With all the revolutions that have been taking place in the Middle East, and the Western imposed puppet dictators that have been disposed of as a result, the question of Islamopolitics emerges as political parties with an “Islamic” platform promise their people a return of their glory days.
When colonization ended, and the Europeans packed up and returned home after they could no longer sustain their presence in the various colonies they carved up for themselves after the Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, they left behind their marks. The system of governance, constitutions, and legal codes that were operative in these newly “independent” countries were European in their essence.
To add insult to injury, the men who were left to run these countries were not ones chosen by their own people. They were puppet dictators put in place to ensure that colonialist interests would continue to be pursued even after their physical departure. This is a fantastic arrangement from the perspective of the Europeans who on the surface seem as if they abandoned their colonial project and granted the colonized their independence. In reality, they have instead gone the route of a more cost effective colonization model. They no longer had to commit their own manpower and money to rule their colonies. Instead, they used the colonized’s own manpower and money to ensure their interests are fulfilled. Meanwhile, the colonized celebrate their “independence” anniversaries deluded by the idea that they were successful in driving their colonizers out of their countries.
The Arab Spring and multiple revolutions have changed the game plan. The lid over the pot of boiling water just blew off. The people had enough and finally turned the tables. They realized that they could change their circumstances and worked up the courage to take their oppressors head on. Those who were successful and are now exercising their own right of self-determination are finally choosing for themselves who they want to govern them. At this juncture, Islamopolitics rears its ugly head to the crowds.
Non-Kharijites Thinking As Kharijites
What Muslims have to come to terms with is the distinction between Muslims running for political office, and Islam being the reference point for their governance. The use of slogans like “Islam is the solution” and “we will rule by the rule of God” are empty sensational statements to get the Muslim populace behind one’s Islamopolitical party. They have no value when it comes to outlining a social, economic, and healthcare plan for a country. Moreover, the assumption that Islam outlines every single aspect of governance is one that the Kharijites made. Sadly, it seems that many Muslims have taken up this assumption as well without realizing it.
The early version of modern Islamopolitics is the one that led to the first major schism in the Muslim community. Various political tensions resulted in the assassination of the third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, and the fringe group who became known as the Kharijites took up arms against the fourth Caliph and cousin of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Alī ibn Abī Tālib. In their estimation, Imam Alī deviated away from Quranic injunctions in how he handled the aftermath. Instead of starting a civil war to get revenge, he held a counsel meeting where it was decided not to pursue the assassins of Uthman in order to prevent an overall civil war between tribes from breaking out. A group of those who wanted retribution rejected the leadership of Imam Alī at the outset of this decision and took up arms against him, claiming that he had clearly gone against the Quranic command of “a soul for a soul.” It should be noted here that those who objected against Imam Alī were from the tribe of Uthman, and that might have had more to do with their anger and defection than what they professed using religious language and Quranic justification.
Abd Allah ibn Abbas, a companion of Prophet Muhammad and one of the foremost scholarly authorities at the time asked to go and meet with the Kharijite leadership to reason with them. A telling segment of their exchange exposes the myopic nature of their mindset. Ibn Abbas asked, “What is it that you hold against the cousin of the Messenger of God?” They responded, “He instituted the ruling of men instead of the ruling of God, and God says in the Quran (Verily, rulership is only for God).” Ibn Abbas asked, “Is the ruling of men to stop bloodshed more important than the ruling of men on the market value of a hunted rabbit?” The response was, “Of course men deliberating on how to stop bloodshed is more important than deliberating over the price of a rabbit!” Ibn Abbas replied, “then why would God command us in the Quran to seek the ruling of men when game is hunted during the pilgrimage (when it’s not permissible to hunt), in order to pay the expiation for that act as He says it is to be determined (according to the judgment of two just men from among you)[5:95]. But on the other hand you act as if He wouldn’t expect us to deliberate and rule over something more important like human life?” At the end of the exchange, the majority of the Kharijites came back with Ibn Abbas after he won them over with his arguments.
It’s worthy to note two things about this event. Ibn Abbas said about his experience that as he was reaching the Kharijite encampment it sounded like a bee colony because they were all reciting Quran loudly. Most of them had the Quran memorized in full, but none of them had a proper understanding of it. Secondly, although Ibn Abbas did sway the majority, a minority was left behind staunch in their positions, and Imam Alī eventually had to fight them. Their slogan: “Verily, rulership is to none other than God!” Today, masses of Muslims are marching behind the similar-sounding slogan, “The people want to implement the ruling of God!“
Islam as a Manual for a Sinful Fitra
When Imam Alī implemented the ruling of men, he wasn’t deviating away from Quranic teachings as the Kharijites claimed. As Ibn Abbas showed, Imam Alī’s actions were perfectly congruent with Quranic teachings, which included the deliberation and ruling of men as part of acting based on the ruling of God.
Modern Muslims seem to have a skewed understanding of Islam and of human nature. The skewed understanding of Islam comes in the form of approaching it like an Ikea manual for putting a cheap piece of furniture together; having a set of bullet point instructions of how governance and society should run and all one has to do is follow the steps. As for human nature, it seems that many Muslims have been taught a Christian understanding of it, which is that it’s inherently sinful and bad. They have been taught that anything humans come up with to run their lives on their own is automatically irreconcilable with Islam. To these Muslims, Islam is seen as a system to be imposed upon people and for them to find it going against their nature.
If Islam is truly the religion of Fitra (innate natural inclination to what is good and to the Truth), then it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find many conclusions about governance arrived at by man to be perfectly reconcilable with Islam. In fact, many Muslim scholars have given clear statements confirming this. Muslims who are unable to accept this are typically ones who want to replicate the details of the past against all odds. In such thinking they ignore what many of the most prominent Muslim scholars have said in the past and present, and make Islam an irrelevant religion unable to cope with modernity and new contextual realities in today’s world.
Islamic Reference Point
Every political system has a reference and a platform that it builds from. The Quran states that God declared, “I am putting a vicegerent on earth.” [2:30] The function of human beings on earth from an Islamic perspective is to be representatives for God in this realm of His dominion. As representatives, the Quran asserts that the ultimate authority for how to conduct their affairs in His dominion goes back to Him. This is a part of Muslim consciousness. But rather than having complete details set out for every single governmental and political affair, the Islamic treatment to these matters is about giving what can be considered more like policy guidelines. A few things have been clearly stipulated, but most were not. Anyone who claims the contrary has elevated the relative context-bound conclusions of scholars to an absolute transcendent station that the scholars themselves never sought after. Muslim scholars have recognized this over the centuries, but it seems to be missed by many modern Muslims. This is precisely how Islam was able to sustain itself and be relevant to every time and place. Had everything been laid out in precise terms, Islam would not have been compatible with so many different societies and ways of thinking over the past 14 centuries.
Although Islam elevates the status of human intellect and gives room for people to deliberate and determine the best course of actions in many contexts, this is not to be taken as having no limits. Humans are masters at self-deception. Our inability to have all-encompassing knowledge of current circumstances, as well as future repercussions of present decisions automatically places us in a position of need and inadequacy. Without an absolute reference point, we lack direction.
An interesting phenomenon that has been observed in many studies is our inability to walk straight without an absolute mark to keep us on track. If you were to place a blindfold on someone, and ask them to walk in a straight line, they will think they’re doing just that. However, they will walk on a slight curve to the right and end up walking in circles. This curve to the right is so slight that even without a blindfold it will feel like walking in a straight line in spite of the contrary. Interestingly, driving a car where all one has to do is keep the steering wheel from turning yields the same result; we will drive in circles. It seems that humans need an external reference point to maintain direction. However, this knowledge of human behaviour does not entail a complete negation of the human intellect, which is what sets us apart from the rest of animals. What it does entail is the need for a reference point that’s external to it in order to maintain a straight direction. This point is briefly demonstrated by Robert Krulwich in this video:
It’s clear from the political discourse in post-revolution Muslim countries today that Islam is used as a ploy for political gain. This is evident by the false dichotomy the populace is offered between Islam and any other political system. Karl Marx had some truth in his observation when he said, ”Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.” As Albert Memmi pointed out in his book The Colonizer and the Colonized, the first thing a colonized people will always flee to is religion because it’s the most effective uniting force for them and the source of solace in their oppression.
What religion offers for a colonized people is a place of security in something greater than the colonizing force that has overwhelmed them. It’s a form of resistance and a way out of their condition. Unfortunately, most of them are not going to their religion in a rational way. It’s an emotional escape similar to a child who gets bullied and seeks refuge in his father. It’s obvious in the current black and white discourse on this issue that negates all nuance. Such an approach to Islam is dangerous and undermines it as a religion. Emotions will eventually wear off, and any Islamopolitical party that makes it into office must fulfill what they were put there to do.
At some point the beards, prayer beads, and empty slogans will be recognized for their hollowness if these parties didn’t have effective political programs. As the Islamopolitical parties get disposed of, many of the people will also dispose of Islam along with them. This will be the inevitable consequence of their audacity to campaign as representatives of Islam rather than representatives of themselves and their political proposals to move their countries forward. The failure of Islamopolitical parties will be a Muslim version fulfillment of Nietzsche‘s famous statement, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Muslims really need to be aware of these issues and get over the emotional manipulation Islamopolitical parties employ against them. What Muslims need is not a separation between religion and politics – Muslims need a separation between religiosity and politics.