God Save Us from Secular Laws
About a month ago I was glad to read the contribution of Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim titled God Save Us from ‘Religious’ Laws as the lead comment in this weekly. I was expecting similar contributions from many other scholars. Surprisingly none was so elaborate, strong and bold enough to warrant a reply.
Today I would like to touch on the introductory part of his article. It will be a journey that both of us will start on points of mutual agreement. But we shall find ourselves departing as soon we attempt to probe the very fundamentals of his thesis. The essence of the matter is that Dr. Ibrahim has generalized so much and contradicted himself to the extent that he built premisses that are not strong enough to support his conclusion. (Readers should please forgive me for using a double ‘s’ in the word ‘premiss’, as is the convention in Logic). Part of the problem really lies in the noble desire of Dr. Jibrin to retain his Christian faith while at the same time preaching the atheistic doctrines of his subject of specialization, sociology. This is a common problem he seems to share with many other people in his position.
On Religious Laws
I fairly agree with his opening statement and which I consider fundamental to our discussion today. He said:
“Throughout history, divine and religious laws have provided rules, regulations, moral precepts and standards of the highest nature to keep humankind along the narrow and difficult path of devotion to God, moral probity, selflessness, kindness and service to fellow human beings.”
It is important also to note that Dr. Ibrahim has put the word ‘religious’ in his title in quotes, implying something purported to be Godly though it is not actually so. Thus in his second paragraph he said:
“Throughout history, religious laws have more often than not, been used by amoral charlatans for their selfish and sometimes wicked and sectarian purposes.”
He gave valid examples saying,
“They were used to deprive people of their spouses, their property, their freedom and indeed, their humanity.”
He immediately concluded the paragraph with a prayer saying,
“May God save us from human (mis)-application of religious laws.”
This is another area of agreement. God himself has acknowledged that religion could be prone to manipulation by man. In the introduction of a celebrated beginners text of the traditional syllabus of Islamic jurisprudence commonly called Akhdari, the issue of ‘survival’ through manipulating religion was listed among the major sins a Muslim must desist from.
In practice however, Europe present the best specter of manipulation of religion. The Muslim world has on many occasions fallen a victim of such orchestration. Take the crusades for example. They were attempts by the Christian West to check the expansion of Islam and to reclaim earlier lost territories between Portugal and Palestine beginning from the end of the eleventh century. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries of their success saw a reign of barbarism and nothing close to what any religion could justify. Sometimes these expeditions were initiated and led by priests. Yet their conduct remained terribly barbaric. When they entered cities like Jerusalem and Damascus, they massacred women, children and the old. Nothing Godly was witnessed in the ‘religious laws’ with which they ruled the reclaimed lands.
If the crusades could be regarded as too distant in our memory, a contemporary example is what happened in the Balkans during the last decade of the twentieth century. Barbarism was again unleashed on the Muslim populations in the name of cleansing Europe of Muslims, as the Serbs claimed. The story has remained the same over the years. So consistent was the trend that Christian historians find it difficult to hide it from their accounts. In Muslim Discovery of Europe, a contemporary orientalist, Bernard Lewis, has this to say about the fate of Muslims under Christian domination:
“Christianity was imposed by force and Muslims sooner or later forced to choose between conversion, exile, and death.”
So like the persecuted Jews, Muslims clearly understand, in fact in a broader sense, why Dr. Ibrahim should pray for God’s help against ‘religious’ laws.
It is these ‘religious’ laws that attempted to strangulate the growth of science in Europe during the Middle Ages. Thousands of scientists were executed or expelled for holding rational views about nature and the universe. At last the scientists won and retaliated by excommunicating the Church away from public domain. Unfortunately they were blanket in their treatment. They condemned all religions of the world for the crime once committed by the Church in Europe.
This led to the ascendancy of the atheistic doctrines that attempted to deny religion any relevance to the extent of questioning the existence of God. Hence the popular statement of Karl Marx that “religion is the opium of the people.” Julian Huxley said, “it is man who created God. It was not God that created man.” I have in an earlier article quoted Nietche saying that they have “killed God.”
I am happy to note that Dr. Ibrahim has not presented these atheistic doctrines. Rather, as a good Christian, he was ready to admit that religious laws set “standards of the highest nature”. But the problem with such laws according to him lies elsewhere:
“They have almost always been applied by human beings whose spiritual and moral standards have been far below the requirement of what was necessary to faithfully and truthfully implement the divine legal imperative.”
Notwithstanding the seeming validity of the above statements, Dr. Ibrahim failed to use them as a valid foundation for his article. His attempt resulted in fundamental contradictions. Let us just consider the main ones.
It will be difficult to understand why a person that is ready to describe religious laws as “highest” in standard would later reject them and advocate in their place others that are of lesser merit. He has even gone further to raise the normal secularist alarm that
“The adoption of religious laws is always a threat to the state because it is seen to serve the interest of only those who belong to the ruling religion..”
How could laws of the “highest” standard, divine as they are, threaten the legitimacy of a state? This is only possible in one of two cases: either the law itself is not qualified to be described as of “highest” in standard or the modern state does not aspire to live by highest standards. The rule of contradictory propositions is that both could not be assigned the same truth-value. If one is correct, the other must be wrong.
But we will prefer to hold on to our earlier agreement with Dr. Ibrahim that religion has set “highest” standards for human conduct. Let us assign it a true value, in which case we are forced to automatically accept that the “modern state” does not aspire to live to such “highest” standards. The “modern state” is thus ready to settle for laws that are lower in standard, very much lower, just enough to enable it become, according to Dr. Ibrahim
“a provider of public goods and more important, a neutral arbiter that guarantees the security of all sections of society.”
Still at this low level, “the standards of the highest nature” which Dr. Ibrahim correctly associated with religion refuse to vanish. They are made of universal values that cannot be dispensed of even if the entire essence of the state is zeroed to the provision of public goods and security. Could such a state do without what Dr. Ibrahim called
“devotion to God, moral probity, selflessness, kindness and service to fellow human beings?”
Part of the difficulty arises from how Dr. Ibrahim failed to maintain the relevance or significance of his single quotation marks in the word ‘religious’ later in the article when he attempted to discuss the relationship between religion and the state. While the marks are significant if they were meant, as they should be, to mean non-religious laws dressed with the cloth of religion, the author later failed to put the word religion in quotes. This means that he has a quarrel not only with the fake but also with the genuine. Religion in general has finally been made a culprit. Hence the charge that it threatens the legitimacy of the state. In which case, the earlier quotes in the word ‘religious’ could as well be regarded as meaningless.
Still, the contradiction defies dissolution. One finds himself returning to the same question that was initially asked: why should he quarrel with a law that he has already described as “highest in standard?”
Lets us escape from these cyclic arguments regarding ‘religious laws’ and religion. We can put aside whatever contradictions they are impregnated with in order to make progress. Let us bring out the core of his introduction that represents the theoretical basis of his thesis. We will arrive at the following:
Though religion has set high standards to guide human conduct, its laws are not suitable because their path is “narrow and difficult” and liable to abuse ‘in most cases’ but especially in multi-religious societies. No part of Nigeria is “uni-religious”, so religious laws are unsuitable anywhere in the country.
I do not agree with the above argument for a number of reasons. One, I do not accept that whatever is said about religion by western social scientists should be equally applied to any religion, Islam and Christianity in our case. The two religions extensively differ in their scriptures, history and geography. We shall see this in detail next week.
Two, describing something as “narrow and difficult” does not invalidate its legitimacy or make it impractical in life. In fact uprightness can never be achieved without the discipline to operate within the confines of morality and law. An effective knife must have a sharp edge. There is no law with the aim and capacity of elevating mankind without limiting the latitude of freedom of the individual. This, in fact, as we shall again see next week, is the reason behind the collapse of the social order in the West today. This is not our judgement but that of its intellectuals.
Three, the fact that a law stands to be misapplied has never made it unsuitable for adoption. One would like to ask whether the authors of secular laws do vaccinate them against the virus of abuse. This is too weak a reason to warrant the condemnation of religion and its laws.
Four, the adoption of a particular religion by a multi-religious society does not necessarily endanger the security of its minorities. There is enough evidence in history of civilizations to prove the contrary.
Five, the observation that no part of Nigeria is uni-religious is not correct. The presence of a minority religion in a society does not prevent that society from being labeled by the religion of the majority. Britain, Germany and even the United States describe themselves as Christian nations though all of them today have millions of Muslims and Jews as citizens living within their borders. Here in Nigeria, I see no reason why I should be considered wrong if I would describe Plateau, Benue and Anambra states for example as Christian.
In fact, the principle of majority rule is a cornerstone of democracy. Also, our choice for federalism in Nigeria is based on the correct realization of (and the desire to) maintain our differences in culture and worldview. We shall examine this further in the last part of the series.
The contention of Dr. Ibrahim that religious laws are not suitable for any part of Nigeria cannot be logically deduced from its premisses. Next week we shall look at his arguments about religion, secularism and the modern state in more detail. We hope to finally conclude the series by focussing on Nigeria and specifically with respect to the achievements of secularism and the gains from return to religion. I believe when that x-ray is presented for examination, the prayer of the objective reader will not be other than “God save us from secular laws.”