(Re) Reading Gerhard Bowering’s, ‘Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction (2015)’

(Re) Reading Gerhard Bowering’s, ‘Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction (2015)’

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray


Blending the scholarship of past and present, Bowering’s Islamic Political Thought is a must read volume on the various key concepts/ themes and contemporary issues pertaining to political thought in Islam


In 2013, Gerhard Bowering (Professor of Religious Studies and Islamic Studies, Yale University), with his team, published a single-volume comprehensive encyclopedia, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 2013; hereafter PEIPT). PEIPT is (as I observed, and mentioned in my review, published in World Journal of Islamic History and Civilization, vol. 3, no. 2, 2013, pp. 85-87) ‘a single-volume, comprehensive, richly informative and innovative, wide-ranging, first encyclopedia and reference work on the Islamic political thought’, which ‘presents a combination of broad, comprehensive articles on core concepts and shorter entries on specific ideas, movements, leaders and related topics’. PEIPT, in my humble opinion, is quite a comprehensive reference work, providing positive and reasonably balanced views on a wide range of themes relating to Islam and politics. Two years later, based on this encyclopedia, Bowering selected sixteen essays for a new book, entitled, Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2015; henceforth IPT). Though there have been few reviews on this book already, here I present my own assessment of IPT, in the form of a brief review.
IPT is a shorter and ‘more streamlined’ volume, than its parent work (PEIPT), which consists of sixteen essays on critical and crucial themes and issues within the broader arena of Islamic political thought, from classical to cotemporary times. It presents, in the editor’s words, ‘comprehensive discussions of central themes and core concepts’ by integrating and contextualizing ‘the contemporary political and cultural situation of Islam while also examining in depth the historical roots of that situation’ (Introduction, p. 1).
Besides a long introduction by the editor, Gerhard Bowering, the chapters focus, in an alphabetical order, on these issues: ‘Authority’ (Roy Jackson), ‘Caliphate’ (Wadad Kazi), ‘Fundamentalism’ (Roxanne Euben), ‘Government’ (Emad El- Din Shahin), ‘Jihad’ (John Kelsay), ‘Knowledge’ (Paul L. Heck), ‘Minorities’ (Yohanan Friedmann), ‘Modernity’ (Armando Salvatore), ‘Muhammad’ (Gerhard Bowering), ‘Pluralism and Tolerance’ (Gudrun Krämer), ‘Qur’an’ (Gerhard Bowering), ‘Revival and Reform’ (Ebrahim Moosa and SherAli Tareen), ‘ Shari‘a’ (Devin J. Stewart), ‘Traditional Political Thought’ (Patricia Crone), ‘Ulama’ (Muhammad Qasim Zaman), and ‘Women’ (Ayesha S. Chaudhry).
In short, IPT covers central themes of Islamic thinking such as the Caliphate, Shari’a, the life of Muhammad(SAW), Jihad, and the Qu’ran, and at the same addresses how modernity, minorities, and women’s rights relate to the Islamic intellectual tradition, and examines the intricacies of dynamics by exploring themes such as fundamentalism, revival and reform, and the nature of knowledge in Islam.
Bowering has contributed two essays on ‘Muhammad’(SAW) and ‘Qur’an’, and a comprehensive ‘Introduction’ as well, which highlights, very logically and briefly, the genesis, development, and modern trends in Islamic political thought, and includes the discussions on the ‘Islamic World in Historical Perspective’, as well as on evolution, ‘Rudimentary Foundations’ of Islamic political thought, and its development, especially in the Middle Ages to the present.
Here I present excerpts from some of the chapters to get a clear idea of what the theme/focus of each chapter is.


For example, Caliphate, for Kazi and Shahin (University of Chicago and James Madison University), is the term which denotes ‘the form of government that came into existence in Islamic lands after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is considered to have survived until the first decades of the 20th century’ (p. 37). This chapter discusses the political, historical, and institutional aspects of the Caliphate, in strongly political terms (and not in theological or juridical) and it also excludes the concept of imam/imamate in Shi‘ism. In the modern era, for Kazi and Sahin, ‘debates about the political and social meanings of the term ‘caliph’ turned into a platform for Muslim intellectuals to debate the ideas of re-form, constitutionalism, and the need to rethink Islamic political theory according to the needs of the modern age’ (p. 46).
One of the most crucial, critical, and variedly debated concepts in Islamic political thought is ‘Fundamentalism’. For Euben (Wellesley College), Fundamentalism refers, in broader terms, ‘to contemporary religio-political movements that aim to establish the primacy of scriptural authority as a defense against the moral, political, and social decay that supposedly define the modern world’. But it is also often designated as ‘inflexible and dogmatic beliefs of any kind, religious or otherwise’ (p. 48). Euben outlines interpretations of the term’s relationship with modernity and suggests that some see “fundamentalists’ restorative aspirations are less exhortations to re-create the past than rhetorical techniques designed to indict the present’, (p. 49), but ultimately favours the view that Islamists draw both on modern themes and technology to construct their views.
For Shahin (American University in Cairo), ‘Government’ (Ar. Hukuma), in general terms, refers ‘to the holders of authority, the members of the cabinet, and more generally to the authoritative structures of the state’ for which Muslim jurists, both in classical and medieval times, used a variety of terms, ‘including amr, imāra, wilāya, khilāfa, imāma, dawla, mulk, hukm, tadbīr, siyāsa, and sultan’. For him, traditional usage of the term hukūma refers to ‘the act of arbitration between disputing parties and of deterring others from transgression’ (p. 68). Shahin, in particular, highlights Justice and Equality as the major principles of government in Islam. He concludes his discussion with these words: ‘Government as a concept, a set of principles, and a structure is an evolving notion within modern Islamic political thought. Contemporary muslim intellectuals struggle to devise a coherent and systematic modern theory of Islamic government, a modern and at the same time indigenous framework of government that enjoys wide acceptance’ (p. 85).
Friedman (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), in his chapter on ‘Minorities’, treats both ‘Muslim Minorities under Non-Muslim Rule’ (pp. 123-27) and ‘Non-Muslims under Muslim Rule’ (pp. 127-32) and includes discussions on ‘Other Minorities under Muslim Rule’ (pp. 132-34). Kramer provides a comprehensive discussion on ‘Pluralism and Tolerance’, arguing that both these constitutive elements of good governance, especially liberal democracy as it developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries’, and thus are ‘widely debated among modern Muslims, including Islamists of various persuasions’(p. 169). On this basis/ logic, in this chapter, Kramer focuses largely on modern debates revolving around this theme.
Moosa and Tareen (Duke University and Franklin and Marshall College) provide brilliant analysis on the theme of ‘Revival and Reform’ in Muslim thought and carve out the importance of political theology in Islamic reform, and emphasizes on the perennial role of the learned tradition as the arbiter between newness and integrity. For them, Revival and Reform (Ar. tajdīd and islāh) are terms widely disseminated across a range of genres in Muslim literature, and over the time have been used together ‘to represent a concept that links newness and creativity (renewal/revival) to wholeness and integrity (islāh, reform)’ (p. 202). Discussing these concepts from classical to contemporary times, they conclude as: ‘Like any other aspect of Islam, the Muslim reform tradition is neither monolithic nor predictable. Rather, reform in Islam is continually invested with and divested of particular meanings, knowledge, and aspirations at specific junctures in history’ (p. 217).
This brief assessment of some of the chapters of this work makes it clear that IPT is indeed a worth reading single volume work on varied aspects and inter-related themes of Islam political thought, and thus is a mandatory reading for anyone hoping to understand the core themes behind the contemporary uses and abuses of Islamic traditions of political thought.
In a nutshell, Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction is a must read volume on the various key concepts/ themes and contemporary issues pertaining to political thought in Islam.
The author , an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, can be reached at tauseef.parray21@gmail.com