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Islam and Politics ( 9 Dec 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Political Interpretation of Islam - Part 1: Preface



By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

(Translation of the Urdu book Deen ki Siyasi Ta‘abir)


This essay is a summary of my book Ta‘abir ki Ghalati (‘Error of Interpretation’). Here, I have tried to briefly clarify why I think that the writings of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi (d. 1979), the founder of the Jama‘at-e Islami and proponent of a distinctly political interpretation of Islam, are problematic. The political interpretation of Islam has been, and continues to be, the cause of much strife and conflict across the world.

The noted Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Abdul Majid Dariyabdi (d. 1977) once referred to what he termed as a ‘diseased mindset’. As he put it, ‘Even some very virtuous people are no exceptions’ in this regard. Such people simply cannot tolerate any criticism. After I began critiquing Maulana Maududi’s writings, I gained first-hand experience of this mindset.

One of the clauses of the Constitution of the Jama‘at-e Islami, which the Maulana himself prepared, reads: ‘No one should be considered to be above criticism’. As long as I used this right in order to criticize others, people in the Jama‘at-e Islami circles heartily congratulated me. But the moment I used this very same right to criticize Maulana Maududi, it was as if I had dared to step across the forbidden frontier! Perhaps this clause in the Jama‘at’s Constitution was meant to allow for criticism against everyone but the framer of the Constitution himself!

In his Khilafat wa Mulukiyat (‘The Caliphate and Monarchical Despotism’), Maulana Maududi’s wrote that the Caliphate was an ideal system of Islamic life, and noted that after this system collapsed of the Caliphate, a system he termed as mulukiyat or Monarchical Despotism took its place. The crux of the Maulana’s efforts was  to re-establish the system of Caliphate rule.

What exactly happened when the Caliphate was replaced by Monarchical Despotism? The Maulana discussed this in terms of eight broad themes, one of which he termed as ‘The End of the Freedom of Expression’. In this regard, he wrote:

Islam arranged, not just as a matter of right but also as a duty (and this was something that the proper functioning of Islamic society depended on), that the conscience of the community should remain alive and that its members should be able to speak out and even admonish even the highest person for misdeeds and openly speak the truth. During the Righteous Caliphate, this right of the people was fully protected. The Righteous Caliphs not only permitted it, but even encouraged people to [exercise this right]. In this period, people who spoke the truth were rewarded not with scolding and threats, but with praise. Those who critiqued others were not suppressed. Instead, they were appropriately replied to in an effort to satisfy them. But in the Age of Monarchical Despotism, people’s minds were sealed and their tongues were tied up. And so it came about that people could only use their tongues to praise [rulers], or else they had to keep quiet. If some people’s conscience would not allow them not to speak the truth, they had to be ready to face imprisonment and death or being lashed. And so, in this period those who could not stop themselves from speaking the truth and critiquing those who committed bad deeds were given heinous punishments.

The Caliphate that the Maulana struggled to revive had, according to him, eight special characteristics, one of which was that under this system, efforts were made to appropriately reply to critics so as to satisfy them. Furthermore, people were actually encouraged to voice their criticism. In fact, they were supported and praised for this. In contrast, the Maulana said, under Monarchical Despotism, critics were suppressed, silenced, beaten up and threatened—and if all this did not work to keep them from speaking out, they were tortured and thrown into jail.

Keeping in mind what Maulana Maududi wrote in this regard, consider what happened with me some years ago. At that time, I was a member of the Jama‘at-e Islami. It so happened that I gradually began to discern some things in the writings of Maulana Maududi which I found objectionable. And so, in December 1961, I put my views down on paper and sent them to the Maulana. And what reply did I get? The Maulana was a flag-bearer of the revival of the Caliphate, and so one would have thought that his response to my critique would have been to say that not only was I exercising my right, but also abiding by my duty. After all, he himself wrote that this is precisely what ought to happen under the Caliphate that he wished to establish. He should have taken it as proof of my living conscience. He should have encouraged me in my effort. If he did not agree with me, he could have tried to give me an appropriate reply and thereby tried to satisfy me.

But what actually happened? In my book Ta‘abir ki Ghalati I have included the correspondence that I exchanged with him the on this issue over a period of two long years. Anyone who reads these letters can easily understand that the Maulana did not give a proper and convincing reply to my arguments. He can also easily discern that the Maulana tried to behave in precisely the same way that he regarded as characteristic of Monarchical Despotism.

Why didn’t the Maulana try to give me a reply that would have satisfied me? Instead

·        The Maulana accused my understanding of issues to be extremely faulty and limited. He charged me with being deluded.

·        He suggested that I was arrogant, adding that he was not in the habit of addressing arrogant people.

·         He said I had crossed the stage beyond which he believed it was useless trying to reason with me.

In this way, throughout our correspondence, Maulana Maududi failed to satisfactorily reply to any of the issues I had raised. Instead, what he did was to say all sorts of things about me. When I insisted that he should come to the point, he finally said I should publish my views, sarcastically remarking that adding one more name to his already long list of ‘well-wishers’ would make no difference.

Gauging from Maulana Maududi’s reaction, you can decide for yourself if he was indeed impelled by the spirit of the Caliphate or the spirit of Monarchical Despotism.  The Maulana imagined himself to be in position from where he could afford to criticize the renewers of the faith (mujadiddin) without any exception, and, even beyond that, to point out the mistakes of the Companions of the Prophet, and, going beyond even that, to even inspect the Righteous Caliphs. But if someone were to critique him, it was as if he deserved the same sort of punishment that the Maulana noted that monarchical despots used to administer to their critics—the only difference being that these despots could go to the extent of, in the Maulana’s words, ‘imprisoning and killing and lashing’ their critics, while the Maulana himself had the power only of punishing his critics through his pen.

This is a classic example of what, as I mentioned at the outset, Maulana Dariybadi termed as a ‘diseased mindset’.

Criticism can be a very beneficial thing for collective existence—but on the condition that the critic abides by certain principles and acts justly. At the same time, the one who is critiqued should listen to his critic without letting his ego come in the way. Only when people can engage in meaningful critique of others, and, at the same time, the courage to listen to others’ criticism of themselves can they truly evolve, individually as well as collectively. To critique people’s errors while, at the same time, being large-hearted and genuinely concerned about their true welfare is an essential condition for higher attainment in life. As a hadith report tells us, difference is a mercy.

Criticism is the most difficult thing for most people to bear. But if they know how to accept criticism, it can become, for them, a source of great blessing and progress. I hope this essay will be taken in this spirit.


The Nature of the Error of the Political Interpretation of Islam

Marxism is referred to as an Economic interpretation of History. This is because in Karl Marx’s understanding of life, the economic factor dominates everything else. In the same way, Maulana Maududi projected Islam in such a way that every aspect of it seemed to acquire a political hue. Accordingly, one can term his ideology as a political interpretation of the Deen or the religion of Islam.

Life is a collection of various parts or aspects. These parts are separate from each other but yet are inter-linked. They can also be ranked or placed at different levels.

Ordinarily, they are three broad ways in which we can discuss or describe these aspects:

1.     We can describe a particular aspect in its relation to the totality in exactly the same way as it is in reality or as it appears to be. This is a legalistic sort of description.

2.     We can stress a particular aspect which is the major subject of discussion in a given context.

3.     We can make a particular aspect the basis of the interpretation of the totality of a phenomenon. In this way, this particular aspect is presented as representing the phenomenon as a whole, or as its crux or centre-point. It is as if by understanding this aspect we can understand the totality or all the other aspects of this phenomenon. In this booklet, I have used the term ‘interpretation’ in precisely this sense.

Let me clarify this point about these three broad ways that one can describe the different parts of a phenomenon by examining how the term ‘Economy’ can be used in different ways.

One way of talk about the economy is to say that human beings are made up of body and soul, and that the human body has certain needs that require to be satisfied through economic activity, just as the soul also needs certain things for its nourishment. This is a way of talking about an aspect of a phenomenon in terms of its relation to the whole. 

A second way of talking about the economy is to say that life depends on the economy, and that without the existence of appropriate economic means or resources, life is difficult, if not impossible. This is a way of talking about an aspect of a phenomenon by stressing its particular importance.

A third way of talking about the economy is to claim that economic conditions are the real driving-force of, or power behind, History; that it is the economy that determines every aspect of life; and that every human feeling, all forms of knowledge, and all human institutions are shaped by the prevailing economic conditions. This is a way of talking about an aspect of a phenomenon by presenting it as the crux or core of the phenomenon, the sole basis of understanding the phenomenon as a whole.

The first of these examples is illustrative of a legalistic sort of description. The second is an instance of a way of addressing an issue in order to stress its particular importance while at the same time not making it out to be the fundamentally determining factor. The third is an example of making a particular aspect or factor or aspect the basis of interpreting a phenomenon in its totality.

What we have been discussing here applies to religion as well. The Deen or religion of Islam has various parts or aspects or dimensions, and there are different ways of explaining and describing them. Talking about them in terms of fiqh or jurisprudence is akin to the first method of description referred to above. Missionaries and social reformers typically use the second method of description. As for the third method, it has been rare among Muslims, although it has been characteristic of some strands of Sufism. Maulana Maududi’s thought is an example of this third approach. He expressed his understanding of the Deen of Islam in such a manner that it can be called, in the sense I am using the word, a particular ‘interpretation’ of the Deen based on a single central factor--politics. In brief, his understanding of the Deen can be said to be a ‘political interpretation’ of Islam.

I am aware that no single word can fully represent a complex phenomenon, but the picture of the Deen that emerges from Maulana Maududi’s writings can be said to approximate what I term as a ‘political interpretation of the Deen’.  In the Maulana’s attempted comprehensive interpretation of the Deen, the political aspect appears as the focal point of the totality of the Deen. From this perspective, the reality of belief and prophethood cannot be understood without taking into politics into account. Nor can the true significance of worship be comprehended apart from its supposed political underpinnings. Nor, too, according to this perspective, can one progress on the spiritual path or understand the meaning of the Prophet’s ascension (Me’raj) if these are sought to be understood without taking into account their supposed political dimensions. It is as if without politics, the Deen of Islam is so utterly empty and so totally incomprehensible that, in the words of Maulana Maududi, it is bereft of ‘more than three-fourths’ of its components.

Chapter 1

The Political Interpretation of Islam  

“Economic issues are a very important part of life. Every person should have access to the material resources that are necessary for life. No one should be allowed to wrongfully exploit others.”

No one can deny this argument. But when the same argument takes on the guise of Marxism, an intelligent person finds himself compelled to critique it.

What is the reason for this? There is just one reason, and that is that the economy, which, despite its importance, is just one necessary aspect of human life, has, in Marx’s intellectual framework, been given the garb of a complete ideology. The natural corollary of this is that the economy no longer remains just one among many aspects or components of life. Instead, it comes to be seen as the basis or crux of life. And so, all happenings in life come to be seen and explained in the light of the economy. The worth or importance of individuals and groups comes to be measured on an economic basis. People’s emotions and thought patterns, too, come to be seen as a product essentially of their economic conditions. The economy becomes the vortex of all conflicts and struggles. In other words, people’s minds and the world at large come to be determined by the economic factor. Of course, other aspects of life still continue to exist, but they come to be dominated by this one single factor. Detached from the economy, they are thought of as of no importance.

Socialist thought emerged in Europe in the context of the enormous changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Witnessing the havoc wrought by new industrial technologies in the lives of the working classes, some sensitive souls were moved to undertake efforts to ameliorate the workers’ plight so that they, too, could gain some of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. In other words, in the beginning, Socialism was based on the importance of the economic factor, but this factor was not taken to be the be-all and end-all of life.

The fact of the matter is that unless a certain point is singled out for particular attention, sometimes to the point of exaggeration, it does not receive much attention or popular appeal. Because of this, a certain revolutionary fervour began to characterize the writings and speeches of Socialist leaders, tending towards a certain exaggeration of the importance of the economic factor. Gradually, this tendency manifested itself in the form of an entire worldview based on the economic factor alone, in which every other aspect of life revolved around it and was dominated by it. Marx was the turning point in this regard. He termed Socialist trends before his arrival on the scene, till around the middle of the 19th century, as ‘Utopian Socialism’. He called the Socialism that he developed as ‘Scientific Socialism’.

Till such time as Socialism just meant economic reforms, it did not lead to any seriously negative consequences. But when it assumed the form of Marxist philosophy, it turned to be completely fallacious at its very root.

The same sort of thing can happen with interpretations of the Deen or religion of Islam. Suppose that in a particular period and under particular circumstances a particular aspect of Islam is being violated or ignored. Witnessing this, a pious man is moved to do something about the situation by reviving this particular aspect. He makes various efforts in this regard. Both his strong reaction to the situation he witnesses as well as the exigencies of his missionary work necessitate that he give particular stress, even to the point of exaggeration, to this aspect. And so, very naturally, when he reaches out to his addressees, he will not use the idiom of jurisprudence or logic. Rather, he will speak like a public speaker or a missionary, with passion and emotion. Obviously, when he speaks like this, driven by great missionary zeal, his words may not be carefully calculated or measured.

Let me illustrate this point with the help of an example, recorded in the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa‘ad (d. 230 A.H.). Once, the famous scholar Sa‘eed Ibn Musayyib was approached by his slave, a man named Bard, who mentioned to him about some people who spent a lot of time in worship. These people, Bard told him, prayed continuously, from the noon (Zuhar) to the mid-afternoon (‘Asr) prayers. Thereupon, Sa‘eed Ibn Musayib remarked:

Do you even know what worship is? Worship is contemplation on Divine affairs and staying away from what God has forbidden.

Now, from this statement it does not mean that a pious scholar of the stature of Sa‘eed Ibn Musayib was unaware that prayer, fasting, remembrance of God and reciting the Quran are also forms of worship, or that he thought that worship was only the two things that he had mentioned. His statement must be seen as a ‘missionary statement’, rather than as a juridical or strictly logical one.

When an Islamic jurist or Faqih gives his views on a particular issue, he does so in very clear and specified terms. But unlike for a Faqih, for a missionary, someone engaged in Dawah, inviting people to Islam, the issue at hand is not the intellectual or legal explanation of a particular matter, but, rather, the reform of the conditions around him. That is why he searches for those things that need to be reformed and which he feels need special mention. Hence, his discourse is driven not by strictly legalistic concerns, but, instead, by what he regards as public welfare. He focuses in his discourses on those particular aspects that he thinks demand particular attention. Conversely, he either ignores or else only lightly touches upon those matters that, from the point of view of missionary imperatives, are not necessary or of particular salience at that particular moment.

This way of addressing others is indeed in accordance with the Shariah. Examples of this approach are to be found, in some way or the other, in the sayings of the Prophet of Islam as well as all the missionaries of Islam. Without this, it is not possible to engage in Islamic Dawah work.

This matter is perfectly correct to this extent. But, sometimes, religious leaders and their followers fall prey to a misconception that a leader’s utterances that stress a particular aspect are not simply a Dawah imperative, but, rather, a general explanation of the Deen in itself.  This is where the blunder starts. For instance, a writer tells a Da’i, an Islamic missionary, that he would like to publish books on Islam, and, in that way, serve Islam. In reply, the Da’i says, “Nothing happens through books. You will sit and write, and people will lie down and read!”

This reply is given in a particular context. Now, if the followers of this Da’i later come to think of it as a general principle and so abstain from using literature to serve the Deen, it would be tantamount to transforming a phrase that had only a temporary and restricted validity into a general, eternal principle. When the Da’i made his statement, he was not wrong, but when it was interpreted by his later followers as a general principle, it was, of course, wrongly understood.

Sometimes, this sort of error goes beyond this, so that what was meant to be relevant in a particular context is wrongly interpreted as general in application. Sometimes, the Da’i is so heavily influenced by his own thought that he begins to see the particular aspect of the Deen which he had felt it necessary to stress as actually being the Deen in its entirety. Accordingly, he begins to explain the whole of the Deen in the light of this one aspect alone. He does not remain content with stressing the importance of this aspect in itself, but goes beyond, to make this aspect a question of the whole of the Deen. He begins to see the causes of everything—whether beneficial or baneful—as lying in this one aspect alone. When a person reaches this level, his blunder reaches its peak. At this juncture, something that was just one part of the Deen (and in some cases, simply a relative part) becomes, in his view, the ‘total Deen’ or the ‘essential Deen’. This is just like how the importance of the economic factor was transformed into Marxism—and we know that, despite focusing on a necessary value or aspect of life, the underlying basis of Marxism is fallacious.

This point can be further understood with the help of an analogy. Consider the case of two people. One of them looks at an object that is yellow in colour. The other man puts on yellow-tinted spectacles and looks at things. The first man will perceive the object that he stares at as being yellow in colour. If he focuses his attention on the object continuously for a while and then looks at other things, for a few seconds everything else will also look yellow. But this effect will soon wear off and then everything will appear in their normal colours. On the other hand, the second person will perceive everything, no matter what its real colour, as yellow. He will not be able to perceive any other colour, no matter where he looks. The same holds true when the Deen comes to be interpreted in terms of the assumed primacy of a single factor such as politics. Then, every aspect of the Deen comes to be wrongly seen as being underpinned by politics.

What is the difference between stressing, from the point of view of Dawah, a certain aspect of the Deen, on the one hand, and making this aspect the basis of the interpretation of the Deen, on the other? This question can be answered with the help of the following analogy.

Suppose someone says, “For every Muslim, it is a must that, in addition to being a Muslim, he must develop within him a martial spirit.” This statement appears to be a considerable exaggeration, because, obviously, it is almost impossible for every Muslim to become a soldier. After all, Muslims include men and women, children and old people, the weak and the strong, the sick and the healthy.

This exaggeration can be thought of as a way of expressing something in order to exhort people in a certain direction. If understood in this way, it is not something that damages the conception of the Deen, nor is it a new interpretation of the Deen.

However, in the other hand, if someone were to declare:

The true spirit of Islam is militaristic. Heavenly scriptures were sent down and prophets were commissioned so as to instil in people a martial spirit. The ultimate aim of all practices in Islam is to provide military training to its followers. The azan, the call to prayer, is a sort of army bugle. Worshippers who gather in the mosque are like soldiers gathering at a parade ground on hearing the sound of the bugle. Fasting is a rehearsal for the difficulties that will be faced on military campaigns. Haj is a march-past of the army of the Muslims of the entire world in front of the House of God. The Muslim Ummah is a sort of Divine army, and Islam is the military law that the Ummah has been given to enforce. For, as it is said: ‘you are indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind. You enjoin what is good, and forbid what is evil, and you believe in God.’

If someone says this sort of thing, it can be said that he is engaging in nothing less than a militaristic interpretation of the Deen.

So, these are two distinct scenarios. In the first case, to simply claim, “For every Muslim, it is a must that, in addition to being a Muslim, he must develop within him a martial spirit” exemplifies a particular stress on a single issue while speaking in order to exhort people in a particular direction. In contrast, the second scenario goes far beyond this and turns into a new interpretation of the Deen. In the first case, stress is given to the martial spirit, while in the second case, militarism is projected as the very base of religion, in the light of which the entire Deen is sought to be interpreted. The significance of the various parts or aspects of the Deen comes to be determined on the basis of their supposed relationship with militarism.

The issue that we are discussing here—the distinction between emphasis, for preaching purposes, on a particular aspect of the Deen, on the one hand, and making it the basis of a new interpretation of the Deen, on the other—can be put slightly differently. In the first case, one stresses the importance of a particular aspect of the Deen, while in the second case, one makes it the basis of understanding the whole Deen. In the former case, it is recognized to be one among many parts that make up a whole. In the latter case, this one part is used as the criterion or base to determine the value of the whole. In the former case, the stress given to one aspect does not negate the importance of the remaining aspects. In the latter case, this one factor is given such a central status that without it, the entire Deen appears as meaningless. In the former case, the salience of this particular aspect of the Deen is a reflection of its intrinsic importance. In the latter case, this aspect is seen as the uniting factor for all the remaining aspects of the Deen. In the former case, the aspect in question is like a single page of a book. In the latter case, it is like that the binding that holds the whole book together.

In brief, stressing a particular point or factor while preaching may simply be a practical necessity, but when this factor becomes the basis of interpreting the entire Deen, it gets transformed into a full-blown philosophy.

My objection to Maulana Maududi’s writings is that in giving importance to the political aspects of the Deen, he engaged in such inordinate exaggeration that he made it the basis of an entire interpretation of the Deen. I do not object to his including politics in the Deen. Everyone knows that politics, too, is included in Islam. I do not consider it wrong that he stressed political aspects in his writings, because if at a particular time a preacher feels the need to stress a particular aspect of the Deen, he must do so, otherwise people cannot be suitably enthused to try to bring about necessary changes.

If the matter rested here, no one would have cause to object. My objection is this—that Maulana Maududi so greatly exaggerated the importance of the political aspect of Islam that he evolved a political interpretation of Islam. This is just like how exaggerating the importance of economics beyond what was warranted led to the development of Marxism as a completely new ideology.

Maulana Maududi was not alone in desiring the revival of an Islamic state in the Subcontinent. Several other Islamic groups think in these terms, each in their own way. Each of them has its own way of addressing this concern. Because of differences in their analyses of conditions and in their methodologies, there are considerable differences between them. Yet, none is bereft of the desire that God should bring in the day when Islam shall acquire prominence. Till here, there is no fundamental difference between the various Islamic groups. But where the difference starts is when Maulana Maududi’s particular political interpretation of the Deen begins.

This difference does not lie in the fact that Maulana Maududi stressed the issue of politics. Rather, it lies in the fact that he promoted a certain mindset, a distinct mentality that sees everything in a political hue.

To use an analogy, consider the fact that across the world, there are many groups that desire economic reform. Marxists, too, want economic reform. Yet, despite this, Marxist Socialists are distinct from all their fellow travellers. The difference between them is not over wanting or not wanting economic reform. Rather, it has to do with their differences in their understanding of the nature of economic reform as well as differences in their understanding of life and the cosmos.

In 1857, following the collapse of Mughal rule in India, some Indian ulema launched efforts to revive Muslim rule, thus giving particular importance to politics. Yet, this did not tantamount to a political interpretation of Islam. Rather, it was simply an expression of what, from the point of view of what these ulema thought of, rightly or wrongly, as a temporary necessity. But when it came to Maulana Maududi, it got transformed into a complete interpretation of the Deen of Islam. Before this, politics was thought of as but one aspect of the Deen and, accordingly, was given the stress it was considered to deserve. But in Maulana Maududi’s ideology, it was given the status of the central focus of the Deen, on the basis of which the whole of the Deen was sought to be explained.

The relationship between the political movement of the ulema and the ideology of Maulana Maududi is like the relationship between ‘Utopian Socialism’ and Marxist Socialism. If Maulana Maududi and his followers imagine that, like Marx, he had ‘rectified’ the ‘faulty’ understanding of Islamic politics and given it a ‘complete’ picture, they are mistaken, because his folly is readily apparent.