Is Islam compatible with politics? 

Asma Afsaruddin’s book offers rich scholarly studies on various aspects of Islam and politics by investigating both Sunni and Shi‘i political literature. It combines both medieval and modern theories and theorists.
The central focus of this book is the “variegated nature of political governance and administrative practices in Islamic societies through time and their different formulations in response to historical exigencies”. The book offers rich-studies, both critical and crucial, that challenge the view concerning the “assumed monolithic ‘Islamic State’ and a single model of political authority”, a theocratic caliphate. Investigating both Sunni and Shi‘i political literature, and combining both medieval and modern theories and theorists, Asma Afsaruddin in this work underscores the “continuities and discontinuities between pre-modern and modern conceptions of the state, its authority, and its relationship with its citizenry”— thereby fostering a deeper understanding of, among others, political authority in the contemporary Muslim world.
Part I deals with (i) the pre-modern period exploring the relation between the state as it developed in Islamic history, both in Sunni and Shi‘i traditions and cultures, in which it was embedded; and (ii) interrogation the (assumed) relationship between theology and construction of political authority in the writings of philosophers and political theorists, like al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and in Ikhwan al-Saffa’. In Part II, the essays explore continuities and discontinuities of particular pre-modern political features and traditions in the modern period and engage emerging political trends and theories. In brief, both sections highlight the “temporality of these discussions concerning specific aspects of the Islamic political tradition(s)”.
Based on an insightful and original analysis of relevant texts, Hayrettin Yücesoy (chapter 1) intends to tackle a particular question: the debate on the necessity of the imamate — wujub al-imama — in medieval Sunni thought. He reaches to a conclusion that Sunni scholars “adopted scripture as their primary frame of reference”, but at the same time acknowledged the “faculty of reason” towards discerning a path toward “political and social order on their own, without revelation”; and they viewed “political leadership as a social utility rather than a doctrinal principle”.
Revolving around a debate between two “Farabian” scholars, M Campanini and Charles Butterworth—who have fundamentally opposed approaches to the thought of famous Muslim philosopher, al-Farabi provide a fascinating insight into the contested relationship between religion and politics in the pre-modern period. Al-Farabi is, for Butterworth, in the end as in the beginning, “a philosopher and not a theologian”, for his goal is to “introduce his readers to political philosophy rather than to political theology”.
Carmella Baffioni discusses “Prophecy, Imamate, and Political Rule among the Ikhwan al-Safa”, in the light of some selected passages from their Rasa’il, ‘ilm al-siyasa (Epistle 7). Through close scrutiny of decrees of appointments, author in his essay examines how the responsibilities of public office were conceptual during the Fatimids (rising to political power in 909 in North Africa). The author provides considerable material, “consisting of pious admonitions and exhortations, along with a few warnings against evil and corruption”.
Banan Malkawi and Tamara Sonn in “Ibn Taymiyya on Islamic governance” help us in bridging the late medieval and modern worlds. In this chapter, Malkawi and Sonn present an overview of his perspectives on “Islamic governance that seeks to avoid pitfalls of selective reading”. Generally, Ibn Taymiyya is described as the main source of inspiration behind various “Islamist” thinkers and other “extremists” groups, but Malkawi and Sonn present him as opposite of that: a mainstream and quietist. For them, his works, when read as a comprehensive, are actually “quite systematic and consistent”; and his views on governance are neither innovative nor excessively traditional”, but, in fact, they provide a “solid platform for constructing modes of governance that satisfy both traditional and modern needs”.
Ibn Taymiyya does not present Islamic governance as “autocratic”, but as one in which consultation has due importance—and he often uses the term Khilafah (caliphate), and sometimes imama (imamate) and wilaya (governance) as well for it. Government is necessary, says Ibn Taymiyya, but the responsibilities of governance are collective and should be conducted through consultation. Thus his description of the “consultative nature of governance and of collective responsibility shares obvious features with modern notions of democratic governance”. Malkawi and Sonn argue that Ibn Taymiyya’s views on “consultative nature of governance, shared responsibility of the community to give good counsel, the special responsibility of experts to contribute to the welfare of the community,… provide fertile ground for discussions of limited, constitutional, and representative governance”.
Presenting a “Critical Appraisal of Mawdudi’s Thought”, Asma Afsaruddin’s own chapter is primarily concerned with outlining the key features of Mawdudi’s so-called “Islamic State”, followed by a critique of his main ideas like theo-democracy, democratic caliphate, al-hakimiyya, etc. Her purpose is to “assess the credibility” of Mawdudi’s theo-democracy: how “Islamic” this notion really is? Or how much is it rooted in pre-modern Islamic tradition? Mawdudi’s most original—and controversial—contribution to Islamist political thought was his idea of God’s sovereignty as the “politicised foundational principle of the Islamic State” and this allows him to categorically assert that “Islamic political philosophy is completely opposed to secular western notions of democracy.” But, at the same time, it is important to mention that Mawdudi does not categorically reject democracy; for him, Islam instead “posits a different model of democracy based on the Qur’anic concept of Khilafa, or the ‘vicegerency of humans’, in relation to God”, i.e., “democratic caliphate” or “theo-democracy”, which is “neither democratic nor theocratic in the western sense”. Establishing that these concepts represent new coinage on the part of Mawdudi, Afsaruddin concludes, “Mawdudi’s grand notion of al-hakimiyya with a fabricated Qur’anic lineage is meant to compensate for a lack of explicit scriptural provisions for a so-called Islamic State or government.”
Muqtedar Khan discusses the “Political Philosophy of Islamic Movements” and affirms that the foundations of an Islamic political philosophy may be found within the discourse of “contemporary resurgence of Islam.” Focusing much on, what he calls, the “second-generation Islamists,” prominent figures which include Tunisian Rachid Ghanouchi, Iranian Muhammad Khatimi, and Turkish Necmetin Erbakan—who are trying to go beyond politics and polemics and trying to find practical and policy-oriented solutions—Khan identifies three prominent discourse themes, considered as the constitutive pillars of Islamist philosophy, viz. critical, reconstructive, and programmatic. For Khan, besides self-criticism and reflection, three major themes which dominate their discourse are “power sharing Islam, Islam and democracy, and civil society”. Khan suggests these Islamists, in order to do better, to “follow the sequence of democracy, then Islamic society, and finally Islamic State”.
In chapter 9, presenting Indonesia and Turkey as case studies, Nader Hashemi has tried to overcome the “Problems of Secularism in Muslim Societies” by rethinking the relationship between “Religion and Liberal Democracy”. Hashemi has tried to answer a “paradox”—the paradox that is at the core of the debate on Islam and democracy—that “modern liberal democracy requires a form of secularism to sustain itself.” For Hashemi, in order to reconcile this paradox, the cultivation and development of a home grown theory of ‘Muslim secularism’ [which is a type of political, not sociological or philosophical secularism] is needed—one which is authentically Islamic, not a western import—yet it simultaneously lends support to a functional secularity of the political system.”
 In “Minarchist Political Islam”—which presumes that Islamic society is deliberative and offers a plurality of authentic moral choices for how people can live their lives—Anas Malik discusses the Medina compact, Hilf ul-Fudul, the Ottoman millet system, the Sufi jurisprudence, waqf, ithistan, etc., which “provide strong roots for monarchist political Islam”. For Malik, as minarchism suggests that formal state institutions should be circumscribed and constrained and as much governance as possible should happen through institutions distinct from the central state apparatus”.
Mohsen Kadivar in “Wilayat al-faqih and Democracy” discusses primarily the potential convergences and divergences between guardianship of the jurist and democracy and offers a critique of current perspectives on the relationship between these two concepts. Kadivar believes that it is possible “to manage an Islamic society using a democratic approach”, i.e., Islam as a religion can coexist with a democratic political system in a society.
In the final chapter, Andrew March discusses and engages with the thought of “Anwar al-‘Awlaqi against the Islamic Legal Tradition” in the context of historical legal debates among Muslim jurists about Muslim loyalty to a non-Muslim state, particularly during wartime. For March, ‘Awlaqi’s exhortations to privilege loyalty to the Muslim ummah is an example of the kind of “unmoored reasoning that refers to Sharia only to sanction one’s own preferred behaviour, and never to constraint it.”
The book is a welcome addition to the existing scholarship on the complex, critical and crucial relationship between Islam and political authority.
—The author holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from AMU.. Feedback: