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The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton

The Political Problem of Islam

Islam is a world religion with adherents far tory, instructions for the ruler that will
beyond the lands of the Arabs. Moreover, help him to guide his people in the ways of
between five and ten percent of Arabs are the faith.2 The Filasafa (i.e., thinkers influ-
Christians, and in recent times Christian enced by Greek philosophy) composed their
Arabs have played a disproportionate role intellectual agenda by synthesizing the
in the revival of Arabic literature.It would Koran with what they knew of Aristotle and
therefore be a gross mistake to identify Plato. But the result is a peculiarly frozen
Islam with Arabic culture, or to believe that vision of the art of politics as the Greeks had
a full understanding of Islamic thought and expounded it.
politics can be obtained merely from a study Al-Farabi, for example, describes the
of the Middle East. At the same time, the philosopher-king of Plato as the prophet,
faith, law, and worldview of the Muslim lawgiver, and imam to his community, ar-
diaspora directly derives from a text whose guing that the meaning of imam, philoso-
meaning and emotional weight is contained pher, and lawgiver is one and the same.3
within its language, and that language is He emphasizes the distinction between rea-
Arabic. Although there arose in the wake of son and revelation, as pondered by the
the Koran an extraordinary civilization, contemporary Mutazili school of theolo-
and a literary and artistic culture which gians, who held that reason could supple-
matched those of contemporary Europe, ment the revelations provided by the
the principal source of Islamic cultural Prophet. And he acknowledges the possi-
achievements is the single book from which bility of a political system based purely on
the faith began.1 reason and directed to the earthly needs of
A student of Muslim thought is immedi- the citizens. But the true system, he insists,
ately struck by how narrowly the classical is founded in revelation, and directed to-
thinkers pondered the problems of politi- wards happiness in the world to come. Ibn
cal order, and how sparse and theological Sina (Avicenna) likewise gives precedence
are their theories of institutions. Apart from to revelation, and his ideal state is founded
the caliphatethe office of successor to on prophecy and guided by the immutable
or substitute for the Prophetno hu- sharia. The constitution of such a state is
man institution occupies such thinkers as
Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, or Saif Ibn Umar Roger Scruton is an English philosopher who has
al-Asadi for long. Discussions of sover- published widely on an array of philosophical and
eigntysultan, mulktend to be exhorta- cultural questions. This article is adapted from his most
recent book, The West and the Rest (ISI Books, 2002).


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

prophetically revealed, and is our Sunna religio). In tribal communities asabiya is

which was sent down from heaven.4 strong, and creates resistance to outside
Law is fundamental to Islam, since the control, to taxation, and to government.
religion grew from Muhammads attempt In cities, asabiya is weak or non-existent,
to give an abiding code of conduct to his and society is held together by force exerted
followers. Hence arose the four surviving by the ruling dynasty. But dynasties too
schools (known as madhahib, or sects) of need asabiya if they are to maintain their
jurisprudence, with their subtle devices power. Hence, they inevitably decline, soft-
(hila) for discovering creative solutions ened by the luxury of city life, and within
within the letter (though not always the four generations will be conquered by out-
spirit) of the law.5 These four schools siders who enjoy the dynamic cohesion of
(Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi and Maliki) are the tribe.
accepted by each other as legitimate, but That part of Ibn Khalduns theory is still
may produce conflicting judgments in par- influential: Malise Ruthven, for example,
ticular cases. As a result, the body of Islamic believes that it casts light on the contempo-
jurisprudence (the fiqh) is now enormous. rary Muslim world, in which asabiya rather
Such legal knowledge notwithstanding, dis- than institutions remains the principal co-
cussions of the nature of law, the grounds of hesive force.6 But Ibn Khalduns secular
its legitimacy, and the distinguishing marks theory of society dwells on pre-political
of legal, as opposed to coercive, social struc- unity rather than political order. His ac-
tures are minimal. Classical Islamic juris- tual political theory is far more Islamic in
prudence, like classical Islamic philosophy, tone. He introduces a distinction between
assumes that law originates in divine com- two kinds of governmentthat founded
mand, as revealed through the Koran and on religion (siyasa diniya) and that founded
the Sunna, and as deduced by analogy on reason (siyasa aqliya).7 The second form
(qiyas) or consensus (ijma). Apart from of government is more political and less
these four sources (usul) of law, no other theocratic, since its laws do not rest on
source is recognized. Law, in other words, divine authority but on rational principles
is the will of God, and sovereignty is legiti- that can be understood and accepted with-
mate only insofar as it reflects Gods will. out the benefit of faith. But Ibn Khaldun
There is nevertheless one great classical finds himself unable to approve of this form
thinker who addressed the realities of social of politics. Secular law, he argues, leads to
order, and the nature of the power exerted a decline of asabiya. Moreover the impedi-
through it, in secular rather than theologi- ment (wazi) that constrains us to abide by
cal terms: the fourteenth-century Tunisian the law is, in the rational state, merely
polymath Ibn Khaldun. His Muqaddimah external. In the state founded on the sharia
is a kind of prolegomenon to the study of this impediment is internal, operating di-
history and offers a general perspective on rectly on the will of the subject. In short, the
the rise and decline of human societies. Ibn emergence of secular politics from the pro-
Khalduns primary subject of study had phetic community is a sign not of civilized
been the Bedouin societies of North Africa; progress but of moral decline.
but he generalized also from his knowledge In fact, Ibn Khaldun is rare among Mus-
of Muslim history. Societies, he argued, are lim philosophers in seeing the political as a
held together by a cohesive force, which he separate form of human life, with its own
called asabiya (asaba, to bind, asab, a laws (qawanin siyasiya), aspirations, and
nerve, ligament, or sinewcf. the Latin procedures. His bleak view of political or-


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

der is due to his bleak view of the city gen- distinction between the public and the pri-
erally. Without the pre-political asabiya, vate spheres: what is commanded to the
cities inevitably decay. Ibn Khalduns un- believers is commanded in response to the
derlying purpose was to distinguish the many problems, great and small, that
caliphate (khilafa), which had persisted emerged during the course of Muhammads
during the reign of the four righteous political mission. Laws governing mar-
caliphs, from the worldly sovereignty riage, property, usury, and commerce oc-
(mulk) that had gradually replaced it. Only cur side-by-side with rules of domestic
the caliphate had either the right or the ritual, good manners, and personal hy-
power to survive the collapse of earthly giene. The conduct of war and the treat-
dynasties, and Muslims must work con- ment of criminals are dealt with in the same
stantly to restore it as the rule of God on tone of voice as diet and defecation. The
earth. whole life of the community is set out in a
For all his subtlety, therefore, Ibn disordered, but ultimately consistent, set
Khaldun ends by endorsing the traditional, of absolutes. And it is impossible to judge
static idea of government according to the from the text itself whether any of these laws
sharia. In short, the Muslim conception of is more important, more threatening, or
law as holy law, pointing the unique way to more dear to Gods heart than the others.
salvation, and applying to every area of The opportunity never arises, for the stu-
human life, involves a confiscation of the dent of the Koran, to distinguish those
political. Those matters which, in Western matters which are open to political nego-
societies, are resolved by negotiation, com- tiation from those which are absolute du-
promise, and the laborious work of offices ties to God. In effect, everything is owed to
and committees, are the object of eternal God, with the consequence that nothing is
decrees, either laid down explicitly in the owed to Caesar.
holy book, or discerned there by some reli- Third, the social vision of the Koran is
gious leaderwhose authority, however, shaped through and through by the tribal
can always be questioned by a rival imam or order and commercial dealings of
jurist, since the sharia recognizes no office Muhammads Arabia. It is a vision of people
or institution as endowed with any inde- bound to each other by family ties and
pendent lawmaking power. tribal loyalties, but answerable for their
actions to God alone. No mention is made
Three features of the original message em- of institutions, corporations, societies, or
bodied in the Koran have proved decisive procedures with any independent author-
for Muslim political thought. First, the ity. Life, as portrayed in the Koran, is a
Messenger of God was presented with the stark, unmediated confrontation between
problem of organizing and leading an au- the individual and his God, in which the
tonomous community of followers. Unlike threat of punishment and the hope of re-
Jesus, he was not a religious visionary oper- ward are never far from the thoughts of
ating under an all-embracing imperial law, either party.
but a political leader, inspired by a revela- Therefore, although the Koran is the
tion of Gods purpose and determined to record of a political project, it lays no foun-
assert that purpose against the surround- dations for an impersonal political order,
ing world of tribal government and pagan but vests all power and authority in the
superstition. Messenger of God. There are no provisions
Second, the Suras of the Koran make no for the Messengers successor, or even for a


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

priesthood. The office of imamthe one sense of the corruption and godlessness of
who stands in front, i.e., who leads the the ruling power, and a desire to rediscover
community in prayerwas assumed by the holy leader who will restore the pure
Muhammad until the day when illness pre- way of life laid down by the Prophet. There
vented him from performing it and he asked seems to be no room in Islamic thinking for
his father-in-law Abu Bakr to perform the the ideavital to the history of Western
office in his stead. constitutional governmentof an office
It is still true that an imam has no insti- that works for the benefit of the commu-
tutional authority in the Sunni tradition nity, regardless of the virtues and vices of
and is merely a man whose personal quali- the one who fills it.
ties and religious knowledge fit him for the
role. The title of Imam is reserved by the The reader of the Koran will be struck by
Shiites for Muhammads first cousin Ali the radical change of tone that the revela-
and his descendants, who are regarded as tions exhibit after the Prophet has been
the true successors of the Prophet. But even forced into exile at Medina. The early
in the Shiite tradition, there is no concep- Meccan Suras are short, intensely lyrical,
tion of a priestly office that confers author- and written in a free rhyming prose that
ity on the one who holds it: authority is echoes the style of the pagan poets of
bestowed directly by the power of God. Muhammads Arabia. They invoke the
This point is made further evident by the natural world and the wonderful signs of its
fact that, according to the Shiites, the line Creator, being hymns of praise to the single
of imams ceased after the twelfth, who is the omnipotent God who speaks directly to his
still living hidden imam, destined to re- worshippers. They are the great dawn-vi-
appear in the last days as the mahdi or sion of an impassioned monotheist, from
Director, and who, according to the Ko- whose soul oppressive shadows are being
ran, will announce the Day of Judgment. chased away.
Hence, no living cleric can act with any The Medina Suras are much longer and
greater authority than that conferred by often cantankerous. They deal with the
his own personal qualities in the eyes of trials and tribulations of leadership, and
Godunless he can show himself actually the revelations are often granted as con-
to be the hidden imam, revealed at last after crete responses to the problems of commu-
centuries of divine displeasure, a feat which nal life. Muhammads project is revealed at
the Ayatollah Khomeini set out to accom- every step, and it is a remarkable one: to
plish, but with only transient success. replace the tribal society and its pagan gods
The office of caliph began as an attempt with a new, universal orderthe Islamic
to recapture a vanished personal author- ummafounded on belief in the one true
ity. Hence, caliphs repeatedly failed to give God and on the acceptance of his com-
proof of their legitimacy, and the first three mands. To achieve this result Muhammad
of them began a lengthy tradition of dying had to persuade his followers that he was
at the hands of assassins. Those who rule in Gods messenger; he had also to give proof
the Prophets name seldom satisfy their of Gods favor by success in war.
subjects that they are entitled to do so, since Although the community at Medina had
the authority that is looked for in an Islamic escaped from its persecutors, it retained a
ruler isto use Webers idioma charis- powerful sense of belonging elsewhere. They
matic rather than a legal-rational form. were al-muhajiroun, the ones in emigra-
Islamic revivals almost always begin from a tion or exile (hijrah), and the experience of


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

exile is invoked again and again in the Is- caliphate emerged as a genuine institution,
lamic revivals of our times. The absolute though one increasingly deprived of politi-
tone of command of the Medina Suras there- cal power. Nevertheless, the experience of
fore goes hand-in-hand with an intense settled government led to serious attempts
nostalgia, and it is not surprising that the by learned men to adapt the faith to the
idea of pilgrimage to the distant home needs of government. This was the great
should have rooted itself in Muhammads period of the hadithstraditions, authen-
mind to become one pillar (rukn) among ticated by pious examination, which re-
the five that constitute the core duties of the corded such words and deeds of the Prophet
Muslim. as might offer guidance to a settled commu-
I mention this point because it helps to nity. These hadiths are markedly more
explain how alien the Koranic vision of peaceful and conciliatory than the Medina
society is to any idea of territorial jurisdic- Suras, and have clearly been shaped by the
tion or national loyalty. In the eyes of the experience of a society in which charismatic
Koran, the place where we are is not the leadership is no longer the norm. They are
place where we belong, since the place where an attempt to read back into the prophetic
we belong is in the wrong hands. Our law source of Islam the real achievements of
therefore does not issue from our present Islamic forms of government. At the same
place of abode, and gives special privileges time there arose the four schools of fiqh,
only to the other place, which may one day which bring together the reflections of ju-
be reconquered. This attitude greatly fa- rists over generations, and show the at-
vors the notion of law as a relation between tempt by ijtihad to establish a genuine rule
each person and God, with no special refer- of law in places where law is nevertheless
ence to territory, sovereignty, or worldly seen as issuing placelessly and timelessly
obedience. Although localities are of enor- from the will of God.
mous importance in the Muslim worldview Even in that great period of jurispru-
it is not because they are the sources of law dence, however, the sharia remained de-
but because they are the object of law, de- fective in the crucial matter of legal person-
clared holy by God in his dealings with ality. As Ruthven has pointed out, there is
mankind. A holy place is precisely one sub- no provision in Islamic law for the corpo-
sumed into the divine order of things, rather ration as a legal person, with rights and
than the seat, like Rome or Paris, of a terri- duties of its own.8 The city, the committee,
torial jurisdiction. This is of great signifi- the mosque itself, do not occur as indepen-
cance in the current conflict over Jerusa- dent subjects of the law, and although
lem, which for the Muslim is a place set Muslim countries abound in charitable
apart from its earthly surroundings just as foundationsthe awqaf (singular waqf)
Mecca is set apart, scarcely belonging to the they are conceived not as property in the
geography of the actual world but existing hands of a corporate person, but as prop-
in the numinous region of divine impera- erty that has been simply removed from
tives. circulation or which has ceased (waqafa).
In Ruthvens words, there was no juridical
A fter the initial turmoilsin which the definition of the public sphere in classical
conflict between two of the righteous ca- Islamic jurisprudence,9 a fact which greatly
liphs, Uthman and Ali, led to the split impeded the formation of a genuine politi-
between Sunni and Shiitethe Muslim cal order. Hence stealing from the public
dynasties gained territory by conquest. The treasury was not held subject to the hadd


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

[i.e., the divinely ordained punishment for city is a creation of the shariaa hive of
theft], because the illegal act was not com- private spaces, built cell on cell. Above its
mitted against a juristic agent independent rooftops the minarets point to God like
of the thief who was, along with every other outstretched fingers, resounding with the
Muslim, considered part-owner of the mal voice of the muezzin as he calls the faithful
Allah, and thus part-owner of what he had to prayer.
stolen.10 I mention these two features because
Two momentous consequences follow they are often overlooked, despite their
from the adoption of the enormous importance in the
sharia. First, because it is a law psychology and the politics of
governing only Muslims, the the Islamic world. The Mus-
sharia leaves the status of other lim city is explicitly a city for
communities undefined. These Muslims, a place of congrega-
other communities remain tion in which individuals and
strictly outside the law, and their families live side-by-side
must either convert or accept in obedience to God, and
the status of dhimmawhich where non-Muslims exist only
means protected by treaty or on sufferance. The mosque is
covenant. Only people of the the link to God, and the pious
booki.e., Jews, Christians, believe that no building
and (in Persia) Zoroastri- Ibn Khaldun should overtop the minarets.
anshave traditionally been Many a Muslim carries this
accorded this status. Dhimma is offered in image in his heart, and when he encounters
return for the payment of taxes, and grants the Western city, with its open spaces, its
no clear and justiciable rights apart from a wide streets, its visible interiors, its sky-
general right of protection.11 Although free scrapers dwarfing the few religious build-
communities of Christians and Jews often ings, he is apt to feel both wonder and rage
thrived under Islamic law, there was no at the God-defying arrogance that has so
formal or legal acceptance of their right to completely eclipsed the life of piety and
worship in their own manner, and their prayer. It is not merely of anecdotal signifi-
property was subject to confiscation on cance that, when the terrorist leader
more or less arbitrary grounds. The Turk- Mohammed Atta left his native Egypt for
ish millet system rectified this, but depended Hamburg to continue his studies in archi-
for its authority on the secular rule of the tecture, it was not to learn about the mod-
sultan and had no authority in the sharia. ernist buildings that disfigure German cit-
Second, the way of life that grows under ies, but to write a thesis on the restoration
the aegis of the sharia is profoundly domes- of the ancient city of Aleppo.12 When he led
tic, without any public or ceremonial char- the attack against the World Trade Center,
acter except in the matter of communal Atta was assaulting a symbol of economic,
worship. The mosque and its school or aesthetic, and spiritual paganism.
madrasah, together with the souq or ba-
zaar, are the only genuine public spaces in T hose who see religion simply as a set of
traditional Muslim towns. The street is a doctrines concerning the origin of the
lane among private houses, which lie along world, the laws that govern it, and the
it and across it in a disorderly jumble of destiny of mankind will think of faith merely
inward-turning courtyards. The Muslim as a substitute for rational argument, des-


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

tined to crumble before the advance of izes and validates the condition of exile: the
science or to persist, if at all, as a jumble of condition in which we all find ourselves,
tattered superstitions in the midst of a world severed by the hectic motion of mechanized
that refutes them. But doctrine is the least life from the archaic need for membership.
important part of religion, as Muhammad Nothing evokes this more clearly than the
came quickly to see. Communities are not collective rite in which the faithful turn to
formed by doctrine, but by obedience, and Mecca with their prayersprojecting their
the two great instruments for securing obe- submission and their longing away from
dience are ritual and law. The the place where they are to
Muslim faith involves constant that other and holy place
rehearsal of the believers sub- where they are not, and whose
mission to God. The repeti- contours are defined not by
tion of sacred words and for- geography but by religious
mulae, the exact performance need.
of gestures whose only expla- Islam, in other words, is
nation is that they have been less a theological doctrine
commanded, the obligatory than a system of piety. To sub-
times of prayer, the annual fast mit to it is to discover the
and all the duties required by rules for an untroubled life
it, the dietary laws, the pilgrim- and an easy conscience. More-
age to Mecca with its myriad Ayatollah Khomeini over, rooted in the ritual and
obligatory actionsall this, taking constant nourishment
which is meaningless to the skeptical out- from it is a system of morality that clarifies
sider, is the stuff of consolation.13 Ritual those matters which must be clarified if
places individuals on a plane of absolute people are to live with each other in peace.
equality; it overcomes distance, extin- It is a system that safeguards the family as
guishes the self in the flow of collective the primary object of loyalty and trust; that
emotion, and refreshes the worshipper with clarifies and disciplines sexual conduct; that
a sense that he has regained favor in Gods sanctifies ordinary obligations of friend-
sight and hence his place in the community ship and kinship; and that lays down rules
of believers. Ritual is a discipline of the body for business which have a power to exoner-
that conveys and reinforces a discipline of ate as well as to blame. Even if this morality,
the soul. It is the outward manifestation of like the rituals that feed it, threatens those
the collective act of submission (islam) that freedoms which Westerners take for granted
unites the community of believers. And it is and which the rising generation of Muslim
one undeniable source of the peace and immigrants wish to exploit, it has the singu-
gentleness of the old Muslim city. lar advantage of clarity. It tells the faithful
In short, Islam offers an unparalleled what they must do in order to be on good
form of membership, and one whose appeal terms with God; and what they must do is
is all the greater in that it transcends time entirely a matter of private life, ritual, and
and place, joining the believer to a univer- worship. The public sphere can be left to
sal umma whose only sovereign is God. look after itself.14
Even if it may appear, to the skeptical mod- In the context of Western anomie and
ernist, as a medieval fossil, Islam has an self-indulgence, therefore, Muslim immi-
unrivalled ability to compensate for what is grants cling to their faith, seeing it as some-
lacking in modern experience. It rational- thing superior to the surrounding moral


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

chaos, and therefore more worthy of obe- Although the Ottoman Empire attempted
dience than the secular law which permits reforms that would give legitimacy to its
so much sin. Their children may rebel for a centralized administration, these re-
while against the strict sexual codes and formswhich led first to the destruction of
patriarchal absolutes of the Muslim family; the Empire, and then to the emergence of
but they too, in any crisis, are drawn to the modern Turkish state under Mustafah
their ancestral faith, which offers a vision of Kemal Atatrkwere explicitly Western-
moral security they find nowhere in the izing, involving both a deliberate move
public space that Western political systems away from Islamic ideas of legitimacy, and
have devoted themselves to generating. a ruthless secularization of society, with the
ulama losing whatever power they had
The writ of holy law runs through all once possessed in the educational, legal,
things, but this does not mean that Islamic and administrative process.
societies have been governed solely by the The Westernizing of Turkey was made
sharia. On the contrary, in almost all re- possible by its imperial history, which had
spects relevant to the government of a large imposed the obligation to govern distant
society, the sharia is radically deficient. It provinces and recalcitrant tribes by a sys-
has therefore been necessary in every epoch tem of law which could only here and there
for the ruler to lay down laws of his own be justified by some divine genealogy, and
which will guarantee his power, facilitate which was therefore constantly seeking le-
administration, and permit the collection gitimacy of another kind. By remaking
of taxes. But these laws have no indepen- Turkey as a territorial rather than an impe-
dent legitimacy in the eyes of those com- rial power, and by simultaneously secular-
pelled to obey them. They do not create a izing and Turkifying the Ottoman culture,
space outside religion in which freedom is Atatrk created a national loyalty, a terri-
the norm. On the contrary, they merely torial jurisdiction, and a form of constitu-
add to the constraints of the holy law the tional government. As a consequence, Tur-
rules of a political order which is backed by key has been the only durable democracy in
no de jure authority, only by de facto power. the Muslim worldalthough a democracy
In any upheaval they are rejected entirely as maintained as such by frequent interven-
the arbitrary edicts of a usurper. Hence, tions by an army loyal to the Kemalist
there is no scope in a traditional Islamic project. This transition has not been with-
society for the kinds of purely political de- out cost, however. Modern Turkey has been
velopment, through the patient building of effectively severed from its past. In the ensu-
institutions and secular laws, that we know ing search for a modern identity, young
in the West. Change, when it comes, takes people are repeatedly attracted to radical
the form of a crisis, as power is challenged and destabilizing ideologies, both Islamist
from below in the name of the one true and utopian.
Power above. This search for identity takes another
If the only way in which a law can be but related form in the Arabic-speaking
legitimated is by deriving it from a com- countries, and the al-Qaeda organization
mand of God, then clearly all secular laws should be understood as one significant
are seen as mere expedients adopted by the result of it.15 Of course, terrorism of the al-
ruler. In such circumstances it is unlikely Qaeda kind is an abnormality, repudiated
that any kind of constitutional, representa- by the majority of Muslims. It would be the
tive, or democratic government will emerge. greatest injustice to confuse Islam, as a pi-


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

ous way of life, with contemporary return from the corrupt practices that flour-
Islamism, which is an example of what ished under the Ottoman Empire and its
Burke, writing of the French Revolutionar- factititous rules and offices to the original
ies, called an armed doctrinea belliger- teachings of the Prophet and his Compan-
ent ideology bent on eradicating all oppo- ions. Compelled to seek asylum in Deraiah,
sition to its claims. Nevertheless, Islamism al-Wahhab attracted the local chieftain,
is not an accidental product of the crisis Muhammad ibn Saud, to his cause. And it
that Islam is currently undergoing, and the was Ibn Sauds grandson who, with a fa-
fundamental tenets of the faith must be natical and puritanical following, liber-
borne in mind by those who wish to under- ated Mecca from the idolatrous practices
stand the terrorist movements.16 that had rooted themselves there, estab-
lishing at the same time a short-lived king-
Al-Qaeda is the personal creation of dom in Arabia, and thereafter paying for
Osama bin Laden, but it derives from three his presumption with his life.
pre-existing sociopolitical forces: the Despite this political failure, Wahhabism
Wahhabite movement in Saudi Arabia; the took root in the Arabian peninsula. The
Muslim Brotherhood that emerged in Wahhabis preached purity of lifestyle and
modern Egypt; and, finally, the techno- absolute obedience to the Koran, free from
logical education now available to disaf- all compromise with the dar al-harb. They
fected Muslims throughout the Middle rejected the official schools of fiqh, includ-
East. ing the Hanbali madhhab that had inspired
The Wahhabite movement has its roots their founder, and argued that whoever
in the sect (madhhab) founded by Ahmad can read the Koran can judge for himself in
ibn Hanbal (780855), whose collection of matters of doctrine. After the death of the
30,000 hadiths formed the basis of the Companions, therefore, no new consensus
Hanbali fiqh. The leading principle of (ijma) could be admitted.
Hanbali jurisprudence is that law should In the early twentieth century a group of
not be formalized in rules or maxims but Wahhabis gathered around a descendent
constantly derived afresh from the original of the original Ibn Saud to form a brother-
sources by an effort of ijtihad that renews hood (ikhwan) dedicated to the re-estab-
both the faith and the understanding of the lishment of a purified faith by jihad. Start-
judge. Hence, Muslims must be constantly ing out with a handful of followers in 1902,
returned to the Koran and the words of the ibn Saud, as the world now knows him,
Prophet, the authority of which cannot be gradually drove the Turkish clients from
overridden by political decrees or formal their paper thrones in the Arabian penin-
legal systems. Although Hanbalism has al- sula. By the time that the Ottoman Empire
ways been recognized as a legitimate school collapsed, ibn Saud was able to declare a
of fiqh, its uncompromising emphasis on kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the peninsula,
the origins of the Muslim faith has made it and for a brief while the ikhwan exerted
a permanent source of opposition to the their influence over the holy places, causing
established powers in Muslim countries. widespread alarm in the region. However
Hence, when Muhammad ibn Abd al- Ibn Saud, now a player on the stage of
Wahhab (16911765), a native of central international politics, came to see that he
Arabia, sought to restore the true faith to must negotiate with the British for the se-
the Prophets sacred territory, he expressed cure possession of his kingdom, and that
himself in Hanbali terms. The aim was to the suppression of his following would be a


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

necessary price. and piety that the Prophet had created in

Although the ikhwan were brought to Medina.
heel, many of them through absorption Hassan al-Banna was profoundly influ-
into the Saudi National Guard, they did enced by the Wahhabite movement. The
not forget their original intention, which conquest of the Holy Places was a trium-
was to engage in a jihad against the infidel. phant proof of what could be achieved by
Nor did they forget that this aim had been faith, asabiya, and violence. Within a de-
diverted in the interests of a secular power. cade the Brotherhood had become the best
Instead of returning the sacred places to organized indigenous political force in
God, they had handed them over to an Egypt. Its anti-British sentiment caused it
earthly sovereign, and one who had the to look to the Axis powers in World War II,
impertinence, moreover, to name this holy hoping for the liberation of Egypt and its
territory for himself. It has never been for- own seizure of power thereafter. After the
gotten by the puritan ulama of Saudi Allied victory, it confined itself to a cam-
Arabia, therefore, that the spiritual legacy paign of terrorism, through which to bear
of Wahhabism has been betrayed by the witness to Islamic truth against the infidel.
family that purported to fight for it. This campaign was to provide the model
for future Islamist movements in Iran and
The other important Islamic movement Lebanon. Cinemas were blown up, along
in the formation of al-Qaeda was also an with the haunts of the infidels and her-
ikhwan. The Muslim Brotherhood was etics, while women wearing inadequate
founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al- dress were attacked with knives. Promi-
Banna, then a twenty-two-year-old elemen- nent public figures were tried by the Broth-
tary school teacher in Ismailia, a featureless erhood in absentia and found guilty of caus-
new town controlled by the Franco-British ing corruption on earth: their deaths fol-
Suez Canal Company. Surrounded on all lowed as a matter of course. Two prime
sides by the signs and symbols of the infidel ministers and many other officials were
way of life, living under a jurisdiction that murdered in this way. Young Muslims from
had lost authority in Muslim eyes and which elsewhere in the Middle East were recruited
stood idly by as the Muslim way of life to the Brotherhood, which operated in
decayed, al-Banna, who had received a rig- secret, al-Banna denying all involvement in
orous Islamic education and had already terrorism until his arrest and execution in
acquired a reputation for piety, responded 1949. By this time the Brotherhood had
to the appeals of his contemporaries to trained over a hundred terrorists from other
found a movement that would bring faith, Islamic countries, who traveled to their
hope, and charity to the rural migrants homelands to initiate the same kind of de-
who were crowding into the shanty towns stabilizing mayhem that had brought chaos
around the cities. For al-Banna, however, to Egypt. This unrest facilitated the army
charity was an insufficient proof of faith: a coup which led to the destruction of Egypts
jihad was also needed, which would expel fragile monarchy and the assumption of
the infidel from Muslim soil. Islamic clubs power by Gamal Abdul-Nasir (or Nasser,
and discussion groups abounded in the as he is generally known in the West).
Egypt of the time, but the Brotherhood was The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed
to be differenta return to the militant and savagely repressed by Nasser. But it
Islam of the Prophet, the goal of which lived on as a secret society, proliferating
would be to re-establish the reign of purity through cells formed to study the letters


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

sent from prison by its new leading person- secrets of Western technology while at the
ality, Sayyed Qutb (190666), who had same time revealing the emptiness of a civi-
lived in the United States from 1949 until lization in which only technology seems to
1951, and who preached the impossibility matter. Although Osama bin Laden is a
of compromise between Islam and the world Saudi by birth, his most active followers are
of ignorance (jahiliyya). Qutb was a self- Egyptians, shaped by Western technology
conscious intellectual in the Western sense, and Qutbist Islamism to become weapons
who attempted to give Islam a decidedly in the fight to the death against technology.
modernist, even existentialist character. Al-Qaeda offers them a new way of life
The faith of the true Muslim was, for Qutb, which is also a way of deathan Islamist
an expression of his innermost being against equivalent of the being-towards-death
the inauthentic otherness of the surround- extolled by Heidegger, in which all external
ing world.17 Islam was therefore the answer loyalties are dissolved in an act of self-sac-
to the rootlessness and comfortlessness of rificial commitment.
modernity, and Qutb did not stop short of
endorsing both suicide and terrorism as Al-Qaeda appeals to North African Mus-
instruments in the self-affirmation of the lims partly because it is an Arabist organi-
believer against the jahiliyya. In place of the zation, expressing itself in the language and
credo quia absurdum of Tertullian he imagery of the Koran and pursuing a con-
preached the facio quia absurdum (I do it flict that has its roots in the land of the
because it is absurd) of the existentialist, Prophet. It has given to the Sunni and Arab
believing that this absurdity would also be branch of Islamism the same sense of iden-
a triumph of the spirit over the surround- tity that the Shiite and Persian branch
ing pagan culture. received from the Islamic Republic of Aya-
tollah Khomeini. Indeed, its vision is virtu-
Qutb and hundreds of his followers were ally indistinguishable from that of
executed by Nasser in 1966, but not before Khomeini, who once described the killing
their message had spread through a younger of Western corrupters as a surgical opera-
generation that was enjoying for the first tion commanded by God himself.
time a Western-style university education Khomeinis sentiments do not merely
and the excitement of global communica- reflect his reading of the Koran. They are
tions. Although Sadat and his successor, the fruit of a long exile in the West, where he
Hosni-Mubarak, have tried to accommo- was protected by the infidels whose de-
date the Brotherhood by permitting it to struction he conjures. They are a vivid tes-
reorganize as a political party, with a share timony to the fact that the virtues of West-
in power accorded to its official leaders, the ern political systems are, to a certain kind of
real movement continued independently, Islamic mind, imperceptibleor percep-
not as a form of politics, but as a form of tible, as they were to Qutb and Atta, only as
membership, whose brothers would one hideous moral failings. Even while enjoy-
day be martyrs. ing the peace and freedom that issue from a
Many of the ideological leaders of the secular rule of law, a person who regards
Egyptian Islamist movement have been, the sharia as the unique path to salvation
like Mohammed Atta, graduates in techni- may see these things only as the signs of a
cal or scientific subjects. Some have had the spiritual emptiness or corruption. For
benefit of postgraduate study in the West. someone like Khomeinia figure of great
Their scientific training opens to them the historic importancehuman rights and


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

secular government display the decadence Revolution in Iran. Following in the tradi-
of Western civilization, which has failed to tion of the assassins, Khomeini issued a new
arm itself against those who intend to de- call to martyrdom, which was taken up by
stroy it. The message is that there can be no children and teenagers who expended their
compromise, and systems that make com- lives in clearing minefields.
promise and conciliation into their ruling The example set by the followers of
principles are merely aspects of the Devils Khomeini was soon projected around the
work. world. Sunni Muslims, who believe on the
Islam originally spread through the authority of the Koran that suicide is cat-
world on the wings of military success. egorically forbidden, have nevertheless been
Conquest, victory, and triumph over en- sucked into the Shiite maelstrom to be-
emies are a continual refrain of the Koran, come martyrs in the war against Satan. The
offered as proof that God is on the side of the cult of death seems to make sense of a world
believers. The Shiites are remarkable in which evil prevails; moreover it gives
among Muslims, however, in commemo- unprecedented power to the martyr, who
rating, as the central episode in their cult, a no longer has anything to fear. The cult is
military defeat. To some extent they share both a protest against modern nihilism and
the Christian vision of divinity as proved a form of ita last-ditch attempt to rescue
not through worldly triumph but through Islam from the abyss of nothingness by
the willing acceptance of failure. Like Chris- showing that it can still demand the ulti-
tians, Shiites take comfort in an eschatology mate proof of devotion.
of redemption, looking forward to the re- And the attempt seems to have succeeded.
turn of the Hidden Imam in the way that It is not too great an exaggeration to say
many Christians anticipate the Second that this new confluence of Sunni ortho-
Coming of Christ. doxy and Shiite extremism has laid the
Hussein Ibn Ali, whom the Shiites rec- foundations for a worldwide Islamic re-
ognize as their third Imam, was killed, to- vival. For the first time in centuries Islam
gether with his followers, by the armies of appears, both in the eyes of its followers and
the Umayyad Caliph Yazid at the battle of in the eyes of the infidel, to be a single
Karbala in 680. Hussein was, for his follow- religious movement united around a single
ers, a symbol of all that is pure, innocent, goal. Nor is it an exaggeration to suggest
and good in the Islamic way of life, and that one major factor in producing this
Yazid a proof that the community formed unwonted unity is Western civilization and
by the Prophet had fallen into the hands of the process of globalization which it has set
corrupt and evil usurpers. By each year in motion. In the days when East was East
lamenting the defeat of Hussein, in rituals and West was West it was possible for Mus-
that may extend to excesses of self-inflicted lims to devote their lives to pious obser-
injury, the Shiites rehearse their convic- vances and to ignore the evil that prevailed
tion that Islam must be constantly returned in the dar al-harb. But when that evil spreads
to its original purity, and that the powers around the globe, cheerfully offering free-
that prevail in the world will always seek to doms and permissions in place of the aus-
corrupt it. At the same time Shiites inter- tere requirements of a religious code, so
nalize the goal of self-sacrificial death as the that the dar al-islam is invaded by it, old
final proof of merit. This last feature be- antagonisms are awakened. This is what the
came immensely important in the war West now faces.
against Iraq, which succeeded the Islamic


The Political Problem of Islam by Roger Scruton

1. See, for example, the outstanding study by Malise 12. See Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros, The
Ruthven, Islam in the World (Harmondsworth, 1984, End of the Modern World,
2000); the review of modern Islamic politics by Edward for January 2002. Aleppo, whose Arabic name, Halab,
Mortimer, Faith and Power (London, 1982); and the means milk, is still one of the most vital and best
scholarly account by Bernard Lewis, The Political preserved of Middle Eastern citiesalthough the city
Language of Islam (Chicago, 1988). sustained considerable damage during Hafiz el-Asads
2. The most accessible survey of the classical sources exterminatory attack on the indigenous cadre of the
remains that of Erwin I. J. Rosenthal, Political Thought Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline (Cam- 13. On the rituals and the prayers of orthodox Sunni
bridge, 1958). Islam, see Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombeyness classic
3. Quoted in Rosenthal, 131. account in Muslim Institutions, tr. John P. MacGregor
(London, 1950).
4. Ibid., 155
14. Since law derives from God and not the ruler, there
5. See, for example, Nabil Saleh, Unlawful Gain and is in any case a complex problem, for the Muslim, posed
Legitimate Profit in Islamic Law: Riba, gharar and by enforcement. See Michael Cooks exemplary work
Islamic Banking (Cambridge, 1986). of scholarship, Commanding Right and Forbidding
6. Ruthven, op. cit., 99. Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge 2001).
7. See the summary in Rosenthal, op. cit., 94-102. 15. See the thorough account by Peter L. Bergen, Holy
War Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden
8. Ruthven, op. cit., 178.
(London, 2001).
9. Ibid.
16. See Daniel Pipes, Islam and Islamism: Faith and
10. G. von Grunebaum, quoted in Ruthven, 178; mal Ideology, The National Interest No. 59, Spring 2000.
means horde or store, and the mal Allah is the tradi-
17. See Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique
tional name for the public purse.
of Development Ideologies (Chicago, 1988).
11. See Antoine Fattal, Le Statut lgal des non-
Musulmans en pays dIslam (Beirut: Impr. Catholique,