Islamic Legitimacy Without the Testimony of the Muslim Will?
Posted Mar 29, 2003

Without accepting the authority of the Ummah, not only at a meta-historical and sacrosanct level, but also within the hurly-burly of mundane politics, there can be no cogent vision of the Islamic regime, no genuine dialogue with history and no affirmation of the Muslim’s commitment to transcendence. In the modern context, the task would entail – whatever the limitations or lures of Western democracy – devising some representative system of government for the Muslims. For any talk of Islamic legitimacy without the testimony of the Muslim will is sheer hypocrisy, or utter lunacy!

Though everyone today insists that all visions of ‘Islamic politics’ must contend with the moral and pragmatic issues of our times, Islamist thought, unfortunately, is moving in a direction that makes all compromise with the modern ethos almost impossible. It conceives of the imperatives of Islamic commitment in such fundamentalist terms that the very idea of a dialogue with the agencies of contemporary history appears heretical. Thus, for all its determination to bring Islam back to history, radical Islamist thinking promotes a worldview that is vehemently anti-political, just as it endorses a politics of revival that is blatantly anti-historical. Islamists’ apprehension of ‘democracy’, for instance, clearly reveals that the ultimate objective of their thought is not the affirmation of the Muslim’s historical existence but the refutation of the false ideology of his putative Other, the secular Westerner.

More than one respectable Islamist ideologue has claimed that democracy, inasmuch as it identifies people rather than God as the ultimate source of power and legislation, is the highest form of human deceit. In the name of consensus and rule, it sanctifies the Promethean arrogance of man who is proclaimed not only the supreme creator of his values but also the final arbiter of his conduct. The hallowed ethos of democracy, which exalts the legal, and hence the moral, autonomy of man is thus atheistic and secularist.  Democracy, from such a perspective, appears as the supreme doctrine of kufr, the deification of the unsbmissive, rebellious man that is antithetical to Islam.

Naturally, such a metaphysical delegitimation of democracy, even if it is seldom expressed with due philosophical sophistication, is both valid and justified. However, the philosophical deconstruction of democracy as a doctrine, as the ideology of arrogant humanism, is not, or need not be made, a contentious issue. The sovereignty of God over man is asserted by all believers and not by Muslims alone, just as the supremacy of the moral over the political is the cardinal tenet of all moral ideologies, including that of Human Rights. For the moral man of any hue and complexion, the political, which is always encountered as an incumbent regime rather than the ethereal state, immanent practice rather than transcendent norm, cannot demand absolute obedience. The jurisdiction of the state, its authority over the citizen, is therefore never absolute. The state cannot, in other words, proclaim itself ‘sovereign’ over religio-moral conscience.

Our problems start when we transform this metaphysically and morally unassailable insight into a political theory, when we postulate a ‘non-democratic’, if not an anti-democratic, premise for Islamic government. Indeed, the whole misery and poverty of Islamist thought is due to the fact that it confounds ‘Islam’ with ‘governance’, that it posits an identity of faith and regime. Little do our contemporary ideologues realize that if the political in the case of democracy is never encountered but as an incumbent regime, as a this-worldly power, then it is also experienced as such in the case of theocracy. Theocracy, in other words, is also a political regime, a coercive order rather than a celestial community. Theo-polities do not loose their historical and anthropological dross simply because they base their authority on a transcendent source beyond. Islamic ‘political theory’, if it aspires to be political in any meaningful sense of the term, must then reckon with the constraints of history and the sinfulness of man. Islamist thought, sadly, ignores both these factors.

That Islam as faith can exist without a theory of governance, that it prescribes no plebiscite for the authentication of its truth-claims, is no reason for proclaiming, as do many of the present-day Islamists, without an iota of diffidence or afterthought, that the ‘legitimation criteria’ of Islamic government have nothing to do with the ‘representative will of the people’. The latter, in their view, are entirely dependent upon the ‘inherent truth of Islam’. The Islamic state (or government, for the two are not never clearly differentiated!) is simply the one which conforms to the tenets of Islam, not the one which submits to the whims of the Muslims! As the above represents such a widespread and earnestly held conviction of so many otherwise perceptive and pious believers, it is proper that a closer scrutiny of its logical and ideological postulates, its hidden claims of authority if you will, is undertaken by a less convinced observer.

The biggest problem with this contention - the divorce of Islam and Muslim will in the historical order of Islam (!) - in my view, is that it either turns ‘Islam’ into an entirely apolitical and otherworldly entity (something that it already has become through the vagaries of history), or transforms it into arbitrary rule (something which conforms to the nature of Muslim political order today). For, when we claim that the ‘legitimation criterion’ in Islam is not ‘the representative will of the people’ but some substantive, autonomous and sovereign truth’ (‘inherent haq’), then we also say goodbye to the project of Islamic government, for without the testimony of a collective will, there is no system of politics and rule. If the Muslim will in history has no claim to Islamic legitimacy, then Islam is not an actor in this world. Such a sovereign and transcendent Islam, whatever it may be, cannot be a political community, a community that wills its future in history. Or, conversely, if Islamic legitimacy has no need for any consensus of the ruled, Islamic government as public authority is indistinguishable from naked force! Little wonder that by following this train of thought to its logical limits, by committing the cardinal sin of reductio ad absurdum, Islamist thought shoots itself in the foot!

Further, in saying that the collective will of the Muslims does not ‘incarnate’ the ‘inherent haq’ of Islam, we imply that some other historical institution is the carrier of that truth. The obvious question in such a case would be: which one? Of course, this argument makes an implicit claim, namely, that the truth of Islam – the meaning of the Quranic revelation – is sovereign over the whim of the majority; that the religious obligation of following the divine Text cannot be made subservient to the expediency and contingency of the political will. In other words, any genuinely Islamic theory of government must affirm the right of individual conscience to dissent, to distance itself from political authority. But this would rather imply the subservience of political power (collective and public) to the demands of religious conscience (individual and private) rather than an identity of the two!

Another, more conciliatory reading may suggest that within a Muslim context, ‘religious institutions’  - the collective body and enterprises of the Ulema, whether these have been accorded formal structures and organizational hierarchy (as in Shi’ism) or not (as in Sunnism) - are independent of the ‘state’, the ‘political’ arm of a Muslim society. (There exists a good deal of ambiguity, if not confusion, in this regard. For, traditional Islamic thought does not know of any ‘state’ in the modern sense (i.e. a legal, quasi-mythical entity that is ‘sovereign’ within its territory and which stands above both the ruler and ruled) but speaks only of ‘regime’ (dawla). Unfortunately, modern theorists are not always cognizant of this distinction, or at least fail to bring it to high relief in their discussions of ‘Islamic’ politics.)

Properly understood, then, the traditional claim of the independence of ulema from the state would imply their autonomy vis-? -vis the regime. For the ‘state’, which is the given of their discourse, is nothing but Islam: it precedes any dichotomy of ulema and hukkam. Islam forms the constitution of the body-politic (the state) of which the regime (dawla) is merely the guardian. However, even on these grounds, one cannot construe this putative autonomy of the ulema from the regime as an argument for the annulment of the will of the people. For the very source of this autonomy, the main rationale for claiming this right, was their close symbiosis with the ‘people’. The ulema were the guardians of the faith but also the guides and confidantes of the people. An ´Alim who was not recognized as such by his people would certainly be a contradiction in terms! In sum, there is no precedent in classical Islam for bypassing the popular will: this temptation is a modern ‘heresy’, even if it is justified in the name of Islam! Only in fundamentalist thought is Islam reduced to the level of the regime – rather than being its matrix and foundation, the state in the parlance of modernity.

Classical Islam, though fully cognizant of the distinction between text and interpretation, had no apprehensions about the expression of the ‘popular will’. The mutuality of transcendent faith and historical community was the cornerstone of its worldview. In fact, it was the consensus (Ijma´) of the Community, the historical testimony of the unison of individual consciences, that constituted the main argument in favour of the integrity of the tradition and the cogency of its truth-claims. True enough, this was an age when the political had not yet asserted its independence from the religious, nor had the votaries of secular order acquired mastery over the historical world. Hence, the unity of faith and history, the identity of the transcendent and the political, was, both intellectually and practically, less difficult to maintain. Our own task, there’s no denying, is much more arduous, much more demanding. Nevertheless, to invoke the authority of ‘Islam’ without counting the testimony of the Muslim offers no solution of our plight.

To recapitulate, the woes of the anti-democratic Islamist thinking stem from its assertion of the dichotomy of ‘representative will’ and ‘inherent truth of Islam’ and then transporting this thesis to our times for the purpose of constructing a political theory within the matrix of current world-order! The upshot of this exercise is, that not only is Islam, the constitution of the ‘state’, construed as independent of the will of the Muslims but that ‘Islamic rule’ is also portrayed as an unrepresentative form of government. Theologically, this also entails (even if it is never admitted) that Muslims are not in the state of iman, for they cannot be entrusted with the running of their own affairs!

Even this could be tolerated if the champions of such outrageous claims would halt at this juncture and be content with admonishing Muslims to return to a more pure and genuine form of faith. No, what they propagate in the name of the ‘inherent truth’ of Islam is not any freedom of conscience, the right of the individual to distance him/herself from the state and political power, but a doctrine of pure anarchy and unmitigated violence. For, such reasoning dictates that, as there is no representative basis of Islamic legitimacy, the leadership of the community – and the consequent right to use force – belong to all pious and knowledgeable Muslims (Needless to say, there is no doubt in their minds as to their own piety and knowledge, and hence, to their ‘right to command’!)

The right to da´wa, the mandate to preach and convert, it must be underlined, is given to everyone; but the authority to coerce, to use violence and force, Islamic conscience demands, may only be exercised through the consent of the community, through the constitution of a legitimate power. If not, Islamic rule would have no meaning other than anarchy and individual terror! Despite all its limitations, traditional Islam came to the realization that for the upholding of a transcendent norm, an immanent authority is indispensable. Or, stated differently, the infallibility of norm and constitution is no guarantee for the inerrancy of its appropriation in history. Or, as the poet says, between the idea and the act falls the shadow.

Islamist thought must realize that inculcating a political vision is not merely a noble exercise in the elucidation of norms and values; it is equally, if not far more so, a humble effort at the construction of procedures and safeguards. To possess a text is also to have a host of variant, and contending, readings, just as a constitution needs to be continually re-interpreted by a court of appeals. Needless to say that Islamist ideologues have given scant attention to the dynamics of authority, the main foci of legal discourse in the modern context. Be that as it may, they must realize that there is no way that we can eliminate human agencies from the actual practice of government, be it theocratic or secular. Hence, between the imperative of the Divine text and its enactment in history, there will always fall the shadow of the conscience of the Community.

Without accepting the authority of the Ummah, not only at a meta-historical and sacrosanct level, but also within the hurly-burly of mundane politics, there can be no cogent vision of the Islamic regime, no genuine dialogue with history and no affirmation of the Muslim’s commitment to transcendence. In the modern context, the task would entail – whatever the limitations or lures of Western democracy – devising some representative system of government for the Muslims. For any talk of Islamic legitimacy without the testimony of the Muslim will is sheer hypocrisy, or utter lunacy!