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Islam and Politics

A reflection on the sources of political legitimacy



A brief account of Biblical politics

Islam and the legitimacy of political power

Christianity and political legitimacy

A legal system independent of the state

The Salafiyya movement - the end of history





My starting point for thinking about this subject was the analogy that could be drawn between the position of Muslims in relation to Western Imperialism in our own time, and that of Jews in relation to Roman Imperialism at the time of Jesus.

While reflecting on this I moved on to a general reflection on the inter-relation between religious and political authority - the ways in which political authority is, or is not, legitimated by the religious system or, to use a term current in Orthodoxy, 'the economy.'

I want, then, to begin with a brief account of Biblical history, to make some observations on the pre-Christian Jewish idea of politics. This may seem rather irrelevant to a discussion on 'Islam and politics', but I hope its relevance will become clear. In the meantime, I would invite you to bear two things in mind:

1) Islam claims a common ancestry with Judaism in the person of Abraham, and much of the Quran can be read as a commentary on Jewish and Christian scripture and tradition.

2) Islam was first established in an area in which Jewish and Christian ideas were well-known and established. Many of those who contributed to its historical development were therefore themselves imbued with Jewish and Christian ideas or in reaction against them. And so an understanding of these ideas and of this history is not irrelevant to an understanding of Islam.


A brief account of Biblical politics

Around 1,000 BC, the Jews decided to be like their neighbours and to be ruled by a King (1.Sam. 8, 4-5)

Previously they had been ruled directly by God, Who spoke to them through 'Judges', the successors to Moses.

God, speaking through the Judge, Samuel, indicated His disapproval of the idea of Kingship and warned that the people would come to regret it. Nonetheless, He accepted it grudgingly, but laid down conditions. The King was to be chosen by Himself and His choice would be indicated by the act of anointing by a representative of the old order. The first King was Saul and he was anointed by Samuel (1.Sam. 10, 1) and proclaimed before the people (ibid , 17-27).

Saul, however, was overthrown by David. David too was, he claimed, anointed by Samuel (16, 1-13) but he was not proclaimed before the people. It was therefore possible not to believe him, to see him as a usurper. He still had to fend off the rival claim of the house of Saul. Hence the continual emphasis in the Psalms on David's status as 'the anointed one' - the 'christ', in Greek, the 'messiah' in Hebrew.

The Jewish kingdom achieved some degree of importance under David and his son, Solomon. But their legitimacy, and that of their successors, was always in question. Only Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, recognised it. Israel, encouraged by the prophet Shemaiah (1 Kings 12, 22-4) set up its own separate dynasty.

Thereafter the story of both Israel and Judah was a succession of monarchs with very few exceptions failing to rule in accordance with the law of God and suffering denunciation from the 'prophets' who take over the role of the Judges as direct spokesmen for God. They are portrayed as a caste of madmen (and, though more rarely, women) roaming the country in bands. They even on occasion have the right to create kings as in 2 Kings 9, 1-13, when a young prophet acting under orders from Elisha, turns up to quickly anoint Jehu as King of Israel, then runs away again.

The prophets we know best are of course the authors of the great prophetic books - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea etc - but these are for the most part written at the end of the period, as the Jewish kingdoms finally submit to the rule of Babylon. While there is still much of holy madness in the prophetic books, there is also great political lucidity, but it seems that the period marks the end both of the line of questionably legitimate kings and of prophets able to confer legitimacy. From then on, the Jews are living under a succession of Empires. Nehemiah, the 'governor', rebuilding the temple on a commission from the Persian King, and 'Ezra the priest and scribe' are something entirely different, rather a poor thing in comparison with Elijah or Elisha.(1)

The Babylonian Empire gives way to the Persian Empire, the Persian to the Greek - the successors of Alexander the Great. After the religiously motivated revolt of the Maccabees, the Jews achieve a sort of autonomy under a Hellenised Jewish monarchy, largely through the device of playing the Empires - the Greek Ptolemies based in Egypt, the Greek Seleucids based in Syria, and the Romans - against each other (the story is told, in some detail, in the Books of the Maccabees found in the Greek Bible and in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus). But the Romans eventually defeat their rivals and Pompeii enters Jerusalem in 63 BC. Between 66 and 73 AD, there is the great Jewish revolt which ends with the destruction of the Jewish temple, the end of the Jewish state and the mass suicide in Masada. If we accept the usual currently accepted dating of Jesus' birth at 4/5 AD, He was born almost exactly midway between the Roman Takeover and the destruction of the state.

The point I chiefly want to retain from all that is that Judaism is a religion of law and, consequently, inseparable from politics. It has its own theory of statehood, but it is very difficult for any variety of Jewish opinion to believe that this theory has been reduced to practise for any great length of time after the initial period of Saul and - already doubtfully - David and Solomon.

At the time of Christ, as described in the Gospels, the Jews were divided into several schools, most importantly the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducees were the priestly caste, they administered the temple at Jerusalem and supported the ruling dynasty. They did not believe in the doctrine of a life after death.

The Pharisees on the other hand were a more popular devotional movement which may be at the origin of the rabbinical movement which preserved Judaism throughout the world after the fall of the Temple. Although they did not openly oppose Roman rule they were dedicated to preserving the coherence and separateness of the Jewish religious community on the basis of observation of the law and the traditions. They believed in an after life.

Outside these two mainstream tendencies there were the Essenes, who practised a radical withdrawal from political society, As a separate caste, wholly devoted to religious practise, they could be seen as a continuation of the prophets and as forerunners of Christian monasticism and, perhaps, also Jewish Hassidism. In the Gospels, it is tempting to see John the Baptist, living in the wilderness and denouncing the decadence of the temporal order, as their representative.

Finally there are the Zealots, outraged by the subjection of the Jews to the Romans and anxious to revolt against it. 'Terrorists', we might say, and as such victims of persecution - thousands of crucifixions - at the hands of the authorities. They eventually spearhead the revolt that has such catastrophic effects.

There have been many efforts to portray Jesus as a revolutionary opposed to Roman rule but this view can only be sustained by treating the whole of the Gospels as a distortion. It is the Jesus Who is presented in the Gospel Who has world-historical importance, not anyone's notion - no matter how historically true it might or might not be - of a 'real' Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels is unmistakeably quietist in political matters as in Matt 5.39, in the Sermon on the Mount - 'Do not resist an evil man.'

The Jews were already widely scattered through a world intellectually dominated by Greek thought and culture. The inter-relation between Greek and Hebrew culture is already felt in some of the so-called 'Apocryphal' books of the Bible - often books included in the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, but not later accepted by Jews as forming part of the Hebrew Bible. Judaism had long been resisting incorporation into Greek culture. It was an effort at enforced hellenisation - backed by a claimant to the Jewish high priesthood - that provoked the Maccabee revolt. But now they were faced in addition with the power of Roman civilisation - brutal, practical, sensual and, from the point of view of the believing Jew, contemptible. It could offer nothing that could compare with the Bible, the two thousand year old history of the relations between a people and the Absolute. The eyes of the Romans were firmly fixed on the things of this world and in the things of this world they had achieved mighty victories. The story of the Jews, on the other hand, was a story of endless defeat and failure; but who could ever speak to Caesar as Job spoke to God?

Indeed - as is also made clear in the Gospels - there were elements among the Romans who were strongly attracted to Judaism, perhaps especially the Hellenised Judaism taught, for example, at the time of Christ, by Philo of Alexandria. The single God of the Jews could be conflated with the philosophical God of the Platonists, but it was easier to enter into relation with the intensely personal God revealed in the Bible. Whose violence and changes of mind also corresponded more closely to the realities of the world as we experience it. The Christian fathers comment on the work of Providence whereby the Jewish scriptures were already well known before the Christians appeared claiming to fulfil them.

The relation between the Jews and the Romans could be summed up in the terms used by Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West - 'culture' and 'civilisation'. A culture is based on a poetic or religious idea. It is held together by human qualities, by love. In Spengler's idea the culture represents the youth of a society, orientated towards ideals, full of life. The civilisation represents its old age. It is orientated towards practical things, physical comfort, and it excels in science and technology. It thinks of the world as something that is already dead.

In Palestine at the time of Jesus, the Jewish culture was being crushed by Roman civilisation. I am not sure to what extent Spengler appreciated the fact, but in a few hundred years, the Roman civilisation was destined to be crushed by a Christian culture.

Which brings us at last to Islam, and the nature of its relation to us, which can also be described in terms of a culture being crushed by a civilisation. But before looking at the contemporary situation I would like - as I have done in the case of Judaism - to attempt a brief overview of the history, in particular of the relations between the religious idea and the formation of the state.


Islam and the legitimacy of political power

Muhammad died in 632 of the Christian era. His death was immediately followed by a dispute over the succession or rather over the principle on which the succession should be based. One group believed the successor, the ruler of the community, should be decided as in traditional tribal practise, by consensus within the community. They were the forerunners of the Sunni schools of Muslim thought. The other thought the successor should possess s number of objectively verifiable qualities, among them that he should be a member of the Prophet's family and that he should be designated by his predecessor. This was the origin of the Shia schools.

From the earliest days, the Sunni were dominant and Islam was ruled in succession by the 'four rightly guided Caliphs ' - Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali, Muhammad's nephew. It was under the rule of the first caliphs that Islam became an Empire stretching beyond the Arabian peninsula, and that the text of the Quran was agreed.

The Sunni tradition recognises this as a period when the community of Islam was ruled in accordance with the principles of Islam. Muhammad, faced with the job of state-building, had, so it was believed, laid down the principles of government - ultimately of world government - both in the Quran and in the traditions - the hadith (sayings remembered by his companions) - and these were observed in the earliest years of Islam. For the Shia, however, only the period of the rule of Ali who, they believe, had been designated as his successor by Muhammad, could be regarded as legitimate. This was a short period because, very quickly, Ali had been overthrown by the Umayyads, the family of Ali's predecessor, Othman, who had been rivals to the family of Muhammad and late converts to Islam.

The Umayyads established their capital in Damascus, now capital of Syria, and completed the expansion of the unified Islamic empire, bringing it as far as Spain. Under their rule, the Islamic world attained a high level of cultural and intellectual life (insofar as we, at the level of cultural and intellectual life we occupy, can presume to be judges of such a thing). But from the point of view of the Shia it was entirely illegitimate and from the point of the view of the Sunni its legitimacy was, at the very least, in doubt.

They were eventually overthrown by the Abbasids who came to power with Shi'i support, promising to establish the rule of the Shi'i Imams. But having taken power they then kept it for themselves, transferring the centre of the Empire to Baghdad. Their period was marked by the breaking up of the unity of the Empire (the Umayyads, for example, held on to Spain) but also, once again, by an impressive cultural and intellectual life. But again the legitimacy of their rule was always in doubt. It was absolutely rejected by the Shia. The Sunni tradition generally accepted them but on grounds of expediency. Sunni jurists argued that the mere fact that such and such a government had managed to seize power was itself proof that they had the support of God and that that was sufficient to establish legitimacy.

This theory had to be stretched further as the Abbasids were progressively forced to cede power to a new, non-Arab power - the Seljuk Turks - coming in from the East. A separation of roles set in between the Caliph as symbol of the unity of the religious community, and the Sultan - the possessor of real political power. In 1258, however, Baghdad fell to the Mongols. The city was destroyed, the population slaughtered and the caliph killed. The heartland of Islam was now entirely in the hands of non-Arab peoples who, however, converted to Islam and eventually very largely recreated the old Middle Eastern and North African Empire, even expanding it by incorporating the Orthodox Christian Empire, successor to the Eastern portion of the old Roman Empire, based in Constantinople.

The founders of this new Empire, the Ottoman Turks, never had any chance of gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the Shia. The Shia had had a succession of Imams none of whom were able to realise in practise their claim to sovereignty over the whole polity of Islam. Disagreements occurred about the succession and in some cases, most notably the Fatimids in Egypt (ancestors of the Druze in Lebanon), 'imams' were able to establish local authority. The Zaydis established a small kingdom in the Yemen. But when the term 'Shi'i' is used today it usually refers to the so-called 'twelver' school, for whom the continuity of the Imamate was suspended with the twelfth Imam who, it is believed, will return at some unknown time in the future to re-establish political legitimacy in Islam. This is the movement which now enjoys power in Iran. Their ideas were established in Iran by the Safavid dynasty, contemporary with, and enemies of, the Ottomans. Although the twelver theory did not legitimise the authority of the Safavids, it did not challenge it either since - the Imamate being suspended - it could not propose an alternative.

The same could be said of the Sunni attitude towards the Ottomans and other rulers in Islam. Attempts were made to construct a theory of the 'caliphate' which would legitimise the existing political power but in practise there has always been, as there was in Biblical Judaism, a great gulf fixed between the ideal of political authority that was believed to have been established by Muhammad and the actual political authority. The reality always stands in some sort of relation to he ideal but it never coincides with it. In this respect I think a distinction can be made between Judaism and Islam on the one side, and Christianity on the other.


Christianity and political legitimacy

We have seen that in Judaism, at least prior to the Babylonian exile, there was a caste in existence - the caste of the prophets - which had the power to judge and even, on occasion, to confer political authority. There was no equivalent caste, supposed to be endowed with divine authority, in Islam, but there was in Christianity. Whereas in both Judaism and Islam, the political problem - the problem of organising the community - had been posed from the outset, it was only some three centuries after the earthly life of Christ that it was posed in Christianity. Christianity developed as a sect within the Roman Empire. Then, in the fourth century, it assume responsibility for the Roman Empire - an already existing polity with enormous prestige and with a functioning system of law that owed nothing to the Christian tradition. The Christians took this already existing political system and consecrated it. They could do this because, in the priesthood, they had a caste who were able to perform what might be called from a purely sociological point of view 'magical' acts - the sacraments: most miraculously of all, of course, the sacrament of the Communion, a real physical participation in the Body and Blood of Christ. The sacraments include the sacrament of anointing with oil, or 'chrismation' which, traditionally, is the fulfilment of baptism, the equivalent of the New Testament 'baptism of the Holy Spirit', by which the baptised person becomes a 'christ' - an anointed one. The sacrament of anointing can also be used, as in the days of the prophets, to confer legitimate authority on Kings.

Thus Christianity did not itself have a political ideal to propose but it did have the ability to confer legitimacy on political systems that were essentially alien to it. Obviously Christianity is not the subject of this talk so I won't pursue the theme here, but there is one thing I would like to mention that strikes me as very remarkable.

In Western Europe, where the Roman Empire was under relentless assault from largely Germanic barbarians - and indeed in the Eastern Empire, where it was under assault from the Slavs - the barbarians were in awe of the thing they were attacking. They aspired toward and eventually assumed both Roman Law and Christianity, with its power to confer political legitimacy (I am not for a moment suggesting that that was its only attraction).

In Syria and North Africa by contrast - both of them long established within the Empire - the Roman system of law, and Christianity as a source of legitimacy - were both well known and yet they appear to have been knowingly and pretty totally rejected through the adoption of Islam. I do not know enough to be able to argue this with certainty, but it seems that there was no attempt within Islam to promote either Roman law or the development of a priestly caste with powers resembling those of the Christians. Although Christianity itself continued in the area, the conversion from one political system to the other seems to have been total as if this thing that was the envy of the Northern barbarians was felt, in one of the parts of the world which knew it best, to be not worth defending. So, as a system of law and politics, Islam, which I have described in terms that might suggest that it was chaotic, was experienced as an improvement on the much-admired system of the Romans.


A legal system independent of the state

So perhaps it was not as chaotic as I have led you to believe.

I have stressed that, unlike Christianity, both Judaism and Islam are religions of law. Islam in particular is, inescapably, a form of social organisation. So when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom calls for a 'true' Islam which would be a private religious practise he is in fact launching an attack on the very essence of Islam. In contrast, here is the poet, Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938), one of the theorists of the formation of the state of Pakistan:

'The nature of the Prophet's religious experience, as disclosed in the Quran, is wholly different [from that of Christianity]. It is individual experience creative of a social order. Its immediate outcome is the fundamentals of a polity with implicit legal concepts whose civic significance can not be belittled merely because their origin is revelational. The religious ideal of Islam is organically related to the social order which it has created. The rejection of the one will eventually involve the rejection of the other.' (2)

This was said as part of an argument for the establishment of Pakistan as a Muslim state and I have already indicated that the concept of a 'Muslim state' is problematical. However I would like now to stress that the Muslim social organisation and Muslim law can - and have often been obliged to - exist independently of the state. Or at least the state is not the source of its authority. What it asks of the state is, principally, protection, and for that it is sufficient that the rulers of the state should be Muslim.

The system is possible because, even if the legitimacy of the highest authority is always in doubt there is still, both in the Sunni and the Shi'i traditions, a legitimate lower authority. These are the 'ulama', or 'religious scholars', and their scholarship consists mainly in knowledge of the law. Legal disputes are referred to them and their decisions are binding.

In comparison with legal systems in the west, the authority of the ulama still has a very informal, almost anarchic feel to it. It may be that the individual Muslim lives in a village where there is only one mullah; or in a strong state structure in which the ulama are tightly structured. But in principle the believer has the right to choose his own mullah. Rather like the Free Churches in the Anglo Saxon tradition - but quite unlike the organised territorial hierarchy of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican priesthood - the mullah's authority derives from the willingness of people to accept it. There is no authoritative church structure to declare who does or does not have the right to be regarded as a mullah, though in practice people will turn to those who have gained the respect of other ulama. There are schools and universities which are highly respected and it is probable that those who have studied there will find a following.

The source of the authority does not, however, lie in the charisma of the individual, whatever accidental role this may have to play, but from the law itself, which is, in theory at least, objective and precise, rooted in an unchangeable Revelation, mainly of course the Quran and the hadith, but also, within certain Muslim traditions more than others, the successive judgements and interpretations of previous highly respected ulama. This - the extent to which interpretation can stray from the simplest literal understanding of the Quran and hadith, is a matter of great controversy in Islam. The most literalist position could be said to cut two ways - to prevent change or to facilitate it. If only the words of Muhammad are to be followed, then Islamic law can only cover a society corresponding to the tribal warrior merchant society of the time of Muhammad. Muslim society must be obliged to fit that pattern. Alternatively, if Muslim society is permitted to deviate from that pattern then a large area of human activity emerges which is not covered by Muslim law. In that case, either Muslim law must be allowed to engage in a greater freedom of extrapolation and interpretation or a non-Muslim system of law must be developed to complement or to supplant it.


The Salafiyya movement - the end of history

An insistence on the 'letter of the law' is one of the principle characteristics of the 'Salafiyya' movement, which, whether or not it is the dominant intellectual tendency in Sunni Islam today, is certainly the one that attracts most attention from the outside world since many of the groups identified as 'radical Islam' derive from it.

The word 'salafiyya' means 'ancestors' and the movement was in the first instance a call to return to the traditions of the ancestors, the earliest days of Islam, the days of Muhammad and his immediate successors. The view I have expressed that there has always been a question mark over the legitimacy of government in Islam is a very Salafi view. Of course among the twelver Shi'i it has been accepted that no established historical Muslim government has ever possessed legitimacy. But it is doubtful if such thoughts would have occurred to many ordinary Sunni down the ages. Yet the Salafiyya are very much a Sunni movement, even if the man usually identified as the founder - Jamalud-din Afghani (1838-1897) - was reputed to have Shi'i sympathies.

In the nineteenth century, and especially in the person of Afghani, the Salafiyya had a modernising, even liberal appearance. Their opposition to the traditions of the period following the earliest caliphs was in effect an opposition to much of the traditionally acquired knowledge developed by the ulama and therefore to their power and prestige, widely credited with holding Islam back from a modern scientific understanding of the world. The tendency was to regard everything that had happened in Islam - the whole historic evolution of Muslim culture - as illegitimate. In this respect they resemble the Protestants who regard the thousand years of church history separating the fifth and fifteenth centuries as more or less without value from a Christian point of view. The tradition they were rejecting was to a very large extent the tradition of the various accommodations that had been made to the political problems that had arisen following the earliest days of the caliphate. Afghani and his followers called for a return to the caliphate as it had existed in the earliest days of the Muslim Empire, the days of the rightly guided caliphs. They argued for a reinvigorated pan-Islamism achieved through the conversion of the existing Ottoman empire into a caliphate. The sultan as caliph was to become the spiritual leader and representative of all Muslims everywhere.

In the 1870s they seemed to be getting somewhere when a long neglected claim to the title of Caliph was revived.

But this idea of the sultan/caliph as the centre of a vast movement of Islam came into radical conflict with the new, European-influenced idea of nationalism especially, of course, Turkish nationalism. Turkish nationalism made a great advance with the siezure of power by the Young Turks in 1908. They envisaged the Ottoman Empire becoming a Turkish Empire, after the model of the British Empire that is to say, not a supra-national entity based on a religious principle, but a gathering of nations led by and serving the needs of a single nation. A similar contradiction was to be found at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which could be interpreted as what was left of the old Roman Catholic system of international law, but could also be seen as an instrument to serve the interests of a German people. An argument in favour of the second view - the British style empire as opposed to the old religious unity - can be found in Hitler's Mein Kampf.

A climax to this conflict between Turkish nationalism and universalist Islam was reached in 1924 when the Turkish leader, Kemal Attaturk (1881-1938) - enjoying enormous credibility after defeating the joint British and Greek effort to expel the Turks from Europe - abolished the caliphate (the sultanate had been abolished two years earlier), expelling the last caliph and his family from Turkey. The last remains of the Empire had already been lost, taken by the British and the French, through the war, which had had the effect of destroying what was left of three great religiously based Empires: Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Orthodox Russian Empire which, however, survived territorially as the Soviet Union.

Given that the Empire was destroyed, that it had in any case long been regarded at least in Europe as doomed, it is easy to see the abolition of the caliphate as little more than a formality. However, it was an expressive symbol of the catastrophic political defeat undergone by Islam. There was no longer a great Muslim polity. Muslims were ruled by the British in India, by the Russians in the Caucasus, by the French and Italians in North Africa; and the League of Nations had placed them under British and French tutelage in the Middle East. These were not like the conquerors who had come from the East and had converted to Islam. They were conquerors sure of their own moral and intellectual superiority who regarded Islam with a barely concealed contempt. Weak and unattractive as the Ottoman caliphate might have been, its very existence had indicated at least the possibility of a polity that would embrace all Muslims, a return to the great age of the original expansion, the ideal proclaimed by Afghani and his followers, one of the very few ideas that had seemed to provide a realisable, distinctly Muslim political ideal. The man widely seen as Afghani's successor, Rashid Rida (1865-1935), proclaimed in Egypt:

"All Muslims will remain in a state of sin until they select another caliph and pledge allegiance to him. The sin will wreak havoc upon them in this world, not to mention the punishment of God that awaits them on the Day of Judgement." (3)

The obvious alternative to the caliphate, the ideal of the nation state, may have been adopted willingly and militantly in Turkey but in other parts of the Muslim world it was imposed by necessity, a necessity structured by the Western Imperialist powers. There is an irony in the fact that the only Muslim country that conducted a national opposition to the Ottoman, or Turkish, Empire, was Turkey. The 'Arab revolt' fomented by Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War was based on another universalist idea - an Arab Empire under the rule of the Hashemites, descendants of Muhammad and guardians of the holy cities. It was launched from outside the Empire and my impression is that it attracted little support within it. The fledgling nationalism of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq was small and disproportionately intellectual and Christian. it was only after the Second World war that Arab liberation movements aiming at the formation of a nation state developed, Algeria in the lead.

Nationalism when it did emerge, however, was profoundly antithetical to the Salafi ideal, an ideal that was by now embodied in the internationally organised Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafi envisaged Islam united under a single caliph and recognising no authority other than that of God. To quote the Egyptian theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966):

'This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires, which is also a form of human servitude; it is a declaration that the sovereignty belongs to God alone and that He is the Lord of all the worlds. It means a challenge to all kinds and forms of systems which are based on the concept of the sovereignty of man; in other words, where man has usurped the Divine attribute. Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings by designating others than God as lords over men. This declaration means that the usurped authority of Allah be returned to Him and the usurpers be thrown out - those who by themselves devise laws for others to follow, thus elevating themselves to the status of lords and reducing others to the status of slaves. In short, to proclaim the authority and sovereignty of God means to eliminate all human kingship and to announce the rule of the Sustainer of the universe over the entire earth ...' (4)

It will be noted here that in Qutb's thesis, the problem of the legitimation of authority disappears. Quite simply in his view there is no human authority to be legitimised. The purpose of the holy war - the lesser jihad - is not to impose a new authority but to prevent the imposition of any authority at all, since this can only serve as an obstacle between man and God. Qutb's war is a war against all human government. The precepts of the Quran contain in themselves all that is necessary for the realisation of the full dignity of the individual and the realisation of a fully human society.

The destruction of the Ottoman Empire reduced the existing Muslim polity to zero which in turn imposed a necessity of rebuilding from zero and that in turn imposed the necessity of ideologies capable of inspiring people to the enormous effort and sacrifice required. Competing with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood were the ideas of Nationalism, Socialism, Communism, which implied an enthusiasm for an idea other than that of Islam, the imposition of human authority, an intervention of the state throughout the whole society, all ideas contrary to the ideals of the Salafiyya. The Salafiyya are primarily a movement aiming at the reform of the Muslim world and their principle enemy is not 'the West' as such but Muslims willing to entertain ideals and forms of social organisation other than Islam as the Salafiyya conceive it. And the Salafiyya idea is a very simplified sort of Islam, with much of the tradition of the later periods of Islam discounted, an Islam in conformity with the very earliest years which were of course years of almost perpetual, high-spirited war. The aim with regard to the west, at this stage at least, is not to conquer it but to drive a wedge between it and Islam, to separate Muslims from all the forms of 'ignorance' (jahiliyyah), to create a condition of war, virtual or actual.



Traditionally the Sunni tradition has shown competence in state building while the doctrine of the Shi'i tradition - or at least the twelver Shi'i tradition - has condemned it to a condition of perpetual dissidence. If, very improperly, we conflate the Sunni tradition with the Salafi tradition then that order of things seems at the present time to have been reversed. Whereas the Salafi tradition is devoting itself to preventing the emergence of any polity in Islam other than the apparently impossible one of the earliest caliphate, the twelver Shia have developed a doctrine of statebuilding and put it into practise in Iran. This is a quite remarkable fact and whatever one might say in criticism of it, it has survived twenty five years as well as the extremely difficult and brutal war with Iraq. It has utterly altered the profile of twelver Shi'ism throughout the world. In the Lebanon the Shi'i Hizbollah secured the expulsion of the Israelis, the most substantial military victory secured against Israel since 1948; and in Iraq Shi'i leaders were at the forefront of the real opposition both to the government of Saddam Hussein and to the subsequent United Nations occupation (I say United Nations deliberately. The UN was responsible for sanctions and tolerated and finally authorised the invasion in 2003. It should now be regarded as itself an imperialist power).

None of this can be very welcome to the Salafi. Iranian Shi'ism is dominated by the 'Usuli' school of jurisprudence which allows a great deal of freedom of interpretation to the ulama. It is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the 'Hanbalist' school favoured by the Salafi and it almost exactly corresponds to the intervention of human authority condemned in the extract I have given from Sayyid Qutb. It is a piece of the most crass ignorance to try to conflate the two tendencies - Khomeinist and Salafi - under a common heading of 'Islamic radicalism'.

I have said that it would also be wrong to conflate the Salafi school with Sunni Islam in general. The Salafiyya are only a small minority, but they unquestionably have an influence that goes well beyond their numbers. Solzhentisyn describes in his great novel (I believe the greatest literary achievement of the twentieth century) The Red Wheel how the numerically insignificant Bolshevik Party had a huge moral influence on the whole movement of opposition to the Tsar simply because they had the clearest, most consistent vision. In the confusing circumstances of the collapse of the old Muslim Empires, the mainstream schools largely do not know what to do. They may know that the Salafiyya are wrong but only the Salafiyya have a sense of a Muslim future.

It is difficult to conceive of conditions more calculated to favour the radical Salafiyya than those created by the so-called 'war on terror'. And if we assume, as we must, a reasonable degree of political intelligence on the part of the architects of the war on terror, it is difficult to imagine that they do not know this. And the calculation is not difficult to understand. It is very doubtful if the Salafi tendency can create a stable and, eventually, influential form of government. But it can do a lot to prevent the emergence of other ideas that could create within the Muslim world stable and, eventually, influential forms of government, which could eventually serve as more effective barriers to the advance of American power. It is a highly efficient tool for keeping the whole Muslim world in a state of perpetual anarchy. The Imperialist power has every interest both in arousing the antagonism of the Muslims and persuading them that the most effective resistance lies with what we may now perhaps call the anarcho-Muslims.

I remember in the late 1960s in Belfast watching with interest and a certain admiration the manner in which militant Ulster Protestantism (in its most conscious and intelligent form, that of Ian Paisley) and militant republicanism (at the time making use of the student movement, 'People's Democracy') complemented each other, each using the provocations of the other to advance its own agenda. I do not think for a moment that they sat down and planned things out together, I think their mutual hatred was genuine: but I do think that each of them knew what they were doing, they knew what they owed each other. Their steps worked together as in a dance. I think as between the more ideologically driven members of the Salafiyya movement (which it must be stressed is itself much wider than its extreme militarist wing) and the more ideologically driven champions of the new American century, we are witnessing something of the kind at the present time.


1. Though Ezra is greatly improved in the 'apocryphal' third book of Esdras, in the Slavonic Bible. Back

2. Quoted in John L. Esposito: Islam - The Straight Path, Oxford, 1994, p.140 Back

3. 'A Diwan of contemporary life', an article on the impact of the fall of the caliphate in Egypt, Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, 22 - 28 February 2001, Issue No.522, Rida marked the transition of the Salaffiya from apparently modernising/liberal to apparently 'fundamentalist'. He worked closely with Afghani's immediate successor, Muhammad Abduh. Back

4. Milestones, 1398/1978 ed, p.103. The text of this book, essential to understanding radical muslim politics, can be obtained at Back