Islam and Politics

Posted on November 29, 2009 by


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By Eqbal Ahmad

Islam, Politics, and the State, ed. Mohammad Asghar Khan (London. Zed Press, 1985 )

In writing about Islam and politics, one faces special difficulties. The field of Islamic studies, strewn with ancient potholes and modern mines, is dominated by apparently different but complementary adversaries-the “traditionalist” Ulema and the “modern” Orientalists. Their methods are different; so are their intentions. Yet, with few exceptions, both tend to view Islam’s relationship to politics in fundamentalist and textual terms. Both emphasize the absence of separation between religion and politics in Islam. Both hold an essentially static view of Islam and interpret change and innovations produced by social and economic forces as impingements on established, therefore ordained, religious standards. Both treat Muslim history, especially its most creative periods-that is, the Umayyads in Spain, the Moghuls in India, the Safavids in Persia-as deviations from the norm. The interplay of the Westerners’ academic orthodoxy and the Ulemas’ theological orthodoxy has set the terms of prevalent discourse on Islam.

A second problem concerning perceptions and prejudices should be put forth. The Islamic civilization is the only one with which the territorial, religious, and cultural boundaries of the West have fluctuated for fourteen centuries. Islam’s relationship with the West has been continuous, frequently intimate, marked by protracted and violent confrontations and fruitful, though often forgotten, collaboration. During the century that followed the prophet hood of Mohammad, the dramatic expansion of Islamic dominance occurred largely at the expense of Christendom. Subsequently, the West and Islam remained locked in a relationship of antagonistic collaboration that included seven centuries of Muslim rule in Spain, unsuccessful invasion of France, and an inconclusive occupation of Sicily. The long and bitter confrontation during the Crusades, and later the Ottoman domination of the Balkans further solidified in the West the adversarial perceptions and menacing images of Islam and Muslims. Even the prophet Mohammad and the Quran were not spared several centuries of vilification and abusive misrepresentation. In turn, medieval Muslim writers misrepresented and misjudged Judaism and Christianity. However, because Islam venerates Biblical prophets as predecessors of Muhammad, their polemics fortunately stopped short of vilifications in extremis. To the Western world’s credit, the “medieval canon” of Christian discourse on Islam (up to the eighteenth century) has been admirably documented.’

This unique history of the West’s encounter with a non-Western civilization undoubtedly left on both sides a heritage of prejudice and resentment. Yet, in this pattern of hostility, there were periods of accommodation. While our cultures were traditional, agrarian, and medieval, there existed a structural symmetry between them which accounted for a degree of equality in the exchange of ideas as well as products. Winners and losers manufactured and used the same weapons, traded in comparable goods, debated on familiar intellectual premises. There was a certain congruence of class interests and shared attitudes among the aristocrats, craftsmen, traders, and scholars. The commonality of outlook between Saladin the Great and Richard the Lionhearted is known to almost every Muslim and Christian child even today. Students of European and Muslim history can recall numerous such examples. But the symmetry which had constituted the basis of an intimacy and antagonistic collaboration between Islam and the West disappeared in modern times. Nothing in the past was as damaging to Muslim-Western understanding as has been the structurally unequal encounter of traditional, agrarian/pastoral Muslim societies with the industrial and capitalist West. Its many ramifications include, as we shall presently see, modern Islam’s peculiar, disjointed relationship to politics.

A dramatic reversal in the relationship between the Muslim world and the West began with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the establishment of British dominion over Moghul India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It ended with the break-up of the Ottoman empire, which was the last of the Muslim empires, and the colonization by European countries of virtually all of the Muslim world from East Asia to West Africa. It was a traumatizing development for the Muslims. This was not merely due to the fact that for the first time in the confrontation between Islam and the West they were the colonized, not the colonizers; rather, this latest encounter of Islam with the West was felt as a deeply dehumanizing and alienating experience. Modern imperialism was unique in history in that it was a complex and highly integrated system in which pre-industrial and pastoral civilizations were either destroyed (as was the case with the great civilizations of the Western hemisphere) or subjugated (as were the countries of Asia and Africa) to serve the needs of the mercantilist and industrializing Western metropolis. The legitimizing principles of this system (that is, the White Man’s burden, the Mission Civilisatrice or the Manifest Destiny) were based on the assumption of the inferiority of “native” peoples, their lesser existence, and diminished humanity. Devaluation of the colonized civilization, debasement of its cultural heritage, and distortion of native realities have been part of the moral epistemology of modern imperialism. These were important elements of the “corporate institution” which Edward Said and others have recently analyzed as “Orientalism.” 2

As the process of decolonization began, the Western need to justify domination over the “natives” was lessened. A certain detente in the organized libel against Islam and Muslims was expected. The expectation was credible, given the growth of ecumenical sentiments in the United States and Europe and the ease in communications provided by technological development and international exchange. After centuries of interruption, the possibility had reappeared that Western scholars and their Muslim counterparts would begin to recognize and reassess the limitations and biases of their intellectual work and also begin to examine critically but positively the meaning of the Islamic experience in history and society. The trend that emerged between world wars, first in France, then in Britain and the United States, suggested that a change in this direction had started. In France, the works of Louis Massignon encouraged the rise of a “revisionist” school which included scholars of Islam such as Jacques Berque, Maxime Rodinson, Yves Lacoste, and Roger Arnaldez. In Britain and the United States, their counterparts were to be found in H. A. R. Gibb, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Norman Daniel. Unfortunately, this welcome trend was overwhelmed by those with vested ideological interests.’ 3

Far from producing a detente in the post-colonial era, the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict added to the Western discourse on Islam an element of manipulation and malevolence. Cold War academic functionaries and pro-Israel Middle East “experts” have rendered difficult an appreciation of contemporary Muslim problems. These include distortions, misrepresentations and libels, not mere criticism. Critical writing needs to be distinguished from racial and ideological hostility. There is a desperate need for critical analyses of the Muslim world’s contemporary predicament. From Morocco through Syria, and Iraq to Pakistan and Indonesia, Muslims are ruled by armed minorities. Some describe themselves as socialist and democratic, others as Islamic; yet others as Islamic, socialist, and democratic. Nearly all Muslim governments are composed of corrupt and callous elites more adept at repressing the populace than protecting natural resources or national sovereignty. They are more closely linked to foreign patrons than to the domestic polity. The recent rise of fundamentalist, neo-totalitarian Muslim movements is an aberration, not a norm in Muslim history. However, it is predicated upon the failure of the current regimes and the absence of visible, viable alternatives. These are hardly the times for expert praise and paeans. But a critical scholarship is the opposite of heartless and opportunistic employment of expertise.

It is a nemesis of biased scholarship that the societies and systems they serve ultimately suffer from their distortions. An understanding of Muslim politics and the anguish and aspirations of Islamic, especially Middle Eastern, peoples has slipped beyond the grasp of most “experts.” Hence, historic trends toward major developments that is, the outbreak of an epoch-making revolution in Algeria, an Arab military rebound in October, 1973, or Anwar Sadat’s dramatic and disastrous demarche for peace – went unnoticed by them until events hit the headlines. In 1978, big men in the United States, from Jimmy Carter to Walter Cronkite, were surprised by the failure of the experts to perceive the revolutionary process in Iran, which had been long in the making. The failure, nevertheless, was as predictable as the Iranian revolution. The Shah was deemed a friend of the United States as well as of Israel; he was “modern,” anti-Islam, and generous to the experts. Foremost Iranian experts explained the Shah by distorting Iran and its history. Thus Professor Leonard Binder, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago wrote, “Here is a nation, Iran, that has not ruled itself in historical times, that has had an alien religion (Islam) imposed upon it, that has twisted that religion (Shi’ism) to cheat its Arab tormentors, that can boast of no military hero … that has been deprived by its poets and mystics, of all will to change its fate.’ 4

Professor Marvin Zonis, another well-known expert on Iran, found the “kingly grace” of the “Shahanshah” (King of Kings) toward “foreign scholars … both courageous and laudable … the monarch’s control over the internal situation is at its zenith. It is undoubtedly true that no Iranian ruler however exercised as much power or commanded as responsive a political system as does Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1974, ‘urban guerrillas’ and censorious foreign critics notwithstanding.” Examples are nearly as numerous as experts. Superficially trained, attached to disciplines and methods in flux, governed by the preferences of governments and foundations, and lacking empathy with the objects of their study, the area experts of the post-colonial era have ail the limitations of conventional Orientalists but few of their strengths.

A historically rigged intellectual tradition, then, continues to dominate Western perspectives on Islam. Its impact on Muslims too has been considerable. It has made the traditionalist Ulema more obdurate and closed to new methods of critical inquiry. It has led educated Muslims to neglect substantive contributions of Western scholarship to theological ideas and historical interpretation. Above all, it has stunted the creative and critical impulses of modernist Muslims by activating their defensive instincts.

In writing about Islam for a largely Western audience, a Muslim faces hard choices between explanation and exploration. One’s instinct is to explain the errors, deny the allegations, and challenge the overwhelmingly malevolent representations of Muslim history, ideals, and aspirations. For a century, since Syed Ameer Ali wrote Life and Teachings of Mohammed, most modernist Muslim writers have, to varying degrees, surrendered to this instinct.’ There is a certain poignancy to their effort, for these colonized, Western-educated Muslims were desperate to communicate to the West, in Western terms, pride in their devalued culture, distorted history, and maligned religion. For their labors they have been dubbed modern Islam’s “Apologist” school. Thus, another vast body of contemporary literature on Islam merely symbolizes the futility of corrective and defensive responses to the Orientalists’ representation of Islam. This is reason enough to resist giving in to this urge.

It is commonly asserted that in Islam, unlike in Christianity and other religions, there is no separation of religion and politics. In strict textual and formal legal terms, this may be true. But this standard generalization is not helpful in comprehending Muslim political praxis either historically or contemporaneously. In its most fundamental sense, politics involves a set of active links, both positive and negative, between civil society and institutions of power. In this sense, there has been little separation, certainly none in our time, between religion and politics anywhere. For example, Hinduism played an important role in the ideological and organizational development of the Indian national movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s humanitarian and idealistic principles of passive resistance and non-violence drew on Hindu precepts like Ahimsa. The Mahatma was challenged by fundamentalist religious parties like the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha, and died at the bands of a Hindu fundamentalist political assassin. In Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Buddhism and Buddhist institutions have been a potent force on both sides of the political divide.

In the United States, where the two major political parties have become increasingly indistinguishable on the basic issues of war and peace, the Christian churches have emerged as the primary platforms of political discourse, disputations, and even militancy. The political activism of Christians in the United States ranges widely from the right-wing Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority through the centrist liberalism of the National Council of Churches, to Dorothy Day’s populist humanism and Father Daniel Berrigan’s militant pacifism. In Latin American countries-including Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and Brazil-government-sponsored assassination squads have been carrying out their murderous missions in the name of preserving Christian values and virtues. On the opposite side, bishops are killed and nuns are raped for their advocacy of justice and democracy.

As for Judaism, we have witnessed its full-fledged politicization with a fundamentalist ideology successfully staking out its claims over Palestine on the Bible’s authority. The Bible is still being invoked to justify the expansion of Israel into “Judea and Samaria” (that is, the West Bank and Gaza) and further dispossession of Christian and Muslim Palestinians from their ancient homeland. Since the outcome of the struggle for power in revolutionary Iran remains uncertain and since in Pakistan a self-proclaimed “Islamic” dictator rules in isolation, Israel and Saudi Arabia must be counted as the two truly theocratic states in the Middle East. Both have a contradictory existence: one as an “Islamic” monarchy; the other as a sectarian “democracy” whose Christian and Muslim subjects are treated, under law, as second-class citizens. Given these facts, it is obviously tendentious to ascribe to Muslims, as media commentators and academic experts so often do, a special proclivity to engage in religiously motivated politics.

In a narrower perspective, the relationship of politics and religion may be discussed in terms of the links between religion and state power. In this sense, separation between state and religion has existed in the Muslim world for at least eleven of Islam’s fourteen centuries. The organic links between religion and state power ended in A.D. 945 when a Buwayhid Prince, Muiz al-Dawla Ahmad, marched into the capita[ city of Baghdad and terminated the Abbasid Caliph’s dual role as the temporal and spiritual leader of the Islamic nation. For a time, the Caliph served in various parts of the Muslim world as a legitimizing symbol through the investiture of temporal rulers-Sultans, Amirs, and Khans-among them, successful rebels and usurpers. The Buwayhids, who ruled over Iraq and Fars as Amirs, kept the Caliphate in subjection for 110 years until they were displaced in A.D. 1055 by Tughril, the SeIjuk Warrior. In 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad, killed the Caliph and his kin, and terminated the Abbasid Caliphate, which had been for two centuries a Merovingian cipher. Although the Caliphate was revived and claimed-at different times in various places, by a variety of rulers-it never quite mustered the allegiance of a majority of Muslims. Power, in effect, remained secularized in Muslim practice.’

One is generous in dating the effective separation of religion and state power from the Buwayhid intervention Of A.D. 945. The fundamentalist Ulema take a somewhat more conservative view. They believe that no Muslim state has been Islamic since the accession to power of the Umayyad dynasty in A. D. 650; to them, the Islamic state effectively ended with the first four Caliphs who had been companions of the Prophet Muhammad. However, the minority Shiite Ulema, who believe that legitimate succession belonged only to the blood relatives and descendants of the Prophet, definitely do not regard two of the four Caliphs (Umar and Uthman) as legitimate rulers. The orthodox Ulema’s rejection of the Islamic character of Muslim states after 650 is based primarily on three factors. The first concerns the presumed impiety of all but a few exceptional rulers (that is, Umar Ibn Abd AI-Aziz, 717-720). The second relates to the historic prevalence of secular laws and practices in Muslim statecraft. The third involves the actual fragmentation of the Islamic world into multiple political entities historically, Sultanates, emirates, Khanates, Sheikdoms, empires, and now, republics. All theologians agree on the principles of a single Umma (Muslim nation) and a single Caliph (or Imam) as essential to a truly Islamic polity governed according to divine laws and the example of the Prophet.

Lacking all three conditions of the ideal Islamic polity, Muslim peoples have for more than a millennium accepted as legitimate the exercise of state power by temporal governments, as long as they observe the basic norms of justice and fair play, and rule with some degree of consent from the governed. This generalization applies also to the overwhelming majority of Ulema and local religious leaders. In fact, the most renowned theologians of Islam-that is, al-Mawardi (974-1058), al-Baghdadi (d. 1037), al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), and Ibn Jamaa (1241-1333)-have developed a large body of exegeses to justify, explain, and elaborate on this historic compromise between the Islamic ideal and Muslim political realities. Thus, in all religious communities, there is a repository of millennial traditions in Islam that tend to surface most forcefully in times of crisis, collective stress, and anomie.8 Times have rarely been as bad, as stressful, or as disorienting for the Muslim peoples as they are now. Hence, ail the contrasting symptoms associated with deep crises of politics and society-rise of religious fundamentalism, radical and revolutionary mobilization, spontaneous uprisings and disoriented quietism-characterize Muslim politics today.

A fusion of religion and political power was and remains an ideal in the Muslim tradition. But the absence of such a fusion is a historically experienced and recognized reality. The tradition of statecraft and the history of Muslim peoples have been shaped by this fact. The many manifestations of this reality are important in comprehending the Muslim polity. A few of these need to be mentioned here. As a religious and proselytizing medieval civilization, the Islamic Umma evinced a spirit of tolerance towards other faiths and cultures that has been rare in history. It is important for us to acknowledge-for the sake of historical veracity as well as for a desperately needed reinforcement of non-sectarian and universalist values in Muslim civilization that non-Muslims, especially Christians, Jews, and Hindus, have been an integral part of the Islamic enterprise. In the pre-colonial period, Muslim law and practice reflected a certain separation and autonomy of religious and social life along confessional lines. Admittedly, there were also instances of excesses against and oppression of the non-Muslim population under Muslim rule. Yet, the greatest achievements of Islamic civilization in science, philosophy, literature, music, art, and architecture, as well as statecraft, have been the collective achievements of Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others participating in the cultural and economic life of the “Islamicate.” In fact, the most creative periods of ‘Muslim history have been those that witnessed a flowering in the collaborative half of our ecumenical relationships. This secular fact of Muslim political praxis, from Indonesia and India through the Fertile Crescent and Egypt to Spain, is generally neglected in the writings both of the Ulema and the Orientalists. Yet, it is more relevant to understanding Islam’s relationship to politics than the antics of any current “Islamic” political leader.

Throughout history, Muslims, like other people who live in complex civilizations, have evinced paradoxical tendencies in relation to politics. In dissident movements, Islam has sometimes played a crucial role by galvanizing group support for opposition leaders around a reformist, often puritanical creed, attacking the corruption and profligacy of a ruling class. The latest case in point is Ayatullah Khomeini’s Islamic Movement in Iran. An early example is the austere movement of Ibn Tumart, which in the twelfth century gathered enough support in North Africa to displace the Almoravid dynasty in Morocco and Spain. A later example is the puritanical Wahhabi movement of the eighteenth century, which gained tribal support in the Najd, especially of the tribe of Saud, and thence spread to the Arabian peninsula. In power, such reformist movements have betrayed a proclivity to softening and secularization. The Almohad, for example, patronized the rather secular and speculative Philosophical School including Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes (l 126-1198).

On the other hand, the Muslim community has resisted state sponsorship of a creed or even a school of religious thought. Thus, two of the greatest Muslim rulers encountered popular resistance when they unsuccessfully attempted to sponsor an official creed. The Abbasid Caliph, al-Mamun (786-833), son of Harun al-Rashid (of the Arabian Nights!) and founder of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad (where many of the translations and commentaries on Greek works were completed and later contributed to the European Renaissance) adopted the Mutazilite doctrines as official creed. This rationalist school of religious thought in Islam was beginning to flourish when it received the sponsorship of the state. At the time, the Caliphate was in its prime. Resistance to it mounted rapidly in the Islamic community. It was thus that the Mutazilites acquired the dubious distinction in Muslim history of engaging in the first significant practice of repression on theological grounds. Similarly, Akbar the Great (1542-1605), the most illustrious of the Moghul Emperors in India met with widespread resistance from his Muslim subjects when he promulgated his own eclectic creed Dine Ilahi (1582). Fortunately, Akbar was skeptical and open-minded enough to refrain from forcing his eccentric, ecumenical creed on the populace.

Historically, the Ulema as a class prospered and played a conservative role as mediators between political power and civil society, much like the clergy in Christendom. During the first two centuries of Islam, a significant number of theological scholars abjured any identification with power, declining to serve even as judges. Thus, Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 767), founder of one of the four schools of Sunni Islamic law was flogged for refusing the judgeship of Baghdad. In later years many served as legal advisers to governments and as judges. The institution of Waqf (private and public endowment of property to mosques and schools) which were invariably administered by the Ulema, and their role as educators and as interpreters of religious law, insured for them a lucrative and prominent place in society next to the military and bureaucracy. As a class, therefore, they betrayed a certain bias in favor of stability and obedience to temporal authority. Thus, al-Mawardi, al – Baghdadi, and al-Baqillani – great theological authorities to this day – held that an unjust and unrighteous ruler should not claim obedience, and that the community would be justified in transferring its allegiance to a contender. However, they opposed rebellion and civil war. The great philosopher – theologian, al-Gliazzati – the equivalent in Islam of Thomas Aquinas-and his successor Ibn Jamaa, invoked the Doctrine of Necessity to counsel that public tolerance of even a bad ruler was preferable to anarchy and civil strife. Professor Anwar Syed has rightly concluded that the theologians “endorsed the secularization of politics in return for a pact of mutual assistance between the government and the Ulema.” 9

Recognizing their historical role as well as their present discontent, most contemporary Muslim governments have tried various schemes that offer a modicum of security and status to the Ulema; in almost all instances they have been successful in co-opting the clerical class. It is noteworthy that the most iconoclastic of contemporary Muslim rulers-Habib Bourguiba (1903- ) of Tunisia has encountered the least resistance from the Ulema. This is so not only because he has enjoyed considerable popularity among the masses as the liberator of Tunisia, but also because, unlike Kemal Ataturk (founding father of modern Turkey) or Mohammed Reza Khan (1877-1944, founder of the Pahlevi dynasty in Iran), Bourguiba did not attempt to suppress forcibly religion and traditional Muslim institutions. Rather, while instituting modernist reforms, he allowed the Ulema a certain visibility and status as religious leaders.

The political quietism of the Ulema has not been shared by all sections of the Muslim intelligentsia, and by no means by the majority of the Islamic community. There has, in fact, been a perennial tension between the moral imperatives of Muslim culture and the holders of power. It is difficult to recall a widely-known Muslim saint who did not collide with state power. Popular belief may have exaggerated the actual confrontations with contemporary rulers of men like the Persian saint, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)-best known to the West as the founder of the mystic order of “whirling dervishes” the Indian Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti (l 142-1236), and the Moroccan saint, Sidi Lahsen Lyusi (1631-1691). But in this case, popular belief is the more significant indicator of political culture. It is equally important to emphasize that in each instance the collision was not incidental, a mere adding of lustre to the growth of a legend. Rather, it was a principal landmark in the making of a saint, in distinguishing the exceptional Muslim from the ordinary. In this conception of sainthood there is an admission, on the one hand, of the difficulty of achieving an alignment of piety to power and an affirmation, on the other hand, of a Muslim’s obligation to confront the excesses of political authority.

The political culture of Islam is, by and large, activist and insurrectionary. Scholars have described the Muslim heartland from Pakistan to Mauritania as lands of insolence. Historically, rebellions have been as endemic here as were wars in Western Europe, and the target of insurrection has often been the state’s authority. Until recently, ail but a few Muslim polities were typically divided between what the Maghrebins (“Western” Arabs of North Africa) aptly named Bilad al – Siba (the Country in Rebellion) and Bilad al -Makhzan (the Country of the Treasury). There are exceptions to the rule, but normally, both popular rebellions and dynastic movements of opposition have been led by temporal figures. When involved in dissident politics, religious figures and groups were generally associated with the mystical schools, that is, with the pietist and populist, rather than the orthodox, theological tradition in Islam. However, as with state power, Islam has played a certain role in the legitimization of revolt. If the state-oriented Ulema cited religious injunctions against disobedience and contumacy, rebels too invoked the Quran and the Prophet’s traditions, calling upon Muslims to struggle (Jihad) against tyranny and oppression.

An explanation for the perenniality of the insurrectionary strain in Muslim societies lies, at least partly, in the fact that wherever Islam took hold, it had its origins in a counter-tradition, a dissident point of view. In many regions such as North Africa and Central Asia, the spread of Islam was dialectically linked with social revolt. In other places, such as the Indian subcontinent, Islam’s egalitarian precepts and emphasis on social justice (both widely violated in practice) offered an escape to the disinherited from the harsh realities of oppression. In its exemplary form, Islam is a religion of the oppressed. Hence, to this day it retains a powerful appeal among the poor and oppressed throughout the world. It is currently the most rapidly growing faith in Africa and the East Indies. In the black communities and prisons of the United States, too, Islam has a significant presence. Even in independent India it is still finding new converts among the Harijans (literally, Children of God, Gandhi’s preferred name for the Untouchables). The religious and cultural force of Islam continues to outpace its political capabilities.” 10

Historically, then, the Islamic community has lived in separate polities ruled by a wide variety of temporal authorities ranging from tribal chieftains to modern republics. These secular political entities have been ethnically, linguistically, and often religiously diverse. They have been subject to constant change brought about by dynastic challengers and popular insurrections and, occasionally, by somewhat religiously motivated reformist movements. Given its heterogeneity, observers of the Muslim world are impressed by the evidence of unity in Islamic peoples’ cultural, social, and political life. There is evidence also of a strong Islamic affinity across territorial and linguistic divides. This sense of solidarity has been based not merely on religious beliefs and practices but on a shared consciousness of history, and a commonality of values. In this respect, the Islamic civilization was, and to a lesser extent, remains inherently political. The values and linkages that defined the unity of the historically diverse Muslim community have been political in the deepest sense of the word. It should suffice here to mention only a few factors that produced, over the centuries, the patterns of unity – in – diversity – what scholars have called the “mosaic” of Muslim cultures.

For centuries a complementary tension, creative in its impact on society and individuals, had existed between particularist and universalist loyalties and loci of Muslim political life. Typically, a Muslim held two sets of identity: one – immediate, social, and spatially particular; the other – historical, ideological, cultural, and global. Almost all Muslims lived in intensely community-oriented societies which, paradoxically, eschewed isolation. The paradox had a political dimension. The interests and demands of local authority – that is, the extended family, tribe, city, guild, and ethnic or linguistic group-in principle competed with the universal expectations of the Umma, the vast Islamicate, that is, the worldwide community of people who embrace the teachings of the Quran and practice Islam. The stability and quality of Muslim life had depended on the extent to which these two identities were reconciled. The achievement of such a reconciliation had been a preoccupation of politics in the Islamic civilization. Its attainment was by far the greatest accomplishment of civil society in the Muslim world. The processes by which this was achieved included a certain decentralization of power, a toleration of differences, and pluralism in religious and cultural life. Thus, while the Umma was one, and ideally united, its diversity was presumed. Rather, it was honored and extolled, for indeed it was the sign of God’s mastery and creativity (S. 30:22). Also, the Prophets had declared “differences within the Umma to be a blessing.”

A complex web of laws, activities, and institutions had contributed to the development of a common identity and culture in the Muslim world. A shared system of law, education, aesthetics, and religious organizations (especially religious fraternities or mystical orders) had assured the growth and continuity of a unifying ethos that cut across the political, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries of the Islamicate. For example, the divided and diverse Umma was assured a certain structural unity by a common adherence to laws (Sharia) which were based on the Quran, the Sunna (Traditions of the Prophet), and Ijma (Consensus of the Community). Typically, the Sharia served less as a guide to governmental conduct than as a regulator of societal relationships – of property, business transactions, marriages, and public morals.

For centuries, Muslims from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans were not merely born and buried according to similar rituals; more importantly, they were likely to be punished for crimes or failure to honor a contract, to have a grievance redressed, or a property dispute settled, get married or divorced, and make business transactions in accordance with similar, though not always identical, laws and codes of conduct. Similarly, the educational system of the Muslim world was based on a shared tradition of jurisprudence, philosophy, mathematics, ethics, and aesthetics. Hence, it was not uncommon for jurists and scholars to serve in more than one country in a life – time, for artists and architects to have lived and worked in various kingdoms, for elites to intermarry across political boundaries, for nomadic tribes to move from one ruler’s domain to another. The passport was inimical to the spirit of the Islamicate. The phenomenon provided the framework for a sharing of values, the growth of an extra -territorial ethos, a source of collective identity,

This state of affairs lasted until the eighteenth century when Western imperialism started to “territorialize” the Muslim world. Thereupon began its parcelling out into colonies and spheres of British, French, and Dutch influence. The differences and hostilities of European nation states came to be mirrored in Muslim lands. For the first time in its long and eventful history, Islamic civilization began to be defined by reference to another. Neither its wars nor peace, neither prosperity nor sufferings were of its own making. A people habituated to a history of success were reduced to serving another’s history. The myriad links which had assured the Islamic culture its unity-indiversity were severed. Its fragmentation, institutionalized in multiple ways, was completed by the creation of highly centralized, “independent” nation states governed by the post – colonial military -bureaucratic elites, each a disfigured copy of its colonial predecessors. The “mosaic” of Muslim culture was destroyed. The remarkable continuity which, over centuries of growth and expansion, tragedies and disasters, had distinguished Islamic civilization was interrupted. This change, labeled modernization by social scientists, has been experienced by contemporary Muslims as a disjointed, disorienting, unwilled reality. The history of Muslim peoples in the last one hundred years has been largely a history of groping – between betrayals and losses toward ways to break this impasse, to somehow gain control over their collective lives, and link their past to the future.

In discussing the role of religion in contemporary Muslim politics, four points should be emphasized. First, the contemporary crisis of Muslim societies is without a parallel in Islamic history. Second, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the role of Islam in politics has varied in time and place. Third, the evidence of continuity with the patterns of the past has been striking. Fourth, in the 1980s, the trend is toward the growth of fundamentalist, neo-totalitarian Muslim movements. The phenomenon is contrary to the political culture and historical traditions of the Muslim majority. The still limited but growing appeal of the fundamentalist parties is associated with the traumas of Muslim political life, and the absence of viable alternatives to the existing state of affairs. A brief discussion of these points follows.

When a civilization reaches a point of fundamental crisis and perceptible decline, we see three responses. One may identify these as: (a) restorationist, (b) reconstructionist, and (c) pragmatist.
The restorationist is one that seeks the restoration of the past in its idealized form. This is the thrust of fundamentalism, of such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, the Sharekat Islam in Indonesia, and the Islamic government of post-revolution Iran. So far, these have been minority movements in the Muslim world. Without an exception, they have failed to attract the large majority of workers, peasants, and the intelligentsia. This was true even in Iran where the shift toward the current fundamentalist ideology began after the seizure of power.

The reconstructionist is one that seeks to blend tradition with modernity in an effort to reform society. This is the thrust of the modernist schools which have, intellectually and ideologically, dominated the Muslim world since the middle of the nineteenth century. The most influential writers and thinkers of modern Islam – Jamaluddin Afghani, Shibli Nomani, Syed Ameer Ali, Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad lqbal, Tahir Haddad, among others – have belonged to this school of thought; in political life their influence had been considerable until the rise of military regimes in many Muslim countries. This was true also in Iran where until after the Shah’s fall no significant group of Ulema had openly challenged the eminent Ayatullah Naini’s formulation in support of the democratic and constitutionalist movement (1904-1905), a position that was endorsed by the leading theologians of the Shia sect of Islam. For five decades, successive generations of Iranian religious leaders had reaffirmed this position. During the 1977-78 uprising against the Shah, all the politically prominent clerics of Iran, including Ayatullah Khomeini, had claimed to favor a pluralistic polity and parliamentary government. The first appointment by Khomeini of a social democratic government with Dr. Mehdi Bazargan as Prime Minister had seemed to confirm this claim. Above all, it should be noted that the mobilization of the Iranian revolution toward Islam had been the work of such lay Muslim intellectuals as Dr. Mehdi Bazargan, Jalal Ale- Ahmad and Abul Hasan Bani Sadr. The most important populizers of Islamic idealism were Ali Shariati, a progressive layman, and the Ayatullah Mahmud Taleghani, a radical religious leader. Although the Ayatullah Khomeini had been an important opposition figure since 1963, he was far from being the central figure he became in 1978. In January 1978, as the revolution began to gather momentum, the Shah’s regime did Khomeini the honor of singling him out for its most publicized and personal attack. From this point on, he became the counterpoint to the hated but central figure of the Shah. An explanation of his meteroic rise to charismatic power lies in the complex character of Iran’s disorganic development, which lent one of the objectively most advanced revolutions of history a millenarian dimension.

The pragmatist denotes an attitude of viewing religious requirements as being largely unrelated to the direct concerns of states and governments and of dealing with the affairs of the state in terms of the political and economic imperatives of contemporary life. The regulation of religious life is left to the civil society and to private initiatives. This approach has not been opposed by the reconstructionist school of intellectuals. As discussed earlier, it parallels the historical Muslim experience; as such, it is accepted both by the masses and the majority of the Ulema. Thus, wherever popular attitudes have been tested in open and free elections, pragmatist political parties and secular programs have gained overwhelming victories over their fundamentalist adversaries. In this realm of real politics one finds the resonances of the historical patterns discussed earlier. A few examples follow.

The paradoxical historical pattern involving on the one hand a preference for the temporal exercise of power and for a this-wordly political exchange, and on the other hand, popular vulnerability to religious symbols and slogans in times of social stress and collective anxiety, is replicated in modern times. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, the political heroes of the Muslim world, the liberators and founding fathers of contemporary Muslim nations, have been secular, generally Westernized individuals. To name only a few and the familiar, Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder of modern Turkey, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), the founding father of Pakistan, Ahmad Sukarno (1901-70), first president of Indonesia, Gamal Abdul Nasser (1918-70), first president of the republic of Egypt, Habib Bourguiba (1903- ), of Tunisia, and the Seven historic Chiefs of the Algerian Revolution, are regarded as the most popular and decidedly historic Muslim leaders of this century. The movements and political organizations they led were secular and heavily influenced by modern, largely Western, ideas. Today, the most popular movement in the Arab world, the Palestine Liberation Organization, claims a “secular and democratic” polity as the basis of its program; two of its three most prominent leaders are Christians.

By contrast, religious sectarianism is being most aggressively displayed in the Near East by two exclusionary ideologies and movements, the Phalangists and Zionists-one Maronite Christian, the other Jewish. Their shared antipathy to the secular, democratic, and universalist ideal underlay the ironic alliance between Israel and the Phalange, that is, between the Jewish state and the first fascist movement to make a successful bid for power in the post-World War II period. This same phenomenon also explains, perhaps, the fact that in the Occupied Territories Israeli authorities have been particularly harsh on the Christian population, and in an effort to destroy the unity of Christian and Muslim Palestinians, the government of Israel has been encouraging the growth of fundamentalist Muslim groups in the Occupied Areas, allowing them considerable freedom to organize. This freedom is denied the ecumenical and secular Palestinian nationalist movement.” 11

Another historical pattern repeating itself in our time is the resistance to state-decreed religion in the two countries where an official version of Islam is being imposed on citizens by the state. In Iran, thousands of people have been executed and jailed for their opposition to Ayatullah Khomeini’s Islamic regime. Significantly, the Iranian resistance today is made up primarily of former activists and supporters of the opposition to the Shah. It includes the youthful Mujahideen movement, influenced by Islamic radicals Ayatullah Mahmud Taleghani and Dr. Ali Shariati, the followers of Abdul Hasan Bani Sadr (first president of Iran after the revolution), the nationalists who had previously supported the Constitutional regime of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and many disillusioned former supporters of Ayatullah Khomeini. Were they to be given the freedom of choice, a majority of Iranian people would probably rid themselves of the fundamentalist tyranny in favor of a pluralistic and democratic regime of the sort the Iranian revolution, including the leaders of its Islamic wing, had promised them. In Pakistan, there is a certainty that if General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq were to fulfill his promise of a free election, the secular political parties would win it by an overwhelming majority – a certainty which has led General Zia to violate for more than six years the solemn promises he made to hold free elections within ninety days of his coup d’etat.

The centrality of Muslim peoples’ predicament lies in the nature of their latest encounter with the West. The colonial encounter was unique in history in that it entailed the transformation of land and labor into commodities, in the literal, capitalist meaning of the word. Inevitably, it caused the erosion of economic, social, and political relationships which had contributed the bases of traditional Muslim order for more than a thousand years.

Unlike capitalist development in the West, in the Muslim world it occurred under foreign auspices for the benefit largely of the metropolitan power. Hence, it involved uneven and disorganic change. Consequently, the vast majority of Muslim people still live in structurally archaic, increasingly impoverished societies, but they are organically linked with the modern, industrial, metropolitan world. They are the men and women – the Mustazafeen, the weakened ones – among whom the Algerian and Iranian revolutions had the strongest appeal. Germaine Tillion, a French anthropologist, who worked among the Algerians, has described them as “living on the frontiers of two worlds-in the middle of the ford – haunted by the past, fevered with the dreams of the future. But it is with their hands empty and their bellies hollow that they are waiting between their phantoms and their fevers.”‘

The trauma of Muslim life today is augmented by the fact that the resource-rich, strategically important heartlands of Islam are still subject to conquest and colonization. For the Palestinians, the era of decolonization opened in 1948 with the loss of the greater part of their ancient homeland. Now, they are being systematically dispossessed from its remnant, the West Bank and Gaza. In Lebanon, the refugees who fled in 1948, mostly from the Galilee, are being terrorized in Israel’s pursuit of its policy of “dispersion.” Jerusalem, a holy city and touchstone of Arab cultural achievements, has been unilaterally annexed, as has been the Golan Heights. Since the creation of the United Nations, only three of its members lost territories without being able to regain them. All three were Arab states. Only at the cost of betraying others and of isolating itself from its Arab/Islamic milieu did Egypt reclaim in 1982 the territories lost in 1967. Now Lebanon has joined the list of occupied countries; its ancient cities – Tyre, Sidon, Nabatiyyeh – are ruins. Beirut, the cultural capital of the Arab world, became the first capital city in the world whose televised destruction was watched by the world week after week. No Arab, no Muslim government budged except to suppress popular support at home. Their lucrative business with the United States the sole sustainer of Israel continued as usual. Never before had been so tragic the links between wealth and weakness, material resources and moral bankruptcy. Never before in the history of Islamic peoples had there been so total a separation or political power and civil society.

In the breach there is a time bomb. When the moral explosion of the masses occurs, it will undoubtedly have a reference to the past. But its objective shall be the future. The past is very present in the post-colonial Muslim societies. That it is a fractured past invaded by a new world of free markets, shorn of its substance and strength, incapable of assuring the continuity of communal life does not make it less forceful. Its power derives from the tyranny of contemporary realities, and the seeming absence of viable alternatives. For the majority of Muslim peoples, the experienced alternative to the past is a limbo of foreign occupation and dispossession, of alienation from the land, of life in shanty-towns and refugee camps, of migration into foreign lands, and, at best, of permanent expectancy. Leaning on and yearning for the restoration of an emasculated, often idealized past is one escape from the limbo; striking out, in protest and anger, for a new revolutionary order is another. Occasionally, as in Iran, the two responses are merged. More frequently, they are separated in time but historically, organically, linked. Hence, in our time, religiously-oriented millenarian movements have tended to be harbingers of revolution.

The “hopes” that underlie popular support of religious movements in our time, Islamic or otherwise, are not really of the “past.” The slogans and images of religio-political movements are invariably those of the past, but the hopes that are stimulated by them are intrinsically existential hopes, induced and augmented by the contemporary crisis, in this case, of the Muslim world. The often publicized ideological resurgence of Islam (social scientists and the American media spoke as much of “resurgent” Buddhism in the 1960s) is a product of excessive, uneven modernization and the failure of governments to safeguard national sovereignty or to satisfy basic needs. In the “transitional” Third World societies, one judges the present morally, with reference to the past, to inherited values, but materially in relation to the future. Therein lies a new dualism in our social and political life; the inability or unwillingness to deal with it entails disillusionment, terrible costs, and possible tragedy. One mourns Iran, laments Pakistan, fears for Egypt.


1. See Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The making of an Image (Edinburgh: The University Press, 1958).

2. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

3. For a discussion on this question, see Stuart Schaar, “Orientalisis in the Service of Imperialism,” Race and Class II (Summer 1979).

4. Leonard Binder, Iran: Political Development in a Changing Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), pp. 61-62.

5. Marvin Zonis, “The Political Elite of Iran: A Second Stratum?” in Political Elites and Political Development in the Middle East. ed. Frank Tachau (New York: Halsted Press, 1975), pp. 212-13.

6. Syed Ameer Ali, Life and Teachings of Mohammed or the Spirit of Islam, 3rd ed. (London: W. H. Allen,1899).

7. I owe this and the following point to Anwar H. Syed, Islam and the Dialectic of National Solidarity in Pakistan (New York: Praeger, 1983), chapter 2.

8. The literature on millenarian movements is quite extensive. A few basic works are: Vittorio Lanternari. The Religions of the Oppressed (New York: Knopf, 1963); N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Secker and Warburg, 1957); S. L. Thurpp, ed., Millennial Dreams in Action: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Supplement II (The Hague: Mouton, 1962).

9. Anwar H. Syed, Islam and the Dialectic of National Solidarity ill Pakistan, Chapter 2.

10. See James Kritzeck and William H. Lewis, eds., Islam in Africa (New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold, 1969). On the appeal of Islam among poor blacks in the United States, see the very powerful Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965); Archie Epps, ed.,.Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard (New York: Morrow, 1968); Essien-Udom, B. U., Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). Relatively little is known about the continuing conversion of Untouchables to Islam. For a brief description and references, see World View: 1983 (New York: Pantheon, 1983), pp. 113-14.

11. For example, due to property expropriations and repression, in Jerusalem alone the Christian population had been reduced from 25,000 in 1967, to 7,000 in 1980. Similarly, Palestinian Christians constitute a disproportionate number of political prisoners in Israel.

12. Germaine Tillion, Algeria: The Realities (New York, Knopf, 1958).

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