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date: 25 March 2017

State and Citizenship in Modern Arab Muslim Thought

Summary and Keywords

Intellectual debates and sociopolitical changes in Arab societies have brought about new political outlooks and consciousness, and have resulted in profound political change and restructuring of state institutions. Reform efforts successfully introduced modern political institutions, but failed in effecting a broad and systematic transformation of political culture, as the latter continues to be guided by notions and practices rooted in the premodern models of authoritarian (“sultanic”) governance. The drive to political reform under the rubric of Tanzimat started around the turn of the 19th century as a matter of necessity by both Ottoman rulers (sultans), and their governors in Egypt and Tunisia, in response to European imperial expansion into Africa and Asia. By mid-20th century, political institutions and state bureaucracies were restructured in the mold of modern political ideas. Yet these ideas, and the ethical foundations on which they stood, failed to mature in post-Ottoman Muslim societies. Conservative forces resisted the new ideas. With the increased disenchantment of Muslim youth with postcolonial states, conservative thinkers reintroduced Islamic notions and values into the debate over the proper form of government in contemporary Muslim societies. The push to modernize society has been intense, empowering Muslim modernists to move ahead to reshape societal institutions. The zeal to bring about quick development effected indeed rapid modernization but led to the rise of autocratic governments, and further polarized Muslims societies. Notions of popular sovereignty and equal citizenship were countered by the sovereignty of Shari`ah and the need for religious differentiation and religious autonomy, thereby demanding the revival of the historical institutions of caliphate and dhimmis. The debate gradually moved toward compromise, whereby Muslim intellectuals and scholars attempted a creative synthesis on the common ground found in both traditional Islam and modern democratic liberal ideas. The transformation into a model that aligns Islamic values with the principles of democracy (or shura) and equal rights of citizens, while profound and increasingly broad, is still incomplete, as current struggles in Muslim societies demonstrate; intellectual and practical battles for the soul of Muslim societies continue to rage. The push back in the last two decades against modern notions of state and citizenship, and the rise in popularity of groups that aim at reviving the premodern institution of caliphate underscore the debate between old and modern notions of political organization and allegiance, and require deeper understanding of the nature of the tensions between premodern and contemporary political ideas and institutions.

Keywords: Islam, state, citizenship, reform, caliphate, democracy, shura, Tanzimat, dhimmis

Political Reform and the Demise of Ottoman Rule

The current debate over the notions of state and citizenship in majority Muslim societies is two centuries old and is rooted in the debates that accompanied the state-centered reform movement in late Ottoman dynasty in the Near East and the Constitutional Revolution in late Qajar dynasty in Iran. The debate continues to polarize Muslim societies around modern and traditional political ideas. Contrasting those ideas is essential for understanding the intricacies of contemporary political reforms in Muslim societies that aim at achieving a creative synthesis between the old and the new.

From the start, political reform in Muslim societies was central to modern reform efforts overall. Tensions grew around the efforts of modern Muslim reformers to replace the traditional institution of the caliphate, in the case of the Ottomans, or king (shah), in the case of Iran, with modern states fashioned on the model of liberal democracies. Tensions also developed around the efforts to overcome traditional social and political differentiations between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities, historically informed by the dhimmi principle, and to reshape modern Muslim societies in accordance with the principle of equal citizenship.

Significant Muslim efforts to reform the state in modern times date back to the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Selim III (reigned 1789 and 1807), who attempted to modernize the Ottoman military through a series of decrees known as the Nizam-i Jidid (New Order). Selim III recognized the need to reform the Ottoman education system and to reorganize state administration in late 18th century. He soon clashed with the guardians of the old regime, the elite Janissary military corps, when he introduced a new military unit trained by French officers. The Janissaries allied themselves with the religious establishment and the powerful Sheikh al-Islam, the highest ranking Ottoman religio-legal authority. (Historically, Islamic scholars developed and implemented Shari`ah and enjoyed tremendous autonomy and immunity from political interference. While Shari`ah judges and religious endowments were overseen by the office of Sheikh al-Islam, who himself was appointed by the Sultan, the scholars were firmly grounded in their local communities, and most of them received their income through public endowments set up by private citizens.1 The Sheikh al-Islam himself was traditionally a leading member of the scholarly community and handled the responsibilities of his office under a customary rules decided by the consensus of the scholars.)

Together, the traditional military and religious establishment succeeded in deposing Selim in 1806, temporarily putting an end to his ambitious reform agenda that threatened their power.

Three decades later, more rigorous state reorganization reforms were introduced by Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808–1839), resulting in the elimination of the Janissaries after a violent confrontation. The new reform program reached its peak during the reign of Sultan Abdulmajid (1839–1861). On November 3, 1839, Abdulmajid issued an edict, known as the Hatti Sharif of Gülhane (Noble Edict of Gülhane, the park near the palace where the edict was proclaimed), also known as the Tanzimat Fermani (Reorganization Edict) in which he declared his intent “to bring the benefits of a good administration to the provinces of the Ottoman Empire through new institutions.”2

The reform agenda was vigorous and far-reaching, resulting in the reorganization of the state and the modernization of the Ottoman system. It effectively abolished the Millet system, instituted in the 15th century to organize a multiethnic and multireligious society. Based on the traditional Islamic system of dhimmi communities (alh al-dhimma), the millet system recognized the autonomy of the religious and ethnic communities that constituted the Ottoman Empire. “The Millet system had a socio-cultural and communal framework based, firstly, on religion and, secondly, on ethnicity which in turn reflected linguistic differences of the millets consisted essentially of people who belonged to the same faith.”3 The autonomy of each millet, or confessional group, was achieved through local institutions that reflected the religious, ethnic, and linguistic specificities. “Each millet established and maintained its own institutions to care for the functions not carried out by the ruling class and state, such as education, religion, justice and social security.”4

Abdulmajid I issued, throughout his reign, a series of Tanzimat edicts that cemented the new order, revolving around three key reforms: (1) the establishment of representative political system, (2) the centralization of legislative and executive power, and (3) the creation of modern Ottoman citizenship. The representative system was introduced in 1841 under the name of Mejlis-i Umumi, or the General Assembly. By 1878, the Young Ottomans, a group of intellectuals advocating constitutional reforms, succeeded in establishing a British-style parliamentarian system consisting of two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Notables.5 The First Constitutional Era that dawned on November 23, 1876, with the introduction of Kanun-i Esasi (fundamental or basic law), an era that did not last for long; it ended on February 13, 1878, when Sultan Abdulhamid II suspended the constitution. Abdulhamid ascended the throne on August 31, 1876, and shortly collided with the Young Ottomans and their leader, Midhat Pasha, signaling the beginning of the era of absolute rule in the Ottoman Empire and paving the way for the emergence of absolute rule elsewhere in post-Ottoman states.

The Young Ottomans were keen to bring into the Ottoman Empire a new legal order, and strived to introduce a national law that would guarantee the equality of all citizens. That led to the promulgation of the Ottoman Nationality Law of 1869, guaranteeing the equality of all Ottoman citizens, irrespective of religious or ethnic affiliation. Ironically, the new measures faced great opposition, mainly from the non-Muslim populations who feared the removal of protections of cultural and religious traditions, and the establishment of a centralized system destined to privilege the Turkish language, culture, and religious traditions, and undermine the autonomy of confessional communities.

The Modern State and Islamic Reforms

The reform movement led by the Young Ottomans in Istanbul reemerged in Cairo under Egypt’s ambitious Governor Muhammad Ali Pasha. Muhammad Ali succeeded in carving out an independent modern state that was fashioned after modern European nations. Like the Ottoman rulers, he heavily relied upon the services of European consultants and sent young Egyptians to study modern sciences in Europe. His rigorous industrialization projects brought to Egypt, among other things, the new press technology, thereby stimulating public debate and markedly expanding the public sphere.

The spirit of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s reforms was epitomized in the work of Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a graduate of Egypt’s Azhar University, the center of Sunni Islamic learning, who wholeheartedly embraced modern European ideas and institutions. He was exposed to Western modernity while serving in Paris (1826–1831) as chaplain to a student delegation sent by the Egyptian government to learn modern sciences. Tahtawi was deeply impressed by the level of education and the free spirit of the French he encountered in Paris, and came back to write about his experience. He spoke highly of the French law and government, and included in his book Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (The extraction of gold in the essence of Paris) a full translation of the French constitution.6

Tahtawi did not attempt to reconcile traditional Islamic political thought with modern political ideas and institutions. Rather, he embraced modern constitutional law and parliamentarian governance, and argued that modern state and law are the best guarantee for both progress and justice. Describing the French people, he wrote:

Their minds believed that justice and fairness are the basis of civilized kingdoms and the source of people’s happiness. And the ruler and the ruled alike submitted to the principle of [justice]. Consequently, their country prospered, their sciences flourished, their wealth accumulated, and their hearts achieved satisfaction, so much so, that you never hear anyone complain of injustice. Justice is indeed the foundation of civilization.7

Tahtawi supported Muhammad Ali’s modernization project and his reformist agenda, and reflected in his writings the early stages of polarization over Western-inspired reforms. He defended Muhammad Ali against his conservative detractors arguing that the Khedive’s (Muhammad Ali’s title as Ottoman governor of Egypt) employment of Europeans was not intended to benefit them at the expense of Egyptians, but rather to learn from “their humanity and scientific knowledge.”8

Meanwhile, the push to political reform was well underway in Ottoman-ruled Tunisia, as Khayreddin al-Tunisi (also Hayruddin Pasha), an Ottoman statesman, assumed the leadership of the Tunisia’s local government, the Grand Council (al-Majlis al-Kabir) in 1861. Khayreddin briefly led the Grand Council, instituted by the Tunisian Bey (Ottoman-appointed governor) in line with the European parliamentarian model, and was appointed as prime minister of Tunisia in 1877. This latter appointment was also short-lived as he was forced to resign after clashing with the state bureaucracy. Khayreddin went to self-exile.

Khayreddin published in 1867 a tract titled Aqwam al-Masālik fi Ma’rifat Aḥwāl al-Mamālik (The surest path to knowledge regarding the condition of countries), in which he eloquently defended the Tanzimat reforms that had been introduced by Ottomans reformers and replicated in Egypt and Tunisia. He called for a constitutional monarchy governing alongside an elected legislative body, based on the modern parliamentarian system. He welcomed broad political participation, involving the public, even though he was quite aware of the unpopularity of the Tanzimat reforms among the Tunisian public, and openly accused conservative quarters of misleading the public about the nature of these reforms in an effort to roll back modern reform. He was convinced that resistance to the Tanzimat reforms, both in Istanbul, the center of the Ottoman Empire, and in Tunisia, at the western periphery, was led by traditionalist scholars and conservative political leaders concerned that the European model threatened traditional values and institutions.

The Tanzimat reforms ended in February 1878 when Sultan Abdulhamid II suspended the constitution that he himself signed a year earlier. Ironically, Khayreddin was appointed to the office of the Grand Wazir in December of the same year only to resign his office six months later. It was not clear why a supporter of the Tanzimat would agree to lead the government that was tasked with undermining the constitutional reform. His short service does suggest, however, that he could not reconcile himself with the absolute rule that commenced during his service. Abdulhamid II became the first Ottoman ruler to combine under his authority the executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The Tanzimat ended for all practical purposes the role of the Islamic scholars who, as the custodians of Shari`ah, served for centuries as the highest moral and legal authorities in the empire.

The clash between Sultan Abdulhamid and the Tanzimat reformers, and the advent of authoritarian rule in the Near East, set the stage for the ensuing struggle between liberal social forces inspired by Western modernity and conservative forces committed to Islamic heritage and traditions. Abdulhamid II who rose to power during turbulent political times allied himself with the religious establishment led by the Sheikh al-Islam, and effectively reversed the vigorous reform agenda that transformed Ottoman society throughout the 18th century.

Reform, Tyranny, and the Caliphate

Conservative forces within the Ottoman Empire succeeded in delaying political reform but could not silence its advocates. The push for reform quickly moved to Cairo, which became toward the end of the 19th century, the intellectual hub of modern Muslim reformers. Reformers such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdu, Abdulrahman al-Kawakibi, and Rashid Rida found in Cairo’s relatively open culture a conducive environment to propagate reform ideas and to nurture reform spirit. Each of them, while educated in traditional Islamic schools, boldly challenged traditional Islamic thought and education, and provoked deep debate about the relevance of old traditions and the necessity of political reform.

Unlike the Tanzimat reformers, who wholeheartedly embraced the liberal notions of state and citizenship, these reformers tried to strike a balance between Islamic heritage and modern ideas. Afghani and Abdu were sympathetic to modern ideas of state and governance, but they gave priority to social and intellectual reform, and stressed the necessity of Muslim unity in the face of growing European inroads into the Ottoman Empire. Kawakibi, on the other hand, prioritized political reform and devoted much of his work to criticizing Ottomans’ efforts to solidify their control and oppose the aspirations of Arab nations to achieve independence. He was in particular critical of Abdulhamid’s rule, which he characterized as tyrannical.

Kawakibi expounded his views regarding governance in two books, Umm al Qura (The mother of towns), a reference the city of Mecca, and Taba’i` Al-istibdad (The nature of tyranny). The two books were published under pseudonyms to avoid persecution by the Ottoman authorities. He devotes the Taba’i` Al-istibdad to analyzing the conditions that give rise to despotism, most notably the lack of civic education and the absence of commitment to the principle of freedom and equality. He defines despotism as “a government irresponsive to the people and unregulated by law.”9 Kawakibi discusses different forms of despotic governments but insists that the worst of them is religious tyranny. He stresses the need to limit political power by constitutional law and ensure that the government is based on popular consent. He calls the form of government that he advocates “constitutional shura [consultation; an essential component of traditional Islamic governance]” (al-shura al-dusturiyah), whereby the holders of political power are accountable to the ummah (community).

In the Mother of Towns, Kawakibi calls on Arabs to abandon the Ottoman Empire and establish an Arab caliphate. The pan-Arab impulse that drives his argument in this work pushes to the background his concerns about a government connected to the people. He anticipated the Arab revolt led by the Hashemite governor of Mecca as he called on the people of the Arabian Peninsula to take the lead in forging a new Arab caliphate. He argued that the Bedouin Arab free spirit, and the lack of tyrannical experience among them, qualifies them to lead the Arabs into political freedom and independence.

Kawakibi’s wish for Arab independence from the Ottomans, and his call for a special role for the people of Arabia, became a reality as the Arab Army, led by Faisal bin Hussain, spearheaded the Arab revolt that facilitated the victory of the British, French, and Russian allies over the Germans and their allied Ottoman forces in World War I, and spelled the end of the Ottoman era. In 1922, Turkey was declared a republic. On March 3, 1924, Turkey’s newly instituted National Assembly voted to officially abolish the caliphate, and the last Ottoman sultan, Abdulmacid II, was sent to exile with the remaining members of the Ottoman house.

The demise of the Ottoman Empire revived discussion of the basis of political authority in Muslim societies. Muhammad Rashid Rida wrote in 1923, on the eve of the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, a treatise titled Al-Khalifa wa’l-Imama al-`Uzma (The caliphate or the supreme imamate), in which he addressed the question of the caliphate and provided a plan for its restoration. Rida, a leading Muslim scholar in early 20th century who propagated the reform ideas of Muhammad Abdu, was profoundly disturbed by Ataturk’s decision to dissolve the caliphate, as he strongly believed that the abolition would destroy the only political structure that could unite Muslim countries to meet the challenge of European expansion into Africa and Asia.10

Rida proposed a consultative form of government borrowed from the early work of Muslim scholars. He injected the principle of shura into the historical caliphate calling for representations of individual Muslim countries in a Shura Council, a consultative body composed of jurists trained in Islamic law who would constitute the traditional category of ahl al-Hall wal-‘Aqd (those who bind and loose).11 While privileging the principle of representative government in recasting the idea of a caliphate, his approach was eclectic and reactive, and failed to capture the profound transformations underway in Muslim societies.

The intellectual debate intensified with the publication of Ali Abdul Raziq’s controversial book Al-Islam wa Usul alHukm (Islam and the foundations of governance) in 1925. The book was published shortly after Rida proposed a return to the caliphate and responded to popular and intellectual efforts to revive traditional governing structures. The book provoked a strong backlash within conservative circles, forcing the prestigious Azhar University to strip from Abdul Raziq the degree he received in 1911.

The main thesis of the book is that Islam is neutral on political organization and does not advocate a specific form of government. While conceding that Prophet Muhammad exercised political power, he maintained that the exercise of power was incidental rather than central to his mission. “Muhammad was strictly a Messenger,” he wrote, “entrusted with a purely religious mission, uncompromised by any desire for kingship or temporal power.”12 With the death of Muhammad, the prophetic mission ended, and “no one could succeed him in that position,” as “no one [was] entitled to inherit his prophetic function.”13

Abdul Raziq’s objection to the caliphate was not strictly procedural but evolved also around the way power was exercised throughout history. The caliphate, he maintained violated Islamic principles because it relied on the use of military power to maintain political control. Caliphs used “brutal force” to inspire fear in the heart of the public. He therefore concludes that the “caliphate has always been, and still remains, a disaster for Islam and Muslims. It has been a constant source of evil and corruption.”14 His conclusion was decisive in separating political from religious authority, a cornerstone of the modern conception of the secular state. Religion does not, and should not, interfere in political consideration, as the latter must be organized “in accordance with the principles of reason, the experience of nations and the rules of politics.”15

Developmentalism and the Authoritarian State

The drive to construct a new political order in Muslim societies, informed by modern ideas and organizations, was much more powerful than any desire to preserve historical Islamic thought and institutions. Modern states that emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire soon returned to the spirit of the Tanzimat and embarked on far-reaching political and legal reforms. The interest in pursuing political and legal reforms in the post-Ottoman states, however, was not particularly concerned with limiting the absolute power of the state to protect individual rights and extend political participation. Rather, the concern shifted quickly toward issues of economic development and political unity, and many political thinkers seemed willing to condone autocratic and authoritarian regimes in hopes that strong leaders would be better suited to accomplish these overarching goals. It would take over half a century, and series of political disappointments and economic failures for the debate to shift back toward issues of authoritarianism and excessive power, and to a more profound discussion of political rights, democratic government, and the rule of law.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of distinct Arab states arose the need to replace religiously based political solidarity with one grounded in local and national identities. The conflation of pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism was soon replaced with discussions of Arab nationalism as the basis a new political order. The challenge of forging a new political identity rooted in nationalism was taken up by Sati’ al-Husri, a Syrian national who was born in Sana, Yemen, in 1880. Husri had been educated in Istanbul and was appointed as a chief administrator in the Ottoman Balkans province. He later joined King Faisal bin Hussain, the commander of the Arab Army that liberated Syria in 1918, and became his political advisor.

Husri advanced a theory of political unity rooted in the writings of German nationalists such as J. G. Herder and J. G. Fichte. “Unity of origin” was the bedrock foundation of the modern state as language and culture form the social and political consciousness of peoples. Husri dismissed the notions of “the general will” and “religion” as appropriate components of Arab unity. Islam is a global religion, he argued, and as such it cannot be a component of national unity because global religions are shared by many nations.16 Husri’s dismissal of religion as an important element in shaping national identity was informed by his Ottoman experience. This was made clear in a lecture he delivered at Cairo University. In addressing the question “Why have we been, thus far, lagging behind?” he told his audience that Arabs’ commitment to the “state of Islamic Caliphate” prevented them from pursuing their own independent state.17

It did not take long before the idea of Arab nationalism took an actual form in two interdependent political movements and organizations, namely the Ba`th Party, originating in Syria, and the Nasserite movement, both inspired by the Egypt’s Jamal Abd al-Nasser’s drive to Arab unity. The Ba`th Party’s vision of achieving Arab unity and socioeconomic equality through socialism was positively received by a wide spectrum of people, including leftist intellectuals, impoverished peasants, and blue-collar workers. The Ba`th leaders identified three goals for their party: unity, freedom, and socialism. Nasser and his political supporters adopted the same goals but supposedly changed their priority, giving more attention to freedom, then to socialism, leaving unity in third place. The unity goal focused on united Arab countries under one political leadership. The Ba`th Party focused on creating a single Arab state and made three attempts to forge political unity between Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The three attempts ended in failure.

Both Nasser and the Ba`th Party expressed freedom in terms of national independence and state sovereignty, and paid only lip service to individual rights and freedom. Nasser was an absolute ruler who came to power through a coup d’état and used his power to reshape society, focusing on redistribution of national wealth to the impoverish peasantry and pushing toward industrialization and economic development. He established a one-party system and banned the parliamentarian system that was developed during the Ottoman period. He showed no tolerance for dissent and used his police force to silence opposition. The successive Ba`th leaders in Syria and Iraq followed suit and produced suppressive regimes in which individual freedom, civic liberties, and political dissent were completely crushed.

The colonial rule that dominated the first half of the 20th century in most Arab societies, and the postcolonial states that came after it, succeeded in transforming social structures and habits by introducing modern institutions and technologies, but failed in creating the modern political cultures necessary for protecting citizen rights. The modern education system that emerged under colonial rule and in the postcolonial state focused on development of technical skills and familiarity with modern organization, but paid little attention to the development of social ethics and civic virtues, for example, necessary for the functioning of modern life.

Similarly, the introduction of modern notions of citizenship, with emphasis on equality before the law, posed tremendous challenges in the multicultural and multireligious societies of the Near East. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire put an end to the communal system, the millet system, which provided autonomy in the area of religious and ethnic custom and traditions. The rise of the nation-state based on a state-centered nationalist order subordinated the autonomous confessional groups to those of the ethnic and religious majority. Ethnic minorities at first demanded equal treatment for all confessional groups, but soon realized that equal treatment required a uniform legal system applied to all communities equally. This meant that confessional communities had to give up their own systems of rules, which had been recognized and sanctioned by a higher law under the Ottomans, and submit to a homogeneous system determined by the dominant confessional community.18

The establishment of the nation-state marked the beginning of long and protracted ideological struggles among different segments of Arab societies. The ideological movements that emerged often hid ethnic and religious purposes and concerns. The Arab nationalist movement favored by the Arab majority pushed ethnic communities of the Near East to favor competing ideological forms. Many members of the non-Arab minorities found in communism an alternative ideology to forge political solidarity away from Arabism. Others sought refuge in local national loyalties, as was the case of the Syrian National Party that drew support from minority groups.

Nationalist and leftist political movements embarked on a vigorous secularization process conceived along the lines suggested by Marxism and the French laïcité. Political and intellectual leaders in several Arab societies understood secularism as a process of de-Islamization of society, setting the stage for internal conflicts and divisions. The anti-religious nature of Arab and Muslim secularism generated a backlash that took the form of Islamist organizations calling for Islamization of society and thought and, in some cases, reviving interest in the caliphate and other traditional political forms.

Pan-Islamism and the Return of the Caliphate

The drive to forge Muslim unity as an alternative to Arab unity, as advocated by nationalist groups, dates back to the work of Afghani and Abdu. Afghani in particular devoted much of his political writings and activism to the call for unity among Muslim countries. He deemed such unity as essential for countering British and French expansion into Muslim territories. Although he seemed to favor accountable government, the priority of unity pushed him to condone absolute rule, such as that of Abdulhamid II, only requiring benevolence and good will on the part of an absolute monarch.

Pan-Islamism surfaced once again in the early 1920s right after the abolition of the Ottoman order by Ataturk. As we saw, intellectuals such as Kawakibi and Rida advocated the establishment of an Arab caliphate to replace the Ottoman. The interest in reviving Islamic political forms and the drive to forge Islamic unity was picked up by popular religious movements. Hassan al-Banna established in 1928 the Muslim Brotherhood, a sociopolitical movement whose goal was to revive Islamic values and tradition. Banna did not directly call for the return of the historical caliphate, but provided a blueprint for political organization based on a vision of the gradual expansion of Islamic ethos from local centers, ultimately bringing unity among Muslim people. The key to the expansion was da`wa (missionary) activities aimed at countering the influence of European culture and calling people back to Islamic social consciousness and practices.

Modern views on the caliphate, particularly those advanced by contemporary radical groups, are rooted in the work of Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, the founder of Hizb al-Tahrir. Nabhani was born in Haifa in 1909, graduated from the Azhar University, and served as a judge in Jerusalem prior to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. He founded Hizb al-Tahrir (Liberation Party) in 1953 in Jordan, with the goal of reestablishing the caliphate.

Nabhani expounded his views concerning the modern caliphate as the necessary form of the Islamic state in a book by that name, published in 1953. There he identifies seven “pillars” of the Islamic State: the caliph, the assistants, the military commander, the judiciary, the governors, the administrative system, and the community council (Majlis Al-Ummah). He insists that all the seven elements must be in effect for a state to be called Islamic. The absence of one of the elements, he laments, should not upset its Islamic character. “The structure of the State,” he argues, “would be complete if these seven elements were in place.” However, if any of these elements were absent, the structure would remain Islamic as long as the caliph remains in power. Only when people fail to appoint a khalifah (caliph) does the state ceases to be Islamic.19

Despite locating authority to appoint the caliph in the Muslim community, the ummah, Nabhani seems ready to provide the caliph with absolute power. In outlining the political system of the modern caliphate, he identifies four principles that define the political order: “(1) The sovereignty belongs to the Shari’ah, (2) the authority belongs to the Ummah, (3) the appointment of one Khalifah, and (4) The Khalifah alone reserves the right to adopt the Shari’ah rules, i.e., to enact them as laws.”20 Furthermore, the constitution he proposes at the end of the book calls for a centralized political order based on Islamic doctrines. He calls for the application of Shari`ah on all citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, except in matters of worship and family law. He further makes the propagation of Islam a state duty.21

Like Nabhani, many traditional Muslim scholars (`ulama’), in addition to insisting on reviving the caliphate, continue to uphold the concept of ahl al-dhimma, believing that religious affiliation still matters politically, and that recognition of religious autonomy is needed for the proper functioning of religious communities. For the traditionalist scholars, the Islamic state is one in which Shari`ah—as it was developed by the classical Muslim jurists—is implemented. Non-Muslims living in an Islamic state belong to the category of “protected minorities.” These scholars support the traditional scheme of providing greater autonomy to non-Muslim minorities and demand an imposition of special tax, jizya, in keeping with historical arrangements.

Modern Efforts to Reconcile Islam and Democracy

Despite the vigorous efforts by conservative Muslim scholars to reject democracy in favor of traditional Islamic forms of governance, many Muslims find democratic ideas and practices consistent with Islamic values. There is a long list of highly respected Islamic thinkers who support modern democratic notions of state and citizenship. Their arguments do not amount to a system of democratic liberalism, but they are definitely within the broader tradition of modern democracy. The list includes Austro-Hungarian thinker and diplomat Muhammad Asad (d. 1992), Syrian politician Mustafa al-Siba`I (d. 1964), Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1996), Sudani politician Hassan al-Turabi (d. 2016), Tunisian political activist and politician Rached al-Ghannouchi, Egyptian scholar and judge Tariq al-Bishri, Egyptian journalist Fahmi al-Huwaidi, Egyptian scholar and activist Abdel Wahab el-Messiri (d. 2008), and others. We will illustrate the views of this important intellectual movement within modern Muslim intellectualism by focusing on the thoughts of two influential thinks, Muhammad Asad and Rached al-Ghannouchi.

Muhammad Asad advances a theory of Islamic democracy that drew on Western experiences of democracy. He based his notion of democracy on the principle of human equality and the divine law of Shari`ah. He sees Shari`ah as a normative framework and a moral guide whose elaboration is contingent on scholarship and intellectual creativity through ijtihad (independent reasoning). This ijtihad, Asad insists, can take the form of individual intellectual endeavors, but with regard to political matters it should manifest itself through the principle of shura (popular consultation). Today, he asserts, the Quranic principle of shura should take the form of democratic political order.

Shari`ah, Asad maintains, should be exercised in the public sphere through the legislative process. Unlike the traditionalists, Asad believes that apart from some essential and limited directives, Islamic legislation is an ongoing process through independent reasoning. Because much of the results of early ijtihad do not suit modern conditions, fresh ijtihad is needed.22 Because of ever-changing reality and social conditions, independent reasoning becomes essential to elaborating the principles of Shari`ah law.

Muhammad Asad identifies two main branches of an Islamic government: the executive (amir) who heads the executive branch and a consultative council (majlis al-shura) that forms the legislative branch of government. The people must elect both branches.23 Elections as a modern democratic principle, he says, can be traced to the Qur’anic principle of shura (consultation) and bayah, consent of the public for the nomination of the holder of public office.24

Asad argues for some differentiation between Muslims and non-Muslims in religious matters in order to allow religious communities to exercise their unique religious traditions. Such differentiation is required in any state that aspires to realize the sense of respect for religious diversity demanded by the Qur’an and exemplified by Muhammad. This does not, however, justify discrimination against non-Muslim citizens in the ordinary spheres of life. Muhammad Asad says that, on the contrary, non-Muslims must be accorded all the freedoms and protections that a Muslim citizen can legitimately claim. Asad rejects the possibility of non-Muslims assuming key position of leadership in the highest echelon of the state. However, aside from ultimate political leadership, Asad exclaims that non-Muslim communities enjoy complete autonomy in an Islamic state, for the government places in their hands independent management of their internal affairs, and their religious leaders exercise judicial functions in cases that concerned their coreligionists.25 The contemporary embrace of democracy and human rights found its clearest expression in the works of Rached al-Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s popular Nahdah Party. In his 1993 work, Al-Hurriyat al-‘Amma fi Dawlat al-Islamiyyah (Public liberties in the Islamic state), Ghannouchi argues that human rights are the basic foundation of any legitimate political system. Human rights in Islam are anchored, he contends, in the principle of the moral agency of human beings, a concept associated with the notion of istikhlaf (stewardship) and the basic idea that humanity carries the tributes of the eternal divine. Istikhlaf, he asserts, places ethical responsibility and moral agency in the community as a whole, rather than individually; the community, rather than any individual, acts as the moral agent of God.26

Asserting that human rights in Islam are an integral part of Shari`ah and its objectives, Ghannouchi goes on to outline the general framework of human rights. He sees freedom as a fundamental value of Islam. Paramount is the freedom of belief. Other freedoms guaranteed by Shari’ah include economic freedom, which ensures the right to own property on the basis of work, and the right to enjoying the fruits of one’s work. Ghannouchi further considers social rights as intrinsic to Shari`ah, including the shared responsibility to provide basic needs such as education, health care, and housing.

The main difference between Western and Islamic democracy, according to Ghannouchi, lies in the source of its legitimacy. While Western norms of individual freedom are based on ideas of natural law, Islamic thought anchors rights in Shari`ah principles. He points out that historical distortions of the original intent of Shari`ah led to the usurpation of power by early Muslim sultans who appropriated the collective moral agency. Restoring ultimate political authority to the collectivity requires the development of a modern shura system founded on seven principles: (1) transcendental law rooted in Shari`ah and the ummah are the foundation of political agency; (2) people’s representatives in the Shura Council, empowered to oversee the political system; (3) an economic system that ensures equitable distribution of wealth; (4) a social system that emphasizes the value of work and recognizes the rights of the poor; (5) a universal education system; (6) a multiparty system; and (7) a decentralized management system for local government.

It should be noted that the Nahdah Party dominated Tunisia’s first free and fair elections in 2011. Since that time, Ghannouchi has led the party into parliamentary coalitions with secular parties. In May 2016, the party took the bold step of distinguishing between religious and political activities, limiting itself to the latter. Still, the debate between supporters of traditional forms of governance and the advocates of modern notions of state and citizenship continue. Some are informed by the failures of Muslim modernists to implement liberal democracy effectively in Muslim societies. Western-based scholars of Islam are increasingly active in this debate. These include Sorbonne University scholar Muhammad Arkoun (d. 2010), Emory University scholar Abdullahi An-Naim, Columbia University scholar Wael Hallaq, and University of Westminster scholar Abdelwahab El-Affendi.

An-Naim, for instance, advocates a modern Muslim state that embraces human rights and citizenship analogous to those advanced by liberal Western democracies. Yet he sees that happening in Muslim societies under the auspices of Islam and proposes a constitutional order that employs elements of traditional Islamic experience to support a regime of human rights and equal citizenship. In his 2008 Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a, An-Naim illustrates the independence of the traditional Muslim state from the many religious denominations the flourished historically and points out the limited application of Shari`ah. While recognizing the interconnectedness of Islam and state in Muslim countries, he proposes a secular state grounded in Islamic thought and experience, and hence calls for debates and negotiations of secularism within the world of Islam.27

Wael Hallaq contends, in his 2013 The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, that the modern state is essentially a European invention and the outcome of the unique experience of modern Europe. As such, it is incompatible with many aspects of the Muslim experience and norms, and European efforts to impose its cultural and historical product on Muslim society are bound to fail. The incompatibility is incomplete, as certain aspects of the modern state, including the separation of powers and checks and balances, fit reasonably well into Islamic experiences and norms. It is more pronounced with the regard to place of Shari`ah in the normative and ethical framework that influence Muslim orientation and consciousness.28 The place of Shari`ah as the foundation of morality in the world of Islam, and the role of Islamic scholars as the interpreters of Shari`ah, are unique to Islamic society, and will always play a central role in defining the “governance paradigm” in Muslim societies. Hallaq goes on to privilege the governance paradigm of Islam for balancing state power with that of civil society, to which the Islamic scholar is organically connected. Shari`ah, as the autonomous source of Muslim norms, empowers the individual and nurtures the moral agency of the individual members of the body politic.

State and citizenship are contested notions in contemporary Muslim scholarship and society, and the debate around them reveals the extent to which modern Islamic political thought has been, and continues to be, in a state of flux. Yet it seems clear, based on the energy of political activism in Arab societies evidenced most recently in the Arab Spring upheavals and the developing democratic system in Tunisia, that the current debate is moving toward a creative synthesis that reflects elements of the modern Western democracies and Islamic political traditions.

Review of the Literature

A lot has been written on the notions of state and citizenship over the last century and half, but much of that tends to be polemical and bifurcated. Very few works have systematically traced contemporary political views, and fewer focused on the notions of state and citizenship. Several studies have been published in the last few decades to provide an expansive review and categorization of the wide scope of views of contemporary Arab and Muslim political thinkers. A few of these studies are worth noting in this review.

Among the early works that provide a systematic examination of emerging contemporary Islamic and Arab thoughts is Anouar Abdel-Malek’s and Marco Pallis’s Contemporary Arab Political Thought, published in 1984.29 The book focuses on Arab nationalist and socialist ideas, and underscores challenges facing the postcolonial Arab states, focusing on economic and political development, and exploring nationalist and socialist tendencies.

Leonard Binder’s Islamic Liberalism, published in 1988, provides a critical review of the efforts to adapt liberal political ideas to Arab and Muslim societies and cultures, and examines the possibility of Islamic liberalism.30 Informed by Edward Said’s critique of orientalism, Binder sets out to examine the ideas of Egyptian scholars representing a wide range of the political writings, including those of Sayyid Qutb, Samir Amin, Tariq al-Bishri, and Zaki Najib Mahmud. The examination of the works of these authors produces a number of persuasive hermeneutical conclusions that show the centrality of political freedom, democracy, and civil society to both liberal and Islamically informed political writings.

Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’s Contemporary Arab Thought, published in 2004, looks into the political ideas by Arab thinkers in the post-1967 war.31 His work reflects nationalist-Islamist divisions and tensions. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’ addresses such questions as the Shari’ah, human rights, civil society, secularism, and globalization. This is complimented by a focus on the writings of key Arab thinkers who represent established trends of thought in the Arab world, including Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri, Adallah Laroui, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Rashid al-Ghannoushi, Qustatnine Zurayk, Mahdi ‘Amil, and others. Abu-Rabi sees the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel as a watershed in the modernization efforts, leading to the collapse of the modernization project that used the West as a model, and the rise of Islam as the new model for modernization. He retraces lines of continuity and change in the emerging political ideas, and shows that the Islamic detour does not necessarily represent a complete rejection of modern ideas, but a new desire to reground modernity in Islamic tradition.

Shireen T. Hunter edited Reformist Voices of Islam, published in 2008.32 The book looks into reformist ideas by Muslim writers over four continents, and includes chapters by Tamara Sonn, Hassan Hanifi, Farish Noor, and others. The book refocuses attention of moderate and reformist voices and trends in contemporary societies that have been drowned by Islamic fundamentalist, revolutionary, and jihadist movements. The book undertakes a thorough review of an extensive number of reformist thinkers and activists, and unearths the rich intellectual traditions they advocate. The volume is divided into chapters that focus on Iran, the Near East, the Maghreb, South Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, as well as Europe and North America. The book highlights the struggle to reconcile ideas rooted in Western modernism with values and principles associated with Islam.

Most recently, Abdelillah Belkeziz published a book in 2015 focusing on contemporary Islamic views of the state, under the title The State in Contemporary Islamic Thought.33 This work retraces the development of the concept of “the state” (or al-dawlah) in Islamic debate since the turn of the 19th century. It examines the most influential Muslim thinkers in modern times that fall under three trends: the modernist trend rooted in the ideas of Jamaluddin Afghani, the traditionalist trend grounded in the thought of Hasan Al-Bana, and the revivalist trend represented by such authors as Khomeini. The broad examination of contemporary Muslim writings leads the author to conclude that modern Islamic political thought remains in the ideological and pre-theoretical stage, as it fails to provide a unified and systematic theory of state and citizenship.

All These works underscore the unrelenting tension between modern and traditional political ideas, and reveal the efforts to reconcile traditional political ideas and norms with modern concepts and forms found in democratic liberal ethos and the structure of the nation-state.

Further Reading

Abdel-Malek, Anouar, and Marco Pallis. Contemporary Arab Political Thought. London: Zed Books, 1984.Find this resource:

Abu-Rabi’, Ibrahim M. Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History. London: Pluto Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Abu-Rabi’, Ibrahim M. Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Al-Mawardi, Al-Ahkam al-Sultania. The Ordinances of Government. Translated by Wafaa H. Wahba. Berkshire, U.K.: Garnet, 2000.Find this resource:

Ali, Souad T. A Religion, Not a State: Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq’s Islamic Justification of Political Secularism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2009.Find this resource:

An-Na’im, Abdullahi, ed. Human Rights in Cross Cultural Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.Find this resource:

An-Na’im, Abdullahi. Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Belkeziz, Abdelillah. The State in Contemporary Islamic Thought: A Historical Survey of the Major Muslim Political Thinkers of the Modern. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015.Find this resource:

Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Chaliand, Gerard, ed. Minority People in the Age of Nation-States. London: Pluto Press, 1973.Find this resource:

Dessouki, Ali E. Hillal, ed. Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World. New York: Praeger, 1982.Find this resource:

Donohue, John J., and John L. Esposito. Islam in Transition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

El-Affendi, Abdelwahab. Who Needs an Islamic State? 2d ed. London: Malaysia Think Tank, 2008.Find this resource:

Esposito, John L. Islam and Politics. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Fazlur, Rahman. Islam. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Feldman, Noah. Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Ghannouchi, Rashid. Al-Huriyyat al-Ammah fi al-Dawah al-Islamiyyah (Public rights in the Islamic state). Beirut, Lebanon: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihdah al-Arabiyyah, 1993.Find this resource:

Hallaq, Wael. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Hunter, Shireen T. Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity. London: Routledge, 2008.Find this resource:

Huwaydi, Fahm. Muwatunum La dhimiyun. Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Shuruq, 1985.Find this resource:

Ibn Khaldun, al Muqaddimah. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. Abridged ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300–1600. New Rochelle, NY: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1973.Find this resource:

Kamali, Mohamad Hashim. Freedom of Expression in Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Ilmiah Publishers, 1998.Find this resource:

Kawakibi, Abdul-Rahman al-. Um al-Qura in Al-a’mal al-Kamila. Edited by Muhammad ‘Imarah. Cairo, Egypt: al-Hay’ah al-Misriyah al-ammah, 1970.Find this resource:

Keddie, Nikki R. An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din “al-Afghani.” Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Kedourie, Elie. Nationalism. New York: Praeger, 1960.Find this resource:

Kerr, Malcolm. Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Khadduri, Majid. The Islamic Concept of Justice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Khomeini, Iman. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated by Hamid Algar. London: Mizan Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Lambton, Ann K. State and Government in Medieval Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Liebesny, Herbert J. The Law of the Near and Middle East: Readings, Cases, and Materials. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1975.Find this resource:

Maudud, Abul Ala. Islamic State. Translated by Mazheruddin Siddiqi. Karachi: Islamic Research Academy, 1986.Find this resource:

Nielsen, Jorgen S. Religion, Ethnicity and Contested Nationhood in the Former Ottoman Space. Leiden: Brill, 2011.Find this resource:

Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950.Find this resource:

Shaw, S. J. History of the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Sherwani, Haroon Khan. Studies in Muslim Political Thought and Administration. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Tamimi, Azzam, and John L. Esposito. Islam and Secularism in the Middle East. New York: New York University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Voll, John O. Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World. 2d ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Weismann, Itzchak, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi: Islamic Reform and Arab Revival. London: Oneworld Publications, 2016.Find this resource:

Yapp, M. E. The Making of the Modern Near East. London: Longman, 1987.Find this resource:


(1.) Noah Feldman examined in his book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), the extent to which political reform under the Ottomans unwittingly created the conditions that gave rise to authoritarianism in modern Muslim societies.

(2.) Herbert J. Liebesny, The Law of the Near and Middle East: Readings, Cases, and Materials (Albany: State University of New York, 1975), 47.

(3.) S. J. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 612.

(5.) Jørgen S. Nielsen, Religion, Ethnicity and Contested Nationhood in the Former Ottoman Space (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 117.

(6.) Rifa’a al Tahtawi, Takhlis al Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (The extraction of gold in the essence of Paris) (Cairo, Egypt: Kalimat, 2011).

(7.) Ibid., 40, my translation.

(8.) Ibid., 184.

(9.) Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Taba’i` Al-istibdad (The nature of tyranny) (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar An-Nafaes, 2006), 173.

(10.) Muhammad Rashid Rida, Al-Khalifa wa’l-Imama al-`Uzma (Cairo, Egypt: Al Zahra Lil I’lam al-Arabi, n.d.), 9–10.

(11.) Sami Zubaidi, Islam, the people and the state (London: Routledge, 1989), 15.

(12.) Ali Abdel Razek, Islam and the Foundations of Political Power, ed. Abdou Filali Ansary, trans. Maryam Loutfi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 81.

(13.) Ibid., 107.

(14.) Ibid., 104.

(15.) Ibid., 117.

(16.) Sati al Husri, Abhath Mukhtara fi al-Qawmiyyah al-Arabiyyah (Issues in Arab nationalism), vol. 1 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Quds, 1974), 124.

(17.) Ibid., 19.

(18.) Gérard Chaliand, Minority People in the Age of Nation State (London: Pluto Press, 1989), 60.

(19.) Taqiyuddin al-Nabhani, Al-Dawla al-Islamiya (The Islamic state), 221.

(20.) Ibid., 222.

(21.) Ibid., 241–245.

(22.) Muhammad Asad, The Principles of State and Government in Islam (Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), 3.

(23.) Ibid., 36.

(24.) Ibid., 44–45.

(26.) The concept of vicegerency (istikhlaf) is elaborated in Rached al-Ghannouchi, Al-Hurriyat al-‘Amma fi Dawlat al-Islamiyyah (Public liberties in the Islamic state) (Beirut, Lebanon: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-Arabia, 1997). For a discussion of this concept in Ghannouchi’s work, see Azzam Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 207.

(27.) Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 267.

(28.) Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 51.

(29.) Anouar Abdel-Malek’s and Marco Pallis, Contemporary Arab Political Thought (London: Zed Books, 1984).

(30.) Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

(31.) Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, Contemporary Arab Thought (London: Pluto Press, 2004).

(32.) Shireen T. Hunter, ed., Reformist Voices of Islam (London: Routledge, 2008).

(33.) Abdelillah Belkeziz, The State in Contemporary Islamic Thought (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015).