“Islam as a body of faith has something important to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim world and should be implemented in some fashion.”
A simple statement, but one that also has spawned many so-called comprehensive theories on how to merge Islam with politics, each championed by a theorist at the head of one group or another, in one of many countries and times, each trying to overcome perceived obstacles unique to their places in time and space. From Pakistan’s Abul Ala’ Mawdudi and the Jamat Islami trying to find a theological basis for the new Islamic republic to Sayed Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood vigorously working to remake Egypt in their preferred image; from Osama bin Laden’s violent dreams of overthrowing the “further enemy” to the AK Party merely trying to make Turkey into a place where Muslims can practice freely, after decades of ultra-secular military dictatorship. All of these parties agreed that Islam is the key to the betterment of their societies, but, as the author shows very well, the similarities end there.
Can Islam really be boiled down into a political platform? How flexible, if at all, is that platform? Would Muslims truly benefit from their faith being translated into concrete rules and governing documents? Have most, or any, leaders of Muslim nations really endeavored to do any of the above? This is a daunting question to try to answer, yet Professor Mohammed Ayoob of Michigan State does just this. In his book, “The Many Faces of Political Islam,” Mr. Ayoob asks some profound questions, some difficult questions, all the while seeking to answer one fundamental question: What is “political Islam?”
“Deus Vult”-Pope Urban II, 1095
Mr. Ayoob begins his captivating, easy-to-read work by challenging three widely-held ideas about Islam and its being expressed politically:
1) “Islam stands alone among religions as being intertwined with politics.”
On this point, I personally would like to say that if you look at the history of any country, you will see its majority religion used by political leaders to justify aggression. How else could all three-hundred German princely states carry banners saying that, “God is with us?” The above quote, “God wills it,” was used to kick off the First Crusade, against Muslims and Islam.
2) “Islam and its political ideas are monolithic.”
In my own experience, it is easy to see that this idea is baseless: how else
could Sunnis have four major schools of thought, who disagree on some basic
ideas; if this is so, then why do we even feel it necessary to call ourselves
“Sunni” or “Shia?”
3)“Islam and political Islam are inherently violent.”
Mr. Ayoob disproves this by citing that fact that the vast majority of “Islamist” political movements and parties throughout history have been entirely peaceful, no matter how “backward thinking” they may be.
With these first three points, I believe Ayoob will bring all Muslim readers together in agreement, which will be necessary in order to present the profound/difficult questions that come later. Later in the book, Mr. Ayoob asks questions that could be conceived by some as unacceptable for any true Muslim to ask, but when you see the examples from Islamic history that he puts forward, these questions no longer seem so wrong. The first point brought up is that of the much-revered Islamic “Golden Age,” i.e., the days when the Muslim community achieved spiritual perfection whilst living in Medina, that ideal of Islamic civilization that has always been beyond reach. Mr. Ayoob opines that not only will it never come to pass that this golden age will be relived once more, but that it is indeed not even necessary; according to him,
the mashaikha (the institution of religious scholarship, “sheikhdom”) has also reached this conclusion.
He moves on to “justifying the status quo,” in essence saying that ‘ulema (religious scholars), recognizing that many, many Muslim rulers have been less-than-ideal, have long since prioritized order and security over personal freedom (although economics was not mentioned). The lack of justice is excused by Sunni, and especially Shi’a, by the fact that Islam teaches us that there will not be a pure and true leader until Imam Mehdi comes back, anyway. So are the ‘ulema endorsing the Al-Assads and the Gaddafis? Well, not so much endorsing as resigning themselves to their control; it is true that many ‘ulema have perished on the orders of dictators throughout history, so it is not surprising to see them toeing the line. Another observation Mr. Ayoob makes is the fact that many leading “Islamist” thinkers, like Mawdudi and Al-Banna do not particularly care for Islam’s clerical class, believing that they have made Islam into something fossilized, that they intended to sideline these learned individuals.
I believe Mr. Ayoob’s book is an invaluable contribution to Islamic political theory and is a must-read for anyone who wants to, or just claims to, understand the Muslim world, because it asks some interesting questions, questions that could be considered by some Muslims outrageous, considered by non-Muslims as reassuring.
While it is a noble idea perhaps to dream of Muslims working together in unison, can we gloss over the fact that for about three-hundred years the Ottoman Empire considered Iran a far greater threat than Europe? It is tempting to think that all should list themselves on Facebook as, “just a Muslim,” but do we need to be upset that many feel the need to add, “-Sunni, -Shi’a, -Ismaili,” or whatever else on the end?
Because religious authorities in one country issue a blanket statement, do we blindly accept or take it with a grain of salt? Hassan Banna did perhaps see what was wrong with Egyptian society in the early 20th Century, but would his ideas apply to you and your environment? Is the possession or non-possession of material wealth and power really the ultimate expression of God’s pleasure, or displeasure with you, as Abul Ala’ Mawdudi believed?
One idea, one concept that is widely talked about among Muslims is that of the ideal Islamic state, one that will unite all the Muslim world back into one Ummah (one, united community). Mr. Ayoob takes the opinion that not only will this never happen, if only because the Muslim world today is too vast, too diverse for one state to represent all 1.5 billion of us. I believe history backs up Ayoob’s claim: the ideal Islamic state at Medina lasted perhaps a few decades, but then was transformed into an empire ruled be hereditary kings by only the fourth caliph. In Islamic history, division has been the rule, unity the unfortunate exception. Ayoob believes that the nation states carved out by Europeans are here to stay, and that even Islamist groups recognized this, hence why they tailor their messages for their particular countries; it is only a minority of people, in the book called “fringe extremists,” who continue to dream of a world covered in a black-and-white banner.