The Kaaba at al-Haram Mosque during the start of Hajj, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Photo by Al Jazeera English, available at Wikimedia Commons).

October 01, 2009

The Islamist State: An Attempt at Depicting the Endgame of Islamism

Three slogans dominate Islamist political discourse. They are (in ascending order of magnitude): (1) al-Islam huwa al-hall (Islam is the solution); (2) tatbiq al-shari‘a (the implementation of shari‘a law); and (3) iqamat al-Khilafah (the establishment of the Caliphate). Islamism, as a spectrum of ideological formulations born in and shaped by the twentieth century, by and large accepts all three slogans as an “endgame.” Diverse Islamist formations, however, may still profess the acceptance of a delay—be it temporary or indefinite—in the fulfillment of the second and/or third slogans. By definition, though, all Islamist formations proactively subscribe to the first slogan.

According to this first proposition, the solutions to the ailments afflicting Muslim societies lie in Islam, understood as a comprehensive system. Such a diagnosis is premised on the supposition that Muslims have strayed from the true teachings of Islam. Islam is thus presented as an immutable ideal toward which Muslims are to be ushered remedially. Antecedents to this view have occasionally surfaced in Islamic history by admonishing Muslims against laxness in their adherence to virtue and urging more vigor in piety. The Islamist diagnosis, however, is considerably more radical in assessing the need for the “Islamization” of Muslims (al-aslamah, an Arabic neologism). Indeed, Islamism presents itself as a fundamentally restorative movement, not merely addressing the mundane departure from piety but effectively engaging in a corrective action to realign Muslims with the totalitarian framework of Islam so as to reset the course of history on the right path, from which it has deviated. Herein lie the two ideological foundations of Islamism: (1) Islam is an all-encompassing and redemptive system; and (2) the current phase in Islamic history is an exception in its deficient application of this system. 

While both ideological foundations can be substantially challenged, it is indeed a considerable success for Islamism—inadvertently aided by Western academia in its scholastic bias—that its ideological baseline has gained ubiquitous acceptance, even in non-Islamist Muslim circles, thus dictating that responses to Islamism are generally apologetically re-interpretive and defensive. In its diagnosis of decline and utopian promise, in its narrative of an ultimate triumph over adversity, and in its assignment of a heroic role to its militant avant-garde, Islamism has historically been informed by the other two grand ideologies of the twentieth century: revolutionary Communism and fascistic nationalism. In fact, Islamism derives its most ardent supporters from the ranks of graduates of the local expressions of both ideologies.[1] Contrary to its ideological counterparts, however, Islamism has been considerably constrained in expressing the details of its “endgame.” While it has taken the form of its counterparts’ grand narratives, Islamism has largely remained mute on the content. 

The communist utopia, for example, was understood as a classless society where one basic rule applied: “From each according to their capacity, to each according to their need.” The Islamist equivalent is the “Islam is the solution” slogan. The communist formula, however fanciful, flawed, and religiously imbued it may seem in hindsight, provided its “believers” with a plausible recipe for social order. The Islamist equivalent offers no such formula. This lacuna is not an oversight; it is built into the Islamist overstatement of the nature of Islam as a system. 

Over the course of Islamic history, Islamic jurisprudence developed with the conviction that the full extent of the true divine law (shari‘a) was not humanly attainable. Instead, Muslims were supposed to engage in a study (fiqh) of explicit commandments and texts, toward the possible derivation of rules and regulations that reflect the essence of divine law. Two main branches of this evolving jurisprudence were thus identified: the jurisprudence of worship and rituals (fiqh al-‘ibadat) and the jurisprudence of trasactions and social interactions (fiqh al-mu‘amalat). Many approaches and methodologies were applied to both branches, with the explicit distinction that the role of jurisprudence in the former is to prescribe and proscribe, and that its function in the latter is to provide general guidance on the basis of the established principles of the faith. A basic rule in fiqh is the fundamental permissibility of all actions (al-asl al-ibahah) unless explicitly prohibited or regulated by a precedent from the original authoritative texts (i.e. the Qur’an and the canonical Hadith collections). Over the course of Islamic history, this rule, together with the generic, nonexclusive character of fiqh al-mu‘amalat (jurisprudence of transactions and social interaction), has laid the grounds for the noncontroversial adoption of civil law (qanun) in major states based on Islamic legitimacy. 

While evidently demonstrating its authoritative character on issues of worship and rituals, fiqh was consistently challenged by emerging questions in transactions and social interactions. The trajectory of fiqh’s evolution was indeed toward the implicit recognition of the limitations of the four schools of jurisprudence (Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali). The defunct but influential Zahiri school had rendered this recognition explicit by rejecting the tools (such as qiyas, or analogical reasoning) used for the expansion of fiqh jurisdiction. 

Thus, fiqh was not all encompassing. Islamic history—shaped by the stable model of dynastic rule—has provided little incentive and opportunity for the theoretical development of structured political alternatives. Politics have remained largely out of the scope of fiqh. It should be noted, however, that the division of the subjects into ‘ibadat and mu‘amalat was not solely based on their thematic content; it was often dictated by precedent. Jihad, as a theory of warfare and as the call to arms by the Islamic state, thus was one of the topics covered in treatises of worship and rituals, not of transactions and social interactions, since ample precedents on jihad are traceable to the formative period of Islam. So were the hudud, mandated punishments applicable for six specific offenses (murder, theft, apostasy, adultery, libel, and consumption of alcohol). The function of fiqh with regard to these offenses and their punishments (execution, amputation, and flagellation) was to contextualize and provide limitations (dar’ al-hudud bi-l-shubuhat). 

Historically, fiqh has been a heuristic exercise, practiced in conjunction with, in parallel with, and/or in opposition to the application of power—legal, political, and social—by the dynastic state. While the emerging nation-state system in the beginning of the twentieth century allocated a receding role for fiqh in its legislative endeavors, the retreat of fiqh’s footprint on the legal framework of Muslim societies was already an established development, generally accepted as nonthreatening by jurists, due to the necessities of global integration and commerce. 

The stipulation that “Islam is the solution” poses a problem for Islamists: identification of a substance for the claim. Milder Islamist experimentations seeking the application of Islamic values and principles toward addressing contemporary issues are often faced with the accusation of illegitimate innovation (bid‘ah). A more economical approach to avoid polemics and diversion of intellectual energy is the subscription to the slogan calling for the implementation of shari‘a. However, even this slogan is historically handicapped. When and how was shari‘a implemented in Islamic history? 

Two Islamist readings of history—one maximalist, the other minimalist—address this question. These two readings are ahistorical and, while fundamentally contradictory, they are interchangeably used by Islamist ideologues depending on context. In the maximalist reading of the past, the Islamic world was governed by shari‘a and the Caliphate from its inception until the abolition of the latter in 1924. The normative phase is thus thirteen centuries of history, with the aberration being the last eighty-five years. In the minimalist reading, shari‘a and the Caliphate were implemented in their perfect form for just a few decades at the dawn of Islam. The rest of history is an anomaly. The restorative mission of Islamism is thus the reinstatement of just the shari‘a or the shari‘a and the Caliphate together. 

For Islamists, bridging the gap among the nuanced history of lived Islam, the exercise of fiqh, and either of the two Islamist readings and their prescriptive formulas is accomplished through a three-pronged approach: (1) obliterating the distinction between human fiqh and divine shari‘a through the exclusive, unqualified use of the latter when only the former is warranted; (2) blurring the division between the two branches of fiqh (worship and rituals, and transactions and social interactions) by extending the authoritative prescriptive character of the former to areas covered by the latter while simultaneously allowing it to encroach on new territory (particularly politics); and, most dramatically, (3) abandoning permissibility as a rule by making compulsory the emulation of nonbinding practices depicted in the Hadith.  

Islamism as an ideology postulates that shari‘a (semantically reassigned to replace fiqh) covers the totality of the life of both the Muslim individual and society. Islamism thus promises a totalitarian state, but even with its three-pronged approach to substantiate its claim for totalitarianism, it is still unable to produce a genuinely comprehensive system.  It has to instead resort to inflating the importance of the themes covered under fiqh al-‘ibadat: the Islamist state is one in which the hudud are liberally enforced, gender segregation is in effect, and rituals—including the minutiae of ablutions—are a matter of state. Absent from this “totalitarian” system is a coherent regulation of economics and politics. The idiosyncratic inclusion of lengthy discussions of jihad in the scholastic corpus “compensates” for this absence by one further Islamist confusion: the equation of state and warfare. 

In its two conventional branches, Islamic jurisprudence tackled innumerable issues of relevance to Muslim societies throughout the ages. In its quest for totalitarian regimentation, Islamism overstates the scope and content of Islamic jurisprudence while bypassing its caution and methods. As a political entity, the Islamist state remains ill defined. It may be a negation of the current global order, but its own institutions, including the Caliphate, do not benefit from a referential framework. Even in the writings of Islamists, the Islamist state remains an illusionary promise—one that is martial, predatory, and ultimately lacking substance. 

[1] While avoiding the pitfalls of assuming complete congruity where mere parallels exist, the structural similarities between Islamism and other twentieth-century grand narratives are worth noting. The ideological foundations of Islamism, as noted above, assume the same functional role of scientific and historical materialism in Marxist thought. The Islamization program adopted by Islamism is akin to the creation of the “New Man” in both communist and fascist discourses.
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