Moving Beyond al-Islām huwa-‘l-ḥāl— Constructing Nascent Forms of Islamic Governance in the Contemporary World
Much of the Muslim world today stands at a dangerous crossroads. In many ways, we enter a period that is unlike any other in modern times. The bipolar order that characterized much of the second half of 20th century, and the unipolar order that replaced it during its final decade seem to have all but passed. As recently as 2008, Richard Haase argued that the world was entering into a non-polar order rather than a multipolar one— “In contrast to multipolarity—which involves several distinct poles or concentrations of power—a nonpolar international system is characterized by numerous centers with meaningful power (2008: p. 44). Undoubtedly, the concentration of power seen over the previous 70 years has diffused to many different state and non-state actors. We enter the last years of this decade in which we have seen the diminished status of the United States, the rise in corporate power due to globalization, the rise of transnational terrorist organizations that often have weaponry that rivals the nation-states they attack, and the rise of previously mid-level-at-best state powers like Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—states that are now major players in international politics that were all previously seen as after mere after thoughts in the not too distant past. It seems if today’s geopolitical landscape very closely resembles what Haase predicted almost 10 years ago.
As we see this transition to non-polarity occurring at the international level, radical transformations seem to be transpiring at domestic levels as well. Many Western states that were once seen as bastions for liberal multiculturalism, pluralism, and toleration have regressed into the type of states they once chastised. Nationalism, nativism, and intolerance have made their way into the famous Overton window with the help of people like Marine Le-Pen, Viktor Orbán, Boris Johnson, and perhaps most importantly Donald Trump. One thing that seems hard to deny at this point is the fact that Western liberalism is on the defensive. Even the casual observer of the news cannot help but notice the ascendency of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe and reactionary, nationalist social movements taking hold in the United States. The ideas of Post-WWII world order that lasted into the 21st century have in many ways been challenged not by external actors or rogue states seeking territorial conquest—rather much like how Communism ultimately collapsed in the Soviet Union, the people living in Western liberal democracies seem to be losing faith in the discourse of liberalism itself, at least to some noticeable extent. This is to suggest Islamism, Communism, or some other ideology is not undermining liberalism; rather liberalism is undermining itself due to its inability to deliver the desired socio-economic benefits it originally promised, and partially, of course, due to its appropriation by unscrupulous elites and political actors.
While the state of the world seems foreboding, the undeniable decline of Western moral authority has opened the doors to reconceptualizing politics and governance in non-Western countries; no longer are Western liberalism and Western neo-liberal institutions seen as unquestioned givens. Many more astute thinkers in the Muslim world have taken heed of this and have looked for new ways to address old political problems. In the words of Syed Hossein Nasr, “What is certain is that the Islamic response to western liberalism is turning more and more to Islamic solutions rather than simple imitation of western ideas and institutions; these simply cannot be imported from the West without important modifications” (2010: p.37).
In 2017, I published my first book, The Contemporary Islamic Governed State: A Reconceptualization, hoping to contribute to the type of ‘Islamic solutions’ Nasr is referencing above. My work offered a normative reconceptualization of Islamic governance; it was not about writing ‘Islamic constitutions’ or debating Islamic legal frameworks. While such work is absolutely essential (and I hope people submit pieces to this new section doing just that), I believe that we still we need to dig deeper into the epistemological and moral foundations of Islamic governance. If we take Islam and Sharī‘ah as givens—inalienable parts of any genuine Islamic governed state—the next question is connected to crafting institutions and political structures that are compatible with Sharī‘ah and Islam more specifically. The approach that I argue needs to be taken does not involve reconceptualizing Islam to fit into modern governing institutions—I feel this is a fruitless venture that will never see success, nor widespread support from the average Muslim citizen. Rather I argue that modern governance needs to be reconceptualized to fit within the parameters of Sharī‘ah and Islam, more broadly understood.
Of course this is a monumental task that has its own pitfalls. However, the way to go about doing this involves critical and creative thinking on the part of political scientists, policy makers, and politicians that draws from what Wael Hallaq calls Islam’s ‘historical moral resources’. On what historical moral resources could provide, Hallaq argues; “Historical moral resources would provide a blueprint for a definition of what it means to engage with economics, education, private and public spheres and, most of all, the environment and the natural order” (2013: 168). The Muslim world must reclaim its enormous intellectual legacy. It must resuscitate itself via its own original contributions that sadly have been lost or abandoned in favor of the false promises offered by non-Islamic ideologies that, at their core, often are fundamentality incompatible with a weltanschauung that prioritizes ethical behavior, the community of the individual, and revelation. This is not to suggest that the Muslim world ought to ignore all ideas Western and engage in “an exclusive dialogue with the past” (Djait, quoted in Abu Rabi 1996: 34). On the contrary, the Muslim world must engage with, challenge, and ultimately advance theories and concepts that are common to administration and governance in the Western world today. I do not think it is controversial to note here that the West has been vastly superior to the Muslim world regarding competent public administration, ‘good governance’, efficiency, and transparency for centuries now. Moving beyond the rhetoric of al-Islām huwa-‘l-ḥāl means moving into libraries, databases, archives, and empirical datasets in order to construct nascent forms of organic Islamic governance.
These nascent forms can be numerous—in actuality they should be numerous. Each state must take into consideration its own particular interpretations of Islam and local traditions. Finding a balance between religious and secular law is an issue that continues to be of primary import. For example, Asifa Quraishi-Landes offers a useful intervention regarding of how one can rethink the relationship between Sharī‘ah and siyasa/qānūn [non-religious based] laws; “a sharia-based rule of law system could choose to use democracy as its mechanism for determining the public good in the siyasa realm. Keeping this in mind can help explain to western observers why Muslim affinity for both democracy and Shari’ah is not an oxymoron” (2015: p. 567). Here we can see the importance of public consent and input regarding laws that are fall under the dominion of siyasa. In this case, the public can serve as an important check and balance on political actors that seek to articulate laws and policies that are outside the scope of Sharī‘ah in the name of Sharī‘ah. Such theoretical contributions are vital to moving forward regarding the massive undertaking that is reconceptualizing Islamic governance in the 21st century.
Quraishi-Landes concludes her thought provoking theoretical engagement on contemporary Islamic constitutionalism by stating that her project seeks to “harnesses the spirit of the Muslim past, reframed for modern constitutional norms” (2015: p. 578). She is doing precisely what Hallaq argues needs to be done—she is engaging with Islam’s historical moral resources rather than trying to graft a Western constitutional system onto Muslim societies. If there ever was a time to seriously rethink the terms of politics—to take ownership of our own traditions—that time would be now.
Abu Rabi, Ibrahim M. (1996). Intellectual origins of Islamic resurgence in the modern Arab
world. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Haass, Richard N. (2008). The Age of Nonpolarity: What Will Follow U.S. Dominance.
Foreign Affairs 87(3), pp. 44-56.
Hallaq, Wael. (2013). The impossible state: Islam, modernity, and modernity’s moral
predicament. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kaminski, Joseph. (2017). The Contemporary Islamic Governed State: A Reconceptualization.
New York: Palgrave.
Nasr, Sayeed Hossein. (2010). Islam in the modern world. New York: Harper One Publishers.
Quraishi-Landes, Asifa. (2015). Islamic Constitutionalism: Not Secular. Not Theocratic. Not
Impossible. 16 Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 553 (2015); Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1384. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2801167
Joseph J. Kaminski