Like other religions, Islam has been invoked to justify a variety of legal and political systems, in support of both liberty and authority. Today, we are in the process of witnessing libertarian and democratic Muslims struggle against their intolerant and authoritarian brothers.
Some libertarian Muslims are inspired by the Western secular enlightenment, but Islamic libertarians also draw inspiration from the Qur’anic affirmation of the direct responsibility of every individual to the Creator. According to the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, even the prophets, including Muhammad, are only messengers sent to warn men of the Judgment Day, and any who attempt to evade responsibility for their choices by blaming their leaders (whether political or religious) will have their punishment doubled.
The nonaggression principle, at least with respect to faith, is explicitly stated in the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Because Islam is interpreted by its followers as a complete way of life, the scope of that commandment may be interpreted to include political action. It is not, however, a call for pacifism because the Qur’an permits war in response to aggression and specifies punishments for theft, fraud, and certain breaches of public order.
Islamic libertarians regard governments as subject to a fixed rule of law binding on all, including the civic magistrate, a position strongly rooted in Islamic jurisprudence. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, declared on his election that, “if I do well in my job, help me. If I do wrong redress me. Truthfulness is fidelity, and lying is treason… . Obey me as long as I obey God and His Prophet. But if I disobey God’s command or His Prophet, then no obedience is incumbent upon you.” In the Islamic tradition, law is conceived of as based on human nature, founded on divinely revealed principles articulated in the Qur’an, put into practice by the Prophet Muhammad, and interpreted through a process of discovery engaged in by legal scholars, rather than through legislative enactments. These interpretations are adopted or rejected in the marketplace of ideas and are ultimately based on the community’s respect for their authors.
Islam established a form of pluralism that, although not secular, was more extensive than anything before the American era. In exchange for a small tax in lieu of military service, Jews, Christians, Sabians, and—in practice—other religious minorities were allowed to follow their own religious laws in all matters internal to their own communities and in their private actions. Although some Muslim rulers violated the spirit and letter of this system, the prosperity and liberty it afforded to minority communities has been generally recognized in most of the 700-year history of Moorish Spain, but it also applied through most other times and places of Muslim rule.
The Qur’an and the Prophet strongly emphasize property rights and freedom of trade. The Prophet was a merchant, and trade is thus a respected profession among Muslims. One exception to the Qur’anic mandate for free trade, a product of its condemnation of usury, is that Muslim scholars have generally opposed fixed rates of return in commercial loans and have demanded that lenders share in the risk of any enterprise as venture capitalists.
The Mu’tazilla of 8th-century Iraq were the earliest Muslims to be called libertarian by Western scholars. They referred to themselves “the partisans of reason and justice” and believed that humans must be left free to succeed or fail in the exercise of their God-given free will. They died out as a coherent movement when, having acceded to power, they insisted that only people who shared this view should be allowed to hold positions in government, sparking a rebellion against their insistence that all participants in the political process take a “loyalty oath.”
The most consistent of the many free-market economists in Islamic history is Ibn Khaldun. In his Muqaddamah, or “Introduction to History,” he argued that civilizations rise and fall because of their adherence to or departure from principles of justice, including freedom of trade and protection of property. He anticipated what in recent years has been called “supply side economics” by asserting that, in their beginnings, dynasties raise large revenues from low tax rates and at their end raise small revenues from high tax rates. He warned that government intervention into commerce would bring the ruin of a dynasty.
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Originally published .