There is an ongoing debate among modern Muslim scholars as to whether politics and religion are intrinsically tied together in Islam, or that such a link has merely been a coincidence, imposed upon the religion due to the social requirements of the formative period of Islamic political thought. The entrenched belief that Islam is intrinsically a political religion draws upon the fact that as soon as Prophet Mohammad was able to establish a body politic, he did so. Moreover, many Shari’a rules, in order to be implemented, require governmental apparatus. Hence, the Prophet’s Companions did not have any hesitation to appoint someone to undertake governmental duties that had been performed by him, after his death.
However, a minority of Muslim scholars, particularly in the modern period, such as the Egyptian ‘Ali ‘Abdel Raziq, find it an accident of time that Prophet Mohammad was involved in some statecraft. They argue that Mohammad’s prophetic mission was distinct from his state-building endeavor; and when, if at all, the latter was performed by him, it was because of the socio-historical situation in which he lived. Such a debate is, however, a normative one; and the fact of the matter is that, throughout the history of Muslim societies, the politics and religion have been closely related. This has been the case, since the time when an embryonic state formed in the early years of Prophet Mohammad’s arrival in Medina. In less than ten years the nascent city-state developed into a fully-fledged state with a missionary nature. This fact still plays an important role in Muslim societies. With the rise of Islamic political movements in recent decades, a new surge in the interrelatedness of politics and religion has been experienced within Muslim societies.
The mere historical fact that the Muslim state was founded, during the Prophet’s lifetime, and expanded and consolidated, after him, on basis of faith, incorporated a strong identity element within the concept of the political among Muslims.
In this short paper, I first briefly explain the salience of legitimate political disagreement within societies. Then, after a short review of the background to the close link between politics and identity in Islamic societies, I explain that the prohibition of political dissent has been a consequence of such a link, leading to splits within the Muslim society. In the final part, I explore how the concept of political dissent can be incorporated in contemporary Islamic political culture.
Political disagreement is considered as part and parcel of modern democracies. Public debate would not be possible without disagreement, and the rotation of political power requires a viable opposition. The functioning of democratic institutions is contingent upon the existence of political dissent and an opposition that is not only tolerated but also empowered to play an active role in the workings of public institutions. Alongside its institutional roles, legitimate political opposition is of paramount importance socially, since official recognition of dissenting social and political forces prevents such forces from recourse to violence or acts that would lead to disintegration of the society.
“Political disagreement is considered as part and parcel of modern democracies. Public debate would not be possible without disagreement, and the rotation of political power requires a viable opposition.”
Although there was a limited account of political disagreement in the Athenian democracy and other types of non-liberal democracies in the world, the concept of legitimate political disagreement has not been recognized in any society until recently, within the context of liberal democratic thought.
Background: The Link between Politics and Identity in Islamic Society
Muslim Arabs inherited the interrelatedness of identity and politics from their pre-Islamic ancestors, for whom identity was primarily defined as belonging to a tribe, which was the only type of social organization that could loosely be called political in that era. When Prophet Mohammad died, nevertheless, there was a central government in the Arabian Peninsula based in Medina and tribal identities were replaced by a unified identity, that is, Islamic faith. There was, however, a short-lived period, in the early years of Prophet Mohammad’s settlement in Medina, when a type of commonwealth was established in the city. Under the Medina Charter, or Ṣaḥīfat al-Madīnah, a type of constitutional framework agreed upon by all tribes and religions present in Medina, various religious and tribal entities lived together, with a shared loose semi-political authority responsible for adjudication and defense. It can be said that this was the only period in Islamic history when politics and identity were dissociated, to some extent. Because of various events such as Jewish tribes’ collaboration with the Meccan Quraysh, the commonwealth faded away, and by the time of Prophet Mohammad’s death, a fully-fledged missionary state was in its place.
Prohibiting Political Disagreement
After Prophet Mohammad’s death, a secular element was incorporated in the Islamic/Sunni account of politics. Although politics kept its religious connotation as an apparatus for implementing Islamic rules and even promoting the religion, political leadership was no longer considered free from wrongdoing and immune from criticism. The appointment of a caliph was a two-level electoral process. At first, the politico-religious elite, selected the caliph from a group of learned and just candidates; and then the public, mainly passively, confirmed the appointment. In practice, however, the process, which comprised of both religious and secular components, was not so straightforward and free from unauthorized influences.
Such an account of political leadership and its selection procedure should have logically allowed a type of legitimate political disagreement and the formation of political opposition. However, in practice, this did not happen, as can been seen in the practice of compulsory pronouncement of allegiance. It can be argued that the close relationship between identity and politics did not allow the formation of legitimate political opposition. On the other hand, although criticism of the caliph was allowed, and even encouraged during the first four caliphs, in later periods it was not tolerated. Consequently, political opposition was never institutionalized in the Islamic civilization and Muslim societies were not able to develop a concept of legitimate political disagreement.
“It can be argued that the close relationship between identity and politics did not allow the formation of legitimate political opposition. On the other hand, although criticism of the caliph was allowed, and even encouraged during the era of the first four caliphs, in later periods it was not tolerated.”
This was, however, not confined to Muslim societies. As mentioned before, the concept of legitimate political disagreement has not been recognized in any society until recently. The problem in Muslim societies, or any political society based on expressed identity politics, was that they paved the way for the proliferation of new religious identities originated in political disagreement.
Proliferation of Divisions
Although there is no agreement among Muslim scholars as to exactly when religious divisions emerged within Muslim society, many historical accounts attribute the development of such divisions to differences on the issue of succession to Prophet Mohammad. The issue was of paramount importance since successors to the Prophet were to inherit both his religious and political authority. As many scholars of the past and present have observed, most splits within Islam were caused by differences on the issue of leadership.
The type of politics followed in Islamic society led to the proliferation of divisions. The problem was that the close link between identity and politics did not allow any type of political dissent. The close link between religion and politics gave rise to the belief that any political disagreement is a rebellion against Islam as such. Hence, it was called sedition, or fitna, and triggered the exclusion and excommunication of dissenters.
“The close link between religion and politics gave rise to the belief that any political disagreement is a rebellion against Islam as such. Hence, it was called sedition, or fitna, and triggered the exclusion and excommunication of dissenters.”
On the other hand, the dissenters not only articulated doctrinal bases for their dissent, but also tried to establish a distinct political society of their own. Put differently, a newly formed identity rooted in a disagreement over the leadership issue was never confined to doctrinal arguments, and inevitably had a political twist, reproducing the link between identity and politics. Dissenters wanted to exclude other Muslims not only doctrinally, but also politically. Hence, any political disagreement was apt to be put in identity terms, shutting the door for any reconciliation, and paving the way for schism.
Splits within Islam
The first major split within Muslim society that led to the creation of a separate community distinguishing itself from the rest of Muslims was initiated by the group Khawarij, or those who exited the mainstream Muslim community. This event happened in years 36 and 37 AH (657 AD), during the battle of Siffin, between the armies of Imam ‘Ali, the fourth Caliph, and Muawiya, the rebel governor of the Levant. When a settlement through arbitration was proposed, a group of ‘Ali’s army disagreed, believing that only God can determine who the caliph is. This was the beginning of a series of developments leading to the formation of the sect Khawarij.
Given the interrelatedness of identity and politics, the disagreement that could have been confined to the realm of politics was put in religious terms. The Khawarij’s question as to who was the legitimate leader of Muslim society was soon turned into the question of who is a true believer. Hence, it became more and more difficult for the group to reintegrate with the mainstream Muslim community. Their political radicalization, which was shown in their continuous uprisings against the Umayyads, coincided with their religious radicalization, which can be recognized in their beliefs such as excommunicating and killing those who did not believe in their creeds.
Another division within Muslim society was caused by the Sunni/Shi‘a difference over the issue of the rightful succession to Prophet Mohammad, which was triggered immediately after his death. The disagreement over leadership was not merely a political disagreement, as the leadership was assumed to include the more important issue of religious guidance. Such a disagreement gradually developed into a division whereby not only did the parties deny each other doctrinally but also tried to establish distinct societies under what was assumed to be the rightful leadership.
Proliferation of divisions due to disagreement over leadership was even more pronounced among the Shi‘a, whose account of religion is based on a total combination of religious and political authority. This was despite the fact that the Shi‘i advocates were found mostly among the opposition rather than in the ruling elite. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries after hijra, there were so many disputes among Zaidi tribes in Yemen that it was said “there was a Caliph in every village.”
Accommodating the Concept of Legitimate Political Disagreement in Islamic Political Culture
Although the concept of legitimate political disagreement has not been properly developed within the context of traditional Islamic political thought, it can be said that such a concept is not completely alien to it. As touched upon before, there were historical precedents in the early Islamic period, during the reign of the first four Caliphs, when criticism of the ruler was not only permitted, but also encouraged. Also, the practice of compulsory pronouncement of allegiance was temporarily abandoned during the rule of the Fourth Caliph, ‘Ali, under whom some distinguished Muslims, such as ‘Omar’s son, were relieved of pledging allegiance to him.
In both Sunni and Shi‘i political cultures, alongside religious elements, there are secular components, which allow for the incorporation of the concept of political dissent. This is particularly so when politics is involved in an area of life not covered by the Shari‘a. The Sunni account of choosing the ruler by the society is another manifestation of such a secular element. Also within the Shi‘i tradition, the conviction that we now live in the era of the Occultation, a period in which the legitimate Imam is not available, circumscribes the ideal of complete unity of religious and political authorities and makes room for political dissent and pluralism. Moreover, the very concept of ijtihad, a process of independent reasoning through which religious scholars arrive at religious verdicts, paves the way for the legitimacy of diversity in such verdicts.
“Muslim society has not been completely alien to such a conception [of political dissent] historically, but has never articulated it, the lack of which has been detrimental to the society.”Recognition of political dissent is a conceptual and theoretical need for Islamic political culture. Such a theorization is a requirement of a vibrant political environment intended to accommodate diverse political agendas and to avoid split and disintegration. It is more necessary in the contemporary world, as democratic arrangements for the public life, in one way or another, have been accepted in most societies. As touched upon above, Muslim society has not been completely alien to such a conception historically, but has never articulated it, the lack of which has been detrimental to the society. Such a short-coming seems to be the contingent outcome of historical circumstances and a lack of conceptual tools. It is crucial that contemporary Muslim scholars develop a conception of political dissent harmonious to the principles of Islamic thought as well as the requirements of a thriving political life.