A history of political Islam – III
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 23 Dec 2013 0 Comment

One can detect there an idiosyncratic reflection of the western rationalistic prejudice against any evocation of the Supernatural, but that attitude has led to the destruction of much of the architectural, sociological and artistic heritage of the countries where those radical reformers take power, as was the case in Afghanistan, in Mali’s ancient city of Timbuktu as also in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and since several decades in Saudi Arabia, where the hegemonic religious elite has caused the destruction of many ancient shrines illustrative not only  of pre-Islamic Arabian culture, but also of the lives of the Prophet and his family.


The financial might of the oil rich Gulf monarchy has helped to spread its own rigid version of the Deen all over the world, but nonetheless has not always protected its rulers from condemnation by Islamic scholars who accuse Wahhabis of vandalizing the common heritage of Muslims and making the ummah culturally poorer and more estranged from the rest of mankind. A coalition of ulema from various madhabs, the All India Ulema and Mashaik Board, led by Maulana Syed Muhammed Ashraf Kichhauchchawi has even mounted a nationwide campaign in India to condemn and reject Salafist doctrinal and cultural influence which is resented and feared even in the Gulf region where Ibadite Oman and Yemen and Maliki Bahrain, UAE and Qatar do not accept the Wahhabi dogmas upheld by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.


The long standing attempt to “modernize Islam through involution” started by Jamaluddin Afghani has hence had some undesirable results, partly because it has not forged a model of government that can enable Muslims to navigate away from the opposite extremes of military dictatorship and political disintegration. In South Asia, the Muslim League and the Jamaat have broken up into various factions after becoming junior partners to the hegemonic armed forces in Pakistan’s polity and failing to build a stable political system.


The League’s call for Islamic unity between all sects of the religion failed to prevent the increasing alienation between the Sunnis and the Shi’ite, Babi, Bahai and Ahmadiya minorities. On the other hand, more traditional states like the monarchies, including those ruled by descendents of the Prophet such as Morocco and Jordan, have been able to combine rather successfully so far ancient forms of tribal organization with a theocratic socio-political philosophy which rejects social innovations viewed as incompatible with the ancestral status quo based on hereditary dynastic power supervised by the ulema. As the Muslim League seeks to and as the Turkish AKP also does, those countries espouse social conservatism with economic liberalism, both of which are characteristic of Muslim societies.


One factor that emerges from the study of these contemporary societies is that none has been able or willing to embrace the democratic ideology in its totality as it clearly stands in contradiction to the essentially “platonic” principle of God’s rule (hukm) through the verdicts of the learned who are to advise the leader and his appointed lieutenants (walis) and ministers (wazirs). In Islamic political doctrine there is room for popular debate and participation through an assembly (shura or majlis) but it is  only consultative, in keeping with the original meaning of the word “parliament” or the Russian “duma” whose members could express their views and voice suggestions but had no sovereign decisional or legislative power. Such a theory of government is at the core of the constitutions of most Muslim nations, from Morocco to Afghanistan.


There can be no “western-style” democracy if all citizens must subscribe to Islam’s extensive and detailed instructions for daily life and if unanimity of the religious scholars is required, instead of popular majority in elections, to make a decision legitimate. Indeed, for an orthodox Muslim simple popular majority decisions have no legitimacy if they are go against the Divine Law articulated as Shariah, Fiqh, Qanun and Kalam. Likewise, human freedom is an enduring matter of debate among theologians and jurists, some of whom uphold Jabr (predestination) which sees all actions as emanating from the will of God whereas others emphasize Qadr: human free will that can go against the divine commands but has to pay the price.


Freedom, individual or collective, cannot be seen as total, in the western agnostic sense, if God’s writ as enshrined in the Holy Book, dictates all behaviour and if its transgression is severely punished by society. There is also a problem with the ambiguous notion of Taklif whereby an evil deed or action may find casuistic justification if it is deemed to be willed by God for the sake of a greater good. Too many use that to justify the ruthless or terrorist use of violence, even against personally innocent victims, with the excuse of pursuing a higher goal i.e. the triumph of the “true faith”.


Reformers of Muslim nations, however influenced by “modern” European ideas they may have been, were aware of that reality and most of them were allergic to liberal parliamentary democracy but even more so to Communist egalitarian materialism. The first president of the world’s most populous Muslim society, Mohammed Soekarno promoted “guided democracy” which is practiced in Indonesia even today. Influential, religiously inspired contemporary statesmen and political thinkers such as the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), Mohammed Khatami, Hassan al Turabi, Fethullah Gulen and Chandra Muzaffar are generally skeptical about the desirability or applicability of multi-party democracy, even in non-Islamic societies. Unsurprisingly, Iran has perhaps been the most successful in building a system of governance in keeping with its own brand of Islam that allows room for a degree of democracy, probably due to the early split between religion and state pointed out earlier.


In the Arab sphere, apart from the oil rich, sparsely populated kingdoms, Morocco has so far been a relatively successful, stable nation that is currently governed by an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood under the aegis of a theocratic monarch. Economic prosperity and stability is also evident in the minority communities that are ruled by their hereditary traditional leaders, such as the Ibadites of Southern Arabia and East Africa, the Ismailis of the Aga Khan, the Ahmadiyas, the African Muridis and others which share many features of the Sufi orders in their internal hierarchies.


Near the other extremity of the Muslim space, multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia and Indonesia have managed hitherto to contain tensions between their composite national identities and a resurgent Islamic militancy in their confessional majority. In the turbulent sea of fractious Sunni politics that often leads to anarchy, absent an iron-fisted potentate, those nations and groups appear as islands of stability and wellbeing. Indeed, the 1300 million Muslims of the world are probably too diverse and spread out to accept a unified leadership and hence the dream of a globally integrated Ummah appears even more distant than it did in 1924 when Ataturk abolished the Osmanli khalifate.


In 2013, an ad hoc coalition between secular forces in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria, Shi’ite movements led by Iran, and the BRICS countries spearheaded by Russia and China, stopped the seemingly irresistible onslaught of radical Sunni Islamist forces, not so covertly supported by the NATO countries and Israel which seem to have seen some benefit in the destabilization of the entire North African-West Asian region. The AKP government in Turkey finds itself weakened and in difficulty because of the defeat of its allies, as it actively supported both the Muslim Brotherhood and many Salafist Sunni rebel groups in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in furtherance of a neo-ottoman agenda that now appears rather short-sighted and unrealistic. Prime Minister Erdogan’s government is also faced with a domestic backlash against its creeping attempts to introduce stricter Islamic laws and rules of conduct in a society that has become largely secular and westernised, at least in urban areas.


Although tiny Wahhabi Qatar has been jolted by the political blowback of its policies to support  Takfiri armed groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood all over Asia and Africa, and has had to take a low profile since its ambitious Amir was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Saudi Arabia continues to foster and fund Salafist militancy, as it is wont to, in Syria, Iraq and North Africa. But on the other hand, it has helped the Egyptian army and the more secular part of the population to overthrow the Islamic Brotherhood’s government.


Saudi Arabia and its GCC confederates are torn between their ideological commitment to theocratic traditional forms of governance and their fear of the very fundamentalists who would like to replace their ruling clans with their own warlords. Salafists have not admitted defeat and the failure of the Brotherhood to take over various states through elections and other democratic methods imported from the West has only comforted the hardliners in their conviction that only war and uncompromising enforcement of their radical socio-political agenda can bring them victory.


The vast majority of Muslims do not live under strictly Islamic regimes and are unwilling to submit to the strictures and sanctions that such “reactionary” dispensations would enforce. Their attempt to combine the Mu’tazilite call for the rule of reason with the Salafist demand for religious purity and ideological rigidity doomed many Muslim reformers of the last two centuries to failure. Seeking inspiration from mystical philosophers like Al Farabi, Ibn Arabi and Ibn Sina and from pragmatic and enlightened more modern thinkers such as Emir Abdel Kadir of Algeria, Maulana Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of India and “Gus Dur” of Indonesia, the Ummah must find a way of retaining its faith while cultivating a pluralistic modus vivendi that as the prophet called for, rejoices in diversity: Ikhtilaf ummati rahma.



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