Understanding political Islam
Though usually attributed to the beliefs of modern-day extremist movements in Islam, Islamic Fundamentalism (in the political context), is basically a firm belief in the theological musings of ancient Islamic jurists and scholars.
Islamic Fundamentalists all agree with Imam Ghazali’s dictum (in the twelfth century), that the ‘gates of ijtihad (rational debate) in Islam are now closed.’
After about three hundred years of open debate in the Islamic world between conservatives and the rationalists (Mu’tazilites), Ghazali insisted that a perfect synthesis (between the two) had been reached and that Islam’s social and spiritual philosophy had achieved completion.
The Mu’tazilites’ influence began declining during the rule of the ninth Abbasid caliph, Al-Muttawakkil, and the conservatives, who had ferociously debated with the rationalists, began their ascendance.
Modern-day Islamic Fundamentalism is rooted in this bygone intellectual triumph of the conservatives. Nevertheless, Islamic Fundamentalism never did attempt to form a so-called ‘Islamic state.’ Islamic Fundamentalists in the shape of scholars (ulema) and clergymen (maulvis and imams), mostly worked as advisers to caliphs and kings, or in the mosques. They were only interested in advocating Islamic laws, but never articulated a political plan that would carry these laws.
At the dilapidation of the Muslim empires starting from the eighteenth century onwards, the many reformist Islamic movements which then emerged, criticised the performance of Islamic Fundamentalists, blaming them for getting too close to the ‘decadent’ kings due to whose ‘negligence of Islam,’ Islamic political power had crumbled.
Islamic Fundamentalism has historically been more interested in rectifying ‘cultural and social deviances’ in a Muslim society and for this it used the mosque and evangelism – not politics. It continues to be frozen in an understanding of the Quran, the hadith and Shariah developed centuries ago by ancient Islamic scholars. Though it is vocal in its rhetorical demands for the imposition of Islamic laws, it has little or no political agenda as such. It never did.
It remains largely associated with apolitical Muslim individuals, conservative ulema, the clergy and Islamic evangelists.
Noted Islamic Fundamentalist Groups: The Tableeghi Jamaat (Pakistan/Bangladesh/India); Al-Huda (Pakistan/Canada); Islamic Research Foundation (India).
Word coined in the early 1970s (in France), to explain a series of (post-nineteenth century) Islamic movements which advocated Islam not only as a religion, but also as a political system.
Islamism’s roots can be found in the Islamic reformist movements that appeared in the subcontinent and in Arabia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Incensed by the largely pluralistic dispositions of the crumbling Mughal and Ottoman empires, a series of reformist movements emerged, advocating a so-called return to Islam followed by the first four pious Caliphs.
Some of these movements emphasised on applying reason in religion, but many also added the importance of ‘jihad’ not only against western colonialism but also against the clergy and especially, against Sufism which these reformists believed was a ‘negative innovation’ and an anathema to ‘true Islam.’
Such movements though animated, came to a naught, mostly due to the adjustments the more moderate/modern as well as traditional schools of Islam made at the wake of the rise of western colonialism.
At the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate (1922), a bulk of Muslim regimes (especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey) vigorously adopted modern western economic, social and political models (i.e., capitalism, social liberalism and nationalism [but sans democracy]).
One of the first experiments in Islamism took off when (in the early twentieth century) the Al-Saud family conquered a vast tract in Arabia (with the tacit support of the British who were trying to undermine the crumbling Ottoman rule in the region).
The Al-Saud were ardent followers of Abd Al-Wahhab – an eighteenth century puritanical Islamic reformist. The Saud family soon enacted the world’s first ‘Islamic State,’ but under the control of a monarchy.
The Saud family’s adherence to puritanical Islam and imposition of harsh Islamic laws went down well with the early Islamists, but the family’s growing ties with the British and it monarchical tendencies, made a lot of them uncomfortable.
As secular-nationalists dominated the liberation movements in most Muslim countries (including the separatist Muslim manoeuvres in India), politicised conservative Muslim scholars retaliated by labelling these movements as ‘anti-Islamic.’
Pioneering Islamist scholars such as Egypt’s Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and the subcontinent’s Abul Ala Maududi began interpreting the Quran and the hadith by using modern political concepts and terms. For example, Maududi expanded the Quranic concept of Tauheed (oneness of God) by suggesting that it also meant the (political) oneness of the Muslim ummah that can only be achieved by ‘Islamising the society’ and through attaining state power to finally formulate an ‘Islamic state.’
Qutb, on the other hand, implied that twentieth century Muslim societies were in a state of jahiliyya – a term used by classical Muslim scholars to define the state of ignorance the people of Arabia were in before the arrival of Islam.
Qutb suggested that a jihad was required in Muslim countries to grab state power and to rid the Muslims from the ‘modern forces of jahilyiya’ (i.e., secularism, Marxism, ‘western materialism’).
It must be emphasised that the concept of the Islamic State is thus very much a twentieth century construct.
That is why the theory of Islamism purposefully eschewed a number of ancient commentaries on Quran and Shariah. They rejected these scholarly works as being either ‘stuck in the mosque’ or undertaken to serve kings who had divorced Islam from politics. It is however, ironic that Islamism (across the Cold War [1947-91]), was largely supported and funded by Western and Arab powers who were up against what was called the ‘Soviet camp.’
For example, it is now well-known how the United States and its Western and Arab allies (especially Saudi Arabia), funded various early Islamist movements to undermine left-leaning governments and elements in the Muslim world.
The exceptions in this respect were the Iranian Islamists. They successfully steered the 1979 revolution in Iran towards becoming an Islamic one. Iran also remains to be Islamism’s only tangible project.
The arrangement between Islamists and its Western and Saudi backers reached a peak in the 1980s during the ‘anti-Soviet jihad’ in Afghanistan.
With the fall of the Soviet Union however, and the drying up of the patronage and funds Islamism’s leading organs were receiving (from the West), movements attached to Islamism started to weaken. Consequently, Islamism’s less intellectually inclined (and more brutal) cousin, Neo-Fundamentalism, soon began usurping its agenda.
Noted Islamism groups: Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt); Jamaat-i-Islami (Pakistan); Islamic Republican Party (Iran); National Islamic Front (Sudan); Hamas (Palestine); Hezbollah (Lebanon).
Neo-Fundamentalism in Islam is a tendency among certain modern-day Islamic fundamentalists to politicise the social and cultural aspects of Islamic Fundamentalism.
Neo-Fundamentalism rose with the emergence of the Taliban in 1996 (in Afghanistan and Pakistan), and began filling the void created by the post-Cold War weakening of Islamism.
Like traditional Islamic Fundamentalism, Neo-Fundamentalism too maintains that the gates of ijtihad in Islam are closed. However, unlike Islamic Fundamentalism, Neo-Fundamentalism wants to impose Islamic laws, morality and piety by force and through the creation of an ‘Islamic State’ (and/or ‘Islamic Emirate’).
Where Islamic Fundamentalists used concentrated evangelical tactics to cleanse Muslim societies of ‘un-Islamic practices,’ Neo-Fundamentalists use political violence, coercion and terrorism.
Noted Islamic Neo-Fundamentalist groups: al Qaeda; the Taliban (Pakistan/Afghanistan); Islamic Salvation Army (Algeria); Armed Islamic Group (Algeria); Union of Islamic Courts (Somalia).
A term first used by the Muslim Socialist community in Kazan (Russia) just before the 1917 Communist revolution there. Staunchly anti-clerical, the community supported communist forces but retained its Muslim identity.
The term then became popular with certain Muslim members of the Indian National Congress Party and among some left-leaning sections of the All Indian Muslim League.
Islamic Socialism, as an ideology, attempted to equate Quranic concepts of equality and charity with modern Socialist economics, was adopted (as ‘Arab Socialism’) in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, where secular Muslim leaders fused Islamic notions of parity and justice with socialism and Arab nationalism.
Though known for its usage of Islamic symbolism, Islamic Socialism was staunchly secular, anti-clerical, socially liberal and mostly sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
Egypt’s popular leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, became Arab Socialism’s leading advocate and practitioner; while in Syria and Iraq the concept became to be known as ‘Ba’ath Socialism.’After the political success of Islamic Socialism in these countries, the idea also gained currency in Pakistan, Algeria and Libya.
The National Liberation Front that led Algeria’s independence from France (1962) described itself as a follower of Islamic Socialism, and so did the populist Pakistan Peoples Party (that swept into power in 1970).
Libya too, began calling itself an Islamic Socialist state after Muammar al-Gaddafi toppled the old Libyan monarchy in a coup in 1969. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) also described itself as Islamic Socialist.
In Iran, radical leftist anti-Shah militant organisations that fused Islamic symbolism with Marxist/socialist ideas also appeared. They took an active part in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but were then eliminated or banished by the new Islamic regime.
Islamic Socialism was vehemently attacked and criticised by conservative Muslim countries (mainly Saudi Arabia), as well as by those forces associated with Islamism (such as Jamaat-i-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood).The charisma attached to Islamic Socialism began to wither after the death of Nasser, and when most Muslim countries began getting politically closer to the conservative oil-rich Arab countries.
The oil crises of 1973-74 (when OPEC initiated an oil embargo) eventually saw the economic policies of regimes professing Islamic Socialism come under great stress, creating disillusionment among the masses who began being drawn towards advocates of Islamism. The last major expression of Islamic Socialism was the (Soviet-backed) ‘Saur Revolution’ in Afghanistan in 1978, led by the People’s Democratic Party.
Major Islamic Socialist groups: Revolutionary Command Council (Egypt); Egyptian Arab Socialist Party (Egypt); Iraq Ba’ath Socialist Party (Iraq); Syrian Ba’ath Socialist Party (Syria); National Liberation Front (Algeria); Pakistan Peoples Party (Pakistan); PLO (Palestine); National Front (Iran); Mojahedin-e-Khalq (Iran); Peoples Fadaeen (Iran).
Though many liberal Muslims consider 8th and 9th century Islamic rationalists (the Mu’tazilites) to be the first political and philosophical expressions of Liberal Islam, in the political context) Liberal Islam, just like all other branches of Political Islam, too is a late nineteenth/early twentieth century creation – despite the fact that there is historical accuracy in the claim that major Muslim empires of yore were largely pluralistic and secular in orientation.
Again, in the political context, Liberal Islam can find its roots in some nineteenth century reformist movements (Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in India), and the way Muslim countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey adopted secular western economic and social models in the early twentieth century.
The emergence of the secular-nationalist movements in the Muslim world too, gave impetus to the thought attached to Liberal Islam, and so did the coming to prominence of effusive ideologies such as Islamic Socialism. Liberal Islam has been a flexible entity. Both left and rightist political instruments profess it, as long as they are predominantly secular. Many democratic political parties of the left and of the right, as well as authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world can be termed as having liberal views about Islam.
These parties and regimes are highly suspicious of the clergy and repulsed by the political ambitions of Islamism and Neo-Fundamentalism. They encourage ijtihad in matters like the Quran and Shariah, and emphasise that Islam is best served through the mosque instead of through the state or the government.
An emphasis on multiculturalism, nationalism and democratic pluralism too is made, even though, as mentioned before, some Liberal Muslim organs can be authoritarian as well.
Most mainstream political parties in the Muslim world today can be said to be following various degrees of Liberal Islam. Not all of them are secular in the western sense of the word, but they are flexible in their outlook towards matters such as Islamic laws, and concepts and practices that are deemed as ‘un-Islamic’ by their Islamist opponents (such as co-education, non-segregated events, women’s rights, films, music, alcohol, etc.).
Noted Liberal Islam political parties with large vote banks: Indonesian Democratic Party; People’s Alliance (Malaysia); National Liberation Front (Algeria); Bangladesh Awami League (Bangladesh); National Democratic Party (Egypt); Maldivian Democratic Party (Maldives); Socialist Union (Morocco); Popular Movement (Morocco); Action Congress (Nigeria); Pakistan Peoples Party (Pakistan); Muttahida Qaumi Movement (Pakistan); Awami National Party (Pakistan); People’s Democratic Party (Tajikistan); Republican People’s Party (Turkey); Justice & Development Party (Turkey); Liberal Democratic Party (Uzbekistan).
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.