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date: 25 February 2021

State and Citizenship in Modern Arab Muslim Thoughtlocked

  • Louay SafiLouay SafiIndependent Scholar

Summary

Intellectual debates and sociopolitical changes in Arab societies have brought about new political outlooks and consciousness, and have resulted in profound political change and restructuring of state institutions. Reform efforts successfully introduced modern political institutions, but failed in effecting a broad and systematic transformation of political culture, as the latter continues to be guided by notions and practices rooted in the premodern models of authoritarian (“sultanic”) governance. The drive to political reform under the rubric of Tanzimat started around the turn of the 19th century as a matter of necessity by both Ottoman rulers (sultans), and their governors in Egypt and Tunisia, in response to European imperial expansion into Africa and Asia. By mid-20th century, political institutions and state bureaucracies were restructured in the mold of modern political ideas. Yet these ideas, and the ethical foundations on which they stood, failed to mature in post-Ottoman Muslim societies. Conservative forces resisted the new ideas. With the increased disenchantment of Muslim youth with postcolonial states, conservative thinkers reintroduced Islamic notions and values into the debate over the proper form of government in contemporary Muslim societies. The push to modernize society has been intense, empowering Muslim modernists to move ahead to reshape societal institutions. The zeal to bring about quick development effected indeed rapid modernization but led to the rise of autocratic governments, and further polarized Muslims societies. Notions of popular sovereignty and equal citizenship were countered by the sovereignty of Shari`ah and the need for religious differentiation and religious autonomy, thereby demanding the revival of the historical institutions of caliphate and dhimmis. The debate gradually moved toward compromise, whereby Muslim intellectuals and scholars attempted a creative synthesis on the common ground found in both traditional Islam and modern democratic liberal ideas. The transformation into a model that aligns Islamic values with the principles of democracy (or shura) and equal rights of citizens, while profound and increasingly broad, is still incomplete, as current struggles in Muslim societies demonstrate; intellectual and practical battles for the soul of Muslim societies continue to rage. The push back in the last two decades against modern notions of state and citizenship, and the rise in popularity of groups that aim at reviving the premodern institution of caliphate underscore the debate between old and modern notions of political organization and allegiance, and require deeper understanding of the nature of the tensions between premodern and contemporary political ideas and institutions.

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