Ideas & Philosophy — 27 July 2013
Reflections on the Fate of Political Islam: A Reply To Zaid Shakir

(A reply to Zaid Shakir’s Al-Jazeera English article “The Egyptian Coup and the Fate of Political Islam”)


The military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood backed Morsi administration has seen a revival of the “failure of Political Islam” thesis, even though the events in Egypt along with the latest massacre of protesters more vividly demonstrate the failure of the liberal-secular trend which has historically allied itself with dictatorship in the Middle East. Hardly original, “Political Islam” has been declared dead or dying numerous times – most famously in the 1990’s by the French orientalist Olivier Roy in his book The Failure of Political Islam. In it Roy argues that political Islam has failed due to being co-opted by the very state that it wished to Islamicise, and in doing so offers nothing different and has instead become normalised.

Roy asserted that “politics” prevailed over “religion,” a paradigm that effectively denies Islam has any politics in the first place and therefore “political Islam” can never succeed since it doesn’t really exist in the first place. There are a number of reasons why Roy comes to these conclusions, partly due to the fact that he analyses Islam through a secular paradigm and Western understanding of the separation of religion and politics, along with a lack of knowledge of orthodox Islam. As an example, Roy claimed that no classical theologian ever claimed that the establishment of a caliphate was an obligation, when in fact the opposite is true – the obligation is considered agreed upon and any disagreement is an aberration to be ignored.

A Normative Approach

But despite the repetitive and clichéd subject matter, the article written by Imam Zaid Shakir on the fate of political Islam was of interest, given the authors background in both political science and normative Islam. However, as a reading of the article itself proves, breaking free of the paradigms imposed upon political discourse and practise by others is not straightforward.

Among the points raised in the article was that Islamic politics should not be sectarian – a brief glance at Islamic history shows that attempts to impose aspects of the belief upon others led to oppression and was counter-productive, famously the mihna (inquisition) under the Abbasid caliphate led by Ma’mun.

A second point was that any Islamic political party should not be self-serving, and if they were to take authority they must not be seen as simply advancing their own interests. This can be considered common across any political ideology and system in order to be successful – the more meritocratic a society, the more content it may be. Islam is no different, with one of the narrations of the Prophet explicitly stating that “Whoever is responsible for anything from the Muslims’ issues, and then appoints over them a person due to his love of them, then the curse of Allah is upon him.”

A “Spiritually-Rooted” Political Analysis

Beyond these two, there are a number of other issues that warrant discussion, some stated explicitly and yet others implied. Shakir reminds us that what happened in Egypt was a result of the Will of God as ultimately all results of actions are brought into being by forces beyond the control of man, and victory, or defeat, is from Allah alone. So the Will of Allah was, according to Shakir, that there should not be a “Muslim regime” running Egypt. His lesson from this decision of Allah is that to succeed in the modern context, you have to work towards and within a constitutional model that reconciles itself to the nation-state, and compromise with a range of political actors therein. As such, there is no precedence within Islam for this model which therefore requires new thinking.

And herein lies the disconnect in the ideas proposed; a disconnect between the fact that fate is in the hands of Allah, what Shakir rightly describes as one of the greatest manifestation of Tawhid – the affirmation of divine oneness – and the actions of the believer given that this is part of his fundamental belief. While often misunderstood as fatalism, if understood correctly the knowledge that the ultimate result, victory or defeat, acceptance or rejection is all from God, is a revolutionary mentality that frees the slave of God from the depression of hopelessness, the bleakness of acceptance of the status quo, and from the chains of pragmatism and accommodation with all that differs with the commandments and injunctions laid down in the sources of Islamic law.

The failure of the Morsi government was not that it was not pluralistic enough or pragmatic enough, despite the propaganda of the coup plotters among his liberal opposition. It could easily be argued that it gave up too much in trying to accommodate the non-Islamic trends such as the secularists, liberals, and the SCAF, and was exclusionary towards other Islamic movements. It agreed to manage the remains of the Mubarak-era system rather than seek a revolutionary overhaul. Ironically, it is the secularists in Egypt who recognise that pluralism only works if the various groups share the same world-view and fundamental politics, having been forced to discard of the pretence of the privilege of neutrality assumed in secularism as a result of the victory of a Muslim Brother. Hence while they refused to respond to Morsi’s overtures previously, the interim junta government made up entirely of secularists is now attempting to exclude the Brotherhood rather than accommodate them despite the amount of ideological compromises the Freedom and Justice party previously made. This is something belatedly recognized by Brotherhood spokesmen, realizing that the constant seeking of compromise meant that ultimately they governed for no-one.  They are now confronted by a choice – to become more normalised within the secular system, or return to principles of seeking to establish an Islamic state which should be recognised as a revolutionary project.

With a “spiritually-rooted” political understanding in mind, there is a clear contradiction between seeking the most pragmatic and accommodating solution within the status-quo – which is the symptom of a defeated mentality perhaps made more pessimistic by the fate of the failed Morsi experiment – and on the other hand seeking a comprehensive Islamic solution. This is because when the Muslim recognizes that while he is responsible for his actions, it is the Will of God that would bring about the results. In other words, he is ready to become a revolutionary, freed from the quietism that springs from fatalism and recognizing his role is to pursue the commandments of God, and that God would through that bring about the change he so desired – as noted in the Quran (47:7) “O you who believe! If you help (in the cause of) Allah, He will help you, and make your foothold firm.”

Outside the Nation-State

This leads onto the point regarding the finality of the nation-state, and the implied understanding that it is something deterministic and inevitable, a natural evolution of human society. A critical study of the nation state would highlight that there is nothing evolutionary or deterministic about it at all. It rather emerged from a specific set of circumstances and events in Europe after a period of empires, city-states and feudal kingdoms, due to decisions taken by political actors therein. Its imposition in the Middle East came in the wake of the defeat Ottoman caliphate in World War One, after which it was artificially forced upon the region. In other words it is simply the result of human effort, in both the creation of the ideology and its spread and imposition elsewhere.

There is nothing which forces Muslims or anyone else to accept this as a fait accompli never to be challenged – in actual fact just about every Islamic group since the destruction of the caliphate has, at least in theory, the ultimate objective of removing the nation-state due to its incompatibility with Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hasan al-Banna. To bring about an Islamic polity necessitates the uprooting and removal of the nation-state, and in its place the establishment of an Islamic constitution based not upon artificial borders dividing a people but rather adherence to Islamic law. A return to the dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) paradigm may not chime with contemporary political theory which is dominated by European thought, but it is in line with Islamic political theory and normative Islam.

According to normative Islamic law, the establishment of a unitary leader who is ultimately responsible for applying Islam upon the people under their authority through the institution commonly known as the caliphate, or imamate, or Islamic state, is an obligation and not merely a matter of preference or compatibility with contemporary accepted state models. This is a matter of consensus upon across all the Islamic sects, including the Shia, whose original difference is not upon the model of the caliphate but rather who should be appointed the caliph.

A Revolution to Normative Precedence

While Shakir notes the absence of a precedence for an Islamic constitution within a nation-state, perhaps ignoring the fact that the nation-state is not an Islamic institution in the first place and therefore the lack of such a precedence is not only expected but demanded, he also seems to ignore the Islamic precedence of the Islamic state established by the Prophet Muhammad upon a constitutional basis, which then formed the exemplar for his successors, or khulafa.  There is a rich literature of Islamic political theory and thought as part of the heritage of normative Islam, but due to several factors this is neglected in study even by Islamic scholars in favor of European-centric political theory.

The creation of such a state in the Middle East would mark a rupture with the legacy of Sykes-Picot, and in its normative precedence (and demand) the establishment of such a caliphate would provide the masses of the Muslims with the higher vision and belief they would follow while sacrificing their immediate personal interests.

Such a state would also serve to give the politicians a clear viewpoint and policy, rather than the confused mix of policies and intentions which occurs when Islamic parties try to take control of vehicles created upon a different foundation. Rather than trying to force the “islamisation” of the nation-state constrained by existing paradigms, it could bring about a completely new set of political norms and institutions.

It can be noted here that the most accurate aspect of Roy’s failure of political Islam theory is that the normalization of Islamic parties within the nominally secular nation-state effectively renders their project of political Islam as redundant, but he is incorrect to state that political Islam has failed. Rather, the most that could be claimed is that the project to Islamise the existing nation-state has failed thus far, and if Shakir wished to draw any conclusion from God’s Will in this case it would be more accurate to understand it as such. But the overthrow of the current system, its replacement with a different form of polity and the breaking of the post-colonial settlement, is a project still underway.


The kind of “spiritually-rooted” political analysis mooted by Shakir has the potential to be a liberating force, if understood correctly and within the paradigm of normative Islam. Its aim would be to advocate for an Islamic state based upon the social contract between the ruler and ruled, that the ruler is appointed by the consent of the ruled to run their affairs according to Islam, guaranteeing the rights of all citizens Muslim and otherwise to be treated fairly and with due process, without interference in their personal affairs of worship and private conduct, with public spaces and transactions governed by Islamic law.

The move to the establishment of such a state which disrupts the status-quo created as a result of imperialism could serve as the platform Shakir advocates for collaboration with other anti-imperial forces internationally whether in South American, Africa or Asia, providing the opportunity for all to re-imagine their futures in a manner unconstrained by the strictures of post-colonialism and the destructive politics of nationalism.


Dr. Reza Pankhurst (Twitter: @rezapankhurst) is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements.His latest book, The Inevitable Caliphate? A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present, is published by Hurst and available now. He was formerly a political prisoner of the Mubarak regime.

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