Chasing A Mirage
A while back on Guardian there was a mini-debate on Islamism and Islamic states. Asim Siddiqui presented an academic work which critiqued Islamist movements. In the comments, Inayat Bunglawala argued that since Muhammad was both a religious and political leader, Islamists weren’t completely off-base. In response, Asim Siddiqui pointed out that while Muslims can accept Muhammad as being divinely guided, they cannot grant that sort of power to subsequent leaders – which is essentially what Islamists want.
I have my own (not fully developed) views on the subject, but for the time being I wanted to highlight a new book on Islamism by Tarek Fatah, a Canadian pacifist, leftist and founder of Muslim canadian congress, which furthers the debate on Islamism, and shows that the Islamist narrative is built on a faulty perception of Islamic history. It is called “Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State.”
In order to diagnose the Islamist malaise, Fatah engages the intellectual argument upon which the Islamist narrative is built: the assertion that the Islamic state represents the most authentic vision of Islam. Fatah questions this vehemently.
He points out that neither Muhammad nor the Qur’an provide for a political model, an assertion he shares with numerous other Muslim thinkers, including the current mufti of Egypt (who takes this silence to mean that personal Islam is compatible with liberal democracy).
However Fatah goes further and shows that it was not Muhammad’s intent to establish an Islamic state.
Fatah’s argument is novel. He says that if Muhammad had wanted to establish an Islamic state, then when he took over Mecca he would have provided for an Islamic constitution. After all, for 10 years Muhammad was the de facto ruler of the city-state of Medina and there he had sought a constitution. Fatah argues that the lack of a political document in Mecca, taken in conjunction with one of Muhammad’s assertions in his last sermon – “I have completed the religion for you” – means that Mecca was not an Islamic state, just a state ruled by a man named Muhammad where Muslims were free to establish a personal relationship with God based on their individual judgment on what constituted piety. (It just so happened that people’s individual judgment led them to think Muhammad was a good authority to follow in religious matters).
Fatah then delves into the lives of the four caliphs that followed Muhammad, painstakingly detailing how the idea of an Islamic state slowly came to prominence: not as a result of the prophet’s companions fulfilling a religious obligation (as Islamists believe), but as a way to dominate their political opponents. Fatah demonstrates that the inappropriately named apostasy wars waged by Abu Bakr, the first caliph, were actually wars to extract taxes. In fact, the rebels hadn’t abandoned Islam, they had simply chosen not to give an oath to the first caliph.
Fatah also reveals that the title that Abu Bakr, the first caliph, took for himself, was not “caliph of God” as later caliphs, sultans and kings did, but something akin to “representative of Muhammad”. Fatah considers this very important. He believes that this fact undermines the Islamist notion of linking political power with God; after all, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, Muhammad’s closest friend, a figure that Islamists purportedly follow, didn’t even take such a dramatic step. Fatah also notes that the second caliph, Umar (also celebrated among Islamists) didn’t take the mantle “caliph of God” either.
Fatah ends up taking his analysis of Muslim states all the way to the end of the Abbasid empire in the 13th century. Along the way his basic assertion is corroborated repeatedly. The states that Muslims were running were just political entities, and weren’t focused on their Islamic flavour. To prove this point, Fatah cites an interesting series of facts that are worth thinking about.
The early Muslim states did not segregate society simply between Muslim and non-Muslim, as Islamists would have us believe. Rather, Fatah points out, they segregated society between Muslims as well. For example, there were classes of Muslim who had to pay the jizya (minority tax). Further, there were classes of Muslim that couldn’t marry certain types of women. Further, there were classes of Muslim based on when they had converted to Islam. If these previous states, Fatah points out, really were Islamic states, then they wouldn’t have made distinctions between Muslims, yet they clearly did.
As such, Fatah believes, there is only one conclusion to be drawn: the historical Islamic states were not organised around Islam, but ethnicity (Arab over non-Arab), power, and expansion (both through conflict and conversion).
In other words, non-theocratic, non-theological, rather secular concerns: hardly what Islamists have us believe.
Thus, Fatah concludes, the Islamist idea of an Islamic state is just a mirage. It is neither corroborated in the original sources of Islam – the Qur’an and the prophet’s practice – nor in the actual practice of the first generations of Islam.
Fatah’s ideas represent a formidable intellectual critique of Islamism. His book is a welcome critique of the vacuous reading of history that Islamists have been able to propagate for nearly a century.