Islam vs. Islamism: The Birth of Totalitarian Theology

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Islamist terrorists and theocrats hold beliefs quite different from those of ordinary Muslims. But where does radical Islamism originate from?

In the 20th century, the world faced two major totalitarian threats, one in the form of fascism that was spearheaded by Nazi Germany, and the other in the form of communism, spearheaded by the Soviet Union. fascism mostly died after the defeat of Axis forces during the World War II, and communism lost most of its global influence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, this did not mark the end of totalitarianism; in fact, a new similar threat emerged. But this new threat was not secular in nature like fascism or communism, but this was actually modeled on a religious faith. Its adherents chanted religious slogans before they targeted innocent civilians. This was the threat of Political Islam or Islamism. Ideologically, it was similar to the other totalitarian ideologies of its time: it was utopian and had an agenda of complete global domination. The only difference was that this one was based on a religious faith.

In the following text, I will try to explain the socio-political circumstances behind the emergence of Political Islam, and how It differs from the traditional Islam, which is a systematic understanding of Islam devised by certain Islamic jurists and scholars over a long period of time, and to which most Muslims subscribe. Doing this will not only help us address the problem clearly, but it would also serve as an attempt to discourage any wide generalization of Muslims while at the same time acknowledging that some Muslims do have a problem which needs to be countered.

Maududi and the reaction to colonialism

To understand Political Islam, it is vital for us to first discern the religious ideology of Syed Abul Ala Maududi, just as to understand Communism, it is important for us to first understand Marx. Maududi was an influential Islamist thinker of the 20th century, founder of the largest Islamist party in the Sub-continent (Jamaat-e-Islami), and an eloquent writer who wrote over 100 books on different topics. He was perhaps the most influential Islamist thinker of the 20th century who even influenced the likes of Syed Qutb (an extremely influential Egyptian highly rated Islamist thinker). To understand Maududi, we should understand the political and social circumstances of India at that time, that created his religious ideology. As a young man, Maududi saw his country being run by the British, and as any other Indian, he was just as anguished to see his country being run by an external force. There were primarily two major political parties in India, one was the Indian National Congress, that claimed to be struggling for an independent united secular India, and the other was the All India Muslim league, that was demanding a separate state for the Muslims of India, especially for the Muslims in the North-Western Provinces.

Islamism

Artist’s rendering of Abul A’la Maududi, whose writings helped shape radical Islamism in South Asia.

Most of the prominent Islamic scholars of that time sided not with the Muslim League, but with the secular and nationalist policies of the Congress; Maulana Azad and Maulana Madani are a few to name. Maududi was also quite closely observing the spread of Marxism, liberalism and Western influence in the Indian society. All these factors combined, compelled Maududi to propose an understanding of Islam that would not only preclude the cultural coexistence promised by the Congress and pro-congress Islamic clerics but would also present Islam as a viable socio-political model that can serve as an alternative to Western secular ideologies. Castigating Western thought formed the crux of Maududi’s ideology.

Maududi’s critics

Marxism is referred to as the economic interpretation of history because, in Karl Marx’s understanding of life, the economic factor dominates everything else. In the same way, Maududi projected Islam in such a way that every aspect of it acquired a political hue. Therefore, one can term the religious ideology of Maududi as the political interpretation of Islam. When Maududi founded his Islamist political party in 1941, many scholars from the traditionalist Islamic circles initially joined him. But they soon parted their ways, because according to them, Maududi was presenting Islam not as a spiritual faith that focuses on the salvation of people in the afterlife, but as a political force more concerned about establishing world dominance. One notable scholar and a former member of Jamaat-e-Islami, Abul Hasan Nadvi said that in Maududi’s conception of Islam:-

“Theocracy replaces spirituality as the objective of Quranic revelation”.

He further said that “Muslims will be judged by God for their piety and performance of religious works. Ibadah (worship) should, therefore, be directed at the realization of that end and should not serve as a vehicle for establishing a theocracy, which was at best only a means for a higher end.” Maududi believed that the word ”Ibadah” comes from the word “Abd” (slave), and therefore means not just obeying the God in the spiritual sense, but being absolutely obedient to God in every sphere of life.

Wahiduddin Khan, one of the most fierce critics of Maududi wrote that:-

“Religious worship was to serve as a means for personal reform and not as a vehicle for establishing worldly power”.

Seyyed Vali Nasr writes that:-

‘’Maududi’s teachings on Islam and Islamic state parted with the traditional perspective to a large extent: he defined faith, the meaning of spirituality and the nature of the relations between Islam and society very differently from the traditionalist view. His overtly and exclusively political reading was distinguished from the essentially soteriological and spiritual concerns of traditional Islam”.

Manzur Ahmed Numani, another prominent scholar of Islam, said that Maududi fundamentally misinterpreted the aim of the Islamic revelation by overlooking Islam’s philosophical and theological traditions. Maududi’s critics amongst the traditional clergy argued that his political reading of Islam reduced the faith into worldly activism and a drive for political power and it converted Islam into an “ism” indistinguishable from any other.

Islamism

Wahiduddin Khan has argued that “religious worship was to serve as a means for personal reform and not as a vehicle for establishing worldly power”

Maududi’s critics did not disagree with him on emphasizing the political dynamics of Islam, what they disagreed on was that he deemed politics and the establishment of an Islamic theocracy as the vortex of Islam, and not the spiritual purification and salvation. Islamism, therefore, does not simply emphasize the political dynamics of Islam, but it actually interprets the entirety of Islam through a political prism. Therefore, what was actually a single component of Islam, has become the most dominant aspect in Islamism.

Wahiduddin Khan in his book “The Error Of Interpretation” criticizes Maududi for misusing the Quranic term of “ad-deen” (establishment of religion).

“He has ordained for you of religion what He enjoined upon Noah and that which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammd], and what We enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus – to establish the religion and not be divided therein”. (42:13)

Wahiduddin Khan gave numerous examples of the early Quranic exegetes, none of whom have taken the word “ad-deen” in the same sense as Maududi. In traditional Islam, the Quran’s demand for establishing the religion has been understood in the sense as establishing the basic and fundamental tenets of the faith, and not establishing an Islamic theocratic state as Maududi understood. Khan writes that for Maududi, acquiring political power became of fundamental importance for the believer. The whole of Islam was wrongly projected as being based on just one of many factors or aspects of life—politics.

He points out another occasion where Maududi departed from traditional Islam. Maududi, in his book “Khutbat”, wrote about the purpose of worship in the following words:-

“Prayer, fasting, Hajj (pilgrimage) and zakat (charity), which God has made a duty for you and has appointed as pillars of Islam, all these things are not, as in the forms of worship in other religions, mere rituals and offerings and customs that you perform and God is happy with you. Rather, the fact of the matter is that they have been made into a duty to prepare you for a lofty purpose and to train you for an important task. This aim is to wipe out the rule of human beings and to establish the ruler-ship of the one God. To be ready to sacrifice one’s everything and make efforts for this purpose even at the cost of one’s life is called jihad. Prayer and fasting and Haj and zakat are all for preparing for this particular purpose”.

This is clearly distinct from the traditional understanding of the purpose of worship, where worship is defined in terms of achieving spiritual benefits and God’s forgiveness. Quoting from numerous writings of Maududi, Khan shows how far Maududi had departed from accepted and established Muslim scholarly understandings of Islam through his politics-centric interpretation of it.

Religion as politics only

All this discussion quite clearly shows the difference between the traditional Islam and Islamism. My intention is not to describe which interpretation is correct but to only explain the difference between the two. In traditional Islam, Politics is considered one of the many aspects of religion, but it is not given the status of being the most vital component of it. In this school of thought, the essence of Islam is actually spiritual in nature. In Islamism however, the political aspect of Islam becomes its essence, to the extent that almost everything in Islam is interpreted politically. Traditional Islam is conservative but does not carry the same element of militancy as Islamism. This also defines the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist, a Muslim is someone who views his faith primarily as a spiritual guide and not as a political guide. Therefore, he is concerned more about worship and fulfilling the fundamental demands of Islam. An Islamist, however, believes that true salvation lies in establishing God’s rule on earth.

In a world plagued by Islamist extremism, this difference has to be kept in mind. It has to be preached to those in the far-left, who dismiss the fact that there is an ideological motivation behind the terrorist attacks carried out by certain Muslims (Islamists), and also to the far-right, that tends to generalize over 1.6 billion Muslims and paints them with a single brush, when most of them, though conservative, do not subscribe to Islamism.

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About Author

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Ammar Anwer is a writer who focuses on Islamic History, Islamism and Islamic Reform.

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