On the Theology of Obedience: An Analysis of Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s Political Thought


On December 5, 2018, the fifth annual meeting of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) was inaugurated in Abu Dhabi. The forum was co-founded by the renowned scholar Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah and his student Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, probably the most famous American Muslim religious scholar, under the auspices of the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates – Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The three-day event was organized under the theme “Alliance of Virtues: An Opportunity for Global Peace,” emphasizing the value of tolerance, with the UAE subsequently announcing 2019 to be the “Year of Tolerance.” Despite the fact that the conference has been held annually for the last five years, this year’s conference seemed to have sparked much more controversy than years previous.

This is due to a number of reasons, first presumably the visible contrast between a forum for peace being held in the UAE and the ethical and humanitarian concerns over the brutal war waged in Yemen by the UAE and Saudi Arabia which has caused immense suffering (13 million in starvation according to the UN). In addition, the UAE’s regional and geopolitical role in supporting violent dictatorships in the region known for suppressing dissent, as well as its own history of suppressing dissenting voices, contributed to the controversy. Some observers in the West argued that the shuyūkh in question are being inadvertently used for a ‘PR’ campaign to boost the global image of the UAE. For others, the situation is somewhat confusing. Many American Muslims still have memories of the pre-9/11 Hamza Yusuf who was a firebrand. For the sake of comparison, consider that this is the same scholar who once joked that the acronym of the Council on Foreign Relations sounded like the Arabic trilateral root for disbeliever (CFR as K-F-R), followed by implying the similarity between America’s nature and the Dajjal or Anti-Christ. How would the same person not only host similar organizations in a forum he helped found, but to also eulogize the UAE? While many of the statements from the 2018 forum do seem to be an escalation of their ongoing quietism and praise of authoritarian governments, we argue the last forum is just that: an escalation.

To put this in context, in this article we will examine the political thought of Shaykh Bin Bayyah and his student Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, especially the impact of their “metaphysics” on their politics and will trace the shifts in their discourse through recent political events. We will then, in the conclusion, use the incident, i.e. the FPPMS forums in the UAE, to reflect about deeper, more long-term issues with regard to politics and modernity.

However, first a proper introduction to our protagonists and the relationship between them is due. In ʿulūmī/scholarly circles, Shaykh Bin Bayyah is known as one of the greatest geniuses alive in the field of ʾuṣūl al-fiqh (methodology of jurisprudence) and is considered by some to even be a mujtahid (someone qualified to deduce new rulings). This means that being Bin Bayyah’s student gives Shaykh Yusuf a certain legitimacy and the former has indeed more than once made Shaykh Yusuf his deputy. Yet, it is Hamza Yusuf who introduced Bin Bayyah to the West where he is still known almost exclusively as Hamza Yusuf’s shaykh. For Muslims in the West, the elderly scholar is an embodiment of the symbolic authority of Mauritania, which in the Western Muslim imagination exemplifies one of the few places still untouched by modernity, mostly because of the great amount of duʿāt and imams in the West who did their studies in the West African nation. This combination of access to both the West, in terms of the Muslim audience and policy-makers, and the Middle East, in terms of sharīʿah and fiqh councils and governments, translates into an ability to influence policy on an international level. Throughout this paper, given the strength of the relationship between them, we will consider them a tandem and take statements that elucidate the political thought of one to be illustrative of the other.

While both men are well-known for their religious authority, what is less well-known is Bin Bayyah’s long political career. After Mauritanian independence from France, Bin Bayyah took part in the then-ruling Mauritanian People’s Party, for which he was a Permanent Trustee of the Party and a member of its Cabinet and Permanent Committee from 1970 to 1978. He afterwards held the following positions: Judge at the High Court of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Head of Shariah Affairs at the Ministry of Justice, Deputy President of the Court of Appeal, Main Negotiator on Religious Affairs in the Republic, First Minister for Islamic Affairs and Education, Minister of Justice and Official Holder of the Seals, Minister Of State for Human Resources – with the position of Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of State for Directing State Affairs, Organizations and Parties (which included overseeing the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Ministry of Youth & Sport, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and the Ministry of Postal Services and Communication). This is important to mention because it is precisely his symbolic authority as a Sufi untouched by modernity that causes many who would not accept Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s current political stances and reasoning in other contexts to turn a blind eye to these positions. These voices also reference the shaykh’s long experience in politics, suggesting that he is well aware of the consequences of his thought.

The General Framework: The Metaphysics of Obedience

Given the ongoing “War on Terror” and globally pervasive Islamophobia, Muslim communities across the world are highly politicized. It is within that context that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who in the post-September 11 period ceased calling for direct political dissent, appears politically neutral or even overtly anti-political. Many would, therefore, immediately assume that there is no internally coherent logic underlying his stances. However, a deeper look into the shaykh’s discourse would show that the topic of ‘politics’ is not only not marginal, but is rather very much embedded in his conception of a “traditional” Islamic worldview and metaphysics.

The general framework for Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s political thought is theorized by the narrative of decline in metaphysics. In his narrative of modernity, the pre-modern world was one saturated with metaphysics in which the equilibrium of the cosmos and its being centered to the truth was mirrored in an arrangement of social and political hierarchies all with their own designated metaphysical meaning. In contradistinction, modern Muslims, following Christianity’s path to secularity, have lost the “metaphysical lens,” a generalized notion of metaphysics implicitly known by all Muslims in the past. However, what is truly important to understand here is how this notion of metaphysics is then employed to defend extant hierarchies on earth. Epistemic stability ensures political stability and social hierarchies exist because they first exist as cosmic hierarchies. In the “tradition,” because Muslims recognized the order and meaningfulness of the cosmos, they also recognized notions of authority and hierarchy. What this means is that political dissent today, such as the Arab Spring, is, therefore, not just a threat to order, but potentially cosmically destabilizing.

In Shaykh Hamza’s understanding, this comprehension of their place in the cosmos not only ensured pre-modern Muslims’ obedience to authority, but also means there are no “victims” in Islam. This is, furthermore, a lesson we can learn from Adam and Eve, as after they sinned by listening to Satan, they did not blame him; they did not blame each other; nor did they see themselves as victims. Rather, they took full responsibility for their action in contrast to Satan who blamed others for his condition. As the shaykh explains:

“Muslims (today) see themselves as victims. Victimization is a defeatist mentality. It is the mentality of the powerless. Muslims never really had a mentality of victimization. From a metaphysical perspective, which is always the first and primary perspective of a Muslim, there can be no victims. We believe that all suffering has a redemptive value.”

This lack of victimhood in Islam has a deep impact on Hamza Yusuf’s conception of political issues and the course of action one should take in reaction to these issues. The metaphysical designation of the world is to be an abode of tribulations where there can be no complete justice – that will have to wait for heaven. To attempt otherwise is not only impossible, but will only beget more injustice:

“That’s why our ʿulamāʾtraditionally were opposed to revolution. Not because they thought oppression wasn’t wrong or they were trying to keep the oppressors in power. They saw it from a metaphysical perspective first and foremost. That this was an ʾibtilāʾfrom Allah. If you remove metaphysics then the world makes no sense at all – you can tear everything down.”

To put the above quote in context, it is crucial to note exactly who it is Shaykh Hamza thinks wants to tear everything down: Islamists. Specifically, in the genealogy he builds, Islamists are violent because they have been influenced by Marxism to seek a utopia in the dunyā. “They want the ideal world; they want to eliminate evil…This is their goal to create paradise on earth. To create the Marxist dream to create paradise on earth … once we establish equality on earth.” One way to understand this anti-Marxist and anti-victimhood polemics is the current context of the American-Muslim community. Because of the ferocity of attacks from the right in the aftermath of September 11 , many Muslims have turned to the left and to a rhetoric of social justice. This has earned the ire of many Muslims who feel that American Muslim identity is now being defined on a racial and minority basis, rather than on a shared set of beliefs and practices, creating a fertile ground for anti-leftist polemics. However, a careful analysis of Shaykh Hamza’s thought would demonstrate a certain blurring of the lines between the categories of the ‘ideological,’ the ‘Marxist,’ and the ‘neo-Marxist,’ enabling a fluidity to the scope of analysis – if not accuracy itself – which allows him to construct meaningful links and designations to an incredibly wide spectrum. Nonetheless, a great deal of the shaykh’s discourse rests on this Islamist=Marxist=Utopian narrative and we will return to this equation in the following sections.

The next move is to turn from the general metaphysical framework to a part of ʿaqīdah that, at times, has been accepted within the Sunni community: lā khurūj ʿan al-ākim (no rebellion against the Sharia-compliant ruler). As Shaykh Hamza explains:

“We do not accept any rebellion (khurūj) against our leaders or our public affairs even if they are oppressive. This is the ʿaqīdah of the Muslims … If you are to tell me we have to go out against the government and our salaf said (and they all agreed) – even if they are oppressive? Why did they put that in there? Because he knew people would say but they have oppressed us.”

The shaykh here is translating the much-debated notion of khurūj,  widely translated as rebellion. However, khurūj is a very specific technical term indicating organized armed rebellion to capture power. In his book Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law, Khaled Abou El Fadl illustrates the boundaries to what could be considered khurūj. He argues that the legality of rebellion is highly dependent on the reason for rebellion and the ways in which one rebels – armed and organized rebellion to capture power is different than unorganized or an unarmed one. The legitimacy of the leader and whether he is just or not also contributes to the ruling of the scholars. Notably, some scholars argued that it is specifically because the people cannot violently rebel that it then becomes incumbent upon the ahl al-al wal ʿaqd (the elite responsible for electing the caliph) to remove an oppressive ruler. That is to say, the issue, like almost all fiqh issues, is far more nuanced than the space of this paper allows. Interestingly, some have extended this principle so far as to argue that not only is armed revolt prohibited, but even disobedience, hence the revolt of the tongue (al- khurūj bi-lisān), is prohibited. That is, not only is violent rebellion prohibited, not only is rebellion prohibited, indeed any form of resistance is prohibited. While neither one of our shuyūkh have openly made this argument, one could argue that this expansive position is a logical conclusion of their worldview. While much of the above “metaphysics” is questionable from an Islamic standpoint, the truly problematic aspect is the subsequent move – throwing large masses under the bus. What is troubling is not merely the argument that complete justice is only attainable in the afterlife, but the way it is used against those seeking an imperfect justice in this life. It is not only the oversimplified presentation of non-violent rebellion against “rulers,” but the way it is then used to excuse singing the praises of tyrants. Moreover, the only logical conclusion of this worldview is to put an undue burden of responsibility on the individual. Rather than the structures of power, now it is the individual’s responsibility to uphold “cosmic order.”

“…the only logical conclusion of this worldview is to put an undue burden of responsibility on the individual. Rather than the structures of power, now it is the individual’s responsibility to uphold ‘cosmic order.'”

On Political Systems: Kings Are Not Hungry

Hamza Yusuf’s problematization of political agency and his simultaneous calls for obedience could potentially constitute a problem in a democratic context. He is not anti-democratic per-se but, in his thought political agency of individuals is strictly limited. In an interview conducted in Singapore, he was asked about political agency in modern democracies. He responded, “[T]hat question is purely predicated on the context that they’re living in. In a place like Singapore where Muslims have access to the political process, it is very important that they engage in it; same in the United States and other places.” What Yusuf argues here is that if the system which represents order and stability requires political engagement, it is important for Muslims to engage with the tools legitimizing this system. This point can be further illustrated in the way he conceives the modern nation-state. Yusuf explains that some young Muslims in the Middle East refuse to view the borders drawn in the Sykes-Picot Agreement as legitimate since they were drawn by the colonial forces. Even if their legitimacy was questionable at the outset and although they were the key instigators of modernization and secularization, these nation-states are a fact of reality and represent a stabilizing force. Trying to undo that creates greater harm. The stabilizing force of the nation entails that Muslim citizens of these nations must show loyalty to it.

With that being said, Yusuf has a clearly preferred system of government – constitutional monarchy. In a constitutional monarchy, spiritual authority and temporal power are balanced. He explained:

“Kings do not have the susceptibility for corruption that a poor person or the nouveau riche do. Kings are not hungry. They have everything so they do not need anything. If a king is good he will raise his children to be good. We have a great example in Morocco. The King in Morocco comes from a good, well-esteemed and clean family. He loves his people and his people love him. I have seen the same thing with Al Saud but they are often surrounded by bad people.”

Islam as National Security

September 11, just as it was the impetus for a great deal of transformation in our worlds, also marked Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s transformation from a firebrand critic of the West and US foreign policy to a supporter of “stability before justice.” His discourse, in fact, changed almost overnight. In the same month as the attacks, in a prayer meeting he attended at the White House, Yusuf noted that “Islam was hijacked on that September 11, 2001,” and urged Muslims away from a ‘discourse of anger,’ affirming that there was indeed a ‘good’ Islam devoid of violence or terror. Yusuf then used his religious authority to not only gift President Bush a Quran, but to also convince him to change the name of his military operation in Afghanistan. His reasoning was that the operation’s name ‘Infinite Justice,’ one of Allah’s ninety-nine names, would offend Muslims. Bush apparently assented as he soon changed its name to “Enduring Freedom.” Interestingly, this incident seems to mirror an event from his teacher’s life. In 1977, while Bin Bayyah was the Minister of Justice in Mauritania he was sent on a delegation to Libya where he met Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. While there, Bin Bayyah was successful in using his new relationship to dissuade Gaddafi from becoming a Quranist (someone who rejects the entirety of the ḥadīth corpus). In both cases, the shaykhs used their position to argue over the theological framing of injustice rather than act on behalf of the community for reform.

“In both cases, the shaykhs used their position to argue over the theological framing of injustice rather than act on behalf of the community for reform.”

Days after the September 11 attacks, on September 21, President Bush announced the beginning of the “War on Terror” with his now infamous ultimatum: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” This ultimatum marked the beginning of the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim dichotomy. What this meant for Muslims in practical terms was that, as “Islam” and its nature had been inserted into public debates across the globe, how they interpreted their religion now became a matter of national security. A number of Middle Eastern states realized that promoting an interpretation of Islam under their aegis could be effectively translated into “soft power.” Within this new context of international relations, Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf set about on a number of forums and international meetings which could be considered the precursors to the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. The first of these came in 2006 with the “Amman Message” hosted by the Kingdom of Jordan, a staunch ally of the US. The Message affirmed the existence of eight madhhabs, as well as the validity of the Sufis, Salafis and Shi‘a and the impermissibility of excommunication among them. The next year, once again under the auspices of Jordan, they held a meeting titled “A Common Word Between Us,” a commitment to interfaith dialogue that is mostly important for being the inception of links with certain conservative Christian groups that will pop up in the following sections of our account. These earlier forums are important to mention as they represent an attempt before the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies at influencing policy, albeit under less powerful players than the UAE.

Events took a more interesting turn in 2010 with the Mardin Conference. The conference was held in the city of Mardin, now in the Southeast of Turkey, which was the subject of an infamous fatwa from Ibn Taymiyya who, though a figure of authority among Salafis, is the center of much contestation in Islamic history. In the context of the Mongol invasion of the Muslim world, Ibn Taymiyya was asked about the status of Mardin, whose ruler though Muslim was loyal to the Mongols. He answered that it therefore had the status neither of the Abode of Peace nor of the Abode of War, but rather a “composite” (murrakab) nature and should therefore be fought. In the conference, which seems to have been Bin Bayyah’s initiative, he announced to a number of ʿulamāʾ and academics present a stunning discovery: the original text contained a typo. Rather than saying Mardin should be fought, “yuqātal”, it actually said “yuʿāmal” (deal with them, i.e. on the basis of having a composite nature). This discovery is important as Shaykh Hamza explains in a talk: “This is the fatwa that killed Anwar Sadat.” Here, the Shaykh seems to be reifying “fatwas,” that is treating them as if they were a physical actor or independent agent rather than an abstract concept. While we would usually more generously read it as a mere rhetorical device rather than a logical fallacy, the shaykh’s explanation of this discovery’s importance at the “Rethinking Islamic Reform” event in 2010 at Oxford demonstrates otherwise. As he says: “They based an entire philosophy on a misprint.” He seems to be positing an actual causation between the two. Regardless of the typo’s veracity, this event demonstrates the problem with erasing the structures of power and speaking of ideas as if they were divorced from their socio-political context. Following Shaykh Hamza’s logic one could wonder why, somehow, the mujtahid’s discovery did nothing to prevent the rise of Daesh four years later. Perhaps, rather than being based on a fatwa, or any combination of fatwas, Daesh’s rise should be read in the context of “ideas” interacting with an environment created by two American invasions (with the second ending in occupation) and an interregnum of starvation.

Initial Views of the Arab Spring: More Bob Marley than Sahih Bukhari

In the early days of the Arab revolutions, Hamza Yusuf stood in cautious solidarity with the revolutions. He posted a heart-felt letter to the Libyan people, highlighting his various connections to Libya throughout the years through his official website, Sandala Productions. In a short essay on Egypt, he also not only admitted Egypt’s “bestial state security apparatus,” but went so far as to write, “[T]he need for resolute positions of solidarity with the Egyptian people in their pleas for political change is undeniable. I personally feel that the scholars, inside and outside of Egypt, have a responsibility to stand with the Egyptian people in their pleas for reform in Egypt.” While these statements made in the initial context of the Arab Spring can seem confusing given his most recent positions and do admittedly represent a change in discourse, there are also elements of continuity.

While writing of the Egyptian youth, Shaykh Hamza notes that their revolution was “more inspired by Bob Marley than by their local imam quoting Sahih al-Bukhari.” That is, he agrees with a number of Western commentators on the secular nature of the Arab Spring revolts. He argues (accurately) that the basic point of the Egyptian revolution is “about jobs, food prices, fair elections, reducing poverty, social justice, and above all, not living in fear of a government that should be serving the needs of its people instead of making them the servants of its wants.” However, in the next part he more clearly illustrates this key element of his early support for the Egyptian revolution:

“The lack of an ideology, for me, is the most refreshing aspect of this uprising. The stale rhetoric of “Islam is the solution” that has marked countless demonstrations for decades is absent… Islam is not a political ideology and hence does not offer a political solution per se; basic morality in politics is the solution. Most Muslims would be content living under Finnish or Swedish forms of governance, with a few adjustments to the sexual liberties in those countries, and feel as if it were the time of Saladin.”

That the supposed lack of Islamism in the Arab Spring’s revolts was a key aspect of Shaykh Hamza’s early support is further hammered out in another essay through Sandala in which he defended Turkey shortly after the 2016 failed coup attempt: “The irony is that President Erdoğan is not the Islamist that Western media have portrayed him to be. He is the secular head of a nation… His party has helped Turkey move away from French laicism toward a more American model of secularism.” These initial positions are important to keep in mind as his discourse shifts once the initial euphoria around the Arab Spring died down.

A Less Quiet Quietism Post-Rabaa

In 2013, Yusuf’s quietism increasingly took to support for repressive governments and the categorical rejection of all rebellion against them. This shift also coincided with and perhaps resulted from the same shift his teacher, Shaykh Bin Bayyah, was making. The shaykh had been a member of the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars for almost a decade, serving as one of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s deputies until he resigned from this role in September 2013. However, it appears that the UAE had been courting the shaykh even before his resignation. Here we should mention that the UAE had its own experience with the Arab Spring as 133 Emirati intellectuals, both Islah (Emirati branch of MB) and liberals, presented a petition to the government demanding an elected parliament in late 2012. Seven of the signatories were eventually stripped of citizenship and arrested on terrorism charges. This was again followed by a series of arrests that included 94 Islah members who were charged with attempting to overthrow the state. According to Usaama al-Azami, Bin Bayyah had meetings with senior figures from the UAE early that year. On February 24th, the Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited the scholar in his home. Bin Bayyah’s personal website notes that two months later he briefly met with the UAE Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Zayed at the first Global Vaccine Summit. By the end of July 2013, Bin Bayyah traveled to the UAE where he gave a lecture in honor of Zayed bin Sultan, the founding emir of Abu Dhabi. Al-Azami notes that this visit was scheduled two months after the UAE and other Gulf States pledged $12 billion to the leaders of the coup in Egypt. Considering these contacts, what seems most likely is that the UAE realized that its counter-revolutionary project would need not just hard power, but soft power too. In seeking to set up a counter-authority to al-Qaradawi, the mujtahid long regarded as the religious authority of the Muslim Brotherhood who has been based in Qatar since the 1960s, the UAE seems to have successfully courted his erstwhile deputy, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah. This view is further vindicated given that the UAE established the Emirates Fatwa Council in 2018, which is chaired by Bin Bayyah and counts Shaykh Hamza as one of its members. The degree to which the shaykhs seemed to have thrown their influence behind the counter-revolutionary project was represented in the last forum when the current Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, who signed off on the death orders of Rabaa protestors, was awarded for his work “in order to promote global peace and combat extremist ideologies.”

Below, we take one step back to assess regional politics in the post-Rabaa period. In June 2017, the regional crisis escalated when Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Mauritania, and other countries cut diplomatic ties and blockaded Qatar. This coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates argued that Qatar had aided ‘terrorist organizations’ including the Muslim Brotherhood and created regional unrest through its media outlet, Al Jazeera. In the aftermath of the blockade on Qatar, Turkey’s government stepped in to provide the goods usually imported from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This marked an even closer diplomatic alliance between Turkey and Qatar and a greater Turkish mistrust of the UAE/Saudi camp in effect amounting to a regional cold war. This cold war imploded after Saudi journalist – Jamal Khashoggi – was killed and dismembered by an assassination team sent by the Saudi government to their embassy in Istanbul in 2018. Turkey siding with Qatar against the UAE puts Shaykh Hamza in an awkward spot as he has a decade’s worth of statements on his love for the country and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and has publicly defended the government’s response to both the 2013 Gezi park protests and 2016 coup attempt. From 2011 to 2016, The Deen Intensive Foundation, led by close students of Shaykh Hamza, held his Rihla retreats there with facilitation from the government in terms of logistics and sometimes finances. However, the relationship seems to have also soured from an incident at the American Muslim boxer Muhammad Ali’s funeral in which the Turkish president was denied an opportunity to speak for reasons still unclear. The next year, Rihla was held in Malaysia.

Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf meet the ADL delegation during the 2018 FPPMS.

Another interesting by-product of this relationship converged with Hamza Yusuf’s call to make alliances with believers on the (American) Right. Domestically, this was a relationship based on common moral concerns about the dissipation of conservative values. This relationship however found new political and intellectual significance in the Donald Trump era. Yusuf’s conservative allies have three main concerns when it comes to Muslims and the Middle East: the conditions of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority countries, Israel, and Islamism. The Forum for Peace, to which many from both the American and the UK right were invited, mitigated these concerns. For one, the raison d’etre of the interfaith initiatives was to show that the UAE /Saudi Arabia camp will be the upholders of religious minority rights against Islamism and Islamist-allied states. The UAE proved its goodwill by establishing places of worship for religious minorities, even opening its first synagogue. Secondly, within the context of the UAE/Saudi bid to normalize relations with Israel, Hamza Yusuf met with pro-Zionist groups like the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) through the forum, reframing and reducing the political question of relations with Israel in light of its occupation of Palestine to one of religious coexistence and peace.

Lastly, the fear mongering against Islamism in the West cannot be separated from structural Islamophobia in the West. After the war on terror in general, but particularly after Donald Trump came to power, there have been attempts to criminalize Muslim institutions by branding them as Islamist. In early 2017, Senator Ted Cruz introduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Act which aimed to criminalize such mainstream organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). In fact, the UAE itself made that link prior in a bid to criminalize these organizations. Similarly, Al Arabiya English – a Saudi owned news organization – ran a piece accusing not only the newly-elected Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, but also the Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. The implications of this global war against whatever the UAE and Saudi Arabia define as being Islamism could have an incredibly harmful impact on the lives of ordinary Muslims in the West. In fact, the UAE foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, under whose auspices the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies is held, warned of the potential terror risk posed by Muslims living in the West, calling them an ‘ulcer’ that needs to be cured from the stomach of the West.

The Discourse Runs its Course and Comes Full Circle

The central issue of the last Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies seems to have been “citizenship” and the nation-state. In a speech given on maqāid al-sharī‘ah (higher objectives of the shari‘ah), one speaker came so close as to imply that the modern nation-state could be seen as the sixth “maqṣad” or higher aim of the sharī‘ah. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is quoted as saying “when the prophet went to Madina he treated its inhabitants on the basis that they were citizens and not on the basis of their religion.” This is only half-true, as any pre-modern differentiation between religion and “citizenship” is meaningless and anachronistic. It was one’s belonging to a religious community that made them a “citizen.” However, what is really interesting here is that Shaykh Hamza (as well as almost all the speakers at the Forum) is making an argument for a “fiqh of citizenship” based on the charter of Madina. While this charter played almost no role in pre-modern Islamic political thought, it has come to be seen by modernists as a starting point for rethinking Islamic political thought. However, for decades, the fiqh of citizenship was a discourse promoted almost exclusively by Islamist scholars, such as al-Qaradawi, Ghannouchi, and Abdul Majid Najjar. This branch of fiqh has until now mostly been pushed by the Waṣaṭiyyah or “Middle Way” school who basically envisage new branches of fiqh, such as “the fiqh of minorities,” that use the modern nation-state and all it entails as the grundnorm of contemporary Islamic law. That is to say, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and their supposed archenemies, the Islamists, have now come to a point where they are using the same means for different ends. While we can readily understand that Islamists call for the nation-state to legitimize Islamic democracy and Islamist parties’ participation in elections, what about our shuyūkh? Given that citizenship is only talked about in the most abstract of notions and given what we now know about their metaphysics, we can only conclude that what “citizenship” does entail in the Arab Spring context for them is obedience.

Perhaps we should also underline that the fiqh of citizenship is not the only branch of fiqh previously carried almost exclusively by Islamists that our shuyūkh have recently resorted to. At the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference in 2015, Shaykh Bin Bayyah gave a lecture, interpreted by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, on fiqh al-waqiʿor “fiqh of reality.” The fiqh of reality is basically the branch of fiqh that deals with how “reality” changes from time and place and how that could affect rulings. While such an impulse has always existed within fiqh, it was only pioneered as its own separate branch by Shaykh al-Qaradawi in the 1950s. The fiqh of reality then had a second life with the Saudi Sahwa discourse in the late 1980s and 1990s (which included the same Salman al-Oudeh currently facing execution in Saudi Arabia).

Considering that ʾuūl al-fiqh is Bin Bayyah’s area of specialty and considering that he spent almost a decade with al-Qaradawi,  whom he once called “one of the Shaykh al-Islam’s in his time” and praised specifically for his methodology of wasatiyyah, it is impossible that our shuyūkh are unaware of this history of the fiqh of citizenship and fiqh of reality. In needing to argue for stability through the nation-state, they seem to have reached for the most elaborate discourse of fiqh legitimating the nation-state in Islamic law that already exists: the discourse of the Islamists. However, it is one thing to demonize Islamists, it is another thing entirely to both demonize them and use their discourse without due credit.

“…it is one thing to demonize Islamists, it is another thing entirely to both demonize them and use their discourse without due credit.”

This also demonstrates the artificiality of how we define “Islamism.” If we still term Ghannouchi (called by some the intellectual godfather of the Arab Spring) an Islamist when he argues for Islamic citizenship in the contemporary world, then does that also make Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Hamza Yusuf Islamists? If Ghannouchi and our shuyūkh are arguing for the same thing, then is Ghannouchi still a utopian Marxist? If neither Ghannouchi nor our shuyūkh are Islamists, then are the Arab Spring protestors still seeking “heaven” on earth? What this entire shaky edifice does suggest though is that while their thought, such as the general metaphysical framework, has remained constant, their discourse has not. Rather than being based solely in the realm of ideas, their discourse is seemingly very much based on political contingencies.

Not Abandoned Entirely: Towards a Renewed Islamic Ethics of Power

We would like to conclude this essay by using this incident to start a discussion about some much more pressing, long-term questions. Indeed, this entire affair is indicative of much deeper-seeded problems. Ironically, we think one of the crucial tools to solving some of the issues that face us is precisely fiqh al-waqiʿ. As Shaykh Bin Bayyah points out at the 22:21 mark in his lecture on fiqh al-waqiʿ: “the concept could change with the change of time.” What we would like to argue here is that with the change of time, specifically the transition/transmutation to modernity, the concepts of “power” and “politics” too have changed and therefore if ʿulamāʾ are to play the same role for the community as they did in pre-modernity, they will have to take these changes into account.

In many traditional accounts of Islamic history, the ʿulamāʾare painted as being passive or politically quietist. This is not only built on the mistaken assumption that one can only be political by engaging with power at its highest echelon, but also ignores how differently politics works in pre-modernity vs. today. The first key fact to take into consideration while talking about pre-modern Islamic politics is that the modern state is based on the three branches of government, i.e. the executive, judiciary and legislative. However, in the pre-modern period the latter two of these three would fall under the sharī‘ah, which, for most of Islamic history, lay solely in the ʿulamāʾ’s hands. Indeed, some have argued in light of the experience of the miḥna trials, in which three successive caliphs tried to enforce the Muʿtazilī doctrine of the Quran’s createdness by death and torture, the ʿulamāʾ afterward remained wary of the executive authority to the point where there are many narrations of scholars weeping after receiving news of receiving a government appointment. In fact, some have argued that the madhhabs were formed specifically to take the interpretation of the sharī‘ah out of the executive authority’s hands and hence Abu Hanifa refused a government appointment but his student, Abu Yusuf, after the initial madhhab codification had been completed, was more comfortable becoming chief judge. All of this is to say that when we read Islamic history, often focusing on lists of dynasties and battles between rulers, we often forget just about how much of the “political” that affected Muslims’ everyday life in fact resided not in the Caliph’s hands, but the ʿulamāʾ’s.

Not only has the “political” changed, power too has changed. Specifically, to what degree can the modern state be compared to the ḥākim or ruler? What analogy can be made between a ruler who would have to wait months to put down a rebellion, would have to wait days or even weeks to receive news from his province and a modern state which can throw you in jail for conversations over Whatsapp? What analogy can be made between a ruler that had very little power over both of what is now the legislative and judiciary and the modern state which not only takes your children away for hours every day to teach its curriculum, but also decides what they will eat for lunch?

The modern nation-state has the power to penetrate all layers of society in a way simply incomparable with anything in the pre-modern period. In any other field of fiqh, if this much change had been witnessed, the scholar would take great care before simply transferring the ruling across centuries. All of this is to say, we tend to project the vertical relationship between the modern state and citizens (often composed solely of nuclear families) back into the past. However, societies were in fact much stronger than they are now, with Muslims often having multiple relations, whether that be to the extended family, a guild or a Sufi tariqa. As such, power was far more horizontal than it is now and much of what we now consider “political” would in the pre-modern era in fact be located in the “social.” This can be seen in how the Arabic word “siyāsa,” which originally meant something closer to statecraft, that is limited to the executive, now means politics in the general sense. Therefore, when we consider that the ʿulamāʾ held both the legislative and judiciary in their hands, often made interventions for the community when taxes were too high, and were effective social actors, the ʿulamāʾ were not just political, but political par excellence.

“…when we consider that the ʿulamāʾ held both the legislative and judiciary in their hands, often made interventions for the community when taxes were too high, and were effective social actors, the ʿulamāʾ were not just political, but political par excellence.”

For a healthy relationship between the ʿulamāʾ and the laity, there should be agreement between the two as to the role of the other. However, today there seems to be a disagreement between the two over the nature of the ʿulamāʾ’s responsibilities. Many ʿulamāʾ responded to the loss of institutional independence by drawing in and seeking to guard the tradition of religious knowledge and keep it alive within small circles of ʿulamāʾ. However, the Muslim laity seems to still have a collective memory of the ʿulamāʾ holding a more socially-active role. There is furthermore the question of how much knowledge we expect the ʿulamāʾ to hold. ʿUlamāʾare now expected to have an opinion on everything.

This expectation, which is probably the fault of the Muslim laity, is incredibly unrealistic in a world in which knowledge is ever-expanding and disciplines further branch into sub-disciplines. The simple truth is that studying the religious sciences in Mauritania for a decade does not an expert on modernity and the social sciences make. However, we are not arguing for the ʿulamāʾ to “stay in their lane,” but rather for higher standards and respectful engagement with the social sciences. We make no claims to knowing the answers to the questions above, but would like to point to some general principles. There are many ways to be “political” and act on society’s behalf without overthrowing the head of state and there is a world of difference between not violently rebelling, thereby causing undue chaos to society, and openly singing the praises of tyrants. Furthermore, for us, the question is not whether an ʿālim does or does not engage with politics and power, but rather the how, the ethics by which he makes that decision.

In talking about the Islamic political past, we do not want to seem as if we are painting a romantic picture. Our past, like our present and future, was far from perfect. However, the essential difference is they did not have a deep-seated anxiety about the world they lived in. The combination of a world in constant flux and the need for Islam and the Sharia to remain relevant has meant that for the past century at every point a group has defined Islam and Shari‘ah based on whatever is the latest faux pas in the West. Some argued, because of zakāt and awqāf, that Islam promotes socialism. Another group used the basis of private property rights in Islam, and the protection of property being one of the five maqāṣid, to argue that Islam espouses capitalism. Later, another group, on the basis of shūrah and election of rightly guided caliphs, argued that Islam supports democracy. Now some have taken to arguing that Islam promulgated its laws based on the nation-state to the point you would think the prophet was printing out passports.

What all this demonstrates is Muslims’ deep anxiety towards modernity. However, whether we like it or not, we are all shoulder-deep in modernity and have been for some time now. Rather than continuing to cause ourselves massive amounts of cognitive dissonance by pretending there are spaces where we can suddenly leave modernity or Islam behind, we should instead roll up our sleeves and get to the much harder work of how to negotiate that complex reality. In that process, we will find much we do not like. However, as the maxim in ʾuṣūl al-fiqh goes: What cannot be attained entirely is not abandoned entirely.