The topic of interrelations between Islam and politics has been subjected to extensive research in the past few decades due to the complications in the processes of external relationships between Western institutions and those following the Islamic rule. In the very beginning, it is crucial to mention that the key political aspects of Islam were delivered from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the main religious texts. Therefore, the political processes, ideas, and views of Islam were directly influenced by religion, so it is important to study different political roles played by key actors in Islam as well as political projects in which they engaged in order to get a better understanding of how the Islamic political thought developed and what it became now.
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Jurists and the Interpretation of Islamic Law
When discussing the topic of Islamic law, it is more effective to apply the notion of Shari’a, a specifically Islamic religious law that is accepted by the majority of the Muslim population. In general, Shari’a relates to the Islamic system of norms, to which jurists, Sufis, and even modern Islamists prescribe (Lapidus 783). The notion of Islamic jurisprudence (figh) is the interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah; thus, jurists are always open to changes and reforms. Therefore, Islamic jurist developed their own methodology of how to derive specific rules of law from general religious principles, which puts them in the position of being able to dispute and disagree with various aspects of the religious sources with which they are working.
Despite the fact that jurists are predominantly acting separately from the political authorities, their work was still influenced by the prevailing political conditions and practices both at local or regional levels. This means that the Islamic jurists cannot be substituted for the divine authority of God, which is central to the religious traditions. Instead, they can only present personal views on a specific matter, even if such views are universally accepted by Muslims everywhere. Thus, jurists in Islamic tradition took participation in the project of clerical formation since their roles implied the interpretation of the existing religious doctrines and their application to the political life of the Islamic states. In this sense, jurists also contributed to the development of political structures within different Islamic states. In this regard, jurists saw a particularly important duty to create an Islamic government that will allow for the implementation of Islamic law within the established Islamic Institutions (Khomeini 38).
Orders of Sufis and the Search for Political Power
In contrast to the nature of the practice of Islamic jurisprudence that interpreted the word of God in a way that could be applied to the political and social life of Islamic states, Sufis focused on the mystical dimension of Islam as religion. Sufis often belonged to different congregations that were created around the direct followers of the Prophet. The ultimate goal for Sufis was to establish a divine union with God through the practices of self-control, rituals, and prayer (Crone 94). Nevertheless, the Sufis practices were never unified into one systemized tradition; rather, it was the collection of various elements of rituals and doctrines that represented the practices of various orders. If to compare Sufis with Islamic Jurists, it is clear that the directions of their practice varied significantly – while the latter examined religious writings and interpreted them in a way that could be applied in the spheres of social life, Sufis regarded social actors as the embodiment of the systems of religious traditions that very often did not coincide with the concepts of social, ethnic, class, or status identity. Another distinction between Sufis and jurists in Islam is the fact that the Sufi identity went hand-in-hand with the public expression of devotion to the religion of Islam. Contrary to this practice, jurists could express their ideas through the analysis of religious ideologies, and not necessarily to public displays of devotion to Islam (Safi 50). Due to the specifics of traditions and rituals prevalent in Sufis circles, it can be asserted that this group attempted to concentrate religious power by directly communicating with God.
The attempts to concentrate religious power were associated with the involvement in political affairs on many both individual and collective levels. In the majority of cases, Sufis orders took a specific side: either in support of the ruling power or against the ideas of the established order. Orders deliberately chose aside in order to participate in political affairs and express their superiority because of being closer to God. Moreover, despite the fact that some heads of Sufis orders could have no interest in gaining political power, the aspirations to contradict the authorities remained and even helped them to found dynasties.
Modern Islamists and Radical Fundamentalism
The current Islamic environment can be characterized by the era of post-globalization, revolution, and the development of the modern Muslim world (Razek 9). However, the Islamist movements remain devoted to the literal interpretation of the Qur’an, following both legal and ritual injunctions that were embedded in the Shari’a law. With the long-standing traditions of following the Islamic principles in every aspect of human life came the opposition to the Western cultures that promote a range of ideas that are contrary to what Islam protects. Moreover, Islamists were and are opposed to the bureaucratized clergy (Roy 37), which limited their capabilities to act within the ‘interest’ of the Islamic states and the protection of religious ideologies.
Thus, it can be asserted that the negative attitudes to bureaucracy as well as secular ideologies were the main reasons for the modern Islamists to begin the creation of political projects such as the Society of Muslim Brothers, which focused on political activism as well as volunteering and charity work. The failure of secular governments in Islamic states led to the creation of radical Islamist movements such as Jihad that is usually described by jurists as “warfare with spiritual significance” (Cook 2). The ideas of Jihad, in turn, caused the creation of Al-Qaeda, an organization that initially fought against the Soviets during their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s and has continued the radical activism to this day. The political project of Al-Qaeda was fueled by the devotion to the Shari’a law, hatred towards non-Muslim ideologies, and the ideas of establishing true Islamic states.
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The search for power through radicalism is what differentiates modern Islamists from jurists and the orders of Sufis that were only taking political and social positions and acted in agreement with the universally established morals. While each group prescribed to the ideologies of Islam and followed the Shari’a law as derived from the teachings of the Qur’an, the external factors shaped the perceptions of the moral, social, and political duties they should accomplish.
Cook, David. Understanding Jihad. University of California Press, 2005.
Crone, Patricia. God’s Rule – Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought. Columbia University Press, 2005.
Khomeini, Ayatollah. Governance of the Jurist: Islamic Government. Alhoda UK, 1970.
Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Razek, Ali Abdel. Islam and the Foundations of Political Power. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.
Roy, Olivier. The Failure of Political Islam. Harvard University Press, 1994.
Safi, Omid. The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks). The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.