Islam: between devotion and politics


I would like to talk to you about the cultural crisis and the intellectual void in which our nations have been immersed for centuries now. By ‘crisis,’ I simply mean the absence of a majority opinion among Muslim institutions, scholars and intellectuals regarding a certain number of social problems. By ‘cultural crisis,’ therefore, I mean the incapability of these individuals and institutions to give a diagnosis, and from there, devise remedies, to the problems that our societies face. These problems are numerous and they touch the individual and the collective.

Following Mohammed Arkoun, we can summarize these problems under the three partite division: Diin, Dawla, and Dounia (The religion, the state and the society.) The problematic can be expressed as follows. On the one hand, what is the status of these notions in the Islamic tradition? What are their specific characteristics? How was their interrelationship and interdependence traditionally theorized and practiced by our ancestors? And on the other hand what is their relationship with a Modern Islamic world just emerging from a devastating colonial experience that left him economically bankrupt and dependent, politically unstable and culturally handicapped. The modern Islamic debate about these questions started more than a century ago by, most prominently, the Salafist movement. The debate has then been taken over by a number of official regimes and cultural and political movements that came to occupy the geo-political landscape of the Muslim world ever since. As we all know, there is still to the present no consensus about any of these questions among Muslim authorities. There is still a fair amount of questions that remain unanswered, and others that have not even been asked.

Allah (awj) was clement on our ummah and gave us the most complete of the monotheistic faiths, Islam. In spite of the unhealthy social and political state of our Ummah, our religion remains defiantly an example of a superior civilisational mission proposing a powerful alternative to the most sophisticated systems of social organization. In spite of the ignorance ravaging our societies, Islam also remains a powerful intellectual challenge to the most sophisticated systems of thought. The God we pray to is the one and only, Allah (awj). Our book, alhamdou lillah, remains and shall remain consistent, unified and miraculously defiant. Of the billions of copies of the Quran that exist, no two copies could be found which contradict each other even in punctuation. Our prophet (pbuh) remains the only founder of a monotheistic faith that has escaped mythologisation and superstitious fabrications of the sort that made Jesus (pbuh) half man and half god. Mohammed remains a human being, a messenger, an orphan who can neither read nor write. He is the only prophet that humanity has a biography of. His illiteracy, impeccably documented, remains a powerful proof that the origin of his message is divine. Some of the most sophisticated western thinkers, like Maxime Rodinson and Claude Levy-Strauss, have attempted to challenge this very simple fact and claim that it was Mohammed (pbuh) who produced the Quran. The gaps in their arguments can be highlighted by average Muslim teenagers.

These facts, in addition to the centrality of the idea of justice, equality and the love of knowledge, make Islam a truly superior civilisational project. It rises above the stereotypes that are common characteristics of superstitious practices or the excesses that found their way to the preceding monotheistic religions. We do not pray to a God that is three. We do not pray to a god that is half human half divine. Islam does not unite us on the basis of blood ties, which are pregnant with racism and backwardness. We do not worship rocks, or plants or animals. Islam does not even allow priesthoods and religious hierarchies. The faithfuls’ contact with Allah is direct and unmediated by any such organization like a church or a clergy. Access to the divine is free for all. This is a clear example of Abdallah Laroui’s argument that if the word ‘Democracy’ is absent from our tradition, the notion that it expresses is not.

Now, the comprehensiveness of this religion made it easy for Islam, to infiltrate every aspect of our individual and social life and organize it. Islam touches our hearts and emotions. But it also challenges our reason and common sense. The exercise of political power is legitimized only on the basis of an Islamic Shoura system. Justice is defined within the framework of Islamic sharia. Our collective identity is the Islamic Ummah. Our cultural values are accepted or rejected on the basis of what is Islamic. The status of the individual in the society, both men and women, is founded on the act of worshipping Allah. He or she is a Abd of Allah (worshipper of Allah) living among ‘Ibad Allh (worshippers of Allah).

In short, and this is our modern challenge, ever since humanity has been blessed with it, Islam has in a unique and remarkable way penetrated and worked out every aspect of our existence. While it organizes our relationship with the divine and the transcendent, it also regulates our human socio-historical reality. This is very important for it offers the key to understanding the confusion and disarray in which we are presently immersed. To understand by Islam and Muslim world only the religious and devotional aspect of our existence or only the political and ideological aspect is an act of serious minimization of Islam and the role it plays in our societies and our histories. Such a perspective does not only fail in solving our problems, it fails in understanding them. The present crisis facing us is not only a crisis of Muslim devotion and faith, it is also (even more so) a crisis of Muslim education, of Muslim politics, a crisis of Muslim justice, of the Islamic identity both collective and individual. It is a crisis of Muslim culture, and a crisis of our disconnectedness from our history and our tradition. In short, while it is undeniably a question of devotion and faith, the contemporary Islamic crisis is also a socio-historical one. No partial solution that takes into account only some part of the problem will work.

And yet, such is the characteristic of the Muslim debate, official or oppositional, about the crisis of the Muslim world for over a century now. If we take the various debates on the issue, starting with the Salafist movement from its beginnings in the 19th century to the present day, we find that Islam has rarely been seriously discussed as the global civilisational project that it is. It is striking that the debates have mostly been conducted in terms of devotion and faith or in terms of politics and ideology. There were cases where this was legitimate as a short-term strategy in response to specific situations. It was Islam, for example, that mobilized the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria. Islam also mobilizes our anti-colonial engagement with the question of Palestine. In relation to the global crisis of our Ummah, however, promoting Islam merely as devotion or as politics can prove to be nothing but a strategic and tactical maneuver aiming either at opposing power or at consolidating it. Islam, in this way, gets overloaded ideologically but weakened intellectually and theologically. The attitudes towards the concept of the ‘Islamic state’ and the notion of ‘modernity’ illustrate this attitude.

The state-apparatus in the contemporary Islamic world does not show any kind of typology. There are no purely traditional monarchies, nor are there any purely modernizing ones. There are no effectively revolutionary republics, nor are there any clear liberal ones. There are no states that are entirely totalitarian, or ones that are clearly democratic. The rampant tribalism governing many political systems exposes many countries’ claim of being a nation state in the first state. Through what seems to be a purely instrumental improvisation, the existing Muslim states borrow contradictorily whatever is useful from all of these models. In Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, the monarchies do have a traditional character, but they are equally penetrated by modern structures and preoccupations. In the same manner, the states that cultivated revolutionary intentions, like Algeria, Lybia, Irak, Iran and Syria have been forced by the political realities to adopt practices and conceptions that have nothing revolutionary about them. As to the adoption of democratic or popular practices, they are always fragmentary and deceiving. And yet, in all of these different state apparatuses, a heavy exploitation is made of Islam to legitimize the exercise of power. As the social scientists Mohammed Arkoun succinctly put it, “Islam here is utilized by political power far more than it inspires political power.”

Not even the opposition movements resurgent in the name of Islam, from Hassan Al Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood to the present, have managed to put forward any meaningful and concrete propositions about the shape and nature of the Islamic state they were all differently pursuing. At best, they content themselves with mentioning ideas of medieval theoreticians like Mawardi, Ibn Taymiyya or Ibn Khaldoun, but showing unfortunately no awareness of the radical discontinuities between the ideas, certainly powerful, of these authors and the medieval political practices on the one hand and the heavy urbanized and industrialized context of today, on the other. Those that did manage to attain power have either, like Iran and Sudan, accommodated themselves to the realities of the new world order, their pan-islamism quietly turning into islamo-nationalism, or have proved unable to go beyond even the backward frameworks of ethnicity as it is the case in Afghanistan.

The debate over modernity as a global project is another major dilemma on which our institutions, whether official or unofficial, do not offer any comprehensive and helpful analysis and guidelines for our nations to follow. Depending on the prevailing ideology, official state institutions in Muslim countries have adopted one of two opposing attitudes to modernity. They are either happily singing the praise of modernization, blindly encouraging the Muslim citizens into the path of consumerism, economic exploitation and social excesses, oblivious to the potential dangers of ethnic strife and divisions that modernity is pregnant with as well as the concrete threats to our shared values, or they remain persistent in refusing modernity, wholesale, oblivious to the fact that (for good or for bad) modernization has already occurred. Between theses two forms of denial, the fact remains that modernization as a global phenomenon has occurred outside any conceptual framework from our side. Rural exodus, emigration, consumption, lower birthrates, the cinema, music, clothing, satellite antennas as well as our very modern states (artificial, corrupt and fragile they might be,) are proofs that modernization is already an internal problem that is already deeply ingrained in our societies. The stage of refusing it is long gone. It is irreversible.

What these two short examples show is a polarization, in partisan terms, of contemporary Islamic thought in relation to the most urgent questions facing our Ummah. Between Muslim states’ artificial and anachronistic juxtaposition of Islam to both modern and traditional forms of political organization, and the ideological over-determination of Islam by oppositional movements keen only on mobilizing the masses, the question of the Islamic state, its characteristics, its history, its functions as well as the conditions for its realization remain out of reach for a serious scholarly discussion motivated not by partisan considerations but by the common destiny of the Muslims regardless of their differences. Between the reckless celebration of modernity and modernization, and the rigid and naéf wholesale rejection of it, the question of modernity remain unexposed and its challenges ambiguous and undeciphered. All we can do is sit back and count its calamities.

The prophet (pbuh) said “The worst scholar is one who visits princes, but the best prince is one who visits scholars. Happy the prince at a poor man’s door, wretched a poor man at a prince’s gate.” (Ghazali I, 16) The point stressed by the hadith is not actual visits by scholars to princes or vice versa. The prophet is urging scholars to maintain intellectual independence from the exercise of power. Whether it is the scholar who visits the prince or the prince who visits the scholar, the point is that political power or agendas should not influence and direct scholarship. It is scholarship that should influence and mold political power. In this way Islam can inspire political power not be used by it.

Purely religious discussions or shortsighted political agendas cannot on their own grasp the complex and unique situation facing us. We have tried both and the results were less than satisfactory. What is needed is to complement our religious zeal and political enthusiasm with a sound scholarship and a critical tradition that can locate and expose the stakes of our common destiny beyond the tactical concerns of the movements exercising power or contesting it. More than ever before, we need to revive and strengthen the Islamic social sciences and study our societies up to this specific point of their historical development.