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THE separation of what is “private” from what is “public” may in some sense be as old as human existence itself. However, the escalating emphasis on the private domain, and the central concern for protecting that which is private from prying intruders, has in our times gained unprecedented intensity. Governments have long infringed on the private space of their subjects, and in our time astonishing technological developments and mind-boggling electronic communication devices have come to the aid of governments in threatening private boundaries. What demarcates the Public from the Private undoubtedly depends on a complex set of cultural, political, and economic factors , and as a result of the interaction between such factors the line of demarcation inevitably has had to shift. From among the cultural factors, religion stands out as one of the most decisive components in delimiting the two spheres. Religions distinctly recognize and sanction a sphere of private action for individuals. In Western religions—that is, the Abrahamic traditions—human identity and individuality are emphasized through the recognition and sanctioning of private life. The present paper aims to shed some light on the debate around notions of the Public and the Private in Islamic culture. How does Islam, as one of the vibrant religions of the contemporary world, differentiate between the public and private? What is the extent of privacy in the Islamic point of view? What similarities SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) An Introduction to the Public and Private Debate in Islam MOHSEN KADIVAR and differences are there between the Islamic and Western perceptions of privacy? In general, what are the distinguishing characteristics of Muslims’ private lives? Does the extent of private sphere change, or perhaps shrink, in a society that is run according to Sharia (the Islamic tradition)? What is the extent of government authority, including that of a religious government, regarding an individual’s right to privacy? What is the Islamic point of view on such concepts as the individual, family, society, and government? The present paper takes proposes an introductory, yet innovative , discourse for formulating a framework for a meaningful discussion of questions like these. It provides an introduction to an otherwise complex subject. The basic distinction between that which is private and that which is not can be visibly discerned in the fields of Islamic ethics, law, and jurisprudence. A systematic discussion of the private and public domains, however, as independently significant subjects of inquiry, remains undeveloped. Here we shall first present a brief description of what we mean by the two concepts, and then proceed to establish the principal tenets of our reasoning. Drawing on two corollaries derived from our definition of privacy, we present the Islamic point of view based on two axes, namely the forbiddance of unwarranted inquiry on the one hand and, on the other, recognizing the right to freedom in action. We then turn to issues of relevance to the private domain, namely the Islamic principle of “ordaining good and forbidding evil” (al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar), the legitimacy of governmental regulation (hisba), and the extent of the authority the Islamic state exerts. In conclusion , we emphasize the need for a heightening and intensification of a sense of religious conscience on an individual basis. 1. The Meaning of Privacy and Private Matters The terms “private” and “public” are not rooted in the heart of Islamic doctrine. The two terms occur neither in the Qur’an nor 660 SOCIAL RESEARCH in the traditions conveyed from the prophet and the imams. Islamic jurisprudence does not recognize these terms either. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to explicate what we mean by these terms in the first place, and then to attempt to locate within the Islamic tradition what may be the closest references and rulings regarding these concepts. “Private” and “public,” as intuitive and obvious as their meanings may appear, are not amenable to straightforward definition. No unanimity obtains with regard to their meaning either. Three distinct yet related meanings may be gleaned for what is “private” from the available literature (Boruch, 2001: 1267): first, that which is personal or exclusive to the individual; second, that which one would...


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