Saturday, December 6, 2008

Islam and Political Modernity

The answer to the question of Islam's relation to modernity depends on what constitutes the defining feature of modernity itself. The legacy of the nineteenth-century conception of modern life that shaped much of Islamicists' views in the twentieth century presumed a conflict between Islam and rational rule-making. This conception, however, cannot be reconciled with the historical developments in the Islamic political theory, most notably with Ibn Khaldun's historiography. The latter, while accepting the reality of secular politics, signified as early as the fourteenth century that within Islamic cultural tradition the principle of rational analysis can be applied to resolve the problem of political order.

The Romantic School of William Jones versus the Rationalism of James Mill

By the late seventeenth century, the three empires; the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals that sheltered almost the entire Islamic world were on a course of decline while at the same time they were experiencing massive challenges from Europe. This decline and European intrusion were most pronounced in Mughal India where the state faced forms of crisis variously labelled by historians as the Jagirdari crisis (Chandra 1982, Habib 1963) or a political crisis (Richards 1990), and multifaceted crises reflecting commercialization, group formations, and political change (Baylay 1988). Rapid disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the early eighteenth century provided an ample opportunity for the East India Company to begin its phase of rapid imperial expansion; by the turn of the nineteenth century the country had become the Company state. From the nineteenth century on, other major Islamic countries also came under European colonial rule; Dutch dominated Indonesia, British Egypt, French Algeria and later Syria, and French and Spanish Morocco. Naturally, with conquest came the question of how to rule a people whose culture was quite different from that of the European.

In Great Britain, this question generated heated debates among the proponents of two schools of thought. The romantics led by people like William Jones and colleagues argued that the East should be judged by its own standards and studied for its own sake, not to serve any Western propagandistic purpose (Forbes 1951, p. 22). For Jones, Asia was "the nurse of sciences, the inventors of delightful and useful arts, and the scene of glorious actions, fertile in the production of human genius..." (Cited in Lincoln 1999, pp. 82-83). As for India, he believed that a historical narrative could be recovered from its legendary and mythological material (Majeed 1990, p. 209, David 1996). His most important project was a digest of the Hindu and Islamic laws compiled by the learned of the native lawyers to form a basis for legal decision (Jones 1970, p. 794). The downfall of the romantics before the onslaught of the rationalists and the evangelicals (see The Calcutta Review 1845, 1852, 1855; Sprenger 1851, Watson 1908, Watson 1898, Richter 1908, 1910, Forster 1829) early in the nineteenth century brought to a standstill a promising intellectual project.

One may appreciate the significance of Jones's approach in its glaring contrast with the uniformitarianism of the rationalist school of James Mill. Mill subscribed to an evolutionary view of human civilization, whose criteria he drew from "conjectural" history, the Benthamite principles of utility, and the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment. Millar (1781) was quoted as the authority for the test of civilization provided by the status of women. "The condition of the women," said Mill (1848, p. 309), "is one of the most remarkable circumstances in the manners of nations. Among the rude people, the women are generally degraded; among civilized people they are exalted." The utilitarian principles of exactness and completeness, laissez-faire economics, the Newtonian conception of natural law, deistic religion, and the idea of progress as the organizing principle of a universal history--all were used to judge Indian society. For Mill, the organizing principle of history was the scale of nations. Conjecturing the place of Indians on the scale being low, he condemned "every single aspect of their way of life as barbarous, not only their science, but their philosophy, their art and their manners" (Forbes 1951, p. 29). This perspective provided the intellectual justification for the Westernizing policies of colonial administrators, (1) and impacted the development of modern ideologies in the Islamic world (Hourani 1983, Moaddel 2001a,b). In the twentieth century, its secularist premise had the greatest impact on historical thinking about Islam and modern politics. For example, in his analysis of cultural change in Egypt in the second quarter of the twentieth century, Safran (1961) presumed Islam's incompatibility with liberal politics. For him, the commitment of Egyptian cultural elite to rationalism was necessary for the success of the country's liberal experiment (1919-1939). When these intellectuals abandoned this principle in favour of the Islamic subject, a crisis of orientation ensued. While Safran generated interesting debates on the causes of Egypt's cultural turn in the late 1930s (Smith 1973, 1983, Gershoni & Jankowski 1995, Gershoni 1999), none of the commentators questioned the central assumption regarding the in congruity of Islam and rationalism or entertained the idea that the rise of radical Islamism in this period, far from being a reflection of Egyptians' Islamic identity, was produced in reaction to the overly secularist outlook of the country's intellectual leaders (Moaddel 2002).

The Islamicists' Perspective

There is an affinity between the proponents of the rationalist-Westernizing model of political modernity and the Islamicists. If the former used the European experience as the scale of a universal history to judge the political experience of historical Islam, the Islamicists attempted to uncover certain features in Islamic tradition that in their view hindered the development of a modern political order. Nevertheless, despite the secularist bias they share with the rationalist-Westernizers, the Islamicists' have made important contributions by offering explicit propositions regarding the Islamic origins of the political institutions, authoritarianism, the failure of democratic polity, public political orientations, and political extremism in Islamic countries.

The Islamicists widely argued that the Islamic theories of government strongly tilted toward conservatism and abstention from revolutionary action. This is so because the political language of Islam contains no precept to rebel against a bad government. Instead classical Islam teaches the duty to resist an impious ruler. This doctrine, however, is inadequate because, in the first place, it is unclear "how the lawfulness or sinfulness of a command was to be tested; in the second place no legal procedure or apparatus was ever devised or set up for enforcing the law against the ruler" (Lewis 1972, p. 33). Further, the circumstances prevailing in Islamic countries - such as the threat of tribal conflicts and chaos - prompted the theorists to stress the need for the ruler's effective power to maintain order and to justify obedience to him. This appreciation of order in turn helped to strengthen traditionalism in all aspects of life-religion, politics, literature, and thought. As a result, political thought received less attention than dogmatic theory (Lambton 1963, pp. 95-96; von Grunebaum 1954, pp. 343-44). The shift in the conception of the ruler from being a patriarch (i.e., the shepherd analogy) in classical theory to that of an autocrat in the medieval Islam paralleled a shift in the basis of government from right religion to justice. "Kingship," said Nizam al-Mulk, the all-powerful vizier of the Abbasid caliph, "remains with the unbeliever but not with injustice" (cited in Lambton 1963, p. 104).

How then does one account for the rise of Islamic revolutionary movements in the second part of the twentieth century? For Lewis (1993c, pp. 133-54), these movements were rooted in the universal belief in the unity of church and state and that Islam formed the central element in Muslim identity. Lewis then went on to state that various Islamic movements in the modern period from pan-Islamism of Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz in the 1870s, the rise of Egyptian Muslim Brothers in the 1930s, to the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 were manifestations of this universality and centrality.

Islam and Authoritarianism

The connection between Islamic culture and authoritarianism are established through the legitimizing power of such a patriarchal conception of leadership as za'im (leader) and za'ama (leadership). Although za'im in Arabic refers to the charismatic political leader, the earliest use of the term indicated that it was not a compliment (Lewis 1988, pp. 59-60). When a certain Imam of the Yemen called himself "commander of the faithful," he was addressed in the protocol of the Mamluk chancery of Egypt as the "za'im of the faithful." In other words, "he thinks he is, but we know better." But in the modern period, the term was used in a positive sense as Egyptian Nationalist leader Mustafa Kamil was called al-za'im al-amin, "the faithful leader," and President Qasim of Iraq, called himself al-za'im al-awhad, "the unique leader" (Lewis 1988, p. 60). For Sharabi (1963, p. 590) also, za'im is a type of leadership claimed by Arab leaders to legitimize the power they had seized through a militar y coup, when "the unknown successful leader of a coup d'etat emerges at first as a genuine za'im, that is, as a savior, a hero, a symbol of national honor and freedom, and in possession of all power in the state." Likewise, Vatikiotis (1973, p. 310) considered za'im and za'ama as part of a preexisting Islamic cultural tradition, giving credence to authoritarian leaderships in post-coup Egypt and post-revolutionary Algeria.

For Lapidus (1992), on the other hand, modern authoritarianism is rooted in the second golden age of historical Islam highlighted by the rise of Islamic empires. Under these empires, classical Islamic theory of sovereignty retreated to provide a space for a secular theory of patrimonialism, where "power is not an expression of the total society but the prerogative of certain individuals or groups," and where "the exercise of political power was organized through networks of clients and retainers" (p. 17). This historical legacy of authoritarianism and clientalist patrimonialism has continued into the modern period as, for example, "many features of Turkish republic and the Ataturk program may be derived from the patrimonial premises of the Ottoman empire" (p. 23).

Islam and Liberal Democracy

While various features of Islamic tradition are employed to explain the rise of authoritarian regimes, the failure of democracy in the Muslim world is attributed to Islam's conceptual inadequacy in the area of individual rights. Lewis (1993b) argued that Western democracy is rooted in Roman law of the legal person--a corporate entity with certain rights and obligations. While Christianity "was forced to recognize the authority of Roman law" (Gibb 1947, p. 85), in Islam, in contrast, there is no such recognition, hence, no legislative function. And without legislative function, there is no need for legislative institutions nor for any principle of representation (Lewis 1993b).

There is still another way that Islamic cultural tradition constrained the development of democratic polity. It may be argued that the varying conceptions of humans upheld in Christianity and Islam could have been a factor that contributed to the rise of democracy in the West and the persistence of authoritarianism in the Islamic world. "Christian political thinkers began from the premises that man was a disobedient sinner and that the Almighty detested the stench of anarchy" (Perry 1989, p. 8). Given man's essentially evil character, these thinkers devised a formula to tame a political ruler. As Madison & Hamilton (1911, p. 264) stated, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." This pessimistic view of human nature in fact may have led to the development of democratic political institutions as thinkers like Madison devised the system of checks and balances to keep the rulers from misrule. In t he Islamic tradition, on the other hand, there is an optimistic view of humans, which, it may be postulated, ensured the extension of the system of patriarchy in the Islamic world into the modem era. For there was no need to question the power of the patriarch, who is in essence a do-gooder. In classical Islamic political theory, the emphasis is to find and install the rightful caliph. After he is installed, following his order is binding to all Muslims.

One may question this interpretation, for Islam not only recommended rebelling against an impious leader, but also provided a conceptual foundation for the development of democracy. Such concepts as shura (consultative body), ijtima’ (consensus), and masliha (utility) pointed to an affinity between Islam and democracy. The problem in Islamic socio-political theory is then the absence of an adequate test of "Islamicity" (Gragg 1957). Or as Kerr (1966, p. 10) further elaborated, the doctrine of Caliphate failed to provide a procedure of identifying, choosing, installing, and if necessary, deposing, the caliph. Nor did the doctrine of jurisprudence offer the means of officially ascertaining the consensus on a given point of law. This lack of procedural rules in Islam, not abstract theological ideas about individual rights and responsibilities, is thus considered the source of the Muslim inability to replace an authoritarian ruler and to arrive at a parliamentary democracy.

Through a life-time of scholarship, the mastering of languages, translation of the works of prominent Muslim scholars into Western languages, a systematic analysis of the developments in Islamic theories of government and jurisprudence, and a detailed description of the changes in the relationship between the state and religious institutions, the Islamicists have made invaluable contributions to the understanding of Islam and politics. Nevertheless, their explanatory models have serious methodological problems. In the absence of a systematic historical comparison, it is not convincing to argue that such features of Muslim societies as patrimonialism, political despotism, or the weakness of democracy are a consequence of certain features of Islamic cultures, which are extracted from Islamic text in an essentialist and reductive method. And, when Islam is compared with the West (e.g., Lewis 1993b), this comparison is unsystematic without due attention to variations among Islamic countries, control cases, alternative explanations, or the effect of other historical variables. Further, the causal connection between Islamic cultural tradition and historical outcomes is almost always made subjectively, based on the Islamicists' own secondary interpretation of the religious principle. This point is particularly evident in Lewis's (1988) analysis of political terminology, which is premised on the belief that the religious origins of words would determine political thinking to a special degree, and assuming that Islamic culture constituted a single, all-encompassing, and enduring totality (see Halliday 1996, p. 204). Likewise, Sharabi's and Vatikiotis' reference to claimant (za'ama) to explain the rise of authoritarianism does not account for the effects of such other factors as the role of deteriorating economic conditions, economic inequalities, conflicts between the ruling elite and political groups, the rise of nationalist, socialist, and anti-Western ideologies, and the socioeconomic background of military officers as the contextual factors contributing to the involvement of the military in politics. Finally, while the Islamicists displayed a commendable skill in their thick description of various aspects of Islamic theology and intellectual history, their assertions about Muslims were often replete with vague generalization and ethnic stereotyping. Claims that Muslims are averse to "the thought-processes of rationalization" (Gibb 1947, p. 7), and that Orientals' lack a sense of law (Macdonald 1965), may serve little scholarly purpose.

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