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Islam and Power Politics

The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East

by Johannes J.G. Jansen
Macmillan, 246 pp., $19.75

Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh

by Gilles Kepel, translated by Jon Rothschild
University of California Press, 281 pp., $27.50

The Islamic Struggle in Syria

by Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah, foreword and postscript by Hamid Algar
Mizan, 300 pp., $24.95

Interpretations of Islam: Past and Present

by Emmanuel Sivan
Darwin, 255 pp., $19.95

The Political Language of Islam

by Bernard Lewis
University of Chicago Press, 168 pp., $14.95

After the arrest and trial of the members of the al-Jihad group who plotted and carried out the assassination of Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in October 1981, Egyptian journals became the forum for an informal debate between the men in the dock in a Cairo courtroom and leading members of Egypt’s Muslim clergy. The case for the killers was made both in courtroom testimony and in a treatise, “The Neglected Duty,” by the Jihad’s ideologue, Abd al-Salam Faraj, who was sentenced to death and executed in 1982 along with the four assassins. Among those who argued the unofficial case for the prosecution in the press was Shaykh Ali Jadd al-Haqq, the Mufti, or chief religious dignitary, of Egypt. He issued a twenty-five-page refutation of Faraj’s treatise.

The Mufti’s text argued with Faraj over the conditions under which the Prophet had declared jihad, or holy war, in seventh-century Arabia. He took issue with Faraj’s readings of the rulings of the medieval Islamic jurist Ibn Taymiyya and of the “verse of sword” in the Koran (“Slay the polytheists wherever you find them, seize them, beset them, lie in ambush for them everywhere”). He seized on Faraj’s allegation that the Mongols, who established themselves as rulers over the Islamic lands in the thirteenth century, were infidels rather than Muslims. Like Faraj, the Mufti quoted copiously from the Koran and medieval Islamic jurists to support his views.

These arguments, about events and texts many centuries old, obviously addressed contemporary issues. Ibn Taymiyya had described the Mongols as unbelievers. Faraj cited this in order to imply that Sadat was another iniquitous ruler, governing a Mongol-like state where Islamic law no longer prevailed, and thus a fitting target for rebellion, or even holy war. The “neglected duty” that Faraj made the central point of his treatise was the duty to struggle against unbelievers, even if this meant carrying jihad into one’s own society. Not surprisingly, the Mufti of Egypt produced his own medieval texts and Koranic quotations to refute Faraj.

The battle over texts between Sadat’s assassins and their critics is the subject of Johannes Jansen’s book and also the subject of Gilles Kepel’s more broadly conceived and incisive study of the Islamic movement in Egypt. Both books illustrate, as Emmanuel Sivan puts it, “the subjective presence of the past in the minds of contemporary Muslims”—an inclination in Egypt, as in other Middle East countries, to invoke the language and symbolism of Islam to address broadly political purposes and to compete for the possession of the Islamic past in order more effectively to set the agenda for the present.

In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries opposition movements have used Islam, and the ideal of the early Islamic community, to try to discredit and delegitimize existing regimes, to satisfy longings for authenticity, to assert an Islamic/nationalist identity against what they conceived of as overwhelming Western influence and alien ways, and often to articulate the aspirations of upwardly mobile classes. The Islamic movement in Egypt remains vigorous even if it has been somewhat blunted by the policies of cooperation, reward, and repression adopted by President Mubarak; the issue of the legitimacy of the state continues to be debated in the camouflaged form and terminology used by Faraj. For Muslim believers, material and social concerns, as well as deep emotional and cultural aspirations, are involved. Thus in Egypt, as Kepel points out, the Islamic student movement drew support from university students concerned over crowded classrooms, inadequate instruction, poor housing, and the mixing of the sexes.

So too in Syria. Umar Abd-Allah’s book, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, is a partisan rather than an objective account of the history and ideology of Syria’s Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamic opposition groups that were drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations and organized against the regime of Hafiz al-Assad during the 1970s. As Umar Abd-Allah’s book makes clear, practically all these groups were composed of Sunni Muslims who felt oppressed by the rule of President Assad—a member of the secretive Alawite sect, whose members are powerful in the army, the bureaucracy, and the secret services. Umar Abd-Allah describes an opposition that uses the language of Islam to articulate a political program which ties together material, cultural, and religious concerns and whose inspiration derives from diverse sources, Western as well as Islamic. Indeed the causes advocated by the Islamic Front include social justice, political freedom, popular participation in decision making, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, land distribution, the enforcement of Islamic law, and opportunities for those now denied access to power and privilege. All these goals remain unfulfilled in Assad’s Syria. In fact since the massacre of thousands of Sunni Muslims at the town of Hama in 1983, there has been little sign that the groups of the Islamic Front have been able to bring any effective pressure on President Assad.

As evident from the books under review, writers on the Islamic revival are much concerned with texts and the analysis of texts. Jansen provides us with a translation and detailed analysis of the text of Faraj’s treatise, and Abd-Allah with a translation and analysis of the text of the Syrian Islamic Front’s charter and proclamation. Kepel effectively combines history and analysis of social structure and ideology in discussing Egypt’s Society of Muslims and its Islamic student movement, but he primarily concentrates on texts; reflecting not only the scholar’s normal propensity to turn to printed evidence, but also the central place of texts in Islamic movements, whether in Egypt or Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. Such movements draw much inspiration from sermons in mosques, classes in Koranic exegesis that are held by clerics and religious teachers, discussions on Islamic history, law, and traditions, and a pamphleteering literature whose subject is religion, society, and politics. The ideologues of these Islamic movements, in a way, are themselves involved in an enterprise of textual interpretation, or reinterpretation, an effort at a major transformation of the traditional understanding of the central historic and symbolic events of the Islamic past so as to shape current political attitudes and consciousness.

Few people writing on the subject today understand this better than Emmanuel Sivan. In an earlier book,1 in the essays collected in Interpretations of Islam, and in numerous journal articles he has carefully analyzed the current intellectual debate in the Arab world on politics, religion, and history. He has read prodigiously in this literature, both the work of leading Arab intellectuals and the popularizers who write for a mass audience. His training as a medievalist equips him particularly well to deal with material that debates the present through the vehicle of the past, and he is admirably adept at discovering, in the most mundane discussions of religion or history, the implicit argument that addresses contemporary issues. In fact, he cites with approval Geoffrey Barraclough’s dictum that “all history which means anything is contemporary history.”

He shows, for example, how modern Arab history of the Crusades can be read as a commentary on the current Arab predicament, a mirror on contemporary Arab attitudes to the West, and an attempt to draw lessons applicable to present Arab tribulations. Arab historians, he writes, tend to see the Crusades as a reflection of the age-old hostility of the West to Islam, an early harbinger of nineteenth-century European imperialism, or as part of a pattern of intrusion that in this century planted a new Crusader state, Israel, in their midst. Saladin, who expelled the Crusaders from Arab lands, is often seen as both exemplary model and promise: as one from whom Arabs can learn how to deliver themselves from modern “Crusaders” and as an indication that the cycle of history will turn again, as it did in the past, to favor the Arabs.

Again, in an essay on Arab revisionist historians, Sivan is able to show that a current debate between two schools of Arab historians is really a debate about contemporary issues. The new generation of intellectuals, he writes, has produced detailed criticism of the longstanding historical tradition that glorifies the Arab past and its Islamic heritage; in doing so such historians as Fu’ad Zakariya of Egypt and Hadi al-‘Alawi of Iraq are in fact making a critical commentary on contemporary Islamic institutions. The revisionist historians emphasize the failings of a tradition of despotism, and of family and male domination, and the ways that religious and creative thought have tended to become calcified in different points in Islamic history and are in similar danger today. For example, the Algerian writer ‘Afif Lakhdar’ writes. “All through Arab history, power has thus always been—and still is—beyond the Law…and no opposition, past or present, has ever succeeded in subjecting the rulers to the Law.”

The classical heritage against which these modern interpreters seek to define themselves is described in Bernard Lewis’s learned and elegantly written new book. The Political Language of Islam is a study of the language of politics, power, and political institutions in that part of the Islamic world where, both in the classical and the modern period, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish were current. By closely examining the political vocabulary of all three languages he constructs a fascinating account of the ways in which Muslims have conceived of the relations between ruler and ruled, rights and duties, legitimacy and illegitimacy, obedience and rebellion, justice and oppression. And he shows how changes in political attitudes and concepts can be traced through changes in the political vocabulary.

No one reading Lewis’s book can fail to be struck by the continued relevance of issues relating to the state and political authority that Muslims were debating in medieval times. The classical Islamic political theory was often revised to take account of political realities. The seizure of power by military dictators throughout Islamic history had to be acknowledged, the collapse of the caliphate accommodated, the rule of non-Muslims tolerated—but the classical core of theory has continued to exercise a powerful influence on political thinking in the Muslim world.

According to the classical theory, Lewis writes, the state was seen as a divine instrument whose principal function was to enable the individual to lead the good Muslim life—a factor that helps to explain the central place of the state in the thinking of many recent Islamic opposition movements. Whether in Iran in the 1970s or Iraq today, they do not separate their goals of religious reform from the political struggle to take over the power of the state. From the earliest times, Lewis writes, Islamic tradition and law reflected two distinct principles: one he describes as “authoritarian and quietist,” the other “radical and activist.” For the most part, the quietist tradition prevailed. The Islamic jurists, fearing that anarchy would make it impossible for the community to live according to the prescriptions of Islam, reluctantly developed a doctrine that permitted the believer to submit to tyranny and oppression. “The concessions which we hereby make are not voluntary,” wrote the theologian and philosopher al-Ghazali toward the end of the eleventh century, “but necessity may render lawful even that which is forbidden.” Islam developed a rich vocabulary denoting disapproval of risings, rebellions, and mutinies.

  1. 1

    Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (Yale University Press, 1985).

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