The Islamic and Western social contracts

January 5, 2010
Proffessor Fathi El-Shihibi

For a long period of time I was searching for the right answer to explain the ongoing contention between Islam and the West regarding most aspects of life from the attitudes towards faith, to the views governing rationalism, to the definition of democracy and human rights.

I needed an answer that transcends all other answers which I consider either incomplete or lacking in one area or another.

An answer such as Islam's emphasis on certainty as opposed to the Western creative doubt being the corner stone of Hobbs' utilitarianism but most importantly the age of the enlightenment, actually stands out as being the closest to a genuine and plausible explanation.

What finally enabled me to find what I believe is the genuine answer was my being acquainted with the Arabic/Islamic as well as Western cultures due to years of schooling, firsthand observations and research.

I was reading about the Western social contracts according to Thomas Hobbs, John Lock, David Hume and Jan Jack Rousseau among others when it occurs to me that central figures in Islam beginning with the prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors or caliphs have in one way or another articulated and outlined a social contract for the Muslims that guide all aspects of their lives.

The Islamic contract I intend to briefly outline is not limited to the marriage contract but is inclusive of the fundamental and innate ethical and practical source of the Islamic morality.

To actually learn the main tenets of the Islamic social contract one needs only read Prophet Muhammad's farewell sermon on the mount to the Muslims before his death in the year 632 AD.

However, since the main thesis of this article is to briefly compare the Islamic and Western social contract and consequently arrive at the main source of contention between the two entities we will start by defining the fundamental tenants of the two contracts.

The first is the innate nature of human beings. While Thomas Hobbs concludes that humans are innately selfish therefore free will has to be placed in check by implementing laws that sets boundaries and maintain peace between citizens of the state, in the Islamic contract humans are innately unselfish but can become selfish not by fault or design but due to outside circumstances that trigger impulses such as need or greed.

According to the Quran man is born in a natural state of submission and true repentance can return one to a sinless state as in the Christian dogma.

Selfishness in Hobbs' views can also be seen as a manifestation of the original sin which does not exist in the Quranic version of the story of creation and the fall.

The second concerns power and authority. Whereas Hobbs see power and authority as reciprocal between the central authority hence the state that enforces laws and the people who invest the state with that power, the Islamic social contract and being derived from the Quran, maintains that power first and foremost belongs to God.

God, being the ultimate authority, delegates some of that authority to the leadership that delegates it to the people through divine laws. Muslims in turn surrender their power and destiny to God being both all powerful and eternal through their Islamic rituals including the confession of faith, the daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, giving unselfishly to the poor and the needy and the pilgrimage to the Abrahamic shrine in Mecca.

In essence while Hobbs' social contract is a two way relationship between people and authority, the Islamic social contract sees authority as being central thus maintaining a circular motion that begins and ends with God being the ultimate authority.

The last aspect of this comparison relates to the purposes and priorities of human existence. This is actually an extension to the contracts' definition of human nature in addition to human destiny.

On the one hand Hobbs maintains that humans are free to fulfill their needs, be those materialistic, emotional or physical while abiding by certain moral and ethical codes not necessarily of divine origins. The Islamic contract, on the other hand, ascertains that it is selfish to focus on the material fulfillment at the expense of the spiritual one.

Also to be a good Muslim and a model citizen is to maintain a balance between the two dimensions of one's existence hence this life and the life to come ensuring in the process material and spiritual gains. A Muslim's contract is with God not the political authority.

Hobbs social contract acknowledges the existence of confirmed and hypothetical certainties. These being human existence in the natural world and the existence of the universe and both are propelled by mechanics hence action and reactions. The Islamic contract confirms two certainties meaning earthly and divine existences.

The former existence can be proven by the Quran and the natural world and the latter by the testament of the Quran. Once these three basic dimensions of the two social contracts are established and understood everything else eventually falls into place just like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

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