The complex relationship between Islam and politics

The complex relationship between Islam and politics
Comment: Political Islam has been influenced by ideologies and historical moments that go beyond the simplistic Islamophobic assumptions, writes Mohamed elMeshad.
5 min read
29 Dec, 2015
The myth of an “orthodoxy” of political establishments in Islam is relative and contextual [AFP]
On the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad's birthday, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave a speech at Azhar University, one of the world's oldest and most well-known schools of Sunni Islam.

The hall was packed with the red-and-white turbans and navy-blue garbs which draped upon the university's esteemed scholars. Sisi's speech was constantly interrupted with applause, especially when peppering his prose with verses from the Quran.

Despite deposing a self-described Islamist group - one that ferquently claimed to represent the political embodiment of the religion - Sisi undoubtedly believes he has come to power in order to fulfil some sort of divine ordinance. A recorded conversation he had with a newspaper editor reveals that he believes he receives apparitions in his sleep that have foreshadowed his ascension.

On other occasions he said that he has a God-given clairvoyance that allows him to "diagnose" the ills of the world. On numerous occasions, the president has expressed that he is taking it upon himself to dictate what the "correct understanding" of Islam is.

For many, Egypt has traded one form of blinded religious zealotry for another.

Factions within the Muslim Brotherhood until today equate their rise or fall with that of the victory or defeat of Islam itself. In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabist school of thought - which controls much of the country's internal governance - has shown levels of exclusivist demagoguery giving chosen clerics free rein in both politics and society.

The explosion of both militant and peaceful "Islamists" claiming to understand what a true representation of Islam in politics means provides a unique moment in history - in which the issue is almost forcibly discussed by jurists and political scientists alike, albeit in an exclusively reactionary manner.
More than a thousand years ago, the whole concept of the necessity of a 'state' within Islamic countries was brought into question

Most schools push revisionist arguments that claim legitimacy by extrapolating examples from Islamic orthodoxy and by the example of "righteous forefathers".

The only concept many of these groups have in common is this notion that they are aiming for the ideal application of "divine law" here on Earth. In terms of an ideal Islamic political system, there really has never been one that stood the test of time.

The myth of an orthodoxy of political establishments in Islam is relative at best, and dubious at worst.

More than a thousand years ago, the whole concept of the necessity of a "state" within Islamic countries was brought into question by a strand of the Mutazilities, then one of the major schools of Islamic theology.

Patricia Crone, a pioneering scholar of Islamic history, wrote a compellingly titled essay on this very topic: Ninth Century Muslim Anarchists.

Crone distinguished between them and Western anarchists, who believe roughly that the human society predates the existence of a coercive state.

The premise for the Muslim anarchists starts very similarly to modern day Islamist groups - that there is a divine law and a righteous or pious ruler could implement it within the structure of a state.

Where they differ is when the state devolves into chaos stemming from tyrannical rulers that are disputed. They conclude that, within the confines of Islamic thought, it would be better to do away with the state when kings take over from righteous men, and civil war becomes a possible outcome.

Basically, the only true pious leader who could have governed with unanimity was Prophet Muhammad, and that for most other leaders after him, divine law and human government were at loggerheads.

This strand of thought did not gain much traction, however it does help to look back at a time in history when these questions were being asked as they are being discussed now. Many of the major times which saw discussion of political orders within Islamic thought did not transcend the politics of the time and seemed to ultimately cater to the orders in existence.
Even with the blessing of the clerics, a political system that isn't based on good civil governance will most likely be unable to stand the test of time

In recent history, especially within the context of modern Arab centres of Islamic learning, "quietist" clerics were allowed to thrive and they gave legitimacy to rulers who ultimately drove many of their countries to socio-economic or political breaking points.

It turns out, that even with the blessing of the clerics, a political system that isn't based on good civil governance will most likely be unable to stand the test of time.

Now many disparate members of establishment, opposition and even terrorist militant groups within the Muslim world seem compelled to justify their rule or aspirations to governance using different sorts of patronising religious speech that reduces religion to the political or military contest to rule a state - which is itself an aspiration that entails domination and coercion.

If there is no escape from these pseudo-religious arguments in some Arab and Muslim countries in turmoil, then perhaps it is time to revisit calls for anarchism - or at least an acknowledgement that there is no true form of "Islamic government", and that historical attempts to reach an ideal of any sorts has always tended to breed the exact opposite: the worst possible scenario. 

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.