Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Forgotten History: U.S. Founding Fathers and Muslim Thought

by Ed Husain
March 6, 2012

Hamza Yusuf, left, a cofounder of Zaytuna College, chats with another employee at the college in Berkeley, California in 2010 (Reuters Staff/Courtesy Reuters). Hamza Yusuf, left, a cofounder of Zaytuna College, chats with another employee at the college in Berkeley, California in 2010 (Reuters Staff/Courtesy Reuters).


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.


  • Posted by 'Uthmān

    Excellent! Please refer to John Makdisi’s “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law” and Rose Wilder Lane’s “Islam and the Discovery of Freedom”.

    Plus, despite whatever issues you may personally have with Yasir Qadhi, he has a good lecture on this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-p8-3nvsewA

  • Posted by Mike Diboll

    An interesting article, with which I broadly agree. Certainly the Islamophobic and “Muslimphobic” discourses, and their anti-Western and anti-American counterparts are intellectually fraudulent.

    Perhaps the post over-emphasizes the importance of transmission of specific Arabic-expressed ideas from Pococke to Locke to the Founding Fathers. I prefer to see things in terms of broader cross-cultural interactions.

    Certainly Enlightenment thinkers were more open to and better informed about Arabic-expressed and Islamic ideas that their forebears in earlier stages of Europe’s intellectual history. But of course this was also a time when European thinkers were reaching out to other extra-European intellectual traditions, such as the Vedic and Sinic traditions.

    I taught the Enlightenment several times in the UAE and in Bahrain. An interesting discussion topic was “Has the Arab World Had an Enlightenment?”, provocatively picking up on a line of thought articulated by people like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.

    Another was the discussion “When Was the Arab Enlightenment?” Some students would cite the mainly Egyptian-led and largely derivative Enlightenment of the second half of the C19th and first half of the C20th, which begins when Muhammad Ali Pasha starts sending students to study in France and England.

    Others would cite the rise of Islamic rationalism which begins with the Arab encounter with Greek- and Syraic-expressed thought in Syria in the C9th, and then develops as an intellectual trend in its own right up until around Ibn Khaldoon’s time.

    The discussion then would lead to the European Enlightenment’s debt to Arab thought.

    BTW, the title of Ibn Tufayl’s book is in fact حي بن يقظان /hayy ibn qadhaan/ “Alive, Son of Awake”, not “Hayy Al Yaqzan”.

  • Posted by Kurt Werthmuller

    Ed, I appreciate the sentiment in here – and have a bit to contribute below – but I suspect you’re overstating the direct impact of these Islamic writers on Locke and friends. For example, it would be a stretch to suggest that their unitarian theology was directly inspired by the Islamic doctrine of tawhid. Deism – the central belief of Locke and most Enlightenment writers – stood on its own as a “rational” theology, as they construed it, to counter “irrational” Christianity, which had been at the core of such bloodshed in Europe for centuries.

    Without likewise erring by overstatement, I’d suggest that a more important influence came through the Averroes-Aquinas intellectual path. Aquinas may have rejected the former’s distinctly Muslim conclusions, but he was directly and deeply inspired by that intellectual-philosophical framework of rational inquiry. In a very real sense, the trajectory of Western European thought through Scholasticism, Renaissance Humanism, and the Enlightenment came about because of that connection.

    I’m not arguing anything original here, of course, but it’s worth revisiting and publicly acknowledging this intellectual relationship.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking topic!

  • Posted by Saira

    A beauitufl written piece, thank you Ed Husain.

  • Posted by Independent Patriot

    I find this reasoning incredulous. Because someone studied in a Moslem country and was accused of being Moslem by his adversaries does not make him a Moslem scholar. Locke being influenced by Islam is convoluted rhetoric. Perhaps what needs to be explored is how much influence iconoclast Moslem thinkers may have had on Locke. But that would be Moslems who basically rejected Islam and its tenets just as Locke rejected the Christianity of his day.

    As far as the common law, that is legal code wholly created by English society. Developed over eons going back to the Magna carta and actually based upon ancient Roman law. The idea that Sharia had anything to do with it flies in the face of history and an understanding of the development of both common law.

    I personally would like to know what human rights, or any of the rights found in the Bill of Rights, happen to be codified in Islamic law? Where is the concept of contract-government and the government or rulers being subservient to the people? If so are not the Moslem nations that practice honor killings, gender apartheid, capital punishment for anti-Islamic sentiment, promote homicide bombings, fgm, denigrate Judaism, call for genocide against Israel, and murder Christians, etc (I could go on) actually then in violation of their own religion?

    No I am not against learning where Locke may have developed his theories, but the need to rewrite western philosophical history in order to make some feel comfortable is political correct nonsense. Truly, Mr. Husain your thesis needs to be expanded and more thoroughly explained.

  • Posted by athar murtuza

    Mr Independent Patriot.

    you should start by reading the following:

    The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage by Maria Rosa Menocal

    You should also read up on items mentioned in one of the earlier commented above:: John Makdisi’s “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law” and Rose Wilder Lane’s “Islam and the Discovery of Freedom”.

    Also you must look up this page belonging to a professor at Columbia University: http://www.columbia.edu/~gas1/saliba.html

  • Posted by Anon

    there is an organization devoted specifically to educating non muslims on these principles. They lecture at universities, go an speak to tea party groups, and have a good relationship with the Libertarian Party. muslims4liberty.org at their website you can find a print copy of a lecture their director gives on this topic.