Revolution and the modern Islamist movement


Last week I parted on the statement that while a secular revolution is not possible in Pakistan, neither is a religious revolution since “this country is [also] devoid of a genuine Islamic intellectual tradition”. My editor, Najam Sethi, has decided to hold me to that. “The next article should explain why you think that an Islamic ‘revolution’ or ‘insurrection’ would also necessarily require an Islamic ‘intellectual’ tradition or input which is not available here,” he wrote me. So here goes.

First, a clarification is in order. The ‘intellectual’ is essentially a dissenter, a formulator of new ideas and stands on the outpost of human thought. The process of formulating new ideas implies ‘inductive’ rather than ‘deductive’ reasoning. Since religions, especially those based on a central dogma, by definition, stress deductive reasoning, one can argue against the near-total impossibility of a theological intellectual tradition. This is further borne out when faith clashes with rationality and wins because its survival depends on self-reference.

My use of the term implied two things: a generic reference to Muslims and whether they have been able to develop an intellectual tradition. In this context, the essential question is whether Muslims have been able to progress along historical lines and interpreted Islam accordingly; two, whether modern Islamism which began with Hasan el-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood and has gone through various transformations has the capacity to effect a social revolution as opposed to a mere insurrection or even a political revolution, important though they may be.

Najam has used the terms ‘revolution’ and ‘insurrection’ alternatively and thus implied a fine point. The debate about whether the Russian or Chinese upheavals were insurrections or revolutions still goes on. It is pegged to the larger debate about whether revolutions are made or simply happen.

Sociologist Theda Skocpol sets social revolutions apart from other conflicts and ‘transformative’ processes — rebellions, political revolutions, even processes such as industrialisation. She also says that revolutions are non-voluntarist phenomena. This implies a process that is played out at various levels over a long period of time. For Skocpol, revolution is not a function simply of a vanguard depicting the ‘voluntarism’ of political-strategists like Lenin or Mao. It is owed to the structural crises of the state and “only because of the possibilities thus created have revolutionary leaderships and rebellious masses contributed to the accomplishment of revolutionary transformations”.

Much before 1917, Russia was passing through an intellectual, social and political transformation which created the conditions for a social revolution there. Alberto Moravia’s comment on Dostoevsky’s character Raskolnikov as being a “people’s commissar” is a telling observation on the changes that were taking place.

Here we have a combination of de Tocqueville’s intellectual tradition and Skocpol’s structural incongruities, which prepares the ground for an upheaval. Interestingly, since el-Banna, Islamist parties have sought to emulate the Leninist model of the vanguard, what Abul A’la Maududi called the Jama’at-e Saliheen. So, at least in theory, they have tried to employ the political-strategist model to effect a change. But change has not come about because they have lacked the intellectual tradition to explain either the modes of production (in the Marxist tradition) or a political theory of the state.

This lack of an intellectual tradition is owed to the Muslims’ response to the ‘intellectual’. Dissent outside the given framework remains taboo, primarily because the framework itself has remained ahistorical and static. This has prevented the religious and the secular from interacting and having a dialogue. If that had happened, the two would have enriched themselves.

Debates have certainly raged within the Islamists. Should an Islamist party act as a political entity or a social organisation? The Jama’at-e Islami of Pakistan lost a number of its top leaders to this debate after its failure in the 1951 municipal elections. Maududi wanted the party to remain political; the dissenting leaders wanted it to act as a social organisation.

Similar tension emerged in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) after the assassination of el-Banna. His successor Hassan al-Hudaybi was moderate and wanted to keep the party away from politics and radicalism. While his efforts allowed the mainstream MB to bring out its own publications, generally stay away from trouble and penetrate into social organisations, it also radicalised a section of it that took its inspiration from Syed Qutb. Qutb, of course, is widely seen as the forerunner of the current radical Islamist movement.

But this dissent revolved around strategy, not the content of the theory or contending political and social theories. Hence the Islamist movement has never sought to, for instance, go back to Ibn Khuldun. Progression from that point would have allowed them to begin to look at politics, the state and the economic relations in earthly, rather than ethereal, terms. This could have moved the reference away from the purity of the city-state to the complexity of modern societies over centuries. Instead, the Islamists rejected historical accretions and innovations.

In doing so, they have regressed by not studying the actual conduct of the ‘Islamic’ state under the various Muslim dynasties. Not that these models were to be emulated. But they were part of a progression that needed to be carried forward. Instead, they are rejected in favour of the rightly-guided caliphs.

Maududi himself, perhaps one of the most important Islamic exegetes of 20th century, shied away from his own rationality. The best example of this is his work on the hadith. His argument leads him along the same route which Ghulam Ahmed Pervaiz traversed to its logical end in Muqam-e Hadith but Maududi took a u-turn because going all the way would have opened him to the charge of ‘atizaal. Similarly, having written Khilafat-o Malukiat, he failed to draw the right lessons on the state and its conduct, inferring instead that the very movement away from Khilafat was a regression and, therefore, it was important to go back to the original. The complexities informing the expanding empire, the contending actors, their conduct and the evolution of the state itself either escaped Maududi’s notice or he chose to ignore them.

In 1994, Olivier Roy wrote a superb book The Failure of Political Islam discussing the impasses of Islamist ideology. He noticed a decline in the Islamist tradition that was transforming into neo-fundamentalism. This was inevitable since the movement from the outset (leaving aside the political tools) had substituted ‘theory’ for ‘faith’. And theory was not possible because the creed was ahistorical and millenarian. If nothing has changed for the better and if Muslim societies have gone back to the state of jahiliyya then the vanguard has merely to pull them up by the bootstraps and push them back into the fold of Islam. And the ideal was the city-state of Madina. The movement has thus been going in circles.

So while radical Islamist movements have perpetrated violence and continue to do so in a world and within a context that is essentially modern, they have failed to provide the intellectual tradition that can help the Muslims understand the structural contradictions that inform their societies and without which no social revolution is possible. With them around, an insurrection we might have, a revolution certainly not.

This column was originally published in Daily Times on August 1, 2004. It is reproduced here from DT archives

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