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Posted by on Dec 13, 2007 in faith schools, Ibrahim Lawson | 8 comments

Ibrahim Lawson: latest response

For those arriving late – this is an ongoing dialogue between myself and Ibrahim Lawson, head of a Muslim school, (and of course, many others), focusing on his remark that “In any good Islamic school, Islam is a given and never challenged”.

Ibrahim now writes:


It is good that you have raised the issue of ethics and morality as this brings us closer to the live issues we began with. It was useful to thrash out a few metaphysical matters, albeit superficially, and I fear we must return to this ground sooner or later, even though, in view of recent events in Algeria for example, it sometimes feels as though we are indulging in intellectual speculation as ‘the luxury of the weak’

However, by shifting the focus in this way, we introduce a new element: that of ‘authority’, and associated concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘will’.

We can rephrase the non-question “why be rational?” as an inquiry into why we should feel obliged to be rational; what authority does or should rationality have over us? Why? How?

And similarly, ‘why be moral?’- and ‘why be religious?’- become: ‘what authority does morality have over me?’- or God? Or indeed any discourse or text?

It seems to me helpful to distinguish three elements: the authority, in the sense of that which has to power to command us (the authoritor?); the submitter to authority, i.e. the one who accepts that command (the authoritee?); and the relation of authority itself, the sense in which it is a power to command.

In ethics, there are two commonly held explanations: the deontological and the teleological. There are also some unsuccessful attempts to dissolve the problem, such as Ayers ‘emotive’ theory that ‘X is good’ is merely a way o saying ‘I like or approve of X’ which merely shifts the burden of explanation onto the purported ‘objective correlative’ of the emotion: what exactly is it that I approve of?

I think Kant’s deontological view, that if we act from any motive of desire for a specific end (i.e. teleologically) then we are not acting ‘morally’, is correct. This seems to entail, however, that the ‘moral law’ (‘do the right thing’) is necessarily empty, since any substantive justification of a moral action provides extrinsic, practical grounds for its desirability. Thus, someone who gives to charity ‘because it is the right thing to do’ cannot say “it is right because etc etc” since what ever might complete the sentence would give reasons for doing the act which would describe the outcomes of the action and make those the justification instead. For example: … it benefits those less fortunate than myself; …. I feel guilty if I don’t; ….society is a better place thereby; … it makes me/them happy; etc. Desire is not a moral power.

The question also then arises as to what is ‘good’, in the specific moral sense, about the intended outcomes, and then what is good about that, and so on until we arrive at some foundation for ‘good’ which is not justifiable by referring to the concept of ‘good’; is ‘good’ without explanation; simply IS good. And this doesn’t answer the question about what it is we know when we know something is ‘good’.

This probably seems much too convoluted to many people; but the relevant point is that unless we have a viable theory of morality, we cannot explain our moral judgements, even to ourselves; i.e. we don’t understand them and cannot use them in an argument against people who we disagree with on ethical grounds. Call it general scepticism about morality.

Then we re-assert the principle you invoked before in reference to rationality: that ‘unjustified’ or ‘unexplained’ does not equal ‘immune to critical review’. Then I ask again, where do we go from here? If we cannot without circularity use rationality to justify reason, or ‘good’ to justify moral judgements, to what criteria can we resort for the, shall we say, ‘warrantability’ of rational, or ethical, or, moreover, religious judgements? Whatever we use will be no more ‘rational’, ‘moral’ or ‘religious’ than the definition of ‘true’ can be true.

And I don’t see that such scepticism condemns us to nihilism, that we cannot be true, good or reasonable. I just resist the idea that we have to define these things so narrowly, so ‘technologically’ I want to say, as to create problems for ourselves.

Returning to the issue of authority, wherein lies the prescriptive power of morality? From where do we get the sense that we should not steal, or example? Is it simply that we would not like it if someone stole from us? If so, what is moral about that? No, I think there is a ‘naked’ sense of duty, of obligation, but what is that? Ethics has no answer, which is why many, orthodox, Muslim theologians refuse to engage with the matter.

Again, why do we feel obliged to accept the dictates of reason? Why do I feel I have to accept the truth of the conclusion of a deductive argument whose validity I have accepted along with the truth of its premises? (I’m not saying I don’t feel I have to, just asking what the authority is here).

And why do I feel that I have to accept the authority of Allah and His Messenger?

It may be that the nature of the authority relation in each case, moral, rational and religious, is different, as is the nature of the authoritor.

Now, Stephen, it seems to me that we return to the issue of freedom which you appear to invoke in a previous posting. Does ‘I am free’ mean ‘I am my own authority’? (This seems preferable to other explanations, which have their own problems).

If so, how could we explain that? Is it true in all cases? In moral issues you claim it is. Would it hold true for rationality?- and religion? Or are we left with mere assertion, hence your own difficulty in supplying a supporting argument?

In moral issues, I do not see that we can explicate the prescriptivity of moral propositions in terms of some external agency, but only in some sense such as ‘I will (in an active, not modal sense) that I do good’. Indeed, Kant says that the only thing that can be morally good is the will and I think I agree with him. Inasmuch as we have free will, we are able to act morally, but there is no rational explanation of this freedom according to him. (His ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals’ contains the arguments). Was Kant therefore not a moral person?

Of course he was; he was also religious, and famously said “I will that there be a God.”

Since the enlightenment owed much to philosophers like Kant, perhaps we should not dismiss his words lightly but try to understand what he meant by this.

Having rehearsed these preliminary ideas, and arrived at the Enlightenment, I would like to turn to your recent postings, and in particular the idea of liberalism.

Much of what you recount strikes me as revealing of the almost naïve utopianism of liberal thought, which is characteristic of much similar ‘technological’ thinking. By this I mean the kind of thinking that sets up an idealised, theoretical description of some human situation which it then finds impossible to justify or to implement in practice.

John Rawls provides an example in his proposal of the ‘veil of ignorance’ in his attempt to justify our intuitions concerning justice and fairness. The bare, rational intellect which he posits as the essence of the human being behind the procedural veil of ignorance – neither male nor female, young nor old, black nor white, straight nor gay, rich nor poor, Muslim nor Christian etc – and therefore able, indeed obliged, to judge impartially and fairly, exists only as a theoretical construct. Moreover, the perfect society we might imagine such intellects, once embodied, would then go on to form is a lovely idea, but frankly, isn’t going to happen. Most people are never going to be able to be their own authorities, however much we might like that to happen.

And, paradoxically, total personal autonomy, or authenticity (Eigentlichkeit in German; Heidegger has an interesting and pertinent discussion of this in Being and Time) leads, I believe, to a kind of reflexive annihilation which I prefer to understand as ‘submission to the will of Allah’, but that is another story.

I can already hear the cries of ‘Islamo-fascist!’, so to attempt to divert this knee-jerk reaction, I must say that I do not subscribe to the view that it is right to withhold moral responsibility from children; I do believe we should teach them to think and to question; we must equip them with the skills necessary to assume moral responsibility to the extent that they are capable and to resist tyranny and all the other noble qualities of character that Stephen refers to as the fruits of a liberal education. But I do also accept that there is one absolute, benign and eternal authority: Allah. We just have to understand better what that means and what our relationship is to Him.

Now I realise that some readers will now be thinking that they have no idea what I am talking about and that, in any case, whatever it is has nothing to do with the attitudes and behaviour of ‘normal’ Muslims. I can’t help that, it’s normal; as Nietzsche said: life is tragic – only death is perfect.

Finally to your question: “Perhaps Ibrahim could now summarize his case for saying Islamic schools should present Islam as a “given” that is “never challenged”? Why, exactly, is this a good idea?”

I agreed with this comment ‘off the cuff’ so to speak during a radio program, and I stand by it. Islam is a ‘given’ for Muslims in the sense that it is where we start from. Why? Well I hope I have gone at least some way towards explaining that, though the nature of that ‘givenness’ has taken some unpacking and may not have been entirely successful in your eyes. Islam is ‘never challenged’ (again not my formulation of words) in the sense, not that it is not interrogated, but in that Muslims do not imagine that there is a viable alternative, which there isn’t.

This is a good idea because anything else leads to literally endless confusion as we search for the justification of our imaginary explanations and authorities (false gods). Meanwhile, people are dying.


  1. “Most people are never going to be able to be their own authorities, however much we might like that to happen.And, paradoxically, total personal autonomy, or authenticity (Eigentlichkeit in German; Heidegger has an interesting and pertinent discussion of this in Being and Time) leads, I believe, to a kind of reflexive annihilation which I prefer to understand as ‘submission to the will of Allah’, but that is another story.”Now we are not arguing for the position that people should be their own authorities. But I do argue that the people should have a say in what constitutes authority, that is the authority should be amenable to arguments and change. If authority should be amenable to arguments and change it must be open to scrutiny which is just what you do not want. You do not want to subject your ultimate authorities Koran and Mohammed to scrutiny and change.It is like this revealed religions like Islam and Christianity are like proprietorship companies where the person to whom the “Word” was revealed remains the ultimate authority and hence beyond question. Hence they are religion made by a single man for society. But in non-revealed religions like hinduism and non-religions like atheism it is like a public limited company where it is the group that determines the laws for that group. Hence they are “religion” made by the group for how an individual should function in that group. What we are arguing for is that it is the group that should determine the laws of that group and members of that group should have a say in changing the laws of that group to accomodate future conditions. What you are arguing for is a set of laws carved in stone about 1400 years ago by a bronze age nomad to be the laws for everyone for all time without it being subject to any change by anyone who follows it.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. On false gods…Allah is the Islamic god who told Mohammed that Islam is the one true faith and that all prophets are mortal, while, contradicting him the Christian god insists he is part of the trinity, so that the prophet Christ is actually immortal? Oh, and, Jews are god’s favourites (not Muslims) aren’t they? Or is that another god? Which of these is the false god? All of them? So many one-true-gods to choose from.Or maybe they are ok, and it’s only when an atheist doesn’t buy into any of them that you accuse the atheist of worshiping false gods? Don’t you think the atheists themselves should be allowed to determine whether their atheism represents a god at all? Which of course they repeatedly tell you it doesn’t.

  4. Mr Lawson,Your response as a whole would take some unpacking. Very difficult to follow. I accept I’m not a theologian or a professional philosopher, but I’m not unintelligent. But I really don’t get the point you’re making.However, and I think this is more to the point, I suspect that the majority of Muslims don’t get any of this either – particularly children. And in the meantime their indoctrination into Islam still sets the background for them to be persuaded, on the basis of that authority, to do some terrible things: here. (The Apostate) Meanwhile, people are dying, as you say. “…not that it is not interrogated, but in that Muslims do not imagine that there is a viable alternative, which there isn’t.” – There’s not going to be much interrogation there then, is there, if there’s a complete imagination failure. “Meanwhile, people are dying.” And you criticise atheist supporters of critical thinking for not getting the point of Islam. It appears the Muslim mind is already turned off.You say, “This is a good idea because anything else leads to literally endless confusion as we search for the justification of our imaginary explanations and authorities (false gods). Meanwhile, people are dying.”I don’t see anything helpful in that last statement. I could equally say, and ought to have to justify, “This is a bad idea because Islam leads to literally endless confusion as we search for the justification of our imaginary explanations and authorities (false god). Meanwhile, people are dying.”

  5. Ibrahim’s argument seems to be that morality cannot be derived from consequences or the desire for certain outcomes, because you then have to explain what is ‘good’ about those outcomes, which seems to lead to an infinite regress until you actually define goodness itself. Morality can only be a purity of will–that is, the willingness to do good without reference to desired outcomes. Doing what we want is not moral; morality is doing what is good without regard to our own wishes. This purity of will, Ibrahim claims, can only be achieved by surrendering the will to the perfect good, God. And since most people just aren’t very good about thinking about morality, they need to be told what to think anyway, and liberal education is based on a pipe dream. Seeing it stated so baldly, I think I know why Ibrahim took such a roundabout way to say it. There are several problems here. The first is the deontological conception of morality. Morality does not exist without people. There is no good or evil in nature, only in our perception of it, and this moral perception inevitably derives from the effect of natural events and human actions on human beings. A deontological view of morality removes other people from the picture, and from that point on, all talk of morality is nonsense. The second is Ibrahim’s search for a perfect good. But the perfect is the enemy of the good. Perfectionists despise real progress simply because it does not measure up to their dream–and left to their devices, nothing will ever get better. It is better that we want, not perfect. Better is good enough for today–and today is really all we have. Third, the relationship of desire to morality is far more complex than this. Our own desires may thwart morality, but the desires of others must be taken into account. Torture is wrong not because of its physical harm (there may be none) but because it so completely violates the desires of others. The relationship between will and desire is complex too–are they not, at some level, the same thing? Yes, we can use will to thwart our appetites, which we also call desires, and desires in this sense are said to be the source of all suffering. And yet, isn’t the purpose of a moral education to inculcate in us a desire to do good? If so, then it is impossible to be moral by Ibrahim’s representation of Kant’s view. Kant’s approach to morality was too suspect of people’s own wishes. The fact that one may enjoy doing something good for another person does not make it any less good–it is only Kant’s insistence that it is that leads him to the deontological view. One could have a community of perfectly good people, who are all quite happy to be perfectly good, and this would not, in any way, make them less good. The desire to do the right thing does not make it any less the right thing. Indeed, it would be highly surprising if a moral person detested being good; would this not, in and of itself, challenge his claim to being a moral person? In all likelihood, this continual battle against ones own nature would not produce a saint, but a bitter, sanctimonious, and joyless prig. Purity of will is also highly problematic; this strikes me as nothing so much as a kind of narcissistic sentimentality. Sentimentalists love the idea of other people rather than the people themselves, and they follow a road to hell littered with good intentions, precisely because they pay little actual attention to others or to the consequences of their own actions. This is not morality. This is narcissistic self-justification.Finally, in sacrificing our own will to God, what is our intent? Is it really a devotion to the Good, or is it the sanctimonious self-certainty that we are right, and that we cannot be challenged? I suspect that for a depressingly large proportion of religious believers, the motivation is the latter, and it therefore matters little to them whether the conception of God that they submit to is benign or monstrous. As Dan Dennett puts it, they believe in belief, and their faith is its own justification, quite irrespective of its moral content. There are as many pitfalls in submitting to God as there are on any other moral path. If one is searching for a way to be good, the blind assent to the first religious interpretation that comes along is the wrong way to go about it–and yet this is precisely what is advocated in Ibrahim’s school.

  6. O_owhat???

  7. To Elentar,Thank you for summarising Mr Lawson’s argument so clearly. My personal feeling on ethics and morals in a complex world is this; we are adept at spotting injustice in certain situations. However, as technology changes our world it becomes harder to understand what ‘good’ might mean.For example, Huntington’s disease appears to be caused by a genetic defect in chromosome 4. If you have this defect we know for a fact that around mid-life you will succumb to a number of well-defined symptoms and eventually lose your mind and die. This is a fact. If your doctor discovers this when you are 18 years old, should he tell you or keep it from you? If he tells you he could be condemning you to pointless self-pity and perhaps suicide. If he doesn’t tell you he is stopping you from deciding how best to spend the years you do have. And anyway, what right has your doctor to know this and keep it from you?So, in a world that has many shades of grey does religion guide us in our response? I say no, it does not and cannot; worse still it appears to claim that it can but unless you know the future outcome of your actions how is this possible for anyone? Perhaps Mr Lawson would claim that this is exactly why he submits to a ‘higher authority’ to which I would ask, how does he know God is a higher authority?

  8. I’ll try to respond to Ibrahim’s piece today at some point….

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