By Dr Mohamed Chtatou
When one evokes the relation between Islam and democracy,the temptation is great to go to texts (Qur’an and Hadîth) andto Muslim political history of experiences of governance with analogies to modern pluralistic systems. Hence the reformist currents of Islamic thought, which intend to promote the principle of shûrâ, which can be roughly translated as “collective deliberation”. On the theological level shûrâ refers directly to the Qur’anic text, in particular to Sûrah 42,precisely entitled “The Consultation”:
‘’And those who answer the call of their Lord and establish prayer and whose affair being matter of counsel among themselves, and who of that wherewith We have provided them expend. ‘’ (Holy Qur’an, 42 : 38).
وَالَّذِينَ اسْتَجَابُوا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَمْرُهُمْ شُورَى بَيْنَهُمْ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنفِقُونَ
On the mythical-political level, it refers to the prophetic city of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad was supposed to make his decisions after consulting his companions (saHâba) and even the members of the nascent Islamic community (‘ummah).
Shûrâ, or the principle of collective deliberation, is a principle mentioned both in the Qur’an and in the practice of the Prophet and his Companions. In the modern context, shûrâhas been understood as the Islamic term for what thecontemporaries call democracy. Nevertheless, this concept remains obscure despite the publication of hundreds of books and articles on the subject over the past decades. Many aspects of shûrâ have not yet been addressed.
On the principle of collective deliberation and the evidence supporting it in Islamic normative texts, scholars have customarily referred first to two Qur’anic verses concerning the disputatio angelica, i.e. the metaphysical creation of the human order and, therefore, the meaning to be given to the unfolding of humanity.
The eminent scholar Mohamed Tahar Ben Achour has stated that this disputatio has a foundational value in the creation order. We can include in it the principle of Abraham’s deliberation, having received a commandment from God about his son Ishmael. The question of whether Abraham should sacrifice his son was already settled by the divine command, but Abraham nevertheless asked his son:
“And when he reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allāh wills, of the steadfast.” “(Holy Qur’an, 37: 102).
فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ ٱلسَّعْىَ قَالَ يَٰبُنَىَّ إِنِّىٓ أَرَىٰ فِى ٱلْمَنَامِ أَنِّىٓ أَذْبَحُكَ فَٱنظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَىٰ ۚ قَالَ يَٰٓأَبَتِ ٱفْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ ۖ سَتَجِدُنِىٓ إِن شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ مِنَ ٱلصَّٰبِرِينَ
More generally, from an Islamic perspective, the principle of collective deliberation is necessary for any form of interpersonal relationship. The importance of shûrâ in both the private and public spheres is highlighted in the Qur’an:
“And it was by God’s grace that thou [O Prophet] didst deal gently with thy followers: for if thou hadst been harsh and hard of heart, they would indeed have broken away from thee. Pardon them, then, and pray that they be forgiven. And take cou nsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him ‘’ (Holy Qur’an, 3 : 159).
فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍۢ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ لِنتَ لَهُمْ ۖ وَلَوْ كُنتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ ٱلْقَلْبِ لَٱنفَضُّوا۟ مِنْ حَوْلِكَ ۖ فَٱعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَٱسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِى ٱلْأَمْرِ ۖ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ
The above Sûrah is addressed to the Prophet as a guide, an educator with an apostolic mission. These qualities require him to possess gentleness, patience, compassion and forbearance towards his neighbors. Likewise, he had to take advice and consider the opinions of others. The command given to the Prophet for the principle of collective deliberation of his Companions applies to those who, like him, command or call others to faith. This verse is considered to contain a fundamental principle with regard to the Islamic government and its leaders, as well as for the relations between Muslim leaders.
The Companion Abû Hurayra observed,
“I have never seen anyone more willing to take advice from his Companions than the Messenger of God.”
According to the Islamic norm, the holy commandment to “take advice from them in all matters of public interest”وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِى ٱلْأَمْرِ (Holy Qur’an, 3 : 159) applies to governors, presidents or any other authority.
This is the manifest meaning of all the texts and examples that invoke, so positively, the principle of collective deliberation(deliberative democracy) and of those who undertake to respect it. Inspired from the Holy Qur’an and based on examples drawn from the Prophet’s words and confirmed by scholars, shûrâ must be imposed in the political sphere as well as in everyday life. The same principles also apply to all those who have a position of arbitrator or judge. The three most important areas in which the principle of collective deliberation is mentioned are the spheres of political, civil and military administration.
Are Islam and democracy really antithetical?
It is a stereotype that has the hard life: Islam and democracy would be irreconcilable by essence. In 2011, the democratic processes of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions hadtemporarily delegitimized this interpretation. Alas, the loss of momentum of political liberalization, the rise of Islamist parties, the resumption of authoritarian regimes (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, even Turkey), and the frightening spectre of the jihadist threat give it a new credibility.
That said, beyond the orientalist and essentialist accusations that point the finger at an Islam that is supposed to be “by nature” incompatible with democracy, it is above all the explosive combination of of “Muslim religion and political modernity” that is being questioned. It would, apparently,contribute to the consolidation of dictatorships even more liberticidal than the classical regimes (emirates, kingdoms, caliphates).
The democratic political technology would also serve the purposes of radicals and fundamentalists, who would use it to their advantage in order to bring it down. In this sense, liberal and pluralist democracy would not be suitable for countries with a Muslim majority, because it would inevitably favour the seizure of power by religious fanatics, who would seek to use pluralist elections to establish authoritarian regimes with an Islamic referent. Based on this pessimistic observationsome conclude that Muslim countries should invent their own democracy, which would not necessarily be based on the majority principle.
For Abdou Filaly-Ansary Islam is being imprisoned in a rough syllogism:
“One could condense in the form of a syllogism the best established beliefs on the relationship between these three notions: Islam, secularism and democracy. This syllogism would be:
Islam is hostile to secularism
But secularism is essential to democracy
Therefore, Islam is incompatible with democracy.
Such a formulation may seem artificial, crude and brutal. However, it sums up some of the best received and most deeply rooted ideas in contemporary public opinion. These ideas are so deeply rooted that the many alternative and critical approaches proposed in recent decades have not succeeded in eliminating them or even in attenuating their effects on dominant conceptions and attitudes. Is it worthwhile to assault them again? It would perhaps be more useful to analyze each of the propositions of this syllogism in order to “measure its truth value”, to use the words of the logicians, before seeing if the articulations between them can really hold. The analysis will call upon elementary semantics, i.e. the meaning we are entitled to give to words, and thus to the links we establish between them to build propositions. “
For Westerners including some intellectuals, Islam is, by its nature, antithetical to democracy. They argue that the individual in the West is free and exercises freely critical judgment, which is at the heart of the democratic process. Citizens are the architects of institutions and laws, for it is the people, through their representatives whom they elect or dismiss, who govern. Thus, the West was able to free itself from the tutelage of religion. On the other hand, Islamism, the antithesis of free secular Western democracy, favors devotion to dogma. Consequently, pure and hard Islam does not understand and does not accept democracy. It will refuse a society that does not come from Allah and the Qur’an. That is why it nourishes a hatred against the “kuffâr” (unbelievers) and their institutions. This simplistic explanation of the nature of Islam has been at the origin of popular western hatred for Muslims and Islamophobia.
In this vein, Roger Greiss writes in an op-ed published in Le Nouvelliste in Québec:
“… in Quebec, Islam cannot, at least for the moment, wage war on us to establish Sharia law. They are waiting for the strength of numbers. During this waiting period, the Muslim faithful must work efficiently for the progress of Islam. Therefore, it is permissible for him to engage in activities considered “haram”, i.e. to perform forbidden acts if this can establish and strengthen the power of the Muslim community. He is willing to declare himself in favor of democracy and human rights, for example, when deep down he harbors a great aversion to them. Or to agree to maintain friendly relations with the infidels while he despises and hates them. This is “taquiya“, the deception permitted by Islam, both in word and deed, if it benefits the Muslim community. Lying to an infidel is not lying! In short, hypocrisy has been established as the norm for negotiating with the “kuffar” that we are, waiting for the time to govern us.
This is what the Prophet Mohammed commands and what Ayatollah Khomeini has formulated unambiguously: “Governing the world is the goal of Islam.” “
Is democracy soluble in Islam?
During the second half of the 20th century, most Muslim countries adopted some form of secularization of public life. The question of secularism in Islam cannot be posed in a vacuum; it must be based on the results of this period. In a globalized world, where the daily life of Muslim populations is now inseparable from that of other components of humanity, it is more necessary than ever to affirm the values of secularism, which alone offers a framework of references common to all men and all peoples, beyond their differences of religion or culture. One must approach this theme from two angles. On the one hand, one must try to identify the obstacles that have hitherto prevented secularization in the Muslim world. On the other hand, in response to the doctrinal objections of fundamentalists to secular discourse, to pose the central question of the historicity of Revelation.
Can Islam harmonize or agree with practices such as secularism, democracy and modern science? Any Arab intellectual who considers himself the heir of the thought of the Nahda century, of its evolutions and its accumulated effects, will not hesitate to answer the question positively, that is to say with a resounding “yes”.
There is no impediment, in principle, between the Arabs and the modern forms of secular and democratic power apart from the well-known obstacles of poverty, illiteracy, economic underdevelopment and colonial rule, all of which areeconomic underdevelopment and colonial domination andcurable diseases and barriers that could be removed.
Islam is a global and historical religion that has been sown, over a period of approximately fifteen centuries, in an impressive array of diverse cultures, differentiated societies, contrasting civilizations and antagonistic states: there is the tribal and the pastoral, there is the industrial one in full progress, there is the agricultural one, there is slavery, there is the centralized state, there is the hierarchical and bureaucratic state, there is commercial and mercantile state, there is the absolute royalism, there is the republic, there is the city-state, there is the modern nation-state, there is also the secular state, and there are all the forms of social, political, civilizational and cultural life that are linked to it, forms that history has known in the life of peoples, nations and humanity in general.
If Islam was not the holder, as a world and historical religionof an impressive energy to transform itself, to shape itself, to be flexible, interpret, comment, revise, etc., it would not have been possible for it to endure and to extend in the form that we know it. Therefore, from this foundation and by these considerations, there is nothing that prevents the present historical Islam from harmonizing with secularism, democracy, modern science, etc.
Could political Islam adopt democratic values?
Today, Islamism is often understood as a synonym for religious radicalism or even terrorist violence. However, Islamism, or political Islam, is above all a scientific concept born in the 1970s and 80s to characterize a phenomenon of the return of religion in the political sphere. A reaction to secular authoritarian regimes and the loss of religious evidence in society, political Islam originally advocated the application of the sharîca and the advent of an Islamic state.
Political Islam was born in the context of colonization. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Muslim reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) drew on the sacred texts to confront the superiority of the technicist West and counter its universalist ambition. Through an effort to reinterpret the Islamic heritage, these thinkers tried to revive and mobilize the Muslim community. They set in motion a renewal of Islamic culture, literature, law, economic practices, and social and societal practices in order to find an alternative to the Western state and lifestyle.
This initial reformist impulse was nevertheless reoriented towards an anti-Western Pan-Islamist project under the pen of Rachid Rida (1865-1935), who called for the restoration of the caliphate. It is no longer a question of “modernizing Islam” but of “Islamizing modernity”.
This was also the approach chosen by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) and the “mother” of the Islamist groups that emerged in the region during the 20th century. Described by Zubaida as “the most prominent fundamentalist current in Sunni Islam“, the Muslim Brotherhood rises up against “the blind imitation of the European model” to which they oppose a counter-model based exclusively on the precepts of the Qur’an. This position is well expressed in the organization’s slogan:
“Allah ghaytna, wa-l-rasul qadwtana, wa-l-qurandisturna, wa-l-jihad sabilna. “
[Allah is our goal. Prophet Muhammad is our leader. The Qur’an is our constitution. Jihad is our path]
The Justice and Development Party [Adalet ve KalkınmaPartisi, AKP], which came to power in Turkey in 2002, has attracted the interest of international observers through its active foreign policy. While this policy seems to respond to a certain consistency, between 2002 and 2016 it has also undergone numerous evolutions. The AKP draws its strategic and diplomatic vision from previous governing experiences, the conservative ideologies that marked the country in the twentieth century, and the thinking of several intellectuals, the most influential of whom is Ahmet Davutoğlu, adviser to the prime minister and later foreign minister (2009-2014).
The AKP’s first term (2002-2007) saw the party explore different strategic options. Then a doctrine was put in place that was based on a few major principles, such as the pacification of neighborhood relations, pro-active diplomacy and the use of all available tools to radiate on a regional and then global scale. The objective is to put Turkey at the heart of local trade, using its growing influence in the Middle East to influence its international partners.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 pushed the AKP to rethink its doctrine. The country now sees itself as an example of how traditional values and conservative democracy can coexist, as well as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which carries this vision in the Arab world. But in 2013, several crises weakened this vision and pushed Turkey to abandon the doctrine developed by the AKP.
Democracy in the land of Islam
The question often comes up in the debate. There are those who claim that democracy will never take root in Islamic lands, knowing that Muslim countries have been governed for centuries by theocratic, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.
They blithely confuse Islam and radical Islamism and make no distinction between what is the sincere faith of believers and must be respected (the religious practice) and what is the political agenda of Islamist groups and must be fought (the ideology).
Incidentally, their strategic allies are precisely those they denounce, i.e. Wahhabi and Salafist groups of all kinds. This is the tree that hides the forest. By dint of seeing only them, the West has ended up making them its only reference group!
This West that they vomit for its modernity, its secularism, its conception of human rights, its equality between men and women, its freedom of expression and its freedom of conscience and religion.
Yet, Muslims who aspire to democracy, freedom and social justice exist and they number in the millions. Millions of men and women, on the front lines, facing all the dangers of jihadist groups, who are fighting a courageous battle, often risking their lives, precisely because they believe in democracy and universal values.
This is the lesson that can be drawn from the democratic process that is beginning in Tunisia. I am referring to this Arab-Muslim country that has suffered the torments of extremism and terrorism and is now recovering thanks to the mobilization of its women’s groups, its human rights activists, its elected officials, its youth, its intellectuals, its artists, its trade unionists, its business people.
Tunisia did not ask itself the question if Islam is compatible with modernity. It demonstrated it, as soon as it became independent, in 1956. While Western countries are still bogged down in the accommodations to be made to the “so-called Islamic headscarves”, Tunisia had banned the wearing of the veil in school in 1957.
While people still close their eyes in the West to the practice of forced marriages, Tunisia had banned early marriages and imposed a mandatory minimum age for marriage 60 years ago.
The Code of Personal Status that was promulgated in January 1957 freed Tunisian women from the guardianship of their fathers and husbands. From then on, both spouses had to consent to their marriage in order for it to be valid.
Polygamy was abolished, a revolution still today in Muslim countries. Repudiation is forbidden, divorce must be done before a civil court which will protect the rights of the wife.
While some people are still calling for the establishment of “Islamic courts” in Canada and in Western countries, Habib Bourguiba, head of a Muslim state, simply abolished religious courts.
This shows that there is no incompatibility between Islam and democracy. It is all a matter of interpretation, leadership and political will.
Discourse and concept
The political and the religious during 15 centuries have never ceased to be entangled. There is a perpetual confusion of discourses and concepts among classical or modern Muslim authors between religion and political construction, between “politics” and ethics, between sharîca and democracy. The concepts of constitution, freedom, citizenship are still to be found in contemporary religious writings. How to identify the different uses of “siyāssah“, “tadbīr“, politics or governing? A semantic study is favored to better grasp the evolution of the management of public affairs through the vocabulary used in each period and in each region. Rethinking the fundamentals of the “old” Islamic political vocabulary and highlighting the influence of modernity on Muslim political thought and practice. Conclusions on Islam and democracy would be inescapable.
No sooner had the Prophet Muhammad settled in Medina, after the short Meccan period marked by proselytizing, that he began to command the believers and organize community life there. The dacwa is no longer peaceful, sometimes the organizational takes precedence over the spiritual. The political is there: the second year of the hegira is nicknamed “sanatu al-ʾamr” (The year of command), the ninth is “sanatual-wufūd” (the year of deputations) in connection with the representatives of the tribes who came to Medina not only to express their recognition of the new religion but also to present their allegiance to the new power. With ar-riddah, it can be said that the reason of the state had taken precedence over religious solutions. Henceforth, there was an inevitable interpenetration between the precepts of the new religion and the constraints of social and even political organization. The interweaving of the political and the religious, which sometimes manifests itself in the form of opposition, was conveyed, for centuries, in narrative, literary or fiqh sources and especially in political treatises.
One cannot help but notice a perpetual confusion of discourses and concepts among classical or modern Muslim authors between religion and political construction, between “politics” and ethics, between sharīca and democracy or between “people” and nation…. A plethora of writings came into being from at least the 2nd century of the Hegira/8th century until the 13th century/19th century when, at last, the real manuals appeared such as “Aqwamu al-masālik” by Kheir Eddine at-Tūnussi which has the merit of being the first to use a jargon hitherto unknown to Muslims, and Muslim elites such as the concepts of “constitution”, “revolution” or “freedoms”. The word “shacb” (people), would only replace the term “milla” in the 20th century. Citizenship is still to be found in the writings of the end of this same century.
One would like to follow closely the evolution of political thought in the land of Islam. How have Muslims through the ages and in different areas thought about politics? How was this politics directly or indirectly thought? When was the term “siyāssah” or “tadbīr” coined? When was it used as an equivalent of the term “politics” (in the Greek or Western sense)?
Political order and religious order
At the origin of Western constitutionalism, there was a process of secularization, i.e. a progressive separation between the political order and the religious order, which became more and more profound throughout history: from the struggles for investitures in the eleventh century to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and then to the French Revolution.
This Arab neo-constitutionalism identified by Ben Achourrepresents the result of a compromise between two conceptions of the state: the civil state and the religious state. The Tunisian jurist has devoted himself to these themes for a very long time in an attempt to clarify the particularity of the Arab-Muslim world, the persistence of tradition and the resistance to secularization processes.
Although the Arab Spring marked the end of the Arab exception, which seemed to exclude the compatibility of Islam and democracy, the form of government that emerged from the Tunisian constituent process is in no way comparable to Western forms of democratic government.
The concept of the civil state appears in the platform of the Freedom and Justice Party, which represents the political expression of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. It is also clearly stated in the Tunisian constitution of January 2014, in Article 2, which proclaims,
“Tunisia is a civil state, based on citizenship, the will of the people and the rule of law.”
But the concept of the civil state does not express a secularized conception of the state, because the electoral program of the Ennahdha party, which adopted the civil state model, as well as the electoral program of the Freedom and Justice party, introduced the concept of a civil state with Islamic reference.
The civil state is not a theocratic state, but at the same time it is opposed to a secularized conception of the state. One of the main theorists of the civil state concept and the inspirers of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political orientations, Al-Qaraḍāwī, stated in identifying civil state and Islamic state:
“The Islamic state is a constitutional or legitimate state, which has its own constitution, to which it refers to govern, and a law to refer to it; its constitution is represented by the principles and laws of the sharī’a, as it appears in the Qur’an and Sunnah in terms of doctrine, cibādāt (worship practices), ethics, and mucāmalāt (social practices).”
In short, the civil state has the form of a constitutional state, i.e., a state within the confines of the constitution, but it is built on the foundation of an ethic of religious origin. This is the compromise that Ben Achour lucidly identifies and finds in the Tunisian constitution of January 27, 2014, in the preamble of which is proclaimed the attachment of the Tunisian people
“to the teachings of Islam and its finalities characterized by openness and tolerance, as well as to human values and the universal and superior principles of human rights.”
Constitutionalism, which took shape through the convulsive phases of the revolution and the political dialectics of the constituent process, consists, according to Ben Achour, of a paradigm based on the concepts of civil state and freedom
Consequently, the constitution confirms the Arab-Islamic identity of Tunisia, but at the same time proclaims the universalism of the principles expressed by the fundamental rights. Significant in this regard is Article 39 of the constitution, which guarantees “the right to free public education at all levels,” but firmly emphasizes the role of the state in “ensuring that the young generations are rooted in their Arab and Islamic identity and their national belonging.‘’
Constitutionalism, which took shape through the convulsive phases of the revolution and the political dialectics of the constituent process, consists of a paradigm based on the concepts of civil state and freedom, guaranteeing dignity (karâma). It is a new kind of constitutionalism (compared to the Western tradition), because it is the result of the compatibility between a radical religiosity, which constitutes the foundation of identity, and the requirement of a civism that intends to confine the religious to religion, that is to say, to faith and worship, without interfering with political life and law.
The complex conjunction of these elements leads to a new legitimacy of the democratic form of government: a form of legitimacy of consensual type, opposed to a democratic legitimacy, because the first, which is the result of the consensus of the whole of the groups, is beyond the majority principle.
The democratic form of government produced by the Tunisian revolution represents a model which, although it is in line with the Western tradition, profoundly modifies its essence. The political dialectic within the material constitution, that is, the confrontation between social and political forces, between their ideologies and their institutional achievements, will test the validity of the new model.
Islam and modernity
If a date with symbolic value is absolutely necessary to mark the irruption of modernity in the discursive field of Muslim thought, it is 1798 when Bonaparte landed in Egypt with a military corps and accompanied by many scholars who had come to explore the country. This expedition only aroused astonishment, naive and lively admiration and curiosity in the Muslims. Blind and incredulous, they did not know why the French had come, and “no one cared or tried to find out“. No, Napoleon was not “the soul of the world on a horse” as Hegel had exclaimed when he saw Napoleon march on Jena in 1807! There was therefore no Kant to sublimate, from afar, a revolution that realized the idea of right, and no Hegel to rejoice in it.
The only native mediator to describe such an event was a chronicler named Jabarti (1756-1825). However, this appearance of Bonaparte in what could be considered the “Arab Jena”, Alexandria, will nevertheless mean the “end of history”, that is to say the end of the classical Muslim culture, closed in on itself, inevitably dogmatic, theo-centric and self-referential. Indeed, as B. Lewis reminds us, “for the first time since the Crusades, the invasion of a central Islamic land was undertaken“; this “allowed the diffusion in Muslim lands of the new principles of the French Revolution, the first European movement of ideas to break down the barrier between the world of the infidels and the world of Islam“. Even today, the Arabs are haunted by colonialism.
This is to say, from the outset, that modernity has been perceived as allogeneous, compromised by the colonial fact. It is not, culturally speaking, the time when a society, salutarily, questions itself in order to regenerate itself, nor, in philosophical terms, the time when knowledge takes for object its own actuality after having exhausted the questioning of the transcendental truth. What is called in Arabic “sadmat al-hadâtha” (the shock of modernity) comes from the discovery of the other. But the other is not the one exalted by philosophy, the other that moves in the horizon of the sense of the same (the reverse of the same, the neighbor, the other than myself) or the “great other”, the symbolic other in relation to the real other. No, the other is not the non-Muslim of the classical age either, intra-muros (people of the book, Jews, Christians and assimilated) and extra-muros (non-Islamic territories and peoples). Yes, the other is now the West, the only one, massively present with what it has of negative and repulsive (its weapons, its Gods, its domination…) and simultaneously of positive and attractive (its rationalized administration, its sciences and techniques, its culture and arts…).
From the moment when modernity is felt and lived effectively as the intersection of an anthropological type (Islam) and the Universal (the West), the central question is twofold: on the one hand, how to save the idea that the Muslim has of himself, that is to say, how to remain identical to himself, all other conditions being equal; and, on the other hand, how should he live, this Muslim, his present time?
In 1930, another Lebanese, emir and activist of the Arab cause, Chekib Arslan (1869-1946), wrote a text with a very eloquent title “Why are Muslims behind and why are others ahead?“. The Algerian reformist Malek Bennabi reformulates the question asked through a century: “how to make the products of a civilization?” in the terms: “How to make a civilization?“. In 1978, Ghali Chokri, an Egyptian intellectual of Marxist tendency titles his book: “The rebirth and the decline in the modern Egyptian thought“. The question is so heavy that even an essay that wants to be “critical, anthropological, historical-philosophical” (apparently therefore distant from the sublimation of culture) – like that of the historian Hichem Djaït (1935-2021), gives itself as
“supreme ambition to provoke the awakening of the Arab and Islamic conscience“.
Finally, philosophy, too, moves in this intellectual horizon: to rethink the philosophical heritage in order to ensure the renewal around this question that summarizes the Moroccan philosopher Mohamed Abed Al-Jabri:
“What am I, now and what is my future? ‘’
Arkoun, summarizes this questioning:
“why this delay, this impotence of the populations depositaries of the Word of God, whereas the infidels, remained deaf to the ultimate Revelation, realized so brilliant progress in the order of the culture and the civilization?’’
To this crucial question: how to insert oneself in the New Times without shedding one’s cultural identity, the answers are diverse. However, one can synthesize them in three typical attitudes.
The couriers of modernity
What the Liberal Age attests to is the emergence, within the Muslim elites of the nineteenth century, of the figure of the reformist or the liberal as that of an intellectual courier. This is notably the case of reformist authors and politicians such as Tahtâwî , Medhat Pasha , Syed Ahmad Khan or Khayr al-Dînal-Tûnsî . This is also the case of neo-reformists such as al-Afghânî , Muhammad ‘Abdû, Rashîd Ridâ and their followers. They are authors engaged in public life, familiar with both religious and secular Muslim cultures and with European cultures. Although they were concerned, to varying degrees, with colonial expansion, they viewed the technological and intellectual dynamics of Western Europe positively, as a source of inspiration and emulation. Their fundamental idea is that the nations of the East, in general, and the Muslims, in particular, have been victims of a long phase of decline. It is therefore a question of recovering the essence and vigor of these cultures.
In the case of Muslims, a return to “authentic Islam” would pave the way for the adoption of modern education and institutions. For them, it is a given that Islam is synonymous with emancipatory values. The freedoms and reforms promoted by modernity could not, in their eyes, constitute a source of cultural alienation. Rather, they saw them as the tool by which Muslims could free themselves from what they called the “centuries of decadence” (cusûr al-inhitât). The prevailing despotism in the Ottoman Empire was interpreted by them as proof that the values of Islam had long been abandoned. Thus, a work of removing the effect of alienation is necessary to recover these values of freedom.
For the reformist Medhat Pasha:
“The Ottoman people are ready for a constitutional government. Is not democracy the basis of their morals and religion? ”
Already, in the famous Takhlîs, in which Tahtâwî gives an account of his Parisian stay (1826-1831), the French intellectual cartography is described through classical Muslim concepts. The French are presented as mostly followers of tasdîq wa takdhîb al-‘aqliyayn , i.e. of rationalism. The political lexicon enjoys the same cross-cultural treatment. Thus, says Tahtawi,
“what they call freedom (hurriya) is precisely what we call equity and justice (al-insâf wa-l-‘adl). ‘’
The reformist and neo-reformist discourse seems to be affected by an equivocation or existential disarray. One can measure the degree of this in the manifesto written in favour of the maintenance of the Ottoman Constitution by MedhatPasha. In the same subject, Europe is considered alternately as ally then as enemy of the process of democratization of the Ottoman Empire. Also, defending the maintenance of the Ottoman constitution of 1876, Pasha states:
“The Constitution was desired, and desired by the people, by liberal England and by republican France.”
He adds, a few lines later,
“I speak only as an Ottoman, loving freedom, devoted to independence, threatened by civilized Europe, hating despotism.”
At the same time as the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 was being held, the two emblematic figures of neo-Reformism, al-Afghânî and ‘Abdû, had just launched their review al-cUrwâtual-wuthqâ in Paris. They had gone into exile after being expelled from Egypt because of their opposition to the conquest of that country by the United Kingdom. Thus they chose Paris as a free city to spread their ideas in the East. But how could the countries of the East hope to free themselves from despotism when it was maintained and protected by colonial domination? Not concealing their enthusiasm for the intellectual dialogues that they engaged in Paris, they did not cease at the same time to castigate colonialism, particularly British colonialism, in their review.
For reformists and neo-reformists, Islam as a whole, as a value system, needs to be rediscovered. Muslims have ceased for centuries to embody the values of Islam. They are Muslims only by tradition or by descent. “They are Muslims,” says Chekîb Arsalân, “only nominally or in the geographical sense.‘’ For the reformists and, above all, for the neo-reformists, the system of Islamic values has been gradually discarded and supplanted by habits and customs which are antinomic to it. The neo-reformists will even go so far as to consider that liberal Europe embodies Islam much more than the Muslim world does. ‘Abdû is said to have declared in Paris:
“I found here an Islam without Muslims while I left Muslims without Islam. “
This vision, which assigns to the emerging Europe an almost messianic role for Muslims, has been confronted with growing suspicion since the end of the nineteenth century. The new developments of the colonial fact and the continued disintegration of the Ottoman Empire are probably among the main factors of this ideological reconfiguration. The expansion of socialist ideas, especially after the First World War, will undoubtedly be an additional factor.
Muslim Brotherhood and Democracy
While the image of a hegemonic and colonial Europe increasingly took precedence over that of the Europe of the Enlightenment, the positive image enjoyed by liberal democracy was able to resist for a while among the direct and indirect followers of the neo-reformists. The Muslim Brotherhood was born in 1929. Their emergence is often interpreted as a reaction to both the British occupation of Egypt and the abolition of the caliphate in 1924. The latter was indeed experienced in the Sunni Muslim world in general as a cataclysm. Since the Saqîfah event (11 AH-632 CE) in Islamic history, the symbolic unity was broken.
The fact remains that Hasan al-Bannâ, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a disciple of Rashid Ridâ and can therefore be considered as one of the heirs of neo-reformism. He developed a vision on the political question quite similar to that of his predecessors al-Afghânî, ‘Abdû and, above all, Rashîd Ridâ. He asserted that the political system in Islam isbased on the responsibility of the government, the unity of the nation and respect for its will. Is it then a question of liberal democracy? Al-Bannâ hastens to specify that these principles being respected, the terms and the forms adopted are indifferent. For him, several forms of regime can be envisaged within this general principled framework. In support of his assertions, he outlines what he considers to be the various legitimate forms of rule that Muslim history has known. For him, they are irreducible to a single model, but they share the respect of principles such as the will of the nation, collective deliberation (shûrâ), etc.
He therefore proposes to examine in this perspective the parliamentary system and the Constitution in force in Egypt at the time of the British mandate. This parliamentary system, like the government which resulted from it, was borrowed from Europe. How much is it in conformity with Islam? Al-Bannâ leads his examination and begins it by calling for a general constitutional definition. The parliamentary system is based on the responsibility of the government, the power of the nation and respect for its will. He then concludes that thereis nothing in the rules of the Egyptian parliamentary regime that is in contradiction with the rules set by Islam regarding political regime. As for the Egyptian Constitution of the time, he enthusiastically considers that it is based on the most modern and highest constitutional principles and choices, without being in opposition in any of its clauses with the Islamic norms.
If Islam is then indifferent to the models and forms of political regimes, does the caliphate abolished in 1924 have a properly religious significance or is it simply a product of the contingencies of Muslim history? In other words, what is the caliphate? Does it have a normative political form? Both reformists and neo-reformists have consistently expressed their attachment to this institution as a principle of unity in the face of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and external threats. But the question of the actual political or religious content was rarely explicitly asked. Nevertheless, one of the consequences of this abolition was the resurgence of ancient controversies on the question of power.
In the early twelfth century, the doxographer Shahrastânî(1086-1153), for example, pointed out that no issue had given rise to so much inter-Muslim fratricidal conflict as that of power. For him, inter-Muslim strife was a major cause of conflict and the dissensions between Muslims are of two kinds: those which proceed from theological questions (‘usûliya) and those which proceed from political questions (imâmah). For the latter, he distinguishes, on the one hand, between those for whom power is a religious issue and whose custodians are scripturally designated, and, on the other hand, those for whom the question of power is a matter of “profane” choices.
It is from this latter perspective that Alî Abd al-Râziq (1888-1966), a scholar at the traditional Azhar University, attempts to place himself in his book Islam and the Foundations of Power,49 which was published a few months after the abolition of the caliphate. His aim is to show that the caliphal institution did not derive from a defined Islamic normative framework and that it was simply the result of historical contingencies. The basic thesis here is that Islam, as a religion, does not institute any specific form of political power and does not give itself any mission in this sense.
For Abd al-Râziq, the life of the Prophet as a whole shows that he did not behave as a political leader and did not have that vocation. His commitments to the community of the faithful, both in Mecca and in Medina, remained within the limits of his apostolic mission. The author adds that it is necessary to examine the life of the Prophet closely in order to free it from the late representations that have obscured it or that have thought to see in it a political dimension. The caliphates of Abû Bakr and ‘Umar were the result of specific historical circumstances, not of a religious requirement. It was a purely political reign dictated by legitimate practical considerations, but without any religious content. It is a reign, he says, a-religious or non-religious (lâ dînî).
In this respect, the abolition of the caliphate was not only an important step in the development of the Islamic world, but also an important step and in the development of the Islamic world as a whole. As such, the abolition of this institution is a salvific act. It removes any religious legitimization of Muslim governing practices.
In Egypt and in a large part of the Muslim world, the theses of Alî Abd al-Râziq caused an unprecedented repercussion and polemics. The trauma of the abolition of the Caliphate seemed to have a lot to do with it. The so-called liberal circles, including some of the Muslim neo-reformists, took up his cause, while the liberal newspapers vied in compliments.
For al-Hilâl, whether Mr. Abd al-Râziq succeeded in basing his theory on religion – as one thinks – or not, his theory is in line with the principles of power in the twentieth century, which confers sovereignty on the nation, to the exclusion of any person regardless of his filiation or other qualities.
Al-Muqtataf believes that the author of Islam and the Foundations of Political Power is comparable to Martin Luther: The outcry over his book reminds us of the outcry over Luther, the leader of the Christian reformation whose knowledge had the most decisive influence on what one seesas religious, literary and material developments in the European kingdoms.
Today, many parties or movements claiming to be part of political Islam are organized according to the principle of shûrâ, creating majlîs ash-shûrâ (councils) which play the role of consultation bodies with the leaders, and sometimes that of an internal parliament with strict application of the majority principle. But, more than that, the principle of shûrâ hasbecome the mobilizing myth of the “Muslim democrats”. They want to prove that democracy was already present in the original message of Islam. This in order to contradict at the same time both their Muslim fundamentalist detractors, for whom democracy would be a Western heresy and the European and American ethnocentric currents, and those for whom Islam would be intrinsically foreign to the Judeo-Christian democratic culture.
However, the islamologists Mohammed Arkoun or AbdouFilali-Ansary defend that the shûrâ does not refer to the political domain, insofar as it exclusively concerns the organization of a community of believers and not an entire state. If the claim of the shûrâ is indeed part of an Islamic utopia that claims to be reconciled with democracy, it cannot serve as a model for a state. It is therefore not so much in the founding texts of Islam that one should necessarily draw the Islamic justifications of a pluralist regime (the said texts can also be used to legitimize a dictatorship) than in the history of critical Muslim thought in particular that of the Nahda.
The rarity of democratic regimes does not mean that the democratic reference is totally absent from the contemporary political scenes of the Muslim world. On the contrary, the democratic question has been constantly present, if only in the rhetoric of the ruling elites who have often claimed it, while giving it an authoritarian and tutelary twist. It has beenrecurrent in the discourse of the intellectual, social and political currents, of secularist or Islamist obedience, which made it the principal claim in their fight against the powers in place.
As proof, the leaders and movements of the radical lefts, long committed to ideals in their multiple versions (Soviet, Maoist, Yugoslav, Trotskyist, etc.) or to local nationalisms (Arabism, Baathism, Nasserism, etc.), were mostly converted by the 1980s to the benefits of “Western and bourgeois” democracy, inspiring the creation of most of the human rights organizations and “civil society” platforms, denouncing the abuses of authoritarian regimes. More surprisingly, there has been a similar “conversion” movement among many reformist Islamist elites, the most emblematic of this trend being the Tunisian Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamic-conservative party Ennahda.
From the 1980s-1990s, these Islamic-reformist currents began to abandon their radical criticism of Western democracy, long considered alien, even hostile, to Islamic culture, to advocate “mixed formulas” in which the recognition of multiparty system, parliamentarianism and the protection of individual rights and fundamental freedoms are now considered to be central values of political action and the state. This type of rallying can be interpreted as purely tactical and instrumental, but it nonetheless carries a central tension within the political Islam, where the “new converts” to democracy are now competing with literalist and Salafist currents, for whom democracy remains synonymous with non-belief in unicity of faith (shirk), pernicious innovation (bidca) or disbelief (kufr).
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu