Al-Farabi and the question of political Islam

The world of Islam is bleeding. Neocolonialist interventions don’t explain the whole story. Does the Muslim world need to introspect? Is political Islam part of a problem or a solution? Let us ask great Muslim political thinker Al-Farabi whom all revivalist ideologues have ignored.
Political Islam as a reaction to onslaught of colonization and aggressive secularization sought to fight a political battle in the name of Islam. How far is this project intellectually sustainable and integrally orthodox or rooted in the Islamic tradition? It’s rather depressing record so far at either political or other cultural fronts in achieving the objective of establishing the ideal or Islamic state with all its cultural vibrancy and widespread apprehensions within the Islamic intellectual elite or Muslim communities as such call for questioning both the construction of the project of political Islam and its reading of Islamic tradition. One way of clarifying the issue is considering how great thinkers of medieval Islam conceived the political project of ideal state in Islam and how they encountered the philosophical and theological other in this connection. As it is certain dismissive reading of modernity or contradictory attitudes toward its key notions like technology and democracy and an advocacy of what has been seen as essentialist monolithic fossilized view of religion implicating a strong rejection of both religious and political other (liberal democracy) in the ideologues of political Islam, we need to see if we can get some insights into the genesis and evolution and ideological stakes in the phenomenon by revisiting parallel process of engaging with the intellectual and political challenge during the Middle Ages. I think the Muslim world torn by Shia Sunni conflict, fundamentalism and other sectarian ideologies, needs to revisit Al-Farabi, the great medieval Muslim philosopher, for better grasping the question of Islamic view of state, of religious other, of culture, of tolerance of “less virtuous” cities. First we list a few assumptions of the ideology of political Islam.
Political Islam is premised on certain assumptions:
• That sovereignty belongs to a transcendent God whose will has been received through the last revelation that overrides previous revelations.
• That there is a world of Islam and a world of Jahilliya. Philosophy, mysticism, modernity all are rejected as complicit with the latter.
• That religious other is to be subjugated politically and it represents a degeneration rather than a possibly valid mode of responding to the Divine Call.
• That states need to be Islamized either by democratic or violent means.
• That it is the laws of Islam rather than the principles underlying them that need to be implemented because it is the divine commandment.
The whole notion of divine sovereignty as constructed in political Islam primarily rests on an interpolation or manipulation of a verse (Al-Hukmu lillah..) taken out of context and subject to philological trampling as cogently argued by many scholars including Meddeb in ‘The Malady of Islam’. Al-Farabi’s primary condition for virtuous city is knowledge of God in the subjects. Now the very idea of God presupposed in ideologues of political Islam would be far from the idea of the same in the Muslim intellectual and spiritual tradition defended by Muslim philosophers and Sufis and most of the well-known theologians.
Al-Farabi has a conception of virtuous city not Muslim or Islamic city, he divides the world into virtuous and non-virtuous cities rather than dar-ul islam and dar-ul harb. He is no partisan of Islam as the supreme truth or best of religions of which other religions are bad images. In his theocratic state, instead of Islamic state, music will not be prohibited; there would be institutes for promoting it. There would be no ban on philosophy or any of the sciences that Al-Farabi’s complex classification lists in his famous classification of sciences. The compulsion to virtue thesis that he advocates would hardly have anything resembling the fundamentalist state that are wedded to the necessity of sharia imposition identified with historical legal construction rather than a trans-historical quest for fundamental values of Ad-Din that evolving sharia formulations seek to approximate and this quest can never fully succeed or must fail in some sense as justice can never be done and evil never fully wished away. Plato’s laws or Muslim law both are attempts to capture the ideal and can never be absolutised in themselves. Al-Farabi requires philosophers to have a decisive role in interpreting scripture, an argument that is later elaborated by Ibn Rushd. And this fact crucially modifies the character of Islamic state. Modern philosophical attempts to formulate increasingly sophisticated theories of justice in the face of so many totalitarian and other perversions that have marred modern social and political institutions are, generally speaking, all attempts to theorize sharia that is grounded in transcendental notions of justice, human dignity and ethical relation to the other.
Thanks to his essentially theocratic state that Plato’s Rupublic advocated and Al-Farabi appropriated in Islamic idiom, he would like to have compulsion to virtue–not conformity to law. His key terms are virtue, happiness, intellection rather than terms from juristic lore. It is perhaps not accidental that he has not written any book on juristic science. Despite the centrality of Prophet or Imam in his “system” he isn’t a Syed Hamdani who is keen to impose a religious order. He focuses on transforming people from within and it is only in such a transformed elite that one can find a ruler he demands.