Islamists without a book

Most doctrines, political or religious, are embodied in sacred texts that act as guide and inspiration to their followers. Modern Islamists are significantly different.

Hazem Saghieh
3 September 2014

Modern political and ideological causes usually emerge armed with textual materials that explain their principles, promote their aims, and aid the recruitment of supporters. Lenin and other communists made "revolutionary theory" a precondition for "revolutionary practice". Even fascists, who despised coherent theories, produced books. And despite the huge differences between these doctrines and later callings, the importance of sacred writings was something all had in common.

The trend applies also to political Islamists, since the trend began with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. It's true that the group's founder Hassan al-Banna did not write any developed text, but many of his instructions and messages were collected in book form and distributed by his followers. The Muslim Brotherhood also had prominent ideologues like Abdul-Qader Awda in the 1950s, and Sayyid Qutb and his brother Mohammed Qutb in the 1960s. While Awda wrote works on law from an Islamic perspective, Sayyid Qutb’s volumes - especially Maalim fil Tariq (Milestones) - inspired decades of Islamist extremists and Takfiris. Some who studied Qutb even compared his book to Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?

Muslim Brotherhood writers and preachers appeared elsewhere in the region: among them Mustafa al-Sibaii and Maarouf al-Dawalibi in Syria, and Fathi Yakan in Lebanon. Several preacher-writers were close to the movement in one way or another, notably the Egyptian clerics Mohammed al-Ghazali and Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

In turn, several of the above figures had been influenced by earlier ones from outside the Arab world. The ideas of the Indian (later Pakistani) writer Abu Alala al-Mawdudi, founder of the Islamic Group in India, and the Indian preacher Abu Hassan al-Nadwi had a profound impact on Sayyid Qutb. The latter embraced their absolutist views on the exclusivity of God as lawgiver and source of authority, and on the current age of Jahiliya, or ignorance of divinity. 

The same pattern applies to activist Shi'ite Islamism. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iraqi cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, and Lebanese scholar Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah - to name but a few - left many books that conveyed their interpretation of religion and explained their views on politics and the dominant or rival parties and currents. Some Shi'ite Islamists also include the writings of the Iranian academic Ali Shariati in this category.

When Islamist preachers, Sunni or Shi'ite, publish books (bearing in mind that there is a principal religious book, the Qu'ran, as an original source) this implies that there are things to be said that have not been said before, and new issues on which positions must be taken. The Islamist political movements and parties which emerged throughout the 20th century tried - like all “modern” parties - to present themselves as the purveyors of ideas claimed to be new, tried to persuade others of these ideas' correctness, and competed with others to advance them. In the 1960s, for example, when Islamists regarded the Iraqi communist party as a real threat, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr wrote many books and pamphlets in open polemic against Marxism.

An unhappy end

This tendency has nearly vanished today. The militant Islamist groups do not regard texts as a concern of any kind. Some attribute to ISIS the work Idarat al-Tawahosh (The Administration of Savagery) by Abu Bakr Naji, a writer whose identity is unclear, while the book itself is not widespread. It supposedly tackles “the next phase that the nation will undergo, which will be the most dangerous phase.” It is said to continue: “If we succeed in managing this savagery, that phase - God willing - will be the gateway to the state of Islam that has been anticipated since the fall of the caliphate. If we fail - God forbid - then this does not mean the end of the matter, but the failure will lead to more savagery.” But with the exception of this work, jihadist and Takfiri groups are not known to possess or promote books that have been circulated among people, bookshops, or on social media.

These groups do not seem to be interested in competing with others to win hearts and minds. They are also completely indifferent to persuading or preparing cadres educationally and culturally to disseminate their ideology and recruit supporters. The fact is that violence has become, at these groups’ hands, the best tool to promote their calling, including by spreading fear on a wide-ranging basis through social media, which transmit images of beheadings and crucifixions. Meanwhile, rapid fatwas issued via television and beyond now play the role of books, even as the solidity of the religious arguments on which they are based, and the religious credentials of their advocates, are increasingly questioned.

This evolution reveals how deep has been the dissolution of Arab societies that accompanied the rise of violent Islamist movements, for it also both fragmented those movements and parties themselves and shrank their intellectual capacity to the margins. This portends an unhappy ending for movements born from such social fragmentation, which they then sought to complete. It is harder to say whether the ending may come soon or be protracted.

The death of Islamist literature is a sign of the ultimate fate of Islamists. The fate may be inevitable, yet this does not necessarily mean that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For it is possible to imagine an outcome where the Islamists die, without leaving anything else to survive them.

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