While researching my forthcoming book, “Sharia Versus Freedom—The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism,” I discovered the work of an iconic contemporary Ismaili Muslim intellectual, Asaf A. A. Fyzee. As a law professor consummately trained in Western methods of research, he guided several generations of Indian students on how to prepare and present cases before the secular courts of law. More importantly, but related, Fyzee’s writings and pronouncements reveal a Weltanschauung—revered and highly influential within the Ismaili community—germane to the near hysteria (for discussions, see here, here, here, and here) over Texas Governor Rick Perry’s association with the Ismailis.
Asaf Ali Ashgar (A.A.) Fyzee (1899-1981) began his legal career in 1926, as an advocate in the High Court of Bombay, a post he held until 1938. Simultaneously, in 1929, Fyzee began his academic career by teaching law at the Government Law College, Bombay, where he became the Principal and Perry [no relation to Rick!] Professor of Jurisprudence from1938-47. Subsequently Fyzee also served as Ambassador to Egypt during 1949 to 1951. From 1929-49, Fyzee was on the managing committee on the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, and the joint-editor of the Branch’s Journal. From 1933 to 1949, he acted as the honorary secretary of the Islamic Research Association. He also had the distinction of being an original associated member on the executive committee of the edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. Fyzee produced some 150 publications, ranging from short essays to fifteen monographs, textbooks, and various editions and translations of Islamic theological and legal texts. Fyzee’s classic Outlines of Muhammadan Law, had four editions published (1949-74), and he was also the foremost contemporary authority on Ismaili jurisprudence, a field Fyzee introduced to modern scholars.
Fyzee was a deeply committed advocate of Islamic modernism who pressed the need for a dramatic re-interpretation of Islam and Muslim law in the contemporary world, a theme he frequently reiterated in many of his writings. Despite an unsurprising apologetic attitude toward Medieval Islamdom at its cultural apogee, Fyzee unequivocally decried an Islam since that long bygone era whose “spirit was throttled by fanaticism,” its theology “gagged by bigotry” and its core vitality “sapped by totalitarianism.” Ever the Western-trained legist, Fyzee lamented,
It is as if Islam lies imprisoned by a tyrannical government where the writ of habeas corpus does not run.
And Fyzee was equally frank in his prescription for curing these ills during the modern era:
What is necessary to be faced is that a Muslim living in a secular or a modern state must have the freedom and independence to obey fresh laws; and new legal norms, whether related to the shari’ah or not, will have to be forged. It is becoming increasingly clear that something good and legal may be entirely outside the rules of shari’ah, just as, surprisingly enough, some rules which are unjust and indefensible may occasionally fall within the orbit of acts permitted by the shari’ah…The first task is to separate logically the dogmas and doctrines of religion from the principles and rules of law. To me it is an axiom that the essential faith of man is something different from the outward observance of rules; that moral rules apply to the conscience, but that legal rules can be enforced only by the state. Ethical norms are subjective; legal rules are objective. The inner life of the spirit, the ‘Idea of the Holy,’ must to some extent be separated from the outward forms of social behavior. The separation is not simple; it will even be considered un-Islamic. But the attempt at a rethinking of the shari’ah can only begin with the acceptance of this principle.
Ultimately, Fyzee hoped that such difficult, wrenching changes would release a
…bright spirit of joy, compassion, fraternity, tolerance, and reasonableness, and modern man will be the happier for its [i.e., the Muslim community’s] presence
Given the aggressive, mainstream irredentism in the global Muslim umma (community)—often masked for unwitting infidel consumption by doctrinally-sanctioned taqiyya (see here, here, and here)—vigilance is always warranted. But Fyzee’s modernist vision appears to have been widely respected and inculcated amongst Ismailis, which validates clear-headed engagement with this community. Governor Perry’s interactions with the Ismailis need to be evaluated in this larger context.