Notes on political Islam

Hussam Tammam , Sunday 24 Apr 2011

Political Islam refuses to separate politics and religion, which explains why some groups outside of politics are now joining in under its banner

The remarkable rise of Islamic political forces, which is almost exhibitionist, is probably the most prominent feature of the political scene after the Egyptian Revolution. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime left the door wide open for various religious forces, some of which had been marginalised or suppressed while others preferred to stay away for a variety of reasons, mostly for their own benefit.

This rise has caused many problems that require extensive debate. The starting point should be an attempt to define political Islam and how it is different from historical Islam found in Islamic society. Also: what is the relationship of political Islam with Islam in the prevalent form known to the Muslim nation, especially those who follow Sunna and Gamaa, which is at the core of the Muslim nation.

There have been many attempts to define political Islam and its place in Islam. Some view it as a response to Western modernity or even an attempt to revive the spirit of Islam and make it relevant to new realities, while others see it as a response to what seems to be a threat to the identity of Muslim societies after the shock of connecting with the West. Still, others believe it is a reaction to the crisis of creating modern states in our Muslim world and its subsequent failure, and some even view it as apostasy or political manipulation of religion.

There is an ongoing debate about the difference between political Islam and the Islam that is prevalent among Muslims, and what the boundaries between the two are, in order to understand where this trend stands in the history of Islam.

Political Islam primarily revives the issue of Islam among societies and populations who define themselves as Muslim and have a long and stable Islamic history. The religious identity of these societies, which were perhaps settled centuries earlier, is re-examined by political Islam, and becomes questionable or even doubted. This scepticism is sometimes indirect, in the form of a call to create or recreate an Islamic society or Islamic state, without reference to its current identity, or if it is no longer Islamic. At other times this is done directly by criticising the propriety of the Islam in society and directly asks: Are we Muslims? (A question that is the title of one of the most famous books by Mohamed Qutb, Sayed Qutb’s brother).

Political Islam is a pause in the history of Islam that views the history of Islamic societies as Muslim, even if they lacked some of the religion’s visions and practices. Islam only requires the utterance of the shahada (There is only one God, and Mohamed is His prophet), and after these words no one has the right to question another’s Islamic beliefs, let alone an entire society’s, unless it is for a personal reason that affects his direct interests.

When political Islam questions the religious identity of society or state, it is done according to its own definition. Muslim societies and states are not what is commonly defined in history as those where the people or majority are Muslims, but ones that adopt Islamic policies —namely applying and guided by Sharia law. This means that Islamic societies and states are not considered Islamic just because they are Muslim, but they must adopt Islamic policies which in political Islam means applying Sharia.

The common belief that Muslim consensus over what is proper makes it proper is incorrect (based on the rule: what a Muslim sees as good is good in God’s eyes; or the axiom: My nation does not agree on what is injudicious). Instead, propriety is defined by Sharia, which in political Islam is not open to interpretation or an accumulation of historical experiences that can be revised. It is a closed text of rulings and absolute definitions, the majority of which is set in stone and cannot be altered.

Sharia is not what Muslim societies have historically tried to understand or how they have lived, but is a predetermined vision based on the outlook of political Islam itself. Any other definition or classification is debatable, even if it is advocated by religious institutions or Sharia scholars.

This is demonstrated by the rigid positions of most political Islam currents on issues that were modified by and subjected to historical political interpretation, such as their rejection of the principles of co-citizenship, the people of trust and jizya (tax of non-Muslims), punishment for apostasy, and other issues that were settled before political Islam revived them once again.

Since the identity of society and state is unresolved and their Islam is questionable and doubted, or even suspect by political Islam, then the call to Islam is launched in the same manner it was when Islam first appeared. It returns not as a reminder, warning or confirmation of religion, but as a tool to Islamise society and state and bring the people back to the religious fold after they neglected it or even abandoned it altogether.

Political Islam has brought back the dawa (call) not to non-Muslims but to Muslim societies, and deep down views its target as if they were never Muslims. Accordingly, there is talk of the need for dawa, joining the dawa, organising the dawa, the interests of dawa, as if the “call” is occurring in a society that knows nothing about Islam.

It is ironic that efforts for dawa by most political Islam groups target Muslims and no one else, mostly those who are of a different sect within Islam, such as the Sufis. Since its inception, the battles and wars of the Wahabi doctrine have been within Muslim society, beginning with Sufism then Shias, and seem to be only directed at Muslims.

Political Islam does not relegate the decision of jihad (religious struggle) to the ruler but gives it to the individual. Jihad is viewed by political Islam as an obligation, and perhaps a goal in itself, not a means. But more importantly, it is the individual right of every Muslim without interference or direction from the ruler. Hence, according to the prominent preacher of Afghani jihad Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, if a Muslim is attacked or Muslim land is occupied, jihad becomes an obligation for the entire nation and is no longer the prerogative of the ruler. Accordingly, the people must take up jihad without waiting for the approval or decision of the ruler.

From this grew international and globalised jihad which manifests itself everywhere, even beyond the homeland and its borders. Jihad can be based on a reason (such as al-dafae or in defence against aggression on Muslim lands or one’s person) or without reason (such as al-talab or initiating it to spread dawa). There was a rise in the number of caravans of travelling jihadists who travelled the world participating in battles everywhere, and if there were none to be found, they would instigate wars.

The same thing applies to hisba (disciplining other Muslims on issues of religion) which often goes beyond volunteering advice, stating an opinion or even legal procedures, but as far as taking matters into their own hands and disregarding the ruler (or state and its institutions in modern times).

Another feature of political Islam is that it combines religion and politics without any distinction between the two, which is unlike the historical practice in Islamic societies of separating religion and politics to some extent. The historical separation is unlike the modern secular understanding of separating state and religion, where the latter is confined to a specific plane that it cannot exceed. It is a separation based on the differences in the nature and tools of what is religious and what is political which maintains the comprehensiveness and absolutism of religion separate from politics with its segmentation, variations and implementation.

This is exemplified in Islamic history that distinguishes between politicians and the sultan on the one hand, and clerics and scholars on the other. Combining the two is demonstrated in the ideas of Aba Al-Aala Al-Mawdudi and Sayed Qutb, but is influenced even more by the Iranian revolution and the rule of the cleric on which Khomeini built his Islamic state.

Understanding this difference helps define political Islam’s discourse that has now expanded to include groups and trends that do not practice politics. It also helps us locate the experiment of political Islam in the journey of Islam, and enables us to evaluate and sometimes critique it without fear of being accused of criticising or insulting Islam as a religion.

The writer is an expert on Islamic movements.

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