Like many moderns, Khaled Abou El Fadel conceives of Islam as a system, one largely defined in the Islamic legal tradition. He draws from this tradition to advocate democracy; others draw from it to advocate what Malise Ruthven calls Islamo-fascism. (Similarly, Israeli liberals have drawn from the Bible and Jewish values to argue for a liberal democratic state of Israel, while others like Ovadiah Yosef argue from the same sources for ethnic cleansing and caste-like discrimination. American abolitionists and slavery’s apologists alike argued from the Bible.) “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” should convince those Muslims who believe that democracy can only be an alien ideology in Islamdom, and those Westerners who think Islam disables Muslims from authentic liberal democracy.

But is Islam a system, and is its political philosophy derived from Islamic law? I think the ethnographer or historian would have to part company with the Muslim legal-political philosopher. It is only in the twentieth century—perhaps only since the 1930s—that Islam has been conceived of as a self-subsistent “system” in the sense we see it here. Even Islamic jurists in the pre-modern period recognized that government included administrative rules with no religious content or grounding. Furthermore, Muslim ideals have been shaped as much by Iranian and Greek political and philosophical ideas as by Muslim ones. When even a jurist like al-Ghazali writes about governing, he explicitly and implicitly draws on non-Islamic sources and notions of why we have government and what good government requires. “Islamic democracy” need not be justified solely in Islamic terms.

Islam is a repertoire, not a schema. Even in its own terms Islam is and has always been multivalent. It’s hard to think of a religious tradition that has, as a matter of religious doctrine, made a larger space for difference—“In difference is mercy,” as the Prophet’sHadith declares. Within the Sunni denomination there are four schools of law, seven or fourteen acceptable recitations of Qur’an, six canonical works of Hadith, and so forth. So when someone refers to “Islam” (which is challenged by “democracy”), a historian asks first, “which Islam?” Of course Muslims have to choose among the various Islamic possibilities. For the ethnographer or historian, the question is not “what is Islam?” but “which Islam have Muslims chosen to construct?”

As Mary Douglas has pointed out, institutions are pertinent to the social and economic conditions within which they exist. Incongruent institutions, like ideas, wither and disappear. So it is not enough that Abou El Fadl provides a smart reading of Islamic legal-political theory, one that finds the essence of democracy in Islam. The “practical hurdles that democracy faces in Islamic countries,” as he writes, can’t be ignored when we assess the persuasiveness of Abou El Fadl’s arguments about Islamic democracy. For instance, if the people invading, ignoring, or otherwise intruding on Muslim lands and cultures deploy Abou El Fadl’s arguments to justify their actions, these arguments become stigmatized by association with the wrong being done to Muslims. If defense, resistance, or self-assertion seem to be the most urgent demands of the moment, the Qur’anic emphases on justice and mercy central to Abou El Fadl’s argument will be displaced by other Qur’anic texts urging Muslims to protect themselves, and to resist and defeat externally imposed tyranny. Muslims will choose whether democracy is an Islamic form of government, and not just on the basis of which side has the most or best texts. In other words, while Abou El Fadl’s enterprise is essential for democracy in Islamdom, it is not sufficient. HisSpeaking in God’s Name and The Authoritative and Authoritarianare ur-texts for an Islamic alternative to obscurantist and fundamentalist Islamic politics, but the actual effect of his arguments is hostage to forces which he does not control.

I have to confess, however, that I liked the essay and found his reorientation of the tradition rigorous yet never polemically dishonest to the sources. Still, I was struck by the essay’s asymmetry. So much of comparative ethics or politics takes for granted the perfected state of liberal Western politics, or at least political theory. All that’s left for the comparativist is to find, amidst the slag of other traditions, nuggets to refine and mold into a faithful image of Western notions and practices. Isn’t there anything for us to learn from the comparison, or is comparison mostly an act of missionary charity?

Obviously I think there is something to be learned besides how special we are. One point in Abou El Fadl’s essay is suggestive and though there isn’t space here to make the case entirely, perhaps it is worth pointing to.

Toward the end of his essay, Abou El Fadl discusses the notion of democratic “rights.” He believes this has an Islamic analogue in the concept of “haqq (pl. huquq).” He rightly rejects the idea that Islamic ethics is an ethics only of duties, or is collectivist and not individualist in orientation. Yet by trying to shoehorn the European terms droit, rights, and recht, into haqq he impoverishes the discussion. If we understand haqq as “right” we get confusing notions like “the rights of God”—what could that mean? I think it is not quite correct to say that a haqq arises “from a legal cause brought about by suffering of a legal wrong.” In Islamic law, the term is better understood simply as “(justified) claim.” A claim arises when one is in the right, proleptically or after some legal fact. God does not suffer when someone commits felony theft, but the sanction is God’s claim against the thief for his or her transgression. (The victim of course also has a claim for the recovery of property.)

The fact is, ordinarily we tend to use the term “right” without noticing that a “right” requires a surrendering of something by someone else—whether it is power, freedom to act, or something more tangible. “Human rights” are claims that require states or governments to restrict their power over the actions and bodies of individual subjects, just as my “right of way” requires that you yield your right to proceed. The phrase “rights of the Palestinians” is not just an abstract appeal for nice things to happen to them, but claims against a state, or states, that require limiting or surrendering the capacity that raw military power otherwise gives them. Clichéd doublets that are regularly invoked—“right to work,” “women’s rights,” “right to life (of the fetus),” “right to choose (by a woman)”—all are claims against someone or something. They have costs. There is something almost retributive about rights, when considered in their social context. And my point is only that when we enter into the comparative discussion honestly, we can, in this instance, learn about “our” conceptual world (and perhaps be corrected or enlightened in the process) as well as “theirs.”

So yes, at a theoretical level a democratic system could be authentically Islamic as well as democratic—if circumstances permit. Whether they permit is not entirely in the hands of Muslims—or at least Muslims like Khaled Abou El Fadl. It is doubtful whether evolving Muslim ideas of democracy will be or need to be constructed only from Islamic sources. In addition, it is also worth wondering more radically whether liberal democracies and their proponents are liberal enough to learn from, among others, Muslims.