The Relationship between Religion and Politics
A group of girls dance to celebrate the birth of the prophet Mohammed in Citadeel, Amman, Jordan. (hazy_jenius/flickr)
Ulama and the State
The Relationship between Religion and Politics
The Sultan knew his place; the ulama' know their place as an
independent group. It was a balancing act between anarchy (no
government) and tyranny, a state which the ulama' also equated with
tyranny. We see a spectrum of power from legitimacy to tyranny, with
the political rulers tending toward tyranny, and the ulama' saw
themselves as the brake on the tyranny of the state, and they served to
a significant extent as that brake. The authority of the law (and
legitimacy) was fragmented between the state and the judiciary.
Contrast this with Western history, in which the countervailing
influence on tyranny was often the fiscal power, or power of the purse
exemplified in the cry "no taxation without representation".
It is important to understand that we in a different system in the West
should recognize the call for implementation of Shari'ah as a
functional brake on tyranny, rather than thinking of it as tyrannical
application of specific punishments or details. The meaning calls for
implementing Islamic law today should be seen as an expression of
opposition against tyranny. Muslims are using Shari'ah law as a call
for a countervailing influence against the power of the state rather
than as an impulse to see the detailed enforcement of specific aspects.
It is the institution over against state power that is most important.
They are using the concept of Islamic law in the same sense as in the
West no taxation without representation represents-a philosophy in
opposition to and restraining on the tyranny of the state.
The system in the Muslim world of qanun and shari'ah worked quite well
for a long time; state was despotic, and the ulama' were largely
controlled, but it was a force for stability. The 19th century was a
watershed in that it broke down religious law in imitation of
anti-clerical actions taken in Europe after the French Revolution,
showing that it was possible to dispense with the religious law and the
clergy alike, as in the maximization by Napoleon of personal tyranny.
The Egyptians and Ottomans imitated Napoleonic practices, trying to
build strong armies on the European model. In the 1830s they tried to
destroy or diminish the power of the ulama', which they could not kill
off, since they were lynchpins of society. See 19th century steps to
overcome the power of the ulama'; Western law codes & reduction of
waqf control (just as Reformation monarchs seized Church lands).
Islamic law broke down because of influences from the West. Napoleon
showed that it was possible to dispense with religious law entirely, as
Napoleon did with the French clergy. In imitating Napoleon's policy,
the later Ottomans also nearly dispensed with Shari'ah law by edict,
separating it from power, introducing new systems of law like the
Belgian commercial code rather than Shari'ah commercial law, under
European instigation. They could not get rid of the ulama' by edict,
but they could make them odious to the people, and they could render
them useless by removing their sources of independence, using their
power to rule by edict, for example to adopt Belgian commercial code,
Napoleonic law instead of Islamic commercial law by edict. The colonial
powers and the European advisers to these rulers were instrumental in
encouraging this trend. Thus, the ulama' were increasingly marginalized
in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Schools with Western-style, colonial curricula also helped destroy
traditional power structure and aided in the formation of elites
without Islamic knowledge, new groups who possessed other allegiances.
These educational systems marginalized the ulama' by taking away their
influence over education, and especially by putting the awqaf, or
religious charitable foundations, in the hands of the state. This was a
major way of diminishing the power of the ulama' to put charitable and
educational foundations under state control.
Over the course of the second half of the 19th and early part of the
20th ulama' saw their power drastically reduced, their traditional role
ignored. The old bargain between the state and the ulama' had broken
down. The prediction of the system had been that if the ulama' ceased
to be a viable countervailing force and the state no longer submitted
to Shari'ah law, then the state would become increasingly tyrannical.
That has proven to be a correct prediction, if you look at the
tyrannical states in the Muslim world. By the 1950s-60s you have the
biggest group of tyrannies in the world in the Muslim countries, in the
name of secularism. Would the Shari'ah have prevented such tyranny? It
is hard to tell, but I would argue that the re-appearance of Islam in
the 1960s and 1970s is a classic response to tyranny and proposal of a
countervailing political system. This is what is reflected in the
saying that "Islam is the answer," "Shari'ah is the answer," or the
call to implement Shari'ah is to ask that the state submit to
limitation of its power. It is a response to tyranny.
We tend to focus on Islamic politics as though treat Islam and politics
as if it did not have a context. We tend not to focus on the fact that
the states in which these revivals have emerged are police state
tyrannies, which if they happened in Europe, we would consider them
fascist dictatorships. The Muslim revival does not come from nowhere,
but it is part of a very long-term system that strives for balance on a
basis that is very different, and we have not recognized it.
The West, however, has tended to side with the state against the ulama'
in Muslim countries, and in favor of tyranny. We have praised them for
secularization, Westernization, modernization. We have regarded the
dismissal of the ulama' as natural and normal as a necessity of
modernization, following a Western model. In a very broad structural
sense, Shari'ah is intended to curb tyranny rather than to impose a
religious tyranny. People interpret Shari'ah as imposing a religious
tyranny, but that is not entirely the point. It is rather the intended
to curb tyranny. It is in a very broad structural sense, it action of
countervailing powers in a system that has endured over centuries.
See Bernard Lewis' new book, What Went Wrong: Lewis looks at the Muslim
world and says that something else was supposed to happen other than
what did happen, a statement that assumes the Muslims would necessarily
have to follow the course that the West took in modernization. This
allows him to ask why did it not happen in a normative way, that this
what happened was somehow erroneous and abnormal.