I was recently a speaker at a Georgetown University event called “Religious Freedom: Why Now?”—my main interest in attending, however, was not to speak but rather to hear the latest thoughts of two American public intellectuals. I was not disappointed.
At a dinner after the day’s formal proceedings and launch of Timothy Shah’s new book, Professor Robbie George—often called the “most influential conservative Christian thinker” in the United States—aptly introduced his fellow interlocutor, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, by saying that although in the United States “public intellectuals” were “often more ‘public’ than ‘intellectual’,” Sheikh Hamza embodied both traits. Indeed, he has been named the “Western world’s most influential Islamic scholar” according to a Jordanian think tank.
How would these learned men of Islam and Christianity converse? To Professor George’s thoughtful questions, Sheikh Hamza provided erudite, eclectically referenced answers. But one particular question and answer was the highlight for me.
“How has Islam influenced America?” asked Professor George.
What, gentle reader, would be your response? Or how do you think Republican presidential hopefuls Gingrich and Santorum would answer?
Sheikh Hamza responded with a question: “Who was the most influential thinker for our Founding Fathers?” to which Professor George responded that it was John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher. John Locke’s ideas, of course, were made manifest by the early leaders of the United States, and are reflected in the Declaration of Independence as well as the U.S. Constitution. That John Locke has influenced the United States is not in doubt, but whom and what influenced John Locke?
Sheikh Hamza highlighted several strains of Locke’s thinking that were deeply contrarian to prevalent Christianity in England at the time, especially Locke’s embrace of the unitarian nature of God and rejection of the Trinity. For this, John Locke and his circle of friends were accused of being “Moslim” by several of his adversaries. Locke’s teacher at Oxford, Edward Pococke, was also accused of being Muslim at one stage because of his studies in Syria. Chair of Arabic at Oxford University, Pococke translated the Muslim theologian Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy al-Yaqzan,” known in English as “The Self-Taught Philosopher.” This work, an allegory, was an ideational precursor to the philosophical writings of the European Enlightenment. Pococke’s introduction to Locke of such Arabic works in translation immensely influenced Locke’s political thought on “inalienable human rights,” as expressed in his famous Two Treatises of Government (1690).
The bottom line? The hubris with which many Western intellectuals attack Islam and Muslims, and the ignorance with which Islamist activists distance themselves from the United States, is intellectually fraudulent. The works of Muslim thinkers on codifying human rights, known to Muslims as maqasid al-sharia, directly impacted John Locke’s writings, which then influenced Americans’ calls for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The modern Middle East, and the public space of the United States, desperately need the revival of this overlooked history highlighted by Sheikh Hamza. By understanding this mutual debt of civilizations, we can contain the anti-Americanism on the rise in countries like Pakistan and Egypt and also minimize the Muslimphobia that sweeps through parts of the United States.