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Books and Documents ( 7 March 2019, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islam and Politics and the Multiple and Diverse Roles of Islamic Movements: Review of Esposito and Shahin’s ‘Key Islamic Political Thinkers’

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

March 7, 2019

Title: Key Islamic Political Thinkers

Editors: John L. Esposito & Emad El-Din Shahin

Publication Details: New York: Oxford University Press, 2018

Pages: 266; ISBN: 9780190900342 (HB)


Since the second half of the 20th century, “Political Islam” has gained a momentous place in academic circles—its genesis, its intellectual figures, and their influence and contribution globally. It is defined variedly, and depends on the scholar’s approach as well as on the context in which they use it. A number of works have been devoted to throw light on ‘Political Islam’ and its varied aspects—especially in the recent decades. Among this plethora of literature on ‘Political Islam’, a recently published work is Key Islamic Political Thinkers (hereafter abbreviated as KIPT). Edited by John L. Esposito and Emad El-Din Shahin, and published by Oxford University Press; the book “focuses on key Muslim intellectual figures from various schools of contemporary political Islam” (p. 4). It is actually an extract of ten (10) essays originally published in their 2013 co-edited Volume, The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics (hereafter abbreviated as OHIP).

OHIP is a single-volume comprehensive sourcebook that provides, as the editors’ claim, “a comprehensive analysis of what we know and where we are in the study of political Islam. It will enable scholars, students, policy makers, and the educated public to appreciate the interaction of Islam and politics and the multiple and diverse roles of Islamic movements, as well as issues of authoritarianism and democratization, religious extremism and terrorism, regionally and globally”. Consisting of forty-one (41) chapters, it is written by prominent scholars and specialists in the field, and in my review on OHIP, I described it a comprehensive, analytical, in-depth examination of Islam and politics in the post-9/11 era, which provides a fair and balanced approach to these crucial, critical, and central issues and themes, very optimistically and confidently.

For Esposito and Shahin, the last two centuries have been “vibrant yet turbulent and unsettling” because of three major “transformative developments”: “the decline of the old order and eventual collapse of the caliphate; colonial occupation and the continuation of external hegemony; and the rise of secular Muslim intellectuals and secular movements”. It was in this context that the Muslim world witnessed a surge of, among others, “Islamic revival movements; globalization; and the rise of non-state actors and resistance” (p. 4). Among these movements, which were earlier termed/ labelled as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ is now-a-days termed as “Political Islam”.

‘Political Islam’, which is synonymous for ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’, ‘Islamism’, and other such labels, is defined (by the editors’ of the present volume) as “the attempts by [Muslim] individuals, groups, and movements to reconstruct the political, economic, social, and cultural basis of their society along Islamic lines, including an orientation towards Shari’a [Shari’ah] and an approach to the questions of whether and how to establish an Islamic state” (p. 4). ‘Political Islam’ or Islamism (both extremist and mainstream) has increasingly played a significant role across the Muslim world, from Middle East and North Africa, to Central, South, and Southeast Asia. Understanding its nature and significance, causes and consequences, and multiple and diverse manifestations, requires an appreciation of national, regional, and international politics and socio-economic conditions.

In this direction, KIPT—written by prominent scholars and specialists in the field—is a comprehensive sourcebook with the purpose “to help readers understand the different streams within contemporary Muslim political thought” (p. 3). Consisting of ten (10) chapters, preceded by a perceptive ‘Introduction’ (pp. 3-13), the Volume is divided into three parts: in Part-I, Hassan Al-Banna (by Ahmad Moussalli) and Mawlana Mawdudi (by Joshua T. White and Niloufer Siddiqui) are discussed as the “Founders of Political Islam”; in Part-II, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shari‘ati (both by Shahrough Akhavi), and Ayatollah Khomenei (by Mojtaba Mahdavi) are discussed under the heading “Revolutionary Ideologues”. All of them, believing that Islam presents a viable alternative to socialism and capitalism, developed a strong critique of the West.

In Part-III, Hassan al-Turabi (by Peter Woodward), Rashid al-Ghannoushi (by Azzam Tamimi), Yusuf al-Qaradawi (by Bettina Gräf), Muhammad Khatami (by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri), and Abdolkarim Soroush (by Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi) are presented as “The ‘Intellectuals’ of Political Islam”. They see West not as an enemy but as an ‘ideological counterweigh’, and thus writing prolifically on the renewal of religious thought and Islamic jurisprudence, and on modernization and Islam, non-Muslims, and women. “Each essay in this book”, as the editors’ mention in the Introduction, “explores the work of a key twentieth-century Islamic thinker whose influence stretches beyond his home country. Many of these figures are still active, and their thought continues to affect thousands of Muslims” (p. 3).

For the Editors’, Hassan al-Banna and Maulana Mawdudi are “rightly considered the forefathers of contemporary political Islam”, for they “reinterpreted the faith to make religion a vehicle for social and political action” and this “understanding became a common feature of political Islam” (pp. 4-5). Discussing religious and political discourse of Hasan al-Banna, Moussalli is of the opinion that his thought “still provides substantive ideological foundations for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere as well as for many other Islamist movements throughout the Islamic world”. He focuses on Banna’s views on “three central and general principles that constitute the essence of political Islam”: Islam and politics, the Islamic state and the Shari’ah; and democracy and shura. (p. 17).

For White and Siddiqui, Mawlana Mawdudi “stands as one of the leading Islamic figures of the twentieth century” whose “political and religious vision of Islam and the Islamic state have gained wide-spread currency” globally (p. 44). Focusing on his political thought, especially on his views on Islam as a way of life, Islamic State, role of non-Muslims, and Modernity and the West, they conclude that though his “legacy remains very much disputed” (p. 59), but his “ideological contributions have made him a towering figure in modern Islamic thought” (p. 60).

Part-II focuses on the ‘Revolutionary Ideologue’ like Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shari’ati, and Ayatollah Khomeini. For the Editors’, their “revolutionary ideas” were “a product of their postcolonial context” and was “dominated by increasing secularization and westernization”, and so on For Esposito and Shahin, they “share common features as revolutionary ideologues”: “all were revolutionaries in the true sense, as they called for bringing about a radical change in their respective societies”, and “all had a strong faith in Islam as an alternative to capitalism and socialism” (pp. 7, 8). For Akhavi, focussing on Qutb’s social thought and his theory of Jahiliyah, his “name has achieved near iconic status in the realm of what has come to be called ‘political Islam’ (al-islam al-siyasi)”, though he “never viewed himself as a leader of this movement1 but simply as a passionate missionary urging people to recognize Islam as a total system of life” (p. 67). Focusing on his sociological contribution, Akhavi discusses Shari’ati as “an Iranian political activist and intellectual” (p. 85), who considered himself as an “enlightened intellectual”, and contributed much to “Islamology”—the critical task of deconstructing existing forms of Islamic knowledge and reconstitute the latter as socially relevant knowledge (p. 90).

The life and legacy of Khomeini have been contextualised by Mahdavi, who opines that “the politics, perspective, and personality of Ayatollah Khomeini, Khomeinism, have been central in the making of Iran’s post-revolutionary state” because his death “did not put an end to Khomeinism; his contentious legacy is still alive and dominates current Iranian politics” (pp. 104-5).

Similarly, the thinker-activists discussed in Part-III, whom the editors’ have termed as the “‘intellectuals’ of political Islam”, present an excellent case “for the diversity and complexity of contemporary Muslim discourse”. Their intellectual interests—which ranges from their views/ visions of renewal of religion, modernizing Islam, views on women, views on the West—may “seem similar”, but “their approaches and ways of thinking” are “quite different”.

Hassan al-Turabi, for Woodward, is “one of the most controversial figures in the Muslim world”, who is an “ideologically inspiring and a charismatic leader in national politics” of Sudan (p. 141). Rashid al-Ghannoushi, for Tamimi, is “a very important and influential Islamic thinker whose contribution to Islamic political thought will undoubtedly be remembered by future generations” (p. 176). Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for Gräf, is “one of the most popular and at the same time highly controversial religious scholars in today’s Sunni Islam” (p. 178), who acts both as “a “key figure in helping us to understand contemporary Islamic discourse” as well as “a link between the early publicists and reformers of Islamic thinking at the beginning of the twentieth century and today’s Sunni Islamic intellectuals and activists” (p. 195). Muhammad Khatami, for Sadri brothers, occupies an influential “place in the history and political philosophy of modern Iran and Islam” (p. 216), and Abdolkarim Soroush, for Ghamari-Tabrizi, represents (like Shari’ati) “one of the most significant post-revolutionary intellectual” who has made “important contributions to the advancement of Islamic theology and political philosophy” (p. 219), and thus has “inaugurated one of the most important intellectual movements in contemporary Iran” (p. 241).

Collectively, in the second decade of the 21st century they are the key figures in the discourse of ‘Political Islam’. What distinguishes these (living) scholars (discussed in chapters 6—10) from others (i.e., chapters 1—5) is that they: “maintain a critical view of Islamic heritage as well as of secularism”; “advocate a realistic (a historic) view of Muslim history and the Muslim experience”; and their intellectual discourse reflects “a deep concern with the renewal of Islamic thought and practices from within and with engaging in meaningful debates about modern intellectual challenges in their societies” (p. 10). It is their “context and education” which plays a major role in shaping their “synthesizing orientation”, as most of them are “well-grounded in both traditional and modern education, bilingual, and well-exposed to Western philosophies and debates”, and all of them are “in opposition to authoritarian and autocratic regimes, strongly advocate freedoms and democracy, and seek to engage positively with global intellectual currents and philosophical ideals”. In this regard, they all have contributed to the “steering the Islamic intellectual discourse”, which is different, and parts away, from the approaches of earlier scholars like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Mawdudi (pp. 10-11).

All these chapters, collectively, demonstrate that “Muslim intellectual discourse is a dynamic and evolving construct” which provides “a better understanding of contemporary Muslim intellectual discourse” (pp. 12, 13).

With contributions from prominent scholars and specialists, KIPT indeed provides a comprehensive analysis and wide-ranging exploration of various contours of the study of political Islam through an exploration of life and legacy of ten (10) influential intellectuals/ activists/ ideologues of political Islam. In sum, Key Islamic Political Thinkers is one of the most comprehensive, richly informative, single-volume, wide-ranging, reference work on various dimensions of ‘ Political Islam’, which will prove helpful to every serious student and scholar of Islam and politics, contemporary Islamic political thought, political Islam, the like areas and subjects.