Modern Islamic Political Thought

Martin Kramer’s review of Hamid Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought, published in Middle Eastern Studies, April 1984, pp. 238-40.

There is an account in a French diplomatic despatch of 1892 of an encounter between the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II and the head of Sufi orders in Egypt, Shaykh Muhammad Tawfiq al-Bakri. ‘I wish for you to understand that I am not a simple mollah’, boasted Shaykh al-Bakri. ‘I am a political man, I have general ideas, and I have read Aristotle, Montesquieu, J. J. Rousseau, Spencer, Leroy-Beaulieu, etc.’ The simple mollahs have since disappeared; political ideology suffuses religious thought. And the foreign influence is pervasive, although one more readily detects traces of Marx than of Montesquieu. The result is what some call ferment.

In this study, the late Hamid Enayat has succinctly described the modern mutations of Islamic political thought, ably summarizing representative texts for the student and general reader. The abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 is the author’s point of departure for a discussion of the rivalry between concepts of a Muslim state, and Muslim responses to the imported principles of nationalism, democracy and socialism. A parallel theme is that of specifically Shi’i modernism and Shi’i-Sunni reconciliation. We are again in the familiar company of Rashid Rida. Ali Abd al-Raziq, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Mustafa al-Siba’i, Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi and Shari’ati. As a descriptive survey, Modern Islamic Political Thought is of great value, and doubtless will win deserved recognition in the classroom.

But another aim of this book is to advance a subtle argument, signaled by a caveat in the preface.

The question of any ulterior or hidden motive that these [surveyed] authors may have harboured has been kept out of the analysis, not only because a thorough examination of them threatens to turn a history of ideas into histoire événementielle, but also because ideas seem to have a life of their own people, especially those of the generations subsequent to the authors’, often tend to perceive ideas with little or no regard for the authors’ insidious designs, unless they are endowed with a capacity for mordant cynicism.

This is how Enayat would dispense with that higher criticism that has interpreted the writings of Muslim reformists through their mundane transactions and esoteric teachings. It was this sort of inquest which led to a radical reappraisal of Afghani’s, Abduh’s, and Malkum Khan’s religious writings, and cast the early history of Muslim reformism in a severe light. Now historical scholarship is poised to examine the sincerity of the next generation of reformists. Those who still share the reformist attitude, locked as they are in a struggle with an ascendant fundamentalism, will be discomfited.

Enayat conveys, in the subtlest language, his personal conviction that this battered modernism is not a spent force, that a balance can yet be struck between authenticity and accommodation. To buttress this belief, Enayat feels obliged to shield the icons from the iconoclasts. Characteristic is his lengthy defense of Ali Abd al-Raziq’s al-Islam wa usul al-hukm. This book, published in Egypt shortly after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate, argued the controversial view that the caliphate was not immanent in Islam, and made a case for the separation of religion and politics. Enayat goes to great lengths to establish that the work was a step toward ‘a new Sunni consensus on the relationship between Islam and the modern state’, but was ?misunderstood’ and so evoked a ‘regrettable’ assault by the Azhar establishment. He passes in silence over the work of political historians who suggest that the book was written to thwart a scheme of the Egyptian royal house to claim the caliphate, and was regarded by contemporaries not as a theoretical inquiry but as a partisan tract.

A similar sort of omission mars Enayat’s account of the ‘religious response’ of a group of leading Azhar ulama to the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate. Enayat dwells on the ease with which these divines discarded their allegiance to the deposed caliph, and accepted the abolition as a fair accompli. ‘[The] resolution of the scholarly gathering shows that even in this body, despite its orthodox pronouncements, there was a willingness to come to terms with the new development’. Here were ‘evident clues to the readiness for accommodation with non-traditionalists’. But Enayat notes that these scholars met under the chairmanship of Shaykh al-Azhar al-Jizawi and President of the Supreme Religious Court al-Maraghi. Now these two very complex mollahs were accomplices of the royal palace, and there is ample documentary evidence that the aim of these deliberations was to clear the theological boards for an Egyptian caliphate. This resolution was not a scholastic finding but an intrigue, and was then widely recognized as such.

A similar judgment concerns the circumstances which surrounded the issuance in 1959 of the famous ecumenical fatwa authored by Shaykh al-Azhar Shaltut. Enayat makes much of this document, which recognized the validity of worship according to Twelver Shi’i doctrine and denied the existence of sects within Islam. The step ‘established a distinct trend towards greater Sunni-Shi’i understanding. The credit for this should be largely put down to Shaltut’s generally temperate vision of Islam’. But Shaltut was no simple mollah either, and so momentous a response would never have been issued without the full approval, if not upon the insistence, of a calculating President Nasir. This fatwa, like so many reformist doctrinal texts, cannot be allowed to speak for itself, even in a history of ideas. Yet Enayat will not concede the role of political exigency in the gestation of political thought, apparently because that thought is today in dire need of the credential of sincerity.

Enayat’s own critique of reformism is strictly tactical, for it is made from within. Reformism failed in Egypt because of the ‘over-confident, intemperate mood of some of the modernists, which made them insensitive to whatever potential for reform existed inside the religious community. Instead of developing this potential by adopting a more discriminating approach, the modernists launched an offensive which, simultaneous as it was with the secularisation of Turkey, lent plausibility to the traditionalists’ charge that what the modernists sought was not a simple modification of religious attitudes, but the very eradication of Islam as an all-inclusive system of moral, social and political guidelines’. In other words, Egyptian modernists, in order to disarm traditionalist criticism, should have been more dissimulating.

Now this plea for more guile is fundamentally Shi’i, and in Iran, Enayat leads us to believe, discretion is the better part of reformist valour. Consider Murtada Mutahhari, whom Enayat credits with inspiring this book. A professor of philosophy at Tehran University, Mutahhari was deeply involved in progressive reformist societies, secured the rank of ayatullah after the revolution, and became a leading light in the new order. So convincingly did he embrace the role that in May 1979, anticlericalist guerillas elected to assassinate him. But most modern Shi’i reformists in Iran have been surprisingly guileless, and so have overplayed their hand. What Enayat writes of Ali Abd al-Raziq?that he was needlessly ‘provocative’?applies no less to Ali Shari’ati, who laced his writings with quotations from French orientalists and vexed the elders of Qumm. A jealous clergy has had no trouble weeding out Iran’s reformists, and Enayat’s chapter on Shi’i modernism may be read as an adieu.

Also overwhelmed by the tide of events in Iran has been the Shi’i-Sunni reconciliation which Enayat seeks to establish as the first fruit of modernist influence. Reflecting, probably at the last revision, upon the Iran-Iraq war, Enayat concedes ‘the extent to which religion can become a handmaiden of politics, rendering any sectarian peace vulnerable to the unpredictability of international relations’. Yet he maintains that among Shi’is, ‘there has been much deprecation of the schismatic attitudes of the past’, and cites, of all things, Shi’i appeals for ‘conformity to majority norms’ during the Meccan pilgrimage. Already this ‘considerable degree of intellectual harmony’ between Shi’is and Sunnis has vanished like a morning mist, and the Iranians have made themselves the troublesome bêtes noires of the pilgrimage.

For dogmatism is the rage. Enayat provides a solid account of modernism’s fundamentalist rival, particularly the Arab Ikhwan al-Muslimun, the Iranian Fida’iyan-i Islam, and the Pakistani Jama’at-i Islami. Interestingly, he omits any discussion of Khumayni’s Islamic Government. But he finds Mawdudi’s identical vision of an Islamic state unworkable, for the premise ‘that rulers can be kept out of mischief by adhering to a certain set of doctrines, or leading an ascetic way of life’, is a ‘noble idea, but one which has so far rarely worked in practice. Maududi does not provide any evidence that his ideological state would be an exception to this depressing observation of history’. Nor has Enayat any faith in ‘the overweening attitude of militant Shi’is and their confidence in Man’s flawless ability to overcome all social and political imperfections’.

These doubts find some new confirmation daily. What is remarkable is that some of the disillusioned have found solace in the Shari’atis and Bani Sadrs, who evoke Lord Cromer’s comment on the too-well read Shaykh al-Bakri: ‘Was this fin de siècle sheikh, this curious compound of Mecca and the Paris Boulevards, the latest development in Islamism? I should add that the combination produced no results of any importance’.