Niall Ferguson and the Right-wing Historians Are Wrong: Property Rights in Islam Existed Before British Empire

Okay, this is another post in which I’m going to break my own feeble attempts not to write anything about Ed Hussein’s book, Among the Mosques, until I finish it, when I will write a proper review. But there’s a piece in the book where Hussein makes a point that is very much relevant to the debate about the compatibility between Islam and modern British society and its constitutional underpinnings. And it contradicts part of the propaganda for the British empire spouted by Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts. Both these historians have argued that the British empire was a Good Thing because it gave the world democracy, capitalism and property rights. But one of the imams Hussein talks to, Mufti Jalal, the deputy imam of an Islamic seminary in Luton. Jalal praises the British constitutions and its freedoms because, in his view, these preserve the fundamental higher objective – maqasid – of the Islamic law, as identified by the 11th century imam, al-Juwaini. Hussain writes

“Our sharia is the British constitution.’ he says. ‘The Maqasid of the sharia are best preserved in Britain. I came back here after Egypt, Turkey and Yemen with a deeper recognition of the historical freedoms of England, but too many Muslims don’t understand that turning against this country is turning against our own selves.

‘At one point I studied under Haitham al-Haddad, who thinks we need to implement Islamic law against the “liberalism” of the West. I didn’t agree with this, so I left, but his influence is on the rise.’

The Maqasid, or Higher Objectives, are aspects of the sharia that were enshrined in Islamic law by jurists as early as the eleventh century, particularly by Imam al-Juwaini (d. 1085) in his Ghiyath al-Umaan (The Salvage of the Nations) and his students over the centuries. There are five aspects to the Maqasid as laid out by al-Juwaini: the preservation of family, life, faith, intellect and property; these are intended to form the basis on which the sharia has followed. The British legal system, with its fundamental values of individual liberty and freedom of expression, is a perfect working model of the main aspects of the sharia, applied to the context of modern life.’ (p. 236).

John Locke,, one of the founders of the British liberal tradition, believed that people had the inalienable right to life, liberty and property. This influenced the American Founding Fathers, but they changed it to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, although they also strongly supported property rights. But as Hussein’s conversation with Mufti Jalal shows, property rights were most definitely recognised in Islam, and not an import from the West. As for the compatibility of Islam and western democracy, I found a review of Hussein’s book from the Financial Times in 2021, written by Tanjil Rashid. It criticises Hussein’s book for focusing on the highly reactionary mullahs and their rejection of democracy and western values. Rashid argues that the clergy are unrepresentative and out of touch. He points instead to an Ipsos Mori poll that found that 88 per cent of British Muslims strongly feel British, 7 in 10 believe Islam is compatible with western liberal society, and only 1 per cent want separate, autonomous Muslim communities. The early Persian activists campaigning against the despotism of the Qajar shahs also admired Britain and its traditional liberties. An early revolutionary book, written in Turkish, called for the introduction of civil rights and praised British law, which the writer believed were based on the sharia. They weren’t, obviously, but clearly at that time social opinions in western society were sufficiently similar to those of progressive Muslims that they were considered to be identical.

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One Response to “Niall Ferguson and the Right-wing Historians Are Wrong: Property Rights in Islam Existed Before British Empire”

  1. Mark Pattie Says:

    Fascinating. Slightly off topic here, but I remember well the scare stories about “Sharia courts” in the Tory papers a few years ago. ‘Cept it was rubbish, as whilst there are Sharia courts in Britain (particularly in Birmingham, West Yorkshire and East Lancashire), they do *not* contravene British law as are only used for civil disputes. I also think that most of the “Ban Halal!” stuff is *not* out of concern for animal cruelty.

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