Mirror for the Muslim Prince: Islam and the Theory of Statecraft by Mehrzad Boroujerdi

Mirror for the Muslim Prince: Islam and the Theory of Statecraft by Mehrzad Boroujerdi
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This book is an outcome of a conference organized in 2006 at Syracuse University. The broad-spectrum of this book demonstrates the political deracination of Muslim countries especially after “the Arab Spring” and how it forced the Middle East scholarly community to reexamine a host of its assumptions and theories. Thus, this intellectual venture tries to contextualize the questions which perturb the mind of Muslims across intellectual boundaries. In the introduction, Boroujerdi describes the collection as a set of attempts “to reinterpret concepts and canons of Islamic thought in Arab, Persian, South Asian, and Turkish tradition” (which hardly exhausts the universe of the Islamdom)”. Thediverse field of contributors “recognize that Islam is a discursive site marked by silences, agreements, and animated controversies (not to mention denunciation and persecution)” (p. 2). The entire chapters discussed in the book are actually presented as papers in the conference except of Shomali, Boroujerdi and Rutherford.
At the very outset, Boroujerdi discusses the discursive questions evolved out of “Arab Spring” vis-a-vis its influence on the Arab intellectuals to re-examine their communities by careful deconstruction and reconstruction of their intellectual traditions. How ideological confusions are creating a vacuum in Muslim societies and intellectual-desperation to evolve a methodology for helping future generations of Muslims to contemplate a more humane style of statecraft.
The continual dismay of intellectual and contemporaneous inadequacy forced scholars like al-Jabri to insist on the need for a “Critique of Arab reason” whereas the Moroccan sociologist Abd al-Kabir al-Khatibi has argued that contemporary Arab Knowledge that is stamped by the ideology of Islam “should be subjected to deconstruction in order to show that its concepts are historical products that have taken their particular structures in relation to a specific way of thinking and specific events in time and space”.(p.2)
This manuscript is a scholarly effort to reinterpret the concepts and canons of Islamic thought in Arab, Persian, South Asian and Turkish traditions. The author argues to establish that there had been rigorous debates and profound disagreements among Muslim theologians, philosophers, and literati (and their western interlocutors) over such questions as: What is an Islamic State? Was the state ever viewed as an independent political institution in the Islamic tradition of political thought? Is it possible that a religion that places an inordinate emphasis upon the importance of good deeds indeed have a vigorous notion of “public interest” or a systematic theory of government (Hobbes, Mills or Rawls)? Does Islam provide an edifice, a common idiom, and an ideological mooring for pre-modern and modern Muslim rulers alike? Are Islam and Democracy compatible? (p.2)
The first chapter of this book begins with both thematic and historical concentration on the explicit and implicit conceptual invocations of Maslahah (public interest, utility or expediency) in Islamic political history. Asma Asfaruddin establishes how Maslahah played a key role in different phases of Islamic history and contextualizes its usage and how it is implicitly articulated within the context of describing and eulogizing the manifold beneficial consequences of appointing a specific caliph/imam and other fewer rulers. The author has also highlighted how Jahiz (Mutazilite scholar) gave considerable stress on the importance of Abu Bakr(RA) as a leader of a Muslim community. Imam Mawardi and Ibn Taymiyah also considered Maslahah as “public good/interest” and “political expediency” judicious recourse to which enhanced the well-being of the early polity. The author establishes that public good remains at the epicenter of Islamic discourses on legitimate leadership and how it was to be achieved remained diversified through history. Asfaruddin concludes that Maslahah as a political/secular concept distinct from religious doctrine was “an implicit political and social organizational concept” that “was already shaping the decisions of the early leaders of the Muslim community, even when this term was not explicitly invoked as such” (p. 43).
In the third chapter, Alireza Shomali and Boroujerdi have translated the whole epistle of Sa’di Shirazi’s treatise Advice to the Kings (Nasihat al-Mulk) and reconstructed a number of elements in medieval Persian political philosophy that appeared in this work and his other literary opuses. In the entire translation, the authors find in this thirteenth-century document “politics incorporating elements of pragmatism, realism, secular statecraft, and public interest” (p. 57-8) along with the obligatory issues related to religious discourse.
The next three chapters discuss the importance of Persian political worldview and how it was neglected in the mainstream Islamic political discourse. Said Amir Arjomand analyses the development of monarchy and “the ethico-legal order” (p. 84) in Persia by inspecting literature on ethics and statecraft along with royal decrees. Arjomand determines that Western scholars of Islam like H. A. R. Gibb and Patricia Crone misunderstand statecraft in Islamic Persia because they operate on an assumption that only the Arab caliphate was a ‘truly Islamic’ and legitimate form of rule. Thus, these “proponents of the thesis of the inescapably un-Islamic character of all Muslim governments,” especially in this case the Persian monarchy, “are barking up the wrong tree” (p. 106), since how Muslims govern themselves is ‘Muslim government’ and since Persian kings found ways to relate their power to, or even base their power on, Islamic concepts and sources. Javad Tabatabai adds an essay in which Persian politics is seen as a blend of Islamic thinking and a Persian cultural revival of pre-Islamic Sassanid ideas and practices; worse yet for Islamic purists, “it was only in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion and under the impact of the predominance of mystical ideas that this political discourse became increasingly imbued with some ‘Islamic’ themes” (p. 115). Louise Marlow explores a particular Persian document, Tuhfeh (‘the gift’), a volume of advice written for Atabeg Ahmad of Luristan which, like other political material of the era, combined history and various literary genres in “a cultural vision that supported royal rule, confirmed the ruler’s role and responsibilities, assured him of earthly appreciation and eternal rewards for his justice and generosity, and encouraged and admonished him to virtue” (p. 158). Marlow stresses that we should not overlook the literary qualities of such work in a rush to extract their political message.
Moving further, Muzaffar Alam offers the case of a Muslim state over a non-Muslim population, that is, the Mughal Empire in India. In this complex site, the Mughals used a variety of resources “to articulate and reinforce their political management,” including “Sufi ideology and practice, the Nasirean akhlaqi norms, and a Persian cosmopolis” (p. 162). Although some individual emperors attempted to compel Islam on the ri’aya or people of the empire, in general the Mughals drew from these eclectic sources to build “a high political culture that was meant to incorporate and extend, that is, to draw the ri’aya in, rather than to control them by mere force” (p. 189). Going even further afield, Peter Gran gives us Rifa’ah Rafi al-Tahtawi’s Takhlis al-Ibriz, written in 1834 after a visit to Paris, which has usually been judged as “travel literature” but which Gran argues “might be better understood as an example of Mirror for Princes literature or advice literature with the travel dimension being a subordinate feature” (p. 190). Either way, it is important that this document appeared at the crucial moment of Western impact in Egypt, when struggles between regions (north and south) of Egypt and between different models of European culture (French anti-clerical secularism versus the ‘Italian Road’ of scholastic modernism) were imminent.
The last chapters of the book deal primarily with contemporary Islamic political discourse. Starting from Charles Butterworth’s argument on Ali Abd al-Raziq’s thought about governance in al-Islam wa usul al-Hukm (Islam and the roots of governance). The whole discourse of Ali Raziq revolves round the separation of religion and politics and he lampooned the idea of political Islam and dismantled the whole idealism of politics from the Islamic worldview. Even so, the case exists in Islam itself that Muhammad was never a politician or secular ruler and that religious authority are not the only possible or legitimate government. Moving to the chapter of Rutherford’s debate on “What do Egypt’s Islamists Want?”, 2013.This chapter assesses the conception of constitutionalism articulated by Egypt’s most influential Islamic thinkers like al-Qardawi, al-Bishri, Abu al-Majd, and al-Awwa which is surprising to most Americans. Rutherford suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood has at least in recent years supported constitutional government and republicanism including “the rule of law, constraints on state power, and the protection of many civil and political rights” (p. 255-6). Of course, they still see the state as a tool for improving the moral character of society, and it is difficult to tell what they (or any religious party, including Christian parties in the United States) would actually do in power.
Serif Mardin looks at the problem of religion and democratic politics in Turkey from the late Ottoman days through the Young Turks and to the fascinating present-day Gulen movement, a kind of modernist secular Turkish Islam. He maintains that the conception of corporate personality/public domain that was developed in nineteenth and twentieth century Turkish history- along the lines of Western European law-was discordant with the notion of “bonding” and “sociability”, which is “the deepest foundation of Islamic political theory”. Mardin ends his chapter by referring to the Gulen Movement as an example of an “Islamic Freemasonary” that makes excellent use of the “cementing” mechanisms of Islamic solidarity.
Roxanne Euben in “Cosmopolitanism Past and Present, Muslim and Western” discusses the deterritorialization of politics where “borders have stopped marking the limits of politics ends because the community ends”. Euben’s charge is similar to the one articulated by Dibesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, who argued that “Europe remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories” and that “it works as a silent referent in historical knowledge”. Moving beyond the pantheon of Western embedded criteria, exemplars, idioms, and imaginaries is needed if one is to rethink the debate on cosmopolitanism. Finally, Euben analyzes how this otherwise promising scholarship often enacts a cultural and historical parochialism that inadvertently conceals cosmopolitan genealogies located beyond a series of “Western” figures and philosophical touchstones. (p. 298)
The last chapter by Aziz al-Azmeh is the longest and most important discourse of the book. Focusing mostly on two important works on Islamic politics—Anthony Black’s The History of Islamic Political Thought and Patricia Crone’s God’s Rule-Government and Islam.Al-Azmeh subjects Western Orientalism (especially Crone) to a pretentious critique. As far as al-Azmeh is concerned, all of these Western Islamic studies “share the assumption that Islamic political theory, and Islamic history more generally understood, is somehow essentially unique, that it derives from a definitively constituted, predominantly scriptural and to a smaller extent Arabian ‘core,’ that it is fundamentally self-referential, and therefore ultimately admits of no truly systematic or systemic comparisons with other histories of political thought” (p. 331).
This book gyrates around different geographical and political settings of Muslim world exhaustively cross-fertilizing the ideas regarding Islamic political thought. This intellectual oeuvre is a penned encomium and brings together diverse debates in the Muslim world on the meanings and dimensions of political philosophy and the idea of statecraft. The entire volume makes eminently clear that Islamic political thought cannot be seen as something sui generis if that is indeed a position that Crone and Black represent. Certainly, these two works are designed to educate lay readers in the Western world on a complex topic and no doubt they oversimplify and even fall into an Orientalist way of thinking. But, al- Azmeh’s essay goes far overboard in its critique and disappoints by not providing a useful summary of the major findings of this fine volume.

The author is a doctoral candidate at Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic studies. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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