Islam as a modern ideology; An Overview

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Abbas Kelidar

The civilisation of Islam has had religion as its fundamental inspiration. Religion has also served Muslims as a primordial identity, and the basis of communal loyalty and political allegiance. The universality of the faith, coupled with the centralised administration of Muslim states, ensured that the determinants of political identity were expressed mainly in terms of religion and religious association rather than nation, territory, race or ethnicity. However, the transformation of the Muslim community from a single entity into nation- states has been particularly significant. This change has led Muslims to accommodate all modern ideologies within a religious framework; providing historical justifications and precedent to such an extent that Islam has been equated with ideological political prescription. In this pursuit Muslims have adopted and adapted a number of political concepts and procedures within the Islamic Scheme of things. For the last two hundred years Islam has also been associated with revolution; identified with progress demanding tolerance and liberty. Western concepts like constitutionalism, parliamentary democracy and mass political organization have all been given an Islamic flavour. The initial notion of Islamic modernism soon gave way to the adoption of the idea of the nation-state and nationalism; only to be transformed into the concept of Islamic socialism and revolution. These notions have been advocated and pursued with extremely strong conviction.

The ideologisation of Islam is not a new political phenomenon; it is as old as Islam itself. It has been inherent in the faith since its inception. The purpose of the Islamic mission is not simply to do good and avoid evil, but to construct a perfect and righteous society –where divine will prevails and sovereignty belongs to God alone. Under such divine provisions the state becomes a community of God where the believers are administered by divine ordinance. This perfect order can not countenance change or improvement. Under this purview the purpose of government is essentially executive and its basis becomes primarily ideological. The ideal Islamic state can be said to be perfect and immutable. The function of government in Muslim society is to defend the faith and protect the community. Followers of the faith need not bother with the dynamics of the state nor politics in the abstract. Nor are they to be concerned with comparative constitutions.

Thus Muslim political theories start from the basic assumption that Islamic government exists by virtue of a divine ordinance enshrined in the Sharīʿa.  Political science is not an independent discipline under which social and political phenomena can be studied methodically, except as an integral branch of theology.[1]Muslim study of statecraft was dominated by two distinct disciplines directly concerned with the study and interpretation of the Qurʾān and Ḥadīth, or Prophetic tradition, the body of texts which makes up Muslim religious laws, the Sharīʿa. these were the religious and the legal dimensions that are interwoven in the Qurʾān. The first discipline was Theological, that of acquiring positive knowledge, ʿilm, which underlies the study of Theology, and the second became known as ʿfiqh, denoting law and concerned with the fall comprehension of the legal implica-tions of this knowledge to issue rulings and laws known as fatwas.[2] Both disciplines have direct bearing on the political arrangements by which Muslims have been governed.

Under the rule of the Prophet, who founded the Muslim umma (community) and state, and who became its political leader, spiritual head, and ruler, there was no need for jurisprudence. No distinction existed between the powers of God and those of Caesar. God predominates as the sovereign of the universe, and the Prophet Muḥammad taught and governed on His behalf. Divine authority sustained the Prophet in both tasks, the revelations embodied in the holy Qurʾān provide the substance and his prophecy the basis of his authority.[3] Islam therefore recognizes no distinction between religious and secular activities: it does not distinguish between the spiritual and the temporal realms. Both realms form a unity subject to the all-embracing laws known as the Sharīʿa. in theory, therefore, the state in Islam is an essential part of the divine law. This law is eternal; it represents absolute good and precedes the existence of society and its body politic. The study of law, politics or government is not an independent or empirical study but is the practical dimension of the religious and social doctrine preached by the Prophet.[4] Thus the foundation of government in Islam is laid down in the law of God, the Sharīʿa. The purpose of establishing the Muslim community and the function of its government were clear and straightforward. ʻThe community exists to bear witness to God amid the darkness of this world, and the function of its government is essentially to act as the executive of the law.ʼ[5] This bestowed on the Muslim polity the attributes of a political society, later of a civil society of imperial proportions; as well as a religious community governed essentially by divine laws. Religion replaced other primordial loyalties- tribal, ethnic, and racial. It became the basis of corporate identity and political allegiance.

After the death of the Prophet various strategies and contingency plans were drawn up to deal with the situation, but none was universally accepted. It was recognised that the Prophet was the last and only executive commissioner of the divine will. Until his death he had been the fountainhead of all legitimate action- executive, judicial and legislative. His prophetic status could not be shared, inherited or emulated by his successors. The Qurʾān and Ḥadīth remained the essential sources and rudiments for all religious interpretation. While the Prophet's spiritual and prophetic function, the proclamation of the divine message of Islam, was complete; his religious, administrative and political work were to be continued by a deputy, khalīfat or caliph. Though the holder was regarded as the spiritual head of the community, the office of the caliph, which became the great institution known as the caliphate, was an improvisation. It had no basis or substance in religion. No specific arrangement for the succession had been enunciated, and no rules had been promulgated before the death of Muḥammad. The caliphate was born out of the existential necessity to carry the massage of the Prophet forward.  Muḥammad's ʻdeputiesʼ, the caliphs, could not fulfil all his functions. The Prophet had combined his religious and spiritual function with his secular and temporal role in the community. The caliph was not so endowed: he could not expound or interpret the faith. His duty was to uphold the divine ordinance of Islam and protect the community from internal challenges and external threats to its existence and well-being. It was also considered incumbent on the holder of the office of the caliphate actively to engage in the extension of the frontiers of Islam until the whole of humankind was won over.

Muslim political formulations, that became the rudiments of Muslim political theory, are primarily concerned with the position of the ruler or the imam, the spiritual head of the community. They were predicated on an ideal that was constantly contradicted by the objective reality of Islamic political life. The main preoccupation was the question of the selection and deposition of the ruler. A schism emerged over the question of who should be the khalīfa of the Prophet and how was he to be selected. Though there was a wide degree of agreement on the attributes and qualifications he should possess, the question was also bedevilled by important differences. To the majority of the Prophet's disciples an initial insistence on consensus, ijmāʿ, was of paramount significance to safeguard the unity of the community. Its advocates, who became known as ahl al-sunna wa al-jamāʿa, represented the mainstream of Sunnī orthodoxy. The Sunnīs agreed with the Shīʿīs that the successor must be a kin of the Prophet, but differed on the definition of this requirement. The Sunnīs though it sufficient that he should be of the Prophet's tribe, Quraysh. The Dhīʿīs were not content with mere tribal affiliation, they stipulated that the Prophet's successor should be a member of the Prophet's own family, down the choice to his cousin and son-in-law, ʿAlī, and ʿAlī's direct descendants through the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. They also agreed that the unity of God, the universe and the faith demanded that there should be only one supreme Muslim ruler on earth, to represent divine will and enforce the law.

Under Ummyad rule the Shīʿīs, however , went further, and adopted the doctrine of divine light, whereby the imām held office by divine appointment. As such there would have to be only one imam (or khalīfa): the only rightful candidate, known only to his predecessor.[6] The introduction of this doctrine had serious political implications. It questioned the legitimacy of Muslim became somewhat stagnant with the disappearance of the twelfth Imān in the 9th century. Before the disappearance of the last Imām two offshoots of the Shīʿīs, the Ismāʿīlīs and the Zaydīs insisted that there must always be an inām present to guide the community at all times. None the less, the Khārijīs were the most radical of all Muslim factions. They rejected both Sunnī and Shīʿī formulations about the succession. They saw no reason for confining the succession to a member of the Quraysh. They also rejected the hereditary nature of succession advocated initially by the Shīʿīs and subsequently adopted by the Sunnīs, albeit in a monarchical fashion, and came to the conclusion that any Muslim of sufficient merit and worth could become the imam. There would be no restriction of eligibility by descent or status as long as the imam was freely chosen by the community. Having been chosen as leader he would remain so as long as he retained the consent of the faithful.

Muslim statecraft was not a matter for philosophical speculation, and the jurists were embroiled in the God-given law of Islam. Many found themselves in no-man's-land and devoted their lives to worship and religious as well as mysticism. Others attempted to influence rulers to conform to the basic tenets of Muslim holy law; while some became rebellious against the status quo demanding change in the name of God and the faith. As principles of wisdom, and a certain latitude to use personal judgement in deciding between traditions and their applicability gained ground and credence, the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence were laid on the basis of Iijmāʿ (consensus),qiyās (analogical reasoning and deduction) and maṣlaḥa (generally viewed as public interest). This formula led to a dynamic period of Muslim political thought which was, however, lost when it was decided in the third century of Islam to close the avenue of continuous interpretation (on the grounds of growing knowledge) commonly known as the bāb al-ijtihād. The formal legal doctrines and definitions of the various schools of Muslim jurisprudence shared a substantial on the more important matters and have remained more or less the same for almost ten centuries while the state has continued to drift away from religion. The drift was accompanied by the certain of an official religious establishment to assist secular rulers to maintain a semblance of religious orthodoxy. Jurists, muftis and shaykh al-islāms became government officials of dubious independence, more often than not catering for powerful rulers. Outside the official realm, political, legal and theological interpretation of religious tenets depended on the attitude, outlook and inclination of individual interpreters whose motivation was constantly the desire to bridge the gulf between theory and practice. Individual Muslims, however learned or poorly versed in the intricacies of the studies of the Sharīʿa, can device, have devised and will devise their own ideologies as to show they want to be governed. Those ideologies have been inclined to chart a religious course towards the salvation of Muslims in this world and the one to come.

In the latter half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century the Muslim world witnessed a proliferation of schools of thought advocating various ideologies, not only concerned with the revival of Islam but also with determining the nature of political power and authority in highly differentiated polities. Their quest is for the ideal state that the Prophet had set up as the fundamental aim of Islam. The development away from this ideal had been neither sudden nor swift. Nor was it the result of deliberate acts by Muslims. The state had simply continued to move away from religion under the relentless movement for modernisation in the 19th century. It was further compounded by a fundamental discrepancy between theory and application in the evolution of the Muslim concept of the state and its political dynamics. The demands of the new ideologies were at variance with the strict application of religious laws meant to ensure universal justice, righteousness and eternal salvation. What appears to have made this possible is the Muslim desire to contemporaries the arrangement for Islamic rule under western influence. Another and more long-standing reason was the desire to bridge the gap created between theory and practice in the conduct of Muslim public affairs. In the absence of a divine formula for government in Islam, together with the lack of an institutional framework after the death of the Prophet to determine the nature and extent of political action, the task of determining rights and obligations had fallen immediately to the Prophet's successors, later to Muslim theologians and jurists and eventually to civic rulers within the newly emergent nation-states.

Following the crisis of rule after the death of the Prophet a dichotomy developed between the idealised concept of the Muslim state under the Prophet and the reality of the existing situation. The ideal Muslim state became an aim to be aspired to and the existing reality became a condition to be tolerated but often rejected and resisted. In this malaise the ideologisation of Islam was given an impetus that has been nurtured over the centuries. The quest for the idealised religious state injected an activist dimension into the Muslim body politic, which has continued to the present. It provided a millenarian feature, a salient feature of many revivalist religious movements. As jurists and Muslim thinkers pondered political realities, the development of Muslim statecraft simply deepened the disparity between theory and practice. The jurists have had neither the means nor the power to alter the realities of politics. Furthermore they could not change the fundamental basis of their political thought. The quest for the idealised religious state motivated many Muslim movements, injecting an activist dimension into Muslim politics. They aimed for an almost unattainable ideal- that of emulating Muslim rule under the Prophet and his immediate successors. This ideal, despite the obvious difficulty of attaining it, has become a salient feature of all revivalist Muslim movements throughout the centuries.

The primary concern of Muslim jurists has been a strict adherence to the faith, enforcing conformity and excluding dissent. The inevitable outcome has been the development of a certain degree of rigidity and regimentation as the corpus of religious laws and regulations were compiled and codified to become the body of Islamic jurisprudence. Moreover, it has been impossible to study politics as a completely separate discipline outside the confines of Islamic jurisprudence. Vital issues such as the nature of the state as a corporate organisation, authority, power the variety of government institutions, methods of electing rulers, limitations of power, individual rights and obligations could not be examined and assessed except within the jealously guarded laws of the Sharīʿa. the right to disobedience was articulated by the Prophet when he enjoined the community that there was no duty of obedience to sin. Islam therefore sanctions not only a right but also a duty to disobey under certain circumstances, though the conditions giving rise to such situations have not been defined. Nor has the arrangement been institutionalised. There was no mechanism or institutional framework by which the performance of the ruler could be examined and assessed. Nor was there a clearly defined formal procedure for the removal of a ruler except by outright defiance, challenge and rebellion. The absence of a recognised institution or legal agency to secure the enforcement of rejecting or removing a given ruler allowed the right to disobey to rest on mere exhortations issued by jurists to rulers reminding them of their religious obligations to be just and righteous. Under these circumstances Islamic tradition has sought to avoid situations of anarchy and civil strife and jurists have been confronted with an interminable choice. They have generally been un willing to impugn the validity of the existing system. Rebellion was tantamount to heresy and it could not be condoned; any established political order was preferable to none, t it expressed a degree of conformity to religious laws. In short, the ruler's only sanction was the fear of God. Strong and powerful rulers were able to prevail upon jurists to provide religious justification for the status quo. The loss of independence by the jurists meant that those charged with the preservation of Islamic legal norms became the mainstay of neglect and abuse.

It is this political legacy that the modernising rulers and religious reformers of the Muslim states have had to grapple with since the beginning of the 19th century. Until then, and despite the vicissitudes of Muslim rule, traditional Islam had continued to view European Christendom as a rival and an enemy of Muslim doctrine and power in the world. Muslims were more inclined to dismiss European civilisation as inferior, incomplete, superseded, and above all irreligious. Their attitude was based on the absolute conviction of the immutable superiority of their way of life and the validity of their faith as the last divine message to mankind. This stereotypical perception of European civilisation and culture was shattered by the decline of Muslim power and the emergence of strong and powerful nations in Europe. The struggle between the world of Islam and Europe and the west went through different stages. Following a period of adjustment it culminated in the wholesale adoption of many European norms and methods. The previously uncouth and despised European had to be looked upon in a completely different light. He was transformed into a teacher, guide and mentor. None the less, a certain degree of ambivalence has continued to govern the relationship between the two sides. While admiring European power and technology the individual Muslim continues to recent his own weakness and the frailty of his social and political institutions that necessitate the emulation of western culture. The resentment has been compounded by European political domination of most of the Muslim world and aggravated by a perceived western campaign to denigrate Muslim achievement and belittle Islamic culture and heritage. The dialectics governing this relationship have contributed in no small measure to the revivalist Islamic movements generally characterised today as Muslim fundamentalism and Islamic militancy.

Most Muslim countries, faced as they were with the threat of European encroachment and domination, where driven to a paradoxical conclusion. They resolver to emulate Europe to enable themselves to check European penetration of the Islamic world. At the outset sought the importation of European weapon systems, military organisation and industrial technology. A direct practical consequence of this process was practically the introduction of certain aspect of secularism into the patterns of Muslim life. What followed was the whole secularisation of government institutions seen as the real essence of European civilisation. The purpose of wholesale adoption of western norms was to infuse into the Muslim way of life those elements it so clearly lacked- constitutional government, civil society and parliamentary democracy. The function of absorbing these norms and civic values was the modernisation of the world of Islam while the purpose remained the containment of European power and encroachment to enable Muslims to content with the west and defeat it at its own game.

The introduction of these new modes in the conduct of political life had to be sanctioned by the religious authorities who could ensure their compatibility with the fundamental tenets of Islam. Religious leaders from various parts of the Muslim world became engaged in an effort whose primary function was to examine the state of their religion and assess the position of the community of believers in the contemporary world. They conceded that, through internal weakness and error, as well as external pressure and influence, Islamic values and standards had been distorted and corrupted. Their conclusion was that true Islam, a dynamic, humane, liberal and living religion, must be rejuvenated and defended if Muslims were resist the western onslaught and survive western competition. From India to Egypt and Iran to Turkey they called for the reformulation of Islam as a modern doctrine; the construction and elaboration of a system of Islamic principles and values related to the needs and requirements of the modern age. The call was tantamount to the politicisation of Islam, and an initiative to launch a modernist Islamic as modern ideology.

A frantic search was mounted for appropriate Muslim precedent and tradition on which the modernising processes could be based and justified. It was imperative that none of the alterations proposed should be looked upon as innovation and contrary to the basic teachings of the faith. In this pursuit the reformers were much concerned with the ends of European political practices rather than the means by which they were obtained. This process of adoption and adaptation made it possible for Muslims to remain within the boundaries of Islamic orthodoxy while proposing the required changes. Thus constitutionalism was interpreted as the same as the limitations imposed on the authority and power of Muslim rulers under the laws of the Sharīʿa. Similarly parliamentary democracy was equated with the concept of consultation, advocated by Islam in the running of public affairs without reference to or regard for the notion of popular sovereignty embodied in parliamentary democracy and institutionalised public accountability.[7]

These were half-baked notions devoid of substance when related to individual right in a civil society. The religious reform movement, in almost all its variants, was much more concerned with apologia than doctrinal reform. It was no more than a process of tinkering to give the Islamic system of government a fresh gloss. Their campaign sought to distinguish between the essence of Islam, which is the unchanging sacred aspect of the faith, and the acquisition of norms of conduct over the centuries, which could be altered without doing damage to the truth of religion or the moral fabric of society. The distinction proved rather tenuous. It was extremely difficult to maintain in practice. It was ultimately discarded as unworkable especially when fundamentalist salafī values of Islam begin to be reasserted in a bewildered and disoriented Islamic milieu. The resurgence of fundamentalist Islam coupled with the ambivalence that accompanied the modernisation movement spelled the beginning of the end of what was generally regarded as the school of modern Islamic liberalism.

Before the First World War throughout the world of Islam and particularly in the Middle East, in countries like Turkey, Egypt and Iran, a serious attempt was made to introduce and operate a system of liberal democracy, with written constitutions, elected legislatures, independent judiciaries, multi-party politics and free press. Almost everywhere the experiment failed. In many of these countries democratic institutions have been abandoned in favour of a more totalitarian system of government of the variety prevalent in eastern and central Europe under communism. In most of the others the system borrowed from the west in a state of disrepair and collapse despite several attempts at its radical overhaul. The failure has triggered off a search for a viable alternative, including an Islamic political system which has been on for some years.

Many reasons have been advanced to explain the failure of the liberal constitutional experiment in Muslim countries. It may be said to have been doomed from the outset. The transfer of a ready-made political system, not only from another country but from another civilisation, imposed by a European power or a westernised Muslim ruler from without and above, could not respond adequately to the strains and stresses of Islamic, Middle Eastern society. It enjoyed the backing of no powerful economic or social interest or body of opinion. The outcome was a political order unrelated to the cultural norms of the indigenous people, their past or present, and profoundly irrelevant to the needs of the future.[8] Bernard Lewis has no doubts as to who was responsible for this debâcle. He holds the European imperial states that became the mandatory powers over the political density of Middle Eastern states responsible for the failure of the parliamentary system. He is dismissive of their role as ʻinterference without responsibilityʼ, which could neither create nor permit the emergence of stable and orderly government. He writes poignantly that ʻDemocracy was installed by autocratic degree, parliament sat in the capital, operated and supported by a minute minority, whose happy immersion in the new games of parties, programmes and politicians was ignored, or else watched with baffled incomprehension, by the great mass of the people”.[9]

As the secularisation of state and society gathered pace, however, so did the religious undercurrents of opposition that accompanied it; the failings and shortcomings of the constitutional system contributed in no small measures to the emergence of a nationalist movement with strong religious undertones. The advocates of westernisation and their religious allies could fulfil none of the promises made when embarking on their mission of resisting and containing western domination. On the contrary, they offered questionable justification for greater emulation of the west and further secularisation as evidenced by the emergence of Kemalist Turkey following the end of the First World War. This development allowed the gulf between, on the one hand, the modern political structure and ideological orientation and, on the other, the traditional social order and affinity to religion on which they were superimposed to grow ever wider and more complex. The two schools were on a collision course as the involuntary drift of state institutions from religious values and standards produced cultural polarisation and spiritual disorientation. These were in some cases, aggravated by economic and social dislocation brought about by gigantic state-sponsored development programmes fuelled by the newly found oil wealth. The ultimate outcome was societies highly charged with social tension and political conflict where alienation prevailed. Adherents of the faith found themselves bereft of guidance and leadership, antagonistic to the liberal constitutional system by which they were governed, and armed with nothing but their Islamic tradition and religious instincts. Soon this sentiment was translated into radical religiously inspired movements throughout the Muslim world.

Religious reformers politically allied to liberal constitutionalists could not show that modernisation and the adoption of nationalism as a legitimating ideology in the new nation-states had strengthened Muslim society or led a meaningful Islamic revival. In many ways the reverse became true. Westernisation appeared to pose a more direct threat to the Muslims as its impact began to be felt by ordinary folks. It made not only their state but also the individual more vulnerable to the European onslaught. It heightened materialist attitudes and values at the expense of spiritual and moral norms. Urban alienation and poverty alerted religiously motivated political organisations in Egypt, Iran and Turkey to the potentials of this social dimension to solicit support and seek recruitment to their ranks. As the national economy of the Muslim states became more integrated into the international economic system (through what has become known as the phenomenon of globalisation) subject to forces beyond their control and often seen as inimical to their interest, traditional Muslims became fearful for the fate of their faith. Campaigns began in earnest not so much for the greater emulation of Europe, but to draw back in favour of religious renewal. Traditional Muslims also became alarmed at the prevalence of laxity in religious observance and creeping unbelief.

Moreover, the compromise worked out by the liberal religious reformers proved unworkable mainly because of the intellectual inhibitions imposed by religious laws. The reformers and their political allies showed a marked reluctance to delve into certain areas of Islamic beliefs and practices lest it expose them to accusations of innovation and heresy. They all had to profess that Islam remained a sacred religious and juridical system. Since it is based on a number of immutable and unquestionable truth, the reformers could not tamper with its essence.[10] All the new concepts and political notions had to acknowledge that they were derived from the spirit of the faith rather than its texts. In the political sphere the effort of the modernisers could not extend beyond the over-all strengthening of the state, the establishment of sovereign national entities and the quest for political independence. In the process of nation-building Islam was somewhat overshadowed, but by no means forgotten. Its emotive symbols a crucial role for purposes of social and political mobilisation against foreign rule and European influence in the domestic politics of the newly emergent Muslim states in the Middle East and further afield.

In the modern independent states of the Muslim world, westernised political élites have constantly sought accommodation for Islam in the formulation of their nationalist ideology. In practically all of them Islam has been proclaimed to be the official state religion. In many of these countries the religious leaders and their institutions appeared willing to provide religious justifications for the requirements of the state and a practical compromise between these requirements the demands of the faith. The radicalisation of the nationalist movement after the Second World War and the increasing popularity of European totalitarian ideologies, however, reinforced corresponding tendencies among Muslim political thinkers. Whether completely opposed to these political phenomena or deeply attracted to them, the new trend of nationalist and Marxist thought made a deep impression. The popularisation of new concepts like nationalism and socialism began to be expressed in an Islamic cultural idiom with frequent reference to Muslim example as prototypes. Within its own milieu, and in its own terms, Islam was bound to triumph over the foreign imports.

In the Arab world in particular nationalism became an effective source of social power. Its appeal as a national ideology was widespread amongst the intelligentsia. It called for the reunification of the Arab countries, divided by the European powers, into a single powerful state comprising the whole Arab nation. Arab nationalist ideologues, both Muslims and Christians, have had to rely on the Islamic cultural legacy to provide historical perspectives for their right to nationhood.[11]In their attempt to create the myth of ahistorical nation these writers tended to overlook the fact that the glory of the Arab cultural legacy was due to Islamic civilisation, which was the product of an amalgam of cultures. The unity of the Arabs as a nation, past and present, was achieved via Islam. The faith was the effective instrument for the unification of a people with strong tribal affiliations. Modern Arab nationalist aspirations were inspired by the demands of their religious allegiance. In their pursuit of a distinct political ideology Arab nationalist ideologues to Arabise Islam, and went as far as nationalising Islam in order to make it the exclusively national religion of the Arabs. The contrivance proved detrimental to their cause as it set Arab against non-Arabs, Muslims against non-Muslims; and in some cases Sunni Muslims against heterodox Muslims since they entertain different perspectives of Islamic history and especially its political legacy.

On the whole nationalism has drawn its advocates and spokesmen chiefly from the westernised intelligentsia: lawyers, teachers, officials and journalists. These groups, by education, function and inclination were the least traditional of all social elements. Their political ideas and behaviour intensified the rift between them and the traditional mass of society. However once they started projecting their nationalist ideology as a question of faith, traditional believers (like religion) could not be accommodated within the ideological framework of nationalism. Ideology was no longer the prerogative of the westernised élites. Traditional Islam began to be asserted as a more valid system of belief and political orientation. Traditional Muslims were more readily inclined to respond to Islamic appeal rather than to the proponents of the new and alien ideology. The new ideological formulations were viewed as, at best, a bad imitation of the original faith and, at worst, no less than a distortion of the divine message. In more cases than not the masses rallied to seek release for their resentment and fulfilment of their aspirations in the traditional native idiom of Islam. The quest has been on ever since for an idealised religious state recapturing the glorious legacy of the Islamic past. Muslim political movements have proliferated throughout the Muslim world and beyond, reminding Muslims of their obligations to their faith and to their fellow Muslims. It is this mood and desire that has spurred the reactivation of the populist political notions of what has become known as the new Islamic ideology-commonly known as Muslim fundamentalism or political Islam.

The so-called fundamentalist trends in Islam, which represent to a large measure the new Islamist political ideology, have a wide popular following throughout the world of Islam, but they do not constitute a homogeneous movement with a cogent and coherent programme for political action. Nor do they share a uniform organisational infrastructure. Their ideological frameworks and activities are often determined by the nature and the requirement of national politics, and the peculiar domestic problems of the countries concerned. Various groups and organisation exist in many parts of the Arab world, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey as well as Southeast Asia and Africa. They all share an affinity of outlook and a community of interest in resurgent Muslim practices. Although two distinct can be identified, one more radical than other, they all share the common belief that Islam is a comprehensive self-evolving system: it is the ultimate regulator of all human conduct; its truth is eternal; and its applicability is permanent irrespective of time and place. This view of Islam validates the universal nature of the original struggle to institute an Islamic order bound by the principles of the faith, applying its social and economic system, propounding its fundamental tenets and securing obedience to its rules and structures. In essence the militant Islamist seeks the twin objectives of theocratising the state and politicising religion, in order to complete the fusion of the temporal realm with the spiritual as required by the political practice of early Muslim rule. In short, the Islamist ideology demands the restoration of the sovereignty of divine ordinance not just upon the universe but also over the political order where rulers govern by the divine will.

The Islamist political schools of thought have followed in the footsteps of the earlier religious reform movement as well as the modernist liberal constitutionalists by espousing modern interpretations of Islamic religious dogma, adhering to the age-old practice of following Islamic precedent and by cultural adaptation and adoption of European norms just as much as their modernist predecessors. Under these circumstances they could be said to be no more authentic adherents to their religion than their westernised counterparts. Like their westernised counterparts, they strive to affect a radical change in the way society is organised and governed, but unlike them, they want to precipitate the emergence of a viable and vigorous Islamic alternative. They advocate a cultural revolution, by violence if necessary, based on personal sacrifice and moral resolve, as a prerequisite to the establishment of an Islamic state. The instrument and the vanguard of this revolution are the religious teachers, the ʿulamaʾ, whose function is to pronounce on religious matters and conduct public affairs. The task is to save mankind from its own moral turpitude. The organisational infrastructure is based on local mosques and affiliated religious schools.[12]

In common with the radical nationalist schools, the Islamists' consciousness of and concern for social inequities, moral deprivation and economic exploration lead them to veer towards the promotion of Islamic collectivism, a kind of socialism of which the most extreme has been dubbed Islamic Marxism. Though the majority of these who subscribe to the Islamist schools of thought abhor Marxist ideology and historical determinism, the inevitability of the class struggle and dialectical materialism, they share with the nationalists as well as Marxists their denunciation of imperialism and capitalism which provided the motives and the means for European power and domination. They call for the formulation and implementation of a radical socialist programme to mitigate the hardship and misery of the poverty-stricken masses.

Private property, for example, has posed a particular difficulty for fundamentalist Islamists of all strands. They are bound to honour it as a sanctified right in religious, yet they have been prepared to recognise its impact as the root cause of a number of social evils. While not denying its importance, they have attempted to tamper with its application. The most favoured postulation is that private property must be utilised for a social function and public benefit. It is to serve as a kind of social security, generally described as al-takāful al-ijtimāʿī, or social self-support and assistance.[13] Muslims are entitled to share all the goods that the Muslim community as an entity generates and properly established Muslim government must ensure that equality prevails among the faithful. The majority of Islamist fundamentalist groups reject the concept of the calss struggle as an ever-present process of history. Instead they advocate social harmony and co-operation among the various elements in society.  Public ownership of the means of production and nationalisation of measures are permitted because the needs the community have a higher priority than the requirements of the individual. The ultimate justification for public ownership is that since sovereignty is accorded to God it is to God alone that the resources of the earth belong.  Human beings enjoy these resources on trust from God to develop them in honest toil for the benefit of the community. The theoretical framework for these notions is derived from a tradition of the Prophet in which he is reported to have stated that people own three things in common: water, plants, and fire (or energy).

This ideological framework amounts to an Islamic collectivism based on the sovereignty of God and the public utility of the goods of the earth. It means that the western liberal democratic system of government of modern nation-states is condemned and rejected. Divine law on earth does not permit for alternative choices, and God's community knows no political frontiers. Democracy as a system of government presages division and social and economic differentiations; it precipitates the emergence of what is generally regarded as false loyalty to political icons, party organisations and programmes for political action. It is rejected in favour of Muslim collectivism. Islamic socialist measures undertaken by the state are not viewed as merely instruments of policy to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality, but as a religious obligation carried out for the glory of God.[14] Nationalist modernisers as well as Marxists are condemned for their emphasis on material values. Moreover, a distinction is drawn between the welfare services provided by authoritarian nationalist regimes like Nasser's of Egypt or the Shah's of Iran, or even of those regimes based on fundamentalist salafī tendencies like the puritanical wahhābis of Saudi Arabia, that enhance the power and influence of the rulers and those to be administered by a truly Islamic government for the benefit and welfare of the community as a whole.

The interaction between the advocates of Islamic militancy and Marxist ideas and methodology has produced a radical and ambivalent reaction similar to that induced by the earlier exchanges between Islam and the west during the modernisation period of the 19th century. Most of the fundamentalist political strands have rejected any reconciliation between Islam and the atheistic conceptualisation of Marxist thought. They insist that Islam must be viewed as a unique phenomenon; different and separate from any ideology derived from alien historical and philosophical foundation. Under these strictures no synthesis can be allowed to take place. The common objectives that Islam might share with these ideologies do not warrant the identification of one with the other; nor lead people to the conclusion that they are based on the same principles. Each provides for a comprehensive and indivisible system of thought and life. Genuine belief in Islam demands absolute submission to the well of God and an irrevocable admission of His majesty. The commitment to Islam requires the liberation and the purification of the soul so that moral and spiritual salvation, contentment and supremacy may be secured.

Other groups and organisations, especially in Egypt and Afghanistan, have been so galvanised by spiritual disorientation (caused mainly by rapid political change and social upheaval, coupled with increasing inequity, urbanisation and economic dislocation and compounded by military defeat on the battlefield) that they have gone further in their rejection of contemporary society.[15] In many ways the new Muslim political ideologues are as revolutionary in their politics and as dialectic in their study of history as the Marxists they condemn and despise; they have substituted Muslim rehabilitation of the universe for Marxian determinism.[16] The purpose of the exercise, however, is to render Islam the sole ideology of political struggle in the contemporary world. The Iranian sociologist, ʿAlī Sharīʿatī, regarded as the spiritual father and mentor of the political Islamic movement, Mujāhidīn Khalq, has employed the Islamic notion of sunnat Allāh, the way or order of God, as the equivalent of the law of evolution.[17] Extending the traditional concept of tawḥīd, the oneness of God, to a world view embodying the unity of the universe, Sharīʿatī sees the world as a single unit, one living organism whose development is determined by God in accordance with His own way of ordering the world. Any other view or means of analysis such as capitalism or Marxism would be inimical to God's evolutionary process and doomed to failure and ultimate extinction. The evolution of mankind is a continuous process culminating in the establishment of the righteous order of society. This new political order will be dominated by the toiling masses to whom God promised the earth. Ayatollah Khomeini concerns with this interpretation as be makes the same assertions in his treatise, Wilāyat al-Faqīh,[18] and cites the Qurʾānic verse to support his thesis: ʻAnd We will bestow favour unto those who were oppressed on earth, to make them spiritual leaders and to make them the inheritorsʼ (Sūrat al-Qaṣaṣ:5)[19]

Thus, the struggle becomes one between the haves and the have-nots, between good and evil, ordered by God, in which the Maxist-inclined Muslim radicals have a convenient substitute for the Marxian concept of the class struggle and historical determinism.

The syndrome rejecting contemporary society which is so clearly manifested in the ideology of the Egyptian Islamist movement of al-jamaʿā al-islāmiyya known as al-takfīr wa al-hijra (erroneously translated as ʻatonement and fightʼ) has remained a vibrant strand in the ideologisation of Islam.[20] This group, among many others, was held responsible for the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt in October 1981. Their ideological framework is intensely Islamic in its tone and profession of the faith. The group has pronounced contemporary Egyptian society to be simply apostate and beyond redemption. In an attempt to emulate the Prophet Muḥammad when he left his native Makkah for Madinah and set out to establish the Muslim community, they have called on their members to abandon their current milieu and to establish a righteous social organisation where piety and religion prevail. For all intents and purposes they have declared war on modern society by their departure from it. The founder of the movement in Egypt, Aḥmad Shukrī Muṣṭafā, who was executed by the Egyptian authorities in 1977, explained his aims in stark terms. He was emphatic in his rejection of the Egyptian reality in all its manifestations because he believed every aspect of it arose from heresy and contradicted religious laws. ʻWe reject everything that has anything to do with modernization or is allegedly related to modern progress. We demand the restoration of natural simplicity in our life. Modernized society has taken control of the minds and souls of ordinary Muslims. it has intensified heresy. It has made people oblivious of their nature and forgetful of their obligations to their religion.ʼ[21]

Not many political Islamists would query this sentiment. However, the interaction between Islam and the various ideological projections made in its name will continue and become more intensified. In what appears to be a shrewd tactical move some Islamist movements have moderated their views and accommodated their ideology to the prevailing parliamentary system as in the case of Ḥizb Allāh in Lebanon am Brotherhood and its Islamic Action Party in Jordan.[22] The Brotherhood in Egypt is not allowed to contest elections but through ʻfrontʼ organisations their candidates stand and win seats in the Egyptian National. In Turkey the experiment came to grift (in 1997 when the Arbakan government was thrown out of office). Under the Turkish military, the Islamist movement was banned. Though differently based and nurtured, in Iran and Afghanistan the Islamist regimes remain supreme, while that of the Taliban in Afghanistan was toppled by an American-led military campaign following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.

The ultimate issue is not whether these movements can establish an Islamist political regime, but whether they are able to capture a semblance of the idealised Islamic state they envisage for their societies. It has proved practically impossible to resolve the problem of the nature of the relationship between the exercise of power and the universal truth of the faith. Muslims have to determine the existential basis of temporal authority and the method by which the demands of their religion can be accommodated within that framework. No doubt, both the electric formulations of the Islamist ideology as well as the ambivalence which has dominated this search will continue until the problem is resolved either by the recreation of a completely new idealised state or by embarking on an entirely fresh and uncharted course of political discourse and action. Whichever it is, it will not be in the same mould as the past.


[1] K.S. Lambton, ʻIslamic Political Thoughtʼ in Joseph Shacht and C.E. Bosworth (eds), The Legacyof Islam, 2nd edn, (Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 394. See also her excellent exposé of Muslim political thought in her State and Government in Medieval Islam, (Oxford University Press, 1981).

[2] H. A.R. Gibb, Mohammedanism: An historical Survey, (London, Oxford University Press, 1949), pp.89-91.

[3] Bernard Lewis, ʻPolitics and Warʼ, in Shacht & Bosworth, the Legacy of Islam, p. 156.

[4] Gibb, Mohammedenism, p. 89.

[5] H.A.R. Gibb, ʻThe Heritage of Islam in the Modern Worldʼ part1, IJMES, vol. 1,1970, p.11.

[6] See Moojan Momen, An introduction to Shiʿi Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, pp.147-160, also Lamboton, Opcit, pp. 219-241

[7] Many Muslim writers made contributions to this theme. An early essay in this genre was that by ʿabbās Maḥmūd al-ʿAqqād, Al-Dīmuqrāṭiyya fī al-Islām, (Cairo, 1952). For a discussion of these trends in Egypt see P.J. Vatikiotis, The History of Egypt From Muhammas Ali to Sadat, 2nd edn, (London, 1980), pp.317-342 and also Nadav Safran, Egypt in Search of Political Community, (London, 1961), pp.209-28. For a more sympathetic treatment of the subject see John C. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy, (Oxford, 1998) and also Esposito's The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, (Oxford, 1992).

[8] See, Bernard Lewis, The Middle East and the West , (London, 1963), pp.58-9.

[9] ibid.

[10] This was clearly shown in the split in the reform movement started by Afghani and ʿAbdu when Rashīd Riḍā, the editor of the influential journal Al-Manār decided to disown the reformers and revert to the salafī tradition. See Malcolm H. Keer, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad ʿAbduh and Rashid Rida, (London, 1966). The trend has continued to characterise the contemporary Muslim reform movement, as indicated by developments in Iran, Turkey, Algeria and Afghanistan.

[11] For a succinct analysis of this relationshipin the writing of many of the Arab nationalist thinkers see Sylvia G. Haim, Arab Nationalism: An Anthology, (London, 1964).

[12] Writing on these themes abound. The best examples amongst many others are those of the Egyptian writer Sayyid Quṭb, the Pakistani Abdū ʿAlā Mawdūdī, the Iranian ʿAlī Shariʿatī, the Algerian, ʿAbbasī Madanī as well as the Tunisian, Rashid al-Ghannūshī.

[13] The foremost exponent of this trend of thought is the Syrian writer uṣṭafā al-Sibāʿī. See his Ishtirākiyyat-al-Islām, Damascus, 1958). For a brief of discussion of these ideas and others see Hamid Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought, (Austin, 1982), pp. 144-59.

[14] Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought.

[15] Literature on this trend abounds. See Gilles Kepel, The Prophet and Pharaoh: Mislim Extremism in Egypt, London 1984, also Ahmad Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? (London 1994), and his more recent book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, (New Haven, 2000).

[16] See Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought, pp. 155-9.

[17] ibid, p. 154.

[18] See Abbas Kelidar ʻAyatollah Khomeini Concept of Islamic Government in Alexander S. Cudsi and Ali E.Hillal Dessouki (eds), Islam and Power, (London, 1981), pp.75-92. Principal implications of Khomeini's thesis are the theocratisation of politics and the politicisation of religion to assume the fusion between the spiritual and temporal realms.

See also Ruhallah al-Khomeini, al-Ḥukūma al-Islāmiyya, wilāyat al-faqīh, Arabic translation with an introduction by Shaykh Jaʿfar al-Muhājir, (Beirut, Dar al-Quds).

[19] Author's translation.

[20] See Saad eddin Ibrahim ʻAnatomy of Egypt's Militant Islamic Groups: Methodological Note and Preliminary Findingsʼ in IJMES, 12, (1980), pp.423-53.

[21] See the Beirut newspaper, al-Ansārī, 31 July 1977.

[22] See Sabah el-Said, Between Pragmatism And Ideology: The Muslim Brotherhood In Jordan 1989-1994, Policy Paper No.39. (Washington, the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, 1995) and also David Hirst, ʻIslamism in Decline Awaits a Wake-up Call from Voters in Iranʼ, IHT, 18 February 2000.

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
Essays in Honour of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjid, 2002, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 559-575.

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