The Quest for Legitimacy in Muslim Contexts:
A Four-Act Tragedy?
Abdou Filali-Ansary 15 July 2016

If one wishes to understand the changes affecting the idea of political legitimacy as understood in society, one must acknowledge that all historical events are not equal. There are some that are of particular significance because they permeate the collective imagination in a lasting and profound manner, leaving almost indelible marks on the manner in which a society perceives itself and on the manner in which it projects the forms it considers most appropriate for conducting its affairs and achieving its aspirations. In short, the methods incarnating political legitimacy are forged at specific moments. It is as if, in some way, there were “folds” in the time of social imagination, to use the language of the theory of relativity. These folds remain and are of the greatest interest to those wishing to understand the configuration of society’s political imagination.

Legitimacy is understood here in the sense attributed to it by the work of Max Weber, meaning how belief shared by the people of a country, which envisages a sort of consensus, is achieved, often founded on the manner in which past conflicts are resolved or overcome.

The idea of presenting the quest for legitimacy in Muslim contexts as a “four-act tragedy” is aimed at emphasising certain essential turning points in this history, which have contributed to provide the aspirations of populations with particular forms that we need to bear in mind in order to understand current developments.

Act 1: The “founding moments”

Effectively, each of these four “acts” represents, in its own way, a founding moment, because each, in some way, marks a new beginning. We are using this expression here for what are generally considered as the moments that saw the birth of the Islamic religion and a form of political life that resulted, such as in the first decades of the history of Muslims, initially as directed by the Prophet and then under the rule of his closest Companions.

On the subject of these very first moments, there appears to be unanimous consensus on the interpretation, to the extent that the majority present this as an established fact, which is simply stated. It seems to be a given that Islam combines religion and politics, that it is both a system of beliefs as far as an afterlife, a sense of the universe, etc. are concerned and the obligation to establish a given political order which some people are nowadays calling an “Islamic State.” The fact that one believes in one element – a system of beliefs – is said to imply, in absence of incoherence, a commitment in favour of the second – accepting the obligation to establish a given political order. There is no need to quote the formulas used to express this idea; they are numerous and varied and enunciated by many people, often proclaimed from the outset when asked to describe what Islam is. All efforts to relativize these formulas –underlining for example that it was the Muslims who chose very early on in their history to commit themselves to the path involving the creation of a political entity, that, one way or another, all the great religious traditions combine religion and politics until a process known as secularisation weakened religion’s domination of public life, etc. – soon become bogged down in stubborn repetitions of the magic formula, “Islam mixes religion and politics.”

Ali Aberraziq (1888 – 1962), an ‘alim (a theologian-jurist) educated at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, was one of the rare people who spoke out against this way of seeing things. The most remarkable, in his famous essay entitled L’Islam et les fondements du pouvoir (published in Cairo in 1925), is the process adopted. This essay is set out as a geometrical demonstration; each chapter involves titled and numbered propositions, linked together as demonstrative systems. The author’s objective is to prove things that everyone can see, rather than expressing a preference for one thesis or another interpretation, to the detriment of another. The following are some of the observations made by Ali Abderraziq:

1. No verse in the Koran proposes a prescription or a recommendation that could be considered as being of a political nature. Calls for obedience to the Prophet and to those who “are in charge”, as well as exhortations to hold consultations between the faithful as well as moral principles of a general nature, cannot, in any case, be taken for elements of political obligation.

2. No known hadiths add anything whatsoever in this field to what the Koran states.

3. The fact that the Prophet involved himself in the creation of a community arose from his prophetic mission. Furthermore, the community he created had none of the institutions indispensable for the formation of the most simple and elementary political entities.

4. If there were initiatives undertaken by the Prophet that could be described as having political characteristics, these were “personal” initiatives not linked to his prophetic mission, which everyone surrounding the Prophet acknowledged as such (the Prophet was involved in trade, etc.).

5. It was the Muslims who, following the Prophet’s death, chose to opt for a transformation of their community into a political entity, and this choice does not reveal the “nature” of Islam. To support this thesis, Ali Abderraziq quotes known facts, such as the divergences that appeared following the Prophet’s death, as well as little-known facts such as the change in language one perceives among Muslims at that time. This was the first time that certain responsibilities were discussed in their conversations (Who should be the Amir, head of the army, or the person with power? Who should be Wazir (minister)? How should positions of responsibility be distributed? How should the conquered regions be administered? How should the community’s finances be organised?).

The period that starts after the Prophet’s death is known as that of the khulafa’ rashidun, a word most often translated as “righteously-guided caliphs”. It lasted about thirty years and consisted of the succession of four among the Prophet’s companions as leaders of the community. It was a period of military victories and territorial expansion, but also of serious upheavals and internal confrontations, the most serious of which was the one that followed the assassination of the third Caliph, Othman ibn ‘Affan, by preachers who were in fact “readers of the Koran” who had come from Egypt (a name attributed to those who had learned the Koran by heart and could teach it to others). The confrontation became a civil war, opposing the fourth Caliph (Ali ibn Abi Talib) and Mu’awia Ibn Abi Sufyan, governor of Syria under the third Caliph and pretender to the succession in the name of a need to punish Othman’s assassins. The war was later named Fitna Kubra (translated as the Great Discord, which could also be translated as Great Sedition, or Great Temptation – see the remarkable book on this subject by Hichem Djait [1]). When at the end of this conflict Ali was defeated and assassinated, the days of the righteously-guided lieutenants (or, once again the “Rightful Successors”) ended and in the eyes of Muslims belonging to the next generations a new era began, that of mulk, monarchic power, a kind of power that militarily powerful leaders imposed on the community. This was considered as devoid of legitimacy and therefore, clearly usurped. The idea was that with the Rightful Successors, politics was at the service of religion and of its community, so much so that with the dynastic political regime inaugurated by Mu’awiya, religion was placed at the service of politics. This perspective was shared by Shiites and Sunnis alike, although according to the Shiites, matters assumed a far more dramatic dimension, since, in their opinion, the community was deprived of direction provided by the imam designated by the Prophet and the only Legitimate Curate.

In remembering this, what is interesting is the emergence, in the course of the tragic outcome of a fundamental confrontation, the emergence of a sentiment involving a loss of legitimacy, a loss of what should allow the community to follow its path in the sense prescribed by religion.

In order to further emphasise the specific characteristics of the sentiment of legitimacy that emerged at this time, A. Abderraziq evoked the episode in which Malik Ibn Nuwaira, a tribal chief, was called upon the day after the Prophet’s death to accept the power of the caliphate being created in Medina. He refused, on the basis that the Prophet was to be obeyed because he was sent by God, but his successors, as simple human beings belonging to specific tribal groups and wishing to exercise their domination over other groups, had no right to demand the obedience of Muslims nor a fortiori lay claim to the Prophet’s legacy.

Was Ibn Nuwaira the first secularist in the history of Muslims? Or perhaps did he express the feelings of a tribal chief (probably nomadic) refusing to submit to a central power (et citadin)? Ali Abderraziq spoke of his tragic fate, since he was killed by the commander of the troops sent to reinstate allegiance to the caliphate and raise the zakat (the religious tax) to prove that Muslims had fully understood that, when succession to the Prophet was in place, what had occurred was the transition of a community with religious characteristics to a political entity.

In fact, in spite of this event and others like it, the model for legitimate power that became embedded in the collective conscience of Muslims following the adventures of the “founding moments”, was that of a moral community supervised by a saintly man, a political entity managing temporal affairs in the name of religion, establishing on his authority a political framework for this moral community.

What should one learn before ‘lowering the curtain’ on this first act? Whatever anyone may say, there is nothing in the “holy texts” providing a vision on what an Islamic entity should be. All that can be said at this level, since, after all, following the death of the Prophet and his immediate followers, Muslims had no further texts – the Koran and testimonies about what the Prophet may have done or said – is that Islam, once again using the words of Fazlur Rahman [2], challenged its believers to live lives “in the fear of God”, or, as one would say nowadays, with a sentiment of the presence of the divine and creating a moral community and a social environment that would, in particular, protect society’s weakest members. It is clear that the invitation to establish a moral community was interpreted by certain Companions as an invitation to create a political entity.

Has this been a success? Was tribalism eliminated following the triumph of the Muslim community? Not entirely and even, perhaps, not at all. In reality, tribalism has not vanished. Nevertheless, a new collective identity emerged, that of the Muslims, and at certain times it brought men together regardless of their tribal identities.

Was the creation of such a community a way of “preaching by example? Was it a sign for believers indicating that they should become committed to the creation of a state? This can only be a matter of interpretation. One has indeed “found” clues here and there said to indicate that the Prophet would have wished to create an Arab empire, one that would have been capable of holding its own against the powers of the times, the Persian and Byzantine empires. Maaruf Al-Rusafi, a contemporary of Ali Abderraziq, better known for his poetry than for the book he dedicated to a re-reading of the sources used to draft biographies of the Prophet, collected these clues and his “interpretation” which makes the Prophet a sort of political visionary, the bearer of powerful intuition and also capable at the same time of implementing his vision, deserves a digression.

The most important element is that Muslims have retained and internalised a perception of legitimacy in which political power must create the moral community through the recommended religious message (and not make do with guaranteeing security and prosperity as suggested by Mu’awiya, founder of the first dynasty in the history of Muslims), and that the best way of achieving this was to have strong power, supervised by a descendent of the Prophet (preferable for most Sunnis and necessary for most Shiites).

Act II: The Sultan model

The attitudes that were to result in Act II started to make themselves manifest a few decades after the end of the previous period; after the dynasty created by Mu’awiya a member of the Umayyads, another dynasty, the Abbasids, came to power calling for religious legitimacy more aggressively, therefore playing openly on the hopes for legitimacy that had taken hold in the hearts of Muslims. However, it very quickly became clear that one dynasty had replaced an other and that power equally remained, if not even more, that of the mulk type (monarchic, hereditary power in which the interests of the reigning families dominated). Therefore this power was opposed to the regime of the “righteous curates” who were well-guided caliphs co-opted among the Companions close to the Prophet and who seemed to place the ideal of the moral community serving its members before that of the strong state serving its masters. The many uprisings that occurred, mainly organised by Shiites but also by other communities also animated by versions of this ideal (or utopia as certain people would say nowadays) of a moral community, changed nothing at all. None of these uprisings managed to weaken the caliphate system in its second version, that of the mulk, dynastic power devoid of religious motivation but nonetheless presented as a defender of religion. The Muslim masses – at this point it became possible to speak of masses with the empire having extended all the way to Spain to the West and to the Central Asian steppes to the East, and having integrated local populations with mass conversions – started to experience a degree of discouragement. A fully legitimate ideal form of power appeared to have vanished from sight, with no chance of it returning.

It was under these conditions, however, that a hope was born. An indirect path seemed to appear, allowing the creation of a way of life as close as possible to that of a moral community, a compromise made possible by the establishment of such a community, perceived this time as deferring to divine will as expressed in the Holy Book through the example set by the Prophet and the community he had created.

In fact, as soon as it became clear that the new holders of power, those who replaced the first caliphs, did not have the characteristics of clerics entirely devoted to the cause outlined by the religion, a number of men felt the need to devote themselves to rediscovering, formulating and teaching the rules that would allow individuals and groups to live a life in conformity with the religious precepts, even when ruled by ungodly despots. These men, found practically in all the regions integrated in the “empire” but more in particular in the areas in which populations were concentrated (cities) in Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Egypt, etc., saw circles of individuals gather around them in search of knowledge of the precepts to be followed in order to lead a life in conformity with their religion. This effectively resulted in a distribution of roles that had not initially been envisaged. Those in power increasingly became military leaders whose “religious culture” was often not superior to that of ordinary people. Remembrance of religious teachings, instead, was entrusted to men who were totally different. In the beginning they were tradesmen, craftsmen etc. simple members of the social fabric. However, little by little, tasks involving research and teaching took all their time and they became specialised in religious matters, the first ‘ulama (savants) and fuqaha (experts) of Muslim societies. Their work became a school of thought (literally) because groups of scholars formed all around them creating what we now call madhâhib, schools of jurisprudence. Once again, their objective was to formulate the rules that would allow people to live their lives under the symbol of Islam, rules that concerned relationships between individuals (hence a jurisprudence) but also many other matters, ranging from personal hygiene to what we nowadays call “rituals”, “etiquette”, “deontology” and matters of that kind, in brief, all that allowed people to live a good life in compliance with religious precepts.

The method adopted by these “specialists in religious matters” was slowly better established. The holy text became the main reference, but since the precepts it provided covered only part of the situations encountered, the first reaction was to follow local customs and/or what reasonably appeared to be compatible with the Islamic model, then, at a later moment resorting to a systematic collection of all the Prophet had said (Hadith) rather than a meticulous application of comparative techniques, which allowed the production of a sort of “guideline” allowing them to find an Islamic path in the various situations of everyday life.

What was essential in this, was that they managed to develop what an Islamic path would imply independently of those in power. The separation of the functions and fields of expertise became clearer and quite marked, at times becoming forms of opposition and confrontation. One can distinguish between, on the one hand, the political roles (caliph, ‘amil ­— governor—, ‘amir —ruler —, etc.) and religious roles; the respective domains of politics, maintaining order and going to war on the one hand, and on the other, religion, preaching, personal status (marriage, divorce, etc.), inheritance, the arbitration of disputes. The Koran speaks of a path to be followed in these matters and the word used is shari’a. This word would be adopted to indicate both the ideal (the ideal path) and “jurisprudential” practice. The approach that allowed one to recognise the path in cases addressed was called ilm (knowledge) or fiqh (expertise).

Is the separation of these two roles, between these two domains, a form of secularisation? Those who have addressed this issue, such as Mohamed Abed Jabri, knew well that at the time, religion provided the framework for a general idea of the world, historical perception and the interpretation of values, hence it was out of the question (with the exception of a very small elite that had access to ancient wisdom that came from the Greeks, Indians, Persians or Arabs) to have a secularised or independent vision of religion, or even envisaging the possibility of such a vision. They did not, however, avoid emphasising this separation of domains, one relevant to religion (rituals, theology, personal status) and the other to practical matters (maintaining public order, technical matters, economic practices, waging war), as well as the fact that they had different approaches, mobilising different knowledge and techniques and therefore required different characteristics.

What is most important, in our opinion, is that the “path” (shari’a) became the Islamic law that society adopted and internalised as the concrete expression of divine will, the means for creating the moral order that Islam entrusted its followers to put in place. The precepts of shari’a were developed by individuals gifted with essential knowledge and quickly acquired the status of superior laws for social order and had immense prestige in the eyes of the population. According to some contemporary historians, such an evolution is explained by the fact that shari’a, in the conditions of the time, was a sort of shield that allowed society to protect itself from political power it could not control and that it considered illegitimate. It all happened as if, having lost the hope of restoring a fully legitimate political system, society fell back on a system of norms conceived and implemented independently of those in power. It also equipped itself with a way of taking charge of its own affairs, of removing them from the hands of the rulers, declaring them subject to divine decrees and this entirely and definitively removed them from the manipulations of human beings, including those in power. The “sacralisation” of shari’a came precisely from that, from the particular political conditions in which it developed. The subsequent evolution was obvious; all that conforms with shari’a, or what permitted its implementation became legitimate and was then society’s fundamental law. Political leaders declared themselves the “armed branch” of shari’a and became the champions of its full application. In fact, it became a fundamental measure in the political sphere. Those in power stated that they were its defenders, those opposing the powerful declared they wished to be its true defenders. Even the Mongol invaders, who in 1258 destroyed Baghdad, the capital of the Abassid caliphate, had to convert to Islam and proclaimed they were the defenders of shari’a so as to be able to continue to rule over the populations living in what is now known as the Near East.

It is, however, well-known that shari’a, society’s supreme law, says nothing or almost nothing about political power. There are commandments in the Koran about what we nowadays call “personal status”, commercial law, rituals etc., but nothing similar to what we call public law. Muslim thinkers have expressed astonishment or indignation on this subject. M.A. Jabri, for example, rebuked the ‘ulama and fuqaha of the times for not having done for political power what they did for other sectors; they believed that reasoning by analogy, they should have formulated, on the basis of Koranic principles, rules that would have been able to control, regulate and organise political power. He was not the only one to reproach Muslim thinkers of the classical era on this issue. In the same sense, a number of economists have denounced the total lack of any precepts concerning organisations and institutions, in brief, all that we now call “personal morals” [3]. Fazlur Rahman went even further, accusing past generations of Muslim theologians, especially the very first ones who paved the way, of having betrayed the Koranic message [4]. All these criticisms, however, in addition to the fact that they are based on anachronisms, ignore one major fact; the main concern of these early thinkers and experts was to establish the rules for a truly Islamic way of life independent of political power. The idea was to confine political power within a very restricted framework, that of maintaining public order and defence from any external danger. In Muslim contexts, the law therefore assumed this particular form, that of acknowledging only “physical people” and not managing their relations, precisely because, having escaped all control, the public domain could only be removed and obliged to remain within stricter limits.

Could one say that at the end of “Act II” shari’a had replaced the regime of the “righteous clerics” as the symbol of political legitimacy in Muslim contexts? Could one say that there was at that point an idea of legitimacy as the reign or the supremacy of the rule of law, such law being represented by shari’a, and in which political power was rejected outside the domain of the law and confined to an executive role in charge of certain administrative missions? There are many nowadays who believe that this was the case. Some go so far as to see in this an explanation for what is currently taking place in Muslim contexts. Muslims supposedly profoundly internalised this ideal of legitimacy and could not conceive or accept anything else. Democracy “means” nothing to them; they do not want it nor understand it. What they want is for the system to guarantee a separation of power between religious clerics defending the supreme Islamic law and rulers whose power is reduced to a minimum [5].

Act III: The modern era enters the scene

The compromise forged in the course of the century or the 150 years that followed the end of the Caliphate of the Just (otherwise known as the era of the righteously-guided caliphs), lasted for many centuries, until it became intimately associated with the idea of Islam as a political system. Military leaders (“the people of the sword”) and the religious clerics (the “people of the Book”) emerged as two separate social categories, each with a specific role, each with a determined role and relations of cooperation, collusion or completion for control over the ‘umma, the public, consisting of the Muslim masses. A third type of player entered the system soon after the emergence of the category of religious clerics; the Sufi masters who proposed spiritual practices offering a “additional comfort for the soul” to the cleric’s normative discourses. Sufism saw its political role increase over the centuries since it managed to “organise” the masses and could mobilise them for one reason or another depending on the preachers’ inclinations. This system envisaged the enunciation by the class of religious clerics, or men of knowledge, of principles allowing the “legitimisation” to a certain extent, and only to a certain extent, of the acquisition of power by force by political adventurers. Certain cleric even went as far as saying that, “Whoever imposes his authority must be obeyed.” (Man qawiyat shawkatuhu, wajabat ta’atuhu.) Behind this apparently passive attitude regards to all de facto power, there was however a sort of implicit but imperious condition; political power, all political power, was supposed to accept the supreme law of a society that did not depend on this power [6].

After the period of the great empires, the regions with a Muslim majority experienced extreme political fragmentation. Political institutions were constantly formed and dismantled and were of variable sizes and duration; some of them were the equivalent of small principalities, while others achieved the size of empires reaching or approaching the status of global powers. The historian Hodgson observes that the world’s three great powers on the eve of the 18th century were “gunner” empires (equipped with powerful artilleries), and all three were Muslim; the Ottoman empire to the west, the Qajar at the centre (more or less today’s Iran) and the Mughal (Northern India) to the east.

Nothing seemed able to trouble this balance, or one could say this “mechanism”, which, while ensuring a certain social stability, allowed a rotation of power among political elites with similar characteristics. The famous Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) presented the most sophisticated description of the manner in which this “wheel of history” turned, without affecting the basic compromise, the modus vivendi between theologians and rulers, under the symbol of shari’a as society’s supreme law. Even the waves of invaders were either absorbed (like the Mongols) or repulsed (like the European Crusaders) and ended up by dispersing without affecting the system’s way of operating. Even if social-political order gave the impression of being extremely precarious, like a pebble on the sea shore, even without the intervention of external forces, it held even when facing the waves of invaders that came from time to time.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the 19th century, a new series of invasions started and in the end proved to be of a different nature with far more important consequences than any that preceded it. The arrival of Europeans in different parts of the Muslim world was, among other things, to bring a greater discovery as far as political legitimacy was concerned as well as the manner in which it was achieved at the level of society’s real functioning and not only as an ideal or speculative school of thought. It was as if the way of life that best corresponded to the ideal of the moral community that Muslims had despaired to rediscover in their history, had been achieved or come close to being achieved by others, while they instead had embarked upon different paths. Following the shock caused by the discovery of the military and technical power acquired by Europeans, which made these invaders of another kind, came the discovery made by the first Muslim travellers to Europe that Europeans seemed to have succeeded where Muslims had failed, that they had been capable of creating a form of political and social life that at least to a certain extent, was a better approximation of the moral community that Muslims had dreamt of creating and maintaining. One of the first travellers who described the European system was Rifa’a Tahtawi (1801-1873), an Egyptian religious cleric sent to Paris between 1826 and 1831 to accompany a group of young soldiers sent to French schools. Tahtawi “discovered” French social-political order partially, just as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) “discovered” democracy in America. His book, Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz [7] , strongly contributed to changing the impression Muslims had of the societies of “infidels”.

In the wake of the reactions that followed, influenced by the kind of relations that had been established with Europe, a process began to modernise the precepts of shari’a in order to create a juridical code comparable to those that European countries had adopted, requiring Muslims to follow this example. Such an alinement did not correspond to internal dynamics, which would have been aimed at adapting precepts and regulations to the times and dictated by European powers that imposed constant pressure on a reorganisation of Muslim societies’ institutions and systems, in a sense that favoured their own interests and way of behaving.

The codification of shari’a brought changes that went well beyond its formalisation. Instead of being a collection of principles and interpretations that judges were obliged to refer to in order to deliver a verdict, which would have envisaged a particular competence and a merciful attitude (at least in theory), it became a rigid “catalogue of precepts”, that all administrators or bureaucrats would apply. Equally, instead of being a system of established norms, developed and implemented by a category of religious clerics independently from the state, shari’a became a collection of rules established by the state which allowed those in power to manage the people’s social affairs [8]. Some have described this process as the nationalisation of law. Such a transformation also led to a consequence unforeseen at the time such changes was introduced; the idea, or rather the illusion, was that such a code was the direct and formal expression of the commandments that the Creator had ordered Muslims to apply. It was thus that the sacralisation of shari’a as a divine path, opposable to the methods of those in power, was transferred to juridical codes drafted by Muslim states in the 19th and 20th centuries.

At the end of this “third act” one could say that the idea of legitimacy in Muslim contexts was significantly affected. The “compromise of the classic era”, in which shari’a was considered as a symbol of legal power (fully legitimate power being considered as out of reach) was questioned in two different ways. 1) It was philosophers who attempted to find within Islamic legacy references that would allow them to claim for themselves European concepts and institutions, practicing what one historian described as a form of code switching, a linguistic expression that refers to a practice that consists in switching from one language to another [9]. It was thus that they discovered that “democracy” had an equivalent in the Islamic notion of shura (the Koranic order to Muslims to consult with one another). According to the author of this expression, this code switching supposedly then failed because the Europeans are said to have rejected the identification of institutions and forms they considered their own with concepts belonging to Muslim heritage. The consequence was that, as far as the masses were concerned, they did not manage to fully adopt modern processes and values, such as democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, political freedoms, gender equality etc. At the same time, at least in certain circles, they discovered in the “catalogues of precepts” that shari’a was codified according to the texts of European laws, created by modern states, becoming an expression of their heritage as far as supreme values and the model of rules for a legitimate Islamic government were concerned. 2) As far as the powers in place at the time, modern states in various parts of the Muslim world extended their control to aspects of people’s lives that had, until then, escaped the authorities, and to do this the methods of modern bureaucracies were adopted, mainly abstract codes defining impersonal procedures.

A number of observers have seen indications of something very remarkable in these two methodologies; the fact that Muslim societies are impermeable to modern political ideals, that they have their own values, their own political concepts that differ totally to the principles and ideals that emerged in Europe. In brief, using an expression coined by a contemporary historian, they have their own political language [10]. According to these observers, elites formed in Europe (or having received an education of European extraction) supposedly tried to impose modern political language in the modern states that were forming. When reaching retirement age, these elites were replaced by others belonging to later generations and more inclined to “follow” the schools of thought that prevailed in their societies. These new elites therefore spoke the political language understood by the masses in their countries and were able to take power the moment a breach opened in the despotic systems that had seized possession of states. One can see that these observations set Muslim societies in a particular moment in time of their history, attributing to them a specific “language” that caused them to live in their own separate world. They do not take into account that this situation is the result of a history that is quite recent and that history can undo what has been done.

Act IV: The political languages of Muslims

This last “act” started very recently. It is unfolding before our eyes and we do not yet know how it will end. At the end of the last act, one was faced with a spectacle of decline, a meltdown. A number of decades after the creation of most Third World states, all one can see is a spectacle of desolation; tired gerontocracies, defeated development policies, immense disillusion and horrifying bitterness among the people. There are Islamist parties busy trying to contain the people’s discontent. They promise a better future through the moralisation of public life and a return to the values and systems that Muslims are meant to have adopted over the centuries. More often than not they are the victims of an optical illusion that consists in considering the codes produced by modern states (including clauses prudently set aside at other times such as corporal punishment) as the prototype of a system of rules in which shari’a would be fully applied. One of their slogans (at least one of the most radical among them) has become, “Apply Shari’a!”. All this neglecting the historical experience of Muslims, the conditions through which their concepts (including that of shari’a) were forged and evolved over time, forgetting the aspirations of today’s young generations, including the need for respect, jobs and homes, in brief, concrete things required to live a dignified live, and all the typical aspirations of contemporary societies. Islamist rhetoric has had its effect; some of the young and the less young find in this rhetoric appropriate words for the kinds of protest they wish to express. In an increasingly numerous society, dealing with inadequate infrastructures and insufficient resources, women return to wear the veil, but not in the way that prevailed in urban contexts of the past, but rather in more recent modalities, to apply commandments, the origins of which are anything but certain and demand a well-defined identity.

Against this backdrop a spark lit a fire. A young educated but unemployed Tunisian was reduced to take radical action by police forces obsessed by their power and the impunity they were generally and generously granted. He committed suicide by setting fire to himself and sparked protests that removed from power those who believed they would be a permanent part of the landscape for the foreseeable future. The most remarkable event in the wave of protests sparked by this fall from power all over the southern Mediterranean, was the appearance of new ideas for expressing the aspirations of the masses. The slogans that flourished everywhere called for a state that respected rights and that would govern within the rule of law (Dawlat al-Haq wa al-Qanun), a state consisting of institutions (Dawlat al-Mu’assassat), defending civil society, public freedom etc. The first two are quoted as examples of innovations in the political lexicon, owing nothing to the attempt to “import” European concepts that marked the early 20th century, or to calls for a return to the old days that had followed. In brief, there was the fulfilment of the prediction made by a Maghreb philosopher, according to whom democracy and human rights are the ultimate values of all modern societies and a sort of “humankind’s implicit religion” [11]. Even the most conservative justified themselves in their name. In these contexts, previous described as impermeable to modern political ideas, one therefore saw a blossoming of what can correctly be described as new political languages. The thesis of a unique, total unchangeable political language of Islam was totally contradicted in these observable evolutions; political languages are now invented and “spoken” by Muslims. Among these “languages” some evoke models attributed to a golden age in Muslim history, such as the idea of social order “moralised” by the application of shari’a with the optical illusion on which it is based. There are others, in which there are calls for the political atmosphere everyone wishes to experience today, with freedom, the dignity of citizens respected by those in power and the need to achieve palpable progress of which everyone can feel the effects [12]. Political legitimacy in Muslim contexts has once again acquired new names and assumed new forms. It is no longer a question of waiting for the return of a mystical imam (as the Shiites do) or the return of a lost caliphate (as extremist Sunnis do). It is no longer a question of re-establishing an order in which the faqihs (religious clerics) pronounce edicts of a divine law they are the only ones capable of recognising; it is also no longer a question of assuming modern values and dressing them up as “domestic”. The “thing” now has names that belong to it and the people no longer hesitate to call it by these names. New political languages are now spoken, but does this mean that the problems have been or will soon be resolved? There are apparently not insignificant obstacles on this path to change.

The first of these obstacles exists at an economic level and more specifically concerns economic development. In 1959, Martin Symour Lipset, reflected on the conditions required for a transition to democracy and, in addition to political legitimacy, spoke of economic development, announcing in a way the consensus that was to become established among observers of modern political transitions [13].

Economic development has without a doubt been the main concern in Third World states ever since their birth. However, after more than half a century of independence, the conditions required for successful transitions do not exist in most “Muslim” countries. The situations are conflicting; the gap is wide between rich countries benefitting from oil revenue and very poor countries. Nonetheless, even when wealth is broadly distributed, as in certain Gulf countries, there does not appear to have been economic development capable of facilitating a transition to democracy, with Turkey and Indonesia as perhaps the only exceptions.

The other major challenge exists at a symbolic level, that of the concepts and representations that are predominant within large sectors of the population. We approached this issue by starting with the notion of legitimacy and have tried to follow its evolution through the ages in order to propose a sort of “genealogy” of the predominant attitudes regards to this subject. We must now address the current situation to analyse in-depth certain recent developments, the influence of which risks becoming of fundamental importance over the years and perhaps the decades to come.

Certain countries in the region are known for having a class of religious clerics trained in traditional institutions and preaching a religious discourse generally described as very conservative. One thinks immediately of the Saudi kingdom in Arabia, or the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the one hand, the institutions providing traditional religious education are well-established everywhere in contexts in which there is a Muslim majority. On the other hand, these are institutions and discourses that the words “conservative” or “traditional” do not describe well. It would be more correct to say that the “knowledge” imparted by these institutions is based on an intellectual tradition that has not changed over the centuries. The memories held on to and passed down, especially those of the “founding moments” are the result of work aimed at supporting certain interpretations to the detriment of others.

Now, for over a century, history and human science in general have adopted approaches allowing them to avoid clearly sectarian narrations, and have provided the instruments that help one have a critical perspective of the differences acquired. In most contexts with a monotheistic or Abrahamic tradition, apologetic-styled approaches have been obliged to “beat a retreat” to become the brand names for particular movements, often very minority ones, in the contexts concerned. Even religious preachers have had to change their tone to adapt to the new situation. In most places where there is a Muslim majority, things are not the same. Political regimes in power (Saudi Arabia, Iran and Morocco) have imposed the presence of religious clerics faithful to versions that ignore the contribution of modern human science and continue to make the same apologetic and sectarian sermons of the past. In the vast majority of other cases, regimes in power have not dared, or not wanted, to confront those religious clerics spreading these versions and imposing their points of view on new generations. The result is that sermons made in such a manner have become the basis for “official” religious teachings, often provided by the same educational centres created by the modern state [14]. Nowadays, these sermons imparted by groups of militants devoid of any scientific competence, having the internet as their main resource, are disseminated in an almost systematic manner. The result is that such beliefs are generally received as the only ones possible, the only legitimate ones, the product of “knowledge” that Muslims have processed concerning their heritage. In fact, a historical analysis shows that this line emerged in particular conditions, was kept alive in modern times and is strengthened by the support of certain political regimes.

It has been necessary to take this lengthy digression to underline the fact that the kind of education addressed here, rather than the kind of historical conscience it confers on young generations, continues to restrict many individuals in conceptions and perspectives that are not remotely appropriate for the times we live in and not at all supported by the historical knowledge accessible to a modern approach.

Epilogue: Were there one or more founding moments

We have observed (Act I) that a concept of legitimacy emerged among Muslims at a time of great crisis, that of the Fitna Kubra (The Great Discord), when they felt that their community had radically changed from a state in which it was created around religious principles and moral rules, to a state in which it was dominated by leaders at the service of their own interests (from a serving community to a political entity ruled by a dynasty). The sentiment of legitimacy was therefore born at a time strongly tarnished by feelings of tragedy and nostalgia for a sort of lost happiness and marked by the bitter taste of the failure of a superior ideal.

However (Act II), for the majority of people the harsh reality of politics ended up imposing more realistic attitudes, initially among those later known as the Sunnis and then among the Shiites, who wished to remain legitimists to the end. Instead of full legitimacy achieved by an ideal community, they fell back on a configuration marked by characteristics of legality. Any potentate could be accepted on condition he respected the law. At the same time, potentates were forbidden from manipulating the law. Fundamental law, the one that regulated everyday life, was created and administered by clerics who were, in principle, independent from those in power. In addition to those holding power and the religious clerics, Sufi preachers took responsibility for the spiritual lives of the masses. The regime born under these conditions was a great success, since it lasted for centuries, allowing societies to live their lives sheltered, to a certain extent, from the excess and arbitrariness of those in power.

And then (Act III) one day the foreigners arrived, those who had for a long time been hated and held in contempt, but that now showed not only unheard-of power, but also and above all an excellence in political and social organisation that had been considered impossible. It was then that nostalgia for the moral community returned, and they saw, in the forms of the Europeans’ social and political life, characteristics that reminded them of it. Political freedoms were acknowledged as a form of justice; democracy as a way of implementing the shura, etc. In brief, the idea of legitimacy returned, or rather the aspiration for full legitimacy returned – and people started to believe that by returning to the ancient principles it would be possible to recreate it, just as the Europeans had done.

New deceptions (Act IV): recently born states arising from independence brought neither the freedom nor the prosperity expected. They did not allow the rediscovery of a legitimacy that people had started to associate with a national identity. The re-appropriation of positive models discovered through the Europeans no longer appeared to provide the solution. But in favour of these unexpected shake-ups, it was discovered that there had been an evolution as far as the concepts used to express the people’s aspirations were concerned. These were now modern concepts referring to rights, to freedoms etc. Legitimacy once again had names. However, the ghost of a misunderstood legacy appeared, in which some saw a caricature of a shari’a as the essential symbol of identity and legitimacy. The ghost of this misunderstood legacy was maintained thanks to a particular approach, now also imposed on new generations by clerics deprived of modern knowledge and the needs of the times.

As one can well see, the drama is not over.

It is evident that the account above proposes an interpretation of Muslim history and that it is not precisely a historical thesis. The periodisation, the identification of “four acts”, are evidently not a description of historical facts and processes. This is an attempt to reconstruct the representations that are at the origin of the ideas Muslims have of political legitimacy, emphasising certain episodes that had a profound and lasting effect. The plural has been constantly used here; it is a question of representations, of ideas, of contexts, all aimed at underlining the plurality, the diversity of the forms one is dealing with. The very idea of four acts is aimed at emphasising the plurality of situations and attitudes that there were, as well as the evolutions that affected social-political realities and ideas, precepts or rules produced in their wake. All this sets us at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum compared to the conclusions disseminated by those Muslim clerics who oppose the idea of a plurality of an evolution of the norms and representations they associate to Islam (with a capital letter). These clerics believe that there is a true vision (theirs, that of the sect or denomination they belong to) and that there are false allegations disseminated by clerics belonging to other denominations (considered misinformed or heretical), or by researchers often accused of being “orientalists”; a word recently charged with negative connotations.

The dominant tendency among experts on Islamic political schools of thought consists of placing a spotlight on the singularities, see idiosyncrasies, that distinguish Muslims from others. It is thus that it is the most exotic traits, the most opposed in comparison to ideas associated to western models, which are underlined and presented as the living portrait of the ideas Muslims have entertained regarding political matters. Furthermore, the descriptions now repeated in school curricula suspend time to embrace ideas dominating certain environments and circles, making of them the “quintessence” of Islamic political ideas, totally ignoring all recent developments, and more in harmony with opinion movements and change experienced by contemporary Muslim contexts. And yet, more recent research, which one could consider as historic summations, prove that matters are more complex and that entire sections of the political ideas cultivated in Muslim contexts have been underestimated if not entirely ignored [15]. There is no One “political language” of Islam, but Muslims have spoken and still speak different political languages, certain representing “a return to service” of words linked to the past (caliphate, shari’a etc.) and others spreading re-appropriations of notions and norms with universal characteristics.

Translated from the French by Francesca Simmons

Abdou Filiali-Ansary is Research Professor at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, he has contributed widely to academic discourses on democratisation and civil society in the Middle East.


[1] Hichem Djait, La grande discorde: religion et politique dans l’islam des origines, Paris, Gallimard, 1989

[2] Fazlur Rahman (1919 – 1988): Islam. Second Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[3] Timur Kuran, “The Absence of the Corporation in Islamic Law: Origins and Persistence”, The American Journal of Comparative Law, vol. 53, n° 4 (2005), pp. 785-834.

[4] Fazlur Rahman, “Islam and Social Justice”, in Pakistan Forum, October-November 1970.

[5] Noah Feldman, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008

[6] Effectively, certain great uprisings that periodically shook society, were justified by the refusal of taxes that were not established by shari’a. At the time, the state had great difficulty in guaranteeing its own financing since the people were very reluctant to accept any imposition that was not justified by shari’a.

[7] Recent translated into French with the title L’Or de Paris (Paris, Sindbad, 2012).

[8] Baudouin Dupret, La charia aujourd’hui : usages de la référence au droit islamique, Paris, La Découverte, 2012.

[9] Reinhard Schultze, A Modern History of the Islamic World, New York University Press, New York, 2002.

[10] Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991 (1er éd. 1988).

[11] Mohamed Abed Jabri, La démocratie et les droits de l’homme. Casablanca et Beyrouth,, Markaz al-dirâsât al-vahdat al-‘arabia 1997

[12] See author’s article entitled “The Languages of Arab Revolutions”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 23, n° 2 (2012), pp. 5-18.

[13] Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (March 1959): 69–105. Also see by the same author, “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited,” American Sociological Review 59 (February 1994): 1–22.

[14] “It is a paradox that state schools should teach old traditions that go against the law and official practice in the country. If sharia laws were taught and at the same time set in their historical context and submitted to critique to justify the attitude of the contemporary legislator who has abandoned them, it would have been extremely useful for encouraging students integration in their social environment and allowing them to accept modernity without rejecting their original culture. But this is not the case. On the contrary, it is clearly stated that freedom is not allowed except unless sharia is applied and that reasoning or a critical perspective are restricted by the rules of sharia which must not be criticised.” Mohamed Charfi, Islam et liberté, Le malentendu historique, Paris, Albin Michel, 1999. p. 228

[15] Among the main historical summations referred to, please see the book by Marshall Hodgson entitled The Venture of Islam (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977 [new edition]) and that by Mohamed Abed Jabri entitled Critique de la Raison Arabe (Bayreuth, Markaz al-dirâsât al-vahdat al-‘arabia, 2001).