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This final chapter outlines the contours of a Christian political theology of law as an indirect and provisional witness to the divine rule, before considering how this approach might engage with Sunni political theology. The chapter develops a theological account of public law as a site of contestation where provisional and indirect witness to God’s rule is at stake. The law is a witness because it is never able to be or to usher in the rule of God; it is indirect because public law should be minimally concerned with the truth about God’s identity and nature; it is provisional since the law is always in need of critique and reevaluation and can never be finally settled. Following the comparative hermeneutic that has guided this book, the chapter then shows how such a theo-legal vision might engage with certain aspects of classical, modern, and contemporary Sunni Islamic thought and prove a productive framework for further debate and dialogue on three key issues in modern Islamic thought: (1) the nature of divine sovereignty and public law, (2) the distinctions between sharī’a and fiqh, and (3) the relationship between maqaṣid (the higher aims of the law), maṣlaḥa, and fiqh.
This chapter offers an intellectual genealogy of Muslim critiques of Christianity’s accounts of law and politics. It traces developments in Muslim critiques of Christian views of law from their initial focus on the corruption of scripture to contemporary arguments that connect the lack of a Christian sharī‘a with the rise of secularism. Ibn Taymiyya proves to be pivotal, combining early critiques of taḥrīf and the negative influences of Paul with a legal-political critique of Christian power. In response to colonialism, this legal-political reading of Christianity is expanded by a range of Muslim intellectuals into a critique of Christian response to secularism, Marxism, and societal injustice. The geneology argues that Muslim critiques of the secular are part of a longer discursive practice of distinguishing Islam from Christianity by way of taḥrīf and sharī‘a. Finally, the chapter considers what concrete challenges the Muslim thinkers present to a contemporary Christian political theology.
There are two dominant approaches to Christian engagement with Islamic ethics, both of which hinder understanding of sharī‘a, fiqh, and their place in Islamic political discourse. One claims Islam is theocratic and necessarily in competition with Christian views of the distinction between the spiritual and earthly. This perspective depicts Islam and Christianity as locked in a clash of religions that is rooted in the core scriptural and theological identities of both communities. The second approach understands Islam to be trapped by its past, but nonetheless able to evolve, as Christianity did in the West, through adopting secularism. Islam is at its core a religion of peace, but this truth is best realized when Islam follows the lead of secular liberalism by privatizing religion. Neither approach amounts to an honest engagement with Muslims’ own differing and diverse accounts of the importance of sharī‘a and the moral world that it imagines and ritually enacts. By relegating sharī‘a to only absolutist law, Christian theological engagement with Islam forgoes opportunities for genuine dialogue, mutual learning, and constructive disagreement in political theology.
Christians and Muslims disagree on issues of profound import regarding the nature of God’s revelation, the extent to which divine law is a sufficient response to the human condition, and the relationship between the divine rule and political power. These differences and the various scriptural, historical, and cultural contexts that have shaped them have created differing political and legal models – both within and between the traditions. They have also produced ample polemics and misunderstandings that continue to inhibit cross-religious understanding and debate. Islam often remains Christianity’s “theological enemy.” Even more recent sympathetic engagements with Islam, such as those by Hans Küng or Miroslav Volf, often either dismiss or avoid discussions of sharī‘a. More common, however, are continued tropes that interpret Islam and political theology exclusively in light of its most ardent state-centric Islamists.1
Debates about sharī‘a and its relationship to public law, political pluralism, and Christianity have been a dominant feature of recent political discourse. Unfortunately, Christian political theologians have failed to engage with the challenges raised by Islamic political theology, instead either essentializing Islam or focusing on broad questions of social diversity. To remedy this, the chapter develops a comparative political theological method for engaging debates over the law. By adopting a comparative approach, two routes that dominate discussions of political theology in Christian-Muslim exchange are avoided. One leans strongly on secularism and too quickly silences religious imaginaries and their critiques of modernity. The other reasserts the ultimacy of religious community against the secular, largely through reinscribing battle lines between Christendom and the dār al-Islām. The chapter concludes that debates regarding sharī‘a, secularism, and law can be productively reframed by attending to the history of debate over the law in Christian-Muslim encounter and the nuanced theological perspectives on law and sovereignty within both traditions.
This chapter offers a reexamination of three key figures that developed trajectories of Christian interpretations of Mosaic and later Jewish law, focusing on the distinctions that Justin Martyr, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther each create to interpret scripture’s accounts of law. Early Christian theologians consistently reconsidered the soteriological and moral importance of law, denying it pride of place in the economy of salvation. In contrast, public law was largely addressed through the lens of nature, culture, or creation. Israel’s laws were Christologically rethought, but the civil laws of the nations were by and large left to the realm of natural law. The process of making soteriological distinctions about the law resulted in an anemic account of public law that is highly critical of Israel and Judaism and overly positive on natural law. Even in Thomas’s highly developed theology of the law or in Luther’s instance on the primacy of the gospel, nature remains the governing category for building a Christian understanding of public law. Natural law and by extension public law was thus quarantined from critical interrogation.
Through critical engagement with Karl Barth, the chapter develops a Christian theology of law responsive to Muslim critiques. It opens by challenging Barth’s negative portrayal of Islam and the rhetorical connection that he makes between National Socialism and Islam. While criticizing Barth’s views, the chapter draws from Barth’s thinking on law and politics to respond to explicit Muslim worries about Christian politics in general and Isma’il Ragi al-Faruqi’s reading of Barth more specifically. This is developed through a close reading of three essays written between 1935 and 1946 where Barth develops the groundwork for a Christologically controlled theological politics. To draw out the potential of these essays, the chapter suggests ways that Randi Rashkover’s nonpolemical reading of Barth’s theology of law in the context of Jewish-Christian debate might be extended to Islam. While Barth’s thought provides important tools for a theology of public law – particularly the non-oppositional dialectic between gospel and law and his account of the law as witness – his theology is still hampered by fundamentally anti-Islamic rhetoric and a lack of concrete attention to public laws.
Sharī'a is one of the most hotly contested and misunderstood concepts and practices in the world today. Debates about Islamic law and its relationship to secularism and Christianity have dominated political and theological discourse for centuries. Unfortunately, Western Christian theologians have failed to engage sufficiently with the challenges and questions raised by Islamic political theology, preferring instead to essentialize or dismiss it. In Law and the Rule of God, Joshua Ralston presents an innovative approach to Christian-Muslim dialogue. Eschewing both polemics and apologetics, he proposes a comparative framework for Christian engagement with Islamic debates on sharī'a. Ralston draws on a diverse range of thinkers from both traditions including Karl Barth, Ibn Taymiyya, Thomas Aquinas, and Mohammad al-Jabri. He offers an account of public law as a provisional and indirect witness to the divine rule of justice. He also demonstrates how this theology of public law deeply resonates with the Christian tradition and is also open to learning from and dialoguing with Islamic and secular conceptions of law, sovereignty, and justice.
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