Events in the Arab world and beyond over the past decade have ignited an intense debate about Islam, Muslims and political engagement. A common theme of western historical research situates Islam’s scholarly tradition to be on the side of obedience to the ruler, and encouragement to avoid political disagreements. A new book from I. B. Taurus, therefore, is very timely: Political Quietism in Islam: Sunni and Shi’i Practice and Thought edited by Saud Al-Sarhan points out that the foundations of this belief come from work by historian Michael Cook in the 1980s.
“According to Cook, Islam is a political religion, in which the umma and imama (imamate, or leadership) are political and religious concepts… As Cook notes, (political) ‘activism’ is a given in Islam, and it is the advocates of ‘quietism’ who must endeavour to dissuade activists from engaging in political action.” However, as the book makes clear, this is a huge oversimplification and with essays on topics including political activism during the time of the rightly-guided caliphs, political legitimacy in Imami Shi’i jurisprudence, Islam and constitutionalism in modern Tunisia, the Gülen movement in Azerbaijan and female preachers in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s relationship to political activism is complex.
Quietism is often associated with being apolitical, disengaged from public affairs and loyalty to the ruling elite, but it does have a history in Islamic “theopolitical” thought. Indeed, as Al-Sarhan’s chapter on early Sunni tradition argues, there are several key individuals who shaped this early tradition, including “The Companion [of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him] Ibn ‘Umar (d. 74/693), whose view on quietism is essential to understanding the Sunni doctrine; as Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161/778) states, ‘We adhere to ‘Umar’s opinion in times of unity, and to that of his son in times of division.’ Keeping out of internal fights between Muslims was a fundamental aspect of Ibn Umar’s thought; when Al-Husayn b. Ali (killed 61/680) and Ibn Zubayr (killed 73/692) left Medina after refusing to declare allegiance to Yazid I in 60/680, they met with Ibn ‘Umar, who warned them not to divide the Muslim community.” The example of Ibn Umar gives important context to early quietism in Islam; fear of strife, division and bloodshed was a key driver for the quietists.
Al-Sarhan also argues that, “Until the second half of the third/ninth century, two trends coexisted among the early Islamic traditionalists, one arguing for political activism and one for quietism.” Central to the chapter is Ibn Hanbal, who founded the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, which is also the school with the strongest quietest tradition. Interestingly, Al-Sarhan asserts that what drove Ibn Hanbal was not so much theological as more practical concerns for the state and the common people. Safety took priority over justice, and security was Ibn Hanbal’s approach to scholarship. However, he was a paradoxical figure too, which the chapter explores in some detail; he did not believe in absolute obedience to the ruler, but believed in staying away from rulers. He also famously refused to accept Mutazila doctrines being pushed by the Abbasid caliph, for which he was made to suffer. The strength of the chapter is to provide historical context for Ibn Hanbal’s quietism, which is sometimes missing from contemporary debates about Islam and political activism. At the same time, though, the chapter could have gone further into those advocating political activism, which is a slight drawback.
Moving from classical to modern debate, the volume offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of activism in Saudi Arabia. Taking a sociological approach to the politics of public piety, female preachers and the limits of quietism, Laila Makboul’s chapter “Public Piety and the Politics of Preaching among Female Preachers in Riyadh” is probably the timeliest of all in the book.
Saudi Arabia is undergoing a cultural transformation according to media reports, but while there is a liberalising facade, there is also a clampdown on political and religious dissidents in the Kingdom. By taking us into the world of female public preachers, Makboul lets us explore another aspect of political activism in Saudi Arabia. One female preacher, who has a large online following and regularly engages with hot button socio-political issues, held a conference on upbringing and intellectual engagement with the youth, including how to protect them from extremism. Makboul’s presumption of this woman’s activism was challenged when she asked her about terrorism: “She found it problematic to engage in topics such as terrorism because, as she said, there are many issues to be considered. One challenge that she saw was the question of obedience to the ruler and whether it applied to non-Muslim rulers in Muslim lands. To illustrate this dilemma, she asked whether the Sunnis of Iraq were obliged to obey former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki…”
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She believes in political engagement but her discomfort at trying to answer political questions stemmed from her desire not to contradict what is considered politically correct in the Kingdom. There is, though, more to such positions, as Makboul argues. While they advocate loyalty to ruler, they ultimately believe that changing individual citizens will lead to a change in the ruler: “Since they regard the ruler as, ultimately, a reflection of the morals of his subject, their engagement in politics lies foremost in creating a society of pious subjects.” This is a critical point, because while one can object and point out the flaws in the approach of the female scholars, to argue that they are quietist is simply not an accurate assessment. The issue of what constitutes political activism is that, by and large, it is defined by the rulers themselves. While I agree with Laila Makboul’s approach in treating Saudi Arabia’s female preachers as politically active subjects in a unique position, the chapter could have used more historical background of the evolution of them and their relationship to the state. Nevertheless, she offers some valuable insights into political activism in the Kingdom.
Walaa Quisay’s chapter on “The Neo-Traditionalist Critique of Modernity and the Production of Political Quietism” was perhaps the one with which I was most acquainted before reading this book. Quisay has established herself as something of an expert on the neo-traditionalists and their trends; her essay in January 2019 on Hamza Yusuf and the theology of obedience, for example, garnered much attention. Her contribution to this book expands on the topic and went beyond Yusuf to include Abdal Hakim Murad and Umar Farruq Abd-Allah. As arguably three of the best known neo-traditionalists in the West, she writes, “These Shuyukh juxtapose the Islamic ‘tradition’ — as layered, structured and essentially ‘enchanted’, and they also recognise authority and hierarchy — with modernity. Modernity, in turn, represents paradigmatic ruptures in systems of meaning and established hierarchies of the past. Political quietism becomes a means by which some semblance of authority is maintained.” This is a key understanding of the worldview of these imams, in that this is what separates neo-traditional from traditional approaches to quietism and obedience. Fear of civil strife leading to bloodshed was a key component of Ibn Hanbal’s scholarship, but for the neo-traditionalists fear of strife not only leads to bloodshed but also materialism and atheism of a kind. Rebelling against the ruler is rebelling against the cosmic order itself. That does not mean that they think every ruler is legitimate, but it has led to them working with rulers who are problematic.
As Quisay points out, they view modern Islam in stages through the prism of Western history. Adopting a Charles Taylor stance on secularisation, they see the nineteenth century as the juncture where Islam was “protestantised” and believe that such moves need to be resisted. While this offers an important overview into the neo-traditionalist worldview, a few important distinctions need to be made. Hamas Yusuf et al are the public face of neo-traditionalism in the West, but more focus on less well-known figures would have given us a better insight into the whole movement. The question of interaction with these public figures and the challenges that their followers face would have been welcome. Nonetheless, Walaa Quisay does us all a service by capturing the essence of the neo-traditionalist predicament.
Overall, this book is a welcome addition in the field, providing an extremely useful nuanced discussion; I suspect that it will be required reading for anyone with a genuine interest in the politics of Islam. Some of the contributors will probably disagree with me, but I don’t think that Islam can be described as a quietist tradition. Indeed, after reading Political Quietism… I felt that “quietism in Islam” is a somewhat archaic term, since almost none of the subjects covered showed an absolute commitment to quietism. In fact, almost all of the movements cited in the book were politically engaged in some shape or form. As such, if we wish to talk of quietism, then we need to re-imagine quietism’s Islamic-ness, not Islam’s quietism.