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Political Islam: Rise, fragmentation and possible fall

Published Jul 18, 2013 12:34pm

Unlike most political ideologies whose adherents by and large agree with the definitional tags attributed to their respective ideologies and ideologues, Political Islam is more of an academic concoction.

It works as an analytical umbrella under which political analysts lump various forces that claim to be using historical Islamic texts and traditions to achieve modern political goals.

One is not quite sure exactly when the term Political Islam was invented, but there is agreement among many academics, studying politics in the Muslim world that the word most probably emerged in the 1940s in Europe to define anti-colonial movements that described themselves to be religious/Islamic in orientation.

Though it might have some roots in anti-colonial movements that emerged among the Muslims of India and Arabia in the 19th century, Political Islam is basically a 20th century phenomenon. Its first main expression is believed to be Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that was formed in 1927.

Even though as a political tendency, Political Islam (to analysts) covers a wide range of Islamic political movements involving different sects, sub-sects, nationalities and leftist, as well as rightist rhetoric and narratives, it is the commonalities in these varied movements that makes analysts study and define them as a single ideological entity that they call Political Islam.

So what are the basic, commonly held aspects of Political Islam?

• Reaction against foreign (especially Western) political and cultural influences in Muslim societies.

• Offering political and social alternatives to replace Western political concepts and social values.

• The alternatives are based on an understanding of history, society, economics and society culled from modern-day interpretations of a (largely imagined) ‘golden age of Islam’.

• Adoption of modern technology because it does not have any particular values attached to it and can thus be tagged and used for the promotion of Islamic values.

• Introducing and infusing what are believed to be Islamic precepts of economics and politics.

Till about the late 1960s, movements associated with classical Political Islam were largely intellectual pursuits with limited political influence.

Nevertheless, they were seen with suspicion, even by those movements and groups that adopted the main aspects of Political Islam but fused them with leftist ideologies.

Thus, during the Cold War the central theological and political tussle in most Muslim countries was not exactly between ‘Islamists’ and secularists, or between religious political groups and communists/Marxists.

The main conflict was between the rightest expressions of Political Islam and the ideology’s leftist versions.

During the Cold War the main conflict in the Muslim world was mainly between the rightest expressions of Political Islam and the ideology’s leftist versions.
During the Cold War the main conflict in the Muslim world was mainly between the rightest expressions of Political Islam and the ideology’s leftist versions.

The rightist side produced tendencies like ‘Islamic Fundamentalism,’ while the leftist sides emerged with concepts like ‘Islamic Socialism,’ ‘Ba’ath Socialism’ and (to a certain extent), ‘Arab Nationalism.’

Consequently, during the Cold War, the rightest expressions of Political Islam were backed and supported by Western powers and Arab monarchies, mainly due to the fact that the leftist sides of the ideology had moved into what (during the Cold War) was called the ‘Soviet camp.’

Though the rightist sides were repressed by Muslim regimes that were operating from the left flanks of Political Islam, the right-wing of Political Islam had by and large failed to attract any worthwhile mass support.

However, things in this respect began to change between the late 1960s and 1980s. The right-wing expressions and groups of Political Islam experienced a surge especially after the defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian armies and air force at the hands of their Israeli counterparts in 1967.

Then the bankrolling of the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad in Afghanistan by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1980s also became one of the catalysts that triggered the shifting of political and social influence in many Muslim countries from left-wing Political Islam to its rightest expressions.

The ‘Afghan jihad’ also added a more militant dimension to right-wing Political Islam. It reached a nadir in the late 1980s after the Afghan conflict resulted in a stalemate and the Soviet forces in Afghanistan had to pull out.

In the early 1990s, the militant expressions of the ideology began to pull away from the orbit of its former backers (US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan), and tried to trigger ‘Islamic revolutions’ in various Muslim countries.

Their methods of creating chaos through bombings antagonised the regimes that had formerly backed them but now found themselves under attack.

The revolutions failed to materialise, but the bombings continued. Frustrated, the militants found themselves bordering on taking nihilistic action that has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia and even Turkey.

The more classical expressions of right-wing Political Islam have tried to repair the damage by getting involved in the democratic process in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia, Sudan, and Turkey.

But on most occasions than not (as has been the case of Pakistan for quite some time and recently in Egypt), ‘moderate’ right-wing democratic expressions of Political Islam have proven to be more successful on the social front, but lack the acumen and narrative required to devise and implement coherent economic policies or act decisively against their more violent and nihilist brethren.

Also, as was seen in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey where large demonstrations were held against their respective governments’ attempt to ‘Islamise the Constitution’, the social gains made by Political Islam too now seem to be challenged and questioned.

So one can cautiously suggest that Political Islam that emerged in the 1930s-40s and then peaked in the 1980s, is now a withering phenomenon.

The answer to just what it will be replaced with, in countries where it has played a leading socio-political role is still up for grabs.

Political Islam: From right to left

Islamic Fundamentalism:

Though usually attributed to the beliefs of modern-day extremist movements in Islam, Islamic Fundamentalism is basically a firm belief in the theological musings of ancient Islamic jurists and traditions.

Islamic Fundamentalists all agree with Imam Ghazali’s (12th century) dictum that the ‘gates of ijtihad (rational debate) in Islam are now closed.’

After about three hundred years of open debate in the Islamic world between the conservatives and the rationalists (Mu’tazilites), Ghazali insisted that a perfect synthesis (between the two) had been reached and that Islam’s social and spiritual philosophy had achieved completion.

The thoughts and writings of 9th Century Arabian theologian, Ahmed Ibn Hanabal, were perhaps the first renowned expressions of Islamic Fundamentalism.
The thoughts and writings of 9th Century Arabian theologian, Ahmed Ibn Hanabal, were perhaps the first renowned expressions of Islamic Fundamentalism.
The Mu’tazilites’ influence began declining during the rule of the ninth Abbasid caliph, Al-Muttawakkil, and the conservatives, who had ferociously debated with the rationalists, began their climb.

Modern-day Islamic Fundamentalism is rooted in this bygone intellectual triumph of the conservatives. Nevertheless, Islamic Fundamentalism never did attempt to form a so-called ‘Islamic state.’

Islamic Fundamentalists in the shape of scholars (ulema) and clergymen (maulvis and imams), mostly worked as advisers to caliphs and kings, or in mosques and madressas.

They were only interested in advocating Islamic laws, but never articulated a political plan that would carry these laws.

At the dilapidation of the Muslim empires from the 19th century onwards, the many reformist Islamic movements that emerged criticised the performance of Islamic Fundamentalists, blaming them for getting too close to the ‘decadent’ kings’ due to whose ‘negligence of Islam,’ Islamic political power had crumbled.

Islamic Fundamentalism has historically been more interested in rectifying ‘cultural and social deviances’ in a Muslim society and for this it used the mosque and evangelism – not direct politics.

Shiekh Ahmad Sirhindi (left), the 16th century Islamic scholar who opposed Mughal King Akbar’s liberal outlook of Islam and the political and theological accommodation of other religions in Mughal India. Sirhindi’s role in this respect was greatly embellished and glorified in the writings of Islamic Fundamentalists of the 20th century.
Shiekh Ahmad Sirhindi (left), the 16th century Islamic scholar who opposed Mughal King Akbar’s liberal outlook of Islam and the political and theological accommodation of other religions in Mughal India. Sirhindi’s role in this respect was greatly embellished and glorified in the writings of Islamic Fundamentalists of the 20th century.

Islamic Fundamentalism continues to be frozen in an understanding of the Quran, the hadith and Shariah developed centuries ago by ancient Islamic scholars.

Though it is vocal in its rhetorical demands for the imposition of Islamic laws, it has little or no political agenda as such. It never did.

It remains largely associated with apolitical Muslim individuals, conservative ulema, the clergy and Islamic evangelists.

Zakir Naik is one of the most well-known faces of modern-day Islamic Fundamentalism. His lectures are popular among urban middle-class Pakistani and Indian Muslims.
Zakir Naik is one of the most well-known faces of modern-day Islamic Fundamentalism. His lectures are popular among urban middle-class Pakistani and Indian Muslims.

Most of modern-day Islamic Fundamentalism’s activism has been expressed through established as well as ad-hoc groups that lobby for the implementation of the practice of veiling for Muslim women in public, the eradication of ‘obscenity in the media and society,’ for making mandatory certain Islamic rituals, for the enforcement of laws against the sale and consumption of alcohol, etc.

It never was and still isn’t a dedicated political movement but a social and theological one.

Early manifestations: Ahmed Inb Hanbal (9th century Arabian scholar and theologian); Shiekh Ahmed Sirhindi (16th Century Islamic scholar in Mughal India).

Noted Modern Islamic Fundamentalist Groups: The Tableeghi Jamaat (Pakistan/Bangladesh/India); Al-Huda (Pakistan/Canada); Islamic Research Foundation (India); Dawat-e-Islami (Pakistan).

Emphasis:

• Islamisation of society through evangelicalism and advocating rituals and social codes of behaviour (based on sunnah and hadith) for rulers and their subjects.

• Largely rejecting modern interpretations of the Qu’ran.

Islamism:

A word coined in the 1970s (in France), even though it had already (albeit sparsely) been in use among European writers in the 19th century.

In the modern political context, Islamism came to explain a series of (post-19th century) Islamic movements that advocated Islam not only as a religion but as a political system as well.

Islamism’s roots can be found in the Islamic reformist movements that appeared in the subcontinent and in Arabia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Incensed by the crumbling of the Mughal and Ottoman empires, a series of reformist movements emerged, advocating ‘a return to true Islam’ (Salafi) that was said to be free of innovation and corruption.

Some of these movements emphasised on applying reason in religion, but many also added the importance of ‘jihad’ not only against western colonialism but also against the clergy, and especially against Sufi tendencies which these reformists believed were a ‘negative innovation’ and an anathema to ‘true Islam.’

Such movements, though animated, came to a naught, mostly due to the adjustments the more moderate/modern as well as traditional schools of Islam made at the wake of the rise of western colonialism.

At the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate (1922), a bulk of Muslim regimes (especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey) vigorously adopted modern western economic, social and political models (i.e. Liberalism, secularism and nationalism).

One of the first experiments in Islamism that actually took off was when (in the early 20th century) the Al-Saud family conquered a vast tract in Arabia (with the tacit support of the British who were trying to undermine Ottoman rule in the region).

The Al-Saud were ardent followers of Abd Al-Wahhab – an 18th century puritanical Islamic reformist. The Saud family soon enacted the world’s first ‘Islamic State,’ but under the control of a monarchy.

The Saud family’s adherence to puritanical Islam and imposition of harsh Islamic laws went down well with the early Islamists; but the family’s growing ties with the British and its monarchical tendencies made a lot of them uncomfortable.

Founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. A fringe figure in world politics the 1920s, he shot to prominence when vast reserves of oil were found in his country. He then laid the foundation of constructing the first known ‘Islamic state’ that was to be ruled by his family.
Founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. A fringe figure in world politics the 1920s, he shot to prominence when vast reserves of oil were found in his country. He then laid the foundation of constructing the first known ‘Islamic state’ that was to be ruled by his family.

As secular-nationalists dominated the liberation movements in most Muslim countries, politicised Islamic scholars retaliated by labelling these movements as ‘anti-Islamic.’

Pioneering Islamism scholars such as Egypt’s Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and the subcontinent’s Abul Ala Maududi, began interpreting the Qu’ran and the hadith by using modern political concepts and lingo.

For example, Maududi expanded the Qu’ranic concept of Tauheed (oneness of God) by suggesting that it also meant the (political) oneness of the Muslim ummah that can only be achieved by ‘Islamising the society’ and through attaining state power to finally formulate an ‘Islamic state.’

Abul Aala Maududi: One of the pioneering intellectuals and theoreticians of 20th century ‘Islamism.’
Abul Aala Maududi: One of the pioneering intellectuals and theoreticians of 20th century ‘Islamism.’

Qutb, on the other hand, implied that 20th century Muslim societies were in a state of jahiliyya – a term used by classical Muslim scholars to define the state of ignorance the people of Arabia were in before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Qutb suggested that a jihad was required in Muslim countries to grab state power and to rid the Muslims from the ‘modern forces of jahilyiya’ (i.e., secularism, Marxism, ‘western materialism’).

Sayyid Qutb (right) was a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and an early advocate of armed jihad. He was arrested and executed by the leftist-nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.
Sayyid Qutb (right) was a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and an early advocate of armed jihad. He was arrested and executed by the leftist-nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.

It must be emphasised that the concept of the Islamic State is very much a 20th century construct.

That is why the theory of Islamism purposefully eschewed a number of ancient commentaries on Qu’ran and Shariah. It rejected these scholarly works as being either ‘stuck in the mosque’ or undertaken to serve kings who had divorced Islam from politics.

It is, however, ironic that Islamism (across the Cold War), was largely supported and funded by Western and Arab powers to prop-up opposition against Muslim countries and regimes that were in the ‘Soviet camp’ or were seen detrimental to Western economic and geo-political interests.

For example, it is now well-known how the United States and its Western and Arab allies (especially Saudi Arabia), funded various early Islamist movements to undermine left-leaning governments and elements in the Muslim world. These movements included the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamat-i-Islami.

The exception in this respect was the (Shia) Iranian Islamists. Though the main groundwork for the 1979 revolution in Iran was done by leftists and constitutionalists, the Iranian forces of Islamism successfully steered the revolution towards becoming an Islamic one. Iran also remains to be Islamism’s only tangible political enactment – though ever since it has greatly suffered from grave economic and social strife.

Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was the leading exponent of Islamism among the Shia Muslims.
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was the leading exponent of Islamism among the Shia Muslims.

The arrangement between Islamists and its Western and Saudi backers reached a peak in the 1980s during the ‘anti-Soviet jihad’ in Afghanistan.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the drying up of the patronage and funds Islamism’s leading organs were receiving (from the West), movements attached to Islamism started to weaken and fragment.

Consequently, Islamism’s less intellectually inclined (and more brutal) cousin, Neo-Fundamentalism, soon began usurping its agenda and political space.

Islamism forces tried to rebound after the Cold War through the democratic process but found themselves being accused of being apologists of violent Neo-Fundamentalists on the one side and of being lukewarm towards Islamising the society on the other.

Wherever they did manage to come into power (through democracy), they have struggled to initiate effective political and economic reforms mainly due to the fact that they end up creating polarisation and administrational chaos by trying to couple solutions to non-religious issues with certain ill-defined religion-orientated alternatives and manoeuvres.

Muhammad Morsi, a member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was elected President of Egypt in 2012. Within a year he fell from grace as millions of his opponents took to the streets demanding his resignation. He was ousted in a military coup in July 2013. Like most moderate components of modern-day Islamism, Morsi too ended up creating polarisation and administrational chaos by trying to couple solutions to non-religious issues with certain ill-defined religion-orientated alternatives and manoeuvres.
Muhammad Morsi, a member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was elected President of Egypt in 2012. Within a year he fell from grace as millions of his opponents took to the streets demanding his resignation. He was ousted in a military coup in July 2013. Like most moderate components of modern-day Islamism, Morsi too ended up creating polarisation and administrational chaos by trying to couple solutions to non-religious issues with certain ill-defined religion-orientated alternatives and manoeuvres.

Early manifestations: Ibn Taymmiya (13th -14th Century Arabian theologian); Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahab (18th Century Arabian scholar); Abul Ala Maududi (20th Century Indian/Pakistani Islamic scholar).

Noted Modern Islamism groups: Muslim Brotherhood (Middle East); Jamaat-i-Islami (Pakistan); Islamic Republican Party (Iran); National Islamic Front (Sudan); Hamas (Palestine); Hezbollah (Lebanon).

Emphasis:

• Advocates Islam as a moral as well as political system.

• Open to the modern interpretations of traditional Islamic texts but only if they accommodate the political goals of Islamism.

• Seeks legislative means to impose ‘Islamic’ moral, economic and social codes and laws.

• Persues state power by infiltrating various state organs such as the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and the police.

• Absorbs secular ‘Western’ political and economic ideas to tweak them with intellectual improvisations and consequently add an ‘Islamic’ dimension to them (‘Islamic banking’; ‘Islamic democracy;’ Islamic science;’ etc.).

• Vehemently opposed to secularism, even though not immune to use secular systems and political processes to achieve state and governmental power.

• Analyses modern history as a conflict between revolutionary socio-political and economic doctrines and movements of Islam and the economic, cultural and political hegemony of amoral (capitalist and [formerly] communist) interests (especially emitting from the West).

• Doesn't directly resort to armed militancy but is known to facilitate and support it.

Islamic Neo-Fundamentalism:

Neo-Fundamentalism in Political Islam is a tendency that aims to politicise and radicalise the social and cultural aspects of Islamic Fundamentalism.

Neo-Fundamentalism rose with the emergence of the Taliban in 1996 (in Afghanistan and Pakistan), and began filling the void created by the post-Cold War weakening of Islamism.

Like traditional Islamic Fundamentalism, Neo-Fundamentalism too maintains that the gates of ijtihad in Islam are closed and there is no room for reason in the act of understanding religious texts that are to be taken at face value.

However, unlike Islamic Fundamentalism, Neo-Fundamentalism looks to impose Islamic laws, morality and piety by force and through armed struggle (jihad), and through the creation of an ‘Islamic State’ (and/or ‘Islamic Emirate’).

Sultan Bajad, the leader of the early 20th Century radical Islamic militia, the Akhwan, that helped Ibn Saud come to power in what is today Saudi Arabia.
Sultan Bajad, the leader of the early 20th Century radical Islamic militia, the Akhwan, that helped Ibn Saud come to power in what is today Saudi Arabia.

The rise of the Taliban and the al Qaeda in the 1990s is seen to symbolise the emergence of ‘Islamic Neo-Fundamentalism.’
The rise of the Taliban and the al Qaeda in the 1990s is seen to symbolise the emergence of ‘Islamic Neo-Fundamentalism.’

Where Islamic Fundamentalists use concentrated evangelical tactics to supposedly ‘cleanse Muslim societies of un-Islamic practices,’ Neo-Fundamentalists use violence, coercion and terrorism.

Islamic Neo-Fundamentalism has further narrowed itself to become a squarely Sunni sectarian tendency that in the last decade has exhibited extreme displays of religious and sectarian xenophobia and violence bordering on nihilism.

It is also devoid of the intellectual tradition associated with Islamism, settling instead for radical polemical Islamist literature and thought that advocates violent action and an extremely narrow worldview.

Armed members of Nigeria’s Neo-Fundamentalist group, the Boko Haram.
Armed members of Nigeria’s Neo-Fundamentalist group, the Boko Haram.

Early manifestations: The Kharijites (7th Century Arabian puritans); the Akhwan (an early 20th century Islamic militia that helped Ibn Saud capture power in what today is Saudi Arabia).

Noted modern-day Islamic Neo-Fundamentalist groups: Al Qaeda and its many affiliates (international); the Taliban (Pakistan/Afghanistan); Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Pakistan); Islamic Salvation Army (Algeria); Armed Islamic Group (Algeria); Union of Islamic Courts (Somalia); Boko Haram (Nigeria).

Emphasis:

• Totally rejects any modern interpretation of the Qu’ran and insists that it should be read and understood literally.

• Rejects all modern concepts of participatory and constitutional politics.

• Advocates armed jihad as one of the foremost tenants of Islam.

• Describes a majority of Islamic sects to be heretical.

• Rejects most intellectual works and commentaries on Qu’ran, hadith and Shariah by both traditional and modern Islamic scholars, except those by ancient Arabian scholar, Hanabal and radical ‘Wahabi’ polemical l texts produced by various modern-day ‘jihadist/sectarian ideologues.’

• Not immune to committing genocide-like violence against ‘infidels’ and ‘heretical Islamic sects.’

• Treats violence as a replenishing force for Islam.

Islamic Socialism:

A term first used by the Muslim Socialist community in Kazan (Russia) just before the 1917 Communist revolution there. Staunchly anti-clerical, the community supported communist forces but retained its Muslim identity.

The term then became popular with certain Muslim members of the Indian National Congress Party and among some left-leaning sections of the All Indian Muslim League.

Islamic Socialism, as an ideology that attempted to equate Qu’ranic concepts of equality and charity with modern Socialist economics, was adopted (as ‘Arab Socialism’ and Ba’ath Socialism) in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, where secular Muslim leaders fused Islamic notions of parity and justice with socialism and Arab nationalism.

Though known for its usage of Islamic symbolism, Islamic Socialism was largely secular, anti-clerical, socially liberal and mostly sympathetic towards communist powers - Soviet Union and China.

It eventually became the left-wing of Political Islam.

Leading architect of ‘Arab Socialism,’ Egyptian leader, Gamal Abul Nasser (right), with famous Latin American revolutionary Marxist, Che Guevara in Cairo.
Leading architect of ‘Arab Socialism,’ Egyptian leader, Gamal Abul Nasser (right), with famous Latin American revolutionary Marxist, Che Guevara in Cairo.

Egypt’s popular leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, became Arab Socialism’s leading advocate and practitioner; while in Syria and Iraq the concept became to be known as ‘Ba’ath Socialism’ (Ba’th in Arabic means renaissance).

After the political success of Islamic Socialism in these countries, the idea also gained currency in Pakistan, Algeria, Indonesia, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.

The National Liberation Front that led Algeria’s independence from France (1962) described itself as a follower of Islamic Socialism, and so did the populist Pakistan Peoples Party.

Libya too began calling itself an Islamic Socialist state after Muammar al-Qadhafi toppled the Libyan monarchy in a coup in 1969. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) also described itself as being Islamic Socialists.

Famous PLO revolutionary and Islamic Socialist of the 1970s, Leila Khalid in Algeria (1972).
Famous PLO revolutionary and Islamic Socialist of the 1970s, Leila Khalid in Algeria (1972).

In Iran, radical anti-Shah militant organisations that fused Islamic symbolism with Marxist/socialist ideas also appeared. They took an active part in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but were then eliminated or banished by the new Islamic regime.

Islamic Socialism was vehemently attacked and criticised by conservative Muslim monarchies (mainly Saudi Arabia), as well as by those forces associated with Islamism (such as Jamaat-i-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood).

Painter, poet and writer, Hanif Ramay, was the main theorist and ideologue behind the Pakistan Peoples Party’s ‘Islamic Socialism.’
Painter, poet and writer, Hanif Ramay, was the main theorist and ideologue behind the Pakistan Peoples Party’s ‘Islamic Socialism.’

The charisma attached to Islamic Socialism began to wither after the death of Nasser in 1970, and when most Muslim countries began coming closer to the conservative oil-rich Arab monarchies.

The international oil crises of 1973-74 saw the economic policies of regimes professing Islamic Socialism come under great stress, creating disillusionment among the masses that began being drawn towards the advocates of Islamism.

The last major expression of Islamic Socialism was the (Soviet-backed) ‘Saur Revolution’ in Afghanistan in 1978, led by the People’s Democratic Party.

By the late 1970s Islamic Socialism had all but withered away, even though some mainstream right-wing parties in Muslim countries have (ironically) adopted old Islamic Socialist slogans despite the fact that most of them had opposed Islamic Socialism during the Cold War.

Early manifestations: Jamaluddin Afghani (19th Century Pan-Islamic ideologue); Ubaidullah Sindhi (Early 20th Century Indian/Muslim nationalist); Ghulam Ahmed Parvez (20th century Indian/Pakistani nationalist and scholar); Michel Aflaq (20th Century Syrian sociologist, philosopher and Arab nationalist); Ali Shariati (20th Century Iranian scholar and activist).

Noted Islamic Socialist groups: Arab Socialist Party (Egypt); Ba’ath Socialist Party (Iraq, Syria); National Liberation Front (Algeria); Pakistan Peoples Party (Pakistan); PLO (Palestine); National Front (Iran); Mojahedin-e-Khalq (Iran); Peoples Fadayeen (Iran).

Emphasis:

• Described socialist doctrines to be the modern manifestations of Islam’s emphasis on equality, charity and justice.

• In the context of the historicity of Muslim societies, Islamic Socialism understood the Marxist concept of historical class struggle as an on-going tussle between the upright have-nots and the oppressive ruling elites in the shape of kings, dictators and those exploiting Islam (through distortion of Islamic texts, superstition and coercion) to safeguard the rulers’ political and economic interests.

• Defined Islamism, the politicised clergy, conservative ulema and Arab monarchies as tools of capitalist/feudal exploitation and ‘Western imperialism.’

• Contextualised secularism in Muslim societies by suggesting that Islam was inherently secular because it had no official priesthood and that the Prophet Muhammad was exceptionally pluralistic in his handling of the non-Muslim populations of Makkah and Madina.

• Offered itself to be the most effective alternative (in Muslim countries) to monopolistic capitalism/feudalism/monarchism, communism and religious fundamentalism.

• Was extremely pro-ijtihad and encouraged an understanding and reading of Islamic texts as reflecting the modern economic, political and secular manifestations of Islamic Socialism.

Liberal Islam:

Though many liberal Muslims consider 8th and 9th century Islamic rationalists (the Mu’tazilites) to be the first political and philosophical expressions of Liberal Islam, in the political context, Liberal Islam just like all other branches of Political Islam, too is a late 19th/early 20th century creation – despite the fact that there is historical accuracy in the claim that major Muslim empires of yore were already largely pluralistic in orientation.

Again, in the political context, Liberal Islam can find its roots in some 19th century reformist movements and in the way Muslim countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey adopted secular western economic and social models in the early 20th century.

Famous 9th Century Muslim scholar and Mu’tazilite, Al-Kindi.
Famous 9th Century Muslim scholar and Mu’tazilite, Al-Kindi.

The emergence of the secular-nationalist movements in the Muslim world too gave impetus to the thought attached to Liberal Islam, and so did the coming to prominence of effusive ideologies such as Islamic Socialism.

Liberal Islam has been a flexible entity. Both the anti-West as well as pro-West sections profess it, with the acknowledgment of secularism being the common link between the two.

Kamal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish nation, remains to be the most secular expression of Liberal Islam.
Kamal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish nation, remains to be the most secular expression of Liberal Islam.

Many democratic political parties of the left as well of the right, and also authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world can be termed as having liberal views about Islam’s political and social role.

These parties and regimes are highly suspicious of the clergy and repulsed by the political ambitions of Islamism and Neo-Fundamentalism.

They encourage ijtihad in matters like the understanding of the Qu’ran and Shariah, and emphasise that Islam is best served through the mosque instead of through state or the government.

An emphasis on multiculturalism, nationalism and democratic pluralism too is made, even though, as mentioned before, some Liberal Muslim organs have been authoritarian as well.

The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a liberal Muslim and envisioned Pakistan as a modern, democratic and progressive Muslim-majority state. However, after his death in 1948 (just a year after Pakistan’s creation), Pakistan’s politics gradually slipped from the hands of liberal Muslims. The next six decades saw an intense political tussle between forces of Islamism and Islamic Socialism and then between Islamism, Islamic Neo-Fundamentalism and the more watered down expressions of Liberal Islam.
The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a liberal Muslim and envisioned Pakistan as a modern, democratic and progressive Muslim-majority state. However, after his death in 1948 (just a year after Pakistan’s creation), Pakistan’s politics gradually slipped from the hands of liberal Muslims. The next six decades saw an intense political tussle between forces of Islamism and Islamic Socialism and then between Islamism, Islamic Neo-Fundamentalism and the more watered down expressions of Liberal Islam.

Most mainstream political parties in the Muslim world today can be said to be following various degrees of Liberal Islam. Not all of them are secular in the western sense of the word, but they are flexible in their outlook towards matters such as Islamic laws, and concepts and practices that are deemed as ‘un-Islamic’ by their Islamist opponents (such as co-education, non-segregated events, women’s rights, films, music, alcohol, etc.).

Early manifestations: Al-Kindi (9th Century Arabian philosopher and scholar); Akbar (16th Century Mughal emperor); Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Syed Amer Ali (19th Century Indian Muslim scholars); Mustafa Kamal Pasha (Turkish general, nationalist and founder of modern Turkey); Mohammad Arkoun (20th Century Algerian scholar);

Noted Liberal Islam political parties with large vote banks: Indonesian Democratic Party; People’s Alliance (Malaysia); National Liberation Front (Algeria); Bangladesh Awami League (Bangladesh); National Democratic Party (Egypt); Maldivian Democratic Party (Maldives); Socialist Union (Morocco); Popular Movement (Morocco); Action Congress (Nigeria); Pakistan Peoples Party (Pakistan); Muttahida Qaumi Movement (Pakistan); Awami National Party (Pakistan); People’s Democratic Party (Tajikistan); Republican People’s Party (Turkey); Liberal Democratic Party (Uzbekistan).

Emphasis:

• Encourages constant Ijtihad and the contextualised, metaphorical and rational reading of the Qu’ran and related Islamic texts.

• Also advocates an individual (non-clerical) reading of the Qu’ran and the hadith; some strands of Liberal Islam reject the hadith for being unreliable and being manipulated manifestations of the political and theological interests of ancient Muslim kings and ulema and thus dangerous in the hands of modern-day clerics and Islamists.

• Understands Qu’ran to be a book of moral guidance as opposed to a political manifesto (as proclaimed by Islamism).

• Advocates the complete separation of the state and religion because politics (that, by nature, is amoral), ends up staining Islam that is supposed to be pristine and dignified.

• Abhors coercion in matters of dress, ritual and social behaviour (imposed in the name of Islam) because according to the Qu’ran ‘there is no compulsion in religion.’

• Insists that the Qu’ranic concept of aqal (reason, observation and logic) should be given precedence over the ritualistic aspects to form an educated and progressive Muslim society that can through reasoning come to a democratic consensus on what is right or wrong as long as it does not retard the society’s economic, social, cultural and political evolution.

• Also insists that faith should be a personal matter because when it is dragged out into the public it might come into conflict with certain rules and regulations prescribed by the state and the government and with the sentiments of other religions and differing sects.

References:

Oliver Roy, The failure of Political Islam (Harvard University Press, 1998) p.2

Muhammad Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam (University of Michigan, 2007).

Roger Hardy, The Muslim Revolt, (Harsh Publishers 1999) p.18

Ziauddin Sardar, Islam, Post-Modernism & Other Futures (Pluto Press 2001) p.100

Martin Kramer, Fundamentalists or Islamists? (Middle East Qutarly, 2003) pp.65-70

Abdullah Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy & Islam (Ashgate Publishing, 2004) p.90

James Toth, Syed Qutb (Oxford University Press, 2013) p.324

Nadeem F. Paracha, Islamic Socialism: A history from left to right (DAWN.COM, February 21, 2013).