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On one side, your lordships have the prisoner declaring that the people have no laws, no rights, no usages, no distinctions of rank, no sense of honor, no property; in short that they are nothing but a herd of slaves to be governed by the arbitrary will of a master. On the other side, we assert that the direct contrary of this is true. And to prove out assertion we have referred you to the institutes of Ghinges Khân and of Tamerlane: we have referred you to the Mahomedan law, which is binding upon all, from the crowned head to the meanest subject; a law interwoven with a system of the wisest, the most learned, and most enlightened jurisprudence that perhaps ever existed in the world. We have shown you, that if these parties are to be compared together, it is not the rights of the people which are nothing, but rather the rights of the sovereign which are so. The rights of the people are every thing, as they ought to be in the true and natural order of things.
–Edmund Burke, Final Speech at the Trial of Warren Hastings, May 28, 1794 in: The Works of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke, vol. 8, p. 51 (5th ed. 1877).
In America today, one of the lines of fringe political argument holds that the country is imperiled by the steady encroachment of Sharia law. The recent decision by a Canadian subsidiary of Campbell’s to introduce a line of halal soups was recently cited as evidence of Sharia’s growing influence. More accurately, however, it points to the growing market demand for halal products in the parts of Canada where the soups are being offered to consumers. Against this background, it’s interesting to note that the father of Anglo-American conservatism, Edmund Burke, had a broadly positive assessment of Sharia law.
Burke’s long focus in examining the law was a simple one: to what extent did law offer justice by holding all who came before it to the same standard; and conversely, to what extent was law a tool that unjustifiably placed arbitrary power in the hands of an elite governing class. Applying this test, he found Sharia noble and worthy of support by British colonizers because it held ruler and ruled to the same standard of lawful conduct, and indeed it contained a focus on what a ruler owed his subjects. Burke was also impressed with the concept of mercy built into the law; he found it moderate and restrained, especially considering the high evidence standards that limited the imposition of harsh sentences. Burke contrasted this with contemporary European law, in which horrible physical punishments were routine, death was decreed for even petty crimes, and the elites were held above the law by doctrines of immunity and divine right. Which legal regime better represented a wholesome view of justice?
A bit of context is important to understand these remarks. They were uttered in impassioned final arguments led by Burke for the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the British East India Company’s first governor-general in India. Burke was sickened by what he considered to be a corrupt and unjust colonial regime imposed on the Indians. It was one of the “twin evils” in the world he identified at the time (the other being the Jacobin rule in revolutionary France). In theory, the Company was a commercial enterprise that exercised temporal power only under agreements with the Sultan in Delhi and other rulers. In fact, under Hastings, the Company had carefully built its own raj across the subcontinent. It’s fair to say that Burke’s advocacy included a bit of zealous excess—indeed, Hastings has found no shortage of defenders even among contemporary historians. And it’s also true that Burke, in other speeches, found some points to criticize about Sharia. But his attitude was consistently on balance affirming and positive; for him Sharia represented an important step forward in human history because it embraced the concept of the accountability of rulers to the ruled. There is an excellent discussion of Burke’s attitude towards Sharia and the role it played in his philosophy and in the development of British attitudes towards colonial India in Michael Curtis’s new book, Orientalism and Islam.
Hastings, of course, survived Burke’s efforts to have him impeached. But in the end Burke’s target was less Hastings and more the rule of the British East India Company itself. Burke’s arguments continued to resonate for decades, and following the 1857 war, Britain finally decided to break “the Honourable Company’s” raj in India.
Listen to a performance of Aleksandr Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia (? ??????? ????) (1880) by the Staatskappelle Dresden:
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:
Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.
An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
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