By Ajaz Ashraf
Jan 12, 2015
The disquiet in the Muslim world arises from harnessing of political power to religion, prompting analysts to argue that unless the two are delinked Islam cannot find peace. Militant groups may rage against the imperialism of the West, or fight for the independence of Muslim countries, but most of them ultimately seek power, and independence, to create an ideal Islamic society of their conception.
This prescription to separate politics from religion, temporal from spiritual, is regularly doled out by western commentators, who cite the long battle to separate church from the state in Europe to argue for an Islamic Reformation. From their accounts it would seem it has not occurred to the intellectuals in West Asia to attempt secularising politics and power. It is yet another instance of stereotyping, which, as always, is based on ignorance.
In fact, way back in 1925, following the abolition of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal, Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq wrote a book, Islam and the Principles of Governance, arguing that Islam did not prescribe a specific regime nor a particular system of governance. In the wake of the controversy over his book, al-Raziq told a newspaper reporter, “It (Islam) has allowed us absolute freedom to organise the state in accordance with the intellectual, social and economic conditions in which we are found…”
Elements Of The Prophetic Mission
What al-Raziq was saying is that it is for the people to conceive the state, as the precise nature of it has not been contemplated in the verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad. In the Quran there are only general statements asking believers to show respect to those in authority, he argued, adding that there is also no evidence of the Prophet forming an organised Islamic government. At best, what he established was a government rudimentary in nature – it had no budget and no regular administrative structure.
But what kicked off a storm in Egypt was al-Raziq’s assertion, to quote from Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, that “Muhammad had no function except the essential prophetic function of preaching the truth; he was not sent to exercise political authority, and he did not do so.” His assertion contradicted contemporary theologians who held that the establishment of a state was an essential part of the prophetic mission.
Those who triggered the howls of protest against al-Raziq included eminent Egyptian scholars such as Rashid Rida and Muhammad Bakhit. Hourani noted, “Rida declared it [al-Razik’s book] was the latest attempt of the enemies of Islam to weaken and divide it from within…Bakhit maintained that what non-Muslims said of Islam should never be accepted…” Thus, al-Razik was portrayed to be either acting at the behest of Islam’s enemies or was deemed a non-Muslim in disguise.
Bakhit made out an elaborate case against al-Raziq, whose principal fault was his denial of the prophetic mission. According to Muslims theologians of those times, most prophets were sent to teach people the truth about God and the world; there were a few, though, who combined this function with that of “revealing a law, a system of morality derived from the Book, and to execute it”. Thus, Jesus belonged to the first category of prophets, Muhammad to the second.
Power As Form Of Religion
This meant the execution of law was an essential element of Muhammad’s prophetic mission. But this could not have been possible without his possessing political power, which you require to implement laws. Bakhit, therefore, concluded that the Islamic community from the very beginning was a political community. Then again, since the Quran was not for one generation but for all times to come, there always has to be a person exercising political authority for implementing Islamic laws and principles.
Bakhit’s arguments can be traced to the theory propounded by influential Islamic scholar and philosopher Ibn Taymiyyah, who lived between 1263 and 1328. He claimed that since Sharia not only laid out what right action was, but also imposed penalties for doing wrong, the Islamic community could not be complete without an Islamic state. From this perspective, political action was exalted to a religious act. As Ibn Taymiyyah wrote, “It is a duty to consider the exercise of power as one of the forms of religion, as one of the acts by which man draws near God.” Raziq, thus, was courageously contradicting the entire legacy of Islamic theology.
Taymiyyah’s ideas found echo in Bakhit’s criticism of Raziq: “The Islamic religion is based on the pursuit of domination and power and strength and might, and the refusal of any law which is contrary to its sharia and its divine law, and the rejection of any authority the wielder of which is not charged with the execution of its edicts.” Thus, the orthodoxy was reasserting the idea that the pursuit of power and setting up of a state structure were meaningful and justified only when servicing the Islamic ideals and goals.
It was precisely because of this reason that the Caliphate, completely abolished in 1924, was considered legitimate. But who accorded this legitimacy to the Caliphate? Muslims, claimed the traditional view, insisting that there was ijma or consensus in the community over its existence. Quite controversially, al-Raziq rubbished even this idea. He said the Caliph’s power had always been based on the strength of his army, and the conditions were such that it was impossible for Muslims to exercise a free choice on the issue. Abd al-Raziq was tacitly arguing in favour of consensus based on free will and choice.
Authoritarianism Scuttling Conversation
Bakhit accused al-Raziq of innovation, of interpolation. Hourani quoted Bakhit as saying, “Abd al-Raziq was… importing into the umma (community) a distinction between prophecy and political rule, between the kingdom of God and kingdom of the world, which was appropriate to Christianity but not to Islam.”
Abd al-Raziq did have to pay a heavy price for the book he wrote – he was publicly condemned by a council of Ulama of Al Azhar and declared unfit for any public function. In a 2009 piece in the Guardian, blogger Faisal Gazi wrote, “They did silence the free and honest debate that al-Raziq’s book could have begun. The good news is that Muslims…are continuing that conversation started by Shaykh Abd al-Raziq, more than eighty years after it was so peremptorily interrupted.”
This “conversation” found its expression, most recently, in what is called the Arab Spring, which has been either hijacked or crushed in most parts of West Asia other than Tunisia, where an Islamic party, contrary to all expectations, handed over power on losing in the elections. Indeed, militant Islam on the rampage in Asia and Europe represents the very idea al-Raziq argued against and valiantly opposed.
However, the situation has been complicated because the Arab states the Islamic militants are waging war against are brutal and oppressively authoritarian. They often co-opt the cleric to legitimise their rule and battle the militants because of the threat they pose to their rule. Both sides in this conflict share the same ideal of Islamizing the state, differing from each other only in degrees.
It is an irony that secular western powers supporting the oppressive rulers of West Asia only end up bolstering the Islamization process – and incur for themselves the wrath of Islamists besides. Really, can anyone expect the rulers of Saudi Arabia to bring to reality al-Raziq’s idea of secularising politics? Ah, well! And to think they too are battling militant Islam.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi.
Original Headline: The first Muslim secularist and how he was defeated
Source: The Scroll In
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