North Africa, West Asia

Understanding calls for reinstating the Islamic State

Maududi’s writings on implementing Sharia and Qutb’s radical approach contributed to Jihadist movements that have been multiplying like mushrooms since the mid-seventies of the last century.

Azzam Al-Kassir
14 October 2014
Sayyid Qutb on trial in Nasser's Egypt. Wikimedia commons.

Sayyid Qutb on trial in Nasser's Egypt. Wikimedia commons.Creating an Islamic state ruled by the principles of Shari'a law is the cornerstone which a growing Islamic ideology depends on. But this general aim serves as an ideological façade concealing behind it a heterogeneous mixture of groups and organizations that differ in their strategies, priorities and interpretation of reality. Looking first at the shared elements among the upholders of political Islam, and the movements that arose from the political activism in the Arab world at the present time, we see how this placed numerous individuals and groups in a post-Sayyid Qutb context. This study gives special attention to the subjective factors that have enabled extremist religious ideas to influence public affairs, at the same time that objective factors - social, economic and political - paved the way for the spread of Jihadist thought. Finally, we ask how Islamic thought could be revived to overcome the negative impact of some of these extremist Islamic organizations on public affairs.

The concept of an Islamic state, as first elaborated by Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi (1903 -1979), is a product of modernity. Despite this, great efforts were exuded to find ideological roots for an Islamic state grounded in historical evidence, while portraying the concept as theologically Islamic. In the introduction to his book Islamic theory and its contribution to politics, law and constitution, Maududi wrote: ‘It is urgent that we lift the veil upon the face of political Islamic theory, in the hopes that this intellectual darkness which has gripped society is revealed, and to restrain those mouths which foolishly claim that (Islam has not provided human society with a sociological or political structure). We will shed light upon those wandering in the dark ages; confused and misguided.’ As such, Maududi offered the term hakimiyya which was subsequently adopted and fully exploited by Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). With Qutb, hakimiyya grew and branched out into jahiliyya (ignorance), takfeer (excommunication), and blind jihad. Some Islamists today refer to the ‘hakimiyya verses of the Quran’.

The term hakimiyya which resides in the rhetoric of contemporary political Islamist movements, similar to the term ‘Islamic state’, is not mentioned in the Quran or Hadith. Nor does it exist in Arabic lexicography. Maududi links hakimiyya to its linguistic root hukm whose derivations are mentioned in the Quran more than two hundred times. Yet not one of these verses points towards the assumption or practice of political power. Instead, the term suggests the need for insight and distinguishing between right and wrong, or education and jurisprudence. Lexicographically, hakim is also a judge, and the terms hukm and qada’ (judicature) are often used as synonyms in sayings by the Prophet Muhammad. The Arabic and Quranic term used in reference to political affairs is ‘amr (command), and continued to be used to refer to either state or government until the Ottoman era. Subsequently, the term ‘amiri, soon deviated into miri, was utilised to signify anyone tied to political power and the public sector.The linguistic dissection of terms when attempting to understand Quranic verses justifying calls for the implementation of Sharia can be important.

According to Maududi, an individual converting to Islam must declare in testimony that, ‘There is no God but Allah’. The state, for its part, enters Islam when its constitution states that, ‘There is no hakimiyya [governance] but God’s’. For governance belongs to God, and the believer must obey the divine will and work in its order, for to do otherwise would, without fail, lead one to the pre-Islamic Arabian stage of Jahiliyya.

Maududi is joined by others that have followed him in reaching the former conclusion, which practically apostatizes Islamic governments and societies that follow man-made laws. However, differences in opinion have emerged as methods were laid down for Islamic societies to emerge from the state of apostasy and ignorance. Maududi’s method is based on an effort to take power via available political tools with the aim of implementing Sharia and converting a society to Islam, whereas Sayyid Qutb builds upon Maududi’s thought adding radical touches leading him to dwell on practically apostatizing societies and elites alike.

The use of the word ‘practical’ in this context is deliberate, the intention of which is to signify that apostasy is not simply an accusation, but a ruling and compulsory consequence which must be addressed by Jihad. Maududi’s writings on implementing Sharia and Qutb’s radical approach contributed to Jihadist movements that have been multiplying like mushrooms since the mid-seventies of the last century. As a result, the synthesis of Qutb and Maududi’s work turned the page of reformist Salafism and the cognitive curriculum for Quranic interpretation, previously employed by Mohammad Abdo and Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani. This is how the endorsement of Jihadist Salafism took place, raising doubts about the sufficiency of reason, and excessive in its use of violence.

Stagnant vs. fluid islam

As an ideology, the transformation of political Islamic thought seems to offer some parallels with radical Marxism when analysed in terms of the factors that contributed to its transformation. A clear reading of Maududi’s Islamic state cannot be made in isolation from the socio-economic conditions of his home country of Pakistan, a mistake made by Sayyid Qutb when he saw Maududi’s theories as the cornerstone of Islam. For example, prior to Pakistan’s independence in 1947, Maududi fought democracy in fear of a non-Muslim majority in India, yet subsequent to the birth of Pakistan with a Muslim majority he endorsed Islamic democracy and withdrew his opposition towards representative systems. Similarly, it is prejudiced to analyse Qutb’s radicalism without assessing the savagely repressive conditions he was subjected to by the state security apparatus under Al-Nasser’s regime. Using the same analysis, the growing inclination in Qutb’s approach towards violence does not necessarily stem from the spirit of Islam, so much as the prevalent social injustice coupled with an imbalanced infrastructure, expressed mainly through high rates of unemployment and the lack of channels for political participation. All this paved the way for radical Islamist thought to sneak into the deprived countryside and the poverty belts surrounding the cities.

The legacies of Maududi and Qutb have affirmed the special significance of cleansing the state and society of diseases emergent from the west and returning them to the purity of the first generation by enforcing Sharia upon all aspects of life and opening the door to the ‘Islamic state’. The claim that Maududi and Qutb’s successors have revealed a complete theory of Islam as it should be manifest in politics and state rule, is one of many angles that attempt to give illusory weight to texts, so that they may be “worshipped” while ignoring their meaning. This is part of a broader attempt to endow those texts with retrospective scientific proofs and humanitarian discoveries. The shock of modernity has truly pushed some into isolation, and taking defensive stances, while embarking on the journey to search for one’s self by confronting an Other that is armed with all means of power.

History and sacred text have become useful havens for Islamist movements that seek to find local alternatives to the modern nation-state in its foundations and power structures. On the other hand, voices that call for embracing Islamic values and contributing to human civilization in congruence with other nations have noticeably faded. As a result, avoiding and negating reality became a general trait of new Islamist thinking.

Dust has been allowed to gather on the books of reconcilers and their words no longer have any impact. Some have been labelled ‘sultans jurists’ or the ‘jurists of postpartum and menstruation’. Islamic scholars and traditional jurists hold primary responsibility for these ideological realities and their propagation of a superficial version of Islamic thought. Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali (1917-1996) commenting on a different issue says: ‘If the first generation of believers was concerned with theological philosophy then Islam would have never left the Arabian Peninsula... unemployment produced a generation of those reaching towards this absurd school of thought and straying in vision…there has been lots of empty talk that has had a negative impact on our history.’ As such, those hesitant of discussing this thought allow space for the reinforcement of a binary that lays claim to the truth. Essential questions must be publically discussed, for the dissection of religious mythologies is no longer sophistry. The stagnation of Islamist thought and its defensive position is at the crux of this issue. Heaven, hell, predestination, jihad, and so on and so forth are issues that have directed a generation of youth that is pessimistic, disenfranchised from their surroundings, a generation that has become fuel to the illusion of an ‘Islamic state’. In conclusion, Islamist thought will recover and restore its vitality only when debate will blow some depth into it.

Violence and the state

According to Max Weber, the use of violence is what makes the modern state unique. Certainly, the experience of dictatorship in the post-independence Arab world lays witness to the success of regimes in exploiting violence to bind the religious, military and economic elites to political regimes seeking to prevent society from taking any social or civil action. The Ba’athist regime in Syria is a good example. For when Syrians raised banners for the fall of their political regime, they were soon made all too aware that this would necessitate a change of religious, economic and military elites. The Syrian regime’s pervasive penetration of the Syrian state had become so intertwined that it becomes impossible to differentiate between them.

For the majority of the Arab world, the instumentalization of the state for more than half a century has resulted in a warped understanding of the modern state. For the state is no longer a neutral institution that all can benefit from, but rather a private property for corrupt rulers. Furthermore, claims that political dictatorships have adopted and will apply secularism have resulted in conflating the latter with tyranny and lack of freedom in the minds of many. In the shadow of this reality, many increasingly presented Islamic Sharia as a key to solving all the political, economic and social ills inherited from Arab dictators. Indeed, recent Islamist movements have gone too far in their exaggeration and extremism, to the extent that they exceeded the source of their references, mostly to be found in the writings and methodology of Sayyid Qutb. At this stage, the modern state is no longer the framework of these movements’ activism. We have reached a stage based on calls for ‘the Islamic state’, with the Quran as its constitution, governance belonging solely to God, and the law of God practiced on the ummah. Here it was said was a simple exit strategy to the dilemmas that gnawed the Arab and Muslim world.

To a great extent, this current reductive Islamist rhetoric is similar to the ideological discourse applied in Arab republics during the second half of the twentieth century, calling for the reunification of Arab nations. In the same way that Arab nationalists previously failed in drawing up clear strategies for uprising and achieving unity in a realistic Arab context, Islamists today repeat the same mistakes in addressing the generalities and ignoring the details. In this respect, Professor Aziz al-Azmeh argues that the Arab nationalists’ insistence on treating the concept of homogeneity and unity as an obvious issue, combined with their reluctance to acknowledge the reality of diversity and differences, made them unable to comprehend their reality. The same discussion applies to prevalent Islamist ideology. For in calls for the instatement of Sharia, the symbolic overtakes the historical in the sense that a fixed illusory identity wins over the necessary multiplicity and diversity in that identity.


Neither the Islamisation of everything nor ridding society of Islam is the long-awaited panacea. The situation is complex and needs a comprehensive programme for radical change. One of the major obstacles facing development in the Arab world is what the Moroccan writer Abdelilah Belkeziz calls ‘the hurried approach’ which refers to the aversion of conceiving sophisticated solutions, resorting to reckless strategies, or adopting ideological approaches that perceive reality through only one of its aspects; whether this is religion, politics, economy or culture.

However, any plan for uprising will not see daylight if Islamists cannot accept the workings of history. Claims for Islam’s timelessness and holding on come what may to the principle of detaching thoughts from their historical contexts will have catastrophic repercussions on the ummah, since in reality it is a community of individuals who are affected by their environment and whose tendencies are shaped by their respective needs. They are united by one or many ideas, yet each has taken a unique historical trajectory in the development of their persuasion and lifestyles.

The project of returning to the future is not viable; either we take the gamble of returning to an imagined past or we embark on a calculated project for building a future that celebrates our diversity and accommodates us all.

Translated by: Yomn Al-Kaisi

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This article is part of a collaboration between the Centre for Thought and Public Affairs (CTPA) and openDemocracy, in which pieces from the CTPA's journal,Delta-N, are translated and published on the openDemocracy website. Note: Delta-N is published every two months by the Centre for Thought and Public Affairs - a non-governmental and non-profit organization that is based in London. Read the latest issue here.

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