Modern Islamic Political Thought

Michaelle Browers. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

When, for the first time in their history, Muslims found themselves dominated—militarily, politically, and economically—by a colonizing Christian West, they began to raise questions such as:

What are the causes that led to the general degradation of the modern Muslims?

If Islam is a faith that unifies, why this numerous diversity among Muslims?

Is Muslim unity a reasonable hope capable of realization?

Is it possible for one of us to be a loyal nationalist and a sincere Muslim, at one and the same time?

How did it happen that the modern states came into existence only in Christendom?

Does Islam tolerate free, liberal institutions [and] [i]s it able to adapt itself to the demands of such institutions?

Why have we become such deniers of science and enemies of wisdom?

Who would have imagined that Islam—which based itself on reason and thinking—would be deprived of the freedom of ijtihad [rational religious interpretation] and would be left under the yoke of taqlid [imitation of great scholars]?

What is to be done?

It was in the confrontation with these questions that we see the beginnings of modern Islamic thought.

This chapter examines the transformations that have occurred over the last two centuries in Islamic political thought. Thinkers working in the Islamic tradition during this period shared the common concerns of renewal in the face of decline, the fact of Western supremacy and modernization, and the abiding role of the Islamic heritage (turath) in modern society. Islamic modernists first took up these issues at the beginning of the nineteenth century when ‘several Islamic states adopted European military and technical organization, and various Muslim travelers to Europe brought back influential tales of progress and enlightenment’ (Kurzman, 2002: 4). In terms of political reform, Islamic modernists sought to adopt aspects of European political systems on the one hand, and to reassert Islam as a sociopolitical system in perfect harmony with modernity on the other. Islamic modernists’s failure to fully meet that challenge contributed to the rise of Islamic revivalist forces in the latter half of the twentieth century. While modernist Islamic thought continues until the present, in the contemporary period the modernists share discursive space with competing trends—Islamists, traditionalists, and Islamic liberals—each of which offers their own vision of reform. In contemporarary writings, the means of dealing with problems facing Islamic societies have expanded and transformed such that Islamic political thought, which has always been diverse, has become increasingly multi-vocal and fractured, and the interactions among intellectuals working within the tradition of Islam thought are increasingly characterized by tension, hostility, and even violence. There is also a sense, articulated by non-Islamic observers and even on the part of Islamic thinkers themselves, that Islamic political thought today seems to have reached an impasse on at least three issues: how to deal with the Islamic tradition, the function of religion in society, and the basis of political organization. It is true that these issues have consistently re-emerged in each of the three trends of Islamic political theorizing discussed here: Islamic modernism, Islamism, and Islamic liberalism. Yet this common focus, despite the vast differences between thinkers, suggests a common project, as old questions and old answers are re-evaluated anew and each of the three trends has increasingly adopted a similar political focus: the amelioration of arbitrary rule and the establishment of more populist forms of governance.

Islamic Modernism

The emergence of modernism in Islamic thought corresponds with what has come to be called the Arab Nahda (renaissance or awakening), ‘a vast political and cultural movement that dominate[d] the period of 1850-1914… [that] sought through translation and vulgarization to assimilate the great achievements of modern European civilization, while reviving the classical Arab culture that antedates the centuries of decadence and foreign domination’ (Laroui, 1976: vii).3 Muslims working in this tradition sought to revive Islamic thought both by affirming continuity with the past and by assimilating what they saw as the achievements of modern Europe—specifically, modern material technology, modern techniques of social organization and mobilization, and modern political institutions such as parliaments. They also sought to give Islamic thought a more rationalist, futuristic, and universalistic orientation.

Certainly Islamic modernism was not the first movement calling for revival, renewal and reform of the tradition in Islamic history. As early as the eighth and ninth centuries, Muslim thinkers had been involved in disputes over how Islamic sociopolitical life could best be structured as the challenges of Shi’i, Sufi, Mu’tazila, and Kharijite movements emerged alongside the formation of an Islamic orthodoxy. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, reformists sought to revive Islam amidst a waning Caliphate. Fazlur Rahman (Pakistan-US, 1919-88) cites a number of ‘premodernist’ reformation movements that ‘swept over the larger part of the Muslim World in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries’ and shared characteristics of a ‘consciousness of degeneration, and of the corresponding need to remedy social evils and raise moral standards’ (1970: 641). However, the difference between the ‘premodern’ and ‘modern’ reform movements is that whereas the former owed little Rahman goes so far as to say ‘nothing whatsoever’ to foreign inspiration, the latter is as much a reaction to the West as it is a continuation of the thought and activism of the premodernist Islamic reformers. As Charles Kurzman rightly notes, the movement that begins in the first half of the nineteenth century

was not simply ‘modern’ (a feature of modernity) but also ‘modernist’ (a proponent of modernity). Activists [of modernist Islam] describe themselves and their goals by the Arabic terms jadid(new) and mu’asir (contemporary), [and] the Turkish terms yeni (new) and genç (young), and similar words in other languages. (2002: 4)

Muslims often contend that, while Christianity is primarily a faith, Islam is complete and holistic in the sense of being a way of life as well as a religion (dunya wa din). Islamic law (shari’a) is understood as a comprehensive system containing principles regulating both mankind’s relationship to God (‘ibadai) and relationships among human beings (mu’amala). Islamic modernists had to combat the orthodoxy which claimed that not only is there no need to look outside of the Islamic tradition (turath) in organizing the social and political affairs of the community, but to do so is anti-Islamic.

Many Islamic thinkers justified their use of modern values by arguing that Europe’s current status was an outgrowth of the accomplishments of medieval Islamic thinkers, and thus they were only retrieving their own lost heritage. For example, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (Tunisia, 1822-90) claims that

there is no reason to reject or ignore something which is correct and demonstrable simply because it comes from others, especially if we had formerly possessed it and it had been taken from us. On the contrary, there is an obligation to restore it and put it to use. (in Kurzman, 2002: 42)

Others, like Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Iran, 1838-97), asserted that ‘the Islamic religion is the closest of all religions to science and knowledge, and there is no incompatibility between science and knowledge and the foundation of the Islamic faith’ (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 19). Most Islamic modernists believed that the tension between Islam and modern values was ‘a historical accident, not an inherent feature of Islam’ (Kurzman, 2002: 4). However, the extent to which particular modernists were willing to borrow from the West ranged from those who argued, in the words of Mirza Malkom Khan (Iran, 1833-1908), that ‘in all the new institutions which Europe offers us there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which is contrary to the spirit of our religion’ (in Bakhash, 1978: 15); to those like Rashid Rida (Syria-Egypt, 1865-1935) who claimed Muslims need only to acquire Europe’s ‘scientific achievements, technical skill and advanced industries’ (in Shahin, 1993: 49); to those who, like Afghani, look no more fondly on the blind imitation of the West than of the past, in that ‘experience and past evidence have taught us that imitators in every nation, and those who copy foreign customs, constitute the very chinks and loopholes through which foreign domination penetrates a country’ (in Awwad, 1986: 84).

In the political discourse of modernist Islam, the primary concern was to articulate a tenable understanding of the relationship between religion and the state. One of the early strands of modernist Islamic thought gave Islam a nationalistic understanding, focused on building a strong state that could compete with the West. We see this, for example, in the work of Rifa’a Badawi Rafi al-Tahtawi (Egypt, 1801-1873):

The love of religion and the passion to protect, which the people of Islam hold so tenaciously and which give them an advantage over other nations in power and force, [people in the West] call love of fatherland. However, among us, the people of Islam, love of the fatherland is just one branch of the faith, and the defense of religion is its capstone. Every kingdom is a fatherland for all those in it who belong to Islam, it combines religion and patriotism. (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 13)

Tahtawi sees no conflict between religion and patriotism and, in fact, views Islam as the basis of Arab nationalism, in general, and the foundation of Egyptian nationalism, in particular. In contrast, Rida claims that ‘one of the imperatives of Islam is its prohibition of partisanship in wrong for the sake of relatives, people, or fatherland. It prohibits enmity and divisions among Muslims’ (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 58). In the works of thinkers such as Afghani, Abduh and Rida, Islam took on a more pan-Islamic character and the aim was to reinstate the Muslim umma (community) in the image of the Ottoman Empire. This understanding of Islam and renewal became an important inspiration for later Islamists, discussed in the next section.

Others sought to incorporate modern political values with Islamic notions of the state. The Islamic tradition had formulated general principles governing authority, but there were few checks on absolute authority provided by that tradition. Many modernist Muslims sought to limit the traditional authoritarian powers of rulers originally derived from Islamic sources, but no longer deemed compatible with Muslim interests, by claiming a principle of equivalence between various aspects of the shari’a (Islamic law) and the ideals of constitutionalism. According to Sunni orthodoxy, a leader was to be chosen by an elite class referred to as ahl alk-al wa al-‘aqd (literally, those who loose and bind), people of authority and stature in the community such as tribal chieftains, governors of provinces, state dignitaries. However, modernist Islamic thinkers claimed that this privilege should now fall to representative assemblies whose members have become the effective ‘people of authority.’ Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi asks, ‘Is it fitting that the physicians of the umma should be ignorant of its ailments?’ (1967: 72), thus suggesting that matters that affect the public should involve consulting the public in some form.

In advancing their claims, some Islamic modernists turned to a passage in the Qur’an which advised Muhammad to ‘seek their council in the matter’ (Sura 3, Verse 159), interpreting it to mean, as Musa Kazin (Turkey, 1858-1920) does, that leaders are required to ‘consult with the umma in every matter’ (in Kurzman, 2002: 176). In an essay that bears the verse as its title, Namik Kemal (Turkey, 1840-88) argues that in order to ‘keep the state within the limits of justice’ Muslims must undertake two reforms: (1) making government operations public and open to scrutiny, that is, ‘emancipating] the fundamental principles of the administration from the domain of implicit interpretation and mak[ing] them public,’ and (2) exercising ‘the method of consultation [al-shura], which takes the legislative power out of the hands of the members of the government’ and places it in those of the larger Islamic community (umma) (in Kurzman, 2002: 145).

‘Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis (Algeria, 1889-1940) bases his argument that it is the people that have the right to delegate authority to the leaders and depose them’ on a well-known speech by Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, delivered in 632 when, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, he was sworn in as the first caliph:

O People, I was entrusted as your ruler, although I am not better than any one of you.

Support me as long as you see me following the right path, and correct me when you see me going astray. Obey me as long as I observe God in your affairs. If I disobey Him, you owe me no obedience. The weak among you are powerful [in my eyes] until I get them their due. The powerful among you are weak [in my eyes] until I take away from them what is due to others. I say this and seek God’s forgiveness for myself and for you. (in Kurzman, 2002: 93-4)

Based upon this speech, Ibn Badis identifies 13 principles that should govern Islamic polities, including: ‘no one can rule without the consent of the people’; ‘assuming the affairs of the people does not make the ruler better than anyone else’; the people have the right and responsibility to ‘monitor,’ ‘advise,’ ‘correct,’ and ‘question’ the ruler; the ruler must ‘declare the plan he is going to follow, so that the people become aware of and agree to it’; the law emanates from the ‘will of the people’; and ‘all are equal before the law’ (in Kurzman, 2002: 94-5).

The Moroccan thinker Muhammad ‘s Abd al-Jabiri (b. 1936) points out how the generation that included Afghani and Abduh often attempted to bridge the Arab-Islamic tradition and the European Enlightenment by correlating Islamic concepts with European ones. According to al-Jabiri, they suggested an equation between democracy and al-shura ‘not because they were congruent, or because they were ignorant of the differences that separated them,’ but rather because ‘they acted in a framework which called for an ideological action aimed at the pacifying of the rigid ideologues among the “religious scholars” and perhaps also the rulers, by assuring them that the invocation of democracy does not mean the insertion of a heretical doctrine into the stronghold of Islam’ (1994: 41). The equivalences asserted, for example, between maslaha and general will, ijma’ and public opinion, and shura and parliamentary democracy, cannot be explained as merely an attempt to give foreign ideas an Islamic colouring, any more than they can be described as simply a defensive action aimed at asserting Islamic values in the face of the West’s onslaught. It is an example of thinkers working in a defensive manner, but also evidence that Islamic thinkers in this period were guided by a faith that Islam contained universal elements that are available to anyone who employs their reason and which could provide the foundation for moving the umma forward toward the creation of a better future.

Kurzman points out that, although one does find discussions of democracy during this period, most Islamic modernists ‘did not necessarily intend constitutionalism to mean democracy, as it came to be understood over the course of the twentieth century: universal adult suffrage, reduction of monarchs to symbolic offices, and constitutional protection of a growing lists of rights’ (2002: 20). Rather, their concern was the rule of law and limits on political power, within the conceptual framework of Islam. As such, constitutional reforms often retain a distinct concern with a sense of justice (‘adala), which denotes a harmonious arrangement, and unity (tawhid), in addition to the concern with providing legal protections. Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Na’sini (Iran, 1860-1936) defines constitutionalism in a manner typical among modernist Islamic thinkers that captures both the rights and responsibilities of political power: ‘bound, limited, just, conditioned, responsible and authoritative’ (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 289).

Certainly in this period there were also traditionalist or orthodox Islamic thinkers who rejected modern values. So too, there were considerable differences among Islamic modernists themselves over many questions of methodology and aim. One can distinguish, for example, between reformist thinkers who sought reform primarily through a reconstruction and modernization of Islamic culture and education on the one hand, and modernist thinkers who were more Western in orientation and borrowed more freely and widely from various aspects of modern Europe on the other. But their common project—of reconciling the demands of the modern age with the Islamic faith—spurred a proliferation of modern forms of writing and publishing, including the novel and the periodical press, and contributed to anti-colonial movements in North Africa and South Asia. Modernist ideas also inspired the reformation of religious educational institutions and the secular schools, which had the effect of displacing or reducing the significance of the ‘ulama (doctors of Islamic sciences) from their traditional roles as civil servants in the field of education.

However, in general, Islamic modernists failed to transform their ideas into mass movements or a fundamental transformation of Islamic society. Although constitutional movements took up many of the ideas of the modernists and religious groups supported the constitutional experiments undertaken in Tunisia (1860), Turkey (1876), Egypt (1881), and Persia (1905), as Majid Khadduri points out, the constitutions that were ultimately implemented

took no notice of Islamic principles save for reference to Islam as the official religion of the state. They were framed under the exclusive influence of European models and thereby lost touch with religious groups whose support was essential for the operation of those novel institutions. (1970: 30-1)

As such, in the view of many, the institutions that emerged in this period represented less an authentic reformation of Islamic political thought and more an indication of continued Western domination.

A change in Islamic political thought began to emerge by the 1930s, as faith in liberal nationalism began to decline in the region, exacerbated by economic problems, political corruption, two world wars, and the creation of the state of Israel (in 1948). The emergence of competing discourses of secular nationalism, socialism, and fascism sapped the energy and divided the ranks of modernist Islamic thinkers. ‘A series of military coups d’sétat brought to power regimes that were disillusioned with the liberal West and attracted by the progress of socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe’ (Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 98). Successors tended either to emphasize the modernist values of the earlier thinkers while overlooking or rejecting their Islamic points of reference (secularists), or to downplay or dismiss appropriating from the West and modernity while emphasizing a ‘return’ to the fundamentals of Islam (Islamic revivalists and traditionalists).

Islamic Awakening

According to Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Egypt, b. 1926) (1982; 1988), the ‘Islamic awakening’ (al-ahwa al-Islamiyya) is directly related to the nakba (disaster) of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948, and the naksa (fall), which occurred when during the Six Day War of 1967, instead of recapturing Palestine, the Arab forces led by Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt lost further territory. Both events shook the credibility of the Arab nationalist regimes and provided fertile soil later tilled by Islamist forces. The naksa (fall) signalled the end of the Nahda (renaissance). By the latter half of the 1970s the corrupt and inefficient nature of a number of existing (Arab nationalist and socialist) states in the region became apparent to all, and Islamists, who rejected the Western model of the state—yet also seem to have appropriated Western socialist models aimed at seizing state power, as is discussed below—had become a force to be reckoned with in a number of Muslim countries. One of the early Islamist works, by Abu al-Hasan al-Nadwi’ (India, 1913-99), offers the following explanation of decline: ‘Dazzled by the power and progress of the Western nations, Muslims began to imitate Western social and economic institutions regardless of the consequences… The prestige of religion was diminished. The teachings of the Prophet were forgotten.’ The solution to the moral degeneration and spiritual malaise, according to al-Nadwi, lies in a renewal of Islamic thought: ‘The Qur’an and the Sunnah can still revitalize the withered arteries of the Islamic world’ (in Abu-Rabi’s, 1996: 19, 20).

One must distinguish between Islamic revivalists often referred to as ‘Islamic fundamentalists’—who seek to return to authoritative sources in the Islamic tradition with the aim of legitimizing changes in the present, and Islamic traditionalists, who resist changes and seek to preserve an Islamic orthodoxy. Revivalists share with the modernists that preceded them a belief that Islam can and should be adapted to modern conditions. Ijtihad (independent reasoning) is permitted in adapting the Shari’a. However, unlike modernists, they strongly emphasize the distinctiveness of Islam and reject the adoption of Western political ideals. Traditionalist Muslims tend to eschew ijtihad in favour of taqlid (imitation) of time-honoured understandings of the Islamic tradition. A central concern of revivalists is the introduction of more Islamic law in order to clearly establish the Islamic character of the state. The traditionalists, among whom number many of the ‘ulama (traditional Islamic scholars), in many cases have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Traditionalists, or those who suggest that the Islamic turath (heritage)—the Qur’an and the Sunna (prophetic tradition)—are not affected by changing circumstances and point to the existence of an institutionalized juridical tradition (al-flqh) as the protector of the religion, have always existed in the Islamic tradition. Islamists tend more toward political activism than theology and are also more selective in emphasizing segments of the Qur’an that serve their purposes. For our purposes here, the revivalists and their response to both modernist Islam and the problems confronting contemporary Islamic society are more relevant, since they are a distinctly modern trend in Islamic political thought.

This new movement arose under the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ (al-Islam huwa al-hall or al-hall al-islami) and called for a ‘return to the forefathers’ (al-sal qf) from whence comes the name of the Salafiyya movement, which advocated a return to a shari’a-minded orthodoxy that would purify Islam of foreign accretions. The most important historical source for this trend in Islam is the Syrian jurist Taqiy al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), a staunch defender of Sunni Islam based on strict adherence to the Qur’an and the authentic Sunna. Writing amidst the strife brought about by external aggression from Christian crusaders and the Mongols, as well as internal struggles, Ibn Taymiyya believed that these two sources contained all the religious and spiritual guidance necessary for Muslims and the revival of the Islamic world. In his most famous work, al-Siyasa al-shar’iyya (Governance According to Islamic Law) Ibn Taymiyya emphasizes the necessity of government and leadership in all societies, as a way of avoiding strife and enforcing religious commandments, and of jihad (holy struggle) against infidels. In his Fatawa (juridical rulings), Ibn Taymiyya considers the specific case of the invading Mongols, as well as the cases of local rulers who gave allegiance to these Mongols, and rules that all such people were infidels who should be fought against by true Muslims, because they failed to apply the Shari’a(1966: vol. 4, 332-58).

Among the leaders of the Islamic revival is Abu al-‘Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), founder of the Jama’at-i Islami in still-united India (in 1941), who called for a return to the Qur’an and a purified Sunna as a means of revitalizing Islam. Mawdudi describes Islam as an ideology and the Islamic state as an ideological state: ‘It is clear from a careful consideration of the Qur’an and the Sunna that the state in Islam is based on an ideology and its objective is to establish that ideology’ (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 256-7). The central theme in Mawdudi’s thought is the concept of God’s sovereignty (hakimiyya), which entails the idea that human beings can only exercise power in the name of God and in pursuit of God’s commands. He argued that the only way this could truly be carried out was though an Islamic state that is in ‘all respects… founded upon the law laid down by God through His Prophet’ (in Moaddel and Talattof, 2002: 271) and this was the political goal he worked toward in Pakistan.

In Egypt, Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) became the intellectual spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood. Among Qutb’s contributions to Islamism is his elaboration of the idea of jahiliyya, the time of ‘ignorance’ that existed prior to God’s message to the Prophet Muhammad, to describe a condition that can exist at any time when human beings do not live up to God’s plan. In Qutb’s assessment, the contemporary age is one of ignorance, godlessness, and perplexity—summed up by the notion of jahiliyya and Muslims must withdraw from jahili society, establish a truly Islamic social order (al-nizam al-islami) and, ultimately, (re)conquer the existing ignorant order (al-nizam al-jahili). According to this perspective, Islam is incompatible with the modern ‘secular’ reality and the Islamic umma can only grow and flourish at the expense of this reality. The only antidote to the current state of jahiliyya especially Western materialism which he saw as the chief contaminant—was the hakimiyya of God: a total Islamic view of life and a divinely ordained Islamic system. The harbinger of this new order is a body of believers Qutb refers to as a ‘vanguard’: ‘A vanguard must resolve to set it in motion in the midst of the jahiliyya that now reigns over the entire earth’ (in Kepel, 1986: 45). It is this vanguard that undertakes the task of purging themselves of corruption—a sort of hijra in the manner undertaken by the Prophet Muhammad when he left for Medina after facing opposition from Meccan authorities, only to return a few years later to conquer Mecca and then returns to engage in jihad against the forces of jahiliyya.

Both Qutb and Mawdudi articulate a notion of political struggle aimed at gaining political power, before all other considerations, in order to establish an Islamic state. Mawdudi sees Islam as a ‘revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets.’ In pursuing that aim he calls for the establishment of an ‘International Revolutionary Party’ aimed at waging jihad against tyrannical governments (1976: 3, 17-18). ‘Jihad,’ Mawdudi claims:

is part of this overall defense of Islam. Jihad means struggle to the utmost of one’s capacity. A man who exerts himself physically or mentally or spends his wealth in the way of Allah is indeed engaged in Jihad. But in the language of Shari’ah this word is used particularly for the war that is waged solely in the name of Allah and against those who perpetrate oppression as enemies of Islam. (1960: 150)

Qutb divides the world into two spheres: dar al-Islam and dar al-harb. The first sphere includes every country in which the legal judgements of Islam are applied, regardless of whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews form the majority of citizens, so long as those who wield power are Muslim and adhere to the injunctions of their religion. The second sphere consists of every territory in which Islamic rules are not applied, irrespective of whether its rulers claim to be Muslim (in Moaddel and Talattof, 2002: 241-2). Although Mawdudi refers to jihad as a ‘defense of Islam,’ in the context of these conflicting spheres, Qutb is quite clear that jihad is a duty incumbent on all true Muslims. In order to bring about the desired end—an Islamic state—‘Islamic Jihad’ must provide Muslims with a free atmosphere to exercise their choice of faith. It either completely dynamites the reigning political systems or, subjugating them, forces them into submission to and acceptance of Jizyah [tax paid by non-Muslims in an Islamic state]. Thus it does not allow any impediment to remain in the way of accepting the belief. Thereafter it allows complete freedom to people to accept or reject belief (in Moaddel and Talattof, 2002: 226).

Qutb’s thought containeds two innovations which proved to be of particular significance for the Islamists he inspired. First, in declaring that not only non-Islamic governments but also governments led by Muslims could be considered to be existing in a state of jahiliyya, he gave Islamic sanction to Muslims’ opposition to and overthrow of the governments that ruled them. Up until this time, Islamists in Egypt viewed the British as the enemy, though occasionally also the Egyptian monarchy and capitalism. However, Qutb’ last and most influential work, Milestones (Ma’alim fial-tariq, literally ‘signposts along the road’) (1990), constituted a harsh critique of the jahiliyya and, hence, illegitimacy of the Nasser regime. Second, Qutb not only opened the door to fighting against corrupt or insufficiently Islamic governments, but also introduced the ability to excommunicate individuals: ‘This absolute command also lies in the Quran, that no link should be had with a person who turns his face from the remembrance of God and world-seeking alone is his objective and outlook’ (in Moaddel and Talattof, 2002: 205). Qutb personally played a role in criticizing and opposing Egyptian modernists such as Taha Hussayn (1889-1973).

However, the primary target of Islamists is the secular nation-state in Islamic countries, and their ultimate aim is the establishment of an Islamic state. The state they envision has the Qur’an as its constitution, the ruler implements the shari’a, to which he is also bound, and the ruler engages in shura (consultation). As Qutb writes, ‘political theory in Islam rests on the basis of justice on the part of the rulers, obedience on the part of the ruled, and collaboration between ruler and ruled’ (1980: 93). Most Islamists are quick to resist equations of shura with democracy. Democracy, which is based on the idea of popular sovereignty, not the sovereignty of God, is considered a jahiliyya form of government. According to Qutb, those Muslims who argue for human sovereignty in politics confuse the exercise of power with its source. In his view, the people do not possess, and thus cannot delegate, sovereignty. Rather, they must implement what God, the sovereign, has legislated. Since Islamic law provides a complete legal and moral system, no further legislation is either possible or necessary. Similarly, Mawdudi claims that ‘it is quite clear that Islam, speaking from the viewpoint of political philosophy, is the very antithesis of secular Western democracy’ (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 254).

Another blueprint for an Islamic order is found in Khomeini’s vilayat-i-faqih (the guardianship or rule of the jurists), which constituted the official ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran that he helped establish in 1979. This vision of Islamic government, achieved under the guardianship of the jurists, represents a significant innovation in Shi’si political thought which was traditionally based on a waiting for the return of the ‘hidden Imam.’ Vilayat-i-faqih is founded on the existence of an institutionalized and hierarchical Shi’a ‘clergy’ (something absent to the Sunni tradition). While this aspect of Khomeini’s thought remained largely confined to Iran, other aspects had a wider influence on contemporary Islamism elsewhere, such as his use of Qur’anic notions to draw a picture of Muslims as ‘the downtrodden (mustad’afun) of the earth,’ who have been dominated and ruled over by the ‘arrogant’ (mustakburun) (1982: 106), his critique of Western ‘materialism’ and his populism.

These latter ideas illustrate the extent to which Islamists appeal directly to those who are hurt most when economic, social, and political conditions are dire. The end of the twentieth century offered them many opportunities to make such appeals: enduring unemployment and declining public services, the lack of response to continued Israeli occupation and military actions (such as the 1993 bombardment of villages in southern Lebanon), the increasing repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1980s and 1990s, the annulment of elections in Algeria after the balloting success of the Islamic Salvation Front in December 1991 and the ensuing civil war, the outlawing of the Tunisian Renaissance Party led by Rashid al-Ghannushi and of the Syrian Muslim Brethren. However, some Islamist movements and parties, such as the Muslim Brethren of Jordan, have officially accepted the means and practices of secular institutions and have been integrated into the political process. Most of the attention and energy of Islamists has continued to focus on problems internal to states and societies with predominantly or exclusively Muslim populations. However, military strikes and economic sanctions by a US-led coalition against the regime in Iraq has led some to speculate that the Islamist challenge was refocusing against the contemporary international order. Nonetheless, even this newest dimension to Islamic political thought confirms Robert Hefner’s assessment that the real ‘clash of civilizations’ or ‘world views’ in the contemporary period is not so much ‘between the West and some homogeneous “other” but between rival carriers of tradition within the same nations and civilizations’ (1998: 92). Although much of the focus in the West has been on Islamism, this trend is only one of many that are now vying for space in contemporary Islamic discourse.

Liberal Islam

Islamism’s visibility and power have waxed and waned throughout the middle and latter part of the twentieth century. Late in the twentieth century modernist discourses were revived and strengthened, alongside what has been termed ‘Islamic liberalism.’ According to Kurzman, Islamic liberals ‘sought to resuscitate the reputation and accomplishments of earlier modernists’ (2002: 4). Certainly, one finds liberal elements in the thought of those earlier modernists and, in some respects, Islamic liberalism dates back to the very beginning of the Nahda. However, a distinct trend emerged around the 1970s, on the heels of the Islamic revival, and became more prevalent in the mid 1980s with Gorbachev’s launching of perestroika and as elections were held in a number of Islamic countries and governments seemed to be transformed, or on the verge of being transformed, by forces of civil society. Contemporary Islamic liberalism is distinct from both Islamic modernists and Islamists in three respects.

First, against Islamist slogans that ‘Islam is the solution,’ and secularist claims that Islam is the problem, Islamic liberals attribute most social and political ills to a lack of democracy and basic rights, especially freedom of thought. Although in some cases the focus on democracy might be interpreted as merely a strategic compromise on the part of Islamists to protest against secular states that exclude Islamist parties from participation, among liberal Islamic thinkers the argument is consistently aimed at both secular and theocratic states. Responding to those who argue for secularism, Muhammad Shahrour (Syria, b. 1938) argues:

Since religion has an important normative role in the Middle East societies, it is impossible to ignore it. Liberals tried to do so, and they failed in their attempt to transport a Western political formula to the Arab/ Muslim states. Marxists wanted to impose a secularization, to deconstruct religion, and also failed. Anyhow, there could be secularism in the Arab or Islamic states, but it would not solve anything. The Middle East problem is not secularism, but democracy. The secular state has been there for seventy years, it was imposed upon society and it did not work. (1999: 2)

In response to Islamists, Sadek J. Sulaiman (Oman, b. 1933) maintains that ‘as a concept and as a principle, shura in Islam does not differ from democracy,’ and ‘the relationship between democracy andshura touches the essence of our national existence (qawmiyya). It determines the quality of our civic experience and the world we would like to leave for future generations. For this reason the subject merits our full attention’ (in Kurzman, 1998: 98, 10). Rahman argues specifically against Mawdudi’s and Qutb’s dismissals of democracy as in violation of God’s sovereignty, claiming that their view is based on a confusion of religio-moral and political issues. ‘Sovereignty,’ Rahman argues,

is a political term of relatively recent coinage and denotes that definite and defined factor (or factors) in a society to which rightfully belongs coercive force in order to obtain obedience to its will. It is obvious that God is not sovereign in this sense and that only people can be and are sovereign. (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 264)

Accepting the sovereignty of God, in Rahman’s view, involves accepting ‘the principles enunciated in the Qur’an [which] are justice and fair play.’

Liberal Islamic thinkers maintain that a democratic system best codifies and preserves rights and duties that can curtail arbitrariness and authoritarianism on the part of the state. Among the most important values attributed to democracy in liberal Islamic thought is tolerance, and among the most important rights are the freedoms of thought and speech. Rahman argues that ‘difference of opinion, provided it is meaningful, has to be assigned a high positive value’ (in Kurzman, 1998: 317). Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia, b. 1939) ranks the freedoms of thought and expression as the most important of individual liberties and argues that even ideas that appear strange or incorrect must be protected:

It is by no means rare that such ideas and thoughts, initially regarded as generally wrong, are [later] found to be right… Furthermore, in the confrontation of ideas and thoughts, even error can be of considerable benefit, because it will induce truth to express itself and grow as a strong force. Perhaps it was not entirely small talk when our Prophet said that differences of opinion among hisumma were a mercy [from God]. (in Kurzman, 1998: 287)

Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia, b. 1921) analyses several Qur’anic verses, including Sura 5, Verse 51—‘To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people’—to argue that Islam supports religious liberty and that the traditional death penalty for apostasy is based upon a misreading of the divine text (in Kurzman, 1998: 164).

Further, in national contexts where Muslims comprise a minority or are only a marginal majority, liberal Islamic thinkers have expressed a particular interest in the protection of religious rights and minorities. A number of thinkers have pointed to what has become known as the ‘Constitution of Medina,’ a treaty signed by the Prophet Muhammad under which the various clans in Medina, including Jews and polytheists, formed an alliance or federation. According to ‘Ali Bula (Turkey, b. 1951): ‘The urgent problem of the day was to end the conflicts and to find a formulation for the co-existence of all sides according to the principles of justice and righteousness. In this respect, the Document is epochal’ (in Kurzman, 1998: 173). Bula characterizes the society set up under this agreement as ‘righteous and just, law respecting,’ as well as democratic, and he claims it manages to achieve ‘a rich diversity within unity, or a real pluralism,’ since ‘each religious and ethnic group enjoys complete cultural and legal autonomy’ (in Kurzman, 1998: 174). Others quote Qur’anic passages to support an ideal of a society respectful of religious differences. Chandra Muzaffar (Malaysia, b. 1947) quotes Sura 49, Verse 13—‘O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other’—to support arguments for tolerance in Malaysia, a diverse country where Muslims enjoy only a slight majority (in Kurzman, 1998: 157).

The second distinct aspect of liberal Islamic thinkers is that they eschew efforts to seize state power, or even to Islamicize the state, and focus instead on reviving an Islamic ethos at the societal level. In this context, many Islamic liberals have argued for a reconsideration of a thesis put forth by Shaykh ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (Egypt, 1888-1966) in the 1920s, that ‘Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a Messenger of a religious call, full of religiosity, untainted by a tendency to kingship or a call to government’ (in Kurzman, 1998: 29). According to ‘Abd al-Raziq, government ‘is a worldly aim, and God, may He be elevated, has rendered it a matter to be resolved by our minds, and has left people free to manage it in the manner that their minds, knowledge, interests, desires, and tendencies would guide them’ (in Kurzman, 1998: 35). The book generated considerable controversy when it was published and ‘Abd al-Raziq was widely criticized and suffered the loss of his academic and juridical positions.

Muhammad Khalaf-Allah (Egypt, 1916-97), an Islamic liberal and similarly controversial figure, takes ‘Abd al-Raziq’s argument one step further by suggesting that not only does the Qur’an allow human beings to manage the affairs of government, but it requires them to do so and in a democratic manner. Like earlier thinkers, Khalaf-Allah advocates shura, which he interprets as democracy. However he interprets the second part of Sura 3, Verse 159—’And seek their counsel in affairs. And when you have come to a decision, place your trust in God alone’—to claim that when Muslims have come to a decision about a matter, they should ‘execute this decision without waiting for divine opinion,’ either in the form of revelation, or even of the religious scholars’s (‘ulama) explanation in light of religious texts (in Kurzman, 1998: 39). According to Khalaf-Allah, God has delegated to Muslims the responsibility to establish a system of consultation so that they can decide upon political matters for themselves.

As with Islamic writings on democracy, it is sometimes difficult to assess the extent to which some statements critical of projects aimed at Islamicizing the state indicate a realist strategy, as opposed to a liberalist conviction. For example, the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID) is one of many modern, liberal Islamic organizations that currently exist throughout the world. The IFID publishes a newsletter in English and Arabic entitled Islam and provides an interactive website for exchanging and developing ideas among Muslims. According to the IFID charter, the organization explicitly sees itself as occupying and developing a new realm in a period that is witnessing ‘the advancement of civil society and the retreat of state control.’ The Forum distinguishes its dialogue from earlier Islamist movements which ‘were chasing state power,’ a strategy that the Forum’s organizers describe as not only ‘very costly and rarely achievable,’ but also unlikely to ‘solve problems’ and potentially a ‘liability to the Islamic project as a whole.’ ‘The options for sociopolitical activism must not be confined to an all-out opposition to the State. In fact, Islamists can be more effective through pursuing the advancement of civil society’ (IFID, 1999: 1).

However, in general, liberal Islamic thinkers demonstrate a significant shift toward replacing theocratic arguments with those aimed at instilling or protecting an Islamic ethos. Some, like Khalaf-Allah, argue that ‘if any government is to be described as Islamic, it should be in the sense of “Islam-the-culture” (al-hlam al-hadara) and not of “Islam-the-religion” (al-hlam al-din)’ (Ayoubi, 1991: 302). The Egyptian jurist Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id al-‘sAshmawy (b. 1932) argues for the same conclusion, based on different premises:

The principle of separating politics from religion, that is, civic rule, the so-called secularism, is needed. Politics should be practiced unfettered by religion but on the basis of civil code. At the same time religion needs to be protected from political distortion or corruption and unimpeded by early disputes or conflicts of power. When religion is meshed with politics it becomes an ideology, not a religion, and its followers become politicians or party members. To succeed, religion must recognize that it is a faith of profound power instilled in mankind’s conscience to connect the individual with his faith, society, humanity and the cosmos at large. (1998: 71)

In al-‘Ashmawy’s assessment, Islamists are guilty of ideologizing Islam, that is, denigrating and exploiting the faith for temporal ends and separating and dividing Muslims. ‘True religion,’ according to al-‘Ashmawy, ‘is open to all humankind, requiring each individual to refine him or herself and elevate his or her conscience to co-operate with all humankind’ (1998: 72).

A third element that distinguishes at least some of the Islamic liberals from modernists, Islamists, and traditionalists has to do with the way they approach the issue of interpreting the religious tradition or ijtihad. Islamic modernists had already taken on the Sunni orthodoxy which claimed that the ‘gates of ijtihad’ had been shut in the early centuries of Islam and that later Muslims need to follow the practice of taqlid, the imitation of established traditions. For example, at the turn of the century Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi (Iraq, 1857-1924) declared the ‘thesis concerning the closing of the gate of ijtihad’ put forth by his contemporary, the ‘miserable,’ ‘ignoramus’ Yusuf al-Nabhani’s (Palestine-Lebanon, 1850-1932), to be ‘false and heretical’ (in Kurzman, 2002: 171). Subhi Mahmasani (Lebanon, b. 1911) writes that ‘the door of ijtihad should be thrown wide open for anyone juristically qualified. The error, all of the error, lies in blind imitation and restraint of thought’ (in Donohue and Esposito, 1982: 182). Afghani maintained that Muslims must ‘not be content with mere taqlid of their ancestors’ (in Keddie, 1968: 171). Shaykh Na’ini argued that ‘taqlid of religious leaders who pretend to present true religion is no different from obedience to political tyrants’ (in Kurzman, 2002: 122). In fighting against the practice of taqlid, Islamic modernists sought to rehabilitate and expand the right to engage in ijtihad in order to reinterpret the Islamic tradition to meet the needs of the modern age.

Wael Hallaq distinguishes between two strands of contemporary Islamic legal thought that offer competing visions of ijtihad. The first he terms ‘religious utilitarianism,’ the second—in his view a ‘new phenomenon’ in Islam—he terms ‘religious liberals’ (1997: 214). Among the religious utilitarians he includes earlier modernist figures such as Rashid Rida, the Egyptian jurist ‘Abd al-Wahhab Khallaf (1888-1956), and ‘Allal al-Fasi (Morocco, 1910-74), as well as Hasan Turabi (Sudan, b. 1932). Among the religious liberals he includes al-‘Ashmawy, the Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman, the Sudanese professor of law ‘Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’sim (b. 1946), as well as Muhammad Shahrour, Muhammad Arkoun (Algeria-France, b. 1928), and Hassan Hanafi (Egypt, b. 1935). Although Turabi might merit inclusion among the Islamic liberals, by virtue of his emphasis on democracy and pluralism, Hallaq’s distinction captures a dominant and unique facet of contemporary Islamic liberals. Both the liberal and the utilitarian, according to Hallaq, share the same goal: ‘the reformulation of legal theory in a manner that brings into successful synthesis the basic religious values of Islam, on the one hand, and a substantive law that is suitable to the needs of a modern and changing society, on the other.’ But what most divides these two trends are the methods they have devised to pursue this end. Whereas religious utilitarians place the public interest [maslaha] at the centre of their interpretive approach as a sort of guiding principle, religious liberals seek to develop a hermeneutic that departs from traditional literalist interpretations altogether. The ‘main thrust of the liberalist approach,’ according to Hallaq, is ‘understanding revelation as both text and context’ (1997: 231).

In 1982, Rahman noted that it is

something of an irony to pit the so-called Muslim fundamentalists against the Muslim modernists, since, so far as their acclaimed procedure goes, the Muslim modernists say exactly the same thing as the so-called Muslim fundamentalists say: That Muslims must go back to the original and definitive sources of Islam and perform ijtihad on that basis. (1982: 142)

Both modernists and Islamists ‘come up with radically different answers to some basic issues according to their respective environments,’ but the problem, as Rahman sees it, is not their different conclusions, but their lack of ‘method’ in interpreting the Islamic tradition so that it would provide for sound and reliable interpretations and eliminate ‘vagrant’ ones. Liberal Islamic thinkers revise the orthodox understanding of the Islamic law, stressing, as Shaykh al-‘Ashmawy does, that ‘the true meaning of shari’a is the path, the method the way’ (1999: 97). While not denying the binding character of theshari’a, al-‘Ashmawy does deny its character as a comprehensive legal system or detailed legal code. He suggests that the form of obedience required by this understanding of the Shari’a is more demanding because it requires active efforts of interpretation (ijtihad) by the faithful to discover the essential normative requirements of Islam.

Other Islamic liberals take the task of ijtihad even further by subjecting aspects of the Islamic turath to a more critical approach. An-Na’sim seeks to ‘criticize Shari’a and oppose its application today’ by demonstrating that it was ‘constructed by Muslim jurists over the first three centuries of Islam’ as they interpreted the Qur’an and Sunna (1996: 185). Thus, contemporary Muslims must engage in their own process of interpretation to develop a system of law appropriate for implementation today. In approaching the Qur’an, an-Na’sim follows the traditional method of exegesis in distinguishing between those verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and those revealed in Medina. However, following his teacher Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (Sudan, 1909-85), an-Na’sim maintains that whereas the Suras of the Mecca period contain the eternal theological message of Islam, the Medina Suras refer to the particular needs of the first Muslim community in the context of war, and at a time when society lacked equal consideration of persons regardless of status and, thus, cannot be immediately applied to modern circumstances (1996: 52-8). According to this approach, the Mecca verses would be established as the basis of Muslim law abrogating the Medina verses.

In contrast, Shahrour (1990) employs a linguistic approach to delineate various meanings of the words found in the Qur’an. It is on this basis that Shahrour distinguishes between that which is ‘divinely sanctioned (halal) and the divinely prohibited (haram) and the humanly forbidden (mamnu),’ maintaining that ‘the basic tenet of Islam is that everything not specifically prohibited is permitted’ (1990: 141). Shahrour’ method illustrates a methodological tack common to Islamic liberals. Whereas modernist Muslims located various liberal ideas in the Islamic heritage, Islamic liberals maintain that the heritage is silent on certain issues. Al-‘Ashmawy, for example, notes that ‘of some 6000 Qur’anic verses, only 200 have a legal aspect, that is, approximately one-thirtieth of the Qur’an, including the verses which were abrogated by subsequent ones’ (in Kurzman, 1998: 51).

According to Shahrour, consultation (shura) is required to work out the legislative questions for a modern polity within the limits set by God, to determine what sort of laws will govern those aspects of life God left to human regulation, relative to the particular social, economic and political circumstances of each political community. The idea that there is room for interpretation, that Islam can encompass myriad viewpoints, is another common trope of Islamic liberalism. Ayatollah Syed Mohammad Bahrul Uloom (Iraq, b. 1927) cites two Qur’anic verses to support diversity: ‘The right to differ in ideas, positions, and methods is acknowledged so that one does not deprive others of their convictions. Had your Lord please, He would have made mankind a single nation’ (Sura 11, Verse 118); ‘There was a time when men were one nation. They disagreed among themselves’ (Sura 10, Verse 19) (1994: 26). Some Islamic liberals go so far as to argue that disagreement over the interpretation of the Islamic tradition is what keeps Islam vibrant. ‘In our time,’ Shahrour argues, ‘genuine shura means genuine pluralism of points of view, and democracy’ (1997: 8).

Fractured Dialogue

Rather than resolving the fundamental conflicts within modern Islamic thought, the current focus on method seems to have only added a new level to the debate. In the contemporary period one sees not only ‘radically different’ interpretations of the Islamic tradition, but also some radically divergent methods of interpretation. Yet, it is possible to identify at least two important transformations in Islamic political thought. The first is that the increasing plurality of interpretive strategies employed by liberal Islamic thinkers has further opened the door to a wide sector of the umma to return to the original texts of their heritage and offer new interpretations. Mohammed Arkoun has referred to the Qur’an as a closed official corpus (le fait coranique): ‘official’ in the sense that it ‘resulted from a set of decisions taken by “authorities” recognized by the community’; ‘closed’ on account of the fact that it is no longer permissible ‘to add or subtract a word, to modify a reading in the Corpus now declared authentic’ (1994: 33). However, any monopoly the ‘ulama might have once had seems to have been broken.

Although, like Islamic modernists, liberal Islamic thinkers seem to offer a promising way of negotiating the conflict between and meeting the demands of both modernization and the Islamic heritage, they have also faced serious challenges. They are under attack from both sides: they are criticized both for being too liberal and for being too Islamic. Secularists see liberal Islam (as well as modernist Islam) as an oxymoron and argue either that Islam is too inflexible to be transformed or that it should be relegated to the private sphere. Both revivalist and traditional Islamists argue that Islamic liberals are no more than secularists in Islamic guise, and either deny that modern values have a place in Islam’s lexicon or cite them for taking their liberalism too far at the expense of the Islamic heritage. Quite often their works have garnered a considerable readership, but they have also been accused of treason and heresy, and been subject to censorship, loss of position, and violence—all of which tend to result in the unintended consequence of further increasing interest in their ideas. In a 1979 article that has been reprinted a number of times, the liberal Islamic thinker Hassan Hanafi attributes the ‘historical roots of the impasse with regard to freedom and democracy in the general contemporary trend of our thought’ to a lost ability to listen, discuss, and, thus, move forward. Hanafi’s assessment is perhaps a bit too harsh. Islamic political thought has transformed considerably over the last two centuries and there does seem to be evidence of a growing reading public. Further, despite Hanafi’s claims to the contrary, there are some common meeting points in divergent discussions of political reform. Even the least tolerant of the Islamists—even some of Hanafi’s own worst critics and detractors—are in some sense sharing the same discursive space and at least partially assimilating the discourse of liberal and modernist thought.