Turning Islam into an ideology

The 20th Century was the heyday for ideology. Marxism, Socialism, Communism, Nazism, Fascism, on and on.  The 20th Century also sent the Muslim world into a tailspin with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.
In some ways, you can kind of see a parallel between what happened intellectually in the Muslim world with what happened in Europe in terms of the shift away from traditional religious structures of thought and understanding to rationalistic ideology, because they basically lost their moral footing when they turned away from religon.  Something Fredich Nietzche predicted well before it happened, when he said “God is dead…we have killed Him…who will wipe the blood off us?”  What he meant, of course, was that men had killed their belief in God, renounced religious structures, and in so doing, had ventured into chaos.

For Europe, the turn away from religion made them turn to ideologies for something to believe in.  For the Muslims, the end of the Ottoman Empire left them scrambling for a way to re-energize themselves around a concept that could restore their power and sense of identity.  Extremism emerged both in the West and in the Muslim world in the form of radical belief in ideologies.  For Europe, these were rationalistic, while for the Muslim world, it was still religiously based, with the concept of Islamism or Political Islam.

Since Islam is a religion and not an ideology, turning it into an ideology was not an easy thing to do.  So what they did was to basically borrow elements of other ideologies.  While there were a variety of trends, generally aligning with one or another European ideological trend, Islamism was essentially focused on building an ideology that was state-centric.  This isn’t surprising, since the whole movement developed as a response to the collapse of the Ottoman state.

As Islamism was developing, in the Arab world, there was also the emergence of another ideology, that of Pan-Arabism, or Arab nationalism; which, in fact, was already brewing prior to the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, and played a role in its collapse.  This then saw the Baathist ideology form, and spread in the Arab world.  It was a kind of mix between Fascist and Socialist, Totalitarian dogmas, and Islamism was quite influenced by this.  In fact, it is more or less the same, politically, but with the religious element blended in.

So what sort of religious element would work here?  Well, it makes sense that it would be an interpretation that emphasizes a strict view on the rules and regulations of the religion, I think.  It should be an interpretation that creates a necessity of enforcement of those rules by the state.  And this is predictably going to mean exaggerating the status of what may just be recommendations into the status of obligatory legislation, and it is going to mean denying the existence of divergent opinions on a single issue.  It should also be an interpretation that emphasizes a divisive group identity and a method of proving group identity through superficial, observable adherence to the rules being mandated.

This is the only viable religious interpretation that can be used to support a state-centric ideology, and to a certain extent, that is exactly what happened with Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia when the modern state was founded.

Now, I should say, of course, that this is not to in any way lessen the centrality and importance of the Shari’ah in Islam.  But the fact of the matter is that the Qur’an, as explained by some of the most eminent scholars of Islam, only contains about 500 verses that provide explicit legislation, explicit meaning, they are not open to interpretation, they are clear-cut rulings; and most of these pertain to acts of worship, not to governance or the penal system and so forth.  That is out of a total number of verses over 6000. So the actual explicit rulings in the Qur’an are relatively few.  The same sort of ratio exists in the Hadiths; the overwhelming majority of Hadiths do not contain explicit legislation.  What has happened is that the line between what is an explicit ruling and what is an interpreted ruling derived from non-explicit verses and Hadiths has become blurred.  That is, the line between the Law itself and jurisprudence, or Fiqh, has been blurred.  And this means the line between what is Revelation and what is opinion has become obscured.

Furthermore, the methodologies for deducing jurisprudential rulings have decreased.  We have started to take a very cut-and-dried approach to jurisprudence, we over-simplify, we discard nuances, we fail to consider circumstantial factors, environmental and historical factors, and so on.  And it is necessary to do that when you are creating an ideology.  You have to over-simplify.  You have to reduce complexity.  You have to create a black and white perspective and eject as many alternate views as possible.

So we have this idea today that because the early generations of Islam are the best generations, we have to do what they did, we have to imitate their actions; rather than saying that we should engage in the same intellectual processes that they did to determine what our actions should be; because those processes are complicated, and because those processes may very well result in a multiplicity of opinions about what we should do.  That approach does not lend itself to the uniformity and cohesion required by an ideology.

An ideology must be able to manifest itself into a system; you have to be able to tick the boxes, with the belief that once all the boxes are ticked, you will have established a Utopia.

But here is the thing:  there is no such thing as an Islamic System.  This term does not appear in the entirety of the Qur’an or Hadith literature.  But, you know, Marxists have a system, Communists have a system, Fascists have a system, Baathists have a system, so we have to have a system…if we are going to have an ideology.

What the Qur’an is, and what the Sunnah is, and what they say they are, is Guidance; not a system.  That is because Islam is a religion, not an ideology; and when you reduce it to an ideology, you make it dysfunctional.  You turn it into a man-made construct, and not Divine Guidance.  We always like to say that Islam provides a prescription for an ideal society; as the Islamist slogan says “Islam is the solution”.  But that is not what the Book says, that is not what the Prophet said.  And if Islam really did claim to provide a panacea for each and every human problem that has ever and will ever occur, and if it claimed that it lays out the blueprint for a Utopian society; that would be proof positive that it did not come from the Creator.

I know for Muslims, this sounds strange.  We are fond of likening the Qur’an to an instruction manual for life.  We say that Allah has provided us with a rule book for how to live our lives, how to deal with any and every difficulty and challenge; and that it is the very comprehensiveness of Islam that proves it has a Divine Origin; because who else could have come up with such a system other than God?  But the truth is that our Creator Knows better than we do how complex we are, how complicated our nature is, how much our circumstances and situations change, and that any sort of comprehensive set of instructions are inevitably going to become obsolete in a very short span of time.  That is why what we get from the Qur’an and Sunnah is Guidance that can be adapted as we and our circumstances change.  That is why Islam does NOT provide a list of boxes to tick to create a Utopian society, because our Creator Knows that the nature of the Creation He produced and the nature of the creatures in it are such that there is no such thing as an earthly Utopia.

The proof of the Divine Origin of Islam is that it does NOT present a formula, a plan, a system for creating an idyllic society, because only a human being would imagine that such a society could be created.  Islam provides Guidance and Wisdom that can adapt to circumstances and that can inform us about our nature to help us navigate through life in ways that will hopefully make our lives more successful and our selves more virtuous, and most importantly (as it IS a religion) improve our relationship with the Creator and make us successful in the Afterlife.

Even though Islamism is awash with religious rhetoric and references to Allah, really, it functions as a secular neo-fascist ideology, almost exclusively concerned with material issues and explanations of worldly matters, and it has very little to do with worship or spirituality.  Allah has become the rhetorical figurehead of a conceptual state in the Islamists’ minds almost like the mythologized image of Joseph Stalin in Soviet Russia, whom everyone wants to please and associate themselves with through their strictness and expertise in the ideology.  Islamists have kind of become the clergy Islam never had, and isn’t supposed to have; the priest class who are the arbiters and enforcers of an ideology that is primarily interested in power and control.  And again, that is one of the things that happns when you turn religion into ideology; you create a class of experts and authorities who have no real qualification outside of the niche they have created for themselves. That is what happens with any ideology I suppose; you have a group of intellectual interpreters of the ideology, and they become authorities; and they are people who could never attain authority in any other scenario.

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