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Islam and Power Politics

On the other hand, Lewis writes, while the predominant view supported the authoritarian tradition, “there was always another strand in Islamic thought and practice, which was radical and activist, at times even revolutionary.” It is on the second, far less prominent tendency, that Abd al-Salam Faraj in Egypt, Khomeini in Iran, and others have drawn to advocate disobedience and even rebellion against the state and its replacement by a government that would uphold and enforce Islamic law.

The establishment of Islamic government is the professed aim of the Jihad group in Egypt, the Islamic Front in Syria, the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. These movements carry to logical conclusion the teachings of mid-twentieth-century Islamic thinkers such as Abu’l-A’la al-Mawdudi in the Indian subcontinent and Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, both of whom advocated the establishment of states governed by Islamic law, and whose influence on the present generation has been considerable. In some cases such movements seek to emulate the Iranian example. Yet it is a striking characteristic of all these groups that they have only the most general idea of what an Islamic state would look like once it was established.

The members of the Jihad group in Egypt, for example, devoted little thought to the practical problems of seizing power once they had assassinated the Egyptian president. Ayatollah Khomeini’s well-known book on Islamic government, presumably the blueprint for the Islamic state he intended to establish, contains only the barest outline of the workings of the new order. When the Iranian revolutionaries around Khomeini arrived triumphantly in Tehran in February 1979 they had with them only a halfcompleted draft constitution, and even this had little to say about the organization of an Islamic state. The structure of the Islamic Republic in Iran was worked out, somewhat haphazardly, after the seizure of power. The writings of Mawdudi or Sayyid Qutb give many arguments why secular, modern tendencies are anathema to believers but little guidance on how an Islamic government should work and what kinds of institutions it should have.2

Only in Iran has an Islamic state, in the sense intended by today’s revolutionaries, been established. The constitution specifies that supreme authority is to be held by an Islamic jurist. The Guardianship Council, a body of senior jurists, has the right of veto over all legislation found to be in violation of Islamic principles. Clerics dominate the parliament and the judiciary, and the main positions in the cabinet. Since the seizure of power an effort has been made to base all legislation on Islamic law. Current questions of foreign and domestic policy are often debated in terms of Islamic law and traditions. Here the battle of the texts, no longer theoretical but related to matters such as the war in Iraq and economic policy, is not only vigorous but can affect the central issues of Iran’s life.

Two years ago, the former prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and Khomeini carried on a barely disguised public debate over the war with Iraq, with Bazargan urging negotiations and peace and Khomeini vehemently opposed. Both chose to argue their views by citing examples of peace treaties that the Prophet had negotiated, and wars that the fourth caliph, Ali, had waged in the seventh century. Also in 1986, a member of parliament proposing legislation to punish hoarding felt it necessary to explain that although the chief items being hoarded were pharmaceutical products, rice, auto parts, household goods, and the like, the bill restricted the definition of hoarding to the items specified by the classical jurists: wheat, barley, raisins, oil, and olives. Two years earlier, the parliamentarians had debated whether a tax that Ali, as caliph, had imposed on mules in the seventh century established a precedent for income taxes.

As in debates over the interpretation of the American Constitution, there has developed in Iran a school of “broad” and a school of “strict” constructionists of Islamic law. This is perhaps not entirely new. As Lewis points out, nineteenth-century Islamic reformers sought to derive from Islamic law ideas of constitutionalism and limits on state authority. Iran’s broad constructionists want to use Islamic law as an instrument for social justice. They seek to expand state control of the economy, and to use the power of the state to distribute land and income and to limit profits and prices. The strict constructionists have argued against what they regard as manipulation of the holy law to meet modern-day concerns: they have emerged as the champions of the market and private business.

In Iran, the two groups have been in a virtual deadlock during the past two years. Parliament, dominated by the broad constructionists, passed a number of bills to permit the government to distribute agricultural land, take over property in the cities, control prices, impose more severe punishments on hoarders, and engage extensively in the retail distribution of goods. The Guardianship Council, dominated by the strict constructionists, vetoed all these laws.

These vetoes have made virtually impossible the kinds of measures—including land reform and welfare legislation for workers—that were carried out under the monarchy without the now unavoidable agonizing over the relationship between such legislation and Islamic law. Khomeini earlier this year broke this deadlock with a series of decrees, articulating an unusually broad—even unlimited—definition of the powers of an Islamic state. Such a state, he said, derives its powers from “the absolute powers entrusted to the Prophet” and, like the Prophet’s government, exercises power by divine sanction.

In the interests of the community, an Islamic government, he said, can “unilaterally revoke any lawful agreements with people” and “can prevent any matter, whether religious or secular, if it is against the interests of Islam.” In the wider interests of the community, he said, an Islamic government can even suspend the exercise of the “five pillars of the faith,” including prayer, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, whose performance is required of every Muslim.3

These decrees will have immediate repercussions in Iran, and may establish a legal basis for authoritarian state rule. In Iran, the government will now consider it has a free hand both to carry out the economic measures blocked by the Guardianship Council and, in general, to extend its powers to regulate every kind of economic activity. The weakening of the authority of the Guardianship Council, implicit in Khomeini’s decrees, will undermine the one force that has consistently checked the untrammeled power of the state since the revolution was consolidated.

Moreover, the broad constructionists among Khomeini’s lieutenants have been arguing that in matters of public policy Khomeini’s juridical opinions must overrule those of all other jurists. The very legitimacy of the state, its constitution and its institutions, it is now being asserted, derive from the authority he exercises by divine sanction. This attempt to establish Khomeini’s primacy in matters of public law, though not without precedent, would substitute a single authority for the community of interpreters that has so far prevailed, and unanimity and conformity for the plurality of views that has been the more common tradition among Iran’s senior clerics. In other words, in the battle of the texts, one interpretation would override all others.

Whether the advocates of restricted state authority, and of a plurality of juridical opinion, will be wholly silenced by Khomeini’s pronouncements is not yet clear; it is even less clear that the powers now claimed for Khomeini can be asserted with equal force by a successor who lacks his prestige and authority. In the meantime, Khomeini’s recent decrees are not without their irony. Having led a revolution to curb the arbitrary power of the state and of the Shah, Iran’s ruling clerics have come full circle and now advance a claim to extraordinarily broad powers using the familiar rationale of “reasons of state.” Although clothed in religious dress, this broad claim for the state, as the embodiment of the interests of the community, has a familiar ring.

As a Shi’ite country, Iran cannot serve as a model for the largely Sunni Arab states. Nevertheless, the Iranian experience tells us something about the attempt to establish rule on the basis of Islamic law. The expectation of groups like the Islamic Front in Syria, or the Jihad movement in Egypt, that Islamic rule would usher in consensus and unity in the national community, has not been borne out, at least in Iran. Clearly there is considerable disagreement on the law within the clerical community, and one consequence of using Islamic concepts as the main vehicle for political discourse has been to transfer divisions over central issues of politics into the religious sphere, where they become subject to conflicting interpretations. Thus Khomeini has warned Iran’s leaders that the people may lose their faith altogether if they find that the clerics who are the sources of religious authority disagree so sharply on the important issues.

The debate in Iran over social justice and the distribution of wealth, moreover, suggests that however much room there may be for differences over interpretation of the law, the meanings that can be derived from the language, symbolic events, and traditions of Islam are not always elastic. The images and language of Islam themselves establish certain limits on how far the reinterpretation of law and tradition can be pushed by religious leaders. As the example of the traditional laws against hoarding showed, the interpretative history of particular concepts and emotions associated with them sets limits on political action. This helps to explain why Khomeini resorts to broad claims for the powers of the state in the attempt to push through social welfare measures and legislation touching on private property.

In addition, while the authority to interpret the law and express opinions on questions of religious practice has been traditionally reserved to the jurists, one outcome of the tendency to articulate political issues in the language of Islam is that laymen have begun to appropriate to themselves the authority to interpret religious texts and the sources of the law.4 Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb, for example, had little formal religious training. Faraj in Egypt or the influential thinker Ali Shariati in Iran, who died in 1977 represent a by now common type of lay preacher or teacher on the fringes of the clerical hierarchy who has learned from sitting in on mosque sermons and classes in Koranic exegesis the clerical technique of developing an argument by using quotations from the Koran and textual commentary.

Such men are using this technique to propose “Islamic” solutions to contemporary problems of governance, and they exert in this way pressure on the jurists to find room in classical theory for modern ideas of social justice, participatory politics, and the like. So widespread is the phenomenon that Khomeini in Iran has warned against it and has reminded his people that only the jurists are trained and authorized to express opinions on the law. As Lewis concludes:

Among fundamentalist circles in Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere, a new Islamic political language is emerging, which owes an unacknowledged debt to the westernizers and secularists of the past century and their foreign sources, as well as to prophetic and classical Islam. Much will depend on their ability to harmonize these different traditions.

  1. 2

    On this subject see further, Emmanuel Sivan, “The Islamic Republic of Egypt,” Orbis (Spring 1987), pp. 43–54.

  2. 3

    Persian text in Kayhan (January 7, 1988), p. 18; for an English translation, see Foreign Broadcasting Information Service (Near East and South Asia, January 7, 1988), pp. 49–50.

  3. 4

    For reflections on similar developments in Morocco, see Dale F. Eickelmann, Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a Twentieth Century Notable (Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 178–180.

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