Stimulating Conversation with Joseph J. Kaminski on his new work The Contemporary Islamic Governed State: A Reconceptualization.
Why did you write this book?
After converting to Islam during my MA studies in Political Science at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York around 2006, I decided that I wanted to move my research from Critical Theory more towards topics related to Islam. When considering how absolutely messed up so many Muslim majority countries at the time were and then looking at the ideas of earlier scholars like Al-Mawardi, Nizam al-Mulk, Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Khaldun on politics, leadership, and administration, I realized that the Islamic tradition was full of brilliant figures who took these topics very seriously in the past.
After looking more closely over later writings on political Islam, I felt that something was missing—there was a disconnect between much of the 20th century Islamic political thought I read and contemporary governing realities in a practical sense. I did not get a sense that most of these people actually read people like Max Weber or Herbert Simon. If one looks at many of the works of well-known writers on political Islam in the 20th century, say people like Sayyid Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, or Alija Izetbegovic, one gets a heavy dose of what is wrong with the Muslim world, how the West has damaged the Muslim world, and why Islamic governance is so essential. This was important for its time, but moving beyond slogans is essential for Islamic governance to be successful today. One contemporary thinker on this topic today I respect very much today is Rachid al-Ghannouchi. I wanted to do something in his vein, except I wanted to really engage with the mainstream literature and ideas discussed in political science today. I felt that I possessed enough knowledge on topics related to Islam and political science that I could come up with a dissertation that connected both, and I did. After two and half years of revisions and 35,000 more words (mostly the case study chapters that were not in the original dissertation), I came up with what you see today.
How did you choose your case studies?
Some case studies were easier to choose than others. Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia could not be overlooked for obvious reasons. I chose not to look at any Gulf States because quite honestly, I do not find much that can be drawn of out most of these places that would be useful for the model of Islamic governance that I tried to offer in this book. The anonymous reviewer recommended that I considered including a chapter on Iran, but said they understood why I would not choose to do so. I felt that I should not write an entire separate chapter on Iran because I referenced it so often in the book anyways that an entire chapter dedicated to it would have been a moot point. I did really want to look at a case from South Asia. In the end, my final choices were between Indonesia and Malaysia. Originally, I was going to write on Indonesia but after the first few pages of writing, I realized that it was an unwieldly and complicated case to consider for many reasons (as noted in the introduction of the Malaysia chapter). Ultimately, I felt Malaysia’s emphasis on economic modernization, improving its educational system, initiating Islamic banking reforms, and sustainable development more generally was a more useful and appropriate case to draw ideas from. I must admit the Turkey chapter had to be altered multiple times due to the immense circumstance changes it experienced during my 2 and a half year revisions which saw multiple terrorist attacks, a slowing economy, government crackdowns, and the attempted coup by the followers of Fethullah Gülen on July 15th, 2016.
How might understanding Shari'ah as a source for law rather than equating it simply to Islamic 'law' and governance begin to break up the ossification of what is currently being called the Islamic state?
Well because that is what Shari’ah ultimately is—it is the source of Islamic law. Islamic laws (fiqh) develop from Shari’ah. I think this must be understood as inextricable from any Islamic governed state. I personally believe Shari’ah must be enshrined within the constitution of any genuinely Islamic governed state, but I am sure others will disagree. Nonetheless, I still firmly believe that siyasa or non-Shari’ah derived laws must be taken very seriously and be understood as representative of the democratic will of the people, at least to some extent. Asifa Quraishi-Landes has an excellent journal article explicating this idea in much greater detail that I recommend everyone reading this looks at. In my opinion, one of the interesting and somewhat counterintuitive seeming things about Hanbalism and textual literalism more generally (and I believe if my memory serves correctly, Muhammad Asad made this point before) is that in principle, being more conservative regarding textual interpretation actually increases the prevalence of siyasa laws in a particular society.
Textual literalism limits that which is considered as within the direct purview of/derived from Shari’ah. Not getting ‘trigger happy’ in using qiyas to claim everything under the sun as Shari’ah-based means more laws must be interpreted within the realm of siyasa. This means more laws that can much more easily be adjusted and changed for circumstances since they are not within the purview of Shari’ah. If everything is declared as Shari’ah or under the direct purview of Shari’ah, one runs the risk of ending up with a pretty rigid legal system that has a much greater potential to be misused and abused. I feel that this link between textual literalism and a more robust set of siyasa laws still needs to be further fleshed out by Islamic legal scholars. When I met with Ziauddin Sardar briefly last year in Sarajevo, I remember briefly touching over some of these topics with him.
After re-reading some of his works, I realized he had a very important point—Islam cannot be denigrated into being just another political ideology. Otherwise, if the political experiment goes wrong and ‘the state is Islam, and Islam is the state’, people can end of leaving the religion altogether in droves. If one looks at Iran today, they can readily see what happens when a state becomes too involved in the minutia of daily affairs and the flow of civil society—many people end up rejecting the religion altogether. This most certainly in my opinion has a major impact on the rise in secular nationalism in Iran today. As someone who just spent a month in Iran, I can confidently tell you that an increasing number of Iranians today identify with the Achaemenid Empire and Koorush [Cyrus the Great] more deeply than ever in recent times. On the other hand, many of these same people identify with Shi’ism the same way non-practicing Catholics identify with Christmas—as a cultural construct rather than a lived religious experience. An increasing number of Iranians are rejecting Shi’ism altogether. I think Saudi Arabia is also at risk in this regard. With the recent rapid ‘forced liberalization’ of Saudi society following centuries of conservatism, I would not be surprised to see many people go off the deep end and become hyper nationalists, indulging in rampant hedonism the same way a repressed college kid does when he or she is finally away from his or her over-bearing parents in the United States. I wanted to offer a model of governance where there remained room for authentic civil society and expression that was more than just adhering to a state-sanctioned dogma.
What drove you to look at ancient Greek thought in reference to Islam conceptions of the state to better understand how to craft a modern Islamic governed state?
I felt there is a lot to still learn from the Ancient Greeks. The question I am waiting for from everyone is: ‘Why didn’t you just use the early Islamic political sources? —the Greeks influenced most of them anyways.’ I remember getting this critique from one panelist at the 2014 IPSA World Congress in Montreal. This is a valid point in some ways; however, I do not think there is a substitute for Aristotle or Plato. I think there is always room for contemporary scholars of Islam to re-engage with the original sources themselves and re-read them via a 21st century lens. I did reference numerous earlier Islamic sources throughout the book as well, however, I see so much value in Aristotle’s political outlook that I felt it would be more appropriate to look at his works directly, rather than to just rely on al-Farabi or Ibn Rushd’s interpretations. A brief aside here; the anti-Intellectual trends that are growing in popularity in some Islamic circles need to be more forcefully confronted. I am not talking about Madkhalism here either—I am talking about those who castigate and mock all non-Islamic philosophy and ideas as being ‘useless’ or ‘dangerous’.
We do not live in the world of al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah. I always tell my students that I totally understand the concerns these luminaries had with people studying Greek philosophy. I too probably would recommend most people avoid it if I was living during their times. Most people in those times were semi-literate and books were limited to the elites. What this meant was that in the 12th or 13th centuries, one often was getting their understanding of Aristotle or Plato from one or two people and thus could be easily hoodwinked and confused. There were no readily available university libraries, Google, Wikipedia, or Islamqa.com to verify facts or get alternative sources of information/clarification from. Today there are literally thousands of ‘defense mechanisms’ against being hoodwinked by an unscrupulous sophist or a poorly translated text. I think traversing the terrain of Greek philosophy, with the right guidance, is not nearly as dangerous as it was 700 years ago. Let’s just put it this way; I do not think many people are apostatizing today because they read Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
What is at stake for you in attempting to indicate the foundation upon with a modern Islamic governed state should be built?
I think the stakes are incredibly high. As I mention in the book, the discourse on Islam and Islamic governance is still being hijacked as you read this by Islamophobes and right-wing extremists. They seem more interested in concisely defining this topic than do Muslims! Why should Muslims let Donald Trump or Pam Geller tell them what Islamic politics or Islamic governance means? I think most Muslims recognize the false promises of secular liberalism. How else can one account for the strong support many in the Muslim world today still express for Shari’ah despite the best efforts of Western state actors and NGOs to demonize it?
As liberalism in the West continues to devolve into an ugly form of xenophobic ethnonationalism, and in the United States more specifically, an ugly form of xenophobic ethnonationalism steeped in a perverse form of pseudo-Christianity (see people like Pat Robertson, Sean Hannity and other hypocrites who have pledged their unwavering support for Donald Trump despite his almost endless ethical and moral shortcomings), the Muslim world will most certainly take heed. I think that in the long-term it is actually very beneficial for the Muslim world that the mask of liberalism is finally starting to slide off. I believe that ultimately this will have a positive impact on the state of Islamic political theorizing; no longer are Muslims beholden to values that were previously seen as uncontestable axioms. Muslims now are able to think without being boxed-in by the Western predetermined standards of acceptable attitudes, policy outlooks, and behavior more generally. With the moral authority of the West in serious question, the Muslim world now finally has the opportunity to once again be its own moral authority.