Book review: In Egypt, or Algeria, what is political Islam exactly?

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Tuesday 1 Oct 2013

Makhlouf Amer explores Sheikh Mustafa Abdel-Razeq's book which argued that Islam never dictated specific forms of government nor promoted the caliphate rule

Amer Makhlouf book
Amer Makhlouf's 'The Islamic State'

Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya (The Islamic State) by Makhlouf Amer, Cairo: Dar Al-Ain Publishing, 2013. pp.149

In his book titled The Islamic State Algerian researcher Makhlouf Amer scrutinises what is more fundamentally influential than a comparison of political experiments in different countries: namely, the notion of the "Islamic state" itself. In doing so, the writer ponders whether it is in fact a historical reality or a fabrication. Is the Islamic state truly founded on Islamic rules – as claimed by those who seek to establish it – or is it grounded in a reality pertaining to the bygone ages of an ancient past?

The researcher argues that the history of Islam does not provide a single alternative to democracy. In this context, he discusses – specifically in the second chapter – the significant role played by Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) judge Sheikh Mustafa Abdel-Razeq's book Islam and the Foundations of Governance, published in 1925. 

This slim volume stirred an enormous intellectual and political controversy, since its author – an Al-Azhar graduate, no less – posited whether Islam had stipulated a particular form of governance and whether the caliphate system – applied in the period following Prophet Mohamed's death – could be considered a matter of Sharia.

In discussing the issue, Abdel-Razeq asserts that the debate was confined to two groups of Muslims. The first perceive the caliph as deriving his power from God, for he is God's shadow stretched over His slaves; the caliph's mandate is therefore absolute, like God's and the Prophet's. The second group argues that the caliph derives his authority from the Ummah (the entire community of Muslims – i.e. the nation in contemporary understanding), which is his source of power and by which he is chosen to carry out his duties.

It is a matter of fact that neither the Holy Quran nor the Sunnah (sayings and teachings of Prophet Mohamed) mention the caliphate as the form of governance Muslims must adhere to. In fact, the Quran did not prescribe any specific form of government, only stipulated its existence, whether it is "monarchist, republican, democratic or even socialist," as the book quotes Abdel-Razeq.

As for the period immediately following Prophet Mohamed's death, consensus over a certain caliph was only possible for the first three: Abu Bakr Al-Seddiq, Omar Ibn Abi Taleb and 'Uthman Ibn Affan. After them, consensus could not be reached and the subsequent caliphate was forcefully established.

Abdel-Razeq added that "there is no need for the caliphate nowadays to manage matters concerning our religion or our life. The caliphate was, and still is, a catastrophe that befell Islam and Muslims."

It is important to note that the survival and spread of Islam was not dependant on the caliphate as a form of governance, as proven by the fact that the fast-growing religion continues to attract people today centuries after the end of the caliphate rule. 

Abdel-Razeq's book was so influential in its questioning of the caliphate governance system that it destroyed Egyptian King Fouad's aspirations in becoming caliph, for which the latter had struck a deal with the British occupation authorities. The agreement rested upon Britain's acceptance of King Fouad's establishment of a political entity for all Islamic peoples, headed by himself as caliph, in return for its subjection to British politics. 

The king was so close to becoming 'Caliph of the Muslims' that he held a preliminary convention for Islamic nations in Cairo in preparation for his appointment. When he saw his plan being sabotaged by the influence of Abdel-Razeq's book, he insinuated to Al-Azhar's Council of Senior Scholars the necessity of putting him on trial. 

Although the trial was held, Abdel-Razeq stripped of his position in the council and dismissed from office until the time of his death, King Fouad was deposed before he could resume his pursuit of the title of caliph. 

The book itself was confiscated for having denied the link between the religion of Islam and the form of governance first applied in the Muslim world, as well as postulating that Muslims were free to choose their rulers and the form of government to be applied. A republication of Abdel-Razeq's volume was only made available 50 years later by Al-Ahram's Al-Talia magazine.

In the final chapter, Makhlouf Amer returns to the experience of the Islamists' victory in 1992 Algeria, describing it as a "claimed victory" since it was the product of elections rigged in a strange sort of way: votes were purchased for bribes, voters were threatened and Quranic verses used to incite and intimidate. In addition, violence was exercised shortly before the start of elections and the slogan "Your vote is an entrustment about which you will be asked on Judgment Day" was raised. 

Amer draws a parallel between Egypt and Algeria here, as he concludes that the circumstances preceding the "victory" of political Islam in both countries were identical: miserable economic conditions, unemployment, poverty and corruption. 

As for democracy, it will only be established if religion is separated from the state. Similarly, the way out of the quagmire of backwardness are decisive strides towards a democratic approach, because it is the guarantor in extracting religion from its political usage, thus preventing it from becoming a weapon in the hands of fundamentalists.


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