Politicizing Islam


Presentation1*Long read

“All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people.” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word fetish is a noun describing an object believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner. It is broadly defined as a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence. It is the irrational reverence or obsessive devotion towards an object or an idea. Based on how this word is defined, it is safe to say that many of us in the Muslim community have developed a fetish for politics. More specifically, we have developed a belief that our problems will be solved if only we could rule using Islam. In this, many have the naïve idea that the Quran and Sunnah have a specific set of instructions with regards to how we should conduct our politics.

Secularism, commonly thought of as a negative stance that excludes religion and/or religious considerations from civil affairs or public education is mistakenly viewed as an objective and neutral position. However, any system of governance must operate on a set of principles, which serve as the bases for how it will conduct its affairs. Where do these principles come from? It is assumed that a secular system of governance will rely on reason alone, without influence from any religious or emotional influences. Although it might feel good to think one is able to be objective, in practice no such thing is possible. I have already discussed this previously (Read On Sharia Governance and To Sharia or Not To Sharia: The Question of Islamopolitics).

The perception that one, or an institution like government for that matter, could be led down a purely rational path has been around since the times of Greek philosophers. This view was promoted by René Descartes and truly took hold as a result of the immense influence the natural sciences began to have on human life and the ultimate retreat of the Church’s influence on public affairs. It is this understanding that much of present day scientism rests its case on, which denies any credence to spiritual or religious dimensions of human thought. I will deal with this myth of pure rationalism in a future post. It is sufficient to say for now that although rationality is an important tool for decision-making, it is most definitely not the only one used and when examined closely, our decisions can never rely purely on it.

Our collective Muslim psyche has unfortunately been plagued with a lot of sectarianism. We tend to phrase all our discourses in an us vs. them narrative. Whatever non-Muslims do must by definition be unIslamic. The verse from the Qur’an stating that “The Jews and the Christians will never be pleased with you unless you follow their ways” [2:120] is taken to mean that we must never arrive at conclusions that may be in line with those of non-Muslims. In doing so we do not seek Truth for its sake. Rather, we seek conflict. Hence, the mere suggestion of democracy as a form of governance for Muslims is categorically rejected. This highlights the form of Islam we currently uphold. We have turned Islam into a politicized reactionary religion that defines itself through negation of the other and in consequence negation of itself.

There is a juristic principle in Islamic legal theory asserting that we do not squabble over terminology. From a scholarly perspective, the term is irrelevant so long as the activity is congruent with Islamic teachings. One can claim a particular bank to be engaged in “Islamic” lending practices, and change the terms used to describe different clauses within the contracts. But if the end result of the loan is exactly the same as with a regular bank that uses direct terms to describe interest charges for what they are, it is an impermissible transaction according to Islamic Law. Adorning the practice with Islamic terminology does not make it Islamic. The same principle applies for practices conducted in non-Muslim countries with regards to politics. If the essential nature of such politics does not contradict Islamic principles, the name it goes under is neither here nor there. (There is a caveat to keep in mind that I will get into shortly, which has to do with perception.)

What does it exactly mean to “rule using Islam”? Underpinning the claim is the idea that we have a direct and specific set of instructions for how we govern and do politics just as we have for prayer and fasting. However, this is not even close to being close to being the case. The specific form of governance was never stipulated by God or His Messenger ﷺ. What we have are general principles and injunctions that can be congruent with different forms of governance. As Imam Ibn Taymiyyah begin his treatise As’Siyasa Ash’Shariya (Legal Politics), Islamic governance is based on two verses stating, “God commands you (people) to return things entrusted to you to their rightful owners, and, if you judge between people, to do so with justice: God’s instructions to you are excellent, for He hears and sees everything. You who believe, obey God and the Messenger, and those in authority among you. If you are in dispute over any matter, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day: that is better and fairer in the end” [4:58-59]. The imam goes on later to speak about the obligation of appointing an Imam, i.e., a Caliph, in order for Muslims to be ruled by the rule of God. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah is not the only one who considers this an obligation. Multiple scholars have said so as well. But it must be stated unequivocally that in spite of one’s ability to quote numerous scholars with this position, it does not make it part of essential Islamic creed. This point cannot be overstated. Moreover, a contextual reading of scholarly rulings with regards to political matters that takes into account their historical circumstances, as well as the objectives they cited for their specific conclusions, will reveal the absoluteness of objectives, which come from the Qur’an and Sunnah, but the relativity of rulings, which come from historical- and social-bound minds.

Given that specific instructions on governance are not explicitly provided in primary sources, we cannot claim that what we find in medieval scholarly works on politics is Islamic, and ignore the historical- and context-bound nature of it all. Indeed, this is one of our fundamental problems today. We have an Islamic prayer, but our politics should be more accurately described as Muslims doing politics. Often times we unjustifiably give undue credence to our opinions or actions by slapping on the adjective of them being “Islamic.” This is something we have been doing from the very beginning of Islamic history. For example, the Caliphate, in its Islamic sense ended with the assassination of Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The Umayyad period was not a Caliphate. It was a dynasty ruled by kings. The same goes for the Abbasids, the Ottomans, and everyone else that took on the title of “Caliph” or “Commander of the Believers.” Yes, linguistically the word Caliph refers to one who comes after someone, i.e., a successor. But as a strictly Islamic term, the Caliphate as per Prophetic practice did not end with the Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire as commonly held. It ended almost 1400 years ago. Moreover, presence of a “Caliphate” did not necessitate Muslim unity. This is a place where the use of the wrong terminology can lead to an erroneous conception of history. Although scholars may not squabble over terminology, public perception is driven by it.

The presence of general principles and lack of a specified form of governance or political program in Islam serves two purposes. The first one has to do with the timeless nature Islam asserts for itself. As human societies evolve, specific needs change. We do not live in the same world as the early generations did, and politics have changed over time. The nation-state is an alien concept to the past. The silence of Scripture, save the general principles, is a necessary approach to politics if the religion was meant to be valid for every time and every place. Even with verses such as, “those who do not judge according to what God has sent down are the disbelievers” [5:44], “the unjust” [5:45] and “the lawbreakers” [5:47] we do not have specific governance prescriptions in the Quran. In fact, aside from general principles such as judging justly, being united, and appointing individuals to rule among us as they see most fair to everyone being ruled, we do not have descriptive mechanisms for how we should appoint such individuals or how far their authority must reach.

The second purpose for the lack of specifics when it comes to politics has to do with politics itself, which is a very pragmatic endeavour, especially during times of conflict. When faced with threat to one’s survival, politically or in war, human beings are prone to revert to their lower animal instincts. Under pressure, true devotion to ethical principles is distinguished from lip service. It is here that we see the difference between Islam and Muslims. How performance in such circumstances will be judged is going to be in relation to a standard. Either the standard is other religions and/or philosophies, or the standard will be Islam. If we speak of Muslims in politics, we will judge their behaviour based on absolute Islamic principles. If we speak of Islamic politics, we will judge Islam in comparison to other religions and/or philosophies. If it fails, the comparison will be superfluous, because it will not matter – the religion itself becomes deficient, thus entailing a contradiction for the claim that it is complete, and in consequence it entails its falsity.

If our current state as a community in how we deal with each other is anything to go by, it is in fact a great blessing of God that we are unable to ascend to power and leadership. For such ascension would bring forth disaster. This can be clearly delineated from how we deal with differences among each other and how many of us view non-Muslims. Many of us see Islam as a monolithic entity that does not accept different manifestations of it in different cultures. We romanticize our own history, dream of utopias, and impose our individual understandings of how Islam should be onto everyone else through peer pressure and intellectual bullying tactics to scare everyone into walking the line we draw for them. Even if it is based on sound juristic reasoning that stays true to Islamic principles, we will reject all original thought and contributions of modern scholars. If YouTube view counts are any indication, we prefer to watch lectures on why holding a Mawlid celebration for the Prophet ﷺ is an innovation, but cannot sit through a series of lessons such as The Bible Through a Muslim Lens. We want to declare everyone and their dog and cat to be inhabitants of Hell, including Muslims who we disagree with. We go out in huge demonstrations and some of us will go as far as committing murder because someone drew a satirical cartoon of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, but will suffice ourselves with shoulder shrugs and public statements when we hear of suicide bombers killing innocent people to advance their political goals. We speak of the West in blanket terms that assume it is a monolithic entity so we can further entrench the us vs. them mentality. We think of non-Muslims as less human and miserable for their disbelief in Islam. In short, our problems are grave enough when they are confined to our powerlessness and we need to remain powerless until we fix ourselves. At least in this way it allows non-Muslims who are interested in Islam the opportunity to discern between Islam and Muslims. If we have political power at this juncture in time, we will not show Islam as a religion of mercy. Instead, we will show Muslim tyranny, hate, and sectarianism to name a few of our problems, and it will all be associated with Islam.

This is not about looking for the Ummah to become super Muslims before we engage in politics. It is also not about preferring to sit at home or at the mosque singling Qad Kafani Ilmu Ribbi and sufficing ourselves with Dhikr sessions. This is not a call to folkloric Islam masquerading as Sufism. We need to get back to what the Quran affirms with regards to who gets the upper hand and how. “Say, ‘God, holder of all control, You give control to whoever You will and remove it from whoever You will; You elevate whoever You will and humble whoever You will. All that is good lies in Your hand: You have power over everything” [2:26]. We have many Muslims today who dedicate their whole existence in pursuit of politics. But examined closely, I as a Muslim would not want to be in a world where such people with myopic visions and sectarian mentalities are ruling over me. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ’s first public address in Medina began with, “O people,” not “O Muslims,” and the famous Medina Charter was subsequently written. In fact, when their contexts were analyzed, even the military advancements of the Prophet ﷺ and first four Caliphs were all for the sake of freeing people from tyranny, another subject that is deeply misunderstood as “Islam being spread by the sword” by our own community before it was so by non-Muslims.

The Qur’anic prescription is clear. “God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves” [13:11]. Our external political condition is a direct manifestation of our internal states. We can focus our energies in only so many directions. As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad put it, “Politics is a single cell within the body of Islam. If it spreads, it becomes cancer.” Well, we are in stage IV. This cancer has spread too far and wide. Now, one risks being accused of promoting secularism because he or she rejects the appeal to Islam when Muslims engage in politics. Deep thought is rejected for superficial approaches to Islam. We have to get back to the drawing board and get past sensationalist talk of Caliphates and attempts of recreating an imagined history that is based on de-contextualized readings of great, but nevertheless past scholars.

Indeed, part of our problem is that in our attempts to stay true to Tradition, we have betrayed it. Instead of applying the traditional approach of scholars, we opted for their conclusions and called that Islam. Thus, we artificially made Islam incompatible with modernity, then when confronted with this fact, we react with fervour. If this confirms anything, it is that Islam is not in need of reform – it is the Muslim mind that desperately needs it.