by Amin Elfeshawi
The roots of political Islam as we know them today stretch back to the nineteenth and twentieth century. After the Ottoman Empire lost its hegemonic power status and found itself unable to catch up with the political, scientific and economic competition that it faced from the European powers, Muslim intellectuals began to question the legitimacy of their political system along with its theological teachings.
This initiated a wide-ranging debate whose purpose it was to identify the causes of imperial failure with Muslim thinkers attempting to offer solutions for the so-called ‘umma’–the Muslim collective. Western progress in science and development posed a particular and significant challenge for the Ottoman Empire. One of the most charismatic and influential thinkers of the time was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1837–1897). Al-Afghani called for reforms in religion, culture, society and politics as a means of returning to Islam’s roots and suggested an orientation towards the ideal ancestors of Islam–the so called “salaf-us-salih” (Esposito 1995: 463). Together with his student Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) Al-Afghani founded the ,salafiyyah‘-movement whose aim was to forge a new Islamic identity based on the idea of ‘Pan-Islamism’, as well as by renewing theological exegesis (see also Abu Zayd 2006: 25).
Pan-Islamism aimed to create a federation of all Muslims, which could only attain fulfillment by organizing resistance against western imperialism in addition to the unification of all Muslim estates. By preaching his theology and political ideology of unity Muhammed Abduh was able to attract a number of followers, one of whom was Rashid Rida (1865–1935) (see also Kateman 2015: 12). During the lifetime of Rashid Rida the Ottoman Empire was replaced by a secularist state under the reign of Kemal Attatürk. For Rida and those affiliated to the reformist salafiyyah, this constituted an unacceptable development. Pan-Islamic ideology was understood as means of defending the Muslim hemisphere against both the imitation and implementation of western concepts and ideas. This mixture of nationalism paired with religious identity was taught by the above-mentioned reformists and had a significant impact with respect to ideology and realpolitik. When viewed within this context the Muslim Brotherhood can be regarded as having been a product of these developments. The founder of this movement, Hassan al-Banna (1906–1949), built his group based on the idea of an Islamic revival as a grassroot-movement, which was established in 1928 (see also Steward 2013: 176). Al-Banna was greatly influenced by Rashid Rida and continued to push for the idea of an Islamic caliphate. With regards to the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and politics, the latter of which may not be explicitly Islamic or congruent to the Brotherhood’s understanding of it, it is noteworthy that the Brotherhood’s ideology as a whole is not homogeneous. After initial cooperation with the Egyptian king, who was pressurized by Great Britain, al-Banna changed his opinion on the use of political violence and agreed to adopt insurrectionist techniques (see also Abou-Enein 2003: 28). It was under President Sadat, where the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the ‘Free Officer’s Association’ came together and agreed to cooperate in overthrowing the Egyptian regime. After al-Banna’s assassination, and the establishment of a new Egyptian regime under Gamal Abdelnasser, a new political era began with both the prosecution and imprisonment of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. A prominent member of the Brotherhood at the time was Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966). In the light of his imprisonment and torture, Qutb developed his scripture Milestone in which he pleaded for the establishment of an Islamic ruled state, arguing that sovereignty belongs only to God and that any other form of state system would undermine God’s rule (see also Knudsen 2003: 5). A similar idea was put forward by Abu’l-A’la al-Maududi (1903–1979) in India, where he founded the Jama’at-i Islami (Islamic Association). Al-Maududi’s goal was the inauguration of an Islamic state via a moral and intellectual elite (see also Black 2011: 308).
But when compared to the salafiyyah reform al-Maududi declined to reinterpret Sharia in light of modernity. In spite of the ideological evolutions undergone by political Islam, the question of implementation remains one of heterogeneity. In Egypt for example, former Muslim Brotherhood members became radicalized as a result of their experiences in prison. They also left their previous political organizations and created new ones such as the Islam ‘al-Jihad’ or ‘Jama’at al-Islamiyya’, which not only opposed the state, but also legitimized the use of violence against it. In other cases in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan, many representatives of political Islam agreed to engage within a more democratic framework. The Moroccan ,Justice and Development Party‘ for instance appeared as an ideological and political alternative with its focus on Islamic morality (see also Macías-Amoretti 2014: 17). Whilst the Tunisian affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood – the ‘Ennahda Party’- decided in favour of a democratic laïcism, the Brotherhood’s Egyptian affiliate aimed to establish a civic state based on ‘sharia’ (Elfeshawi 2015: 35). On the other side of political Islam is ‘Jihadism’, which refuses any form of democratic participation or participation within a state system, which is non-Islamic. Jihadist ideologists such as Abu Muhammad al-Makdisi (*1959) completely reject democracy, which they describe as idolization. This is due to the perception that because in a democracy it is mankind, which has control over the legislature democracy is regarded therefore as placing the individual in a position of divine authority (see also Moussalli 2009: 11). As can be observed, political Islam is not uniform. It can be categorized as a peaceful ideology as well as a violent one. The wide-ranging understanding of what is an ‘Islamic state’, besides the pivotal question of how such a state should look like varies amongst the different shades of political Islam. This is similar to the fact that the interpretation of what is ‘sharia’ can be dealt with in multiple ways, depending on each organization or party.
What this means for democracy and for the West will be discussed at the international conference ,Islam & Politics: Illusion of an Islamic State‘ organized by the Institute of Islamic Studies of the University of Vienna. The conference will take place on Friday, May 27th and Saturday, May 28th 2016 at the University Vienna. International researchers from a variety of disciplines will present an array of research findings on the issue.
*For further information please visit the following homepage: islamandpolitics.univie.ac.at (An application in advance is required!)
Amin Elfeshawi is a political scientist and a secondary school Islamic teacher. Amongst his research interests are political Islam, Jihadism, Islamophobia, Racism, Islamic theology and Islamic pedagogy. He is member of the European Union of Independent Students and Academics (EUISA).
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