Home Political science Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity
Onward Muslim Soldiers
Fourteen centuries ago, the Prophet Muhammad united the tribes of Arabia under the banner of Islam and reconquered for the One True God the Holy City of Mecca, which had long been a centre of pilgrimage. Within a generation, his successors - the caliphs - were in control of territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Indus valley. This was not just an astonishing feat of world conquest, comparable to the achievements of Alexander the Great and the Caesars: it had religious and social implications as far-reaching as the death of Christ and the Bolshevik Revolution. While Christianity merely revitalised the ancient Roman Empire, providing it with a new legitimacy that enabled it to overcome the crises posed by nationalism and barbarian invasion, Islam created a brand new polity - in effect, the world’s first ideological state.
The Muslim world today is heir to what was at once a religious and a political aspiration. The state created by Muhammad barely survived its founder. Within four decades, it had become a monarchy ruled by the very Meccan aristocrats who had been the bitterest opponents of Muhammad’s reforms. Further dynastic changes and something approaching a social revolution only delayed the inevitable collapse. No government at that time and in that region could have held together such a vast expanse of territory. Power passed into the hands of regional governors, royal bodyguards or usurping dynasties. But the failure of Islam at the political level was compensated by its success in creating a normative social system. The lawyers and divines of the eighth and ninth centuries developed, out of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunna (his alleged sayings and actions as originally recorded in oral tradition), a coherent system of laws governing community, family and religious life. The theocratic utopia remained an aspiration. The reality has been accurately described as a ‘divine nomocracy’. Freed from its political shackles, Islam extended itself more or less autonomously. It was brought to the remoter regions of Africa and the Far East not, on the whole, by soldiers, but by wandering scholars, merchants and holy men.
Despite its failures in the political field, Islam has never renounced its political aspirations. To do so would mean abandoning one of the pillars of the Islamic way of life: the Prophet’s Sunna. Imitatio Christi means renouncing worldly ambition and seeking salvation by deeds of private virtue. Imitatio Muhammadi must sooner or later mean taking up arms against those forces which seem to threaten the survival of Dar al-Islam, from within or from without. The Qur’an is full of allusions to Muhammad’s battles, to the heroism of those who took part, and the cowardice of those who held back. The Mujahidin are those who struggle in God’s cause. The munafiqin are those who try to opt out, or worse, to collaborate secretly with the enemies of Islam. Both words have become part of the modern political vocabulary. The Iranian Mujahidin (leftist supporters of Bani Sadr currently waging war on the Ayatollahs) are described as munafiqin in the official government media.
It is a part of this fragmented and turbulent world of political Islam that V. S. Naipaul sets out to investigate in his latest book. His travels take him to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia - countries with distinctive Islamic traditions, all of them influenced by, but not contained within, the Arab culture in which Islam made its first appearance. This is the major weakness of this otherwise brilliant book.
Islam sits more lightly on the shoulders of the Arab peoples than on non-Arabs. The Qur’an, with its seductive rhythms and elliptical shifting images, its pervasive life-affirming message, its promise of reward to the just and punishment to the wicked, is universally accessible only to Arabs. The Cairo taxi-driver who plays the Qur’an on cassettes in his cab and plasters the interior with coloured stickers containing the name of God may be pious - but not strenuously so. Islam is part of his lifestyle, but not the key to his identity. Islam and Arabism merge imperceptibly into one another. Though the two may conflict at the intellectual and political levels (for example, within the ranks of the Palestinian national movement at the time of writing), the cultural homogeneity of Arab-Muslim society renders the conflict less intractable than it would at first sight appear. Among non- Arabs, Islam is more inclined to crystallise into regimented forms and fixed images. In the popular religion of Shi‘ite Iran, the cult of the martyred Hussein replaces that of the Book, access to which is effectively limited to members of the religious establishment. In Pakistan, the emphasis is both legalistic and utopian: hence the obsession with barbarous punishments and the constant search for the vague and amorphous ideal of a modern Islamic state. Muslim activists in the Far East become even more desperate in the search for a distinctive Muslim identity, since in these parts Islam has been superimposed on the more ancient Hindu-Buddhist culture, and feels itself constantly threatened by it. As Naipaul observes, passion for the faith increases with distance from Arabia.
Without a part of the Arab heartland to counterbalance the Islam of the periphery, Naipaul’s book inevitably creates a somewhat distorted impression. Moreover, despite his striking aperpus, his quiet sympathy for individuals and his intelligent grasp of political and social realities, he is not entirely at ease with the Muslim world and its culture. He does not appear to be widely read in its literature, even in translation. At times he maintains a fastidious detachment, a suspiciousness tinged with arrogance. He seems to lack the sense of concern, the desire to come to terms with a complex reality, that made India, A Wounded Civilisation so impressive.
As a person ‘without religious faith’ and with a Hindu family background, it is perhaps not surprising that Naipaul should have some difficulty in approaching Islam. His interest was inspired by the events in Iran, as viewed on a TV screen in Connecticut, USA. His only previous knowledge was of the small diaspora community in his native Trinidad, viewed, necessarily with some suspicion, across the communal divide. In Iran he is understandably nervous about his origins. He tells Ayatollah Shirazi that he is a Christian - only to regret the lie, knowing it must cloud that man’s response to his questions. Though he decides never again to complicate matters like this, the sense of unease remains with him for much of the journey. The gentle and cultivated humanist is always in danger of exposure as a Hindu polytheist.
For all that, there is no doubting his courage. He is scared of the Tehran traffic, but ventures into the lion’s den at Qom - that ‘medieval Oxford’ where men and women walk on different sides of the street. He is even entertained by the Revolutionary Prosecutor Ayatollah Khalkali - a murderous buffoon (‘I am very clever, very intelligent’) who boasts that the Islamic Republic will last 10,000 years. (Had he heard of Hitler’s more modest ‘Thousand-Year Reich’?) Unfortunately, he does not get to see Khomeini, a man with a mind still caught in the coils of medieval jurisprudence, who, for reasons peculiar to the Shi‘ite faith, the Iranians have made their leader: ‘the deputy of the hidden Twelfth Imam, the regent of God’. Naipaul’s most illuminating encounter is with his guide Behzad, whose communist faith is as rigid, dogmatic and out of touch with political and social realities as the faith of Khomeini himself.
In the unfamiliar territory of Iran, Naipaul never quite succeeds in penetrating beneath the surface, though with his sharp eye for detail he draws a convincing picture of a Shi‘ite society obsessed with martyrdom, determined ‘to keep alive ancient animosities, to hold on to the idea of personal revenge even after a thousand years, to have a special list of heroes, martyrs and villains’. Even the picture-sellers in the Tehran streets purvey the same lugubrious opiate as the Ayatollahs. Along with dream- landscapes, blown-up photographs of Swiss lakes and German forests, there are portraits of beautiful women and children, all weeping: ‘Big gelatinous tears, lovingly rendered, ran half-way down their cheeks.’
In Pakistan, Naipaul is closer to the Indian world he knows already. The Shi‘ite ethos is still strong. The legend of the unfortunate Mr Bhutto’s martyrdom at the hand of General Zia replicates that of the Imam Hussein at Karbala. In the Iranian stories and annual passion plays commemorating the death of the Prophet’s grandson, much is made of the wickedness of the Umayyad soldiers in refusing to allow the dying Imam to quench his thirst. An almost identical story - suitably modernised - is told of Bhutto: ‘In the jail at Lahore - I had been told - they had put him in a cell where the cruel summer sun fell for much of the day. He asked for his drinking water to be boiled; they brought him a flask of boiling water; it was evening before the water was cool enough for him to drink.’
But Pakistan is not just another Muslim state ruled by a military autocrat. Islam is its raison d’etre. More than a haven for Muslims, it was to be the first truly Islamic state since the days of the Prophet and his close companions, ‘a fusion of history and theology, the indestructible alloy of faith’. Like other Utopian fantasies, however, it contained the seeds of disaster.
This Islamic state could not simply be decreed; it had to be invented, and in that invention faith was of little help. Faith, at the moment, could supply only the simple negatives that answered emotional needs: no alcohol, no feminine immodesty, no interest in the banks. But soon, in Pakistan, these negatives were to be expanded: no political parties, no parliament, no dissent, no law courts. So existing institutions were deemed to be un-Islamic, and undermined or undone; the faith was asserted because only the faith seemed to be whole; and in the vacuum only the army could rule.
In his account of Pakistan and of the Muslim militants he met in Malaysia and Indonesia, Naipaul develops his principal theme. The emotional rejection of the West involves a kind of hypocrisy. The Islamic ideal (which, in modern times, in any case, has never been realised) is contrasted with the corrupt reality for which the West is blamed.
The West, or the universal civilisation it leads, is emotionally rejected. It undermines; it threatens. But at the same time it is needed, for its machines, goods, medicines, warplanes, the remittances from emigrants, the hospitals that might have a cure for calcium deficiency, the universities that will provide master’s degrees in mass media. All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilisation, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to. Rejection, therefore, is not absolute rejection. It is also, for the community as a whole, a way of ceasing to strive intellectually. It is to be parasitic; parasitism is one of the unacknowledged fruits of fundamentalism.
There is a further hypocrisy involved in this rejection: it employs the tools which the West has itself developed. Publications in Qom borrow the words of Schumacher and Toynbee about technology and ecology, to lash the West. In Malaysia, the teacher Mohammed gives Naipaul a tract he has written:
It was in the style of Islamic missionary writing. One section was headed ‘The Bankruptcy of the West’ (‘vice and lust, alcohol and women, wild parties and tempting surroundings’); another was headed ‘The Perfectness of Islam’. There was a logic in this. The West, which had provided Mohammed with academic learning, was open to the criticism it had trained him in. Islam, which had not provided this learning, which provided only the restoring faith, was exempt from criticism.
There is force in Naipaul’s argument, however one-sidedly expressed. It is consistent with the theme he developed earlier in India, A Wounded Civilisation. Where the emotional rejection of modernity is worked out in a practical way, it is either hypocritical, as already described, or it simply enthrones the status quo. In the India described by Naipaul, rural poverty dehumanises more than any machine, and industrialisation, where human beings take command of machines, can be a liberating force. The processes of Westernisation and urbanisation, denounced by Muslim militants who seek a return to the pristine Islam of a ‘tribal or city state that, except in theological fantasy, never was’, provide, as well as the ‘bars brothels, casinos and opium’ denounced by Khomeini in his jeremiads, a range of cultural choices and social opportunities impossible in ‘traditional’ small towns or village communities. The militant intellectuals who attack Western ‘materialism’ with language borrowed from Schumacher would die of boredom if they really had to live in the kind of societies whose merits they seek to celebrate.
The flaw in his case is that, in common with many Western critics of so-called ‘fundamentalism’, he ignores the divergences between the various Islamic movements. An enormous gulf separates the ‘fundamentalism’ of people such as Khomeini from that of enlightened reformers, in the tradition of Muhammad Abduh, who realised that the survival of all Muslim societies would depend on the success with which they accommodated and integrated the fruits of Western science within Islam’s spiritual and social framework. In Iran, that gulf seems likely to be bridged only at the cost of civil war. The failure of the reformers to unseat the traditional religious authorities led to the process of secularisation to which we are now witnessing the reaction. But that reaction contains a variety of different and opposing strands, not all rejectionist or parasitical. While Naipaul is quite justified in drawing attention to the implicit contradictions in the attitudes of thinkers such as Abdul Ala Maududi, the guru of the Pakistani ‘fundamentalists’ who died in 1979, he creates the misleading impression that Maududism is in some way typical of the movement as a whole. Since the cultural epicentre of Islam must always be in the Arab world, he would have obtained a broader perspective of his subject had he visited at least one important Arab country.
The Islamic vision of society is closely bound up with its social origins in a part of the world where settled peoples were normally at the mercy of Bedouin invaders: a situation that lasted well into the twentieth century in Arabia and parts of North Africa. For this reason, anthropological studies in these regions can make an important contribution to our understanding, not just of the people who live in remote areas under primitive conditions, but also of the central religious tradition that informs their lives. In substituting loyalty to Islam for tribal leadership, and universalism for parochialism, Muhammad established a pattern that was to be repeated by religious-reformers-cum-political-radicals down to the present time. These patterns can be observed in the microcosm of the small village or tribal unit, as they can in the macrocosm of world history. On the social level, Islam supplies the common vocabulary through which the perennial conflict between the city and the countryside, the townspeople and the pastoralists, is articulated. This dialectic originated in the agricultural conditions of the arid zone, but it contains far broader implications, which make it possible for its terms to be translated to suit the conditions of modern societies. The Muhammadan model of the tribesmen abandoning their polytheistic attachments and uniting under the banner of true religion has been imitated consciously by major reform movements within Islam from the Abbasids (ce 750) down to Abdul Aziz al Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Moreover, under modern metropolitan conditions, the group loyalties characteristic of tribal formations can attach themselves to nonkinship groups, such as revolutionary brotherhoods. Islam, as Professor Gellner points out in this collection of his writings, is unique among world religions in ‘maintaining its pre-industrial faith in the modern world’: a feature which, when it combines with political aspirations, makes a potent agent for political mobilisation (surpassing, at present, even Marxism).
The classic theoretician of Muslim society is lbn Khaldun (1332-1406), who, along with David Hume, Robert Montagne and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Gellner acknowledges as his major influence. Ibn Khaldun’s most celebrated theory, based on a profound understanding of Islamic history and a practical knowledge of North African politics, concerns the circulation of elites: ‘Leadership exists through superiority, and superiority only through asabiyya’ - social cohesion or group feeling. In desert conditions, the social solidarity of the tribe is vital to its survival. If and when the tribes decide to unite, their superior cohesion puts the city-folk at their mercy. Inspired by religion, they conquer the towns, which are incapable of defending themselves, and become the rulers until such time as, corrupted by luxury and the loss of their group cohesion, they are in turn replaced by a new nomadic dynasty (a process which usually takes three or four generations).
Gellner’s central thesis is a sophisticated and modernised variation on Ibn Khaldun’s original theme. Muslim city life lacks the cohesion of tribal existence. The division of labour and the absence of corporate institutions militate against the emergence of an urban polity capable of disarming the countryside. Government is thus the ‘gift of the tribe to the city’ and is informed by a central paradox: ‘only those who refuse to be governed are themselves fit to rule: political education is to be had in the wilderness alone. If you wish to command you must not first learn to obey’. Thus an urban civilisation depends for its rulers on those whom it cannot itself rule.
The contrast with European polities is striking. For Plato, as for Marx, government is the consequence of social stratification, arising from the division of labour. Rulers are members of a dominant class, recruited from a professional caste of warriors who control the countryside (feudalists), or from the upper stratum within the city that exploits the labour of its fellow citizens (bourgeoisie). The European nation state emerged out of the transition from feudal to bourgeois government - both of which, in the first instance, depended on the suppression of pastoralism. In the arid zone, neither the feudal antecedents nor the bourgeois legatees were able to dominate the barbarians on the fringes. The national state is only now beginning to emerge, in the wake of colonial conquest of the ‘land of insolence’, of modern armaments, including air-power, and the internal combustion engine. The result is often an intermediate, neo-Ibn-Khaldu- nian type of government, in which democratic jargon (‘government by the people for the people’) cloaks kin-patronage politics. Though Professor Gellner doesn’t say so, this is an accurate description of the political systems in Syria and Iraq. The Saudis, beneficiaries of an Ibn-Khaldunian game of musical chairs of a purer type, have no need to hide kin-patronage politics under populist verbiage.
The role of religion in this picture is very different from what it is in the Christian West. Muslim civilisation ‘seems a kind of mirror image of traditional Christendom’, Gellner explains:
In Islam it is the central tradition which is egalitarian, scriptur- alist, devoid of hierarchy or formal leadership or organisation, puritanical and moralistic; whereas it is the marginal, questionably orthodox movements which are fragmented, ritualistic, hierarchical, ecstatic and deeply implicated in, if not compromised by, local political structures.
Joseph de Maistre observed of Christianity that superstition constitutes the outer bulwarks of religion, meaning that the abandonment of such popular strong points must endanger the citadel itself. The same perception, turned about, underlies the attacks of rationalists and Marxists. As Gellner remarks:
religions in which the outer bulwarks and the central bastion form one integral whole face a terrible dilemma in modern times: if they defend those exposed outer positions, the entire system may fall when the outposts become indefensible, as nowadays they often do. If, on the other hand, they are abandoned and disavowed, the remaining inner redoubt is so narrow and constrained and minimal, and its retention seems so opportunist, that it barely looks worth defending, and inspires little enthusiasm.
In Islam, however, all is different: the tension between the outer bulwarks of rural superstition and the inner citadel of urban scripturalist unitarianism has been there from the beginning. The Qur’anic message is always available to lead the attack on shirk (the ‘association’ of lesser beings with God):
The perforation is ever ready, marked ‘tear off here when modern world arrives’ ... So when modern conditions did make it socially and intellectually attractive to separate a true, pristine, pure faith from the superstitious accretions, it could be done with real conviction.
The Divine Law, as revealed in the Qur’an and elaborated through the ‘science’ of fiqh (jurisprudence), is the province of the urban scholar- lawyers (ulama): but they are not as a rule in a position to enforce it beyond the realm of private social conduct. Though the rulers will appoint them as judges, there is a marked reluctance on the part of the ulama to compromise the purity of the Divine Law by serving the Establishment. The failure of Islam as a polity is compensated for by its success as a normative system of social conduct. The absence of caliphal legitimacy, which accounts for almost continuous political turbulence, is counterbalanced by a stabilising social morality which enables society to weather the storms of the surface. The ‘divine nomocracy’ presided over by the ulama may be utopian, because contemporary conditions will never allow a restoration of the purity of Muhammad’s reign: but it provides the burghers, who are weak, with a moral and ideological sanction against their rulers. In the right conditions, they will ally themselves with the wild men of the ‘lands of insolence’, providing, under the banner of a reformed Islam, the crucial alliance between the urban populace and a new military outgroup which can bring about a change of government.
Professor Gellner finds that Ibn Khaldun’s theory dovetails neatly with the theory of cyclic oscillations between monism and pluralism outlined by Hume in his Natural History of Religion. In Hume’s hands, the theory is unduly psychologistic. Taken in conjunction with Ibn Khaldun, it accommodates successfully the range of religious possibilities encompassed by the urban nomad complex. Gellner’s fieldwork was conducted in North Africa and he is an expert on the role of Sufi orders and maraboutic lineages. Sainthood in Islam does not require celibacy. Muslim saints (like the Prophet himself, who enjoyed several wives over and above the four permitted to ordinary believers) often combine spiritual with sexual energy and form lineages through which their charisma is transmitted to posterity. In a segmentary society they perform a variety of functions, such as supervising the elections of chiefs, guaranteeing the movement of caravans and managing tribal boundaries. The faith of the illiterate tribesman, unlike that of the literate townsman, requires the mediation of special and distinct holy personnel. Thus (while Gellner does not mention it) the functions of sainthood in many ways correspond to the pagan rituals of the jahiliya - the period of ‘ignorance’ before Muhammad’s reforms.
The undercurrent of conflict between a fetishistic, pluralistic tribalism and a puritanical monistic urbanism helps to explain some of the paradoxes in the relationship between Islam and the modern world. In Turkey we find reformism with a decidedly secularist bent, while in Algeria it has a scriptur- alist and puritanical character. Shi‘ite Iran, at the time of writing the scene of a full-blooded ‘Islamic Revolution’, represents a further complication.
As Gellner points out, the Ottoman state contradicted Ibn Khaldun’s model on a number of important points: ‘It was stable, strong and long- lived by any standards, not only those of Muslim society.’ It represented the development of a pattern of which mamlukism was the intermediate stage. The mamluks (slave warriors purchased as boys from Central Asia and trained as a special military caste) gave Egypt a relatively stable government for more than five centuries and successfully defended it against the Mongol invaders. Under the mamluk system, which the Ottomans took over and developed,
political cohesion at the top was attained by the artificial creation of a new elite, technically slaves, ideally free of kin links to distract them from their duty, not by the shared hardships of tribal life, but by systematic training and education for wars and administration.
The Ottomans ruled with mamluks de robe as well as mamluks d’epee: there were slave-bureaucrats as well as slave-soldiers, holding the front line of Islam against the West. Official Islam became closely shackled to the state, and proved to be incapable of finding any original solution to the problems eventually raised by Western cultural and political dominance. The result was a secularist attack on Islam, which drove its reformist and traditional wings into uneasy opposition.
In Algeria, on the other hand, the French authorities had allied themselves with or tolerated the unregenerated, traditional forms of Islam associated with tribalism. Nationalist struggle began in the guise of Islamic reform, which the French found difficult to oppose. After the departure of the French, who, like other colonial governments, had brought Ibn Khaldun’s recruiting ground, the ‘lands of insolence’, under central control, ‘reformist Islam, scripturalist and puritanical, was virtually the only usable ideology, deeply implanted and intelligible inside the country’.
Shi‘ite Iran, of course, is a special case. Like Christianity, Shi‘ism began its career as an underground movement opposed to the state - in this case, the official Muslim state of the Umayyads. Here again, the Islamic inversion of Christian patterns is apparent. The cult of martyrdom and the sacred person is an offshoot of the scripturalist mainstream - ‘Protestantism’, as it were, being the norm, and ‘Catholicism’ the deviant version. The occulta- tion (disappearance) of the Twelfth Imam places religious authority in the hands of the mullahs, who, in his absence, are in a position to de-legitimise the ruler. We are witnessing the consequences:
The Pahlavis, unlike the Romanoffs, were overthrown without prior defeat in war, with their military power intact and whilst endowed with enormous financial resources - an astonishing feat and an impressive testimony to the capacity of Shiism for revolutionary mobilisation.
However, as Gellner points out, it is one thing to overthrow a dynasty, and quite another to govern a modern state. The fall of the Shah has brought to the fore internal divisions within the class of Shi‘ite ulama, in which scrip- turalist reverence for the law, common to all Islamic reform movements, comes up against the cult of the sacred person. The time will no doubt come, he predicts (the book was written in 1979), when ‘the two kinds of scholars, the Shi‘a with PhDs and the populist mullahs, come to fight it out for the inheritance of the Iranian revolution’. With the continuing slaughter of the leaders of the Islamic Republican Party by the Shi‘ite PhDs, the battle lines in this life-and-death struggle have already been joined. In the devious, contradictory and paradoxical world of Muslim society, Gellner’s essay should prove a useful, if somewhat difficult, guide. However, the reader should not be misled by the title of the book into supposing that it gives a general account of Muslim society. As Gellner himself says, ‘orientalists are at home with texts. Anthropologists are at home in villages’. Despite his claim that ‘the time has come to assert the thesis of homogeneity’ in Muslim society, if only as a problem or point of departure, his remains a partial view of the subject, as seen mainly from the village.
Published in London Review of Books, 1 October 1981.
The books reviewed were:_
Ernest Gellner (1981) Muslim Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
V. S. Naipaul (1981) Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. London: Andre Deutsch.
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