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The Tragic Illusion of the Islamic State by Tarek Fatah

Book review by Babar Ayaz

Chasing a Mirage:  The Tragic Illusion of the Islamic State

By Tarek Fatah;

John Wiley & Sons,

Pp410; Price: $28.95,

Tarek Fatah, a well-known leftist student leader of Karachi in the late 1960s and early 1970s, now lives in Canada and has come up with a well-researched book which demolishes brick by brick the many myths regarding the existence of an Islamic state. Fatah’s basic thesis is that there is no concept of an Islamic state in Islam, there is no existing Islamic state in the world, and there never was. While this has drawn considerable interest among intellectual circles, author Fatah has received threats as well.

At the very outset Fatah explains: “In this book I attempt to draw a distinction between Islamists and Muslims. What Islamists seek and what Muslims seek are two separate objectives, sometimes overlapping but clearly distinct. While the former seeks an ‘Islamic State’, the latter merely desires a ‘state of Islam.’ One state requires theocracy, the other a state of spirituality.”

I have always been of the opinion that the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) should be renamed as the Organisation of Muslim Countries, because they are basically countries with Muslim majorities. Their commonality ends there.

Fatah touches this issue to set the course of research: “Most Muslims too believe that countries with majority Muslim populations are Islamic countries with a distinct character. However, this is not how the Islamists see the world. From the perspective of those who follow the doctrine of Wahhabism or Salafi Islam or even the ruling ayatollahs of Iran, a country can be labelled an Islamic State only if it is governed by the laws of Shariah. Thus neither Turkey nor Indonesia is an Islamic State in the eyes of the Islamists.”

Fatah has devoted chapters to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which claim to be Islamic states, and has argued that there was nothing that proves the claim of these countries that they are Islamic states. Maintaining his blunt style, he has broken the myth these states have tried to build around themselves. He maintains that the institutions of Saudi Monarchy supported by Wahhabi clergy and Iranian Velayat-e-faqhi (a religious institution which is supreme and above the elected parliament) have no place in Islam.

He rejects the two-nation theory, considered the basis for the creation of Pakistan. To him: “The biggest losers in this great game of divide and rule were India’s Muslim. In the name of Islam, they were divided into three separate parts and cut off from each other.”

To support his argument, Fatah has quoted extensively a number of Muslim scholars, who were hounded by the Islamists throughout the Muslim history. He quotes Ali Abdel Al-Razik, an Egyptian scholar of the 1920s, who was harassed by the extremists. Al Razik had concluded in his book Islam and the Fundamentals of Authority that:”(1) Government of political authority, as necessary as it might be seen to realise Islamic ideals and obligations, was not the essence of Islam and had nothing to do with primary principles of the faith; and (2) Islam left Muslims free to choose whatever form of government they felt could solve their day-to-day problems with civil society minus an official state religion being best able to offer such a solution.”

The book draws on a number of such scholars including Allama Mohammad Iqbal, who opposed the revival of the Caliphate on the grounds that it was an obstacle to the modernisation of the Muslim world. Quoting from the Holy Quran and Hadith, Fatah has maintained that if God or his Prophet (PBUH) had felt the need to set up an Islamic State, the issue would have been dealt with in the Holy Scriptures.

Al-Razik had quoted the Holy Quran to prove his point: “Whoso obeyeth the Apostle, in doing so hath obeyed God, and who turneth away from thee: We have not sent thee to be their keeper.” (Sura al-Nisa, chapter 4, verse 83). This message is repeated in other verses also where it has been said that God had not sent the Prophet (PBUH) as ‘custodian’ or ‘warden’ over people.

Drawing extensively from Muslim history, Fatah has trod a bold path by narrating the events that followed the death of the Prophet (PBUH) and the struggle for the Caliphate in the coming years. His view is that an Islamic state model did not exist even after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death. The very fact that it was decided to choose the Caliph on tribal basis from among the Quraysh of Mecca was against the teachings of Islam that one should rise above tribalism, and that righteousness should be the criteria.

Fatah’s point is that tribalism took over Muslim society soon after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). He has praised some of the actions of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) and the Muslim intellectuals who followed in history where it was due. But he has not shied from challenging the contradictions and myths that have been promoted by ‘some all-is-good scholars’.

Fatah’s book establishes that the acceptance of one tribe’s superiority over others and their right to the Caliphate is the basis of the Arab’s arrogance that is suffered by other Muslims of the world.

The book has challenged the notion of a ‘Golden Islamic era’ in the last 1400 years, which the Islamists are chasing today. History, even when looked at from the Muslim historians’ perspective, Fatah argues, is the history of various dynasties, which were mostly occupied with intrigue and conflict with each other. He has drawn a vivid picture of palace intrigues, ruthlessness and internal fighting among the Muslim rulers. He argues that there was nothing Islamic about these empires, and that these dynasties ruled like any other in the contemporary period. Most rulers had their own sets of clerics, who would find Islamic justification (fatwa) for the convenience of their respective master. Those who did not were either killed or exiled.

Fatah’s contention is that the sharia that today’s Islamists want to implement is man-made and has evolved, mostly out of Arab customary law. He questions why it has been awarded sacred status and why any objective discussion of it is considered blasphemous by the Islamists.

Tarek Fatah is a Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin and has fair knowledge of the prevailing hypocrisies among the Muslims who have migrated to the West. He is well known in Canada for taking radical stands against the demands of some Islamists, and has exposed them in detail in Chasing the Mirage. He is equally critical of the leftists that have become apologists for the Islamists and consider the latter’s cause as anti-imperialist struggle. The book is a must-read for all those Pakistani intellectuals that have helped the state and Islamist groups to spread these myths. Available on