A History of Political Islam

An Article by Come Carpentier de Gourdon, Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal, published at Vijayvaani.com on December 21, 2013

Islam articulated as a political ideology is present and influential on four continents in many forms, but its current situation raises more questions than it provides answers about its destiny. Several events since the high tide of the Arab Spring of 2011 have set it back in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Sudan, Somalia and Mali as well as in Yemen and even in Qatar. In brief, Islamic movements have failed to take power, have only held it briefly before being pushed back into legal or clandestine opposition or have had to back down on their ambitions.

Meanwhile, Iran elected a new moderate and pragmatic president who has sought to bridge the gap with Western powers, whereas legal Islamic parties in Morocco and Algeria don’t espouse the ideal of a socio-religious revolution and are instead supportive of the status quo in both countries. Even Saudi Arabia, the bedrock of “conservative” fundamental Islam, is trying to reform its institutions to make them more consonant with international norms and institutions by mitigating the theocratic character of its policy.

After unifying most of the Arabic peninsula during the life time of the Prophet (PBUH), the Islamic state rapidly expanded throughout West Asia and North Africa under the four first khalifs before stabilizing as a tri-continental commonwealth of faith, culture and juridical institutions under the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers. It is often pointed out that in Islam there is no separation between religion and politics, but that can also be said of most creeds that are followed by a vast majority of the people in a particular area. However the fact that there are no specific founding socio-political documents for the Muslim ummah outside the Quran and the Hadith has led most Islamic social thinkers and political theorists throughout history to base all their recommendations and recipes on those texts.

The noted Shafi’i jurist Al Mawardi (972-1058 CE) who codified most extensively the institutions of the khalifate in his Ordinances (Al Ahkam al Sultania) was criticized by other ulema for being too much of a rationalist, under the influence of the reformist and “hellenizing” Mu’tazilite school of philosophy, but the predominance of legal theories in Islamic political culture, defined by its attitude to Sharia (the religious legal code), is striking. Unlike other civilizations, the Muslim world is customarily divided according to which school (madhab) of law (Fiqh) is being followed in a particular region as there are differences, notably on who is and is not a Muslim depending upon his actions and views in many diverse areas. The madhabs are regarded almost like the separate denominations or sects in Christendom because they are indeed theologically conflictive.

Mu’tazilites who called themselves Ahl al Tawhid wa’l Adl (the men of unity and justice) exemplified a pragmatic though orthodox current of thought that generally supported the Abbasid imperial state in Baghdad and held reason to be supreme as there was no “sacred precedent” that could be valid for all times and places. They also sought to separate the realm of social relations from the domain of religious prescriptions (fara’id). Mu’tazilites were reviled by hardline Sunni doctrinaires for their moderate “middle path” views and their refusal to take sides between the warring Sunnis and Shi’ites.

They backed the Mihna, an ideological inquisition carried out by some of the Khalifs to purge extremist trouble makers who agitated to overthrow the reigning dynasty to bring back the primeval Arab polity set up by the Prophet. Thus struggle between realists and apocalyptic revolutionaries is an enduring aspect of history of Islamic societies and the Mu’tazilites may be regarded as predecessors of more recent pragmatic reformers who wish to separate social norms and regulations from purely religious obligations.

Conservative, fundamentalist currents usually designated as “Salafist” (from the qualification given to the companions of the Prophets, the “predecessors”: Salaf or companions: Sahaba) are associated with the Hanbali juridical school, revived by Ibn Taimiya, that rejects innovations (bi’dah), analogical interpretations (qiyas), personal innovations (rayy), speculation (nazar) and mere consensual opinions (ijma) among religious scholars when not specifically supported by the foundational texts, contrary to the majoritarian Hanifi school and to the “Medinite” Maliki madhab which takes into account the customs and rules in practice in the first century of Islam more than the literal text of the Hadith. However all Islamic jurisprudence is based on the real or alleged precedents provided by the Salaf, so that no artificial distinction should be made between the various traditions on that score.

“Hanbalism” also known as Takfirism harks back to the original customs and institutions of Arabic Islam under the four “well guided” (rashidun) khalifs. Shafiism, the school that is prevalent in Syria, Egypt, East Africa, Yemen and the Malay regions, shares the same tendency, but has been less militant in general although it holds that Jihad is justified not only in response to injustice but also to destroy idolatry (kufr).

However it must be noted that even Hanafism has bred intellectual lineages that are also rigidly literal in their interpretations of Islamic legislative practice. Sufism is not as a whole a socially “moderate” school of thought either, since it is primarily focused on man’s individual perception of and relations with the Divine and rarely interfered historically with political and military agendas. Many of the great Muslim warriors and conquerors from Mahmud of Ghazni to Timur Leng, Mehmet Fatih and Aurang Zeb were followers of Sufi Sheykhs or Peers.

It might be said that political theories and practices in the Muslim world have been largely determined by legal doctrines as the essence of government lies in the dispensation of justice which crowns and subsumes all other functions of the sovereign. It is due to this concept of society that political ideologies and parties appeared only in the rather recent past in the “muhammedan” world and have generally not developed. The distinctive Baathist form of “Arab socialism” was coined mostly by Christians and other minority groups, while the pan-Arab secular modernist creeds of national leaders such as Gamal Abd el Nasser of Egypt, Houari Boumedienne of Algeria, Saddam Hussain of Iraq or Muammar Al Qadaffi of Libya manifested in one-party militaristic states centered on the personality of the charismatic Rais: the leader, not too dissimilar in form from the Turkish model created by Kemal Ataturk whose personal prestige helped him to break the hold of religion over his country’s institutions.

The Prophet had not left any clear instructions about how his community should rule itself, although he seems to have indicated a preference for his nephew and son-in-law Ali bin Abu Taleb to succeed him. The divisions between those Muslims who saw Ali and his descendents as the legitimate chiefs of their expanding state and those who wanted “the ablest and most meritorious” to inherit the Khalifate evoke in western minds familiar conflicts between royalists and republicans, but both camps, which offer the only endogenous analogy to the western political parties at least in certain respects, accepted the principle of theocracy although the split between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shi’ites (partisans of Ali) assumed ethnic dimensions and has become a chasm in recent years. Mass killings are a regular occurrence in Syria, Iraq and to a lesser extent in Yemen and Lebanon between the two parties and they threaten to escalate into a wider civil war from Turkey to Iran and Yemen.

Iran experienced early a de facto separation between Church and State since it recovered its full independence under the indigenous Safavid dynasty in the late fifteenth century CE as the Shi’ite faqihs did not grant divine legitimacy to the Shahs who were not of Ali’s lineage, from which alone theocratic rulers could come. The long-standing tensions between temporal power and religious authority erupted in the 1979 revolution which overthrew Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. Contrary to Sunni states whose kings generally sought their legitimacy from the successive, real or nominal khalifs in Baghdad, Cairo or Istanbul, Iranian Islam had no living visible “king and priest” for many centuries and even the Supreme Leader of today’s Islamic Republic is only a custodian of the nation’s faith and polity on behalf of the expected Hidden Imam (Mohammed Al Muntazer) who will come before the Last Day.

The Ottoman Sultans took on the mantle of the Khalifate after 1517 and managed until their downfall in the early 20th century to retain at least the spiritual allegiance of most Sunni Muslims worldwide. In that long period however, the power of Islamic states steadily declined as a result of European overseas conquests in America, Africa and Asia, and of the Western industrial revolution. Before the end of the 19th century, during the heyday of the “Christian” colonial empires and especially after the fall of the last Moghul Emperor of India at the hands of the East India Company, some reformist intellectuals in the Middle East realized that Muslim territories were falling one by one under the sway of the triumphant West and that a endogenous reaction had to be organized.

One of the first and well known such pioneers of a revival was Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-1897 CE) who, in keeping with the time honoured shi’ite practice of Takiya (dissimulation), took pains to hide his Persian identity by claiming to be an Afghan, as he wanted to appeal to all Muslims and knew that Sunnis in general would not easily heed the word of an Iranian “heretic”, although his views were probably inspired by the new thinking that was emerging in the Persian clergy.

Afghani was studying in British India during the “Sepoy” rebellion of 1857 and spent much of his later life traveling the world and spreading his call for a new unified, modernised Islamic movement that could push back western invaders and occupiers. He sought and temporarily gained the hesitant support of the Turkish Sultans who had embarked on a path of gradual and halting secularization of their empire through the Tanzimat reform initiated in 1839. However, Jamaluddin found the imitation of western models embraced by the Istanbul Divan undesirable, particularly the adoption of a civil code based on the French Code Napoleon, as he advocated borrowing all suitable western science and technology in order to make Muslims equal to the Europeans but sticking to Islamic precepts of governance.

Although he was not a practicing Muslim, and was even suspected of atheism as a member of the fiercely secular and “leftist” Grand Orient Masonic Order of France after being expelled from the Scottish Rite for agnosticism, he held Islam to be a force capable of fighting enemies back by bringing together all its followers.

It is not the last time that we will see a Muslim reformer evince secular agnostic convictions in his personal life, while upholding the faith as a political force. Another one was the founder of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, a non-practicing anglophile Shi’ite lawyer who married a Parsee woman.

In the same period, a similar modernizing movement unfolded in India under the intellectual leadership of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who founded the Aligarh Anglo-Oriental Muhammadan College, later to become the Aligarh Muslim University. Sir Syed and his colleagues, most of whom belonged to the aristocratic and learned landed elites, wished to equip the Muslim Indian upper class with all the knowledge and technical skills of the Europeans while protecting their traditional culture and way of life from both the British occupiers and the Hindu majority.

By 1906, the All India Muslim League had come into being under the chairmanship of Sir Agha Khan III (although he was the exiled Persian leader of a schismatic Shi’ite minority sect) and it soon attracted stalwart personalities such as the brothers Shaukat Ali and Ali Jauhar, the poet and philosopher Mohammed Iqbal and the barrister Jinnah, many of whom were  westernized and rather secular personally, but believed that Muslims were a separate nation by virtue of their faith and civilization, destined to carve out their own nation within the British Indian Empire. They also saw the worldwide Islamic community as a potential super-state.

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