Michael Cook's talk stopped short of elaborating on the Prophet and the first Khalifa's egalitarianism
Islamic studies have certainly found a renewed interest in the post 9/11 world. Topics on Islam — be its take on women's freedom, marriage, madrasa education, modernity, growing extremism in the society — cording deliberations on various platforms, are fairly frequent these days. Though such debates are coming out of the academic confines of books and journals which have limited access, sadly, public participation is still negligible, at least in India.
At the annual IESHR lecture held jointly with Sage India at New Delhi's India Habitat Centre recently, the topic was newsworthy — “Is Political Freedom An Islamic Value: A Historical Perspective”, and the crowd was typically more of academia than persons from other walks of life. The speaker of the evening, Michael A. Cook, an expert on Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, U.S., didn't take much time to drive home the point that the answer to the question is “almost but not quite.”
Instead of going straight to the subject of the evening, Cook chose to quote Asma Bin Abu Bakr, the daughter of the first Khalifa, on the subject of marriage. “Marriage in Islam is slavery”, he quoted her. So Asma cautioned, “You should think twice” to which “domestic tyrant” you were marrying your daughter to. He then very conveniently took this “striking observation” of Asma to draw a parallel between the ruler and the ruled. “What it means is that commons can be a little slavish in their demeanour,” he said.
To drive home the point, Cook went on to quote Ibn Hafsun, the 9th Century Muslim leader from Spain, who led the people against the Uumayad Dynasty. “Hafsun talks about the sultan maltreating his people but nowhere do we find him clearly telling people that I am going to liberate you from political oppression.” In contrast, the professor — a writer of many acclaimed books on the Islamic world and a recipient of the coveted Melon Award — brought in the ancient Roman historian Livy. He quoted Livy, “My task from now on will be to trace the history in peace and war of a free people, governed by annually elected officers of state and subject not to the caprice of individual men, but to the overriding authority of law…”
“Livy talked of elected officers, his vocabulary is central to political culture of the then Roman republic, very different from that of Hafsun's,” deduced Cook. He also wound his talk round “a story that took place four days before the battle of Cardicia.” It was about Persians trying to overwhelm an Arab emissary with their magnificence “to make him feel small”. But the Arab is not overwhelmed by it; he rides straight on to their carpets, tearing them with his sword. When asked, his answer was ready. “We Arabs are equals, we do not enslave each other, it would have been better if you had informed me that some of you are masters over others. I thought you treated your people as equals just as we do.”
The Persians wanted truce with the Arabs but wondered whether the emissary was in a position to talk it. Cook quoted the Arab, “The Muslims are like one body. They are all parts of a whole. The most humble among them can promise protection on behalf of the most noble”, highlighting the point that collective freedom is more the essence in the pre-modern Islamic world than individual freedom.
In the course of the talk, Cook brought in the acceptance speech of Abu Bakr on becoming the first Khalifa after the death of the Prophet and drew attention to the point that his subjects were to hold him accountable. He also quoted the Prophet as saying, “People are equals like the teeth of a comb.” But that is it. Cook never went on to elaborate much on the impact of this strain of thinking in Islam. He then hopped on straight to the modern-day Islamic thinkers like Maulana Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb and talked of their attempts at extracting parts of Islamic traditions to make them workable in a modern world. “It enabled them to bypass western values,” said Cook but also mentioned in the same breath that Mawdudi used the “very western political connotation ‘charter' in his writings.”
Cook signed off his first ever talk in New Delhi by saying, “The ancient city state environment of Greece and Italy has disappeared, the Arabia has become irrelevant too; modern conditions are very different.” And after 9/11, we surely know that the lines are even more deeply etched.