Study of political Islam reveals fundamental flaws in Western attempts to understand Islam

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Jumada' al-Ula' 22, 1423 2002-08-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 11, Jumada' al-Ula', 1423)

Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics by L. Carl Brown, Columbia University Press, New York, USA, 2000. Pp: 256. Hbk: $29.00.

After the strident and aggressive tone of much Western writing about Islam in the last few months, it is almost a pleasure to read this much more moderated, thoughtful and sympathetic study of Muslim politics. This is only partly because it was published in 2000, long before the events of last September; it is also partly because it comes from L. Carl Brown, emeritus professor of foreign affairs at Princeton University, who is one of the giants of American Middle Eastern studies and undeniably deeply knowledgeable about Muslim history and society. Unfortunately that does not change the fact that Brown’s argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Islam and its relation to social change in Muslim societies, or that his attitude is ultimately deeply arrogant in its demand that Muslims should secularise politics and de-politicize Islam in order to be modern.

Brown’s method is to look beyond current discourses to examine the relationship between Islam and politics in history. Almost half of his book, therefore, discusses the history of Islamic politics up to 1800. His object is twofold. First, to challenge the view that politics is an integral part of Islam, and that state and religion are inseparable. He argues that, for most of Muslim history, Muslims have pursued a "live and let live" approach to politics, which he characterises as "quietist". According to him, there has been, virtually from the dawn of Islamic civilization, a de facto separation of religion and state, based on an implicit division of roles and spheres. The state ensured stability, public order and the expansion of Islamic lands, while the ulama shaped society by education and the implementation of shari’ah.

Brown also argues that there have been many different Muslim approaches to politics, and thus that there can be no one Islamic understanding of politics now. Running through the whole book are comparisons with Christian and Jewish history. In his conclusion, Brown explains the reason for this:

No one suggests a timeless and unchanging Christian approach to politics. The same should hold for Islam. The possible difference in its worldly manifestations between the Christianity of Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, or Luther is readily accepted. Christianity has its history. So does Islam. Christianity also has its diversity. To take modern American examples, one appreciates that Paul Tillich and Billy Graham both fit under the rubric Christian. The same holds for a high church Episcopal service and a revivalist tent meeting. Islam has its equivalents. (p. 175.)

It would be too easy simply to attack this approach as the traditional one of assuming that Islam must follow the same secularising path as Christianity has followed since the Reformation in medieval Europe. This is a well-established bias in Western orientalist studies of Islam and Muslim societies, and there is an element of it in Brown’s work too. However, there is a deeper, more fundamental misunderstanding of Islam in Brown’s argument. This relates to the definition of what constitutes Islam. For Brown and other Westerners, Islam is the accumulated wisdom, ideas and understanding of the last 1,400 years of Muslim history. Everything that Muslims have done, thought and written during this period becomes, according to them, part of Islam.

This accords with their understanding of their own history and civilization. The Western canon consists of everything written (and thought and understood) in Europe and its diaspora since Greek times; Christianity is taken to include the interpretations of countless Christian thinkers for the last 2,000 years. (In both cases, as many variations have been systematically excluded as have been allowed to become part of the canon.) The result is that the fundamental definitions of what constitutes Westernism and Christianity have both evolved and expanded over time. Brown’s argument is based on the assumption that Muslim history amounts to a similar evolution of Islam: a common assumption in Western studies of Islam, which has also been adopted by some misguided Muslims.

This is, of course, absolutely wrong. There is and always must be a clear distinction between Islam per se and the experiences and products of Muslim history. Islam consists of the Qur’an, which Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala revealed to humanity through His final Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him) 1,400 years ago, and the Prophet’s teaching and demonstration of the principles embodied in the Qur’an. The revelation of the Qur’an was completed and its text recorded in the Prophet’s lifetime; this is the core of Islam. The collection of the Prophet’s words and actions was completed within decades of his death, based on the recollections of his companions and contemporaries, and these texts are only slightly less authoritative than the Qur’an. No other text or teaching in Muslim history, from the codifications of the Shari’ah by the major fuqaha to the writings of recent Muslim intellectuals such as Imam Khomeini, Sayyid Qutb, Maulana Maududi and Kalim Siddiqui, is part of Islam; they are merely interpretations and readings of Islam by Muslims. Many of these are of course very important, but none is sacrosanct. It is at this level, and at the level of the practice and implementation of Islamic principles, that there is a rich diversity in Muslim history, but all these diverse realities are based on the same one core.

Islam thus has a set of permanent core principles and values to which Muslims refer back at all times, whereas Western thought and Christianity tend to refer only to the ideas and interpretations of others who have gone before them. While Muslim history and thought do indeed show as rich as diversity of ideas and experiences as the West and Christianity, therefore, all the diverse Muslim realities are based on the same fundamental principles and values, and these are the basis of both the unity of the Ummah, despite the different circumstances of various societies, and of the historical continuity of Muslim experience.

It is this that Brown simply does not understand. For him, the relatively small volume of literature representing the Qur’an, and the Seerah and hadith, is remote and ancient history, out-weighed by the mass of subsequent Muslim experience. He is absolutely correct that a greater part of Muslim thought during these centuries has tended to be politically quietist, has tended to legitimise a de facto separation of Islam and state, and has permitted power to be monopolized by monarchies that have been largely secular in their outlook. He considers that the current emphasis on political aspects of Islam by Islamic movement thinkers and activists to be inconsistent with prior Muslim practice and experience, and thus unIslamic and illegitimate. He apparently cannot grasp the reality that this mass of Muslim practice and experience has in fact been based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Islamic principles.

This is the key flaw in Brown’s understanding that undermines all his arguments, despite his undoubted knowledge, his sympathetic tone and his smooth, readable prose, but it is by no means the only one. Another is a deep bias against the contemporary Islamic movement; whether this stems from his fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Islam and Muslim history, or explains it, does not matter. One result of this bias is that he accepts the ridiculous suggestion that the Islamic movement aims to recreate a "golden age, the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community" in some way that is "history defying". This is utterly incorrect. The contemporary Islamic movement includes the most ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ elements of Muslim societies today: young people who understand all the technical, scientific and social changes of the last 200 years and have no intention of reversing them. What they want to ensure is that the societies built on these changes are regulated by the ethical principles of Islam, which are independent of physical, technical and scientific and social bodies of knowledge, and in no way limit them.

Another result of that same bias is his belief that contemporary political Islam offers only a rigid ideology (or several rigid ideologies) with fixed, all-embracing programmes offering formulaic answers to all questions and solutions to all problems. Although it is true that some Muslims present Islam in this simplistic way, most Islamic thought reflects the humble recognition that human society is a changing entity with problems and challenges for which there are no simple solutions. What Islam offers are values, principles and priorities upon which any attempt to address these challenges must be based if it is to be even vaguely successful: principles of humility, submission to the One Creator, justice, awareness of our place in the divine scheme, and of the need to accept the challenge of translating these principles into social reality, even knowing that any success can only be partial and that future generations of Muslims will have to repeat the exercise in new situations. Someone in Brown’s position should be able to have a more rounded view of the Islamic movement.

This book is already establishing itself as a key introductory text for western students of Islam. Much of it, consisting of discussions of Muslim history and themes in Muslim thought, seems knowledgeable, balanced and generally impressive. It will appeal to readers who like to think of themselves as open-minded, and are put off by the strident Islamophobia of some recent works. They will be pleased to be reading, and recommending to others, a text which — they think — is genuinely sympathetic and based on an understanding of Islam through history rather than a knee-jerk reaction to unpleasant current realities. At the same time they will be comforted by Brown’s re-articulation of the modernization and secularization theses, and by the fact that the nasty, anti-American fundamentalists are put firmly in their place. Unfortunately they will find little to help them understand either the contemporary Islamic movement or what is really happening in the world today. Perhaps that is rather too much to expect.

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