Crito and the Islamic Social Contract

November 12, 2022

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

Crito and the Islamic Social Contract

Crito is another dialogue written by Plato about the trial and death of Socrates, dated probably around the same time as the Apology. It is named after Crito of Alopece, a wealthy Athenian who was a supporter and perhaps long-time friend of Socrates. Whether the dialogue is an exact telling of an actual historical event is anyone’s guess. It did however contribute to Western discourses on state justice, social contracts, and individual autonomy.

Socrates was found guilty by the Athenian court for allegedly denying the gods and corrupting the youth. Technically, Greek city states did not practice capital punishment or penalties involving bodily harm – there were exceptions, notably under tyrants – but citizens were instead ordered to “ostracize” themselves. The word they would use was “ostracon”, which was a potsherd with which they would write the names of those being voted out of the polis. Those who were ostracized by court order had to volunteer themselves to drink hemlock, a highly poisonous plant. Socrates eventually drank the hemlock and died.

Before that, however, Crito apparently visited Socrates before dawn in his prison cell. Socrates is calm and collected prior to his execution, which he attributes to his senior age – a man that is almost seventy years of age should be unafraid and well-prepared for death. Crito came with a plan to smuggle Socrates to safety. More important than the plan, though, are the arguments that Crito equipped himself with to persuade the dear philosopher: (1) Socrates’ death would reflect poorly on his friends, who would seem to have been too cowardly to save him, (2) Socrates’ friends are willing to pay any possible expenses, including a pleasant life in exile, (3) by staying, Socrates would be tacitly aiding the state in committing an injustice against himself, and (4) he would be leaving his children behind without a father. Crito exhorts Socrates to consider his reputation among the majority.

Socrates responds by saying that only the opinions of the educated should be taken seriously. This fits Socrates’ quasi-technocratic view that we explored earlier. An opinion’s popularity does not determine its validity. He gives the analogy of an athlete listening to the advice of his physician instead of his supporters. Socrates was not concerned about public opinion, and he expressed that the only relevant question is whether his escape from prison would be just or unjust. It is more important to live a virtuous life than live a potentially longer life.

He argues that the Law of Athens must either be accepted or rejected wholly – one cannot obey the law only when it suits him and disobey it when it doesn’t. Each individual law emanates from the same system, and that system is either legitimate or illegitimate. To break or disavow a law harms the entire system. An Athenian citizen is bound to the Law of Athens just as a child is bound to his parent, and that social contract is not a flimsy, whimsical bond. As a rhetorical device, Socrates creates a personification of the Law and speaks through its perspective. The idea of a personified law reminds me of Jesus Christ’s claim that he came not “to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17). The character of the Prophet Muhammad (s) was similarly called the Quran.[1] The Imams of Ahl al-Bayt are called the “Speaking Quran”. The most pious servants of God submit themselves so fully to His will that they become a personification of His law. Breaking the law is thus an offense to them and what they represent. However, for Socrates, Athenian law was probably not seen as godly or divine in a transcendental sense.

By choosing to live in Athens, a citizen reaps benefits from its Law. Socrates, as an elderly man, lived contently in Athens, and so, he argued, he should be in accord with his contract. Up to this point, he had consistently validated the social contract, and so it would be unfitting to become an outlaw when society rules against him. No civilization could respect his social contract again.

When Crito is no longer able to object to Socrates’ arguments, he confesses that he has nothing to say. So, Socrates responds, “Then let me follow the intimations of the will of God.” As a sidenote, this submission to God’s will is literally “Islam”. Whether Socrates was a strict monotheist is uncertain, especially considering the fact that we do not have any texts directly authored by Socrates. However, when we review the beliefs of his students, we can find some monotheistic ideas: Antisthenes, for example, seems to have believed that there was only one real God, who had no likeness in the world. He argued that there was no point referring to images or idols because they would not tell us anything of the nature of God.[2] Xenophon, another student of Socrates, reflects Socrates’ view of God as the hidden creator whose existence is realized when we think about the providential arrangement of the universe.[3] For Plato, there is a highest transcendental form of perfect goodness; and for Plato’s student Aristotle, God is the Prime Mover and He is at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being. There is no extant evidence that Socrates explicitly denied the existence of Athens’ gods, but he does frequently refer to a supreme God.

The question becomes, if maintaining a social contract can entail a loss as great as death, then what social contract ought one enter? Socrates was a citizen by choice – citizenship was not conferred to him by birth, but by voluntarily undergoing the dokimasia, a citizenship process in Athens. While Socrates was seemingly content with his contract in Crito, he and Plato were otherwise critics of Athens and its democracy. After all, if a polis could make a blunder as serious as killing its most celebrated philosopher, one should at least pose questions on its legitimacy.

Socrates is “guided by reason”, and reason plays a prominent role in Crito. Reason probably also brought him to the belief in a Creator. Xenophon’s Memorabilia has Socrates highlighting the divine provenance of the world and God’s role therein. Similar design and contingency arguments have been expounded upon over millennia, all of which are built on reason. Atheism, if anything, is built on the faith that a god must not exist, and it appeals to the unknowability of the role of reason in the contingency and the fine-tuning of the universe. Theism, at least, can be derived from inference. If any authority is to be accepted, it should be the One by whose authority all things were created and sustained by. This authority would have supreme knowledge and power, and it would be at least less fallible than any person or force in existence due to its relative omniscience and omnipotence. Hence, at the end of Crito, Socrates vocalizes that he has put his trust in the will of that God.

How is this will accessed? For Socrates, it is through both reason and an inner voice referred to as a daimonion. There is a lot of speculation as to whether this voice is a spirit, soul, conscience, deity, omen, or tutelary. What is clear, however, is that it serves as a sign that warns Socrates against mistakes. In the Islamic tradition, there is reason (`aql, kalam, mantiq, falsafa) and revelation (naql). One of the roles of revelation is to give answers to ethical questions that are not easily obtainable by reason. After all, moral systems that do not involve some aspect of divine command often fail on a basic level. For example, utilitarianism has few cogent arguments against safe incest between consenting adults, or even consented necrophilia. Utilitarianism also has blind spots when it comes to personhood, generational harm, non-physical harm, biological determinism, the rights of animals and other biological organisms, and value judgments. Evolutionary ethics, which has ironically become popular on the right, suffers at its core from the is-ought problem.

The problem with the divine command theory is the preponderance of competing religious worldviews. The existence and basic attributes of the supreme God can be established by reason alone, but how does one sift through the claims of those who say they represent this God? This is partly why the prophets performed miracles. Just as Socrates’ daemon acts as a supernatural sign, the same goes for prophetic miracles – they are an assurance that a prophet is speaking on behalf of a higher authority than himself. However, there are, again, many competing claims of miraculous power. While it is said that Christ raised the dead, no one alive today was there to witness it. For this reason, Muhammad (s), as the final prophet, was given an everlasting miracle in the Quran that can be observed long after his departure from us.

A man with no schooling put forth a book that would become the very basis of the Arabic language. It spoke of the past and the future in an entirely original way. Experts in the Arabic language have attested to its literary exceptionality, including Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, Jacques Berque, Edward Henry Palmer, and Angelika Neuwirth. The author of the Quran challenges its critics to find a contradiction therein (4:82) or produce a chapter in its like (17:88). The failure to meet these challenges suggests that it is consistent and inimitable. No book has been memorized or recited as much as the Quran. Within a few short years of its revelation, the Islamic civilization became the largest that the world had ever seen. It has stood the test of time and space by touching virtually every culture over a 1,400-year period. Islam is poised to be the largest religion in the world, with the Quran being its main legacy. Muslims of different denominations, who disagree on just about everything, all agree on the literary marvel of the Quran.

Even after lending our trust to Muhammad (s), the role of reason remains salient in Islamic theology and law in its vast kalam, usul, `illa, hikma, and tafsir tradition.

It is through reason therefore that one establishes the reality of the two testimonies – that there is but one supreme God, and that Muhammad is a messenger of God. Other religions, however, rely much more on faith and custom rather than on rational and empirical inferences. Christianity inherently begets a dichotomy between faith and knowledge, because its most central dogmas (such as the trinity and the atonement) cannot be known rationally or empirically. Even scripturally, concepts like monophysitism, miaphysitism, hypostasis, transubstantiation, and monothelitism had to be invented to achieve theological harmony. The faith-knowledge dichotomy necessarily begat the religion vs science frame, to distinguish faith from the rational and empirical. Even though Jesus is identified as logic (logos) itself, one cannot know Jesus, the trinity, or the atonement unless they are taught by another Christian; while the idea of a supreme monotheistic God is ubiquitous and derivable in every age and in every place.

A further claim in Islam is that human intuition (fiṭra) leads people to the belief in God and His way. Thus, fiṭra here would be an accompaniment to reason, and reason would not be operating purely in a vacuum.

The wisest social contract to enter, therefore, is with God and His Messenger. Muhammad (s) is a personification of the law that one should be careful not to abuse. Any social contract that is devoid of God is putting your trust in fundamentally shaky grounds. It is unclear when or why Socrates underwent the dokimasia, but he entered a social contract with a polytheistic polis, and was subsequently charged for denying the gods.

Errors in judgment can still occur in a society built on sharīʿa. In Islamic history, one incident comes to mind: it is reported that the Caliph ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib saw a Christian man wearing his lost armour. He decided to bring the dispute to a judge named Shurayḥ. The judge asked the Christian, “What do you say about what the Commander of the Faithful has said?” The Christian politely told the judge, “It is my armour, but I do not consider the Commander of the Faithful to be a liar.” The judge turned to ʿAlī and said, “O Commander of the Faithful! Do you have proof?” ʿAlī smiled and said, “Shurayḥ is correct. [The burden of proof is upon the claimant]. I do not have proof.” So, the judge ruled in favour of the Christian. The man took the armour and began to walk away. But then, he returned and said, “As for me, I testify that this is the wisdom of the prophets. The Commander of the Faithful himself has taken me to his judge and the judge has ruled against him! I testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. By God, the armour is yours. I followed the army while you were on your way to Ṣiffīn, and the armour fell from your luggage.” ʿAlī said, “If you have embraced Islam, then the armour is yours.”[4]

In this example, despite the authority of the Caliph and despite the character of ʿAlī, the internal logic of the sharīʿa overrode his claim. This is because, without the onus being on the claimant, people would be able to convict whomever they want, and this would be chaos. ʿAlī therefore submitted to his social contract with Islam for the greater good. Every system will have glitches, but the believer’s trust is with God, who promises to compensate the believer in other ways in this world and the next.

This example also demonstrates the invalidity of an authoritarianism that is designed to protect the leader at all costs. If the Commander of the Faithful can lose a court case, then anyone should be able to. A ruler should even be able to be taken to court. Even in the United States, there is a debate over whether a sitting president can face criminal charges – the Constitution is silent on this issue, and the Supreme Court has not directly addressed it.[5]

ʿAlī’s submission to the verdict is similar to Socrates’ in that they accepted the consequences of the society they have endorsed. Where they differ is that Socrates (or at least his students) was more critical of fundamental aspects of his society.

Would this be an endorsement of legalism? There are some laws in the sharīʿa that are stubborn and immutable (thawābit): as discussed earlier, some divine commands exist beyond the scope of reason. However, there are many malleable elements of the sharīʿa (mutaghayyarāt), different legal schools, and issues that are unaddressed entirely. This means that an executive body, a population, and a culture (ʿurf) can play a role in shaping, defining, creating, and implementing laws.

Crito brings up questions on individual autonomy vis-a-vis society. It goes without saying that, in any society, there is no such thing as unbridled autonomy, as that can undermine the community (ummah) at large. Just as Athens required a social contract from its people, the same goes for Hobbes’ Leviathan and nearly every society ever formed. The Prophet (s) said that the community is like one body; and this is true in Judaism and Christianity as well, which respectively refer to the community of believers as Israel, the Body of Christ and the Church. The believers’ hearts are with one another, and they empathize with each other’s suffering. They ought not be indifferent and unresponsive to community affairs. The goal of siyāsa is to civilize the individual and appeal to his higher self.

Ijtihād itself is an individual process where one makes personal judgments based on his pursuit of knowledge and/or consultation. In Adam’s vicegerency is his capacity for knowledge and speech, which requires a freedom to think and communicate within the scope deemed appropriate by the scholarly collective. The famous decree that there shall not be compulsion in religion (2:256) is balanced with the idea that God has ordained that differences of opinion will exist (10:99-100) and that He will settle these disputes Himself on Judgment Day (5:48). God made the decision to give everyone free will and time before He resolves our disagreements (10:19). In various exegeses discussing the revelation of “there is no compulsion in religion”, the common thread is that parents should not force their Jewish or Christian children to convert to Islam. The import of this verse, however, is not absolute, because the Arabs were forced to abandon idolatry after the Prophet prevailed in Mecca.

The primary concern of an Islamic society is to purify the public square. Personal privacy is respected and protected, but deeds such as fornication, adultery, drinking, apostasy, and others become punishable offenses once they reach the purview of a valid number of just witnesses. Open corruption only serves to normalize sin and undermine the social fabric of an Islamic society. Otherwise, the Quran emphasizes a sober return to individual responsibility, accountability, and duty – this is the founding ethos of Islam.

May God grant us the opportunity to enter a social contract with a just polity, and may we patiently bear the price of submission to His will.

[1] Sahih Muslim, hadith 746a.



[4] Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya wal Nihaya, Volume 11, pp 107.


Published Date: November 12, 2022
Topics: Philosophy
Category: Islamic History

Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
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