February 09, 2004

Political Islam

I can already tell that the main challenge of commenting on Nazih Ayubi's Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World will be refraining from impinging on his copyright by including too much of the text here. The fact that it's a paperback with an unwieldy spine, making it difficult to prop open while I'm typing, will probably restrain this impulse.

Ayubi wrote his book in 1989, ten years after the Iranian Revolution, and a dozen years before Sept. 11. Here's a quick sample:

...the first issue to confront the Muslim community immediately after the death of its formative leader, Prophet Muhammad, was in fact the problem of government, and Muslims had therefore to innovate and improvise with regard to the form and nature of government. Indeed, the first disagreements that emerged witin the Muslim community (and which lead to the eventual divisions into Sunnis, Kharjites, Shi'is and other sects) were concerned with politics. But theorising about politics was very much delayed, and most of the Islamic political literature available to us seems to have emerged when the political realities that it addressed were on the decline. Furthermore, most of what emerged, at least within the Sunni tradition, was also produced 'in the shadow of the State'. The State had sanctioned a certain 'methodology' of writing, based on linguistic explanation (bayan) and on reasoning by anology (qiyas), and had also sponsored the juridic elite that wrote on political subjects. The result was an elegant and elaborate body of jurisprudence, and a formal theory of the caliphate that, through monopoly and repetition, had become altogether entrenched in the 'Arab mind'.

With the passage of time, subsequent generations have found it extemely difficult to distinguish between what was meant as description and what was meant as prescription within this literature. Furthermore, the elegant body of jurisprudence has been elevated almost to the level of Shari'a (religious law) itself. Today, when most salafis and some fundamentalists call for the implementation of shari'a, what they really have in mind is the implementation of the jurisprudence formulated by the early jurists. THis jurisprudence has now been extracted from its historical and political context, and endowed with essential, everlasting qualities. The point is thus overlooked that the jurisprudence was in the first place a human improvisation meant to address certain political and social issues in a certain historical, geographical and social context. What is also overlooked is that the main body of the official jurisprudence fulfilled a certain political function by imparting religious legitimacy to the government of the day, which had usually come to rule by force or intrigue and which, in its daily conduct, was not generally living up the Islamic ideal.

And that's just a couple of paragraphs from the first few pages -- there are more interesting arguments that follow.

Obviously I'm not going to type the whole book into ideofact, but as I come across things worth mentioning, I'll mention them...

Tommorow: The Qutb series continues.

Posted by Ideofact at February 9, 2004 11:59 PM