[Maydan Book Forum] Andrew March, The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought (Harvard University Press, 2019)
Andrew March | Ovamir Anjum | M. Owais Khan | Sohaira Siddiqui | Andrew March- Response to the Forum
The Problem of Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought
The Caliphate of Man is a study of the development of a particular political theology in modern Islamic thought that grounds a doctrinal commitment to a form of popular sovereignty in the Qurʾānic claim that God has created a “caliph” on earth. My book argues that this vision of popular sovereignty is not merely a superficial apologetic move designed to refute claims that “Islam is not compatible with democracy,” but rather reflects a genuine intellectual revolution in modern Islamic thought. This revolution consists in a move away from a view of politics as just guardianship and pious representation by rulers and scholars to a distinctive vision of democracy whereby a just and pious people governs itself while also representing God’s instructions to humanity. This intellectual revolution involved more than political pragmatism or superficial adoption of democratic language. It consisted in a comprehensive reformulation of Islamic political philosophy, built in particular on a theological claim about mankind’s status as God’s vicegerent—or caliph—on earth. That reformulation involved not only reducing rulers to their proper status as agents of the people but also implicitly raising the people to the ultimate arbiters of God’s law. My claim is that if Islamism as a political theology represents a grand idea, one that is meant to challenge and replace others in the modern Muslim public sphere, it is this. My book seeks to explore this ideal, where it came from, and what were its theoretical conditions of possibility. But in the wake of the authoritarian counter-revolutions after the Arab Spring, I also ask whether this ideal theory of a kind of Islamic democracy is now a matter of history, and intellectual history at that. And, if so, does this not leave Islamists with a kind of intellectual crisis as they seek to define what distinctive approach to political life Islam has to offer?
In the first order, my book seeks to take seriously the aspiration to theorize comprehensively the fusion of divine and popular sovereignty. What does it mean to hold that both God and the people can be said to be “sovereign”? Imperatives of the divine and the popular, the theocratic and the democratic, often speak in different voices. Divine sovereignty is the language of transcendence and alterity. Whatever the place of human nature in knowing God and embracing His law, the Islamic conception of the divine law locates it outside of us—not as written in our hearts, but primarily written in texts and signs. God’s command is addressed to humans, and their initial obligation is entirely passive: to receive, hear, submit, obey. Responsive action is in the first order a matter of trust and faithfulness.
By contrast, much of what is involved in popular sovereignty involves the absence of God. God (for Sunnis) has not designated a ruler and so the people have a collective duty to choose and appoint one. God’s law may in theory be comprehensive, but it is silent or imprecise on countless particular questions, and so the people have to judge and act in the spaces left by that silence. If to speak of divine sovereignty is often to speak of that which is fixed and constraining, popular sovereignty often refers to the indeterminate spaces of judgment and uncertain consequences of action.
But a core thesis of my analysis is that the divine and popular elements in Islamic democratic theory are often derived from the same commitments and materials. Divine command is not just a constraint on human freedom, and human freedom is not just the absence of divine command. Rather, the foundation of Islamic democratic theory is the same as the foundation of Islamic theocratic theory. That foundation is the relationship between divine address and the divine delegation. The political theology of popular sovereignty in Islam is that the umma has been entrusted by God with the realization of His law on Earth. God is the principal agent and actor, and the first response of the people-as-deputy is a passive and receptive one. But the force of God dignifying mankind as His caliph is that He has deputized no one else in between God and man—no kings, no priests, no scholars. Adherence to the covenant of vicegerency is also synonymous with human virtue and perfection. But above all, the idea of the universal caliphate of mankind points beyond the mere fulfillment of the law to the popular creation of the law, the ultimate marker of sovereignty.
But this ideal leaves unresolved certain paradoxes and uncertainties. Which specific aspects or powers of sovereignty are the “people” said to enjoy? Are they fully sovereign powers, or are they constrained? What are the implications for traditional conceptions of the divine law and those agents who claim to represent it? What kind of “people” is imagined to be sovereign; what are the conditions for it to claim this authority; and how is this sovereignty represented and enacted?
In my analysis, the attempt to answer these questions at a theoretical level reaches its apotheosis in the pre-2011 thought of figures like Rāshid al-Ghannūshī. Ghannūshī’s views are complex and I cannot summarize them entirely here (I do so in Chapter 6 of The Caliphate of Man). But on my reading the core aspiration of Islamic democratic theory is to theorize an ideal regime type based on a people that is “sovereign” in its control over political institutions but is at the same time not radically free to legislate for itself but is rather constrained by divine command. This theory culminates, however, in more than a mere political supremacy for the “people” but also in a kind of legislative sovereignty. In this ideal theory, the umma can be seen as “the source of legislation” because, while God is the primary and original source of legislation, the umma participates in divine will through its public practice of mutual consultation. Moreover, for all the binding and constraining quality of God’s eternal law, “the goal of the eternity of this final, sealing law required restricting and limiting the text of revelation to a determination of general principles and a few select particulars for organizing human relations and economics.” The revealed law leaves the “filling out of the details of that framework to the legislative efforts of the umma, developing with time,” a practice that Ghannūshī equates with the idea of universal communal consensus (ijmāʿ) as a source of divine law alongside revelation. This fact induces Ghannūshī to proclaim that when deliberating about political matters, “the umma is guided by God and acquires from His light protection against collective error.”
When Ghannūshī writes that the umma participates in sovereignty and rulership with its legislative authority, this implies a very specific relationship to the sources and outcomes of lawmaking. In this perfectionist scheme “it is not sufficient for a citizen to follow the law because its legality emanates from a legal body, that is, an elected one, or even from the people as a whole, but it must also agree with the divine authority represented by the sharīʿa. Otherwise, the believer must not only refrain from applying it, but he must resist and rebel against it, according to his means. For that reason, Islam does not entrust the supervision of the state’s laws to a particular body—though that too is needed—but rather to the people as a whole, who are the guarantors of God’s law.” What holds together this imagination that divine sovereignty can be realized as popular sovereignty? Divine sovereignty as a pre-political law embodied in Text, constraining political life, only comes to life through a particular kind of collective and individual popular agency. This is an agency built on moral and epistemic commitment to fulfilling the covenant of vicegerency. The theory of popular sovereignty envisioned by the caliphate of man is thus a kind of republic of virtue in that it presupposes a people that is both united morally around a shared conception of truth and committed both epistemically and practically to seeing politics as the realization of the divine trust to be faithful to God and pursue the umma’s legitimate worldly interests.
My hope is that my book will have the effect of making central the theology of the “universal caliphate” to scholarly discussions of modern Islamic political theory. I also hope that my book moves discussions of “Islam and democracy” beyond questions of (in)compatibility toward more detailed considerations of the variety of forms of democratic theory and the conditions of possibility for specific democratic regime types to be realized. In addition, there are a few other themes from the book that I would like to bring separate attention to, especially now that it has become so common for Islamist thinkers to shift their attention from the ideal of a thorough-going Islamic democracy to a more modest ideology of “Muslim democracy.” Is the intellectual tradition of “democratic Islamism,” developed in an ideal form during the decades of exile from power, destined to remain just that—an ideal theory forming an intellectual tradition rather than an actually realizable regime type?
One preliminary observation may be that insofar as the ideal regime type of an “Islamic democracy” is a kind of republicanism, it confronts many of the obstacles faced by all forms of republicanism. The notion that republicanism demands too much of ordinary citizens by way of participation, knowledge, and virtue is precisely the source of the modern view that popular sovereignty can only be expressed through exceptional moments of constituent power, leaving government to elected representatives. Moreover, it places a faith in politics and the state that is simply absent in most modern societies, particularly in most Muslim ones that have high levels of alienation from the state and ruling oligarchies.
But I would like to conclude by raising what I consider the single most important moral factor that makes the specific vision of an Islamic democracy likely to remain at the level of an ideal, what I refer to in the book as “the irreversible moral pluralism of modernity.” Modern Islamist political thought attempts to repurpose classical Islamic legal concepts for a modern structural and institutional context. One first tension between the core assumptions of this project and modern sociological realities in Muslim societies is that Muslim-majority societies are characterized by the same fundamental challenge of pluralism as other modern societies. It may be true that “for the great majority of Muslims today, the Sharīʿa remains a source of religious and moral authority.” But Muslims disagree radically on what this implies and who they want to speak in the name of the sharīʿa. For many (including Hallaq), this kind of pluralism is itself a tragedy that Muslims only have to face because of colonialism. But if it is true that a genuinely “Islamic” popular constituent moment is an impossibility today, that is more likely to be because of the combination of moral pluralism in Muslim societies and the irrelevance or inadequacy of the premodern Islamic legal rulings (not principles) for most social and economic policy areas. In modernity, there is reasonable disagreement about ethics, even for Muslims or those living in Muslim countries. This is a fact that cleaves the idea of an “Islamic” popular constituent power in two: either a given people is free to choose to form whatever government it wishes (in which case Islamic legal theory has nothing to say), or the freedom of the constituent moment is usurped by the prior constraints of fidelity to some pre-political Islamic social contract.
I would submit that this is particularly a problem for modern Islamic political thought precisely because of its aspiration to deep legality. Although much modern commentary has focused on the problem of “Islam and violence,” the more accurate story is that the modern Islamist vision is (though not pacifist) one of consensus as the deep foundation of politics. From Riḍā’s preoccupation with refounding the caliphate on purely consensual grounds to Ghannūshī’s vision of a people that sees itself as God’s caliph enacting a kind of dual social contract between God and it, and then it and its government, modern Islamism shares with certain kinds of liberalism precisely an embarrassment at the violent origins of politics and the violence needed to sustain it. Even the utopianism of Quṭb, arguably responsible for the ease with which some more radical Islamist groups have rationalized violence, structures his reflections around a humanity that might well be conceived of as born free, that is, in its innate condition of monotheism and good (enough) moral disposition. What all of these theories have in common is their beginning by simply positing the existence of an umma, with its essence of piety and moral unity already established. Of course, an Islamist theory of politics could acknowledge that this umma does not exist, but must be formed through education and coercion, as Quṭbist theories do by calling for a vanguard to take power in our present fallen times. But this is simply not in the spirit of so much of modern Islamist thought before and after Quṭb, which not only rejects the violence authorized against jāhiliyya but also tends to imagine jāhiliyya away at the level of ideal theory.
Of course, the option remains for Islamic democrats to imagine an “Islamic democracy to come,” a future sovereign umma that can express its moral unity politically, after the people has “returned” to its natural piety by a combination of removing the alien causes of disunity and gentle education. This is not a contradiction. Every democratic theory, if it hopes for more than managed competition or the minimalization of the evils that government can do, has to rest on a faith in the people becoming fit for self-rule. All that remains to be said is that because this Islamic democratic vision of self-rule involves a very deep kind of consensus about metaphysical truths and the ethical purposes of human life, it does not escape the possibility that such deep moral agreement is no longer likely in the contemporary world, at least without the kinds of coercion and limitation on freedoms of conscience and speech that Islamic democrats claim to reject. What if moral pluralism is here to stay?
This may indeed be a moment when the vision of both democratizing and Islamizing the modern state finally gives way to other horizons and possibilities. When Islamizing law seems less of a panacea or even a minimal condition of legitimacy, living and acting politically in such a moment is less of a challenge, perhaps, than theorizing it. Beyond subtracting Islamist idealism, even utopianism, and accommodating political reality, what are Islamic norms adding to the political?
It is possible that the most important horizon for Islamic political thought today is a post-statist, even post-sovereigntist, one. This is not just an observation imposed by the theoretical structure of my book. Alongside the claims to have moved into “post-Islamism” or “Muslim democracy,” there is a nascent discourse on Islam and the political “after the state.” Although this may require a new generation of thinkers, it may also be a horizon that traditional Islamist thinkers themselves are best equipped to observe. This is not only because they best acquainted with the difficulty of realizing a fully Islamic public sphere, but also because they are some of the greatest witnesses of the brutality and danger of state power. Ghannūshī himself, while observing the inherent authoritarianism of any state (even an Islamic one), when it holds the society and the economy in its grip, holds that the post-statist, post-sovereigntist Islamic vision may be one that focuses on society as a space for expanding the freedom from state tyranny for a variety of ways of life, not only religious ones but also materialist, secular ones. His model for this more normatively laden vision is not only the Constitution of Medina, but ninth-century Baghdad which, in his telling, saw no contradiction in allowing for the flourishing of multiple ways of life and moral-intellectual communities, including those pursuing materialist and nontheist cosmologies.
There is something of a “liberalism of fear” to this insight. Islamists like Ghannūshī have experienced more than their share of the awful and tyrannical power the state is capable of. And so, limiting that power, not only for the sake of the ordinary goods of nonviolence and nondomination, but for the freedom for religious ways of life to be able to flourish, is less a theoretical, doctrinal achievement than one earned by the practical, political experience of opposition to authoritarianism. In my view this potentially heralds an Islamic political thought in a new register, a political Islamic political thought, one that is informed both by the political as its own domain of pluralism and novelty, and also by Islamists’ reflection on their cumulative historical experience of political action. There need be no preset script for this register of thought (liberal, theocratic, or otherwise), but it may take place without the fantasy of sovereignty.
Andrew F. March is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. March’s first book, Islam and Liberal Citizenship, won the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of political philosophy, Islamic law and political thought, religion and political theory, and comparative and non-Western political theory more generally. He has published articles on Islamic law and political thought, secularism, religion and free speech, religious freedom and the boundaries of marriage in liberal society, all of which can be found here.
 Ghannūshī, al-Ḥurriyyāt al-ʿāmma, 119 (2015 ed., 133).
 Ghannūshī, al-Ḥurriyyāt al-ʿāmma, 221 (2015 ed., 253).
 Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State, x.
 See, for example, Hiba Raʾūf ʿIzzat, al-Khiyāl al-siyāsī li’l-Islāmiyyīn: mā qabl al-dawla wa mā baʿduhā (al-Shabaka al-ʿarabiyya, 2015), which is a study of the “Islamist political imagination” before and after the state, and the earlier cited Jāsir ʿAwda, al-Dawla al-madaniyya, which less a traditional claim that the Islamic state is a civil state and more that a non-authoritarian, civil state is what will make society safe for the development of Islamic ethics.
 This is that theme that emerged repeatedly in my dialogues with him (transcripts on file with the author, forthcoming in translation).
 To invoke Jeremy Waldron, “Political Political Theory: An Inaugural Lecture,” Journal of Political Philosophy 21, no. 1 (2013): 1–23.
Andrew March’s The Caliphate of Man (2019) is one of the most insightful studies of Islamic political thought as it has evolved over the course of the last century. In this intellectual history, March’s main thesis is simple and compelling: the idea of ’the caliphate of man’ has been the pivotal invention of modern Islamic political thought that allowed Muslims to move seamlessly from the premodern staple of Islamic thought—the historical caliphate understood as succession to the Prophetic rule—to the modern political idea of popular sovereignty as conceived within modern states. Many scholars have sensed the novelty and even internal contradictions of the idea of human beings—Adam’s children—as God’s caliphs and its unobvious but in contemporary imagination inseparable corollary, popular sovereignty. March has succeeded in uncovering some of those hidden seams, allowing us to make better sense of the novel contribution to Islamic political tradition of key Islamic political thinkers of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.
His contribution calls to mind the work of another Yale scholar, Edmund S. Morgan (d. 2013), a brilliant historian and an atheist writing about the devoutly religious Puritans, exemplifying the best of human fascination with the perceived other with his groundbreaking study of a very similar interest, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty (1988). Like Morgan, March musters much critical sympathy and understanding for “puritans” from another religious tradition. Just as Morgan’s work reignited interest in Puritan studies, one hopes the subjects of this book will be brought out of the “security and terrorism studies” corner and taken up more seriously as political thinkers. Morgan argued in his 1988 monograph that the American Founding Fathers invented the idea of the American people and used it to impose government on a disparate people, turning them into a nation. In March’s account, it is the Islamic reformists (a term I prefer to “Islamists” for reasons explained below) who invented the idea of the caliphate of man—the human beings as vicegerents (khalifas) of God upon earth—an idea which was employed (exactly how and when is a contention the book tries to answer) as the Trojan horse to import the Western idea of popular sovereignty through the mediating notion of divine sovereignty exercised through the believers. How is it, he asks, that “[t]he movement that popularized the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ and divine sovereignty (ḥākimiyyat Allāh) as the sole source of legitimacy saw itself as the true voice of popular sovereignty” (xvii). The caliphate of man as the two-faced creature representing both popular and mediated divine sovereignty (my paraphrase) has met with such startling success that it has become unremarkable, considered entirely obvious for a wide array of Muslim writers and leaders for over half a century.
The Caliphate of Man is a cross between genealogical exploration of an idea and intellectual history. It is genealogical because it is history done backwards, starting with a moment in the present—the Islamic political discourse in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings and the authors’ extensive interviews with the Tunisian politician Rashid Ghannushi —and looking at significant turning points in the past to unravel selected strands, recording notable transformations, and, as J.G.A. Pocock might put it, new redeployments of old terms. Although the focus remains on familiar figures, Rashid Rida, Sanhuri, Abu al-Aʿla Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, and Rashid Ghannushi (Ghannouchi), the findings are refreshingly crisp and the comparative insights precious, which is no small matter given how much mediocre and repetitious analysis already crowds the field of “political Islam” or “Islamism.” In the interest of space and in the hopes of saying something of interest, I will limit my comments to the first half of the book, focusing in particular on March’s treatment of Mawdudi.
Reform movements of the nineteenth century such as those of the Young Ottomans, the Arabic Nahda, and the Iranian ulama in their attempt to limit the absolute powers of the Ottoman and Qajar rulers respectively gradually invented the idea of popular sovereignty by radically transforming and repurposing premodern Islamic tradition and texts. The first distinct step in the process was Islamic constitutionalism. Islamic reform and constitutionalism at first co-existed with, if not sought to reinforce, the caliphate and often even the authority of the ulama. Zeroing in on a series of significant contributors, March begins with Rashīd Riḍā’s (b. 1865 – d. 1935) treatise on the caliphate, which he characterizes as belonging to the pre-apologetic phase. Here Riḍā “thinks that the only cure for these various vices, corruptions, and errors is the renewal of the true caliphate, because a legitimately elected caliph will of necessity be one with the full panoply of moral and intellectual qualifications.” Caliphate must be revived “in order to reconstitute the umma and its unity. … The umma exists without a caliph but is in a state of sin, or pagan ignorance (jāhiliyya), when one is not installed” (44-5). Riḍā also chastises conservative jurists for failing to engage in independent reasoning (ijtihad), and calls for it in urgency, declaring the renewal of Islamic reasoning and the existence of an imam mutually necessary. Yet, March observes, he does not consider “the basic constitutional structure of the caliphate as a matter of ijtihad” (47). Curiously, the concept and even wording of the ḥākimiyya of God appear fully present in Riḍā’s chastisement of the secular Turkish move under Ataturk who fell for the competing ḥākimiyyat al-milla, the sovereignty of the people. March sees opposing this proposition, held by the secularists as the only conceivable path to progress, as the chief purpose of Riḍā’s book (59).
The next significant Arab contributor to political thought is al-Sanhūrī (b. 1895 – d. 1971)—whose vision (in his dissertation on the caliphate written in French in 1923-26), March notes, lays “the groundwork for more radically popular and democratic turns in Islamic political theory” (69). Sanhūrī recognizes that sovereignty is a novel concept and that whereas only God has the final authority, Sanhūrī presses into service the Sunni doctrine of consensus of the community, and the doctrine (in the classical political literature) of the ulama as those ‘who bind and loose’, to create a trinity of sovereigns (71).
Next the book delves into “Islamist” political thought proper, which March characterizes as “high utopian Islamism” comparable to the Rawlsian idea of “realistic utopia” (75). Early advocates of the idea of popular sovereignty in Islam included poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who in a 1908 essay wrote, “Political Sovereignty de facto resides in the people; and that the electorate by their free act of unanimous choice embody it in a determinate personality in which the collective wills is, so to speak, individualized, without investing this concrete seat of power with any privilege in the eye of the law except legal control over the individual wills of which it is an expression … the idea of universal agreement is, in fact, the fundamental principle of Muslim constitutional theory. ‘What the Muslim community considers good,’ says the Prophet, ‘God also considers good.’” (qtd at 77). To March, precedents like this remarkable passage are not part of “Islamist” thought proper, because, he contends, “popular sovereignty is a crucial development within a particular ideological tradition … [and] what matters are less isolated declarations of support for popular sovereignty than more systematic theoretical accounts of how it is an important commitment given other commitments, specifically to divine sovereignty.” (77). This point, key to March’s central thesis (but not his narrative), may be its Achilles’ heel. How exactly is the main body of “Islamist thought” to be distinguished from the countless tributaries (some of whom March counts!) that run into it and streams that splinter from it?
March’s exposition of the most influential Islamic political thinkers of the latter half of the twentieth century, Mawdudi and Qutb, is perceptive, yet limited by the somewhat decontextualized and narrow range of the writings engaged. It is nevertheless a tribute to the book that it allows us to think beyond its explicit conclusions, which are themselves quite innovative thanks to March’s exceptional grasp of comparative political theory.
Consider, for instance, his observation on Mawdudi’s notion of sovereignty and insistence that it belong to God alone, which in Western as well as derivative Muslim secular literature is often dismissed as an unprecedented “fundamentalist” idea. Whereas Mawdudi’s judgment is accepted as unremarkable in the subsequent Islamic literature, the secular literature continues to repeat the odd mantra that it was an unprecedented innovation. Although March does not address this problem directly (as far as I can tell), his sustained concern with the idea of sovereignty sheds light on the problem. “The right to be obeyed in any normative judgment (hukm),” al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had written in his classical introduction to Islamic jurisprudential theory, al-Mustaṣfā, “belongs to none but Him to whom belongs the creation and the command … nothing becomes an obligation if the Prophet upon him be peace and blessings, the ruler, the master, the father, or the husband commands and makes obligatory, but only by the obligation imposed by Allah to obey them” (al-Mustaṣfā, 1:275-6). What, then, distinguishes Mawdudi’s ascription of political sovereignty to God? March hints at the answer by pointing out the maximalist definition of the concept that Mawdudi proposes, assigning the sovereign such total powers that behoove no mortal. To Mawdudi, sovereignty is a metaphysical concept, incompatible inherently with secularist politics, built on the premise that all collective politics are eminently religious (in that they seek a religious goal) and ethical (in that they are bound by notions of justice and obedience to God). To press this thought further, let’s recall March’s helpful outlining of the various senses in which the term sovereignty is used, (i) constituent authority (source of legitimacy), (ii) lawgiving (which may be inclusive of the previous, but adds further authority to give law after constituting a regime), (iii) interpretive and adjudicative authorities, (iv) supreme legitimate coercive power, and (v) Schmittian sense as the authority to declare exception, suspend the law, define its boundaries, declare war, and the like (16-17). Mawdudi’s definition (80) is exceptionally demanding, inclusive of all these authorities (even if some of these are mediated), and comparable perhaps to Hobbes’ Leviathan in its most absolutist interpretation, and as such, designed to let only one occupant sit on this elevated throne, God. March recognizes this (81). But he then goes on to chastise Mawdudi for the invalidity of his logic because he says that sovereignty demands that the sovereign cannot be questioned by anyone about his commands, and since any human can be questioned, only God must be the sovereign. But in fact, Mawdudi employs an Urdu idiom to mean that no questioning of God is legitimate in theory, not that no human can in fact question, implying that a sovereign ultimately claims such total authority. Modern states, we might say, do grant sovereign powers to an abstraction itself, which is ultimately unquestionable. March’s critique would have been more to the point if he recognized that Mawdudi mistook this aspect of the modern state to be its ideological feature—one that one could fix through a faithful declaration, in contrast to the many theorists today who deem it to be a structural feature of the modern nation-state.
Mawdudi is often criticized for politicizing Islam; those skeptical of this critique often counter this charge with two observations: first, Islam being an inherently political religion, the charge is little more than secularist scapegoating, and second, much of what Mawdudi wrote had been said by the Young Ottomans and others several decades earlier (see for instance Kamal Karpat, The Politicization of Islam: Reconstructing Identity, State, Faith, and Community in the Late Ottoman State [Oxford U. P., 2001]). March’s perceptive reading of Mawdudi may offer an explanation. Discerning Mawdudi’s distinctive emphasis, he quotes a key passage from Mawdudi: “The root-cause of all evil and mischief in the world is the domination of man over man” (86). Might it be that Mawdudi has gone too far in elevating one important right of God (lawgiving) in the Quran at the expense of all others? Mawdudi seems to have turned what the ulama took to be the ultimate ends of Islam, worship and adoration of God, into instruments for a good political order. March does not mention this, but this was a bone of contention among the ulama, and not even all “Islamists” (the scare quotes suggest that I am not persuaded that the term can be defined or is useful) followed along: the best critique came from a fellow scholar, historian, and litterateur, Abu l-Hasan al-Nadwi in his al-Tafsīr al-Siyāsī li-l-Islām. This contention that places political oppression at the top of the hierarchy of evils—and political justice as given by God as the highest good—is the closest we get to a distinctive definition of political Islam or Islamism (I have not come across any other definition that even comes close to distinguishing this strand of contemporary Islam). The classical ulama as well as their contemporary heirs are more likely to see the human desire to worship other than God, worship palpable things rather than the true, transcendent God, and/or attribution of anthropomorphic flaws to God as the fundamental evil. Mawdudi comes close to seeing political evil as the greatest evil generative of all others, which is why the greatest virtue in his view is a political virtue, namely that of working toward reestablishing God’s sovereignty.
In my view, even this feature as the last standing candidate for defining “Islamism” falls, for the politics or ruler-centered interpretations of Islam go as far back as the Umayyads (in whose literature the term “God’s caliph” was occasionally used, although differently than how Mawdudi employed it), running through the statecraft literature of the medieval period with such luminaries as Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and Qudāma b. Jaʿfar, eastern falasifa such as al-Farabī, and I suspect many court writers in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, all the way to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, in addition to many contemporary Sunni Islamic reformists. This emphasis is jarringly out of place only against the backdrop of the late medieval Syro-Egyptian quietism adopted and enhanced by the Saudi-Wahhabi state, one that has recently succeeded in presenting itself as the only orthodoxy. To consider political well-being as the pinnacle of Islam has a long and prestigious history. Nor do all those labeled Islamists—Nadwi being a case in point—accept it. It can hardly be deemed a distinctive doctrine sufficient to define a thing called “Islamism”. One may, of course, suggest a “family resemblances” explanation, but that makes the boundaries even fuzzier, leaving “Islamism” useful only as a partial description rather than a set of beliefs or actors open to rigorous analysis. March’s decision to explore the genealogy of one distinct idea is, therefore a more productive approach, and far from discerning an essence of Islamism, helps to throw this fact into sharp relief.
The Caliphate of Man is an indispensable study in the field of Islamic political thought, and easily among the best treatments of the much-studied subject of political Islam. Even in the few cases when one does not find March’s argument persuasive, one is invariably enriched and the better for having read and re-read it.
Ovamir Anjum is Imam Khattab Endowed Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Toledo. His work focuses on the nexus of theology, ethics, politics and law in classical and medieval Islam, with comparative interest in Western Thought. His interests are united by a common theoretical focus on epistemology or views of intellect/reason in various domains of Islamic thought, ranging from politics (siyasa), law (fiqh), theology (kalam), falsafa (Islamic philosophy) and spirituality (Sufism, mysticism, and asceticism). He brings this historical studies to bear on issues in contemporary Islamic thought and movements and is currently researching developments in Islamic political thought in the wake of the Arab Uprisings of 2011. While trained as an historian, his work is essentially interdisciplinary, drawing on the fields of classical Islamic studies, political philosophy, and cultural anthropology.
 Abu l-Hasan al-Nadwi, al-Tafsīr al-Siyāsī li-l-Islām, 3rd ed. (Kuwait: Dār al-Qalam, 1981).
When I read western academics on Islam, my go-to move is to unmask their secular-liberal prejudice. My suspicion stems from centuries of work brimming with racism and unapologetic orientalism. But Andrew March is among the few specialists on Islamic political thought that quiets my intellectual paranoia. What makes March rare is that his most recent book, The Caliphate of Man, is a well-sourced and well-written book on Islamic political thought. His references are thorough, and he extrapolates the most pertinent arguments from the texts he examines. The book is highly commendable due to March’s close reading of Salafi thinkers of the modern period. And since he does not assume any expertise in Islamic Studies on the part of his audience, he provides ample context and historical background for the arguments and thinkers he studies.
March works within the small but growing field of comparative political theory (CPT). Comparative political theory is a topsy-turvy world. It forms a niche within a niche, a wallflower on the littorals of the global western academy. For CPT-ers it is perfectly normal to engage marginalized figures and ideas which fall outside the authorized secular-liberal political canon. As a result, its practitioners openly claim that one of the purposes of their scholarship is to question their own assumptions about the world and invite others to do the same. Sometimes, this leads to white-on-white crime like what befell the celebrated Michael Walzer when March scolded him after the former relapsed into a strange leftist fit of Islamophobia. Such moves have earned March street-credit among his Muslim readers. In the past he has been invited to many Muslim institutions including Zaytuna College, where he shared the stage with Hamza Yusuf and Maria Dakake. These are uncommon investments for a western academic, and it is reflected in his careful reading of Muslim authors.
In The Caliphate of Man March argues that Muslim political theorists have come to defend a religious view of popular sovereignty which reflects “a genuine intellectual revolution in modern Islamic thought”(x). Much like the political revisionism Khomeini brought to Shi’ism in the 1970s, March heralds a similar transformation in Sunnism at the hands of Salafi democrats. Where traditional Sunnism once defended the rule of sacred kings and scholars, now it favors the rule of a just and pious people. This transformation, Salafis argue, is built on a theological claim derived from the Quranic verse (Innī jā‘ilun fi l-arḍ khalīfa 2:30) in which God bestows upon mankind the status of God’s vicegerent, or caliph on earth. The net effect of the book is that in the wake of the Arab uprisings, the book puts western commitments to popular sovereignty in tension with western apprehension of potentially illiberal democrats. Although major Salafi thinkers (namely, Hasan al-Turabi) are notably absent, March chronologically reads key thinkers in this tradition such as Mawdudi, Qutb, and Rida ending with a fifty-page denouement on the Tunisian reformer Rachid al-Ghannouchi (b. 1941).
If The Caliphate of Man was a coming of age film and Salafi Islamism its main protagonist, then as expected, the main character definitely matures into a law-abiding liberal subject. That is indeed strange given that in March’s own account, Islamic democracy was a movement inaugurated under the banner of saving the Caliphate (Chapter 3). However, at the end of the 20th century, Salafi Islamism turns out to be another call for democracy akin to concurrent liberal interpretations of nationalist self-determination. How did we get from anti-colonial politics in favor of sultanic power to post-colonial calls for democracy? Under normal conditions, this plot should set off alarm bells. But given March’s street-cred, it is hard to dismiss. It is also hard to deny. When we look around the region, the politics of Islamic democracy advocated by al-Ghannouchi came to life in Tunisia and Egypt and remain firmly in place in Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). It looks like Islamists everywhere have become secular liberal democrats with a sprinkle of Islamic values. Like any political movement, Islamists have their own embarrassing compromises, such as their staunch support of the Qatar monarchy, or their sectarian rejection of democratic reform in Bahrain. It is precisely at the juncture of these historical inconsistencies and present tensions that a clearer picture emerges of Islamism as a phenomenon.
Returning to the central research question motivating March’s text: How did we go from a movement that supposedly defended the Caliphate to simply repeating what was argued by the Caliphate’s most vehement critics at the time of its abolition? Contrary to March’s answer, my argument is that the current Salafi position is not new. It is a known position in the centuries-long history of Islamic thought. Where March goes wrong is that he elides Sunnism with Salafi Islamism. On his account it is unclear whether Sunnism transformed itself, or that since the 19th century Salafi thought unabashedly speaks for Sunnism at large. In one sense March agrees with this; his own genealogy of Islamic democracy traces back to the 19th century. Yet, the Salafi role isn’t as exciting as March concedes. It can be easily explained if we contextualize its resurgence in terms of the colonial encounter. My claim is that there was no transformation within Sunnism per se, but rather that a certain strand of Muslims, claiming to be Sunnis, all the while rejecting central positions in the school have come to speak on behalf of Sunnism. I am proposing an alternative explanation for the same events March examines. Adopting this alternative explanation undermines what I take to be March’s central thesis: Sunnism shifted from a political theology of the sultanate to a political theology of popular sovereignty. Sunnism is not an amorphous shapeshifter. It has not engaged in any kind of ijtihādī revisionism on the question of imāma, rather non-Sunnis re-articulated a view which laid dormant in the backwaters of Islamic thought. To explore this line of thinking I will focus March’s reading of Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s seminal text al-Ḥurriyāt al-‘āmma fi l-Dawlah al-Islāmiyya. March’s choice of ending his book with al-Ghannouchi is apropos because the ideas in al-Hurriyat are exemplary of what has become the dominant view among modern Salafi democrats.
When we look at The Caliphate of Man’s index, there are hardly four citations under the name: Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728 H/1328 M). Yet, when it comes to the arc of the work, Ibn Taymiyya animates much of the ideas articulated in the book. Ibn Taymiyya’s political vision is not only known by Sunnis but is clearly rejected by the school. Therefore, it is strange to attribute it to the Sunni position. There is one Taymiyyan theme re-occurring in al-Ghannouchi’s work documented by March in the following passage:
The second sense, in turn, in which the people is sovereign is that the People Who Loose and Bind are not. Of course, Ghannūshī recognizes that classical Islamic legal theory recognized that the umma’s elite representatives could authorize rules in a valid and binding sense, but for him this was the traditional path to authoritarianism. He thus asks “so where is the umma? It is the possessor of the missing power in this conception.” For Ghannūshī, only Ibn Taymiyya stood firm in resisting authoritarianism in claiming that the general bay‘a from the people at large is necessary and decisive for appointing the caliph, with the bay‘a of the People Who Loose and Bind only a form of nomination. Thus, the sovereignty of the umma is first a matter of creating procedures for the will of the people to be genuinely effective in the authorization of political power (176).
This passage explicitly distinguishes the Taymiyyan umma-centric vision from a “classical” Sunni position. For Ibn Taymiyya political authority is an obligation for the entire umma and the state is a representative of that umma. However, it is worth asking: what do Ibn Taymiyya and his modern followers understand by the concept of umma? According to al-Ghannouchi, the umma comprises of the total set of sovereign believers who are each in a divine covenant requiring submission to God’s law. March explains,
But that body is composed of its members, and its members are all those who accept the lordship of God and their own trusteeship. Although (as we shall see) that body is commanded to entrust some of its members with the execution of that authority, it never irrevocably surrenders its own patrimony even when duly constituted powers are in operation. If the umma has a form of derived sovereignty, it never goes to sleep. And because its authority is located in the law and the idea of representing God, any member can attempt to speak for it in moments of dereliction, crisis, and emergency (160-161).
In both quotations what emerges is a vision of a ‘direct-access society’ in which there is a God and his people mediated by God’s will as sharī‘a. This tripartite framework goes against the standard Sunni understanding of what binds the umma to God. For Islamists such as al-Ghannouchi, the umma is bound by submission to God’s will through a primordial covenant prior to the formation of communal identity. The direct-access individuation of each member abstracts the believing self from its own communal identity.
Sunni ethnogenesis is not cosmogonic but resolutely immanent. The missing ingredient in al-Ghannouchi’s account of sovereign community is the world-historical role of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him and his family, as charismatic founder. The umma comes to be through its imām (both words syntactically and semantically connected in Arabic). An imām in this sense is not only a nabī, selected for communication with God but also a rasūl, instituting a new law. The law necessitates a urgrund that is both inside and outside of the law. On the Sunni account, what makes an umma into an imagined community is not so much submission to an abstract law but rather the shared submission to the embodied sovereignty in the personhood of the Noble Prophet who is the very basis of law (al-taṣdīq bimā ‘ulima majīʾ al-nabī bihī min al-dīn bi l-ḍarūra, faith is assenting to all what is known of the Prophet’s advent).
The idea that the Prophet sits in between God (outside law) and his creation (subject to law) is all but forgotten by most who study Islamic political theory today. Instead focus remains disproportionately on Divine Command Theory. March argues that both Sunnis and Salafis agree that God is the source of all law. Any Command Theory, divine or otherwise, stipulates that moral maxims obtain the normative force of universal law when the command and its corresponding reward and punishment emanate from the same agent. Hidden in this principle is a rejection of legal theories in which the source of normativity may be objectively grounded in either reason or nature. Norms are always subjective, grounded in a lawgiver’s will-to-power. Horkheimer’s famous line: “To seek to salvage unconditional meaning without God is a futile undertaking,” encapsulates why Muslims resort to supplementing a primitive command theory with God. The story goes something like this. Worldly authorities may issue what appear at first to be universal law, but on closer examination, these commands turn out to be contingent since their respective compensation is bounded by time and space. In a Sunni account, the contingent nature of their compensation reduces their normative force, failing to satisfy the comprehensive demands of justice. Secular commands are intrinsically unable to overcome the unbridgeable gap between the unconditional meanings they evoke and the inadequate compensation they offer. A positivist legal theory which touts contingent maxims as universal commands is a dictionary definition of arbitrary power falsely paraded as impartial law. Therefore, it is no surprise that for most people today justice in this world is always left unrequited, perpetually longing for closure in supreme judgement elsewhere.
Most Muslims agree on some form of Divine Command Theory. It is unclear if Salafis agree with Sunnis on the exact nature of divine command. For example, the Sunni conception accommodates prophecy in a way that Salafis do not. According to the Sunni interpretation, divine command is not restricted to God alone. In fact, it cannot be restricted to God if we are to overcome the enduring dilemma of justice deferred. The entry of God comforts us that there will be a court of final justice, but how does that help to overcome the legitimacy gap? Sunni emphasis on prophecy changes the metaphysics of morals. Prophethood, and only prophethood, makes justice in the here and now possible once again. Even though the Noble Prophet is a thoroughly immanent-human agent, he is not subject to the same deficiencies burdening worldly sovereigns. For Sunnis, he occupies a key position (al-maqām al-maḥmūd) whereby he is granted the right to hand out indulgences (shafā‘a) in the hereafter; electing those who may have been destined to punishment. Obviously, this privilege is not equal to God’s final judgement, yet it ensures his ability to affect the calculus of eternal retribution. Given his exceptional position in the structure of heavenly command, prophetic legislation in this world is qualitatively different than secular power. Prophetic edicts are backed by a will-to-power unrestricted by this world. By participating in God’s final judgment prophetic power, independent in its own right, forms a this-worldly rope (ḥabl) connecting the transcendent unconditional meanings buried in immanent law with their equivalent transcendent retribution. According to Sunni Divine Command Theory, participation in other-worldly adjudication is necessary if one is to rise above the use of arbitrary force and exercise legitimate authority in the world. And this right is not solely vested in the Noble Prophet; other members of his community such as select scholars, saints and soldiers may enter the heavenly command structure, strengthening its connection to the world albeit in diminishing proportions. This means that if latecomers such as post-prophetic worldly sovereigns want to attain legitimacy, they must insert themselves into the already established heavenly command, cognizant of the fact that many under their charge may well rank above them.
My point is that the Sunni idea of sovereignty is very different from Salafi accounts. For many Salafis, what I described above amounts to shirk, or idolatry because Sunnis believe in participatory norm-creation. However, when these matters are more clearly examined, March reveals that even Salafi democrats have no problem in allowing the umma as a whole to participate in norm-creation alongside God. However, for Sunnis, there is no prima facie investiture in lay individual believers, let alone humanity as a whole. Earthly sovereignty is not directly transmitted to the umma from God but remains, even today, in the hands of a single titleholder, the Noble Prophet. This means post-prophetic investiture of power is inherited by the umma through Prophetic Sovereignty not Divine Sovereignty. The Sunni perspective does not deny God as the ultimate source of power/law, but there is no precedence in imaging individual sovereign believers based on a fiṭri pre-temporal covenant with God prior to the prophetic mission. Even the verse 2:30 is interpreted as pointing to Prophetic Sovereignty rather than individual sovereignty. That is because according to Sunni theology there is a very specific mechanism by which the transcendent will of God is transmitted to the immanent understanding of man. Revelation is mediated through a singular entity on Earth, the Noble Prophet, which relates to Divine Sovereignty based on his ‘iṣma or infallibility. The claim that the Noble Prophet is the last and only holder of sovereignty on Earth is derived from Sunni prophetology. Salafi commentators run rough shod over these subtle issues. They mute prophetic agency in order to render the Noble Prophet as a simple transmitter of what is ultimately God’s will.
Moreover, on the Sunni account the holder of worldly sovereignty never died. The Noble Prophet and his companions and righteous followers are alive in their graves (ahyā’un wa lākin lā tash’urūn 2:154). Sunni prophetology radically changes the conception of the umma found in March’s book. For Salafis the umma is the subset of individual humans inhabiting the earth today. It is neither trans-historical nor trans-geographical. In the Sunni vision, the umma’s electorate, if we are to use modern language, extends to constituents that are both shāhid, present and ghāʾib, absent. To speak on behalf of the umma requires one to speak for an unimaginably large group of people of which one’s living ancestors are of utmost importance. For Sunnis, Marx’s adage, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” is less a nightmare than an honored Prophetic trust. Therefore, the umma cannot be reduced to simply the portion of humanity inhabiting a trivial patch of earth today. On the Sunni view those who speak in the name of the umma simultaneously speak in the name of the Prophet and his followers and are not confined to any ethnicity or territory.
Another point of contention overlooked by March is that for Sunnis the umma is not a multitude of individuals but rather the umma is first and foremost comprised of its communitarian organs. On this account, each person is not born as an unencumbered self. Individuals are born into pre-political social corporates such as a households, tribes, ethnic communities, guilds, spiritual brotherhoods, or legal schools, each group embodying its own meritocratic values. As a single milla, Sunnis have their own mechanisms of speaking in their own name. The umma organically reproduces itself through designated communal social structures often supported by the awqāf, communal religious foundations. Individuals are thrown into this world, caught in complex hierarchies that were chosen for them and which predetermine their positionality. Meaning, each believer is already represented. The Muslim Sunni Elite are raised, from the bottom-up, through Sunni institutions and earn their position through the meritocratic mechanisms in their respective corporates. Over time they gradually embody the ideals of the community in a system of trickle-down representation. The Muslim Sunni Elite comprises of mutakallimūn, mujtahidūn, awliyā, shuyūkh al–qabāʾil, shuhadā, and others. None of them are elected by vote but rather embody collective limited authority based on their own qualification and merit. Their accountability is not limited to the people around them but stands in for all those who have passed before them.
This vision is epistocratic and perfectionist to the core. It is far from democratic popular sovereignty. For democratic popular sovereignty, the artificial is always superior to the natural. It presumes that the multitude are not naturally given but must be constituted, in a Hobbesian sense, through artificial government. From a Sunni perspective that sounds as absurd as a family voting-in their own father. The Muslim Sunni Elite’s self-fashioning, hardened through communal corporates validates their status as organic elites. The umma, if it speaks at all, can only speak through the Muslim Sunni Elite as the People Who Loose and Bind (ahl al-ḥall wa’l-‘aqd). This is not just a normative theory but a descriptive sociology. Sunnis believe in the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’ Any community is always already represented by their elites. The type of elite is determined by the type of society. A capitalist society is organically represented by its plutocracy. For Sunnis, without epistocrats, the umma can’t speak.
March correctly points out that both Salafis and Sunnis agree that sovereignty, prophetic or divine, eventually moves into the hands of the umma through a process of ijmā’. He writes, “Thus, the aspects of constitutionalism that are more or less subject to agreement in modern Sunni Islamic thought, are that the people is, broadly-speaking, the source or origin of the legitimacy…” (13) Yet, there is a categorical disagreement between Sunnis and Salafis about what ijmā’ means. For al-Ghannouchi it translates to the vague notion of “universal consensus” in the here and now. Yet, in the Sunni imagination a consensus-qua-referendum of members walking on earth today is neither mandatory nor desirable. The first ijmā’ was accomplished as a historical fact by the Successors of the Prophet and then by the continuous intergenerational belief and practice of Sunnis through the ages. The ijmā’ exists and will exist until the end of time. It is not something that falls in and out of being, let alone an electoral procedure waiting to be done. In turn the umma, a transcendental community of moral exemplars, possesses sovereignty because the umma is nothing other than the khawās, or the select few in the chain of heavenly command or the ‘awwām, the aspirational many who subject themselves to heavenly command. To be a member of the umma means to conduct oneself as though you count among that trans-historical and trans-geographical group. Not much has changed doctrinally for Sunni Muslims in this regard.
Ibn Taymiyya’s life long theological mission was to remove the Muslim Sunni Elite and replace them with another. He saw them as heretical dead weight and an obstacle to pure faith. They create unnecessary layers mediating between God and His people. He vehemently attacked the pre-political sociology which bound people with their organic elites as a cause of Muslim decline. His project failed. His act of destabilization was rejected by Sunnis of his time. However when the Muslim Sunni Elites came under attack by colonial authorities in the 19th century, a comprador class of native collaborators revived the obsolete arguments of Ibn Taymiyya. The Taymiyyan vision is a marriage of convenience for colonial aspirations. This did not happen overnight but was the unfortunate outcome of a long held colonial policy of rendering pre-colonial hegemonic ideologies (read: traditional Sunnism) illegitimate through the phenomenon misunderstood as Orientalism. Not much has changed in colonial capitals today. In the past, the ‘global liberal constitutional moment’ afforded the old comprador a chance to bargain with colonial interests and sell secular liberal promises back home. When newly liberated states in Western Asia and beyond failed to gain the glories promised by their liberators, Salafis stepped in. They prolonged what liberals, leftists and modernists of all stripes began under colonial rule. The arguments of Ibn Taymiyya helped modern Salafis to sell a new vision to the Muslim masses as antiquated colonial projects unraveled. This time they amplified an alternative Islamic vision all the while appeasing the Orientalist agenda of dismantling traditional Sunni power.
Owais Khan is a senior research associate at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) housed at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University (IZU). He is currently completing his PhD at Syracuse University in the Department of Religion. His dissertation focuses on the role of prophecy in modern political thought. His area of specialization covers ilm ul-kalam, philosophy of religion and politics with competence in analytic philosophy of language and postcolonial thought. He is a co-founder of BILDEV, the Foundation for the Study of Science and Thought, a center for advanced studies in kalam, philosophy of science and intellectual history in Turkey.
Andrew March’s The Caliphate of Man takes the reader on a captivating exploration of the genealogy of popular sovereignty in modern Islamic political thought. More specifically, the book seeks to unfurl “the invention of a distinct ideal regime type within which democracy is not only formally tolerated but also an important moral commitment” (15). For March, this is an “intellectual revolution” that merits careful analysis and historical consideration not because it was the first time that notions of popular sovereignty were theorized in the Muslim world, but because it represents “the Islamist discovery of a commitment to popular sovereignty” despite “their rejection of the sovereignty of nation-states” (40).
The catalyst for this intellectual revolution, according to March, was two-fold: the abolition of the Caliphate by the Turkish National Assembly on March 4th, 1924 and the publication of ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq’s al-Islām wa uṣūl al-ḥukm in which he argued that the Caliphate has no religious basis. Together, a “crisis of the Caliphate” ensued, pushing scholars such as Rashīd Riḍā to articulate new theories of the Caliphate. March observes that Riḍā’s theory was “still largely focused on pre-modern juridical sources of authority and had not yet fully grappled with the place that mass politics and popular participation might have in an Islamic political order (40).” Next March turns to what he terms a “high utopian Islamism” which was antagonistic to modern Western notions of governance and thus explicitly theorized alternative notions of sovereignty around the divine which asserts “an uncompromising insistence on God’s exclusive legislative and normative sovereignty, or divine sovereignty as norm” (76). Emblematic of this approach are Abū’l Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī (d. 1979) and Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966). Yet, alongside this insistence on divine sovereignty, March demonstrates the ways in which Mawdūdī articulated “the doctrine of the caliphate of man” which marks the first turn towards an acknowledgement, and indeed a theological theorization of, popular sovereignty. Quṭb, described as the “high point” in high utopian Islamism, builds upon the popular dimensions of Mawdūdī’s thought to recast the Sharīʿa in popular terms as “a law through which humans in fact also govern themselves” (146). In Quṭb’s reimagining of the Sharīʿa, the supremacy of the rulers by virtue of their monopoly of the law is shattered as law is only animated “through its acceptance and enforcement by the divinely deputized Muslim community” (147). While Mawdūdī and Quṭb represent an initial turn towards notions of popular sovereignty, their skepticism regarding Western forms of governance resulted in a rejection of democracy. Thus, high utopian Islamism is described by March as being “radically anti-democratic and radically populist” (152).
In the final step towards contemporary notions of popular sovereignty, the radically anti-democratic element of high utopian Islamism falls by the wayside, allowing for the emergence of what March terms an “Islamic democracy” which “takes the doctrine of the caliphate of man as far as it can go in a democratizing direction without losing a substantive commitment to divine sovereignty” (152). This turn is realized, though not exclusively, in the political theory of Rāshid al-Ghannūshī. Ghannūshī, like political theorists before him, critique the Western notion of popular sovereignty for simply replacing the arbitrary rule of monarchs with the arbitrary rule of law that in terms of legitimacy is entirely self-referential. For Ghannūshī, the reference point within an Islamic state is the divine, and as such, all of the varying institutions and individuals are ultimately unified by a shared commitment to virtue. The legitimacy of the state and its representatives is grounded in the covenant of vicegerency which takes the people as “the only true and legitimate representative of divine sovereignty” (198).
While in the book Ghannūshī marks the end of the genealogy of popular sovereignty in modern Islamic political thought, bookending this account is another story: that of the aspirations and failures of the Arab Spring. The democratic uprisings of 2011 brought to the fore the fundamental questions of what governance under an Islamist party would look like and whether or not the lofty political theories of Islamists could indeed be actualized in reality. Thus, it is no surprise that the final chapter explores the post-revolutionary political context of Tunisia wherein Ghannūshī’s political party, the Ennahdha Party, received almost 40% of the votes, bringing the opportunity for actualizing his political vision within reach. However, as March notes, the Tunisian democratic transition did not mark the realization of his vision; the process of political bargaining resulted in a constitution that in all substantive ways was devoid of his visionary politics. This moment of failed aspirations represents “an important theoretical and ideological crisis.” This new crisis, different than the “crisis of the Caliphate” March alludes to in earlier chapters, is defined as, “a certain real-world crisis of democratically inclined political Islamic in which it is either brutally suppressed (in Egypt, the Gulf, Syria, and elsewhere), or has participated in a somewhat successful form of democratic transition that has resulted in a new political order that bears no resemblance to the ideal theory of an ‘Islamic democracy’ discussed in the previous chapter” (207). In this new context of crisis, he asks whether the Islamic alternative to authoritarianism and secular democracy is even viable. To the extent that this alternative is still clinging to the “fantasy of sovereignty,” March remains skeptical. Instead, he signals toward a “post-statist, even post-sovereigntist” political thought.
It is this second contemplation that I would like to engage with in the parameters of this roundtable, fully recognizing that it is not the main story of March’s book, but is arguably the more consequential one. One could, if they wanted, tell the history of Islamic political thought through these moments of “crisis,” perceived or actual, in which the theoretical ideals of Islamic political thought were abandoned. In my own work, I explore the political thought of the famed 11th century jurist and theologian, Abū Maʿālī al-Juwaynī (d. 1085) who responds to what he perceives to be a crisis in the Abbasid Caliphate. In his work of political theory, Ghiyāth al-umam, he abandons all of the mainstay requirements for political leadership articulated by scholars before him, recognizing that the ideal imām who fulfills all required conditions is often not possible. He also goes as far as theorizing the full absence of the imām and Caliphate altogether, leaving individuals under the guardianship first of the scholars, and then of their own knowledge of the Sharīʿa. This is similar to the notion of self-governing individuals on the basis of the Sharīʿa that in March’s reading of Quṭb is the cornerstone of his notion of popular sovereignty. A later account of crisis, closer to the period under investigation by March, is by Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl (d. 1831), grandson of the illustrious Shah Walliullah (d. 1762). His political thought, recently excavated by SherAli Tareen, responds to the intertwined crisis of the loss of Mughal political sovereignty and the entrenchment of British colonial rule. In response to these challenges, Shāh Ismāʿīl articulates a theory of salvational politics that understands that the ultimate aim of the political is the moral, and more specifically, the moral reform of individuals. Thus, as Shāh Ismāʿīl discusses the various regime types, he is willing to countenance varying degrees of despotism as long as the capacity of the community to pursue their moral cultivation is safeguarded. In these two political theologies, articulated centuries apart, mass politics and popular participation are not at the fore but the moral community is. This focus on the moral community has also been highlighted by Ovamir Anjum, a participant in this roundtable, in his book on Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). The moral community thus appears as the most resilient element of Islamic political thought and is a central factor, as March astutely demonstrates, in the high utopian Islamism of Mawdūdī and Quṭb, as well as the Islamic democracy of Ghannūshī.
While these moments of political crisis are indeed generative of new political thought, as the work of March and others have demonstrated, what is most interesting is not the consistent willingness to reimagine political forms but the insistence on what the substantive goal of the political should be. On this reading, what is most remarkable about the post-2011 political thought of Ghannūshī is his shift towards a “secular” approach to the purpose of politics (213). This is particularly important to note as March himself states that the core vision of Ghannūshī’s political thought was the sacralization of politics, not its secularization. March gives a number of reasons for Ghannūshī’s intellectual and political concessions, but the most important in this context is what he calls “the irreversible moral pluralism of modernity.” By this, March not only intends general religious and moral pluralism, but specifically moral pluralism within the Muslim community where there is reasonable disagreement over a plethora of issues. Here March rightfully acknowledges that the “very deep kind of consensus about metaphysical truths and the ethical purposes of human life” that was the assumed bedrock of prior political theorizing, simply may be an impossibility. So how can we understand this challenge alongside all of the other challenges of contemporary Islamic political thought? March, and other notable scholars such as Wael Hallaq, have recognized the “inescapability of the modern state” and its mechanisms of multitudinal violence as perhaps the greatest impediment for contemporary Islamic governance. It is thus unsurprising that March indicates that the next horizon of political thought may need to be a post-statist and post-sovereigntist one. However, if indeed Muslim political theorists were willing to consistently compromise on specific political forms in moments of crisis, then the challenge of a post-statist and post-sovereigntist political thought is a domineering, but surmountable hurdle. On the other hand, if Muslim political theorists always assumed some moral consensus and collective moral will, then the moral plurality of modernity poses a far greater challenge. In fact, to the extent that the political concessions made by Ghannūshī are justified as being necessary due to plurality–religious, moral or otherwise–he echoes proponents of secularism who justify its application on the basis that the state and public sphere must remain neutral grounds for free exchange. However, as Talal Asad and others have demonstrated, this notion of secularism as a neutral tool of mediation in highly pluralistic contexts is a ruse. On this reading, popular sovereignty leaves the door open for secularization—an insight forwarded by Salman Sayyid as well. So, is there a future Islamic political thought that can resolve this challenge? It is possible, however it requires grappling not with what a post-sovereignist and post-statist political thought would be, but what a ‘post-moral community’ political thought would be that takes into account the range of Muslim and non-Muslim subjectivities while maintaining a notion of the ethical.
Sohaira Siddiqui is an Associate Professor of Theology and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. Her work focuses on the relationship between law, theology and political thought in classical Islam; Islamic law during British colonization; Islamic law in contemporary Muslim societies; and secularism and modernity in relation to Muslims in the West. She received her doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014. Most recently, she is the author of Law and Politics Under the ‘Abbasids: An Intellectual Portrait of al-Juwayni (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Locating the Shari’a: Legal Fluidity in Theory, History and Practice (Brill, 2019). She has also published numerous articles in Islamic Law and Society, Journal of Islamic Studies, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Middle East Law and Governance and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. She is currently completing her second monograph, Contesting Colonial Power: Refashioning Islamic Law in British India.
I am profoundly grateful to Maydan for organizing this symposium, and to my three interlocutors for their generous and close readings of my book. All the responses raise different critical questions about how to think about modern Islamic political thought and different concerns about the limitations of my book. Some of these questions and concerns overlap—for example, the perennial definitional and terminological question about how to refer to various trends of modern Islamic thought and distinguish it from what came before the 19th-century, or about the extent to which modern commitments to some form of “democracy” are breaks with the past, continuities, or invented traditions using materials from the past. But the essays are sufficiently distinct to warrant separate responses.
Ovamir Anjum raises a number of quite distinct concerns, from some perceptive observations about my reading of Mawdūdī to the question of how to identify what is “modern” about modern Islamism. One long-appreciated concept that connects these two concepts is, of course, the idea of sovereignty. Some (like Muhammad Qasim Zaman) claim that modern Islamist thinkers more or less invented the problem of state sovereignty. But if, as Anjum rightly notes in quoting al-Ghazālī’s al-Mustaṣfā, classical legal theorists all treated God (and the Prophet through Him) as the sole origin of legislation (al-tashrīʿ) and the categorical right to be obeyed, then what is novel about the modern “Islamist” (more on this term below) concept of ḥākimiyya? My own answer here is not particularly novel. A few things are new: (1) the discursive preoccupation with identifying the source of sovereignty and the purity of God’s possession of it within the modern nation-state; (2) the transfer of the law from judges and muftis to state codes (and here Mawdūdī is quite explicit), even if ʿulamāʾ are said to be instrumental in forming these codes; and (3) the way that the single-minded insistence on divine sovereignty for all legislation erases the important distinction in the Islamic past between the law that was enforced in courts by qādīs and the discretionary edicts, policies, injunctions and even laws enacted by rulers and governors in the name of maṣlaḥa. Thus, the real questions become, as whenever entities like “God” or “the people” are said to exercise sovereignty: “Who is embodying, enunciating, and enforcing that sovereignty?” And: “What forms of knowledge, rationales of judgment, and institutional arrangements is this enactment of sovereignty empowering as opposed to what we know about the past?”
Anjum closes with some skeptical musings on the possibility of ever finding a good definition of “Islamism” or “political Islam.” He is skeptical not only because Islam has always been intrinsic to law and statecraft (how could it not be?), but also because, more specifically, there have always been theories of governance in Islam in which the virtue of the ruler and the political health of the polity is seen as crucial to securing “political justice as given by God as the highest good.” Anjum is right, and generous to point out, that I do not attempt to give my own definition of “Islamism” in this book, but rather focus on a particular question that preoccupies a recognizable genealogy of thinkers. In fact, at a few points, I try to look past the present truism accepted by many since 2013 that there is a hard and fast distinction between so-called “Islamists” and so-called “neo-traditionalists” by pointing to the fact that the constitutional doctrines and visions of many thinkers that would meet both or either description were actually shared at many points in the 20th-century. But, since Anjum raised this question, perhaps I could use this occasion to take a stab at identifying what, if anything, is distinctive about modern Islamism.
On one end, scholars like Jocelyne Cesari have argued that everything in modern Muslim-majority nation-states (even pre-AKP Turkey, Bouguibist Tunisia, and pre-2011 Egypt), should be seen through the lens of “political Islam.” On the other end, scholars like Asef Bayat narrowly identify “Islamism” with a particular vision of an Islamic state, governed only by sharīʿa and enforcing strict moral codes on society at-large, such that any moderation of this vision should be seen as “post-Islamism.” Should we thus abandon the search for any more general definition beyond identifying specific thinkers, parties, movements, leaders, platforms, or discourses? I am not opposed to that, but unless we are going to succumb to a kind of Islamic essentialism thesis (“Islam is inherently political unlike or more so than other religions and so modern Islamist movements are to be expected”) or a kind of “hegemonic modernity” thesis (“European modernity was like a big asteroid that definitively ended one ecological epoch and inaugurated a new one—and so whatever passes for ‘sharīʿa’ or ‘Islamic governance’ in modernity is no more Islamic than chickens are dinosaurs”) we should try to think about what “Islamic” movements and thinkers who are neither ideologically secular nor religious authorities fully co-opted by state authorities are trying to do.
And so here is my proposition: Modern Islamism is an intellectual, religious, social, and political movement that aims to systematically theorize political practice and political legitimacy in modern conditions with the goal of approaching fully legitimate political order in religious terms. What is important to me is that there are such thinkers and movements that (a) take the fact of modernity seriously as a problem, (b) seek to develop something other than a reactive or ad hoc approach to the political problems of modernity, and (c) seek to establish some kind of Islamic supremacy over the political, rather than merely accommodate whatever exists in reality. Arguably, then, this would exclude not only forms of nationalism and secularism, but also the kinds of “neo-traditionalism” that we see today that accept whatever powers that be as the “walī al-amr” or “ḥākim.” It also does not deny that many uses of Islam in countries like pre-AKP Turkey, Egypt before 2011, or the UAE today are “political” but it does not allow us to ignore that there is something distinct about a movement and an ideology that would transform or overturn those orders. Moreover, I think this accommodates the diversity of modern Islamism precisely by not reducing its various strands and trends to the same motive or phenomenon. If there is something that unites all of the various distributaries of movements and thinkers influenced by Bannā, Mawdūdī, Quṭb, Khomeini, or whomever, it is not that they all share a will-to-violence, a desire to eradicate pluralism, a superficial attachment to Islamic language grafted on to an underlying Marxist-Leninist approach to the political, a modern totalitarian impulse, or are the revenge of Ibn Taymiyya, but that they are self-conscious attempts at restoration after rupture and loss with the claim that Islamic norms and ways of knowing are the sole arbiter of truth, legitimacy, and justice. From that wellspring can flow takfīrī movements that claim to have restored the caliphate for all Muslims while holding merely parts of Syria and Iraq as well as movements that think that under the sediment of colonial false consciousness a naturally pious and religious people must still be a reality and amendable to non-violent preaching, coaxing, and education.
Now, within this more formal or structural definition, I do think that there are some important substantive trends. Anjum quotes Abū’l-Ḥasan al-Nadwī to the effect that putting “political oppression at the top of the hierarchy of evils—and political justice as given by God as the highest good—is the closest we get to a distinctive definition of political Islam or Islamism.” Anjum is right to note that modern Islamists are not the first to do this. Before the Sunni synthesis under the Abbasids, early caliphs are known to have made messianic and salvific claims. And he rightly notes that the post-Abbasid universal empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Moghuls all employed Sufi- and falsafa-inspired ruler-centered visions of politics where grace and moral perfection (and not just protection and justice) flow down to the people from the ruler. So it is not that modern Islamists see the political as a space for perfection, virtue, and goodness (again, in addition to security and justice) that makes them either political or modern. It is how they do this and where they tend to locate the source of moral regeneration.
Here, it is an object of deep interest (for me anyway) how modern Islamist thought differs from both the ruler-centered perfectionism of the post-Abbasid empires and the Umayyads on the one hand and the decidedly non-utopian Sunni thought that we see in the juridical tradition (represented, say, by Māwardī and others) and the thought of figures like Ibn Khaldūn. There, governance is first (although not only) about removing harms: violence, fitna, bandits, heretics, hunger, invading infidels. It is also about providing goods, of course: justice, judges, infrastructure, and whatever might be regarded as maṣlaḥa. But the people’s virtue and perfection is, implicitly, attained not through politics but in the spaces made safe by politics. Here, I argue in The Caliphate of Man, is one of the distinctive features of modern Islamism: Islamic order is not only a religious obligation (Q. 5:44 and all that), is not only more just than secular law because it comes from an omniscient, impartial and benevolent Sovereign, and it is not only a pre-requisite for other goods to be enjoyed by the umma; but the public enactment and enforcement of the divine law—now given an interpretation through the lenses of moral psychology and social justice—is the path to the people’s happiness, freedom, and moral perfection. What Sunni jurists left to the private sphere, and what the Sufi-falsafa-inspired theories of the Ottomans and others invested in the ruler, modern Islamists from Mawdūdī and Quṭb on locate in the public agency of the people in bringing about and being morally transformed through a sharʿī public order. It is a theory of how humans can be both free and governed simultaneously.
Now, not all “Islamists” speak in this idiom to the same extent. Some are more pessimistic about human nature. Some are more interested in the technical aspects of what re-interpreting and restoring fiqh would involve, or allow. Some are more focused on a political diagnosis of the ills of the world and the on-going machinations of the various enemies of Islam. But intellectual tropes like the one I have outlined in the preceding paragraph and, of course, the ubiquitous trope of the universal caliphate, are the kinds of features of modern Islamist thought that I think do help identify it as a historically unique episode in Islamic political thought, whatever other fidelities to or departures from pre-modern tradition it may evince. Modern Islamism is an effort to create a distinct problem-space, within which many doctrines, answers, and preoccupations are possible.
This is a good way to transition to Mohammad Owais Khan’s comments. Khan seems to want to use this symposium as an occasion to register that he really, really dislikes modern reformist thought (whatever end of the liberal-conservative spectrum it is found on) and thinks that Ibn Taymiyya is largely to blame. Taking issue with my identification of thinkers like Riḍā, Sanhūrī, Mawdūdī, Quṭb, Qaraḍāwī, Ghannūshī (and others who are discussed but not as stars of their own chapters) as “Sunnis,” Khan wants to identify them all as “Salafis.” Unfortunately, he never gives us a definition of Salafism, which is a shame because of the well-known terminological, but not theological, juridical, political, methodological, or creedal, overlap between the “Salafiyya modernism” of 19th-century reformers like Muḥammad ʿAbduh, and the ultra-conservative, ḥadīth-focused, shirk-obliterating, madhhab-defying, Prophet-emulating religious movement of the 20th– and 21st-centuries.
This first leads to some confusion about what Khan wants us to see in the thinkers that I discuss. Is he trying to bring our attention to the fact that modern Islamist thinkers have their origins in 19th-century anti-clerical “modernism”—the movement of Afghānī, ʿAbduh and the younger Riḍā? Or is he trying to say that because they seek to invent an Islamic political and moral tradition out of the materials from the Islamic founding that they find amenable (but, apparently, excluding the example of the Prophet!) they are of a piece with the ultra-pietistic Salafis who eschew the “normative tradition” of Ashʿarism and the legal schools and argue solely on the basis of what they can justify directly through textual proof? Or is he just trying to attribute guilt to all of them by association with Ibn Taymiyya? This inquiring mind would like to know!
But the second confusion is whether Khan sees “Sunni” and “Salafi” as two mutually exclusive categories. Are Salafis a sub-community of Sunnism in that they are, well, not-Shīʿa, claim a similar genealogy of belonging to the community of Muḥammad, and take guidance from the Qurʾān and the prophetic ḥadīth (and, in practice, tend to engage with the four Sunni legal schools)? Or is Khan excommunicating Salafis from the big tent of Sunnism, ironically, the way that some stringent adherents of Atharī theology will declare that Ashʿarite and Māturīdī theology do not merit inclusion as Sunni creeds? The fact is that Khan simply uses these two terms, Sunnis and Salafis as mutually exclusive categories, and declares thinkers from Riḍā to Ghannūshī to be “Salafis” as a brute fact in no need of explanation in a way that I suspect will be as confusing to Maydan readers as it was to me. It is not that there might not be something to this designation; we just aren’t told what it is.
More importantly, what does Khan want this distinction to do? He makes some, to put it mildly, startling claims. Asserting that “Sunnism is not an amorphous shapeshifter” he takes issue with my observation that whereas someone like Riḍā as late as 1926 could have no inkling of the “universal caliphate” and adhere to the classical view of the caliphate, as early as the 1930s Mawdūdī is making the universal caliphate one of the central pillars of his political theory and that this was eventually to become a ubiquitous view in Islamist thought, and then counters that Sunnism “has not engaged in any kind of ijtihādī revisionism on the question of imāma, rather non-Sunnis re-articulated a view which laid dormant in the backwaters of Islamic thought.” On the one hand I quite agree with him. If you ask thinkers like Sanhūrī, Mawdūdī, Quṭb, Turābī and Ghannūshī, never mind thinkers in the tradition of Ḥizb al-Tahrīr or activist Salafism, whether the imāma is a religious obligation they would all agree. What the thinkers I treat in my book dispute is not whether the office of the caliphate should be restored, if it could, but rather whether the office itself, given its abeyance, is the font of political legitimacy, agency, and moral regeneration, and whether other forms of political and legal action are legitimate after the replacement of the caliphate by the nation-state. Here, again, I would have liked to know what all genuine Sunnis, free of the taint of ijtihādī revisionism, continue to hold about the imāma. Is it that political obedience is only due to a duly-constituted imām as described by the juridical works of old and that Muslims today not living under the Caliphate are exposed to the moral risk of “dying a pagan [jāhilī] death”? Does Khan then deny the label of “Sunnis” to all those neo-traditionalist scholars of Cairo, Abū Dhabī, Medina and elsewhere who exhort obedience to the ruler, whoever he may be and however he acquired power? Is it Khan’s view that Islamist flirtations with democracy and the theology of the universal caliphate are more of a parody of classical Sunni political theory than scholars who claim that Sisi is the duly-appointed ruler rebellion against whom would be sin?
More interesting are his claims about the nature of Prophetic sovereignty and what the thinkers I treat do and do not hold about the Prophet. Khan writes that “Sunni ethnogenesis is not cosmogonic but resolutely immanent. The missing ingredient in al-Ghannouchi’s account of sovereign community is the world-historical role of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him and his family, as charismatic founder. The umma comes to be through its imām (both words syntactically and semantically connected in Arabic). An imām in this sense is not only a nabī, selected for communication with God but also a rasūl, instituting a new law.” I am confused why he thinks that thinkers like Ghannūshī do not recognize “the world-historical role of the Prophet Muhammad.” I see no evidence for the claim that any of the thinkers discussed in my book would deny anything about the world-historical role of the Prophet Muḥammad and that the umma came to be, and continues its existence, through its identification with revelation through the Prophet, the authoritative Prophetic guidance, and the Prophet’s creation of a political community with which today’s umma claims continuity. So, I can only speculate that Khan means something very specific by the above claims if they are meant to exclude mainstream Sunni believers.
Indeed, he does. He continues that “on the Sunni account, what makes an umma into an imagined community is not so much submission to an abstract law but rather the shared submission to the embodied sovereignty in the personhood of the Noble Prophet who is the very basis of law.” There is a lot to unpack here. First, who claims that the sharīʿa is an “abstract” law? Every thinker that I treat begins by assuming that the sharīʿa is a textually embodied law, although it is true that it is one in need of ongoing interpretation, adaptation, and articulation. For Riḍā this was to be done primarily by a scholar-caliph atop a renewed system of public ijithād. For Sanhūrī and Mawdūdī it is the scholars. By the time we get to figures like Ghannūshī the “people” are let in on the conversation.
Second, what does Khan mean that the umma submits “to the embodied sovereignty in the personhood of the Noble Prophet”? It’s clear what this means during the Prophet’s mortal lifetime. What does his mean after the death of his human body? Is it, for example, by enacting the clause in Abū Bakr’s famous address after receiving the bayʿa: “Obey me so long as I obey God and His Messenger. But if I disobey God and His Messenger, you owe me no obedience”? Is it by collectively obeying the Prophet through his ḥadīth-reports and emulating his example? How, specifically, can the umma exist today through “the shared submission to the embodied sovereignty in the personhood of the Noble Prophet” if not through the divine law?
One answer comes when Khan says that “prophethood, and only prophethood, makes justice in the here and now possible once again.” If he means that only prophecy has allowed God to convey His law to humanity, who writing as a Muslim would disagree with this (apart from some philosophers who think that prophecy is only required for the masses to apprehend justice)? But it appears that he means something else: “For Sunnis, he occupies a key position (al-maqām al-maḥmūd) whereby he is granted the right to hand out indulgences (shafā‘a) in the hereafter; electing those who may have been destined to punishment. Obviously, this privilege is not equal to God’s final judgement, yet it ensures his ability to affect the calculus of eternal retribution.” But if the Prophet is, in an ongoing sense, helping to decide who is punished and who is rewarded in the afterlife, how does this manifest to us? What does this have to do with the exercise of legal and political sovereignty in this world, given that “Prophetic edicts are backed by a will-to-power unrestricted by this world”?
It would have been good to get not only explanations of what he means, but reference to some Sunni authorities who hold these views since he is simply asserting this as the Sunni view. Which Sunnis, for example, hold that not only the Prophet but “other members of his community such as select scholars, saints and soldiers may enter the heavenly command structure” and that for “post-prophetic worldly sovereigns to attain legitimacy, they must insert themselves into the already established heavenly command”? Which Sunni thinkers have claimed that select scholars, saints, soldiers, and sultans can participate “in God’s final judgment …form[ing] a this-worldly rope (ḥabl) connecting the transcendent unconditional meanings buried in immanent law with their equivalent transcendent retribution” or that “the umma’s electorate, if we are to use modern language, extends to constituents that are both shāhid, present and ghāʾib, absent”?
There are other places where Khan simply misses the agreement between his views and those of the thinkers I discuss. He writes that “for Sunnis the umma is not a multitude of individuals but rather the umma is first and foremost comprised of its communitarian organs. On this account, each person is not born as an unencumbered self.” But that is exactly the point of all of the theories I discuss: unlike in Western social contract theory, whereby a multitude must be first formed into a commonwealth by a contract, for Islamic thinkers the umma always already exists. It does consist of individuals but its existence is not a free creation of those individuals’ choice. Yet when Khan goes on to ontologize certain worldly historical institutions he seems to overstep: “Individuals are born into pre-political social corporates such as a households, tribes, ethnic communities, guilds, spiritual brotherhoods, or legal schools, each group embodying its own meritocratic values.” First of all, these are not all the same kinds of things. Persons may be born into families and tribes, but craftsmen’s guilds and legal schools? But more to the point, where is the evidence that persons are constituted by “designated communal social structures often supported by the awqāf, communal religious foundations” and “thrown into this world, caught in complex hierarchies that were chosen for them and which predetermine their positionality” not merely historically but ontologically? Which Sunni theologians or jurists argued that it the most important fact about believers was whether they were born into this tribe or that their father belonged to this guild, that this was the crucial moral factor in political order, or that any of these artificial historical institutions were natural rather than artificial?
Now, Khan may be right in some of his stylized account of the Islamic past. I quite agree with the following as idealized descriptions of the historically concrete past: “The Muslim Sunni Elite comprise[d] of mutakallimūn, mujtahidūn, awliyā, shuyūkh al–qabāʾil, shuhadā, and others. None of them [were] elected by vote but rather embod[ied] collective limited authority based on their own qualification and merit. Their accountability [was] not limited to the people around them but stands in for all those who have passed before them. This vision [was] epistocratic and perfectionist to the core. … The umma, if it speaks at all, can only speak through the Muslim Sunni Elite as the People Who Loose and Bind (ahl al-ḥall wa’l-‘aqd). This [was] not just a normative theory but a descriptive sociology. Sunnis believe[d] in the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’ Any community is always already represented by their elites. …. For Sunnis, without epistocrats, the umma can’t speak.” Not only do I agree with this, but this is precisely the starting point of my book: the commitment to a kind of constrained popular sovereignty is an invention of modern Islamic political thought.
So, while I don’t recognize much of Khan’s theology of ongoing Prophetic sovereignty as the clear, default “Sunni” approach to politics, and he doesn’t tell us where to find this view, since we don’t find it in Māwardī, Juwaynī, Ghazālī, al-Qarāfī, or Ibn Khaldūn, we agree that the views I am discussing are distinctly modern. They do build on what I might call the “pre-history of democratic theory” in Islamic thought (building blocks like the bayʿa, shūrā, the fictional “election” of the ruler, the status of the umma in Qurʾānic address, the crack between fiqh law and siyāsa law, and the idea of a limited ruler), but my point is that they are a kind of revolution. Khan’s point seems to be that whatever they are they cannot be a revolution in Sunnism, because Sunnism has not, and cannot, change on such basic creedal matters as Prophetic sovereignty and the imāma. Leaving aside his provocative (and rather perplexing claim) that modern Islamism owes its status to a “a comprador class of native collaborators [who] revived the obsolete arguments of Ibn Taymiyya [whose] vision is a marriage of convenience for colonial aspirations” which consisted in “the Orientalist agenda of dismantling traditional Sunni power,” one has to ask: Does Sunnism then exist today? Where? Who are the Sunnis still representing the more authentic and legitimate “pre-colonial hegemonic ideology”? More to the point of my project, what is their political doctrine today? What is their stance toward the nation-state, modern bureaucratic administration, borders, modern unelected rulers, and codified law? In Rashīd Riḍā’s words: “So we ask here: do any People Who Loose and Bind exist today in Islamic lands who can resurrect this matter [of the imāma]? And if there is not, then who has this power and influence in actuality, or does there not exist anyone with this power? Then is it not possible for Muslims to create a system to make coercive power into actual power?” I would have loved to hear Khan’s views on this, since surely it is not only political Islamists who have moved on from the organic Sunni world of the past.
Khan got a few things wrong about my argument, which I only mention because they provide an excellent transition to Sohaira Siddiqui’s astute remarks. Khan writes “If The Caliphate of Man was a coming of age film and Salafi Islamism its main protagonist, then as expected, the main character definitely matures into a law-abiding liberal subject. That is indeed strange given that in March’s own account, Islamic democracy was a movement inaugurated under the banner of saving the Caliphate. However, at the end of the 20th century, Salafi Islamism turns out to be another call for democracy akin to concurrent liberal interpretations of nationalist self-determination. How did we get from anti-colonial politics in favor of sultanic power to post-colonial calls for democracy?” Almost every claim here in this passage is the opposite of what I write. Let’s start from the end and move backwards: Insofar as Muslim reformism from the Young Ottomans and the Arab Nahḍa to Rashīd Riḍa was anti-colonial or anti-imperial (when the imperialism was European anyway), it was by definition anti-sultanic power in its arbitrary form. That was the entire point. But at the same time, the call of Riḍā and others to save the Caliphate was not the beginning of “Islamic democracy.” The point of my chapter on Riḍā was to emphasize the nature of the break and transformation in later thinkers. But then, more germanely, did Islamism end up as just “another call for [liberal] democracy” and did thinkers like Ghannūshī “mature into a law-abiding liberal subject”? The answer here is more of a “not really.”
The core argument of The Caliphate of Man is that over the decades between the 1930s to the 2010s there developed a decidedly non-liberal theory of Islamic democracy. This theory was non-liberal because it was still based on a collective adherence to divine sovereignty, was morally perfectionist in its justification and aspiration, still assigned significant authority to epistocrats, and was based on the moral unity and agreement of the demos (umma) on the conception of truth and the good. The problem is that these ideal commitments co-existed in the political practice of later pragmatic Islamists with a recognition that not all modern Muslims are equally committed to religion, not all wish to rule and be ruled by the sharīʿa, and not all share the political theology of the universal caliphate. And so, I argue, what can be articulated baroquely in theory (the simultaneous commitment to Islamic revival and popular sovereignty over governing institutions), is exceedingly difficult to maintain in practice. Either Islamist groups will incline towards authoritarianism when given the chance (Sudan, Turkey) or they will incline towards a kind of liberal pluralism when confronted with the necessity (Tunisia). But my argument is not that this is the natural denouement of modern Islamic democratic theory. Quite the opposite; it represents a kind of failure of what I above described as the core meaning of modern Islamism: self-conscious attempts at restoration after rupture and loss with the claim that Islamic norms and ways of knowing are the sole arbiter of truth, legitimacy, and justice.
If I am correct, this is where Siddiqui wants to engage me. If neither the “Islamic state” nor a morally unified and virtuous umma seem to be available as a clear object of utopian striving, what should be the object of Islamic political thinking? She puts it far better than I could in the following:
If Muslim political theorists always assumed some moral consensus and collective moral will, then the moral plurality of modernity poses a far greater challenge. In fact, to the extent that the political concessions made by Ghannūshī are justified as being necessary due to plurality—religious, moral or otherwise—he echoes proponents of secularism who justify its application on the basis that the state and public sphere must remain neutral grounds for free exchange. …. On this reading, popular sovereignty leaves the door open for secularization… So, is there a future Islamic political thought that can resolve this challenge? It is possible; however, it requires grappling not with what a post-sovereigntist and post-statist political thought would be, but what a ‘post-moral community’ one would be, and one that accounts for the range of Muslim and non-Muslim subjectivities while maintaining a notion of the ethical.
This, for me, opens a fascinating range of questions. First, what is the foundational attitude toward this fact of pluralism? Some may even deny that it is a social fact, apart from in some select countries where state secularization has historically been particularly ambitious and forceful. So, it may be premature to describe the acceptance of moral pluralism as a structural problem for contemporary Islamic thought. But for those who do take it seriously, it strikes me as a relatively underexplored problem. Is theism itself just one epistemic and moral possibility for modern subjects, or does it still retain a status as the only orientation for rational persons to adopt?
Siddiqui also raises the subtle question of the ethical in social and communal relations. I would suggest a slight reframing, though: rather than asking about a “post-moral community” I would propose asking about the distinct moral possibilities between a secularism hostile to religious sources of moral knowledge and a theistic perfectionism and integralism. First, the so-called “worldly” (dunyāwī) values that circumambulate around the concepts of maṣlaḥa and the maqāṣid al-sharīʿa are not trivial contributions to the human good. Second, thinkers like Ghannūshī have explored the ways in which various conceptions of freedom—not only the negative personal freedoms or the perfectionist freedom of self-realization as a believer, but the political freedoms of participation and rule of law—are not only good in themselves but necessary conditions for the realization of any other religious goods or virtues. Third, it is understandably common for Muslims (and other theists) to decry the longue durée impact of secular materialism on the capacity for moderns to express non-instrumental value for humans and the natural world. At the theoretical and theological level such critiques of the Enlightenment have their value. But at the practical, ethical and political level, have anti-Enlightenment or non-secular movements or communities displayed a better track record of realizing respect for the human, the non-human natural world, or even the divine for that matter? This could be a clear area for prioritizing non-perfectionist, non-monist practices of the ethical.