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.

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.

This Issue

July 21, 1988