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Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: Islamism as Anti-Politics

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Dr. Faisal Devji is Reader in Modern South Asian History at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St. Antony’s College, where he is also Director of the Asian Studies Centre. He is the author of four books: Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (2005), The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (2008), The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (2012) and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (2013).

I want to argue here that the term “political Islam” is in many ways a misnomer, because the Islamism that is meant to instantiate it has been unable to appropriate politics as a way of dealing with antagonism either institutionally or even in the realm of thought. Looking in particular at the form Islamism took with one of its founding figures, the twentieth century writer, and founder of the Jamaat-e Islami in both India and Pakistan, Sayyid Abul a’la Maududi. I shall claim that it is marked by the absence of politics, or rather by a failure to theorize and absorb it. And this failure, I think, results in actions by parties like the Jamaat that are merely, and sometimes violently, unprincipled or opportunistic, because in them theology always stands apart from the political, however much it may want to embrace the latter. Although the development of this kind of anti-politics is rooted in the history of colonialism and the reactions thereto by Islamist thinkers, here I discuss the paradoxical consequences of such an effort, dealing specifically with Maududi’s conception of sovereignty, in which he comes closest to advocating a “political theology”.

Having examined the legal doctrine of European sovereignty, with all its extraordinary powers, Maududi asks, “Does such sovereignty really exist within the bounds of humanity? If so, where? And who can be construed and treated as being invested with it?”[1] Sovereignty, he recognizes, can never be fully manifested in political life because it presumes a power too great to be realized, which is to say the mastery of an entire society. In fact if such a power were to be instantiated it could only lead to tyranny. The sovereign, whether king or president, was therefore unable in actuality to exercise the power vested in him, and this difference between what political theory called for and what really was the case could only result in corruption and violence, as “he who is really not sovereign, and has no right to be sovereign, whenever made so artificially cannot but use his powers unjustly.”[2] Sovereignty, then, properly belongs to God alone, who has sole decision over life and death, since to give such powers to mortals would be to create the possibility of a dictatorship. But “There is no place for any dictator in Islam. It is only before God’s command that mankind must bow without whys and wherefores.”[3] In an effort to prevent dictatorship of an individual as well as popular kind, Maududi embodies the people’s will in God while at the same times annulling it. For God here is not sovereign in any traditional ways, for instance as the “unmoved mover”, but solely as a displacement for the will of the people, which can only manifest itself by identifying with the divine will, and in doing so to un-will itself. In the Islamic state, in other words, Muslims must destroy their particularity by identifying with God’s universality. And even though Maududi never achieved his Islamic state, it was largely because of his doing that Pakistan’s constitution reserves sovereignty for God.[4]

Running counter to the idea of Islam’s “politicization”, therefore, Maududi’s conception of theocracy is anti-political in nature, as the views of religious experts had always been in colonial India. But rather than simply placing limits to the invasive power of the sovereign, which is what these men had done in earlier times, Maududi’s project was paradoxical in its attempt to achieve a non-political state by way of political action. It is as if he recognized that limits were no longer sufficient, and that the sovereign power had to be rolled back together with its governing institutions before the divisiveness of politics could be neutralized in a theocracy.  Indeed Maududi’s idea can even be seen to represent a bizarre version of Lenin’s thesis about the “withering away” of the state under communism, just as the Bolshevik leader’s notion of the party as a vanguard was explicitly adopted by the former for his own Jamat-e Islami.[5] Like his more famous revolutionary predecessor, Maududi is also filled with anxiety about the domination of the strong over the weak, which he describes in theological terms as the sin of men claiming to be gods, something he thinks happens whenever one individual or group assumes absolute authority over another:

All persons who exercise unqualified dominion over a group of men, who impose their will upon others, who make them their instruments and seek to control their destinies in the same manner as Pharaoh and Nimrod did in the heyday of their power, are essentially claimants to godhood, though the claim may be tacit, veiled and unexpressed. And those who serve and obey them admit their godhood even if they do not say so by word of mouth.[6]

Rather than being an extravagant and anachronistic claim, in other words, Maududi sees the sin of man becoming god (ilah) as occurring so easily that it can manifest itself within individuals as well as between them, writing that, “Even if he secures deliverance from the service of other ilahs, he becomes a slave to his own petty passions and exalts the devil in him to the position of a supreme Lord.”[7] In order to prevent the domination of man over man, then, as well as of an individual over himself, all mortals need to be subjected to God as a purely external, and in this way mythical figure, one embodied in an archaic and therefore non-partisan law that preserves society from internal division:

If people observe these just limits and regulate their affairs within these boundary walls, on the one hand and their personal liberty is adequately safeguarded and, on the other [sic] possibility of class war and domination of one class over another, which begins with capitalist oppression and ends in working-class dictatorship, is safely and conveniently eliminated.[8]

This obsession with harmony led Maududi to recommend the kind of separation between social and religious groups, and even between genders, that might prevent conflict and domination among them. Remarkably similar to contemporary Hindu visions of a harmonious society of castes, some of which were shared by figures like Gandhi, Islamic models of co-existence in this period made every effort to prevent both desire and conflict between groups by a segregated form of pluralism that took caste and class, as well as community and gender into consideration. Maududi’s advocacy of separate legislative assemblies for men and women, therefore, extended to a defense of separate electorates, which in colonial India had characterized Hindu and Muslim representation. But the reasons for supporting such a constitutional system have now changed, as is inevitable in a situation where Muslims are a majority, so Maududi links separate electorates to Pakistan’s curiously anti-territorial or rather ideological character:

[Joint electorates] will strengthen, in both the geographically distant wings of the State, the consciousness of territorial nationhood at the cost of Islamic fraternity. And, as this feeling will grow in strength and intensity, Muslims of the two different areas who have nothing common except religion, will be driven farther and farther away from their own brothers-in-faith and nearer to the people belonging to their own territory who have almost every factor common with each other except religion.[9]

Maududi is able, in an extraordinary achievement, to recover the paranoia that marked minority politics in India and instill it in the heart of Pakistan’s majority. Unlike the fears of an exploding Muslim population that haunt the nightmares of Hindu nationalism, however, it is not the number of non-Muslims that concerns Maududi, but instead that of his own co-religionists. For as a majority Muslims are capable of destroying what he sees as their religious distinctiveness by democratic means, something they would have been unable to do as a minority in India. They might, for instance, start identifying as Bengalis in East Pakistan, or neglect properly Islamic principles of “harmonious” governance. And so the Muslim majority requires protection from itself, just as the Pakistani people needs to divest itself of sovereignty by reserving this attribute for God. All of which suggests that despite having tried to surmount it for decades, the language of minority politics and protections continues to inform Pakistani debates, with “fundamentalists” in particular setting themselves against a heedless Muslim majority that has taken the place of its erstwhile Hindu foe. The only way to avoid this threat, we have seen, is by eliminating all notions of popular sovereignty and the social conflict that inevitably follows it, and instead to identify directly with the divine law. Yet this surely does nothing more than allow Muslims to take God’s place and thus commit the very sin that Maududi most fears. To reject “man-made” legislation, after all, and enforce divine law in defiance of it, as those did who attacked Ahmadis in the 1950s, or who do today when punishing “blasphemy”, is to act as nothing less than the hand of God smiting down sinners. For those who would enforce God’s law in Pakistan by repudiating popular sovereignty, in fact end up acting the part of God in that country. Their very rejection of human agency and mediation has made such Muslims divine.


[1] Maududi, Islamic Law, p. 214.

[2] Ibid., p. 216.

[3] Mawdudi, Tafhimat, p. 164.

[4] See Leonard Binder, Religion and Politics in Pakistan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963).

[5] See for this Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama‘at-i Islami of Pakistan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).

[6] Maududi, Islamic Law, p. 132.

[7] Ibid., p. 142.

[8] Ibid., p. 143.

[9] Ibid., p. 309.

(3) Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. Looking forward to your book now!

    So if I understand it correctly, you describe Maududi’s anti-politics as his rejection of human agency. Thus the simplistic binary in his thinking between man-made law vs divine legislation. But do you see any correctives from within his legacy/oeuvre that might help us move beyond him? In other words, can Maududi help Maudidians become post-Maududians? I ask, partially because I see the same move being repeated even within those who break away from him, conspicuous here would be Israr Ahmad. Despite his emphasis on “de-stating” the “Islamist” project there remains an inability to “deal with antagonism” or otherness more broadly. Though, more ambiguous would be the case of figures like Ghamdi. Do you think they are less likely to fall into such easy binaries? But then what of their “politics” as such? Alternately, if you don’t want to deal with the particularities that I’m raising, what do you see the future of “Islamism /political-Islam” in Pakistan with new entrants like Qadri, or even Imran Khan?

    • Thanks, Omar, and apologies for the late response. I think its possible to launch an immanent critique of Mawdudi, and, as you suggest, this is in practice being done already, not least in the Jamat-e-Islami Hind. But like Qadri and others, the problem seems to be that this practical critique has, to my knowledge, no theoretical correlative. I’ve always thought that Mawdudi’s analysis of sovereignty, so much like Schmitt’s in certain ways, provides a good point of departure for such an internal critique. If we follow him in presuming sovereignty’s theological character and thus its political impossibility, then a series of questions open up about the nature of politics and the place of sovereignty. But these are not being posed at the moment, as far as I know at least. The problem with the “non-political” Islamic movements, mostly Salafi but also others, is that they tend in my opinion to lapse into some form of (neo) liberalism, structurally anyway, because they’ve been unable for the most part to follow through an immanent critique of figures such as Mawdudi. In any case I suspect that old-fashioned Islamism, with its idea of an Islamic Revolution and Ideological State is intellectually as dead as the Cold War from which in emerged. This is why the highly individualistic militants and Salafis become possible–and very interesting as “post-Islamist” figures.

  2. Pingback: Arab News Blog » Islamism as Anti-Politics

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