our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left behind him priests, his own vicars, as rulers and judges, to whom all the mortal sins into which the faithful of Christ may have fallen should be submitted, in order that they, in virtue of the power of the keys, may pronounce sentence of remission or retention of sins.  Evidently, it would be impossible for priests to exercise this Judgment without a knowledge of the case, nor could they observe justice in imposing penalties, if the faithful were to declare their sins only in general, and not in particular and one by one.’ Chapter V, Session xiv.


*           The Renaissance impact upon individualism was explained by Jacob Burckhardt in his ‘The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy’ Phaidon, p.81, as follows:

                        ‘In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness - that which was turned within and that which was turned without ‑ lay dreaming and half awake beneath a common veil.  The veil was woven of faith, illusion and childish prepossession through which the world and history were clad in strange hues.  Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation ‑ only through some general category.  In Italy this veil first melted into air ‑ man became a spiritual individual.’


*           Mohammad fell into a trance-like state when utterances came to him. These were dictated and written down between 610 and 632 A.D. Whilst each of the four rightly-guided Caliphs initiated collections of the text the official Koran was that adopted under the third Caliph, Uthman (644-656), see Ruthven, Islam, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, p.21.


*           See for a comprehensive description of the “controversial doctrines from which Mahomet had to acquire his notions of the Christian faith.”  Washington Irving, Life of Mahomet, Everymans Library, pp.50-52.


*           Bernal, Science in History, Pelican, Vol 1, p.272, although as Bernal notes there were still brilliant thinkers such as Averroes in the 12th century and Ibn Kaldun in the 14th but they no longer belonged to a “living movement”.


*           Between 1798 and 1818 British rule was established throughout India, except in the Indus Valley which was not subdued until 1849.  In 1798 Napoleon occupied Egypt; France occupied Algeria, in 1883; Britain, Aden, in 1883; France, Tunisia in 1881; Britain, Egypt in 1882 and the Sudan in 1889; Italy, Lybia, in 1912; and France, Morocco in 1912.  In 1915 the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Ottoman dominions in anticipation of victory, K. Armstrong, Islam, a Short History, Phoenix, pp.126-127.


*           In August 1925 Kemal Ataturk abolished the brotherhoods, “gentlemen, you and the whole nation must know, and know well, that the Republic of Turkey cannot be the land of Sheikhs, Dervishes, disciples and lay brothers … the heads of the brotherhood will … at once close their monasteries, and accept the fact that their disciples have at last come of age.”.


*           Speaking of the emancipation of women, Kemal Ataturk said “In some places I have seen women who put a piece of cloth or something like it over their heads to hide their faces, and turn their backs or huddle themselves on the ground when a man passes by.  What is the meaning and sense of this behaviour?”.


*           Ira M. Lapidus, second edit, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge pp.502-503.


*           Gibbs, op.cit, p.181.


*           Gibbs, op.cit., p.182.


*           Karen Armstrong, op.cit, p.128.


*           K.M. Pannikar, A Survey of Indian History, Asia, p.216.


*           The term ‘zealot’ was used by the historian Arnold Toynbee to describe a reaction to modernism.  “It is legitimate as well as convenient to apply to the present certain terms which were coined when a similar situation once arose in the encounter between the ancient civilisations of Greece and Syria … under the impact of Hellenism during the centuries immediately before and after the beginning of the christian era, the Jews … splitting into two parties.  Some became ‘zealots’ and others ‘herodians’.  The zealot reverts to his own culture to fight off the foreign civilisation.  The herodian inoculates himself with sufficient of the foreign culture to stop the invader by absorbing it.”, Civilisation on Trial, Islam, the West and the Future, Oxford University Press, p.188.


*           The following brief account of Hindu Zealotism has been drawn from William Dalrymple’s extensive survey in India; The War over History, NYRB (7/4/2005), p.62.


            ·           In the 1930s Congress sought to minimise differences between Hindus and Muslims in the struggle for independence. 

            ·           During the same period extreme Hindu nationalists formed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).  The RSS sought to create a core of dedicated para-military zealots, along the lines of the Nazis, who would bring about a revival of what it saw as the lost Golden Age.

            ·           Madhav Golwalkar, the early RSS leader, formulated the RSS view of Indian history that there were no original inhabitants other than the Hindus who “came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of the soil always.”. 

            ·           The real enemy, according to Golwalkar was Islam: “Ever since that evil day, when Muslims first landed in Hindustan, right up to the present moment, the Hindu nation has been gallantly fighting to shake off the despoilers.”.  “Foreign races in Hindustan must adopt the Hindu culture and language and must learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion…”.

            ·           Nathuram Godsi, who assassinated Ghandi, for pandering to Muslims was a former RSS member.

            ·           The Indian Constitution, proclaimed on 26 November 1949, prohibited discrimination on the ground of religion and used the phrase the “rich heritage of our composite culture.”.  During the 1950s and 1960s Nehru who led India was firmly secularist and insisted upon equality for the Indian Muslims.

            ·           In the 1980s the focus changed.  The critical step was the destruction of the Ayodhya Temple.  Mir Baqi, a general of the Mogul Emperor Babur (1483-1530) had allegedly built his mosque at Ayodhya over a temple commemorating the birth place of the Hindu God Lord Ramah.  Although there was no evidence of this Hindu organisations began holding rallies at the site, campaigning for the rebuilding of the temple.

            ·           The BJP, the Hindus Nationalist Party, which ruled India from 1999 to May 2004 was founded as the political wing of the RSS.  Most senior BJP figures held posts in both organisations, although the BJP was much more moderate than the RSS.

            ·           In 1992 a rally of 200,000 was whipped into a frenzy by BJP leaders shouting ‘death to Muslims’ and attacked the mosque with sledgehammers reducing it to rubble.  Over the next few months hundreds if not thousands of Muslims were brutally killed. 

            ·           The BJP was surprisingly ousted from power at the elections in May 2004.  One of the earliest steps taken by the new Congress Government was to correct the school history text books and remove from them their fanatical anti-Muslim bias.  Hindu Zealotism had been arrested but not eliminated.


*           What is Islam, Horry & Chippendale, W.H. Allen & Co, p.88.


*           Ruthven, Islam:  A Very Short Introduction, pp.127-128; What is Islam, Horry & Chippendale, p.88.


*           Karen Armstong, op. cit., p.153; Ruthven, op.cit., p.128.


*           See generally, Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism, (W.W. Norton) and an essay adapted from it, Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, 11th October 2003, p.49.


*           Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism, W.W. Norton.


*           Vol 3 p.1014 (1958).


*           These classes were at this time too fluid to be described as what were later called ‘castes’.  The term ‘caste’ came to be more particularly applied to the segregated groups or jatis, which grew up later, each caste was constituted by a web of sub-castes on jatix.  The word itself was first used by 16th century Portugese who applied their own word for ‘clan’ – ‘casta’, to the groups generically but more specifically to the jatis.


*           ‘A sudra may use only the southern gate of a town for carrying forth his dead, and his killing by a brahman is equivalent merely to the killing of a cat, a mongoose, a blue jay, a frog, a dog, a lizard, an owl, or a crow.  To serve a brahman learned in the Vedas is the highest duty of a sudra, and if he be pure and serve humbly he may in another incarnation attain the highest class’.  Caste in India, J. H. Hutton, Oxford U.P., 4th. Edit, 1963.


*           Historic India, Great Ages of Man, Time Life, p.142


*           J. H. Hutton, op. cit., p.103.


*           The Hindu, 24 December 1932


*           Burrows, Encyclopaedia of Ancient Civilisations, ed. Arthur Cotterell: see also Rig Veda 7.5.3, ‘Through fear of you (Agni) the dark people went away, not giving battle, leaving behind their possessions … and destroying cities’.


*           See Koestler, The Lotus and The Robot p.139.


*           p.353.


*           p.212.


*           Although the Jain influence on Buddhism in the ahimsa doctrine is clear enough, Jains and Buddhists differed in important respects.  Jains believed in the existence of the soul.  The Buddhists did not — regarding the self as comprising a process of consciousness and action from which one was released with nirvana.


*           ‘Indian Thought and its Development’, Adam and Charles Black, p.80.


*           A monk cannot light a fire or a lamp in his monastery, for thus injury would be done not only to the air but also to numerous insects’, A.L. Basham, ‘The Sacred Cow’, Rider, p.62.


*           The Speaking Tree, Oxford, p.330.


*           Cassell and Company, p.401.


*           Schweizer acknowledged this, commenting that “in the commandments, chiselled on stone, of King Asoka active compassion already begins to play… a part”, Indian Thought and its Development, p.114.  Lannoy said of Asoka, “he went one step further than the Buddha when he extended the latter’s doctrine of non-violence to the level of governmental or kingly ethics – a point on which the Buddha has remained silent”, The Speaking Tree, Oxford, p.338.  Despite his religious zeal Asoka was tolerant.  Confronted by Buddhism and Brahmanism, both hostile religions, he allowed each to be equally privileged.  His ordinances are memorable as the earliest edicts on toleration, Bury, H.U.L. History of Freedom of Thought, p.72.


*           “When we see an atheistic soul-denying philosophical teaching of a path to personal final deliverance, consisting in an absolute extinction of life and a simple worship of the memory of its human founder – when we see it superseded by a magnificent High Church with a Supreme God, surrounded by a numerous pantheon and a host of saints: a religion highly devotional … with an ideal of universal salvation of all living creatures, a salvation by the divine grace of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, a salvation not an annihilation but in eternal life – we are fully justified in maintaining that the history of religions has scarcely witnessed such a break between the new and the old within the pale of what nevertheless continues to claim common descent from the same religious founder.”  Stcherbatsky, The Conception of the Buddhist Nirvana, Leningrad, 1927, Academy of Sciences of the USSR, p.36.


*           The Legacy of Islam, Law and Society, Oxford, p.284.


*           Arnold J Toynbee, Civilisation on Trial, Islam, the West and the Future, Oxford University Press, p.205.

*           A History of Medieval Islam, J.J. Saunders, Routledge and Regan Paul., p.192.


*           The author Salman Rushdie suffered a fatwa imposing the death penalty by since the Ayotaollah Khomeini’s death and following international intervention it has been lifted.  A Sudanese Muslim reformer was more recently executed by the authorities because his views were deemed contrary to Islam.


*           Under Stat. 9 & 10 Will III, C32 (1698) it was a misdemeanour for any person who has been a christian to deny by writing, printing, … the Christian religion to be true or the Old Testament and New Testament to be of divine authority.  The penalty was imprisonment upon a second offence.  “The Act had long lain dormant on the Statute Book, when an attempt was made to put it in force against Bradlaugh”, Reg v Bradlaugh (1883), F.W. Maitland, Constitutional History of England, Cambridge, p.522.


*           For a comprehensive description of the process of conversion in early Islam, see Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, second edit. Cambridge, pp. 43-44.


*           The Columbia History of the World, edit. Garraty and Gay, Harper and Row, pp. 291-293.


*           J.B. Trend, The Civilization of Spain, Oxford, p.22.


*           In the 8th century Cordoba was a city of about one million inhabitants and 200,000 houses. In the Province there were 17 universities and 10 public libraries – the largest Al-Hakem containing nearly a quarter of a million volumes. In Cordoba itself there were 600 mosques to each of which a free school was attached. When the christians retook Cordoba at the end of the 11th century the centre of Moorish culture moved to Seville.


*           Historians Romila Tharpa and R.S. Sharma have emphasised that “ Islam was spread in India not by the sword --- there is no evidence of mass conversions—but by the example of the mystical Muslim Sufis .. some of whose teachings fused with those of the Hindu devotional Bhakti movement. They also emphasised the religious tolerance of many of the Mughal emperors, especially Akbar (1542 –1605) who patronised Hindu temples and visited Hindu holy men. The same was also true of his great-grandson, Dara Shukoh, who had the Gita translated into Persian and who wrote The Mingling of the Two Oceans, a comparative study of Hinduism and Islam  which emphasised the compatibility of the two faiths and the common source of their divine revelations.”, William Dalrymple, New York Review of Books, April 7, 2005 p.64


*           Ira. M. Lapidus, op.cit., pp 264-265, 294.


*           When he went to Medina he, at first, sought to include the Jews within his following. But when they denied his claim to be a Prophet of Allah he excluded them and exiled two Jewish clans, Lapidus, op. cit. p.24.


*            It was thus not a reflection of scepticism of the kind Gibbon spoke in relation to ancient Rome: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman World, were all considered by the people as equally true: by the philosophers as equally false: and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”


*           Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest, Continuum, p.98.


*           Gibb, Mohammedanism, H.U.L.p.89.


*           Malise Ruthven, Islam, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, p.9.


*           B. Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, Phoenix, p.7.


*           There is a difference between the Shia and the Sunni in what we have just described. A consideration of the ulema in Shiism brings out the truth that whilst freedom of conscience cannot be guaranteed without the separation of state from church, the converse does not follow. It is possible for the church to be protected from the power of the state in order that its own plenary authority should be proceed unhindered.  In Shiism the ulema are divinely authorised to interpret and apply the Sharia. Their divine inspiration was deemed to have been inherited, descending to each of them from the ‘twelfth’ hidden Imam, “ the imam inherited a secret knowledge and exclusive authority to interpret the Quran and to elaborate the legal system of Islam, Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, second edit. p.95.


            Shiism became the dominant form of Islam in Persia from 1500 A.D. when the Safavid Shahs defeated the Ottoman sunnis and created a dynasty which lasted for two centuries. The shi’a in Iran developed a religious hierarchy, the only one to be found in Islam. During this period there was a separation between Shah and Imamate akin to the European separation of Church and State. The ulema became the prime judicial institution. Authority was devolved upon clerics who became known as Ayatollahs. They formed their own courts. Because they were deemed to be divinely inspired they were given a free rein to apply their own judgement. Separation of the Imamate from the Iranian state had nothing to do with guaranteeing freedom of conscience but in accommodating the demands for religious power. It should be noted that the Imamate in Iran had become as it remains very wealthy.


            In these circumstances it is entirely natural that when the authority of the Shah was extinguished it should have been replaced by a theocracy.

*           Ruthven, op.cit. p.40.


*           Santillana, Diritto I. 5.


*           R.Scruton, The West and the Rest, Continuum,p.108.


*           B. Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, p.8-9.


*           Derett, An Introduction to Legal Systems, Islamic Law, Sweet and Maxwell, p.59.


*           Derett, op.cit. p.59.


*           Gibb. op. cit. p. 97, although a few, as for example, the 14th century Hanbali, Ibn Taymiyya, never accepted the doctrine of the closure of ijtihad.


*           Gibb op. cit. p.95.


*           It is remarkable to read of Sufi views on interpretation of the Koran as early as the 8th century.  Muqatil b. Sulayman (d.767) “wrote a commentary on the Quran which allowed the interpreter to transcend its literal meaning and arrive at its spiritual meaning.  Other writers such as Ja’far al-Sadiq (d.765) taught that every passage in the Quran spoke on four levels of meaning, which could be appreciated by people having the requisite spiritual experience.  These levels were ‘ibara’, the physical words of the Quran; ‘ishara’, allusion to an outside object; ‘latifa’, the mysterious fruit within the Quran; and finally ‘haqiqa; the truth or reality of the Quran.”, Lapidus, op.cit. p.91.


*           Karen Armstrong, Islam, A Short History, Phoenix Press, p.77.


*           Among the propositions he combated was ‘the vanity of their (the philosophers’) denial of the bodily resurrection to bliss or torment in heaven or hell with corporeal pleasures and pain…’


*           As Baghdad waned under Turkish domination, the spirit of rationalism and inquiry declined, to be extinguished by the Mongols who sacked the city, destroyed the library and slaughtered its inhabitants in 1258.  Islamic philosophy and culture survived as an outpost in Spain, until it too was eliminated by the forces of the reconquista; but not before Greek works in translation and Hellenic thought had moved from Spain to medieval Europe, there to be a major catalyst of the twelfth century renaissance.


*           De Burgh, The Legacy of the Ancient World, Pelican, p.472.


*           Gibbs, op.cit. p.88.


*           A fascinating illustration of this is described by Alfred Guillaume in The Legacy of Islam, in which he contrasts the relative ease which St Thomas had in construing the scriptures with that of Averroes, perhaps the most daring of Islamic philosophers, but who yet suffered from the strictures of the literalism when interpreting the Koranic text, The Legacy of Islam, Alfred Guillaume, Philosophy and Theology ,pp275-278, esp. at p.278.


*           J. Saunders, History of Medieval Islam, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p.197.


*           surah 5.38.


*           Lapidus, op.cit.p.25; Ahmed Rashid in his work, Taliban, Pan, p.4 describes attending a public execution in Kandahar in 1996:”By now some 20 male relatives of the victim had appeared on the pitch and the Qazi turned to them. Raising his arms to the sky, he appealed to them to spare the life of Abdullah in exchange for blood money. ‘You will go to Mecca ten times if you spare this man. Our leaders have promised to pay a huge sum to you from the Baitul Mal if you forgive him, he told the relatives…the relatives shook their heads in refusal…(Abdullah) was made to kneel on the ground with his face turned away from the crowd. A guard whispered to him that he could say his last prayer. A guard handed a Kalashnikov to a relative of the murdered victim. The relative swiftly stepped up to Abdullah, cocked the automatic and from a few feet away shot him three times in the back… within seconds his body was thrown into the back of a pick-up and driven away.


*           Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge, 2nd Edit.p.12.


*           In English law an early writer Britton (1291) advocated an out and out equation of ‘member’ for ‘member’ but the lex talionis was never introduced. Monetary compensation was directed to the same result.


*           Santillana, The Legacy of Islam, Law and Society, Oxford, p.284.


*           Maitland, Constitutional History of England, Cambridge, p.4.


*           Lapidus.op.cit.p.25-26.


*           Ruthven op.cit. p.99.


*           Note that under the English common law it was only in the late 19th century that it was held a husband had no right to beat his wife for the purpose of chastisement.


*           Guillaume, Islam, Pelican, p.174.


*           The prospect of being unilaterally divorced hangs over a traditional Muslim wife. The position of a Muslim wife who has been divorced and is old or middle aged is quite miserable, see Guillaume op.cit, p.176, and bears comparison with that of the deserted wife under English law at the time of introduction of the first Matrimonial Causes Act in the 19th century, see Humanitarianism and the Condition of Women in the Nineteenth Century, supra.


*           “O Consorts of the Prophet … stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance; and establish regular prayer, and give regular charity; and obey God and his Apostle”.


*           O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known as such and not molested.”


*           H.A.R. Gibb, Mohammedanism, Oxford .p.168.


*           James Mc Credie described attending a beheading: “ The executions are set, as usual, for a little after midday…. So far 90 people were put to death by Saudi swordsmen compared with 53 recorded for 1994 …. And here comes the executioner. He is a huge black man, built like a professional wrestler …on his head is a small white skull cap, embroidered with old and silver threads…. From somewhere a disembodied voice reads out a prayer. The crowd responds … The bedouin is to die first. He is led forward by the two policemen. Gently they help him kneel. Hew does so obediently … The executioner produces his sword, which he has been holding out of sight … The executioner lowers it (the sword) measuring his aim … It is almost like a champion tennis player’s serve. The heavy sword whirls in a glittering arc and descends. There is a wet chopping sound. The head falls with a thud into a heap of sand which has been placed to receive it”, The Guardian,1995. The number of annual executions vary. In the latest Amnesty International Annual Report (2003) the number was 48.  “ Two Saudi Arabian nationals sentenced to death for murder were pardoned under qisas, which gives relatives of the murder victim the right to pardon or seek execution of the offender”.


*           “At least nine people, two Saudi Arabian nationals and seven foreign nationals… had their right hands amputated in Mecca, Jeddah, Riyadh and Al- Khamis”,  Amnesty International Annual Report, 1996.


*           The punishment of flogging is widely used. “ Among the victims of this punishment were 11 people sentenced to between 200 and 1500 lashes each --- to be carried out 50 lashes at a time – in addition to prison sentences of between two and fifteen years. The 11 were convicted of being members of a gang which carried out kidnapping, rapes and robberies. Mohammad Ali-Al-Sayyid, an Egyptian national working in Saudi Arabia, was serving a sentence of 4000 lashes in addition to seven years imprisonment for burglary.  According to former prisoners held with him at Al-Buraida prison in Al-Qaseem Province.. every two weeks he was taken with his legs shackled every two weeks to the market place where a policeman administered 50 lashes.


            Dr Mohammad Khalifa, an Egyptian officer working in Saudi Arabia, received 80 lashes. He had been tried on charges of slandering a Saudi Arabian headmaster whom he accused of sexually abusing his son, his original sentence of 200 lashes was reduced on appeal.”,  Amnesty International Report,1996.


*           see generally J Duncan M. Derett, An Introduction to Legal Systems, Islamic Law, N.J. Coulson, p.71 from which these comments have been drawn.


*           Thus, in Egypt, a direction was given to Courts to apply whichever variant of the four schools they thought would promote justice, and so where under the prevailing Hanafi order a wife could not seek or obtain a divorce, the Courts could choose the Maliki school which enabled the wife to obtain a divorce on the grounds of cruelty etc. Eventually the Maliki system was codified and the Courts were directed to apply it. Again, in the case of child marriage, some countries, such as India legislated against it whilst others, recognizing that the Prophet had himself married a child bride, chose not to prohibit but to limit thereafter the remedies available to the husband in case of a child marriage which had the effect of deterring those marriages, see J. Duncan Derett, ibid. pp70-77.


*           Feminine equality is a recent European post-enlightenment development. The history of this in western Europe is briefly dealt with in the essay in this volume, Humanitarianism and the condition of women in the nineteenth century. A close analogy with the semi-tribal family of Mohammad’s Arabia is that of the ancient Hebrews as described in the Old Testament. The Hebrew family was patriarchal and polygynous. It was not until after the exile that various Prophets protested.  Concubinage was practised.  The stories of Sarah, Leah and Rachel are familiar. And divorce was not dissimilar to Arabian custom “And when she finds no favour in his eyes … let him write her a Bill of Divorcement and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house”, Deuteronomy 21:1-4.


*           Guillaume, Islam, Pelican, p.187.


*           Bernard Lewis, What went Wrong?, Phoenix, p.75.


*           Bernard Lewis ibid. p.95; “ The slave ’born in the house’ is generally regarded as a member of the family, and to sell such a slave, except for incorrigible misconduct, would be condemned by public opinion”, Guillaume, Islam, Pelican, p.71.


*           H.A.R.Gibb, Mohammedanism, An Historical Survey, Oxford, p.183.


*           see Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong?, Phoenix.


*           Ira M. Lapidus, op.cit, p.818.


*           Ibid. p.819.


*           op.cit.823.


*           Taliban, Ahmed Rashid,p.115.


*           John Anderson, The Guardian,2000.


*           Source: Amnesty International – urgent action.


*           Source: Amnesty International – urgent action.


*           Source: Amnesty International Annual Report 2003.


*           A History of Civilizations ,Penguin, p.333.


*           Lapidus, op. cit. p.91.


*           p.824.


*           A few scholars, notably the Hanbali, Ibn Taymiyya of the 14th century, refused to accept that the gate of ijtihad was closed.


*           Guillaume, Islam, Pelican.p.157.


*           An interesting example of this is the approach of Islam to printing. “ Printing was under graver and longer suspicion.. It is not sanctioned in the Koran; it would expectably be applied to the text of the Koran, which Mohammad had dictated for writing down by hand; and it was an invention of Chinese and christian unbelievers. The first attempt to print in Muslim lands — a History of Egypt in 1729 was nearly 300 years after Gutenberg – led to riots and prohibition. It was not until 1825 that a Muslim Arabic Press was established in Cairo… “, A Kroeber, Anthropology: Culture Patterns and Processes,p.226.


*           Max Rodenbeck, New York Review of Books, October 21 2004, p.24.


*           For a description, see Legacy of Islam, Science & Medicine p.241/336 and Walker, The Story of Medicine p79.