- Mirror for the Muslim Prince: Islam and the Theory of Statecraft ed. by Mehrzad Boroujerdi
This collection of essays is a valuable contribution to the study of Muslim political thought, past and contemporary. Its thesis is that the political views and values of the Muslim elite, including thinkers and rulers (there is scant indication in historical sources of what people in general thought) were less specifically ‘Islamic’ and more diverse than has often been suggested. They drew on ‘secular’ sources, such as Persian monarchism and statecraft, as well as on the Qur͗an and hadith; one should distinguish between this literature and the ‘jurisprudence’ based exclusively on the religious sources. There was no pre-modern ‘political theory’ built on revealed texts; non-religious ideas about government were commonplace among Muslims from the start. Not everyone thought the caliphate necessary. Perhaps, as al-Azmeh (Chapter 13) seems to want to say, one should speak rather of ‘Middle-Eastern’ and ‘Near Eastern’ political thought.
For some, this approach had a spiritual underpinning in Sufism, which promoted a non-legalistic approach to the revealed texts and to religion in general. Saïd Amir Arjomand shows that while prophets were deemed necessary ‘to guide mankind to salvation’, kings were deemed necessary to ‘preserve order as the prerequisite for the pursuit of salvation’ (84). This was a feature especially of Muslims in Persian culture, the distinctive nature of which – Arjomand argues – has been underestimated by some scholars. Arjomand suggests that we speak not of ‘Islamic political thought’ but of ‘Perso-Islamicate political ethic and public law’ (82). This was particularly important, as Muzaffar Alam points out, in Mughal India where the regime depended on support from Hindus as well as Muslims for its stability. The question then arises: why did the jurisprudential genre win out over that of the philosophy and the royal ‘advice’ literature? Or to what extent, and when, did it win out? [End Page 106]
The part of the collection dealing with modern political thought contains an important discussion by Bruce Rutherford of thinkers who have developed the notion of ‘Islamic constitutionalism’ and influenced the Muslim Brotherhood. Although a few of his remarks have inevitably become dated due to the speed of events in Egypt, the issues he deals with are still pertinent. It is not difficult to show, as Muslim theorists commonly do, that classical Islam ‘constrain(ed) the power of the ruler’ (247). But the real issue, not always addressed head on, is the relationship between professions of commitment to democracy, a separate judiciary, and the like – and actual political practice. There is the missing link: the lack of constitutional detail both in Muslim theorists such as al-Qaraḍāwī and in the political programmes of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Who, for example, exactly are those who can ‘exercise ijtihad’ (independent judgment) in the drafting of legislation (245)? The council of the Muslim Brotherhood veered towards the view that it was themselves (267). Again, in 2005, the Brotherhood professed support for freedom of speech ‘within the limits of public order, social decorum, and society’s constants’ (cited on page 263). Any Supreme Court would need a mountain of precedent to know what that means; but surely the Brotherhood do know, and it is not the answer they altogether wish to give to any but themselves.
It is all very well to argue that freedom of thought and of choice is stipulated by Muslim teachings, but how does this relate to the practice of Muslim politicians in power? One factor is the need to get public support by appealing to a strict interpretation of religious teachings (much as some politicians in the West do with regard to allegedly standing for national values, for example). Again, al-Qaraḍāwī maintains he is enhancing the status of women even though (in Rutherford’s words) he holds that a woman ‘should embark on public life only if she has no children or if her children are grown’ (254). Not...