Islamic Political Theory and the Challenges of Modernity

Historical Order, Rational State, or, Moral Community?
Islamic Political Theory and the Challenges of Modernity

S Parvez Manzoor

Modernity and its Discontents
 

Modernity has given us a de-divinized public order. It has suppressed the truth of the Soul for the harmony of the City. It has reduced our mandate for Divine Vicegerency to a commitment to civil morality. Our civilization no longer represents any cosmic truth, it partakes of no transcendent order of being and recognizes no human purpose beyond existence. Indeed, by redefining the End (Eschtion/Akhira) as an immanent social utopia, modernity abolishes the question of transcendence altogether. In place of the bliss of the soul, it offers peace in the City, and for the mystery of the Here-after, it substitutes the promise of the Here-now. Little wonder that modernity causes an acute crisis in the conscience of Islam.

In confronting the challenge of modernity and its secular world-order, therefore, Muslim thinkers have displayed much wrath and little understanding. Apart from the odd, albeit genuinely Islamic, plea for a rapprochement with its humanizing ethos(1), or some pragmatic suggestions for the appropriation of its body of knowledge(2), most of the Muslim effort has been spent in denouncing modernity. In fact, because of the ideological conflict with the West, which is seen to embody all of modernity’s evils, there is little inclination to apprehend modernity in its own terms. It is regarded as nothing but a western perversion and a threat. Thus, notwithstanding their craze for modern gadgetry, Muslims have yet to make any genuine encounter with the philosophical side of modernity(3).

For the Muslim, the principal problem with the modern world, a creation of the western man, is its political secularism. In fact, in the axiology of modernity, secularism stands at the pinnacle, just as in its metaphysical realm immanentism reigns supreme. The most distinguishing feature of the Western tradition, of which every outsider is made to become supremely conscious today, is the sovereignty of the political community. Or, as a modern political scientist has chosen to express this fact: ‘It is only in Western civilization, commencing with ancient Greece, the state came to be conceived, idealized indeed, as a community worthy of a status that elsewhere attended only religion.’(4). In fact, it was the first Western classic, Plato’s Republic, which has had ‘the effect of making the ideal of politics, of political power, of the political bond, and of the political community, the most distinctive and the most influential of all types of community to be found in Western philosophy. The intellectual line from Plato to both the democratic and totalitarian states of the twentieth century is a clear and direct one. Whatever the signal differences between the two types of modern state, what they have in common is the ascendancy of the political bond over all others in society; of political role over all roles of kingship, religion, occupation, and place; of the political intellectual over all other intellectuals; of political authority over all competing social and cultural authorities; and, finally, the proffer of the political state as the chief protection of man from the uncertainties, deprivations and miseries of the world.’(5). Needless to say that within Islamic tradition, faith occupies the same sovereign position which is accorded to the political in the West. Or, if we assert that the ultimately values of the Western community are political and existential, we must concede, by the logic of the same argument, that for the Muslim community these are religious and trans-existential.

Within this pre-eminently political Western tradition, modernity represents the impulse to take charge of the world, to rationalize society and to attain self-consciousness and freedom. (Paradoxically, though, it also creates an impasse about the modern man’s inability to endure his own impulse to self-consciousness.) ‘The principle of the modern world is freedom of subjectivity’ and modern religious life, state and society as well as art, morality and science are all embodiments of this principle(6). Further, in modernity the individual is defined ‘without reference to history, set values, or God; let alone race, creed, or national origin.’(7). This empty subjectivity is characterized by a drive to master the conditions of life, to seize and systematize the world, or it can only face it in a romantic, ironic or despairing mode(8). Little wonder that even one of the most enthusiastic and cogent defenders of modernity’s project has to admit that ‘the principle of subjectivity is not powerful enough to regenerate the unifying power of religion in the medium of reason.’(9).

Whether modernity is unique or merely a historical moment that may (has already) come to pass is in our days a point of much altercation between the modernists and post-modernists. However, a self-confident modernity continues to define itself as an emancipation of human spirit, an epoch which, in contrast to earlier ages, and other cultures, is more rational, more productive, more civilized, more democratic, more tolerant, more respectful of the individual, more scientific and more progressive(10). Modernity’s critics, however, even when endorsing this differentiation, take a less exalted view of its achievements. Modernity, they accuse, ‘has lost a world of rich tradition, a secure place in the order of being, a well-grounded morality, a spiritual sensibility, an appreciation of hierarchy, an attunement to nature; and these vacated places have been filled by bureaucracy, nationalism, rampant subjectivism, an all consuming state, a consumer culture, a commercialized world or, perhaps, a disciplinary society.’(11).

The flagship of modernity, however, is secularization: modern science constitutes a Promethean bid for the emancipation of secular reason from revelation and modern state acts as the grand inquisitor of theocracy. Secularization, thus, unfolds by an ever-expanding rationalization of the world, primarily through the capitalist mode of production but also through law, bureaucracy and science(12). Further, modernity is marked by the distinction of economic from politics. The modern individual, having exchanged the warmth and security of Gemeinschaft for the discipline and order of Gesellschaft, it has been argued, feels estranged in the world; his is a ‘homeless mind.’(13). The most noteworthy critic of modernity, without doubt, is Nietzsche, under the weight of whose polemics, the grand edifice of Reason as the house of universal ‘enlightenment’ seems to have collapsed. Nietzsche’s unmasking of modernity’s discourse on truth as the ‘will to power’ has led to the establishment of a whole school of postmodernist criticism whose most noteworthy representative is Michel Foucault(14).

Modernity has also replaced the concept of honour with that of dignity, thus unfastening the modern man from all the institutional moorings of history. For, while in a world of honour, the individual discovers his identity in his roles, the individual can only find his true identity by emancipating himself from social roles in the world of dignity. Obviously, the two worlds have a different relation to history. The honour-centered individual participates in history, not only the history of a particular institution but that of society as a whole, through performing institutional roles. The dignity-bound individual must free himself from history to attain ‘authenticity’. Little wonder that in the face of this modern tendency, an influential contemporary sociologist feels that ‘a rediscovery of honour in the future development of modern society is ... morally desirable.’(15). Equally significant is the judgement of another thinker who predicts that the modern, anti-institutionalist mood is unlikely to last(16).

From the beginning modernity has also been accompanied by an internal critique and an obsession with its uniqueness: ‘Modernity can and will no longer borrow the criteria by which it takes its orientation from the models supplied by another epoch: it has to create its normativity out of itself.’(17). Little wonder that this conviction about its uniqueness and the concomitant anxiety to achieve self-understanding creates the problem of the legitimacy of its age’.(18). And secularized modernity also expresses the conviction that not only is it open to the future but that the future has already begun. For it the eschation is already an actuality! In this sense, modernity sees itself as the culmination of human achievement and regards itself as unsurpassable in excellence. Whatever improvements of the human condition that mankind is likely to experience in the future, are bound to take place within the moral, intellectual and social matrix of modernity.

Having drawn to notice some of the significant philosophical assertions and social connotations of modernity, we shall now examine, from the vantage-point of political philosophy, two of its master ideas which were annunciated long after the formulation of the classical Islamic political philosophy. We shall first examine the idea of historical order which is implicit in the Machiavellian doctrine of politics, just as later our concern will be with the concept of the rational state as annunciated by Hegel. The purpose of this exercise is to investigate whether Islamic civilization has acquired these modern insights through some other routes of its own, or whether it is totally unaware of them and needs to assimilate them in its tradition. Whatever the case, the crucial question for us to ask is: Does Islam need to import and transplant the political philosophy of western modernity, or is it possible for it to acquire modernity’s moral and practical insights through a dialogue with its own legacy? Can Muslims, in other words, coexist with modernity without renouncing, or drastically modifying, their own tradition? Whatever the answer, it cannot be gainsaid that no future theory of Islamic politics may ignore modernity’s ‘discoveries’ and treat our intellectual geography as if the ‘new world’ does not exist at all.

 


Immanentization of Political Consciousness
Modernism cannot be understood other than as a rejection of the classical answer to the political problem. Thus, whereas the goal of political life for all classical political philosophers is virtue, and the order most conducive to virtue is the aristocratic republic, the modern position is to deem the classical solution as ‘unrealistic’(19). Indeed, there is a general turn away from transcendentalism to immanentism, from normativism to positivism and from idealism to historicism, all in the name of realism. Obviously, we are dealing with a new conception of ‘reality’ in modern political philosophy. The modern march away from theocracy to secularism is also a part of this new consciousness. The architect of modern political realism is no other than Machiavelli(20).

In Machiavelli we encounter the first theorist of the modern secular state. He was the political genius par excellence who understood the nature of the new power - ‘a body politic that had been created by force and was to be maintained by force’ - that has become a permanent feature of our human reality. Machiavelli may justifiably be characterized ‘the founder of a new science of politics - the great constructive thinker whose conceptions and theories revolutionized the modern world and shook the social order to its foundations.’(21). For better or worse, Machiavelli has left us a lasting legacy and the modern state and state-system have largely accepted the insights elicited by him about the nature of political power and the art of statecraft. To this extent, the political order of our world is ‘Machiavellian’.

Machiavelli has left us a monumental legacy and given us the two basically irreconcilable Machiavellian legends: the legend of love and the legend of hate. More than three thousand studies commenting on his political views have been listed by assiduous bibliographers. Concerning the interpretation of his major works, The Prince and The Discourses, over a score major theories and a host of subsidiary views and glosses have been put forward. Despite all this, there is a startling degree of disagreement on the basic political attitude of Machiavelli or on the central thesis of his notorious tract, The Prince. ‘Even now’, notes a modern critic, ‘after the book (The Prince) has been approached from every angle, after it has been discussed by philosophers, by historians, by politicians and sociologists, its secret has not yet been completely revealed. From one century to another, almost from one generation to another, we find not only a change but a complete reversal in the judgements about The Prince. The same thing holds for the author of the book. Confused by party of love and party of hatred the portrait of Machiavelli in history has varied; and it is extremely difficult to recognize behind all these variations the true face of the man and the theme of the book.’(22). The reasons for this baffling divergence of opinion must lie, insinuates one of the most influential interpreters of the Machiavellian text, in ‘The originality of Machiavelli’.(23).

No doubt, The Prince is a profoundly shocking book. There is obviously something everlastingly disquieting about what Machiavelli said or implied there. After all, what other opinions can we have about a work which teaches lessons like these: the exemplary prince ought to terminate the family of rulers whose territories he wishes to possess; the prince ought to murder his rivals rather than to confiscate their property; that men forget the murder of their fathers sooner than they forget the loss of their property; the ruler should be stingy with his property but generous with that of the others, and the like! One would have to admit that its author is utterly and thoroughly evil. Little wonder, this has been the standard judgement on Machiavelli.

Against Machiavelli’s excommunication from the synod of moral thinkers, however, stands his canonization as a saint of political morality by German idealists and Marxist materialists. For Herder, for instance, Machiavelli was no traitor to the moral cause but an honest and upright man, ‘a marvelous mirror of his age’ who faithfully described what others did not admit or recognize. For Hegel, The Prince was not a general treatise of politics but a specific response to the Italian situation and, indeed, a masterpiece of political intuition and humanistic morality. ‘One has to read the Prince’, wrote Hegel, ‘taking into consideration the history of the centuries preceding Machiavelli and the contemporary history of Italy, and then this book is not only justified, but it will appear as a highly magnificent and true conception of a genuine political genius of the greatest and noblest mind.’(24). For Fichte, Machiavelli is a man of deep human insight into the real historical forces that mould men and fashion their morality; a judgement that, by and large, has stood the test of time.

Indeed, the modern judgement on Machiavelli is quite close to Fichte’s assessment of him as a robust and uncompromising ‘realist’. Primarily, Machiavelli nowadays is viewed as the surgeon of political science who drove the medicine-men of scholastic utopianism out of the sanatorium of historical thought. It is because of the modern, ‘this-worldly’, disposition of his thought that both Marx and Engels, indeed Marxists in general, are favourably inclined towards him. Marx is not averse to calling The History of Florence a ‘masterpiece’ and Engels regards Machiavelli as ‘one of the giants of Enlightenment’. The overall Marxian consensus is that this controversial Renaissance thinker had prematurely freed himself from the chains of petit-bourgeois world-outlook, even if the current Soviet attitude towards him remains ambivalent. The most determined Marxian attempt at the exoneration of Machiavelli’s honour, however, is by his compatriot Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci not only wrote an updated version of Machiavelli’s celebrated treatise, calling it The Modern Prince, but he also assigned to his notorious countryman the role of an intellectual saviour, indeed a prophet of political liberation before Marx. ‘Machiavelli’, claimed Gramsci, ‘intended to give political education to “those who do not know”, not a negative political education of hatred for tyrants but a positive education of those who must recognize certain necessary means, even if those of tyrants, because they want certain ends.’(25).

Within these two opposite ends of the Machiavellian spectrum, viz. the strictly moral and Christian and the pre-eminently utilitarian and political, may be located a host of other opinions and judgements. From the liberal vantage-point, the common view of the ‘Machiavellian dilemma’ is that the Machiavellian insight into the art of statecraft produced a divorce of the province of politics from that of ethics and thereby made political science conscious of an irreconcilable moral dilemma it had previously only faintly suspected. The most eloquent and disturbing expression of this sentiment, however, is by the great German historian Meinecke. Meinecke `Machiavelli’s doctrine’, wrote Meinecke, `was a sword thrust in the body politic of Western humanity, causing it to cry out and struggle against itself.’(26).

This brief survey ought to sufficiently impress upon the Muslim political thinker about the necessity of familiarizing him/herself with the Machiavellian legacy and its consequences for the theory and practice of politics in our times. Needless to say, the problem of politics in a ‘post-Machiavellian’ world cannot be dealt with in all its ideational richness in a brief essay of this kind. Hence, our treatment of Machiavelli’s political thought will pay special attention to the problem of historical order, and to that of immanentist metaphysics, which, in our opinion, has greatest bearing on the problem of politics in Islam.

Notwithstanding its robust sense of realism and its desperate urge to fix its gaze at ‘how one actually does live’ rather than ‘how one should live’, Machiavelli’s thought, like all human cognition itself, has its givens and its goals. It is these invisible moorings as it were that impart Machiavellianism its normative character, even if it legitimizes itself in the name of realism. Some of the underlying assumptions of Machiavelli’s political philosophy, for instance, may be presented as: Men need order in their social and collective lives and only the State can provide that order. The State, therefore, must be strong and be able to use force for the maintenance of public order. Politics is the technique and art of government and it can be learnt by studying history and by looking at the world realistically.

So far, we would have to agree, there’s nothing in the Machiavellian political theory which would make it unacceptable to pre-moderns, viz., the Aristotlians, the later Stoics, perhaps even some Muslims as well. All of them would have willing endorsed this as a reasonable description of the political realm. However, from here onwards, there is a switch in the Machiavellian argument and he abandons an apparently descriptive stance in favour of a tacitly normative one. For, claims Machiavelli, the reason why states and statesmen are led to doom is because they stick to a moral code which does not apply to the real world of evil and vicious men. Accepting this putative incompatibility of the norms of statecraft and those of individual morality as absolute and final, Machiavelli then pleads that statesmen ought to abandon the impracticable norms of Christian ethics in politics and practise statecraft as an autonomous art.

Religion has to be banished from politics not because it teaches morality but because it teaches a wrong kind of morality, the kind that does not enhance the power of the state. To Machiavelli, the alternatives posed by the problem of Church and State - religious rule over secular realm - was inescapably this: ‘either the public realm corrupted the religious body and thereby became itself corrupt, or the religious body remained corrupt and destroyed the public realm altogether.’(27). Thus, Machiavelli sees politics as a battle, as a constant struggle for power: all politics, ultimately for him, is power-politics. Little wonder, he has been regarded as the arch theorist of Realpolitik.

Machiavelli’s disturbing insight into the nature of politics, it is generally accepted, is also an insight about the nature of man. However, the question about the ‘nature of man’ is one of those seminal and primordial questions that cannot be settled even with regard to the availability of ‘inconvertible empirical evidence’ because it belong to the Ought of man’s ideal world and not to the Is of his existential reality. Little wonder that a modern philosopher concedes that the problem of man ‘is no less a theological question than the question about the nature of God; both can be settled only within the framework of a divinely revealed answer.’(28). If so, the Machiavellian ‘insight’ about the nature of man is at heart a theological response to the problem of man’s existence. And contrary to the commonly accepted view, it is not humanistic but Christian. Indeed, Machiavelli’s contemptuous view of man as inherently evil is uncompromisingly and incontrovertibly Christian. Hence, the moral problem which Machiavellian political theory raises with such poignancy falls squarely within the province of Christian ethics.

Machiavellianism therefore is not a central moral issue affecting the whole of humanity but is a historic legacy of the Christian-pagan tension within the civilization of Europe. For, what Machiavelli unearthed by his political philosophy was not any universal incompatibility of ‘ethics’ and ‘politics’, but a specific impasse created by the ‘other-worldly’ demands of Christian conscience. He merely showed that if morals relate to human conduct, and if men by nature are social, then Christianity cannot supply the basis of any normal social existence. Christianity, in other words, is unable to respond to the problem of order in history! Little wonder that, having failed to discover any viable formula of political order within the ethos of Christianity, Western civilization had to embark on the road to secularism and proclaim the separation of Church and State.

An even more distressing reading of Machiavelli is by Isiah Berlin who claims that what Machiavelli discovered was far more disturbing than any inability of Christianity to supply a pragmatic ethics for the state-principle. For Machiavelli disclosed that all ultimate values are not necessarily compatible with each other. More than that, the problem of the incompatibility of values rests not on material and practical difficulties but on conceptual and philosophical grounds. Not only is it possible that there may be more than one set of ultimate values but there are no rational criteria by which to arbitrate them when these come into collision! Berlin continues to reason: ‘If what Machiavelli believed is true, this undermines one major assumption of western thought: namely that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculation of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist, or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live. If this is false (and more than one equally valid answer to the question can be returned, then it is false) the idea of the sole, true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles.’(29). Machiavellian sword, it would seem, is double-edged: it cuts through both the other-worldly morality of Christianity and the this-worldly political Utopia of humanism!

However, even if this were the ultimate implication of the Machiavellian ‘discovery’, even then, it may be argued, Islamic Reason is not confronted with an ‘insoluble’ problem, nor is Muslim conscience humbled into self-denial. For the claim about the ability of man’s intellect to arrive at the ultimate truth, at a final solution - what an unfortunate choice of words - is a claim of humanism, not of Islam. Machiavellian insight represents the nemesis of the Utopia of politics and not of the eschatological vision of religious faith. Rather than conceiving Machiavellian raison d’état as a moral antithesis of its truth, as does Christianity, Islam subordinates it to the revelatory imperative(30). Islam, everyone agrees, does not renounce the world. But it is equally imperative to bear in mind that it does not absolutize it either, as does the other great philosopher of modernity - Hegel

Historicization of Political Order

Hegel is not only the initiator of the discourse of modernity, he is its most cogent critic as well(31). Hegelian thought nonetheless represents the next logical step on the road to the immanentization of political consciousness which was initiated by Machiavelli. Transcendental and immanentist orders loose their antithetical character in his philosophical system. His notorious dictum about the identity of the rational and the actual (wirklich) provocatively proclaims this fact. Hegel is, then, the last great systamatizer of philosophy who is also the unmatched mediator of all things modern, religious as well as secular(32). Though he has become all things to all men, Hegel is essentially a moral thinker who sought, and achieved, the grandest synthesis of reflective thought in modern times.

The core of Hegel’s political and social thought is to be found in his Philosophy of Right(33). The Hegelian theory of the state, however, is indistinguishable from the Hegelian theory of history, the unfolding of Spirit which is the theme of the Phenomenology(34). For Hegel, ‘the State is the actuality of the ethical Idea… (It) is absolutely rational inasmuch as it is the actuality of the substantial will which it possesses in particular self-consciousness once that consciousness has been raised to consciousness of its universality…. (It) is the actuality of concrete freedom.’ In fact, ‘Er ist der Gang Gottes in der Welt, dass der Staat ist.’ (variously rendered as ‘The State is the march of God through the world’, ‘The existence of the State is the presence of God upon earth’, or more literally, ‘The march of God in the world, that is what the State is.’(36)).

Expressed less lyrically, however, it would mean that Hegelian state is a moral political community which is not a mere instrumental entity invented by human reason for the furtherance of the individual’s goals. It does not embody the principle of subjectivity but is founded on universal altruism and its aim is the actualization of the freedom of Spirit in human history. The goal of the State thus transcends the individual happiness of its citizens. Hence, it is not wrong to claim that Hegel secularized and politicized the idea of universal salvation as claimed by Christianity. Not inconsistently, Hegel considered himself as a Protestant philosopher greater than Thomas of Aquinas of Catholicism(37).

As the Hegelian theory of the State is embedded within the mystique of ‘Spirit’ and ‘World-History’, its historical impact has been enormous. Indeed, in some sense all the moderns are Hegelians, no matter what labels they may choose to affix to themselves. Though, Hegel has not attracted much attention among Muslim thinkers, there is little doubt that, despite the ambiguity of his religious position and his alleged ‘pantheism’, there are points of resemblance between Hegelian metaphysics and ethics and those of the classical Muslim writers(38). For Muhammad Iqbal was Hegel, because of his idealism and mysticism, a greater and far more profounder philosopher than Marx - a prophetic observation which has been vindicated by the ‘Marx is dead; Long live Hegel’ mood of our times!(39). Less convincingly, and with no regard for its secularist underpinning, a contemporary Muslim writer likens the Hegelian State as ‘the march of God in the world’ to the Ummah of Islam!(40). Unwittingly or not, contemporary fundamentalism has been more conciliatory of modernity inasmuch as it has incorporated in its political vision the immanentist metaphysics of Hegel and ignored the transcendentalist dimensions of its own tradition.

The immanentization of political consciousness which is the sum and substance of modern secularism, unfortunately, has started affecting, or rather infecting, Muslim minds as well. The problem of expressing religious truth in philosophical vocabulary, the cause of much debate in classical Islam, has become an actual concern in our times as well. The idea of Islamic State, which is always a problematical idea, is a case in point. Earlier, it was conceived in Platonic and idealistic terms: the Virtuous Polity of Al-Farabi, for instance, was beyond the world of politics and history(41). Today, however, it is conceived as an immanent entity struggling for world supremacy at ‘the end of history’! Needless to say, neither the Platonic, nor the Hegelian philosophy can do justice to the Islamic ideal which originates in a revealed vision that is historical as well as eschatological, that perceives transcendence behind immanence, that experiences eternity beyond time, and that waits for the here-after after this world. Certainly, no system of philosophy and ethics that renounces the transcendence of revelation can ever conceive that synthesis of Dunya and Din which is the sine qua non of the existential, and hence political, vision of Islam. Certainly, the Hegelian State connotes an ethical community and as such exhibits phenomenological resemblance with the Islamic conception of the Ummah. However, the ethics that the Hegelian community is committed to is merely the force of habit, the morality of custom (Sittlichkeit) and not that of revelation. Islamic politics, in short, cannot abandon its transcendent moorings and historicize itself to the point of secularity. History is the handmaiden of Islamic consciousness, not its mistress.

 

Politics and Transcendence

The most important task, claims a veteran Muslim scholar, is not ‘any one of the many useful things that engage the attention of most thinking Muslims today, such as tinkering with Islamic law, protecting Muslims from exposure to the so-called materialistic philosophies of the modern world, or the race to catch up with the West in the economic, scientific, and technical fields. Important and useful as some of these efforts may be, they are bound to fail so long as they lack a comprehensive framework and that framework can be no other than a political framework.’(42). The ‘all-inclusivity’ of the political, however, is not a modern idea: it is pre-modern, classical, indeed Islamic - inasmuch as the ‘political’, within the Islamic context, cannot be isolated from the ‘religious’ and hence cannot be ‘de-fined’, i.e. limited. The modern definition of politics as the realm of pragmatic action(43), or even as an arbitrating epistemology(44), does not advance any totalistic claim on behalf of the political.Modernity’s understanding of the political, we have seen, is problematic, especially when it comes to its relationship with temporality(45). On the one hand, we learn, that ‘the existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history.’(46). Thus, political societies, properly speaking, come into existence only when political order devolves from its cosmological symbolism to the historical(47). A consciousness of historicity, indeed of transience and contingency of existence, then, is a pre-requisite of political societies. And yet, it has also been argued, not without justification, that ‘if the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men’(48). Indeed, ‘without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible’(49). It is this transcendence of the political impulse, the urge to create permanence in transience, that makes it an adversary and an associate of religious consciousness.

Echoing the same sentiment, namely that premonitions of permanence and durability are necessary for the construction of any political order, a modern scholar of Islam can say without hesitation that ‘Muslim piety never gave much thought to the possibility that an ideal state can be set up in this world’(50). It was so, he believes, because ‘the Qur’an is not concerned with developing any sort of ideal political model to be adopted by all Muslims’(51). Hence, despite the professed unity of Din and Dawla in the doctrine of the jurists, their general outlook can only be described as ‘anti-political’. (The ‘ulama, of course, were not interested in theorizing about any ‘ideal’ polity, or in the formulation of any universally binding constitutional theory, for the best regime, according to them, had already been actualized in history. It had actually revealed itself as the historical regime of the Prophet and his Rightly-Guided successors.)

Hence, it is safe to claim that the proclaimed unity of din and dawla was never more than a pious hope or a juristic axiom. The discussion among jurists about the necessity of imama, and their initial uncertainty about it, implied that ‘the possibilities of the existence of an ideal political organization was undermined by the theologians.’(52). Hence, the civilization of Islam never really developed any clear vision of politics or any formal theory of the state. All it possessed was a doctrine of religious authority and an image of the ideal community of faith, the Firqa Najia of the jurists’ parlance(53). Politics, within the traditional worldview, signified a quest for guidance far beyond the authority of temporal rule and well beyond the ‘sovereignty’ of political order. The doctrine of Khilafa/Imama connotes neither a theory of power, nor a vision of politics but represents a reading of the revelation as worked out in the actual history of the founding Community, a superimposition of Divine will on an existential matrix as it were.

While juristic reason displays a feeling towards historical existence that borders on the political, it is not a doctrine of politics as such. And whereas it certainly has its own stake in the outcome of human history, it is not a project of future action. The theory of Caliphate/Imamate idealizes a historical moment (the time of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs) but it does so only for the sake of delegitmizing all political authority. The classical vision of Islamic state is a religious utopia that is a critique of all political views of the world and not a sacralization of temporal order. Indeed, not unlike the Hegelian state, which seeks a mysterious end transcending the welfare of its members altogether, Islamic polity pursues no rational goals. It is simply there as a consequence of the Revelation. Hence, it is arguable whether the ideal polity of classical juristic thought does represent a ‘state’ as it is understood today. All this is well worth bearing in mind, because in our eagerness to formulate a ‘political’ theory, we are reading the juristic texts ‘politically’ and ‘discovering’ within them immanentist structures that were never intended to be there in the first place.

As for Machiavelli, the principal claim of his ‘realism’ derives from his perception of time, from his visualization of political order as ‘temporal’. For Machiavelli believed that man inhabits a world which is ruled neither by man himself, nor by gods, but by time; that ultimately man’s miseries stem neither from a flaw in his nature, nor from temperamental constraints that are external to him, but from the finality and temporality of his existence(54). Islam too recognizes the ‘temporality’ of the human situation, but it does so without regarding it as ‘final’, without depleting the human condition of hope and faith. It accepts the temporal existence of man without denying him eternity. Hence, Islamic politics, an existential and temporal enterprise, derives its meaning and legitimacy from an eternal imperative.

Machiavelli does not cause the conscience of Islam as much pain as he does to that of Christianity. Indeed, a superficial reading of the Islamic position may easily convince an outsider that not only does the doctrine of classical jurists display an uncanny resemblance to the Machiavellian theory of raison d’état, but that the actual historical practice of the founding fathers of the Muslim community, shows unmistakable traces of ‘Machiavellian’ compromise with the world as well. Inasmuch as Islamic piety has never been inimical to the construction of practical order or as Islam does not perceive, in the manner of Christianity, an absolute antinomy of faith and existence, of truth and politics, Machiavellianism does not cause insuperable anxiety to the political, pragmatic and historical, consciousness of Islam(55). However, at the level of metaphysics and truth, Islam has absolutely nothing in common with Machiavellianism. For Islam does not accept the ‘lowering of standards’ which is the Machiavellian ‘solution’ to the problem of Machiavellism.

The moral dilemma that is associated with Machiavelli’s name, the ethical riddle which is ‘not merely unsolved but insoluble’, ‘the dagger that is thrust in the body politic of the West’, alludes to the problem of order in history, to the existence of man as a body-politic, as a representation of (existential) truth. Any world-view that does not inhere an existential ethic and does not yield a workable theory of political power, Machiavelli realized correctly, either violates the integrity of human morality and/or betrays the imperatives of his earthly existence. Muslims thinkers, who were as cognizant of the ‘Machiavellian’ nature of politics as anyone else, did not draw from this given of the human condition the ‘Machiavellian’ conclusion about the autonomy of politics and the legitimacy of the reason d’état. For the temporal logic of raison d’état does not establish its legitimacy which has to take the eternity of the Akhira into account. The problem of Machiavellism is the problem of an Either/Or metaphysics, that one must derive all values from a transcendent beyond or an immanence here. Thus, the corrective to the Machiavellian temptation, that of regarding politics as the be-all and end-all of human existence, is the subjugation of politics to revelation. Only, revelation can break the spell of immanentism, and along with it the idol of Machiavellian politics.

Estranged from the desacralised world, the Muslim today looks for a master solution and finds it in a modernized version of politics. Politics, which in traditional Islam has the function of attenuating the gulf between God and man, is now being perceived as a quest for earthly glory. Thus, paradoxically, while Muslims stubbornly refuse to de-sacralize their public domain, their inner domains, their hearts and minds, have been seduced by the idols of modernity. They perceive the problem of politics in Machiavellian terms and demand a purely ‘temporal’ solution of the human situation. It must however be pointed out the ‘political’ component of the Islamic worldview is pre-modernist and non-immanentist. In the traditional civilization of Islam what related the Muslim philosopher to the Islamic community, the organic link that existed between philosophy and sacred law so to speak, was political philosophy (56). Political philosophy, in other words, over-spanned the law-philosophy, sacred-secular divide. Consequently, even the most ‘positivist’ philosopher of Islam, Ibn Khaldun, can also be regarded as a representative of the fuqaha(57). Little wonder that for his theory of politics, for his vision of practical order, the Muslim thinker, who shared with Machiavelli the whole gamut of the presupposition of the classical political theory, did not have to step out of the revelational framework of Islam, something that, we have seen earlier, Machiavelli was forced to do with regard to Christianity(58).

The seminal insights of Machiavelli and Hegel, minus their immanentism, are available to the Islamic tradition in its own revelational form. While affirming some of modernity’s ethical values, Islamic civilization need not take the immanentist road to the restoration of its political order. The political realm is neither a realm of profane reality that is devoid of the categorical imperative, nor is a sacerdotal kingdom that represents God on earth. Without falling prey to the dichotomy of ‘theocracy’ and ‘secularism’, Islamic political theory must therefore produce a vision of historical order that is modern, pragmatic and non-totalitarian. For, as even admitted by a hostile critic, ‘In order to work for the power and glory of his earthly city, man in Islam does not have to kill God’(59).

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Notes

Cf. Fazlur Rahman: Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, 1982. In fact, Fazlur Rahman’s entire oeuvre represents a continuous ethical dialogue with, and an occasional censure of, modernity.
Isma`il Raji Al-Faruqi: Islamization of Knowledge. IIIT, Herndon, 1982.
The philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal (1976-1938) in his Reconstruction of Muslim Thought (orig. ed. London, 1933) did present rudiments of an Islamic system of thought in the light of modern philosophy. For a very insightful criticism of Iqbal’s religious philosophy on the basis of Qur’anic metaphysics, however, see Fazlur Rahman: ‘Iqbal and Modern Muslim Thought’, in M Saeed Sheikh (ed.): Studies in Iqbal’s Thought and Art, Lahore, Bazme-e-Iqbal, 1972, pp. 38-51.
Robert Nisbet: The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought, New York, Washington Square Press, 1982, p 1.
ibid. P 3. Emphasis added.
Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Tr. by T.M. Knox, Oxford, 1952 (Hereafter abbreviated as PR), p 286.
David Kolb: The Critique of Pure Modernity: Hegel, Heidegger, and After, Chicago, 1986, p 6. The claim is, of course, not true, or true only in the historical no-man’s land of pure theory. In practice, however, modernity, or better modern civilization and institutions, systematically exclude non-Western individuals and communities from partaking in the sacrament of modernity!
Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester, 1984.
Jurgen Habermas: The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge & Oxford, 1987. p 20.
Cf. William E Connolly: Political Theory and Modernity. Oxford, 1988, p 1.
ibid. For a sensitive reflection on the ambiguity of modernity’s legacy, see: Leszek Kolakowski: Modernity on Endless Trial. Chicago, 1990.
This is the essence of Weber’s sociological theories. For the nature of Weber’s contribution and its significance for the discourse of modernity, see: Sam Whimster & Scott Lash (ed.): Max Weber, Rationality and Modernity. London, 1987.
Cf. Peter Berger et. al.: The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness. New York, 1973. Peter Berger is notable for his sociological theories of modernity. For an introduction to his work and thought, see: Making Sense of Modern Times: Peter L. Berger and the Vision of Interpretive Sociology. Ed by James Davidson Hunter & Stephen C. Ainlay, London, 1986.
Postmodernist literature is vast, and growing. Only two representative works need be cited here. For Nietzsche, see: Mark Warren: Nietzsche and Political Thought. MIT Press, Cambridge. Mass, 1988; and for Foucault: Foucault: A Critical Reader. Ed by David Couzens Hoy, Oxford, 1986.
Peter Berger: ‘On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honour’, in Liberalism and its Critics, Ed by Michael Sandel, Oxford, 1984, pp. 149-58.
Anton Ziderweld: Abstract Society. New York, 1970.
Habermas, J: op. cit. p 7. Italics supplied by the author.
Cf. Hans Blumenberg’s monumental opus: The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, M.I.T. Press, Camb., Mass, 1985, where he refutes Karl Loewith’s charge that modernity’s idea of progress is merely a secularization of the Christian problem of salvational history.
Cf.: Leo Strauss: What is Political Philosophy. Chicago, 1959. p 40ff
Among the more recent publications, Sebastian de Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell, (New York, 1989) takes an integrated view of the Florentine thinker and is, according to Sergio Bertelli, editor of Machiavellian works, ‘free of the interminable religious and idealistic bickering over Machiavelli’, though the enigmatic title of the book never explains itself! For a very handy access to Machiavelli’s masterpiece and a host of interpretive essays, including the celebrated ones of Isiah Berlin, Ernst Cassirer and others, consult: The Prince, Tr. and Ed. by Robert M Adams (A Norton Critical Edition), New York, 1992.
Ernest Cassirer: The Myth of the State, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1946, p 128.
Ernst Cassirer: op.cit.., p 116.
Isiah Berlin, in an essay bearing the same title, in: Against the Current, Oxford, 1981, pp. 25-79.
Quoted in Berlin, I: op. cit. pp. 30-1. Emphasis has been added.
The Modern Prince and Other Writings, International Publishers, New York, 1987, p 142.
Machiavellianism, the Doctrine of Raison d’État and its Place in Modern History (English translation of Die Idee der Staatsraeson in der neuen Geschichte) London, 1957, p 49. Emphasis ours.
Arendt, Hannah: op. cit. p 77. It is hard not to construe the actual Islamic practice - as opposed to theory - as corresponding to the two Machiavellian alternatives: Sunnism upholding the supremacy of the ‘state-principle’ and shi`ism undermining it!
Hannah Arendt: op.cit. Pp. 10-1, n 2.
Berlin, I: op. cit. p 76.
It is customary to compare Machiavelli and Ibn Khaldun in this regard. For a stimulating comparison of the two great thinkers, see: Abdullah Laroui: ‘Ibn Khaldun et Machiaval’, in Islam and Modernité. Paris, 1987, pp. 97-125. For an instructive analysis of the non-Machiavellian nature of the juristic (fiqhi) theory of the state, despite superficial resemblance, see: Gabriel Ben-Dor: State and Conflict in the Middle East, New York, 1983.
For a good summary of Hegel’s ambivalence towards modernity, see: Steven B Smith: Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism, Chicago, 1951.
Cf., Fackenheim, Emile: To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. New York, 1982, p 8ff.
Cf. n. 6, supra.
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Tr. by A.V. Miller, Oxford, 1977.
PR, pp. 155-160.
For a very informed analysis of the Hegelian position, see: Shlomo Avineri: Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Cambridge, 1972, pp. 176-193.
For Hegel’s religious views, see: Emile Fackenheim: The Religious Dimensions in Hegel’s Thought, Indiana, 1967, and Raymond Keith Williamson: Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion, New York, 1984.
Cf. Fazlur Rahman: The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra, Albany, 1975, p 268.
Muhammad Iqbal: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore, 1971, p 188.
Cf. Manzooruddin Ahmed: Islamic Political System in the Modern Age: Theory and Practice, Karachi, 1983, p61.
Cf. Richard Walzer: Al-Farabi on the Perfect State: Mabadi Ara’ ahl al-Madina al-Fadila, Oxford, 1985.
Muhsin Mahdi: ‘On the Use of Islamic History’, in Arab Civilization: Challenges and Responses; Studies in Honor of Constantine Zurayk. Ed. by George N. Atiyeh & Ibrahim M Oweiss, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1988. p 70.
The tradition of regarding politics as the realm of ‘praxis’ and ‘action’, of course, goes back to Aristotle. For some of the more recent statements on the nature of action, see: Alvin I. Goldman: A Theory of Action. Princeton, 1970.; Arthur C. Danto: Analytical Philosophy of Action. Cambridge, 1973.; Pierre Bourdieu: Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, 1977; and Jurgen Habermas: Theorie und Praxis, Darmstadt, 1963.
Benjamin Barber: The Conquest of Politics. Princeton, 1988, pp. 3-21. Cf., also our review of Barber’s book in the Muslim World Book Review: ‘Politics without Truth, Metaphysics or Epistemology’, X:4 (Summer 1990), pp. 3-12.
Cf. a very insightful essay by Jurgen Habermas: ‘Modernity’s Consciousness of Time and its need for Self-Reassurance’, in his: The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge & Oxford, 1987. Pp. 1-22.
Eric Voegelin: The New Science of Politics. Chicago, 1952, p 1.
Eric Voegelin: Order and History. Baton Rouge, 1974. vol. I, pp. 25ff. Accordingly, the ‘cosmological’ empires of Egypt and Ancient Near East are representatives of ‘pre-political’ - and ideologically ‘static’ - societies. The ‘Theocratic Commonwealths’ of medieval times, including even the Classical Muslim Caliphates, would then according to this theory represent a state in-between ‘cosmological’ and ‘political’ societies: these are ‘theo-polities’ rather than polities pure and simple (i.e. secular states).
Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition. Chicago, 1958. p 55.
ibid. Emphasis added.
Franz Rosenthal: ‘Political Justice and the Just Ruler’, in Religion and Government in the World of Islam, Ed by Joel L. Kraemer & Ilai Alon. Tel Aviv, 1983. p 93.
ibid. p 92.
Rosenthal, F: op. cit. p 93
Al-Ghazali’s famous statement on imama in Al-Iqtisad fi l-I`tiqad (The Golden Mean in Belief) has recently been re-interpreted as a validation of the legal structure of Muslim society. Far from being an illustration of raison d’état in juristic logic, as it has generally been construed, Al-Ghazali’s statement is an indication of his desire to demonstrate that the body-Islamic of his times, despite its incomplete observance of the Shari`a in politics, is the same body-Islamic which was founded by the Prophet and that Sunnite Muslims belonged to the firqa najiya (salvational community) of Islam. Cf. W.M. Watt: ‘Authority in the Thought of al-Ghazali’, in La notion d’autorité au Moyen Age: Islam, Byzance, Occident. Ed by George Makdisi, Dominique Sourdel & Janine Sourdel-Thomine. Paris, 1982, pp. 58-68. What is true of Al-Ghazali is true of other jurists as well. Their ‘apology’ for the imperfect rulers of their times, and their accepting them as - necessary - Imams, is in fact an apology for the religious community of Sunnism. That the shortcomings and failings of political leaders do not reach to the faith of the Community, and defile it as it were, is a clear testimony to the fact that the juristic theory of khilafa/imama is not a political theory of governance but a religious theory of the ‘saving’ community. Indeed, it may be argued that by de-linking the religious community from the political rule, the Sunni position is tantamount to, tacitly, accepting a separation of ‘church’ and ‘state’, a clear manifestation of an authentic Islamic attempt at compromise through a ‘secularization’ of the coercive order.
Robert Orr: ‘The Time Motif in Machiavelli’, in Martin Fleisher: Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought, New York, 1972, pp. 198.
Cf. Hannah Arendt (‘Truth and Politics’, in Between Past and Future, New York, 1977, pp. 227-264) who contends that truth is anti-political, but then she takes a purely theoretical - trans-existential - view of the truth!
Muhsin Mahdi: Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History. Chicago, 1957.
Against Mahdi’s assertion that Ibn Khaldun belonged to the Muslim philosophers’ fraternity (Mahdi (1957) : op. cit.), stands H.A.R. Gibb’s classic statement that places him in the camp of the jurists (Gibb, H.A.R: ‘The Islamic Background of Ibn Khaldun’s Political Theory’, in Studies in the Civilization of Islam. London, 1962.)
Mahdi, M (1957): op.cit. p. 9ff.
Vatiakotis, P.J: Islam and the State. London, 1987. P.50.

 


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