Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Discourse of Conscience - Some Thoughts

One might argue that the very concept of conscience is a peculiarly European phenomenon, engendered by the historical accidents and processes of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. Conscience is thus predicated upon a notion of an atomic, independent and Promaethean self that stands apart from the cosmos and from God and is able not only to reflect upon himself and judge himself but others as well. If this is the case, then surely we are faced with a major incommensurable obstacle when attempting to discern the notion of conscience and its ‘demands’ in pre-modern and non-European society. But I would argue, as others have done for the pre-modern period, that the notion of the self is not the invention of Shakespeare, or Galileo or even Descartes. Rather, it rests on an abiding human desire to accept the ‘illusion’ of free will and of a self that can command and exercise that will. Where there is a sense of deliberation, an awareness of one’s agency and a reflexivity and ‘inwardness’ of that agency coupled with the notion of a knowing ‘I’ that experiences and has consciousness, we have a notion of a self, and that is not restricted to the intellectual history of Europe from the fifteenth century. One might appeal to the notion of the Platonic-Aristotelian notions of the contemplative self and of ‘inner speech’, or to the spiritual crises and confessions of Augustine of Hippo or al-Ghazālī of Ṭūs (d. 1111) or even more broadly to the medieval Sufi practices of contemplation (mushāhada), divine remembrance (dhikr) and self-accounting (muḥāsiba) for instances that attest to the notion of the self. But the self is not necessarily prior to human agency but also a construct of it through its narrativity. Sequence, interrelationship and the constant juxtaposition of sameness and otherness through time define the self as the continuant that abstracts from the experience of agency. So while the history of the self in Europe might be contingent upon certain processes and revolutions, the self still exists as a concept beyond Europe. One way in which we might approach these other notions of the self is to examine the functionality of the self and the role of conscience within it.
The philosophical notion of the conscience cuts across traditional demarcations of philosophy. Since we are to a large extent in a cognitive framework indebted to Kant, we should start with an epistemological notion of conscience as the epistemic act of a knowing and judging subject with regard to his agency that is extra-mental (as well as intentional). Legal intent determines whether a case in Islamic law is subject to process. In terms of the philosophy of the mind, conscience depends upon a notion of intentionality and consciousness, a will and awareness of the self. In Persian, this ambiguity between conscience and consciousness is expressed by the same term vijdān that is and was used for both. Finally, with respect to moral philosophy, conscience addresses the problem of deontology and a thorny question of whether deontic propositions are a priori, how one might know them and whether there is validity to the claims of moral objectivism. This theory is usually based upon an ontological observation that man has an original, primordial nature (fiṭra) that inclines it towards the good, and it is this nature in which he was created. This nature brings with it the notion of moral obligation (taklīf) that is imposed upon every rational believer who has made the choice to believe and live as a Muslim. Once man had accepted this obligation and the need for moral agency, his conscience became the prime mental agent in enforcing the taklīf. God directly addresses the human conscience repeatedly in the Qurʾan, urging moral probity and righteous action. Moral obligation brings to the fore the prime existential question of being defined through agency, an awareness of the Qurʾanic warning that the life of a believer is arduous and a series of trials. The complementarity between faith and works is expressed though the refrain that occurs frequently in the Qurʾan addressed to ‘those who believe and do good works (alladhīna āmanū wa ʿamilū ṣ-ṣāliḥāt). But the moral nature of conscience determines the intent that is the measure of those works, since as a famous Prophetic saying goes,

Verily works are a matter of intention and upon every one shall devolve what he intended.

Thus if one’s intention (niyya) and inner faith are good and pure, then one’s outer actions may go contrary to them especially if one’s life is in danger by affirming the faith. It is the intention that precedes and validates the act. The role of moral philosophy is to guide this process by facilitating ‘correct thinking’ and ‘good deliberation’, and inculcating in the individual the sense of moral obligation (taklīf) and duty. It should guide man to find a medium between the demands of his conscience and the extrinsic demands of the law and state. Piety (taqwā) is not just a matter of outward action and as the Qurʾan attest, it is the true measure of man. The word taqwā rendered as piety denotes fear and awareness of God and affirms the sovereignty of God over the inner self and over his conscience. This allows for the doctrine of dissimulation (taqiyya), whereby a believer may profess something contrary to what he believes in order to safeguard his life, his family, his community or his confession. The Qurʾan sanctioned the denial of the faith to safeguard one’s life allowing for such an indulgence (rukhṣa) and doctrine to develop. Given the matured concepts of orthodoxy that were predicated upon the construction of heterodoxy as the other, taqiyya as a moral and defensive principle was mainly taken up by the persecuted minorities especially the Shiʿa in the Ottoman lands and in Mughal India. As Devin Stewart puts it,

Taqiyyah is a principle of social interaction developed by a minority community with stigmatised status surrounded by a discriminatory and potentially oppressive majority.

But the basic paradox remains since moral action pits sincerity (ikhlāṣ) against insincerity (riyāʾ), as moral action is valid only if it is conscious, intended and one is capable of realising it. Man continues to judge conscience in terms of action. However, conscience functions as a moral guide and judge and allows for the correspondence between good and correct intention and moral action within a community and social context. Not only does it judge value but it also distinguishes spheres of authority, demarcating the sacred from the profane and the self from the other. Thus the demands of conscience pit the self against some corporate identity or authority that is extrinsic such as the state or society. Moral obligation requires that one enjoin morality in the public sphere, a duty known as commanding the good and forbidding the evil (mar bi-l-maʿrūf wa nahy ʿan al-munkar). All the three discourses that we shall discuss juxtapose the individual’s sense of right and the good and correct action against that of a larger communal identity. We should also keep in mind two principles drawn from legal casuistry in Islamic law, which help to explain these discourses of conscience, at least as far as the letter of the moral and divine law requires of the morally obliged individual. First, the validity of moral concepts is confined to certain boundaries and one has to determine whether or not an individual case of moral agency falls within those boundaries. This moral minimalism allows for service to the prince as long as casuistically, that service is not direct, whether in terms of renumeration or command. This is based also on a theological distinction between a direct (mubāshar) and indirect (mutawallid) moral action. Second, casuistic thinking allows for hypothetical exposition of moral issues and for flexible interpretation, given the related position that was held by the Ḥanafī legal school, the school that had established status both in the Ottoman and Mughal Empires, that there were no legal universal consequences of action. Similarly, a whole literature dealing with legal loopholes (ḥiyal) developed that revealed the stark gap between the letter and the spirit of the law, between ethics and the law as practised. It justified the use of legal instruments such as preference (istiḥsān), necessity (ḍarūrat) and the common good (maṣlaḥa) to bypass laws for cases said to fall outside their remit. This is further dependent on a distinction between the law (fiqh) as formulated by jurists in a state and the divine immutable moral law (sharīʿa) ordained by God.

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