Few people would ever think to compare the philosophy of Muslim liberalism to that of Enlightenment thinker John Locke. Joy Samad, who received his doctorate from Boston College in 2006, is one of these few.
He explained the connection at a lecture last Thursday in McGuinn 121 titled “John Locke and Muslim Liberalism,” in which he read an abridged version of his paper of the same name. The paper was published in the Journal of Church and State last summer.
The event was sponsored by the BC Islamic Civilization and Societies Program, the Program for the Study of Western Heritage, and the political science department, and organized by political science professors Ali Banuazizi, Nasser Behnegar, Susan Shell, and Robert Faulkner.
“We invited Dr. Samad because of his unusual focus on Islam’s liberal possibilities,” Faulkner said in an e-mail.
Samad said that he focused on Locke because Locke shared more arguments with liberal Muslim writers than with Reformation thinkers Martin Luther and John Calvin, who were harsh critics of religions other than their own. Samad cited three main similarities between Muslim liberals and Locke’s ideology.
First, both Locke and Muslim liberals deal with the meaning of religion in turbulent political times; Locke wrote during a politically uncertain period in British history that included the Glorious Revolution, and Muslim liberals are currently struggling against the stereotypes and prejudices that arose after 9/11 and the Arab Spring.
Second, according to both Locke and Muslim liberals, the cause of violence is not religion but government control of religion. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke argued that the control over religion exerted by various monarchs allowed them to make significant changes to the Anglican faith and require the clergy to change doctrines to reflect political decrees.
“Muslim liberals similarly argue that political considerations have been in the driver’s seat when it came to the interpretation of their religion,” Samad said.
The third similarity between Locke and Muslim liberals, according to Samad, is that both argue for toleration of different religions and interpretations of religions, and as a result belong to a minority.
Samad also focused on the evolution of the meaning of the word jihad.
“Jihad, first and foremost, means ‘striving’ or ‘struggle’ on a personal level,” he said.
Samad explained that Muslim liberals see the Quran, the book that contains Muslim Holy Scriptures, as a directive to “tolerate and live in peace with others.” Similarly, Locke believed that such toleration suggested that “too much is made of the differences among Christians sects.”
After Samad’s lecture, Behnegar responded to Samad’s points and questioned whether the connection between Locke and Muslim liberals is as strong as Samad believes it to be.
“Christians put much more emphasis in faith than practice and submission,” he said. “The fact that Jesus never held a sword has more resonance in the Christian world than the Muslim.”
He also mentioned that while Locke dealt with interdenominational conflict, Muslim liberals, especially in the 20th century, deal with conflict among countries, colonial powers, and the desire to be both modern and Muslim.
“Professor Samad’s lecture was an excellent demonstration of how political philosophy can shed light on current affairs,” Behnegar said in an e-mail. “He helped both the students and the faculty see that old philosophic texts are not dead, that they are not parochial inheritances from bygone ages, and that they belong to our common humanity’s present and its future.”