Muslim individualism, Christian corporatism

The key to the seemingly anarchic or ‘irrational’ growth of the Muslim city may lie in a singular fact of the Shari’a law:  the absence of the Roman-law concept of ‘legal personality’.  In Europe, the public right is an abstraction which can be upheld by defending it in law as a ‘legal person’.  Litigation between the public and private interest can therefore–for civil purposes–take the form of an adjudication between two parties.  In criminal law one party is always the state, which brings a case against a suspected criminal as though it too were a legal party on par with the accused.  This principle applies not only to the state but to companies and corporations, groups of individuals endowed for the purposes of the law with legal personalities.

The absence of juridicial personality in the Muslim law may not have been an oversight:  it is certainly consistent with the uncompromising individualism of the Shari’a.  Many aspects of Roman-Byzantine law and administration were taken over by the Arabs…but in the public sphere the Shari’a seems to have taken no steps to define the interests of the community vis-a-vis those of the individual….

This absence of a juridicial definition of the public sphere had far-reaching consequences.  Islamic law did not recognize cities as such, nor did it admit corporate bodies.  Whereas in late medieval Europe the cities came to be administered by powerful corporations representing the merchant classes, the Muslim city remained in certain respects a collection of villages in which the group interests of families predominated over class interests….In a discussion that covers much of the same ground Pervez Hoodbhoy evaluates the role of Islamic law in inhibiting or preventing the emergence of autonomous cities and corporations and of a self-confident bourgeoisie able to withstand the arbitrary power of dynastic government, a prerequisite for the scientific and technological revolution which gave birth to the modern world….

To add a few links to this argument I suggest that in the West the Church, the ‘mystical body’ of Christ which alone guaranteed salvation, became the archetype in law of a whole raft of secular corporations that suceeded it during the early modern period.  The mystic qualities of fictional personhood originating in the Body of Christ were eventually devolved to joint stock companies and public corporations with tradable shares.  Western capitalism and the bourgeois revolution that accompanied it has a distinctly Christian underpinning (one that is paradoxically ‘Catholic’ rather than ‘Protestant’ in origin, as Weber famously claimed, because its legal foundations are rooted in the idea of the Church as a distinctive body separated from society and infused with divine authority)….The corporate group becomes the vehicle for the accumulation of capital.  The burghers continually reinvest their money in the company which, crucially, not only transcends the sum of its individual members, but exists for eternity, just like the Church.  Whereas Islamic law requires that a merchant’s estate be redistributed amongst his kin upon his death…the capital invested in the western corporation may continue to grow…Hoodbhoy comes close to recognizing the significance of this process in registering a concluding irony:  ‘Paradoxically, a superior moral position–the right of the individual to interpret doctrine without the aid of priests–appears to have led to a systemic organizational weakness which proved fatal to Islamic political and economic–not to speak of scientific and technological–power in the long run.

–Malise Ruthven, from Islam in the World, pp. 167-170

5 Responses

  1. Trinitarian theology via Tertullian from early on presented God using the legal language of persona. That God is a relationship of persons has undoubtedly fed into the RC social teahing-

    Malise Ruthven’s Islam and the world is a first rate source on Islam, the observation of pagan features and demythologising is refreshing it is a shame the author displays a very poor understanding of RC.

  2. But this weakness may become strength. The degeneracies of the Bourgeois cannot threaten a people who limit their power. Even in our middle ages the Bourgeois were kept in small chartered towns. They did not rule. And that was a source of much of our virtue.

  3. Hi Mark H.

    I also very much like “Islam in the World”, except for the author’s modernist sympathies that come out at the end.

  4. Hi Anymouse,

    That’s a good point. I don’t feel as positively about bourgeois ascendancy as that quote seems to. However, I think this inclination towards corporatism is more fundamental and wide-ranging than that particular application. (As “Islam and the World” notes, it’s also key to our political and religious organization.) It may be one of the key distinguishing features of the West. I would have to know more about other civilizations to be sure. It’s an intriguing idea, though.

  5. […] rather than Islam, identifies a core difference between Christian and Muslim societies.  (See here for a more extended […]

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