June 09, 2004

2 Qutb 8 note

In last night's post, I inadvertently suggested that the Qur'an had little to say about economics. The passage in question, which appears after quoting a bit from Qutb in which he cites various Qur'anic verses and a Hadith to support his contention that the political experiences and experimentation of the West -- of Christians and Jews to be precise -- should be ignored by Muslims (I'm taking liberties in paraphrasing it -- perhaps it''s better to read the whole thing) reads

...these quotations are hardly on point -- if you go to the context of the passages themselves, it's fairly clear that the injunctions not to follow Christians or Jews refers to matters of religion, and not, say, politics or economics. Regarding the latter, neither the Qur'an nor the life of the Prophet offers any clue as to how to proceed...

I wrote in haste, and didn't mean to imply that the Qur'an has little to say about economics (there's a good deal on distribution of wealth, injunctions against usury and admonitions to set aside wealth to care for the poor, and the like). As to the political question (to which I was referring), well, I don't just pull these statements out of my hat. Here, for example, is a quotation from Nazih Ayubi's book Political Islam:

...the original Islamic sources (the Qur'an and the Hadith) have very little to say on matters of government and the State. However, the first issure to confront the Muslim community immediately after the death of its formative leader, Prophet Muhammad, was in fact the problem of government, and Muslims therefore had to innovate and improvise with regard to the form and nature of government. Indeed, the first disagreements that emerged within the Muslim community (and which led to the eventual division into Sunnis, Kharijites, Shi'ils and other sects) were concerned with politics. But theorising about politics was very much delayed, and 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 analogy (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 extremely difficult to distinguish between what was meant as a description and what was meant as prescription within this literature. Furthermore the elegant body of jurisprudence has been elevated almost to the level of the 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 essentialist, everlasting qualities. The point is thus overlooked that this 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 often 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.

...the neo-fundamentalists, or the proponents of political Islam, have actually introduced some novel, and radical, changes in the way the Islamic political tradition is understood. While they want ot preserve the close link between religion and politics that the traditional jurisprudence had developed, they want to reverse the order within this link. The traditional jurists had forged a link between politics and religion by giving a religious legitimacy to political power. The political Islamists maintain that religion and politics cannot be separated, but because they are now in the position of resisting the existing State, not of legitimising it, they are seeking the politicization of a particular vision of religion that they have in mind. To achieve this purpose, contemporary Islamists are often inclined to be more innovative and less textual in their approach. They do, of course, invoke the text and quote the source, but in doing so they are highly selective and remarkably innovative. Political precedence is of practically no interest to them, neither is the main body of jurisprudence, apart from a few exceptions such as Ibn Taimiya...

...political Islam is a new invention -- it does not represent a 'going back' to any situation that existed in the past or to any theory that was formulated in the past. What it keeps from the past is the juridic tradition of linking politics and religion. But even then, it seeks to transform the formalistic and symbolic link that the jurists had forged between politics and religion into a real bond. Furthermore, political Islamists want to reverse the traditional relationship between the two spheres so that politics becomes subservient to religion, and not the other way around, as was the case historically.

This gibes with a good deal of the history I've read of the early Islamic period (much of which, of course, has no interest in contrasting the realities of the period to Islamists like Qutb). But beyond that, it doesn't take a particularly perceptive genius to see that a system that can only cope with its rulers by assassinating three of the first four hasn't devoted much thought to the art or science of governance. As I noted in a comment to the previous post, the silence on politics is a strength rather than a weakness.

And yes, I think the subject is important enough that I sat here typing this lengthy passage while balancing the book on my knees (and the book, I should add, is wonderful and well worth buying and reading, even if the country profiles are about 15 years out of date).

Posted by Ideofact at June 9, 2004 11:33 PM

At the risk of being off-subject...

This description of the interaction between perceived revelation (Muhammed's remembered words) and active cultural development (the historical body of jurisprudence that developed after his death) is well worth studying and thinking about, especially as it relates to the interaction between religious fundamentalism and the modern world.

Suppose a religious trend has been described as "fundamentalist" in origin.

Are the people involved trying to rebuild an envisioned past by reproducing every detail by force of their will?
Or are they deeply concerned about bringing the fundamental principles of their religious beliefs to bear on modern life?

Both will voice similar complaints about the modern world, but the second kind will have a different plan of action for dealing with those problems.

It does appear that the neo-fundamentalists (or proponents of political Islam) appear to be almost entirely of the first type.

How many fundamentalists of the second type can be found in Islam?

Posted by: steve h at June 10, 2004 11:46 AM

Steve H,

This is an important and interesting issue.

I am not sure if we have a terminology issue here (focused on what you mean by 'fundamental principles') but actually I think almost all academic observers of political islam would put the political islam adherents mostly into the second category.

That is, they are clearly not trying to re-create the details of 7th century desert life. Many of them have advanced degreees in the sciences, they are very much involved with technology, they are almost all urban dwellers, etc. Beyond that, their fundamental project of trying to harness the power of the modern nation state to advance Islaam has little to do with any re-creation of 7th century Arabia either.

Almost all the ideas that advocates of political Islam have come up with, from the unified Khilafah of Hizb ut Tahrir with a draft 'constitution' already written to Maududi's idea of Shuracracy with an elected parliament and a supreme Shariah court to strike down Islamic laws, to Iran's vilayat al faqih, all are exactly attempts to take the principles of the political and legal and social systems of the first Muslim community and apply them to our modern situation.

Of course because for some people 'applying principles' is a very vague enterprise while for others it is more concrete, the same statement could surely be made about people like "Ali Izza" (Alija Izetbegovic -- May God have Mercy on him) as well.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at June 10, 2004 05:21 PM

It's so exciting to find your blog---this is what I'm studying.

Posted by: Athena at June 13, 2004 10:38 PM

Thanks Athena -- and the feeling is mutual. I've added you to the blogroll.

Posted by: Bill at June 14, 2004 11:45 PM