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Religious Traditions in Politics: Islam, Sunni, and Shi'a

Summary and Keywords

How Islam and politics get entangled with each other is a remarkable topic of interest. Islam’s relationship with politics is a highly remarkable topic of interest. Islam’s inception as a religion in the 7th century was a historical event that signified the emergence of a powerful, Arab-Muslim empire on the world scene. The trajectory of the relationship between Islam—as a normative ideal that is constantly interpreted by its followers—and politics—in the form of authority structures, public policies, international relations, or everyday political relations with the government, communities, or society—is complex. The convoluted relationship between Islam and politics can be studied on multiple layers. First, by looking at the normative sources, chiefly the verses in the Qur’an and the earliest narratives about the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions (Sahaba; i.e., the hadith) and major historical events that set precedents, such as the first caliphate controversy and the Karbala Massacre (680). Together, these sources form the foundation of Islamic political vocabulary and set the parameters of the ongoing discourse on legitimate Muslim modes of behavior in politics. Second, the historical trajectory of the relationship between religion and politics manifested itself in premodern Muslim-dominant contexts. These manifestations are sought within the complex web of relations among the followers of sects, schools of thought, and among different religious classes, nobility, and governments, who contested the religious and political space.

When a sense of political, cultural, and intellectual siege by the people of European descent, dubbed collectively as the “West,” dominated Muslim-majority societies and cultures, earlier patterns and constellations underwent serious transformations. Revivalist and reformist trends are crucial elements of these changing patterns. Corollary to these trends are Muslims’ indigenization of European ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, and nationalism in addition to their own formulation of Islamism as a political ideology. Finally, the relationship between religion and politics as conceived in Muslim thought from the classical age onward is found in scholars’ and thinkers’ political articulations of Islam in the mirror of the princes literature, theological works, philosophical treatises, political jurisprudence literature, also known as fiqh al-siyasah or al-siyasah al-shar’iyyah, and ethical treatises.

Apart from the foundational texts and interpretive communities of the past, whether motivated by Islam or not, social and political actors in Muslim-majority societies, whether democratic masses or political elite, have reconceived the relationship between Islam and politics and redefined what Islam means politically. Ultimately, this relationship is constantly renegotiated by all those involved within this nexus of theory and praxis.

Keywords: Islam and politics, caliphate, imamate, shura, ulu’l amr, bay’ah, Islam and secularism, Sunni and Shii, Islamism and post-Islamism, Sunni realismulama, politics and religion


Several formations and articulations between religion and politics pose points of parallels and contrasts across different religions. As for Islam, strong convictions on its particularities and its almost unidirectional determinative power over the politics of Muslim-majority societies have engendered certain truisms. To begin with, “din,” the common translation of religion in Arabic, is not a private affair limited to spiritual matters as in other religions but encompasses all spheres of life (Esposito, 1998, p. 3; Watt, 1968, p. 29). Accordingly, in Islam, as this line of thinking goes, there is no separation of church and state, or of divine and temporal, which leads to the predomination of all Muslim societies and governments by religious rules. In fact, there is not an institution that parallels the Church in Christian societies (Crone, 2004; Lewis, 1988; Watt, 1968). As a result, it is generally agreed that there is no secularism in Islam.

Indeed, a glimpse at the normative sources of Islam (i.e., the Qur’an and the Tradition of the Prophet and his companions [Hadith]) supports the idea that Muslim communities are at once religious and political (Watt, 1968). The Muslim institution of the caliphate, at least for a certain time period, may also support the view that Islam has its own particularities with respect to religion-state-society relations. However, the earlier phases of scholarship on Islam are now often considered a reification of Islam on the basis of overgeneralizations drawing on a textualist reading of Islam, as opposed to one that heeds history and geography, reflecting Orientalism’s essentialist presuppositions. Leaving such broad statements about a reified Islam aside, one can focus on Muslim societies’ relationship with politics and government. Owing to their particular history as well as the constellation of contingent sociological and political factors, Muslims may indeed have developed unique patterns of relating to politics and government. However, seeking Muslim-majority countries’ parallels with other religious and political settings alongside their specificities, without imposing an overarching framework that a priori presumes either generality or particularity, may help generate much more productive scholarship.

From its inception in 610 in Mecca through Muhammad’s declaration that he started receiving revelations, the religion he started did have political significance with its disruptive potential toward the existing power relations in the commercial Meccan society. His message was focused on monotheism and social justice addressed to a society with deep racial, class, and gender divisions (Rahman, 1979, p. 32). This challenge grew further as the relations between Muhammad and the Meccan notables soured and turned into boycott and persecution against the believers. In the absence of an impersonal state authority to provide security, and given the tribal protection system as the operative principle at the time, Muslims had to emigrate to Medina in 622 (the Hijrah). This led to the formation of a political community, a “super-tribe of believers” (Crone, 2004, p. 13). Muhammad’s role in this new political setting was, at the very least, as adjudicator and military commander (Watt, 1968, pp. 20–22), and arguably the leader of a city-state with powers to sign treaties and send diplomatic letters. Some time later in Medina, a constitution was drawn up and signed between Muslims of Mecca (the Quraysh tribe), Yathrib (Medina), and “those who follow them and are attached to them and who fight along with them,” that is, Jewish tribes, declaring them altogether “a single community” (Watt, 1968, p. 130). On his deathbed in 632, Muhammad was not just the founder of a religion but the unifier of the Arab tribes in the larger parts of Arabia under a single political structure, a role for which he could be called “a new Moses” (Crone, 2004, p. 15).

From Muhammad’s death until now, the foundational sources of Islam, chiefly the Qur’an and the narratives from the formative period, have shaped the minds of and exerted a certain influence on the actions of the committed believers in the Muslim-majority world. This could have been either by believers’ own interpretation of the sources or through the indirect influence of the interpretive communities and their intellectual, cultural, or political legacies over many centuries. Hence, although unidirectional determination of the foundational sources has never been the case, Islam, through the Muslim actors and subjectivities who embraced, interpreted, and practiced it, has been a strong determinative force in politics where Muslims have a sizeable communal presence.

This article examines the relationship between Islam and politics by presenting the foundational texts in the Qur’an and the most important pieces of hadith on politics. The latter have informed some major concepts, which will be taken up next by setting the terms of the Muslim discourse on politics. Subsequently, a historical narrative that seeks to identify different configurations of power between the religious and political authorities is presented by attending to the contested space between the caliphs, sultans, and emirs versus the religious scholarly class (i.e., ulama). This will also touch on how Shiis, Sunnis, Kharijites, and Mu’tazilites developed normative views on Muslim religiopolitical leadership around the succession problem, and how critical political junctures informed such schisms rendering them irreconcilable theological positions. Moreover, these positions took different shapes and branched out even more with further contestations for power throughout the Umayyad (661–750) and Abbasid periods (750–1258) with continuous rebellions, short-lived or long-standing polities, and dynasties such as the Harijites, Mu’tazilites, Qaramatis, and Ismaili-Fatimids. An exposition of the “Sunni realism” that coincides with the beginning of the Abbasi central administration’s disintegration, where the de facto authority was exercised by the military leaders, amirs, and sultans is also provided. The section concludes with a discussion on modern encounters with the rising European world dominance in the form of defeat and the ensuing Muslim revivalism and reformism to face this new “Western” threat. Political Islam or Islamism, with its different variants, is taken up there as well.

The article concludes by taking stock of the intellectual dimension of the Muslim legacy as political thinking on Islam took shape through various genres throughout the classical and modern periods. The main interest is not just the genres of political philosophy, political jurisprudence, theology, and the mirror of the princes that represent competing trends in the classical era but also new genres in the postreform era with modern treatises and expositions on the Islamic state and politics.

Foundational Islamic Texts and Concepts on Politics

The Qur’an and Politics

The Qur’an includes many verses on social life, ethics, economic matters, and especially law, each of which has a significant bearing on politics. There are also a number of verses conventionally taken as reference points by Muslim writers on politics. These verses, in most interpretations, deal specifically with the nature and limits of authority, style of governance, Muslim subjects’ relationship with God, and the world in a political sense. The emphases on different verses have varied across time as their interpretations went through transformations across different eras. Certain verses have thus been preferred by different Muslim authors in modern discussions

Khalifah (Vicegerent or Successor)

A Muslim individual’s relationship with God is defined in the Qur’an as God’s khalifah on earth, whose meaning ranges from successor to deputy and vicegerent:

2:30 And Lo! Thy Sustainer said unto the angels: “Behold, I am about to establish upon earth one who shall inherit it.” They said: “Wilt Thou place on it such as will spread corruption thereon and shed blood—whereas it is we who extol Thy limitless glory, and praise Thee, and hallow Thy name?” [God] answered: “Verily, I know that which you do not know.”1

38:26 [And We said:] “O David! Behold, We have made thee a [prophet and, thus, Our] Vicegerent on earth: judge, then, between men with justice, and do not follow vain desire.”

6:165 For, He it is who has made you inherit the earth, and has raised some of you by degrees above others, so that He might try you by means of what He has bestowed upon you.

The thread of Muslims’ discussion on these verses is distinct from the historical institution of the caliphate. Nonetheless, historical actors or members of the interpretive communities at different times have connected especially the second verse above (38:26) with the actual institution. Abu Yusuf in the 8th century (Masud, 2009, p. 190) and Ottoman Sufi moralists in the heyday of the empire can be counted among them (Yilmaz, 2018, p. 10).

The Verse of Ulu’l Amr (Holders of “Authority”)

4:59 O you who have attained to faith! Pay heed unto God, and pay heed unto the Apostle and unto those from among you who have been entrusted with authority; and if you are at variance over any matter, refer it unto God and the Apostle, if you [truly] believe in God and the Last Day. This is the best [for you], and best in the end.

This has been by far the favorite verse for the scholars and politicians who demanded passive obedience from the Muslim masses vis-à-vis the rulers, caliphs, sultans, or modern secular presidents. The current majority view takes this verse as primarily referring to the Muslim rulers, although more recent interpretations excavate the alternative translations from the earliest exegeses, such as Mujahid b. Jabr’s (d. 720) “those possessing critical insight into religion and knowledge,” with an additional meaning of “sound opinion and virtue.” Muqatil b. Sulayman al-Balkhi (d. 767) specified the term to mean military commanders (Afsaruddin, 2006b, p. 672). As Afsaruddin notes, whereas similar meanings were dominant at least up until the 10th-century Tabari (d. 923), a gradual semantic shift seems to have taken over to lean it specifically toward the sultans. By Mawardi (d. 1058) and Ibn Taymiyya’s time (d. 1328) this verse had become the ultimate justification for passive obedience to the rulers, just or unjust, except in the extreme cases of their rebellious behavior to God (Afsaruddin, 2006a, 2006b).

The Verse of Shura (Deliberative Consultation)

3:159 [To the Prophet]: “And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him.”

42:38 “and who respond to [the call of] their Sustainer and are constant in prayer; and whose rule [in all matters of common concern] is consultation among themselves”

While both verses are frequently cited by Muslims to set the standard that their collective affairs will be conducted by collective decision-making through deliberation, traditional scholars often emphasized the first verse to limit shura’s function to rulers seeking counsel from an adviser or notables in a nonbinding manner (Hourani, 1983, p. 6). The latter verse has risen to prominence especially by the reformist scholars, who support a more democratic rule by their revision of the widespread traditional restriction of shura’s scope to a limited adviser role. Such scholars often contend that the Qur’an meant this to turn into an operative principle of decision-making or an institution, although Muslim history records their failure to achieve that (Rahman, 1986; Riza [Rida], 2010; Tunisi & Brown, 1967).

The Verse of al-Amr bi al-Maruf wa’l-Nahy an al-Munkar (Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong)

3:104 And that there might grow out of you a community [of people] who invite unto all that is good, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong: and it is they, they who shall attain to a happy state!

This verse, along with eight other variants in the Qur’an, establishes the principle of collective Muslim responsibility to enjoin righteous behavior and prevent wrongdoings from taking place in a Muslim’s surroundings. Depending on the political position of the interpreter, it may cover a wide array of behavior ranging from humanitarian work and sociopolitical activism against injustices to a government authority’s moral policing of private lives of citizens on the basis of common good (maslaha), public interest, or public morality. It has even served as a pretext to start an uprising against an unjust authority (“Amr bi al-Maruf wa’l-Nahy an al-Munkar, al-,” 2019; Cook, 2000).

The Promise for World Leadership

2:124 And [remember this:] when his Sustainer tried Abraham by [His] commandments and the latter fulfilled them, He said: "Behold, I shall make thee a leader of men."

24:55 God has promised those of you who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds that, of a certainty, He will cause them to accede to power on earth, even as He caused [some of] those who lived before them to accede to it;

28:5 But it was Our will to bestow Our favor upon those [very people] who were deemed [so] utterly low in the land, and to make them forerunners in faith and to make them heirs [to Pharaoh’s glory].

7:137 whereas unto the people who [in the past] had been deemed utterly low, We gave as their heritage the eastern and western parts of the land that We had blessed.

These verses increasingly came under the spotlight of Muslim revivalists and reformists when a sense of defeat and siege by the European powers became prevalent in the Muslim-dominant societies. The verses preoccupied those scholars and thinkers with why God’s apparent promise has not been fulfilled in their time. Accordingly, it formed the basis of the exegetical question for many Muslims that if Muslims were promised by God a worldly domination, and given that Muslims dominated the old world with rare intermissions up until recent times, then how can one explain the Muslim decline, defeat, and subjugation at the hands of non-Muslims? This conundrum and the ensuing resentment may have arguably fomented Muslim identity movements, which promise the restoration of this past honor and glory through Muslim unity and power projects under certain Muslim organizations, parties, or leaders.

The Bay’ah (Pledge of Allegiance) Verse

48:18 Indeed, well-pleased was God with the believers when they pledged their allegiance unto thee [O Muhammad] under that tree, for He knew what was in their hearts; and so He bestowed inner peace upon them from on high, and rewarded them with [the glad tiding of] a victory soon to come.

The verse refers to a specific incident, the Pledge of Satisfaction (bayʻat ar-riḍwān). It was Muslims’ pact and oath with the Prophet prior to the Hudaybiyyah Treaty of 628 to hold steadfast with him. Thus it was political and sacred at the same time. Nonetheless, it also set the precedent for the bay’ah principle. It is literally “clasping of hands,” but it refers to taking the oath of allegiance (Enayat, 2001, p. 8). It signified an active oath, pact, or acquiescence by which the caliphs or religious leaders secured their religious legitimacy through Muslims’ consent, without which it would remain contested and questionable.

The Verse of Reform

13:11 Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves.

This verse became by far the favorite of the Muslim reformists from modern times onward in their explanation of the Muslim decline (inhitat) and justification of reform; that is, going back to the ethical principles of the pristine Islam in order to attain the fulfillment of God’s promise.

This verse is by no means exhaustive of the Qur’anic lexicon that carries political implications. Nonetheless, it has formed the main axis of Muslim scholarly thinking on politics since the classical era. It has also served as the basis of justification for the arguments that are employed either to support the status quo or to challenge it from revivalist, reformist, revolutionary, or reactionary perspectives.

Hadith on the Formative Events on Succession

There is no shortage of hadiths on political authority, Muslim individual’s roles, rights, duties, and responsibilities in Sunni, Shi'ite, and other traditions’ self-referential Hadith collections. For any given theme, countless hadiths could be cited to lend support to any one of the starkly opposite views, as has long been the case in Muslim scholarship. The focus here is to bring attention to some formative narratives that formed precedents and led to certain schisms among the early Muslims, especially between Sunnis and Shi'ites, in particular around the problem of succession to the Prophet.

The Day of the Portico (Saqīfah Banī Sā’idah Incident)

The most critical event on the succession to Muhammad is the Saqifah Bani Sai’dah incident, when Abu Bakr was elected as the first caliph in the absence of Ali (Crone, 2004, p. 18; Watt, 1968, pp. 31–32). The narration as ascribed to Umar and related by Bukhari is as follows:

After the death of the Prophet we were informed that the Ansar disagreed with us and gathered in the shed of Bani Sa`da. . . . I said to Abu Bakr, “Let’s go to these Ansari brothers of ours.” So we set out seeking them, and when we approached them, two pious men of theirs met us and informed us of the final decision of the Ansar . . . “You shouldn’t go near them. Carry out whatever we have already decided.” I said, “By Allah, we will go to them.” And so we proceeded until we reached them at the shed of Bani Sa`da . . . After we sat for a while, the Ansar’s speaker said . . . “To proceed, we are Allah’s Ansar (helpers) and the majority of the Muslim army, while you, the emigrants, are a small group and some people among you came with the intention of preventing us from practicing this matter (of caliphate) and depriving us of it.” When the speaker had finished [and], when I wanted to speak, Abu Bakr said, “Wait a while.” . . . So Abu Bakr himself gave a speech . . . After a pause he said, “O Ansar! You deserve all (the qualities that you have attributed to yourselves), but this question (of caliphate) is only for the Quraish as they are the best of the Arabs as regards descent and home, and I am pleased to suggest that you choose either of these two men, so take the oath of allegiance to either of them as you wish.” And then Abu Bakr held my hand and Abu Ubaida bin al-Jarrah’s hand who was sitting amongst us. I hated nothing of what he had said except that proposal . . .And then one of the Ansar said, “I am the pillar (i.e., I am a noble) . . . and I am as a high class palm tree! O Quraish. There should be one ruler from us and one from you.” Then there was a hue and cry among the gathering and their voices rose so that I was afraid there might be great disagreement, so I said, “O Abu Bakr! Hold your hand out.” He held his hand out and I pledged allegiance to him, and then all the emigrants gave the Pledge of allegiance and so did the Ansar afterwards. And so we became victorious over Sa`d bin Ubada (whom Al-Ansar wanted to make a ruler) . . . `Umar added, “By Allah, apart from the great tragedy that had happened to us (i.e., the death of the Prophet), there was no greater problem than the allegiance pledged to Abu Bakr because we were afraid that if we left the people, they might give the Pledge of allegiance after us to one of their men, in which case we would have given them our consent for something against our real wish, or would have opposed them and caused great trouble. So if any person gives the Pledge of allegiance to somebody (to become a caliph) without consulting the other Muslims, then the one he has selected should not be granted allegiance, lest both of them should be killed.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6830; Book 86, Hadith 57)

The events that happened immediately afterward are at the core of the major division in the Muslim community along Sunni and Shi'ite lines. They include incidents such as the Prophet’s daughter Fatima’s refusal to give allegiance to Abu Bakr and Ali’s ambiguous position toward this incident, which varied from nonallegiance to at most a passive acquiescence. With its similar and dissimilar versions in Sunni and Shi'ite sources, this incident is of formative value regarding Islam’s conflictual narratives even of the major precedents in Sunni and Shi'ite traditions.

Ghadir Khumm

Along with a number of hadiths that are related by Sunni sources with various interpretations that often differ from the Shi'ite counterparts, Ghadir Khumm is considered to be the definitive evidence for Shi'ite claims that Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin Ali was the legitimate heir and successor to the Prophet. The hadith, as related by both Shi'ite and Sunnite sources, is as follows: “He of whom I am the mawlā (the patron?), of him ʿAlī is also the mawlā (man kuntu mawlāhu fa-ʿAlī mawlāhu )” (Veccia Vaglieri, 2012).

Although this sentence is part of various longer narrations common to both Shi'ite and Sunni scholars, the latter contests the constructions of the story the former offer (Enayat, 2001, p. 7). In the Shi'ite version, this event is known as Ghadir Khumm with detailed descriptions of the context, along with a more detailed narration of the Prophet’s sermon.

The Succession issue thus has occupied the scholars and Muslim masses alike since the earliest times after the Prophet and has exerted a formative influence on the entire history of politics of Islam and Muslims. Corollary to these major verses and foundational events that set the earliest precedents, a number of fundamental concepts constitute the political vocabulary of Muslims and are of crucial value to bring the religion-politics relationship to light in Muslim contexts.

Some Key Political Concepts in Muslim Politics

The Caliphate and the Imamate

The caliphate and the imamate are the two central concepts to define the leadership of the Muslim political community in Sunni and Shi'ite political theologies. Although the caliphate is associated with the Sunnis and the latter with the Shi'ites, there have been several cases where Shi'ites used the title “caliphate,” most famously in regard to the Fatimid state (909–1171) of the Sevener branch of the Shi'ites (Ismailis). Likewise, Sunnis also use imamate, whose original meaning ranges from prayer leader to community leader. But in a Sunni context, when the head of the state is the supreme imam, he is called the great imamate (al-imama al-kubra/uzma) (Crone, 2004, p. 17).

The caliphate emerged as the title right after the first succession crisis ended with Abu Bakr’s rise to leadership (632–634). The main ambiguity about the term was whether it meant the “successor to the prophet” or “deputy of God,” as the Arabic word may signify both. It was famously ascribed to Abu Bakr that he refused to be called Khalifat Allah, and only allowed to be called Khalifat Rasul Allah (The Successor of God’s Messenger; Watt, 1968, pp. 32–33). However, Crone and Hinds (1986) take a different position. With textual evidence from earlier sources, they contend that from Uthman (644–656) onward, the phrase “Khalifat Allah” was used to refer to the deputy of God and signified that the legitimate head of the state inherited the Prophet’s religious as well as political power. It was later deemphasized by the ulama, as the argument goes, in order to strip the religious authority from them and to monopolize the right to define God’s law singlehandedly as a class by withdrawing caliphal control from religious matters (Crone & Hinds, 1986, pp. 19, 108–109).

When Umar succeeded Abu Bakr (634–644), he was first called Khalifat Khalifat Rasul Allah. He then chose to drop it in favor of Amir-al Mu’minin (the Commander of the Faithful), which was added to the Islamic repertoire of leadership titles. Although it had a quite checkered history with varying degrees of real political authority, the caliphate lived on as a title throughout Islamic history until 1924, when the Turkish Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (d. 1938) abolished the office by a law passed by the new Turkish National Assembly. Its abolition in 1924 is considered by many politically minded Sunni Muslims as a major traumatic loss, as it formalized the vacuum of a unifying religious authority, although only a few movements, in particular Hizb ut-Tahrir, not to mention the Islamic State, have focused on its re-establishment as their specific goal.

As for the imamate, it is still the key concept that signifies the Shi'ite leadership from Ali onward. The word “Shi’a” means “party” and in its full version it referred to Ali’s Party (Shi’at Ali; Watt, 1968, p. 43), and in some versions vis-à-vis Uthman’s party (Shi’at Uthman). The larger groups of Shi'ites take Ali as the first Imam of the Twelve Imams (Twelvers or Athnā‘ashariyyah), while a branch of Ismaili groups count him as the first of the Seven Imams (Seveners).

For both Sevener and Twelver Shi'ites, the problem of leadership of the community, which is at once religious and political, is too vital to be left to ordinary individuals who could choose the wrong person. This would counter the purpose of divine revelation and leave Muslims without divine guidance. Only God can pick those with infallibility and impeccability (ismah), who are in fact none other than the male descendants of Ali (Enayat, 2001, pp. 6–7). According to the Twelvers, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdi (868; still alive according to the Shi'ite belief), is hidden in the Major Occultation until he returns and brings justice to the world, whereas in the Sevener tradition the Hidden Imam is Muhammad ibn Ismail (b. 786). There is also the Zaidiyyah branch of Shi'ism, which is known as the closest to the Sunni tradition and named after Zayd ibn ʻAlī (d. 740), the grandson of Husayn ibn ʻAlī and the son of the fourth imam Ali ibn ‘Husain (d. 713).

In the larger Twelver Shi'ite tradition, after the Occultation, the ulama and the mujtahids (the alim qualified to derive original norms from the sources) take over the duty to guide the Muslims but they do not share ismah of the imams (Enayat, 2001, p. 7).

Bay’ah (Pledge of Allegiance)

Grounded in the bay’ah verse (48:18), and later gaining importance during the succession crisis, bay’ah is an essential political act to give consent to the ruler or to refuse it in its absence. From the beginning of the post-Muhammad period, caliphs’ failure to obtain bay’ah from the prominent Muslims, such as Fatima’s refusal to give bay’ah to Abu Bakr, is considered a momentous act of dissent and contestation of caliphal legitimacy. For the more recent reformist attempts to give a democratic edge to bay’ah in theories of Islamic democracy, it is often equated by the votes in election processes (Khan, 2014).

However, this extension of meaning is also disputed. Even though the “idea of a choice” was always preserved in the term, it was not a process of election, but recognition (Hourani, 1983). The community, by bay’ah, “acquiesced in authority but it did not confer it” (Hourani, 1983, p. 6). Besides, the practice of bay’ah is still extant in some traditional Arab-majority countries without any democratic significance.


As addressed by the verses 3:159 and 42:38, shura increasingly gained prominence in the postdemocratic era in discussions on democracy and was presented as its Islamic equivalent. For instance, as early as the mid-19th century, Khayr al-Din Tunisi (d. 1890) argued that God’s charge of the Prophet with the duty of consultation was specifically aimed at its establishment as a tradition. Otherwise, as a person who receives inspiration from God, he did not need to heed the collective deliberation (Tunisi & Brown, 1967, p. 82). Fazlur Rahman, noting that this was a pre-Islamic democratic Arab institution that Islam upheld (Rahman, 2009, p. 43), argued for “Islamic democracy” through this concept. He charged the earlier Muslims with a failure to institutionalize shura as intended by the Qur’an. His chief target was those ulema who limited shura to an optional adviser role to the ruler, despite the clear injunctions of the second verse (42:38) (Rahman, 1986, p. 91). Murad Hofmann (2007) coins shurocracy in order to formulate shura as a Muslim equivalent of democracy, while preserving Islam’s distinctiveness. There is currently a sizeable literature in the contemporary Muslim reformist discourse that relates shura with democracy, apart from a significant number of others that do not rely on shura to defend democracy from within Islam.

Ahl al-hall wa’l-aqd (The People of Loosing and Binding)

This recurring phrase in Medieval Sunni literature on Muslim governance refers to a group of people who are the immediate members of a shura council. However, in the modern texts they appear to be members of an electoral college who are qualified to elect and even depose a caliph. Rida (2010), by interpreting the Sunni sources, posits selecting a caliph as obligatory on the Muslim community and charges ahl al hall wa’l aqd to do that, adding that Mu’tazilites and Kharajities also deemed this council as the proper channel for this selection. He describes them as the leaders of the community, the ones with the authority and trust among the community (Riza [Rida], 2010, pp. 29–38). Likewise, at least from Tunisi onward, a group of scholars and thinkers tend to assign this council’s role to the democratically elected parliaments (Tunisi & Brown, 1967, pp. 182–183).

Ummah and Millah

Last but not the least, “ummah” is today taken to mean the global Muslim community, although in modern Arabic it also means “nation.” Lewis (1988) and Watt (1968) both connect it to a loan word from Hebrew or Aramaic, . Watt also notes that it ceases to appear after 625 in the Qur’an and that it could be applied to ethnic, linguistic, and confessional communities at different times, without any restriction of meaning only to Muslims (Watt, 1968, p. 10).

The more interesting story is that of millah, which is again of Aramaic origin with a clearer religious connotation: a community bound by a word or revealed book (Lewis, 1988, p. 38). During the Ottoman times, when it became a technical term to denote the organized, recognized, religiopolitical communities under the “millet system,” it gradually underwent a transformation of meaning into ethnic components of the empire, first referring only to non-Muslims but eventually to Muslims as well (Lewis, 1988, pp. 38–39). In the end, these two words are currently used in many Muslim-majority countries with interchangeable meanings, ascribed to either the Muslim community or the nation of the nation-state.

Development of Configurations of Power in Muslim history

Muslims, through their praxis, have been engaged in an activity of theorizing the normative political ideals of Muslim politics from the very beginning of their history. The ever-changing political necessities meant a continuous need to reinterpret and renegotiate their sources and precedents. In the absence of a centralized religious authority who gained the adherence of the entire community, such activities of interpretation and renegotiation ranged between utopian idealism and pragmatic realism, leading to ever new schools and sects. It may be argued that the chasm between the ideals and the realities of Islam was felt deepest in the political realm, with a formative influence on the rest of Muslim intellectual legacy through the jurists’ codification of every aspect of Muslims’ lives. This discussion is especially relevant for the debate on the emergence and the political role of the ulama as a class of notables.

The Era of the Four Caliphates (632–661)

Following Muhammad’s death and Abu Bakr’s contested selection to the caliphate, Muslims witnessed not just a single principle of succession, but a multiplicity of means to access to power for each caliph. For many Sunnis, this meant that there could be multiple legitimate mechanisms for the election of the caliph. Although Abu Bakr was chosen in a relatively open contest to the exclusion of Ali and many other Meccans, he chose to designate Umar as his successor, possibly after some personal consultations. Umar, in his turn, appointed a narrow group of electors, six men whose shura resulted in Uthman’s selection. Ali was declared a caliph apparently without anybody contesting his caliphate in Medina following the murder of Uthman in 656. Almost continuous civil war ensued after he took Kufa as his new capital. He had the support of the constituencies in Hijaz and Kufa but his rule was contested in the larger empire by the rival Muawiyahh (d. 680) faction, who represented the interests of Uthman’s Umayyad family. This rivalry and conflict led to a major civil war and to Muawiyah’s eventual ascendance to power not just for himself but for his whole lineage.

The Civil War and Karbala

The most determinative incident for this transformation of power from what most scholars called Rashidun to Mulk (kingdom) is called the Arbitration (Hakam) Incident. During the Siffin War (658) between Ali and Muawiyah factions, Muawiyah’s soldiers hoisted Qur’ans on their lances, demanding arbitration. Ali accepted the offer, but some of his camp protested this, claiming “Judgment belongs to God alone.” These dissenters formed the group of Kharijites (Crone, 2004, pp. 19–20). The Arbitration itself utterly failed, but it brought an end to Ali’s term when Kharijites decided to kill both parties for this supposed rebellion against God, since actions are an intrinsic part of the faith. They did indeed kill Ali in 661 and his assassination effectively ended what most Sunni scholars have called the Era of Rightly Guided Caliphs (Rashidun). Ali was succeeded by his son Hasan, who chose to abdicate the caliphate in favor of Muawiyah in order to avoid the prolongation of the civil war. However, according to many accounts, it was on the condition that it would go back to him after Muawiyah’s term and in the event of its impossibility, his brother Husayn would be the next caliph, without Muawiyah designating anybody.

Muawiyah, after ruling for 19 years, reneged on his promise and passed the throne in a now vast and centralized empire to his son Yazid (r. 680), instead of Husayn, as Hasan had passed away by then. This would spark the lasting and the most traumatic conflict for the Muslim world, irreparably dividing them into the Sunni and Shi'ite sects. Husayn did not accept Yazid’s caliphate and chose to contest his rule. But as he moved to fight, he was deserted by his supporters. He still fought the fight, in what is now known as the Karbala incident (680), where he was killed and beheaded along with most of his family and companions. While turmoil and rebellions did not exactly end, given several subsequent uprisings against the Umayyad rule including rival claims to caliphate as that of Abdullah ibn Zubayr (683–692), the Umayyad dynasty remained in power until the successful Abbasid revolt toppled them in 750.

This created a tremendous theoretical problem for the Muslims: Would the dynastic Umayyad rule be considered a legitimate caliphate with a hold over both political and religious leadership in the hands of Umayyad family? Or would it simply be taken as a naked political domination to be acquiesced only for the sake of peace in community without ascribing any concomitant religious leadership, if not religious legitimacy? The answer did not seem clear, as they saw themselves as religious guides of the community as well (Crone, 2004, p. 43). Nonetheless, Umayyad rulers did not exercise this authority as a monopoly over religious interpretation, especially in its application to local matters. By the end of their rule, local scholars in several centers of the Islamic empire had emerged. This was either in the form of a “pious opposition,” or “ancient schools of law,” but probably not in an open rivalry (Crone, 2004, p. 44; Watt, 1968, p. 65).

The Emergence of the Ulama

Notwithstanding the claims that there is no clergy in Islam, it might still be argued that ulama as a class may have emerged out of this bifurcation in the de facto political authority of the caliphs. Hence, the protection of this group’s class interests regarding religious authority would be possible in return of their acquiescence over the caliphs’ primarily political authority.

This process especially took shape along with the Abbasid caliphate. During their early decades, the Abbasid caliphate had a real, centralized authority and seemed less oppressive toward non-Arab groups and the family of the Prophet (Ahl’ul Bayt). For some, it even looked like “the principles of the umma were reasserted” (Hourani, 1983, p. 7) and the “Medinan ideal” was restored (Esposito, 1998, pp. 17–18). This development also corresponded with an era of a large-scale Hadith movement as well as the codification of the jurisprudence and the major legal schools, commonly known as madhhabs.

The Inquisition or Mihna (833–848/9)

According to Watt (1968), the earlier period of Abbasids witnessed the recognition of legal scholars by the government. Accordingly, shariah court judges, an Umayyad invention, were also increasingly selected among them. However, there was a rival class of “secretaries,” many of whom were descendants of the Sasanian bureaucracy. They had formed what Watt called an autocratic bloc (Watt, 1968, pp. 65–67). It is the rivalry and eventual victory of the scholars (i.e., the constitutionalist bloc) that molded the caliphate-ulama division of authority as well as the power complex.

This was the result of a fierce struggle for power between the caliph, secretaries, and the rising ulama. Shortly before his death, caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 833) decreed that the officials should profess belief in the “createdness of the Qur’an” to start a long process known in Muslim history as Mihna (833–849). Although it seemed to be about an arcane theological issue proposed by the new rationalist school of Mu’tazilites, it created a huge rift with the ulama and prominent jurists such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855). By the beginning of al-Mutawakkil’s reign in 848–849, Abbasid caliphs surrendered to the ulama; and, for one reason or another, left the religious sphere to them. It was, in effect, the acknowledgment that al-Ma’mun’s attempt to enforce a caliph as a spiritual guide had been a failure (Crone & Hinds, 1986, p. 97). The empire, it seems, needed the ulama for their support and their ability to manufacture consent among the Sunni masses. This was also against the background of the rising power of Turkish mercenaries. The end result in the mid-9th century can be called the establishment of Sunnism proper, or the Sunni compromise between the religious and political authorities (Watt, 1968, p. 84).

Shi'ite Dynasties, the Rise of Turkish Mercenaries, and the Triumph of the Sunni Compromise

Soon afterward, the centralized power of the Abbasids began to crumble when governors formed their own de facto principalities in the latter part of the 9th century. Even further, the 10th century witnessed a remarkable rejuvenation of Shi'ite polities. In addition to the Fatimid caliphate (909–1171) extending to North Africa and parts of the Levant, the Shi'ite Buyid dynasty (934–1062) went as far as controlling the Abbasid capitol, Baghdad itself.

A countercurrent that would change the fate of the Sunni bloc, alongside the consolidation of the Abbasid era Sunni compromise up until modern times, was the rise of Turkish power. By that time, the Turkish mercenary soldiers had started to exercise increased influence in the Abbasid palace intrigues (Hourani, 1983, p. 10). The recently converted Seljuk rulers (1037–1194) not only saved the Sunni Abbasi caliphs from the Buyid tutelage, they also started a new era of Turkish military and political dominance in the Islamic heartland in return for their tutelary and protectorate role over the Sunni ulama and the masses. This was the peak of a certain form of “Sunni realism” or “Sunni compromise” (Watt, 1968, pp. 74–75, 102). Not only were there several articulate statements of the caliphate’s nature and role, commissioned by the caliphs themselves as in the case of Mawardi’s (d. 1058) al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya (Hourani, 1983, p. 10; Watt, 1968, p. 102), but it was also “the post-eventum justification of the precedents” (Watt, 1968, p. 102). Even further, with such a division of labor, effective political power would be left in the hands of the soldier amir/sultans, who met few of the religious qualifications for a Muslim ruler as outlined in Mawardi’s treatise. In exchange for this exemption, they would commit themselves to protect the Muslim-dominated lands from the enemies of Sunni Islam. In their turn, Abbasid caliphs would represent the symbolic unity of the ummah and the ulama class would confer them some legitimacy, waiving the election requirements of legitimate caliphate. In return, the ulama would reserve their domain over personal and social lives of Muslim masses by exercising control over education and shariah courts. This Sunni compromise would find its most articulate expression in al-Ghazali (d. 1111), for whom “there should be an imam who is obeyed; who he is and how he is chosen are important but logically secondary” (Hourani, 1983, pp. 13–14). Moreover, as long as he wanted to consult with the ulama, he would not be deposed since any ruler was better than chaos, regardless of the origin of his power. Ibn Jama’a (d. 1333) would take this to such an extreme that he would declare the ruler as “the shadow of God on earth” (Hourani, 1983, p. 15).

Seljuks returned such favors of ideological support when the renowned vizier Nizam-al-Mulk began to set up colleges (madrasa Nizamiyya) in a dozen cities in support of Sunni Islam. Apart from the highest religious education, they would train secretaries for the state bureaucracy as well. In short, it was the final triumph of the ulema over the former bureaucratic class, by their domination over education, judiciary, and bureaucracy (Watt, 1968, pp. 74–75).

Sunni Realism and De Facto Secularism

The division of labor between various types of authorities can also be described as de facto secularism, or protosecularism. Mawardi, Ghazali, and Ibn Jamaa recognized the military power pure and simple as the essence of rulership (Enayat, 2001, pp. 14–15). In Enayat’s view, this also had Shi'ite counterparts and Sunni realism should not be taken as the polar opposite of a certain Shi'ite idealism with an unrelenting emphasis on justice. For instance, Tusi (d. 1068) and Ibn Idris (d. 1202) advised paying allegiance to a type of “righteous, just ruler,” even if he is not the same person as the imam (Enayat, 2001, p. 16). Still, Sunni jurists would go even further to justify government by force. Syrian jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) thus would say, “Even if somebody among unjust kings becomes ruler, this would be better than there being none. As it is said, ‘sixty years of an unjust ruler are better than one night without a ruler’” (Enayat, 2001, p. 16).

Such a division of labor, where the political sphere is governed by its own power dynamics only to be assigned legitimacy by the religious authorities afterward, may be interpreted as a form of separation between temporal and religious spheres; that is, a form of de facto or protosecularism. This temporal sphere became even more distinct when sultans over time acquired more power to issue their edicts, decrees, and ordinances while establishing their special kind of mazalim courts, irrespective of the backing of scholars’ fatwas and religious laws (Esposito, 1998, pp. 22–23).

The Sunni compromise and this form of de facto secularism was so stable that it survived even the catastrophic demise of the Muslim domination in vast lands of Asia by the Mongol invasions, which culminated in the eventual destruction of Baghdad and killing of the Abbasi caliph Al-Musta’sim Billah in 1258. This looked like an existential crisis for Muslim political power and it led to a new dilemma on the status of living as a Muslim majority under non-Muslim rule, which would find its parallels in the modern colonial and postcolonial secularist nation-states. Nonetheless, despite the enormity of this crisis for Muslim political existence, it was resolved largely in their favor along with the conversion of Mongol rulers to Islam. The general contours of the existing division of authority continued with the formally added element of the Yasa of Genghis Khan, as a secular code to exist alongside the shariah. It is often ascribed to Ibn Taymiyyah’s so-called Mardin Fatwa, presaging the 20th-century radical Islamist views. Hence, Mongolian rule through their manmade Yasa code meant that they were living in a state of jāhilīyah (age of ignorance) (Nettler, 2014).

Following the demise of the Baghdad caliphate, Mamluk sultan Baybars attempted to revive its symbolic authority in 1261 by installing an Abbasid prince in Egypt with even less power, using his legitimating power at times. Whatever happened to the caliphate after Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt in 1517 is still uncertain. Ottoman sultans, except Murad I’s interesting use of the title (Kennedy, 2016, p. 251), did not see much use in any claim over caliphate for many centuries. However, after the fall of the Muslim-majority regions under Russian rule, the title’s career saw a sudden resurgence with the 1774 Kaynarca treaty (Hourani, 1983, p. 27; Lewis, 1988, pp. 48–50). From that time until the collapse of the Ottoman dynasty, caliphate would be employed as an important foreign policy tool, often to further a sultan’s pan-Islamist goals as leverage against the European empires. The last such attempt by the Ottoman “Caliph” during World War I produced at best mixed results amid nationalist demands in the Middle East, unlike its effective reception by the overseas Muslims as far as Aceh Sultanate (1496–1903). In short, with some modifications and several ebbs and flows depending on the power and skills of the rulers, the general contours of the Sunni model arguably survived centuries in the heartland of the Sunni, Muslim-dominated regions until the European invasions.

Consolidation of Shi'ism in Iran

Another major development around the heyday of the Sunni Ottoman Empire was in the making in Iran, when another Turkic ruler, Shah Ismail, established a Shi'ite state (1501). He then turned Iran into perhaps the most stable Shi'ite-dominated polity by enforcing an ambitious conversion policy. His model of governance is comparable to the Turkish-dominated Sunni sultanates. However, the existing role of the Mujtahid and Marja Taqlid as the dominant religious authorities on Shi'ite Muslims’ lives, as well as their effective power to give legitimacy to the Shi'ite ruler, kept the Safavid Empire more bound by religion and arguably less secular. Nonetheless, the government was able to incorporate the religious clergy into its bureaucracy to supervise religious institutions and endowments. Until the “Islamic revolution” of 1979 and Khomeini’s major modification of the Shi'ite model of governance by walayat-al-faqih (custody of the Islamic jurist), where clergy exercised direct control over the state, the late classical model lived on in Iran with varying modifications.

Contemporary Politics and Islam-Politics Relations

The abolition of the caliphate in 1924 undoubtedly represented a watershed event for the religiously oriented Sunni Muslims’ relationship with politics. However, it does not necessarily mean that this was due to the loss of an institution with a genuine religious authority over them. It was rather the realization and recognition of the radically changed circumstances, especially the culmination of the European domination over the Muslim-majority world, which was close to complete by then, and the ensuing sense of defeat and siege. This feeling has arguably defined religious-minded contemporary Muslims’ relationship with politics, but the 1924 moment also represented a new beginning for Muslim politics that had been gestating for some time.

Muslim Revivalism and Reformism

The gestation was in the form of a series revivalist and reformist movements in a wide range of Muslim-ruled polities from Africa to the heartland of Arabia. The earlier revivalist movements in more isolated corners of the Muslim-dominated lands emerged in reaction to the general sense of Muslim decline (inhitat) ,but not necessarily in interaction with European science and culture (Dallal, 2018). The revivalist message was able to manifest itself in the form of political conflicts and eventually some polities, as in northern Nigeria’s Sokoto Caliphate under Usman dan Fodio (d. 1817) or by the embodiment of Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab’s (d. 1792) revivalist message in the earlier Saudi polity in the 18th century (Levtzion & Voll, 1987). A separate reformist current, sharing some sensibilities of “going back to the Qur’an” was also discernible among the more educated religious elite interacting with the West during Nahda (Arab Renaissance) or the Ottoman Tanzimat movements, represented by figures such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (d. 1873) of Egypt or Arif Hikmet Bey (d. 1859) of Ottoman Turkey. These currents eventually led to a reformist demand to return to the pristine Islam’s ethical principles of good government (husn’il imarah or idarah) in order to reverse the Muslim decline caused by despotism. As a leading representative of this current in Tunisia, Tunisi formulated good government with principles such as transparency, accountability, limited government, shura, and especially the principle of liberty against despotic and unaccountable Muslim rulers.

This has become a common thread defended by a long line of thinkers from Tunisi and Jamal al-din al-Afghani (d. 1897) in the 19th century to the present. Meanwhile, the Ottoman government undertook its own top-down revivalism of the caliphal authority as part of a new foreign policy push through pan-Islamist policies. The revivalist and reformist currents were trying to create a new Islamization from below based on the reform of Muslim society and especially governmental reform through a constitution culminated in Tunisia in 1861 and Ottoman Turkey in 1876. Pan-Islamist policies, particularly under Abdulhamid II (r. 1876–1909), conveyed a religious message of Muslim unity and common Muslim identity, but without the component of good government, shura, or constitution.

Islamism and Other Ideologies Under Nation-States

Amid these new intellectual currents, the new nation-states and later postcolonial governments began to rule Muslim-majority countries in the 1920s with predominantly secular constitutions. Often these governments espoused ethnic nationalism or a varying blend of religion, nationalism, and socialism, as observed in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt in the 20th century. In the absence of even such a symbolic religious authority as the caliphate, religiously motivated Muslims had to return to their own means to build an “Islamic” society from the ground up by building grassroots religious communities. As the ulama class was still part of the state apparatus in a quasi-clergy status even in the radical secularist Turkey, the medieval de facto secular model did not have much difficulty adapting to the new circumstances. New nationalist governments could even co-opt them for their own nation-building projects as in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, or other countries in the Muslim heartland. However, coupled with a sense of Western subjugation, this model of religious subservience under explicitly secular authorities took a higher toll this time on the ulama’s moral authority among the Muslim masses, especially in the face of their widespread class and status resentments, or outright secularist oppression and repression.

Under these circumstances, the novelty of the 20th century was a new type of autonomous grassroots Muslim community, jamaat, often led by non-ulama, lay Muslim activists and intellectuals. These jamaats became the primary vehicle for Muslim mass mobilization in the 20th century. As the best known example, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt, founded by Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949), quickly spread to the other Arab countries. Tablighi Jamaat (est. 1927) and Jamaat-e-Islami (est. 1941) are two of the better-known examples in the Indian subcontinent. Even the nonpolitical Nurcu movements in Turkey as a new, quasi-Sufi trend among the Sunni communities, as well as the Salafi revivalist communities in Egypt were built around similar organizational models and strategies with an evident potential for politicization later on. These nonpolitical, neo-Sufi or neo-Salafi communities, with their mass mobilization capacity, quickly became stakeholders even under the most secular circumstances, provided that there was some form of electoral politics, if not democracy (Bokhari & Senzai, 2013). In short, the novelty of Muslim politics in the 20th century involved fluctuating configurations between state, society, and religious communities. Their relations could range between outright opposition and dissent toward government on the part of the communities to clientelism and political patronage in exchange for political support and co-optation, as long as the nation-states did not choose to suppress them.

Transnational Muslim Networks

The revivalist and reformist Muslims movements expanded the informal transnational networks of the late 19th century through the initiatives of Afghani and Abduh, and formalized them through a series of Muslim congresses (Kramer, 1986). Following the unsuccessful government-sponsored Islamic Congresses for the Caliphate in Cairo and Mecca (1926), new civil initiatives started to take shape in Jerusalem (1931) and Geneva (1935), forming the backbone of a transnational Muslim political movement. Such civilian initiatives would eventually be co-opted by the establishment of the Saudi-led Muslim World League (Rabitat al-Alam al-Islami, est. 1962).

The sociopolitical scene in the Muslim majority countries, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, was co-inhabited by politicized religious communities, dubbed “Political Islam” or “Islamism” by then, alongside secular movements, such as nationalist, socialist, and liberal groups. As the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (the Six-Day War) and the 1973 oil crisis shattered the secular nationalist elite’s popular support and legitimacy, especially in the Arab world, Islamist movements took center stage to express popular grievances. In many cases, they were able to access power through electoral politics (e.g., Turkey as early as 1973), revolutions (1979 in Iran), or coups (1977 in Pakistan and 1989 in Sudan).

The revivalist and reformist trends thus clearly changed the dynamics of state-religion relations in Muslim-majority societies through their increasingly strong grassroots and often mosque-centered organizational networks and their bid for government. They also became entangled in regional or international rivalries and politics. For example, while MB was persecuted in Egypt by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s (d. 1970) autocratic government, his regional rival representing the traditional Muslim authority structure, Saudi Arabia, hosted the MB exiles as the much needed well-educated activist cadres for its top-down Islamization project. Such cooperation and co-optation strategies escalated to a regional and global scale under the auspices of Islamist-friendly Saudi rulers in the Muslim World League. Through such initiatives, the Saudi sponsorship eventually absorbed the autonomous Islamic transnational movement as far as Western Europe and North America. This kept the Sunni and anticommunist, if not overtly Saudi-friendly, Islamic movements within the orbit of the United States during the Cold War, while these movements formed the counter-force against the secular-nationalist and often socialist-friendly movements that leaned more toward the Soviet government.

Whether militant jihadi or peaceful nonviolent groups, such rapprochements between various revivalist and reformist trends gradually led to certain cross-pollinations between distinct movements, often ending up in mutual assimilation and mergers. The Egyptian Islamist and Saudi Salafi movements, for example, transformed themselves in both Egypt and the Gulf countries (Bokhari & Senzai, 2013). On the extreme end, as more radicalization was underway in prisons and elsewhere in these countries, even more perilous mergers formed the core of the violent jihadi movements that would wreak havoc in the world, especially along with the September 11, 2001, massacre in the United States.

The way to 9/11 in the form a new violent Islamist configuration was in fact paved most significantly through the formation of a transnational jihadi network in Afghanistan during the Soviet Occupation (1979–1989). At that time, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Islamist anticommunist agendas represented a common interest against a common enemy under the Cold War circumstances. The eventual Soviet withdrawal (1988–1989) was momentous for more reasons than just defeating the Soviet Union. Transnational jihadi networks hence could deliver Muslim masses a worldly success in the form of a victory against a superpower. Although it had a Shi'ite character, the 1979 Iranian Revolution also had similar reverberations beyond Iran across the Muslim-majority world. Once again, faith in God could fulfill the promise of concrete worldly victories for the Muslim masses worldwide, boosting moral support and power for Islamism.

Despite numerous failures and disillusionment afterward, politicized religious movements have been perceived as one of the top security concerns on the world agenda for several decades. The literature from the 1950s onward is driven by a sense of alarm in the face of what has been dubbed the “Islamic resurgence.” Leaving the militant ones aside, politicized religious movements in fact have gone through various metamorphoses and have manifested themselves in a wide range of forms, from Turkey’s conservative-populist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the Islamic State. Eventually, almost all politically oriented religious movements in the Muslim-majority world would be an important part of security and foreign-policy debates. This has posed serious challenge to the secularization theses for these societies, as hoped by the modernization theories of the early Cold War.

Although Islamist political parties and militant jihadi groups continue to preoccupy researchers and policymakers alike, they by no means monopolize the landscape of the religiously motivated political activism to define the relationship between Islam and politics singlehandedly. Religiously motivated political activism has many more possible or real manifestations, ranging from the liberal Muslim networks primarily in various European countries and North America to “progressive Muslims,” who have advocated Muslim liberation theologies in distant places as far as South Africa and the Indian subcontinent (Esack, 1996; Safi, 2003). These groups have a distinctly political discourse articulated from within Islam but focusing on distinctly social justice and freedom issues from egalitarian perspectives. For a variety of reasons, they do not entertain as much visibility as Islamist political parties and jihadi groups.

One important development after the Arab Spring, which created opportunities as well as challenges for Islamist movements in their engagements with democratic experimentations, was a renewed crackdown on the long-standing Islamic communities that have a political agenda. In Turkey, this took the form of the persecution of the neo-Sufi Gülen movement by another movement in power with an Islamist past, AKP, which has declared its former partner a terrorist organization and suppressed it by suspending democracy. In Egypt, the ousting of the first popularly elected president, Mohamed Morsi (r. 2012–2013), was extended to a wholesale criminalization and brutal suppression of the movement. In Bangladesh, several Jamaat-e Islami leaders were hanged in contentious trials that were called as unfair trials by major worldwide human rights organizations. In short, modern religious communities seem to be undergoing a new repression cycle, with no end in sight.

Muslim Political Thought: Taking Stock

The tumultuous and at times violent relationship between Islam and politics, as experienced by the Muslim masses from the succession problem onward, has exerted a formative influence on the articulation and institutionalization of Islam itself. The very division among the sects, especially Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kharijites, and Mu’tazilites, represented much more than just some arcane theological debates; but they were driven by some seriously conflicting political positions. More significantly, this was not just limited to the cleavage between the mostly Shi'ite theory of the imamate and the mainly Sunni theory of the caliphate. Also, the shifting roles among the caliph, the sultan, the president, and the ulama prefigured how Islam as a religion has been formulated and perceived by the religious and political elites as well as the masses.

Sects and Genres of Political Philosophy

The earliest political conflicts transfigured themselves into religio-political sects that seemed irreconcilable in regard to their radically conflicting theories of succession and the required qualifications for the Muslim leadership. Although Kharijites’ strict literalist understanding of the verses led them to take on extreme positions against Ali, they surprise the students of Islam with their much more egalitarian views in other respects. For instance, they stood out by rejecting any racial or tribal requirements for the caliphate unlike the Sunni theory that restricted it to the tribe of Quraish or the Shi'ite view that limited it, even more narrowly, to the Prophet’s lineage. They maintained that Muslims can choose anybody, “even a black slave,” for that office (Rahman, 1979, p. 170). Also, certain branches of the Kharijite school held that it was not necessary to appoint a political leader if the ummah could manage their affairs collectively. In these particular respects, together with the Mutazilites, they came closer to more anarchic perspectives by their more egalitarian views.

After the emergence of the sectarian divisions among these sects and schools with their conflicting theories of legitimate leadership, a common conviction among the Sunni scholars was the priority of the community’s integrity over the legitimacy or justness of the ruler. Even though Sunni scholars such as al-Ghazali did not want the believers to condone injustice, they still advised obedience, even to an unjust ruler.

Such beliefs did not come just as a set of practical exhortations to the believers by leading scholars. As the major Sunni schools of jurisprudence, namely, Shafii, Hanafi, Maliki, and Hanbali schools were codified and consolidated from the 9th century onward, they constituted a new genre of politics; namely, political jurisprudence (fiqh al-siyasah), or al-siyasah al-shar’iyyah. To protect their creed, Sunnism also elevated the political issue of the caliphate to theological status by assigning a separate chapter to it in the theology books, as a rebuttal to the Shi'ite theology of the imamate. These works, more often than not, legitimated the new status quo and sidelined the more important question of origins and election of a legitimate ruler.

The third place to look for political thinking was the Mirrors for Princes literature (see Boroujerdi, 2013; Yavari, 2014). In their power struggle with the ulama, the secretary class of the Abbasid, as the heirs of the Sasanid bureaucracy, had distinguished themselves with their Mirror for Princes literature. According to Yavari (2014), the mirrors gave currency to a theory of legitimate kingship demarcated from competing sources of authority, chiefly the religious ones. Among these, Ibn al Muqaffa is known for his Kalila wa-Dimna and Kay Ka’us wrote the Qabusnameh in Persian. Nizam-al-Mulk, the Seljuk vizier, penned Siyasat-nameh (Watt, 1968, pp. 81–82). This genre flourished and rose to special prominence with the rise of the Turks. So much so that, as Yavari (2014) contends, they were among the most popular and influential reading material in the medieval Islamic world. The more significant conclusion of such recent works on the advice literature is their reification of Reason, as a form of secular political thought and a counterpart to the more overtly political philosophy and theology literature (Yavari, 2014, p. 93). In Sa’di Shirazi’s (d. 1291) case, for instance, a humane type of politics incorporating pragmatism, secular statecraft, and public interest is visible (Boroujerdi, 2013, p. 5). Perhaps for the students of comparative political theory, the clear intercultural trajectory of the advice literature provides a much richer source of a distinct Muslim political theory.

As for the political philosophy proper, the most noteworthy dimension of the Islamic legacy on political philosophy is relatively neglected status as compared with the other fields of inquiry, in spite of the 8th-century mass translation movement from the Greek. Even the Falasifah (philosophers) movement had little scope assigned to political philosophy, let alone the juridical movement. Hourani claimed that Aristotle’s Politics may even not have been translated into Arabic (Hourani, 1983, p. 15). Nonetheless, to their credit, al-Farabi penned Mabadi Ara Ahl al Madina al Fadila [On the Perfect State]. For Ibn Sina (d. 1037), although the prophecy was the highest state of human intellect with an essential function to give laws, a good system of law could still grow up in society in other ways in the absence of a prophet (Hourani, 1983, p. 18). Furthermore, Tusi’s Nasirean Ethics (Akhlaq-i Nasiri) remains an important philosophical treatise in Muslim political philosophy.

One can still find bits and pieces of political philosophy in the Muslim scholarship in all four genres, as well as in ethics books, but the relative weakness of an independent and vibrant genre of political philosophy that discussed central questions of politics, such as the origins and nature of power and government, the rights of the ruled, or any notion that comes closer to freedom, remained a problem. Ali Abd’al Raziq in his renowned 1925 treatise Islam and the Foundations of Political Power (2010) addresses this very same issue and charges the despotic rulers in the past with deliberately censuring the study of political science (pp. 44–46).

The Problem of Inhitat (Decline) and the Reformist Political Thought

In the modern era, as many reformist Muslims considered the problem of decline as a result of bad government, Muslim political theory found a new appeal in the form of new treatises. Tunisi’s Akwam al Masaliq (1860s) is an important and probably the earliest “comparative politics” textbook written from an Islamic perspective. Its introduction is a political theory treatise, à la Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, but with a clear reliance on the Islamic jurisprudence. Thanks to this new line of thinking, a serious intellectual output on politics was observed, including the works of Ibn Abu Diyaf (d. 1874) in Tunisia, Young Ottomans, and especially Namik Kemal (1888) in Turkey, Afghani in Egypt, and several others in the subcontinent, Iran, and elsewhere. This new literature on politics includes pamphlets and theoretical pieces (Kurzman, 2002).

In the 20th century, as the reformist and revivalist current continued, ulama had arguably lost its moral authority as well as significance in the educational system. In their stead, nonclergy and secular-educated intellectuals took the leading role in writing about politics. Hence, by the mid-20th century, the most influential political statements of Islamic politics, or general Muslim conduct for an Islamic life, would instead be written by ideologues such as al-Banna, Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), Ali Shariati (d. 1977), Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi (d. 1999), Abul A’la Maududi (d. 1979), Malek Bennabi (d. 1973), and Alija Izetbegović (d. 2003) in a wide geography. In effect, these secular-educated intellectuals would take the lead in mobilizing the Muslim masses and disseminating their ideas on the proper normative relationship between Islam and politics.

Islamism as a political theory in these treatises emerged as a holistic point of view and a complete way of life that does not separate politics, economics, and other spheres of life from religion and creed. These works emerged as a condemnation of the secular nation-states and for the most part condemned the Westernized, secular, liberal, nationalist, or socialist governments as antithetical to Islamic politics. Their goal was still not to revive an idealized past as in the days of the caliphs and Sultans. Instead, as a quite common line of thinking, the reason for the Muslim decline was the despotic and “un-Islamic” governments throughout history, propped up by the co-opted ulama, as much as the incursions of the “Western” powers and the secular elite they unjustly imposed.

In this sense, the Islamist political project has been inimical to the traditional formulas as much as the modernist ones. Although it would be an oversimplification to ascribe a list of common characteristics to this wide group of people, their common aim was the establishment of an “Islamic state” rather than the revival of the caliphate, even when they talked about the ideal polity. Accordingly, except for some Shi'ite views, ruling of Muslim-majority countries by the theocratic elite was not their popular choice. As for democracy, its philosophical premises as well as its ontological and epistemological foundations were surely an anathema for many of them. Nonetheless, a good number were looking for some midway solution to reconcile with democracy, except the more radical Sayyid Qutb, who categorically rejected parliaments and democracy as rivals to God’s deity (Qutb, 2002). Maududi’s concept of “theo-democracy” is an interesting formulation to this end (Maudoodi & Ahmad, 1968, p. 22). Even further, perhaps without any exception, they sought to articulate shura-based governance models.

Shi'ite thought, despite the more vibrant interactions with its Sunni Islamist counterparts in the 20th century, including that of Sayyid Qutb, still ran its own course. Except for Ali Shariati’s more widely read liberation theology, the most important innovation was that of Khomeini’s theory of walayat al-faqih (custody of the Islamic jurist), which posited a much more theocratic form of government. This was, for instance, in stark contrast to Sayyid Qutb’s rejection of theocracy (Qutb, 2006, p. 82).

A survey of contemporary Muslim political thinking in Muslim-majority societies must also include works written from other ideological points of view, especially from socialist, nationalist, liberal, and feminist ones. With large adherents of these ideologies in the Muslim-majority countries, at least for the last two centuries, there was no shortage of works that advocated rather secular forms of Muslim politics. There have been numerous works that offered some syntheses among Islam, liberalism, socialism, and nationalism. More recently, there has been an upsurge of religious-oriented works that opposed Islamism and espoused alternative forms of religiously motivated politics through deconstruction of Islamist premises (El-Affendi, 2008; Zakaria, 2005). Works that sought to articulate Islamic socialism early on (Bercavi, 1946; Hanafi, 1988), Islamic liberation theology (Dabashi, 2008; Esack, 1996; Rahemtulla, 2017), and Islamic feminism more recently can be cited in this respect.

Moreover, the term “post-Islamism,” with its most detailed articulation in Asef Bayat’s (2007, 2010) work, has recently occupied center stage in many researchers’ agenda. Given the Islamist project’s exasperation with the idea of a totally Islamized society and certain attempts seeking to transcend Islamism by emphasizing rights, plurality, historicity, and hermeneutic engagements with religion in everyday praxis may amount to a new political formation. It is yet to be seen whether the post–Arab Spring turmoil will exacerbate the disillusionment with even the “post-” versions of Islamism among its former followers. Meanwhile, even the adherents of the orthodox Islamist project seem to have aligned themselves with new religious populisms in Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Whether there will be an increasing secularization and whether the chasms between social justice discourses and religious populisms will widen is uncertain. But it is likely that the answers given by Muslims to these questions will mold the future shape of Islam’s relationship with politics.

Conclusion and Future Directions

The complex relationship between Islam and politics can be studied from a wide variety of perspectives, both normative and empirical. How Islam’s normative sources and ideals have been interpreted and renegotiated by Muslim political actors, religious or not, throughout the 15 centuries since Islam’s emergence under certain institutional, structural, and cultural constraints has been the central question in this article. Hence, interactions between religion and politics in the Muslim-majority contexts can be studied through a combination of approaches and methods: analyses of Islam’s foundational texts or interpretive texts on them written by Muslim jurists, theologians, philosophers, and lately thinkers and intellectuals; historical studies on Muslim-dominant governments to examine the dynamics of how religion figured in politics and governance; and, last but not the least, contemporary political, sociological, or anthropological studies on political movements among Muslims, including the violent and militant ones.

At each and every level of analysis, one encounters political actors and subjectivities that both redefine the meaning of “Islamic politics” and defy the categories and notions pre-given either by scholars of Islam or the outsider researchers and observers. Unlike the heyday of Orientalism, the meaning of this relationship is now much less reduced to texts and much more centered on subjectivities that interpret and renegotiate these texts and legacies in their particular contexts, geographies, and histories. At least among the scholarly circles, Muslim-majority societies are now much less conceived by a vision where religion mediates all dimensions of life. Whether motivated by Islam or not, political actors in Muslim-majority societies, women and men, coming from various ideological or philosophical perspectives have been molding the relationship between Islam and politics, positing Muslim politics of all sorts. As such, what Islam means to these contemporary Muslim-majority societies is constantly redefined, regardless of what is written in the foundational texts and interpretive communities of the past, specifically the ulama. There are several countercurrents in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority societies that participate in this contested space, including increasing participation by women, along with other minority groups. With a global threat against democracy, the future of even the more established democratic countries is at stake. Whether Muslim futures will be more democratic, Islamic or secular, or if a more authoritarian, theocratic, or secularist trajectory is in the making is yet to be seen. The richness of the cultural and intellectual resources of the Muslim heritage opens up possibilities for multiple futures.

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                                                                                                                                  (1.) All of the Qur’anic verses in the text are quoted from (Asad, 1964).