Difference between Islam and Political Islam

(This is a rare post about religion on PTH, because we do not encourage religious discussions on our page. The aim of this post is to understand differences between Islam and “Political Islam”, a notion having its origins in the last one and a half century,)
Following are excerpts from Tarek Fatah’s book, “Chasing the Mirage: The Tragic lllusion of an Islamic State”
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of PTH.

What Islamists seek and what Muslims desire are two separate objectives, sometimes overlapping, but clearly distinct. While the former seek an “Islamic State,” the latter merely desires a “state of Islam.” One state requires a theocracy, the other a state of spirituality.

The phrase “state of Islam” defines the condition of a Muslim in how he or she imbibes the values of Islam to govern personal life and uses faith as a moral compass. In contrast, the “Islamic State” is a political entity: a state, caliphate, sultanate, kingdom, or country that uses Islam as a tool to govern society and control its citizenry. At times, these two objectives overlap each other, but most often, they clash. Islamists obsessed with the establishment of the Islamic State have ridden roughshod over Quranic principles and the Prophet’s message of equality.
However, Muslims who have striven to achieve a state of Islam have invariably stepped away from using Islam to chase political power, opting instead for intellectual and pious pursuits.

Since the first caliphate in Medina in the 7th century, clerics have continually reminded Muslims that their mission on Earth—to spread Islam—is impossible without the establishment of an Islamic State. Such edicts by caliphs and imams have gathered near-universal acceptance despite the fact that neither the Quran nor the Prophet asked Muslims to establish such a state. In fact, the five pillars of Islam, which form a Muslim’s covenant with the Creator, do not even hint at the creation of an Islamic State.

It is not that early Muslims did not get a chance to establish an Islamic State. Through the centuries, from the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs to the Umayyads and the Abbasids, hundreds of Muslim dynasties have tried their hand at creating this illusive Islamic State, and all have failed in laying the foundations of such an entity. Some rulers demonstrated impeccable personal character and integrity, but as soon as they died, murder and mayhem followed. If the creation of an Islamic State was not possible when Muslims were at their peak of power and intellect, it would be reasonable to conclude that this ambition is not realizable when Muslims are at their weakest and most divorced from education and the sciences.

Maudoodi, one of the main proponents of an Islamic State in the past century, in his book Islamic Law and Constitution, poses the question: “What are the fundamental objects for which Islam advocates the establishment of an Islamic State?” Answering himself, Maudoodi quotes two verses of the Quran, suggesting that they require the establishment of the Islamic State:

“Certainly We sent our Messengers with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and Balance, so that people may conduct themselves with equity” (57:25), and “These Muslims (who are being permitted to fight) are a people who, should We establish them in the land, will keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate and enjoin good and forbid evil.” (22:41).

Nowhere in these verses of the Quran does God ask or authorize the creation of an Islamic State. Yet, from the same verses, Maudoodi concludes that God commands the creation of such an entity. In the same book, Maudoodi writes that such an Islamic State will “eradicate and crush with full force all those evils from which Islam aims to purge mankind.” In this one sentence Maudoodi reveals the true objective of the Islamists.

The urge to “eradicate,” “crush,” and “purge” lies at the heart of their obsession with an Islamic State
In his seminal work published in 1925, Al-Islam wa usul el-hukum (Islam and the Fundamentals of Authority), Razik argued against the Islamic State and advocated the separation of religion and civil society, drawing the wrath of the influential Al-Azhar University. His books were burned and he was declared an apostate for merely suggesting that the state of Islam did not require an Islamic State. His book was published in the aftermath of the collapse of the six-hundred-year-old Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate system by Turkey’s founding president, secular modernist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For the first time since 632 CE, the Muslim world had no central political authority. The caliph’s authority had been on the wane since the rise of European imperial power in the 16th century, but the 1925 abolition came as a shock to much of the Muslim world, which was largely living under French, British, and Dutch occupation.

It was in this vacuum of political authority that intellectuals like Egypt’s Ali Abdel al-Razik raised difficult issues. Razik questioned the need for the revival of the caliphate and proposed the idea of a nation state where religion would not interfere with the political process. Razik’s opposition to the creation of the Islamic State in the form of a revived caliphate stirred anger among Egypt’s orthodox Islamic establishment.

Paradoxically, a group of Islamic scholars chaired by Sheikh Muhammad Abul Fadl al-Jizawi, the rector of Al-Azhar, had already issued a statement reluctantly coming to terms with the abolition of the caliphate. They had even criticized Muslims who felt bound by an oath of allegiance to the deposed Ottoman caliph and regarded obedience to him as a religious duty, already welcoming the weakening of the Turkish-based caliphate and had intensifi ed their campaign to have the caliphate returned to the Arabs.)

Razik’s critique, however, went beyond the simple acceptance of a fait accompli. He launched a vociferous attack on the centuries-old school of Islamic political thought. In this, he took on not only the orthodox Ulema (Islamic scholars) and Al-Azhar, but also self-styled modernist Egyptians like Rashid Rida, who oscillated between Arab nationalism and Islamic universalism, but never gave up on the Islamic State.

Razik, based his opposition on an Islamic perspective, considering his background as an Islamic scholar and as a former judge of a religious court. He argued that the caliphate or the Islamic State had no basis in either the Quran or the traditions of the Prophet. He rightly argued that the Quran makes no mention of a caliphate and invoked the verse that said, “We have neglected nothing in the Book” (6:38).

As long as Razik restricted his criticism to the caliphate, the orthodoxy was willing to tolerate his views. However, when he challenged the long established belief that Islam as a religion necessitated the creation of an Islamic government, he crossed a line, leading to years of harassment and ostracization with accusations that he was a communist. Undeterred by the witch hunt, Razik concluded that (1) Government or political authority, as necessary as it might be seen to realize Islamic ideals and obligations, was not the essence of Islam and had nothing to do with the primary principles of the faith; and (2) Islam left Muslims free to choose whatever form of government they felt could solve their day-to-day problems, with civil society minus an offi cial state religion being best able to offer such a solution. Razik clamoured for the de-politicization of Islam, claiming that the only benefi ciaries of the Islamic State were the tyrants who ruled Muslim populations and who were able to silence opposition by getting the Ulema to declare that opposition to their government was opposition to Islam.
Iqbal wrote dismissively of the clerics: “The religious doctors of Islam in Egypt and India, as far as I know, have not yet expressed themselves on this point. Personally, I fi nd the Turkish view is perfectly sound.” He went on to defend the separation of religion and state, writing, “The republican form of government is not only thoroughly consistent with the spirit of Islam, but has also become a necessity in view of the new forces that were set free in the world of Islam.”

Iqbal further cited two examples of how in early Islam the caliphate had adapted to political realities. First was the abolition of a condition that the caliph had to descend from the Meccan Arab tribe of Quraysh. Iqbal cited the ruling of an 11th-century jurist that, since the Quraysh tribe had experienced a political debacle, ruling the world of Islam no longer required belonging to the Quraysh tribe. The second example involved the historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who in the 15th century declared that since the power of the Quraysh had vanished, the only alternative was to accept the country’s most powerful man as the country’s imam or caliph. Iqbal concluded from all this that there was no difference between the position of Khaldun, who had realized the hard logic of facts, and the attitude of modern Turks, who were also inspired by the realities of their time rather than by medieval laws written under different conditions of life.

In his seminal work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal wrote:

“Such is the attitude of the modern Turk, inspired as he is by the realities of experience, and not by the scholastic reasoning of jurists who lived and thought under different conditions of life. To my mind these arguments, if rightly appreciated, indicate the birth of an International ideal, which forming the very essence of Islam, has been hitherto overshadowed or rather displaced by Arabian Imperialism of the earlier centuries in Islam.”

The cause of the violence that has engulfed the Muslim world is centred on the premise of an Islamic State or a caliphate as the prerequisite for the flourishing of Islam. Among the contemporary opponents of the Islamic State is the brilliant Sudanese-American academic, Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im, who teaches law at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. In his classic book, Toward an Islamic Reformation, An-Na’im writes about the unrealistic utopian dream of an Islamic State: “The authority of the caliph was supposed to be derived from popular support without any principle and mechanism by which that popular support could have been freely given, restricted, or withdrawn. This is, I maintain, one of the fundamental sources of constitutional problems with the sharia model of an Islamic state.”

It is no wonder Muslims like An-Na’im are the prime targets of the Islamic religious right. Islamists consider secular, liberal, progressive, or cultural Muslims and even orthodox Sufi s a greater threat than the West.

The reason is that Muslims opposed to the Islamist agenda cannot be fooled or charmed in a way naive liberal-left politicians can. In fact, radical jihadis and their Islamist apologists have been targeting fellow Muslims for decades.

Their conflict with the West is only recent. Long before Islamists donned anti-imperialist paraphernalia, they were the loyal storm troopers for the United States, targeting left-wing and secular Muslims or anyone who was able to unmask their fascist agenda and links to Saudi-funded Wahhabis.

Even today, the primary enemy of the Islamist is the fellow Muslim who is unwilling to surrender to the harsh literalist and supremacist use of Islam as a political tool. The Muslims who stand in the way of the Islamist agenda pay a heavy price for their courage.

The call for an Islamic State gives false hopes to Muslim masses. The followers of Maudoodi and Syed Qutb are dangling carrots and the promise of heavenly pleasures to mislead the Muslim peoples.

Had the Islamic State been possible, Allah would have brought it about it by now. There were enough men of impeccable character and integrity that had the chance to turn their domains into a genuine Islamic State, but everyone who tried, experienced failure. Perhaps there is a reason why Allah did not mention the creation of such a state in the Quran. Perhaps this is why the Prophet Muhammad talked about the message of Islam reaching the four corners of the earth, but gave no instructions on the creation of the Islamic State. Perhaps he was giving us Muslims a message that we have failed to heed. Perhaps it is time to do just that and walk away from the pursuit of an Islamic State and instead work to create a state of Islam within each one of us.

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