The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought by Andrew F March comes to us at an interesting time. The 2011 Arab Spring led many across the MENA region to aspire to a new democratic and pluralistic political order, but the counter-revolutions led by the UAE, the Egyptian military, Bashar Al-Assad and Saudi Arabia eventually crushed (albeit temporarily) these aspirations and led to the unstable maintenances of the ancien regimes. At the forefront of these regimes’ counter-revolutionary propaganda efforts is the fear of Islamist rule; every dictator justifies their brutal crackdown by citing a real or imaginary Islamic bogey. Even some of the young revolutionaries involved in the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere became deeply opposed to Islamist political factions. Such opposition sharpened after the ousting of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 by Egypt’s military. The rise of Daesh further cemented the idea that Islamists are something to fear. But with all of that said, what are political Islamist ideas and how have they evolved over time?
Interrogating the works of Rashid Rida, Sayyid Qutb, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Abul A’la Maududi, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini and others, March captures the diversity and tensions of modern political Islamist thought. He puts forward the interesting argument that Islamist thinkers generally view the people — the Muslim Ummah — as being the living embodiment of the Shari’ah and God’s Will. Unlike secular political thinkers, who tend to see the people as the sole embodiment of sovereignty, law and political rights, 20th century Islamist thinkers tended to argue for the notion of dual sovereignty, where law is both divinely decreed and exercised through the will of the people at the same time.
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The tensions between the religious and secular occupy an important area of Islamic political thinking, according to March, as Islamists try to harmonise the two ideas of sovereignty. “A core thesis of my analysis is that the divine and popular elements in Islamic democratic theory are often derived from the same commitments and materials,” he writes. “Divine command is not just a constraint on human freedom, and human freedom is not just the absence of divine command. Rather, the foundation of Islamic democratic theory is the same as the foundations of Islamic theocratic theory… The political theology of popular sovereignty in Islam is that the Umma [sic] has been entrusted by God with the realisation of His law on Earth. God is the principle agent and actor, and the first response of the people-as-deputy is a passive and receptive one. But the force of God dignified mankind as His caliph is that He has deputised no one else between God and man — no kings, no priests, no scholars.”
The book opens with a speech by Al-Qaradawi in Tahrir Square in Cairo, a week after the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office by a popular uprising in 2011. The speech not only contains an insight into how Islamic political thought would try to articulate itself during the Arab revolutions, but also offers a vision of the multiple layers on which 20th and 21st century Islamist thought operates. “O Muslims and Copts!” said the veteran scholar. “These youth from all regions in Egypt, from all social classes, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, workers and cultured… They became, fused into, one-melting pot: Muslims and Christians, radicals and conservatives, rightists and leftists, men and women, old and young, all of them become one, all of them acting for Egypt, in order to liberate Egypt from injustice and tyranny… This is the unity line of people praying. Let there be no fanaticism! We are all believers… We are all Egyptians. We are all rising up against falseness.”
Dissecting the different themes within the speech means exploring Islamist democratic and theocratic thought, which is what the author does in this book.
There are a number of drawbacks to it, though. I feel that it needs more comparisons to other ideologies operating in the Arab world throughout the 20th century. March has mentioned that an important distinguishing factor between Islamists and Arab nationalists is the notion of who will save the people. Islamists tend to focus on law or Shari’ah as the saving vehicle, whereas Arab nationalists believe that the leader — a Nasser, a Saddam, an Assad — will save us. The author could have delved a bit more into these competing ideas of sovereignty between different ideological movements.
I also feel that more discussion would have been useful around how the ideas of democratic and popular sovereignty in Islamist thought evolved after the Arab Spring, and how Islamists responded to the challenges posed by counter-revolutionary states and anti-regime protesters following the uprisings. That said, though, March has given us a valuable book that explores the idea of Caliphate as a democratic notion within Islamist thought while critiquing materialistic notions of democracy. It is hard to argue that the dream of dual sovereignty has been realised, but critical engagement with the concept is absolutely necessary. The Caliphate of Man… offers a concise read of the topic.