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  • War and Peace in Islam: A Critique of Islamic/ist Political Discourses by S.M Farid Mirbagheri
  • John Kelsay (bio)
War and Peace in Islam: A Critique of Islamic/ist Political Discourses, by S.M Farid Mirbagheri. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 214pages. $90.

Given the title, one might suppose that Professor Farid Mirbagheri’s purpose is to provide historical or conceptual insight into Islamic approaches to the political use of [End Page 339] military force. And indeed, War and Peace in Islam does contain some material of this type. However, the author’s primary focus is signaled by the subtitle: A Critique of Islamic/ist Political Discourses. This is an attempt to offer an alternative to the most prominent historical and, especially, contemporary trends in Islamic discourse about war. As well, the author, who occupies the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, wishes to contribute to the development of a global order that will render the current state-centered models passé.

With respect to Islam, Mirbagheri offers a version of the spiritual discourse known as ‘irfan, “gnosis.” Typically associated with Shi‘i Islam, the term points to a disciplined attempt to transform the self. The ultimate goal is union with God; along the way, the practitioner develops a capacity for universal love. Ultimately, all creatures bear witness to God, offer praise to their creator, and in some sense, are themselves manifestations or “signs” of God. One who is loved by God, and who loves God in return must therefore practice love for God’s handiwork — as a whole, and with respect to the individual parts. The poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273 CE) and his many successors provides an important resource for this discussion of gnosis. As well, Mirbagheri notes that the links between ‘irfan and the more general phenomenon of Sufism suggest that he is on to something that breaks down sectarian barriers, so that Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims alike may draw on the wisdom of this spiritual tradition.

Indeed, Mirbagheri claims a more universal relevance for ‘irfan. Since the aim is transformation of the self in the direction of universal love, Islamic gnosis breaks down barriers that separate human beings from one another. This includes those barriers identified with the order of sovereign states. Here, the author notes those trends in studies of international affairs by which various scholars suggest that the notion of sovereignty associated with Westphalia is no longer useful. The need is for a new set of arrangements designed to enable cooperation on problems of global scale (e.g., environmental degradation, public health emergencies, and the various phenomena associated with failed states). Suggesting an alliance between ‘irfan and the diverse set of proposals known generally as “constructivism,” Mirbagheri hopes to provide a counter to advocates of realism. In that sense, his book goes beyond a critique of Muslim discourse about politics and war. Ultimately, the argument suggests that the transformation of persons lays the groundwork for a reconstitution of global order.

The author’s aim is thus ambitious, and his idealism is admirable. Yet one cannot help but note that the most dominant form of Islamic discourse regarding issues of war and peace has been and remains the set of judgments articulated by scholars of fiqh. Typically translated as “jurisprudence,” the Arabic suggests the attempt to ascertain shari‘a or the path by which human beings may fulfill their nature and attain the goal of paradise. In our own time, the sense that established religious and political institutions lack legitimacy has given rise to a variety of popular resistance movements, the members of which typically claim the mantle of shari‘a. These, too, aim at changing the existing order of global politics. However, the nature of their aims differs from that of Professor Mirbagheri. And given that the leaders of such groups do not only argue, but find ways to finance and arm their members for the purposes of carrying out armed struggle, this reviewer is at least inclined toward the view that the admirable vision by which transformed persons participate in the reconstruction of world order is in need of a...


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