The writings and statements of key “Islamist” figures about “the Islamic project” are endless. But the project remains ambiguous and mysterious in terms of its main ideas, which denotes disparities between their intentions.
Throughout history, Sharia has produced important institutions for social existence, such as the Sufi orders, scholarly institutions, educational institutions, religious endowments, the fatwa (edict) system affiliated to the orders, and other institutions that — absent the state — assumed the tasks of managing society.
They intersected to achieve the objectives of society’s multiple and diverse affairs, and with it produced a judicial system separate (at least partially) from the state because its system of legislation was based on an open format.
When Mohamed Ali came to power in 1805, the modernisation process began, most notably by building an army, a state bureaucracy, an education system and the printing technology associated with it. This process branched out into two intersecting tracks. First, the “Egyptianising” that began by recruiting Egyptian Muslims in 1822 and then all Egyptians in 1855. The Sharia judiciary was also Egyptianised that year, followed by writing the official state journal, Waqaie Masriya, in Arabic, and in 1869 making Arabic the official language for government correspondence.
Second, "state takeover" whereby the central powers began to take control of existing social systems, starting with establishing a Public Office of Endowments in 1835 to bring it under state administration so the state can intervene in “deciding the powers of the grand imam of Al-Azhar.”
State interference in the affairs of Al-Azhar expanded after 1860, and the authority of sheikhs of the occupation was canceled and the Endowments Office became a department in 1878. Several bylaws were issued to regulate Sufi orders in 1897, 1903, 1905 and the Ministry of Religious Endowments was created in 1913.
Then laws regulating religious endowments were issued in 1957, regulating Al-Azhar in 1961, mosques in 1964 and orders in 1976. They entirely stripped all these institutions of their social functions and turned them into state bodies.
In this context, the idea of “Islamisation” was born and used to support the processes of Egyptianisation and state takeover. Thus was the first attempt to “codify Sharia” as an “Egyptian” response to the Journal of Judicial Rulings issued by Ottoman rulers in 1876. This was done through committees headed by Minister of Justice Qadri Pacha that concluded by issuing a series of laws in 1883. The first article stated it “does not deny any rights guaranteed by Sharia” and was accompanied by the creation of a modern judicial system that limited the independence of judges from the sultan.
“Egyptianisation” and “state takeover” also resulted in a decree by Khedive Ismail appointing Sheikh Mohamed Mahdi Abbassi (from Al-Hanafi sect) as grand imam of Al-Azhar (after the Shafie and Malaki sects monopolised the post), and gave Abbassi and Al-Azhar the power to issue religious edicts that needed to accord to the Hanafi doctrine of the Ottoman state.
And thus, the Islamist movement emerged and focused on “Islamising” this new large state instead of considering the implications of its existence and growing in this manner. The movement paid little attention to the fate of previous methods of managing society; it did not attempt to revive the past or find an alternative that would have the same functions as the state it had hijacked.
The movement looked closely at Sharia — at the heart of their project — and found the governing legal framework while ignoring the correlation between arbitration law and the modern central national state. Neither did they much consider its mentioned institutional output.
The legislative output of Sharia was not much different since the definition of Sharia continued to be ambiguous; in fact, they have yet to provide their definition of what it is. This definition has passed through several major transformations since the beginning of the 20th century as the state’s interference expanded in Al-Azhar (which monopolised the definition of Sharia), using administrative influence to drive away senior scholars who were out of favour (such as Grand Mufti Hassouna Al-Nawawi and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Selim Al-Bishri) and empower those in favour (Mufti Mohamed Abdo and Al-Azhar grand imams Mustafa Al-Maraghi, Mohamed Shaltout and others).
Since that time, Al-Azhar no longer had the scholastic identity that distinguished it in the past (Al-Ashaari, doctrinal, Sufi) and became a forum for divergent currents in a way that manifested more deeply in the last third of the last century. This happened by weakening Al-Azhar institutionally and by growing petrodollar influence, and then the emergence of Islamist ideologues who redefined many Sharia rulings within the modern state and its social, economic and cultural requisites.
They extended the description of “Islamist” to normal and permissible things (not only the duties and matters established by Sharia) that Sharia had not mentioned, and completed their theories accordingly. Thus, Sharia in its legislative and social sense could mean different things; that the listener might understand one thing while the speaker might understand another.
Looking at the concept of the modern state, its implications and dismantling it on the one hand, and Sharia, its legislative and social meanings on the other, is bound to produce a variety of political projects in terms of visions of what comprises a state, its relationship with society, its nature and vessel of societal religious activities, mechanisms to manage society and ruling with Sharia, as well as inevitable differences based on different schools (not only doctrines) of Sharia and its provisions, as well as divergent perspectives on reality and how to deal with it.
This all means there is a need to differentiate between belonging to Islam and accepting the Islamists’ political project, even in it is broad sense. It is a mistake to use the description Islamist for these political projects by Islamists that — at best — are nothing more than one of the alternatives connecting Islam and the motion of society. It is not, by any means, the most authentic or disciplined of these alternatives in terms of approach.