Individual-Communal tension and argument for citizenship in ‘Islamdom’


Nawaf Salam, a Lebanese diplomat/scholar, claims that ‘Orientalist’ scholarship, including of course the work of Bernard Lewis I cited earlier on this blog, makes a mistake in claiming that Islam privileges communal over individual. Since modern notions of citizenship privilege individual liberty, it follows that a discourse puts premium on communal identity is in conflict with the former.

The oriental scholarship does acknowledge the presence of an emphasis on individual deeds, such as manifested in the idea of individual responsibility for both good and bad deeds. This is also so in some strands of thoughts within Islam that claim direct mediation between the man and the God without an intermediating clergy. Yet, as Nawaf puts it, “the main trend in “Orientalist” studies considers that these principles stressing the unique worth and individuality of human beings were defeated by a practice that increasingly subjected the individual’s freedom and autonomy to the welfare of the community and the interests of the state. ” (Emergence of Citizenship in Islamdom, 1997, Arab Legal Quarterly, p. 131). However, Nawaf argues on the basis of evidence from practice of Islamic law that its practice has been dominated not by a privileging of communal over individual by a tension between the two.

So is individual-community dialectic in Islamic discourse similar to the private-public distinction in Western societies? Nawaf is attempting to establish the premises for an argument about emergence of citizenship in ‘Islamdom’. Whether the argument is convincing [or not] is a different matter, but the effort is interesting inasmuch as it betrays a recognition that the term ‘citizen’ cannot be simply transplanted from one society to another without first creating the discursive [or political] conditions that enable such transplantation.

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

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