“For Every Three Judges, Two Are in the Fire”: Richard Posner and the Usul al-Fiqh
I’ve been reading Richard Posner of late, and it strikes me that there is an odd analogy between the his vision of the pragmatic judge and the position of the judge under the classical usul al-fiqh of Islamic law. It seems to me that ultimately Judge Posner’s theory of adjudication rests on a radical rejection of the ex post perspective. On his view all judicial decisions are — and ought to be — forward looking, focusing solely on the consequences for the future that will come from deciding one way rather than another. Of course, a concern for future consequences needn’t preclude a certain respect for past practices, expectations, and rule of law values, but none of this stuff has any force in and of itself. It only matters in so far as it impacts the future. One of the implications of this theory is that the judge can never hide behind the “the law” as a way of distancing him or herself from moral responsibility for her decisions. The law does not dictate particular results in any case. Rather, it is always a matter of the judge making an individual — albeit practically constrained — judgement about what would — all things considered — be best. One doesn’t get any sense that Judge Posner spends much time thinking about the personal moral status of the judge, but it seems to me his theory makes the judge into a radically responsible moral agent. If the consequences of one of Judge Posner’s decisions is really bad, it really is Judge Posner’s fault.
Where Judge Posner’s theory of law is radically ex ante, the theory of law (usul al-fiqh) proposed by the classical Islamic jurists purported at any rate to be radically ex post. In theory, all human legislation is a denial of the sovereignty of God, a kind of blasphemy. Rather, a righteous society follows God’s law. This law, however, is finished and complete, indeed according to the dominant theological approach in Islam it is uncreated, a co-eternal emanation of the divine mind. The task of a jurist is to discover the divine law as revealed in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammed. Put in more concrete terms, the classical Islamic jurists claimed that every rule necessary for the proper government of society could be discovered — not deduced from or promulgated in accordance with — with the sacred texts of Islam. At this point in their theory, however, the jurists came up against the ultimately unsystematic and ad hoc nature of the Islamic revelation. The Qur’an is not a legal code. Rather it is a collection of “recitations” — often in the form of religious poetry — given by God to the Prophet, often in response to concrete questions or problems raised by the early Islamic community. It was only in the generation after his death that these “recitations” were collected into the Qur’an. Not surprisingly, it takes some nimble exegetical gymnastics to transform this religious ur-stuff into a functioning body of substantive law. What haunted the classical jurists was that they might be wrong in their exegesis. As Marshall Hodgson has written, for a Muslim “every person, as such with no exceptions, was summoned in his own person to obey the commands of God: there could be no intermediary, no group responsibility, no evasion of any sort from direct confrontation with the divine will.” Hence, there was no sense in which a jurist could hide behind some abstraction like office or “the law” to shield himself from full responsibility for his judicial decisions. He was to apply the law of God, and if he got it wrong he was responsible for that mistake.
According to one Muslim legal aphorism, “For every three judges, two are in the fire.” The fire in question here is the hell reserved by God for judges who do not apply His law. Indeed, there are stories of great classical legal scholars who fled from Baghdad at the prospect of being made an actual judge by the Caliph. The reason was that once one moved from exegetical speculation to deciding actual cases, one’s eternal soul was on the line. I don’t think that Judge Posner is much worried about hell fire, but ironically his radically ex ante approach leaves him in a similar moral position personally to the radically ex post approach of the ulema.