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To curb political violence in its name, Islam needs to be independent of political power, not reformed even further

April 1, 2017 at 1:11 pm

When it comes to finding a solution to the current political violence in the name of Islam, the most common prognosis is that Islam needs reform to make it politically civil and compatible with liberal political principles. Such an assessment is puzzling, because reforms of Islam under the influence of the liberal West actually happened almost two centuries ago.

They were put into motion during the Ottoman era by two events: the 1798 expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt and the 1856 Treaty of Paris. The former set the parameters for the never-ending debate on Islam and modernity with the rise of the modernist-reformist Salafiyya movement and pan-Islamism, a political project of social cohesion based on Islamic belonging. The treaty saw the Ottoman Empire’s symbolic inclusion in the Westphalian order when, for the first time at the end of the Crimean War, a representative of the empire was invited to the diplomatic negotiations.

In the aftermath of this symbolic inclusion, three disparate factors contributed to the adoption in Muslim lands of the Westphalian State system in the first half of the twentieth century: the fall of imperial governments in the region; the rise of local nationalist movements in urban centres such as Cairo, Tunis, Baghdad and Damascus; and the emergence of states with demarcated territorial boundaries that pursued self-interests and experienced hostile territorial disputes with neighbouring states.

Pro-Western, liberal “civilisationalism” also became the dominant paradigm of the Ottoman modernists and reformists, despite strong internal resistance against Western imperialism. This opposition stemmed from the population’s objection to the Western critique that the Caliphate was not “civilised” enough to gain the loyalty of its Christian subjects. This resistance led subsequently to two different movements: pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism.

The ultimate objective of pan-Islamism was the political unity of the Muslim population under Islam rather than race or nationality. Pan-Arabism, on the other hand, recognised the cultural and linguistic affinity among Arabs and aimed to establish a single state for a united Arab nation.[i] Despite divergent political goals, these two movements developed in close proximity in the last period of the Ottoman Empire and were both influenced by European political principles.

Starting in the mid-19th century, with the rise of the Young Turks movement, constitutionalism and parliamentarism were championed as prerequisites for imperial revival, and for their reconciliation with Islamic norms, such as the consideration of the concept of shura (consultation). The Young Turks – often presented as the model of westernised elites – did not envision a secular regime; rather, they conceptualised shari’ah as the foundation for reform and freedom. The pinnacle of this movement’s achievements, the Ottoman Constitution of 1876 – which was modelled on the Belgian constitution of 1831 – established an appointed upper house of parliament and an elected lower house with legislative authority.

A similar and even more relevant series of changes happened in Egypt under Muhamad Ali (reigned 1805-1848) and his successors who experimented with representative assemblies which served as the main scene for the modernist Islamic conceptualisations of politics.

These political changes were paralleled by reformist religious thought – known as Salafiyya – although it is not proven that the term was endorsed as such by the modernists of the time.[ii] Salafiyya, which takes the Salaf (early Companions of Prophet Muhammad and righteous predecessors) as its reference, has garnered confusing meanings because of its current use by the followers of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab’s doctrine, or Wahhabism, which differs greatly in its orientation and goals from the modernist reformist movement of the 19th century. The former rejects the teachings of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence or madhahib and advocates the imitation of the Prophet by emphasising the Ahadith (accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet). The latter also rejects the consistent observance of the schools of jurisprudence but, unlike Wahhabism, encourages new interpretations.

The reformist-modernist movement is understood as an attempt to resist the cultural influence of the West and is therefore presented as the paragon for religious authenticity by turning inward to the Islamic heritage to compete with Western cultural input. In its inception, however, Salafiyya did not involve direct opposition to European imperial rule over Muslims. Rather, the intellectual figures of the movement saw it as internal Islamic reform to compete with the scientific and economic leadership of the West, through education and scholarship. What is often downplayed is that this revivalism was actually deeply influenced by Western cultural and political concepts. That influence irremediably changed the meanings of traditional concepts such as shari’ah, ijtihad, ummah and jihad. In colonial times, and even more so after the national independences, the subjugation of Islam to the state solidified these political connotations of traditional concepts and made them “natural” to the masses and clerics alike. Even less frequently explored, but in fact, most importantly, is that this Westernised Islamic thinking has irremediably changed the tenets of the Islamic tradition. Therefore, debating the nature of political Islam in light of medieval concepts as we are seeing in the debate on the Islamic nature of ISIS/Daesh is moot. In fact, it is misleading to think that Islamists refer to shari’ah or ijtihad in their premodern sense.

No doubt, there is a claim by different Islamic groups to include Islamic law within secular legal systems, but the call for Islamic law is actually not informed by classical legal rules, because there is no such thing as state law in the classic tradition of Islam. Islamists are, in fact, operating on a Westernised concept of Islamic law that they share with secular nationalists. The difference is that they want to expand the rule of this law to new domains, while secular actors are content with the status quo. For example, no secular actors question the fact that a certain brand of Islam has been nationalised while other brands and/or religions are not even recognised let alone treated fairly under the law. Nor do they contest the fact that civil and family law is regulated by Islamic prescriptions in Muslim countries (with the exception of Turkey). For this reason, the distinction between Islamic reform and Western nationalism is not as clear cut as political actors claim. In other words, just because the former is opposed to the latter does not mean that it was not influenced by it. In fact, Islamic reformism was the outcome of the importation of Western ideas into traditional concepts and methodologies. In its initial phase as mentioned above, Islamic reformism was actually modernist and pro-Western. In itself, it was neither good nor bad. Its anti-Western shift occurred later, at the time of decolonisation and under the yolk of the authoritarian nation-states.

Moreover, the main reason for the lack of democracy as well as for political violence is a certain type of political culture that I call hegemonic Islam (The Awakening of Muslim Democracy; Religion, Modernity and the State, Cambridge University Press, 2014). Hegemony specifically refers to the absorption of religious institutions of one religion into the state administration, the legal system and the national education process. In stark contrast with European political history, reform of Islam led to its subordination to the political power, in ways that were unprecedented before the nation-states. When Muslim empires ruled, Islamic institutions, education and clerics were structurally and financially independent of the political power. I have highlighted the correlation between hegemony and lack of democracy, beyond the case of Islam with, for example, Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

In these conditions, it is not a reform of Islam that is needed but a return to its traditional mode of thinking, independent of political power. It does not necessarily mean separation between Islam and state but fair treatment of all religions by the state. It also means reviving traditional modes of Islamic thinking that have been seriously weakened by state policies towards institutions of higher Islamic learning as well as by the pervading influence of Saudi religious doctrine, the aforementioned Wahabism.

[i] Reiser, Stewart. “Pan-Arabism Revisited.” Middle East Journal 37, no. 2 (1983): 218-33.

[ii] Lauzière, Henri. The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.