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II. Etymology of Islamic Political Thought
III. Premodern Islamic Political Thought
A. Muhammad as a Political and Religious Leader
B. Three Schools of Islamic Political Thought
1. The Sunni School
2. The Shi‘a a School
3. The Kharijites School
C. Classical Islamic Political Philosophers
1. Al Farabi
2. Ibn Sina
3. Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufayl
4. Ibn Rushd
5. Ibn Khaldun
IV. Modern Islamic Political Thought
Islamic political thought has found numerous expressions from its very beginnings through modern times. As such, presenting an overview of its development and essence is not an easy task as one must include not only the contributions of key Islamic political philosophers (e.g., al-Farabi, Ibn-Khaldoun, and Avicenna), but also the religio-political credos of main Islamic schools of thought (i.e., the Sunni, the Shi‘a, and the Kharijites), as well as an overview of main Islamic political concepts (i.e., the question of succession and leadership, or the khalifah versus the imamah precepts). Although some have argued that Islamic political thought has been neglected by all but a few specialists, several scholars have undertaken the arduous task of exploring, discussing, and summarizing the milieu, meaning, and significance of Islamic political thinkers, ideas, and developments (Ayoob, 2007; Black, 2001; Crone, 2005; Enayat, 1982; Lewis, 1991).
Through philosophers, concepts, and religious movements, Islamic political thought has impacted religious, secular, and academic communities. Thus, given its intellectual and practical significance, the need to more fully comprehend the dynamics and development of Islamic political thought warrants and justifies the inclusion of this research paper in our collection. First, this research paper defines the concept of Islamic political thought in terms of its etymology. Second, it surveys the classical period of Islamic political thought, including its origins, the religious–political schism within Islam, and the contributions of key classical Islamic political philosophers. Third, the research paper summarizes modern expressions of Islamic political thought and current academic research on the topic. The conclusion recaps the main points in the historical and academic development of Islamic political thought.
II. Etymology of Islamic Political Thought
As this research paper views philosophy and thought as interchangeable concepts, it defines the latter in terms of the former. Generally, political philosophy refers to the study of state affairs and processes as well as to the in-depth search for rationales in politics and ethics in public behavior (Walzer, 1963). To this, Islamic political thought adds a specific framework—that of Islam—to study, explain, and rationalize all things political. This framework is derived from the very sources of Islam: the Qur’an (comprising revelations to Muhammad), supplemented by the hadiths (stories about Muhammad’s life, words, and deeds). Thus, Islamic political thought began from the very inception of Islam (circa 622), and its development is generally divided in two main periods: classical or premodern (645–1500), from the historical origin of Islam to the end of the classical period, and early modern and modern Islamic political thought (1500–present), which includes the dynastic period from the Safavid empire to contemporary Islamic political movements.
III. Premodern Islamic Political Thought
It would be impossible to include all thinkers, concepts, and movements that are part of this period of Islamic political thought. Such an endeavor should begin with Muhammad’s life and his political contributions to the first Islamic state, the religious and political schism within Islam, a discussion of the Sunni tradition (sunna), and the Shi‘ite theories of leadership (imamah; 622–1000), an overview of the theory of the caliphate in din wa dawal (religion and the state; 1000–1220); and an explanation of Shari‘a ideology and the spread of Islam (1220–1500). In addition, a summary of the works of major Islamic political philosophers and thinkers during this period should be included. All this is summarized briefly next beginning with Muhammad’s life as both a religious and political leader.
A. Muhammad as a Political and Religious Leader
Muhammad’s position in the early Muslim community was of God’s appointed religious, political, and military leader, which was a central factor in keeping the Muslim community united both religiously and politically. Thus, Muhammad’s death in 632 CE suddenly posed several questions to his followers: Who should succeed Muhammad? What is the Islamic way of choosing his successor? What type of government should the Muslim community have? The answers to these questions were further complicated as Muhammad died without giving clear instructions as to how to choose a successor or the type of government that the community needed to establish.
As a result, the death of Muhammad in 632 CE started a disagreement over who should succeed him as a political and religious leader of the umma—the Muslim community. While Muhammad’s body was being prepared for burial by his close family (including Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law), a small group of the Ansar (Muhammad’s helpers) met in Saqifat Bani Sa’eda and selected Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad, as his successor (and first caliph). However, some did not accept this decision, arguing that Ali (Ibn Abi Taleb) was appointed as Muhammad’s successor by Muhammad himself (Lapidus, 2002).
Since that time, succession (khalifah or imamah, caliphate system or imamate system), and how it should be done, has remained a matter of dispute. The Umayyads— the second Islamic caliphate (after the Rashidun caliphate of the first four caliphs) established after the death of Mohammed—tried to resolve the issue by decreeing that the caliph should appoint his own successor. Thus, before Abu Bakr died, he chose Umar as his successor. Umar, on the other hand, delegated the election of his successor to the Majlis al-Shoura, a consultative council (Subhi, 1969). This council chose Uthman as the third caliph, but a rebellion against him instituted Ali as the fourth caliph and led to the first civil war among the Muslims in the Battle of Al Jamal (the camel). Following Ali’s succession, a second major civil war, the Battle of Siffien, ensued between Ali’s supporters and the supporters of Mu’awiyah Ibn Abi Sufian, who founded the Umayyad dynasty (Ismael & Ismael, 1980; Subhi, 1969).
In summary, early Islamic religious and political history reflects the following: First, Muhammad did not indicate how to choose a successor, nor did he indicate a preference for one form of state over another (nor did the Qur’an). Second, in the few years following the death of Muhammad, four distinct patterns of succession emerged: (1) limited choice (Abu Bakr), (2) nomination by the caliph (Umar), (3) shoura, or consultation (Uthman), and (4) a coup (Ali). Third, the question of succession led to a greater political conflict that, after the assassination of Uthman, caused a religious schism in Islam, dividing the umma into Sunni and Shi‘a. In addition, the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty and the violent death of Ali’s son Hussein further affirmed and deepened the gap between the Sunnis and the Shi‘as, consolidating their differences in religious and political matters (Ismael & Ismael, 1980; Subhi, 1969).
Furthermore, the dispute over the question of succession resulted in a distinction between the caliph and the imam. Originally, khalifah was used to denote a caliph’s religious and political leadership (the caliph is also known as Amir al Mu’minim, or Commander of the Believers). The word imam, on the other hand, referred to the leader of the Muslims in prayers. However, with the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty, supporters of Ali, the Shi‘a, developed the doctrine of the imamah, which gave both religious and political dimensions to the ruler. The Shi‘a, therefore, upheld the view that the Imamate belongs to Mohammad and his descendants, of which Ali was the first Imam. In addition, Shi‘a doctrine affirmed that the Imam is incapable of sin (Hairi, 1977). The Sunnis, on the other hand, accepted the caliph as a temporal ruler who is “pre-eminently a political functionary and though he may perform religious functions, these functions do not imply the possession of any spiritual powers setting him thereby apart from the rest of the faithful” (Arnold, 1965, p. 17). Thus, in Sunni tradition, the caliph did not enjoy any particular religious role although Sunnis continue to see the Imamate, as reflected in the rules of the first four successors, to be the true Islamic form of government.
The conflict over succession led to the creation of three main schools of Islamic political thought: Sunni, Shi‘a, and Kharijites. These are briefly discussed next.
B. Three Schools of Islamic Political Thought
For both Sunnis and Shi‘a, the imam became “the de jure ruler and the de facto caliph” (Subhi, 1969, p. 24). However, early Muslims were confronted with myriad questions as to the nature and extent of the imam’s power. How are imams chosen? What is their role? What is their relationship with the rest of the Muslim community? These questions bridging political reality and religious roles were never truly answered, at least not in a unanimous way.
1. The Sunni School
The Sunnis saw the role of the imam as essential for the well-being of the community, but they did not bestow on him any mystical powers (Hairi, 1977). To choose the imam, the Sunnis emphasized the role of Ahl al Hal wa al ‘Aqd (those who loose and tie, meaning those who know; a select few) to legitimize the first four caliphs. Under this doctrine, the Muslim community was not given an active say in choosing its ruler, which eventually led to dissension, factionalism, and rebellions. However, instead of discussing the issues caused by the Ahl al-Hal wa al-‘Aqd doctrine, Sunni theorists focused on other problems, such as how many people should belong to Ahl al-Hal wa al-‘Aqd and how many are needed to have a legal bay’ah (pledge of allegiance). Muhammad al-Baqelani (died 1013), for instance, established several rules in that regard: The nomination of the imam (‘aqd al imama) can be done by one person, and six people are needed to achieve bay’ah. In addition, the community cannot depose an imam unless he denounces Islam or stops praying and teaches others to do the same, the imam is not infallible, he has to come from the tribe of Quraysh, and he needs to be knowledgeable about war and how to protect the community (Ibish, 1966; Ismael & Ismael, 1980).
Some Sunni religious thinkers were challenged in their views by Muslim philosophers who were reading and commenting on Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. One of these philosophers was al-Farabi (870– 950) who, in his book Ahl al Madinah al Fadelah, introduced his theory of the state. Al-Farabi affirmed that the state should be based on a “mutual renunciation of rights,” for in a society or a state, each individual must give up “in favor of the other a part of that by which he would have overpowered him, each making it a condition that they would keep perfect peace with each other and not take away from the other anything except on certain conditions” (quoted in Sherwani, 1977, p. 71). Also, al-Farabi defended Plato’s philosopher king, describing his ra’is awwal (ideal ruler) as one “who by his very nature and upbringing, does not want to be instructed by others and who has the inherent capacity for observation and of conveying his sense to others” (quoted in Sherwani, 1977, p. 73). For the perfect ra’is awwal, al-Farabi enumerated 12 traits but was satisfied with one who had only 5 or 6. In addition, if no man was found possessing even that minimum number of attributes, then a council with two to five members having an aggregate of 10 attributes among them should be chosen. One of these two to five council members, al-Farabi asserts, must be a hakim—a wise man who knows the needs of the state and its people.
Another prominent Sunni theorist, Abu al-Hassan al- Mawardi (975–1058), also wrote on the role of the imamah. In his works Ahkam Sultaniyah, Nasihat al Muluk, and Qawanin al Wizarah, al Mawardi argues that the imamah is a “caliphate of prophethood in safeguarding religious and temporal affairs” (quoted in Sherwani, 1977, p. 148) and, as such should follow the “right path,” guided by both the Shari‘a and reason. The imam, on the other hand, should be just, knowledgeable of the purposes of ijtihad (i.e., making a legal decision based on an independent interpretation of the Qur’an and the sunna), without physical or sensual handicaps, wise in ruling the community and its affairs, courageous in protecting Islam, and a descendant of the Quraysh tribe (Ismael & Ismael, 1980). His role is to protect the faith, judge among people, punish transgressors, appoint just men, and lead a life between piety and luxury. As to how the imam should be chosen, al-Mawardi prescribes either by Ahl al-Hal wa al-‘Aqd or election or by the previous imam. The imam, argues al-Mawardi, can be removed for only two reasons: hajr (acting against Islam) and qahr (falling prisoner and having no hope of being saved or freed; Ibish, 1966; Sherwani, 1977).
Alater Sunni religious thinker, Ibn Taimiyah (1263–1328), who wrote Minhaj al Sunnah, also did not consider it necessary for the community to elect its imam, but he affirmed that the bay’ah (the pledge of allegiance) served as a bilateral contract between the Imam and his community. Although, to Ibn Taimiyah, the imam could reach a certain point of perfection, he could never be a prophet. In contrast to other Sunni thinkers, however, Ibn Taimiyah did not affirm that the Imam should be from the Quraysh tribe as he saw this condition contradictory to Islamic teachings of equality among Muslims. Yet he also argued that although the rule of the imam is vested in divine law, the imam should consult Majlis al-Shoura, or the consultative council, and be guided by its decisions more than by historic precedents (Sherwani, 1977).
In summary, Sunni political thought generally did not perceive the nature or origin of political power as problematic and focused instead on its implementation and administration. As such, the main issues addressed by Sunni theory were the personal qualities of the ruler and the organization of the state “since neither the attainment of power nor its fundamental legitimacy were at issue for the Sunni sect” (Ismael & Ismael, 1980, p. 605).
2. The Shi‘a a School
The religious doctrine of Shi‘a a evolved as a political protest regarding the disputed question of succession following Muhammad’s death (Subhi, 1969). However, although the conflict began immediately after Muhammad’s demise, it did not clearly delineate specific religious ideologies until after the death of the fourth caliph, Uthman and the ensuing controversy between the supporters of Ali and the Umayyad dynasty (Ismael & Ismael, 1980). A central tenet of the Shi‘a doctrine was and is that the imamah belonged only to Muhammad and his descendants. Thus, the imam, like Muhammad, is believed by the Shi‘a to be an infallible interpreter and protector of the law (Sherwani, 1977; see also Ismael & Ismael,1980). A good description of the Imam’s powers is provided by al-Imam al-Rida in Subhi (1969).
The largest branch of the Shi‘a are the Twelvers. They believe that there were 12 divinely ordained imams who are the spiritual and political successors of Muhammad, with the first rightful imam being Ali (the Islamili and the Zaydi, while also Shi‘a, believe in a different number of imams). Each succeeding imam was the son of the previous imam (with the exception of Husayn ibn Ali, who was the brother of Hasan ibn Ali). The 12th and final imam was Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed by the Twelvers to be currently alive and in hiding.
Thus, generally, Shi‘a religious and political thought was governed by the doctrine of the occultation of the last imam, his reappearance, and the hope for his rule in a just and egalitarian manner in accordance with Islamic laws and precepts. In the expectation of the Imam’s return, Shi‘a thinkers developed the doctrine of taqiyah—religious and political beliefs that have been used to justify an acceptance of existing governments. In addition, this doctrine has stimulated research on the nature of political authority during the period of the greater occultation of the last imam. In general, the contradiction between the ideal state led by the last imam and the necessity of government in the meantime has led Shi‘a intellectuals to elaborate and discuss the structure and functions of political power in the less-than-ideal state. As such, concepts of constitutionalism and democracy have been integrated into Shi‘a concepts of government during this period of absence. Thus, Shi‘a political thought has focused mainly on the nature and origins of power during the imam’s absence, the limitations of the usurpation of power, and the accountability of the leaders. It is argued that Ayatollah Khomeini’s political thought is a direct continuation of this trend of Shi‘a religious and political theory (Ismael & Ismael, 1980).
In addition, following the great occultation of the last imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the doctrines of marja i taqlid (a source to follow or a religious reference) and ijtihad became important and were used by religious scholars or the ulama to provide leadership for people in religious, social, and political matters (Hairi, 1977). As such, after the Qur’an and the imams, marjas have the highest religious power in Twelver Shi‘a Islam. As a result, a Grand Ayatollah (title granted to a top Shi‘a mujtahid, or a male Shi‘a scholar competent to interpret Shari‘a using ijtihad, or independent thought, has the authority to make political and religious decisions for the umma.
One of the influential religious leaders in Iran at the beginning of past century was Mirza Muhammad Husayn Na’ini, who tried to reconcile the ideas of constitutionalism (mashruta) with the principles of Islamic government. To do this, he established two general purposes of a government, namely, (1) to maintain internal order, protect individual rights, and support education and (2) to prevent any foreign intervention by “preparing a defensive force and war ammunitions, and the like” (Hairi, 1977, p. 166). Na’ini asserted that there are two kinds of governments: tamallukiyyah (tyranny) and vilayatiyyah (constitutional government). He argued that Muslims need to fight tamallukiyyah, for it turns human beings into slaves. On the other hand, while Na’ini held to the Shi‘a doctrine that the ideal government is the government of the imam who is infallible, sinless, and possesses God-given knowledge, in the absence of such an imam, “the only possibility left . . . is to choose a constitutional form of government, even though the latter would still be a usurpation of the Imam’s authority” (Hairi, 1977, p. 191). However, the ruler in such government must still gain the approval of the ulama. Hence, Article 2 of the Iranian Constitution includes the following provision:
At no time must any legal enactment of the National Consultative Assembly . . . be at variance with the sacred principles of Islam . . . It is hereby declared that it is for the . . . ulama . . . to determine whether such laws as may be proposed are or are not conformable to the principles of Islam; and it is therefore officially enacted that there shall at all times exist a committee of not less than five muj tahids . . . so that they may . . . reject and repudiate, wholly or in part, any such proposal which is at variance with the Sacred Law of Islam, so that it shall not obtain the title of legality. (Hairi, 1977, p. 213)
This article clearly gave the religious authorities an official role in determining the compatibility of political laws with Islamic principles. However, some argue that this article, like the constitution itself, remained abstract as political leaders effectively counteracted these limitations of their powers (Ismael & Ismael, 1980).
3. The Kharijites School
The Kharijites (renegades) school of thought maintained that the leadership of the Muslim community should be open to all Muslims and that an elected caliph should not relinquish his right under any circumstances. However, if he is unjust, he should be deposed by any means (Hassan, 1967). In fact, the Kharijites argued that the caliphate and imamah were not necessary. One of the Kharijites’ main thinkers, Shahrastani, affirmed that the “Imamah is not necessary according to Shari‘a (Islamic law). It is based on people’s interactions with each other. If everyone justly deals and cooperates with the others, as well as fulfills his duties and responsibilities, they do not need an Imam” (quoted in Subhi, 1969, p. 69; see also Hassan, 1967, p. 161).
Thus, this school of thought introduced a rather radical view of Islamic political structure. Many of its theories became popular in the 19th century with the advent of nationalism. As such, some Islamic reformers, including Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) and Mohammad Abdo (1848–1905), tried to reconcile Western democratic precepts with the Islamic idea of the state. The combination of the Kharijites’ theories and the teachings of such thinkers led to a new generation of secular thinkers who wanted to completely separate religion from the state. Ali Abd al-Razeq (1972) is one of the best representatives of these new ideas. Writing in 1925, he maintained that Islam never promoted or decided on a particular form of government, nor were Muslims ever required to build a particular system. Abd al-Razeq did not perceive the caliphate to be a religious system and argued that the Qur’an did not order it. Al-Razeq (1972) disentangled Islam from the caliphate and argued that “Islam is innocent from the caliphate because it paralyzed any development in the form of government among the Moslems” (pp. 92–93). More basically, al-Razeq asserted that Muhammad did not form a government or establish a state, and thus the caliphate in Islam was “based on nothing but brutal force,” a catastrophe that “hit Islam and Moslems and is a course of evil and corruption” (pp. 129, 136). Al-Razeq, therefore, maintained that Muslims are free to choose their form of government (Ismael & Ismael, 1980).
In addition to this religio-political schism in early Islam, several Islamic philosophers also contributed to shaping early Islamic political thought and are discussed next.
C. Classical Islamic Political Philosophers
As political philosophy is, in general, concerned with the search for understanding what constitutes a good or the best political regime, a Muslim political philosopher would similarly contemplate political structures and regimes. However, he must temper his conclusions with what the Islamic tenets hold to be a good or the best political regime. The contributions of key classical Islamic philosophers including al-Farabi (Abunaser), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Khaldun are briefly presented next.
1. Al Farabi
Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (circa 872–950 or 951), also known in the West as Alpharibius, was a Muslim philosopher, scientist, and musician. Walzer (1963) calls al-Farabi and ibn Khaldun “the most outstanding political thinkers in the Islamic world” (p. 43) and argues that al- Farabi was ultimately convinced of the primacy of human reason and philosophical truth. However, as there are very few extant reliable sources (i.e., composed prior to 12th century) much is unknown of al-Farabi’s actual life and work (Mahdi, 2001).
Generally, al-Farabi’s political writings discuss the nature of the virtuous regime whose guiding principles he affirmed to be the realization of human excellence by the promotion of virtue. He believed that man is not rendered perfect simply through the natural principles found in him but can achieve perfection through rational understanding and deliberation. The ultimate perfection a man can achieve is by attaining the supreme happiness available to him. “Happiness is the good desired for itself, it is never desired to achieve by it something else, and there is nothing greater beyond it that a human being can achieve” (Dieterici, 1895, p. 46; cf. Ketab al stasa, pp. 72–75, 78). Thus, al-Farabi saw the ideal society as one promoting and seeking the realization of “true happiness” (Butterworth, 2005). However, al-Farabi thought that such “virtuous” societies are rare and, with most falling short of attaining this goal, he divided them into three categories: ignorant, wicked, and errant (democratic societies fall into the category of “ignorant” as he perceived them as lacking guiding principles).
As to the role of religion, al-Farabi affirmed that the ancients saw religion as “an imitation of philosophy. Both comprise the same subjects and both give an account of the ultimate principles of the beings. . . . In everything in which philosophy gives an account based on intellectual perception or conception, religion gives an account based on imagination. In everything demonstrated by philosophy, religion employs persuasion” (quoted in Lerner & Mahdi, 1963, p. 77). As such, al-Farabi perceived that the imam, the philosopher, and the legislator were a single idea. The implication thereof is that Muhammad was the ultimate philosopher-king and that philosophers are superior to those who are merely religious. Thus, for al-Farabi, the real division was between those who can ground their beliefs philosophically and those who cannot (termed simple believers).
Academics argue as to whether al-Farabi actually outlined any political program in his writings. Corbin (1993) affirms that al-Farabi’s philosophical contributions need to be considered “prophetic philosophy” rather than political works. Similar to Corbin, Reisman (2005) argues that al-Farabi did not advance any political doctrine per se but depicted different types of societies, not for political aims, but as a part of ethical discussion. Butterworth (2005), on the other hand, asserts that al-Farabi targeted mainly the “king” and “statesmen,” and nowhere in his works does he speak of the “prophet-legislator” or of revelation. Finally, Parens (2006) argues that al-Farabi shrewdly mixed Islam and philosophy by demonstrating that too many conditions need to be met in order for a pan-Islamic virtuous society to be achieved.
2. Ibn Sina
Avicenna (full name: Hussain ibn Abdullah ibn Hassan ibn Ali ibn Sina; circa 980–1037), also known in Persian as Abu Ali Sina or in Arabic as Ibn Sina, was a Persian scientist, logician, poet, and philosopher (Mahdi et al., 2008).Avicenna was born in approximately 980 in present-day Uzbekistan, near Bukhara, and died in 1037 in the Iranian city of Hamedan. He wrote some 450 treatises on a variety of topics, but only 240 have survived, among which 150 discuss philosophy. Avicenna’s most famous works are The Book of Healing, which is a philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and The Canon of Medicine, a medical textbook. Avicenna pioneered the so-called Avicennian logic, as well as the philosophical school of Avicennism, both of which have remained influential among later Muslim thinkers. Although Avicenna is viewed mostly as the father of modern medicine and clinical pharmacology, he also wrote on early Islamic philosophy, including logic and ethics. Avicenna outlined philosophical reasons for the practice of religion and viewed the purpose of a caliph as a successor of Muhammad while the imam was a religious leader of the umma (Butterworth, 1992).
3. Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufayl
Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya ibn al-Sayigh (1095– 1138), also known as Ibn Bajjah, was a Muslim astronomer, logician, philosopher, musician–poet, and scientist. In the West, he was known as Avempace. He was from Andalusia, originally born in Zaragoza (today’s Spain) but died in Fez, Morocco (McGinnis, 2007). In contrast to al-Farabi’s political Platonism, which identified Muhammad with a philosopher king ruling a state founded on and governed by a divine law, Ibn Bajjah (and subsequently his student Ibn Tufayl) did not mix philosophical thought with practical politics. As Leaman (1980) writes, “Ibn Bajja’s problem is how the philosopher in the imperfect state should relate to society” (p. 110) or, in other words, both Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl wrestled with the notion of “the imperfect state” and the role of the Islamic philosopher in it. This is also the central theme in Ibn Bajjah’s Tadbir al mutawahhid (The Governance of the Solitary) and Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzn (Son of Awake— also known as Philosophus Autodidactus).
4. Ibn Rushd
Averroes (circa 1126–1198), or Abu’al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd and also known as Ibn Rushd, was a scholar of Islamic philosophy, theology, politics, music, and science. While Al-Farabi and Avicenna lived in the eastern part of the Islamic world, Averroes lived in Spain, in the city of Cordova. There he wrote several commentaries on Aristotle, but being a prolific writer, Averroes also covered numerous subjects, including early Islamic philosophy, logic, jurisprudence, politics, and medicine.
Although Averroes mostly discussed other topics, in his commentaries on most of Aristotle’s logical and theoretical work and on Plato’s The Republic, Averroes argued that the ideal state, as described by Plato, has in fact the same constitution as the original Arab caliphate (Ahmad, 1994). Furthermore, similar to other Islamic political philosophers who used treatises and commentaries on rhetoric to express political and philosophical thoughts, Averroes wrote two commentaries on Aristotelian rhetoric, namely, Talkhis and Summary. In them, he not only developed ideas on political philosophy but also instructed others how to conduct political investigation.
Similar to al-Farabi, Averroes shared the view that Islamic philosophical thought has political implications while examining the linkage between law and philosophy, in his Fasl al maqal (Decisive Treatise on the Connection Between Religion and Philosophy). In it, Averroes affirmed that the law commands the study of philosophy for those who are capable of it. In other words, philosophizing is a duty that is not an idle enterprise but a necessary one as the law revealed by Muhammad is a divine law given for the benefit of the entire community. Thus, those who are capable of philosophizing (i.e., the philosophers) are obliged to use their wisdom to explain the law for the benefit of all. In arguing so, Averroes links practical political philosophy to Islam, thereby conceiving of a society grounded in obedience to a divine law as interpreted through people appointed to that end. Thus, similar to Al- Farabi, Averroes envisioned a state in which the philosophers are the elite and the leaders, and he argued that philosophy and Islam are in harmony and not in conflict (Butterworth, 1972).
5. Ibn Khaldun
Abu Zayd ‘Abdu r-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Khaldun Al-Hadrami, or Ibn Khaldoun (circa 1332–1406), was an Islamic theologian, historian, scientist, and philosopher. He was born in present-day Tunisia and became best known for his Muqaddimah (or Prolegomenon), which was the first volume of Kitab al Ibar, a book on universal history in which he attempted to decipher whether historical sources are credible. As such, living in the 14th century, Ibn Khaldun dedicated himself to the historical task of analyzing the rise and decline of state power in the Islamic world. His main subject was the political reality of the Islamic world, with the caliphate as a union of political and spiritual authority (Walzer, 1963). In the Muqaddimah, a lengthy treatise on political and social processes of change, ibn Khaldun asserted that no individual society or dynasty can remain at a permanently high level of development, for once a maturity is attained, decay begins. In addition, ibn Khaldun argued that, in the social and political development of a society, a sense of solidarity or a group feeling is important, for it makes individuals identify with the group and subordinate personal interests to state interests. Among the natural bases for such solidarity to develop (i.e., kinship), ibn Khaldun perceived religion to be a powerful catalyst fostering a strong group belonging.
Islamic philosophical and theoretical inquiry into the role and nature of government, as well as its relationship to religious affairs and concepts, has been evolving for 1,300 years. Some argue that Western scholars have given only scant attention to understanding the theoretical and intellectual basis of Islamic governments, perceiving Islam instead as a “traditional” force that has resisted progressive change and has been a barrier to social and political development (Ismael & Ismael, 1980). Those scholars also affirm that this failure to recognize the ongoing theoretical and intellectual ferment in Islamic thought faced by the emergence of unique contemporary issues within Islamic societies “has contributed to the image of Islam as a static rather than dynamic system of thought incapable of relevance to the complex modern Issues of social and political development” (Ismael & Ismael, 1980, p. 601). Islamic political thought has not only undergone change in response to new conditions but continues to do so, as the next section outlines.
IV. Modern Islamic Political Thought
To understand the development of Islamic political thought during this period would mean to understand the historical background of modern Islamic Arabia, along with the political, social, economic, religious, and geographic situations that have shaped the dynastic, colonial, and contemporary eras experienced by Islamic societies. It would also mean understanding the main political movements of modern Islam, namely, the dynastic and modern-day caliphate, pan-Islamism, and pan-Arabism, as well as myriad Islamic political trends. It would also mean learning more about modern issues faced by current Islamic societies, including those posed by imperialism, neocolonialism, debates over religious and political authority in Islamic states, and the rise of violent resistance. It is, therefore, beyond the scope of this research paper to summarize everything that has impacted postclassical Islamic political thought, but a number of studies have already studied this topic at length (Aslan, 2006; Black, 2001; Enayat, 1982; Lapidus, 1996).
However, generally, modern Islamic political thought has found expression through several often contradictory movements. The first is traditionalist fundamentalism, which endorses the traditional commentaries on the Qur’an and the sunna, making taqlid or imitation its basic mode of operation and, thus, refusing to innovate. Generally, these movements follow one of several Islamic legal schools or madh’hab. The four main mad h’hab of Sunni jurisprudence today (named after their founders A’immah Arba‘a, or the four imams of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) are the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi’i, and the Hanbali schools of law. The Shi‘a legal school is the Jafari madh’hab, named after the person believed to be the sixth imam (Roy, 1998). The second stream of current Muslim political thought is reformist fundamentalism, which usually develops as a response to a perceived external threat and aims to return to the founding, original texts (Roy, 1998). Some examples would include the political-religious movements begun by Shah Wali Allah in India, Abd al-Wahhab in Arabia, and the Salafite faction. The third is Islamism (also called political Islam), which calls for a return to Shari‘a law and often uses extreme means to achieve its goals. Modern-day examples include the Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim Brotherhood, and the Iranian Islamic Revolution (Halliday, 1995; Tibi, 1998). A fourth strain is liberal movements within Islam, which generally oppose the first three Islamic political movements yet often share their anti-Western, anti-imperialist elements.
In the past, Islamic political movements formed in response to colonialism and Western imperial expansions. Today, debates and divisions in Islamic political thought gravitate around several core issues, including, among others, Zionism and the response to the formation of the state of Israel, the status of women and women’s rights, and Islamic economies and the debt of Muslim states. Some Islamic activists also blame the maladies of Muslim nations on the influx of foreign or Western ideas and practices, including the spread of capitalism, feminism, and purported Muslim persecution by the West.
Thus, current academic research on Islamic political thought has generally focused on several main themes. In light of the recent Islamic revolution in Iran, some scholars have (re)examined the ideas of leading modern Muslim thinkers on the relationship of Islam with government (Black, 2001; Enayat, 1982; Sivan, 1985). Others have chosen to explore a recurrent theme in a growing amount of research, namely, the relationship between Islam and democracy (see Diamond, Plattner, & Brumberg, 2003; el Fadl, Cohen, & Chasman, 2004; Esposito & Voll, 1996). Scholars have also investigated the linguistic dissimilarities between Islamic and Western political thought by tracing the origin and development of Islam’s political language from the time of Muhammad to the transformation of the Islamic religio-political discourse in modern times (including the etymology of key political concepts in Islam and words such as jihad, ayatollah, imam, jahiliyya, shaykh, and fatwa; Esposito, 2003; Lewis, 1991). Also, many have chosen to explore the political manifestations of Islam through Islamic organizations pursing political goals, such as Hamas, Hizbullah, al Qaeda, Tablighi Jamaat, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Ayoob, 2007). Others have focused on the development of a particular stream of Islamic political thought (i.e., political Islam; see Fuller, 2003; Roy, 1998; Tibi, 1998). Finally, some have compared Western and Islamic political thought, noting that key events and thought patterns that have shaped the former, including Europe’s “Renaissance” and the gradual secularization of political thought, have not taken place in Islamic political history (Black, 2008).
From its very inception with Muhammad and his life as a religious and political leader of the Muslim umma to modern day Islamic movements, Islamic political thought has undergone tremendous change and development. What started with and from a single individual transitioned to a myriad of thinkers, philosophers, movements, and schools of thought, each of which interpreted the relation between Islam and politics in a unique and often contradictory or controversial way.
This research paper has outlined the many expressions that Islamic political thought has found from its very origins to modern day fundamentalist and (more) liberal Islamic movements. In order to present a more complete picture, key historical developments (such as the religio-political schism within Islam), the contribution of several classical Islamic philosophers, as well as modern works on Islamic political thought have been mentioned. The richness of background material makes it difficult to present a unified and brief summary of the entire evolution of Islamic political thought through the centuries. It suffices to say, therefore, that Islamic political thought has come a long way, and one can only wonder what the next stages of its development may be.
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