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Book Preview – Ancient Religions, Modern Politics (by Michael Cook)

ancient religions modern politics

[Michael Cook, Princeton University, previews his book, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton University Press, 2014).]

Last November, members of a Sunni militia in Syria went to a hospital, found a patient whom they took to be a Shi‘ite, and beheaded him.  Showing a typical jihadi concern for public relations, they then made a video about the incident in order to get their message out, saying of the Shi‘ites: “They will come and rape the men before the women, that’s what these infidels will do.  They will rape the men before the women.  God make us victorious over them.”  As it turned out, their video proved a bit of an embarrassment: it emerged that the man they beheaded was not in fact a Shi‘ite — but as jihadis will tell you, and not only jihadis, these things happen.

The sectarian animus on display here can be found on the websites of other jihadi organizatiions (though not all of them).  It is alien to the modern politics of Europe, and not just Europe: Shaivas and Vaishnavas do not sound like this in India, nor do Catholics and Protestants in Latin America outside some idiosyncratic Mayan communities in southern Mexico.  Things were, of course, very different in the past.  In 1554 the Protestant reformer John Knox fulminated against the “abominable idolators” who briefly triumphed in England under the rule of the Catholic Queen Mary: “Their cities shall be burnt, their land shall be laid waste, and their daughters shall be defiled, their children shall fall on the edge of the sword, mercy shall they find none because they have refused the God of all mercy.”  Conflict between Shaivas and Vaishnavas back then was more ritualized.  Each sect was represented by its troops of naked warriors who made war on each other; we are told that two leading champions, one on each side, would not sit down to breakfast until they had killed a member of the other sect.

Why then has sectarian conflict survived in the Muslim world in a way it has not done elsewhere?  Actually “survived” may not be quite the right word: in the mid-twentieth century such conflict seemed to be on its way out in the Muslim world too.  Thus in 1946 a scholar of Islam in India dismissed the divergences between Sunnis and Shi‘ites as relating to “what answers are to be given to questions which to-day do not arise”.  But since then sectarian conflict has come back with a vengeance in the Muslim world, and is strongly in evidence today in such countries as Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria.  Some of the reasons for this development are specific to these countries, or relate to the wider power-politics of the region.  But there is another, more directly religious reason for the recrudescence: the massive revival of Islam itself across the Muslim world.  In a way that is almost unimaginable in most societies outside the Muslim world, seventh-century sectarian disagreements over questions that in 1946 could be said not to arise are once again arising.  Here, Northern Ireland is the European exception that proves the rule.  The members of the Irish Republican Army belong to a Catholic community, but the language in which they articulated their challenge to the Protestant majority was leftist nationalism; they had nothing to say about transubstantiation.

My book Ancient Religions, Modern Politics is not about sectarianism, though it certainly touches on it.  Rather, it is about a broader phenomenon of which the rise of sectarianism is just an illustration: the striking fact that many Muslims of the present day are committed to construing their politics out of their religion — often in forms more benign than sectarian hatred.  This is a rather distinctive phenomenon to which we cannot easily find large-scale parallels elsewhere.  No political party of any consequence in Latin America construes its politics out of Catholicism, just as no Indian party construes its politics out of Hinduism.  The Hindu Nationalists seek to persuade Hindus to identify politically as Hindus, thus championing an identity that paradoxically has no presence in the Hindu tradition; but they show no interest in getting them to live by the dictates of the Hindu heritage, which is why we call them nationalists.  As Narendra Modi was comfortable putting it in April 2014, “India’s government has only one religion: nation first, India first.  And only one holy book: the constitution”.  Even within the Islamic world, large numbers of Muslims in modern times have pursued forms of politics that are broadly secular — liberal, leftist, fascist, and above all nationalist.  But it is nevertheless the Islamists who have increasingly taken possession of the moral high ground in recent decades.

Why, then, this pull of Islamism?  Why should the Muslim world have responded differently from the rest of the world, particularly the rest of the Third World, with which it shares so many substantive problems?  This is the question I try to answer in my book.

In a nutshell, my answer is that the Islamic heritage has resources to offer those engaged in modern politics that dwarf those made available by other religions.  There are a number of reasons for this, and by no means all of them are as grim as the case of sectarianism would suggest.  The book presents and illustrates them in a three-part format that I can present here only very selectively.

Part One is about political identity.  Its central claim is that Islam did not just begin as among other things a political community; it remained one — at least potentially — into modern times.  In other words, the religion provides a sense of community that readily lends itself to political mobilization.  Catholicism, by contrast, is not a political identity in Latin America.  If it were, we would see a marked tendency for Pentecostals to be excluded from the political community, particularly as their faith derives from the United States; but so far as I know this is not a problem in the politics of any Latin American country.  Nor does Hinduism function as a political identity for most of the Indian population, despite the efforts of the Hindu Nationalists to make it so.  In fact, the untouchable castes have a marked tendency not to see themselves as Hindu at all, and even to see Hindus as alien intruders into their country.

Part Two is about political values — social, martial, cultural, and political.  Numerous intriguing issues arise here.  For example, why did Muslims not develop liberation theologies with a focus on the poor in the manner of leftist Catholics in Latin America?  Why does Hinduism not lend itself to the idea of holy war, given that the Hindu jurists see warfare as a normal part of human life?  Why is it that the idea of restoring Islamic law is so attractive in the Muslim world, while the idea of restoring Hindu law has no traction in India?  Why are certain political values associated with the early Islamic polity so compelling in the modern world, and why do they not have Hindu or Catholic  counterparts?

Part Three is about the concept of fundamentalism and what it can do for us in the context of the book.  Its central point is that while Islam, Hinduism and Christianity are all open to fundamentalization, the process is politically much more rewarding in the Islamic case than in either of the others.

In short, the book is a determined attempt to answer the question why Islam is so salient in the politics of the world today.

Read “Identity”, the introduction to Part One, here.


Michael Cook is a distinguished religious historian and the Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.  He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subject of Islamic history and religion.

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