Islamist Movements and the Political Challenge: An Alternate Perspective

Islamist Movements and the Political Challenge: An Alternate Perspective

While on a recent visit to Delhi, I chanced upon an Urdu book whose title, Tehrik-i-Islami Ko Darpesh Siyasi Challenge (’The Political Challenges Before the Islamic Movement’, immediately attracted my attention. Written originally in Arabic by a leading Arab Islamist ideologue, Mustafa Muhammad Tahan, it is, as I discovered as I leafed through it, an interesting appeal for redefining and reappraising Islamist politics. Given the ongoing debates about Islamist politics, I felt that Tahan’s views on the subject needed to be more widely known. Hence, I undertook to summarise the basic arguments of the book in the form of this article.

Born in Lebanon in 1938, Tahan is a post-graduate in chemical engineering from the University of Istanbul, Turkey, where he played an important role in the Turkish Islamic students’ movement. He was also one of the founders of the International Islamic Federation of Students’ Organisations (IIFSO), set up in 1969, being appointed as its General-Secretary in 1980. Editor of a bi-lingual English and Arabic magazine, Tahan has authored numerous books on the Islamic movements in Arabic, many of which have been translated into other languages.  The Urdu version of Tahan’s Arabic text on Islamist politics, translated by Dr. Muhammad Sami Akhtar of the Department of Arabic, Aligarh Muslim University, and published in 1998 by Hilal Publications, Aligarh, extends to almost two hundred pages. Tahan sees the Islamist movement as a global phenomenon, speaking of it in the singular. This, of course, is not quite the case. Yet, he is not unmindful of the diversity of perspectives and policies within the broader Islamist camp itself, and it is precisely to these inner divergences that much of his attention is devoted.

Although Islamist groups share common ideological moorings, basing themselves on the Quran and the Traditions or Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, and, for the most part, advocate the cause of an Islamic state based on the Islamic law (shariat), differences have emerged among them over various issues related to policies and ‘methods of working. Of particular importance here are matters related to the use of violence, the question of women and the rights of minorities. The chief merit of Tahan’s book is that rather than ignoring these contentious issues or glossing them away, it deals with them head-on, not hesitating to critique certain groups for what are seen as serious lapses on their part. I am aware of the considerable differences of views within what Tahan calls the global Islamic movement, and would perhaps not agree with him on referring to it as one. However, since the intention here is to present Tahan’s views rather than to critique them, I have chosen to describe the phenomenon as he does.


In his close involvement with the Islamic movement, first in Turkey, and then as a functionary of the International Islamic Federation of Students’ Organisations, Tahan, he tells us in the introductory chapter of his book, was confronted with several questions of crucial import, which, he felt, had not been given the attention they deserve by Islamist ideologues. His book, he says, was written with the primary purpose of addressing some of these issues, to bring about more clarity in Islamist circles. The questions that this book deals with are as follows:

1.  Does Islam allow for the existence of political parties?

2.  Is preaching (dawat-o-irshad) the only path that can lead to
peace for the Muslim community (ummah)?

3.  Is it that the political path, on the other hand, can lead only to division and strife and cause the ummah to stray away from God?

4.  Does Islam allow for Muslims to adopt the parliamentary path, given that those who adopt this path have to take an oath on the Constitution and law of their country, which are considered by some to be ‘un-Islamic’?

5.  Is it possible to co-operate with secular forces and systems that do not abide by the Islamic law?

6.  Is it possible to participate in the governance of a country in co­operation with secular political parties?

In this regard, Tahan mentions that certain leading Islamist ideologues are of the opinion that setting up of political parties is not an appropriate means for Islamic groups to strive to acquire political control. In their view, the path that the Holy Prophet Muhammad had adopted was that of ‘invitation’ (dawat), ‘preaching’ (irshad) and ‘revolution’ (inqilab). However, Tahan notes, there are many other opinions on the subject. Some assert that Islam forbids the setting up of political parties. Others believe that the entire world today is an ‘abode of war’ (dar-ul harb). Yet others insist that violence can have no place. Each group accuses the other of misinterpreting Islam, and so engages in a war of fatwas against the rest.

Tahan laments this sorry state of affairs, and points to the futility of the dissensions among the various Muslim groups. He says that the early Muslims had adopted the path of ‘invitation’ and ‘preaching’, of ‘oneness’ and ‘unity’, but today the community is torn by mutual recriminations and internecine conflict. In this context, he pleads for a renewal in and reawakening of the community as a task that urgently needs to be undertaken. Tahan locates the growing inner conflict in Muslim activist ranks to the 1950s and ‘60s in the context of the growth of other competing ideologies such as Secularism, Liberalism, Marxism and Nationalism, on the one hand, and what he calls the ‘intellectual stagnation’ in Muslim ranks, on the other. To begin with, he says, these various ideologies competed with each other and with Islam in a ‘free, civilised and progressive’ manner, but the situation drastically changed when military coups occurred in many Arab and Muslim countries and harsh dictatorships replaced the earlier regimes. Political parties were banned and all democratic rights were seriously curtailed. This situation created a wave of fear and terror among the masses. At this time, says Tahan, it was only the Islamist groups which mobilized popular opposition to the regimes in power. As more people began being attracted to Islamist groups, Tahan writes, other forces began an earnest attempt to discredit them. He says that it is in this context that the growth of ‘extremism’ (intiha pasandi) among certain Islamist groups must be understood. He sees this development as a ‘conspiracy’ hatched by forces inimical to the Islamic cause.

The aim of his book, says Tahan, is to discuss the many challenges that contemporary Islamist movements are face-to-face with. He divides these into the following categories:

1. The Political Challenge

Tahan cautions Islamic activists that this challenge is immense and must be clearly and seriously considered. ‘Without fully understanding the political context’, Tahan says, ‘Islamic groups cannot attain their goals’.

2. The Democratic Challenge

This centres on issues such as human rights, freedom, political factionalism, democratic elections, political parties, political alliances and the role of women in political affairs. Tahan notes that these issues have not been properly thought out by Islamic scholars, who, he says, have little acquaintance with social realities. Such important issues, he writes, need to be carefully understood in the light of ‘wisdom’ (hikmat), the teachings of religion and knowledge of the affairs of the contemporary world. This requires ‘knowledge’ as well as awareness of ‘truth’, ‘pragmatism’ and understanding of the dictates of the shariat. Unfortunately, he says, many Islamists have failed to appreciate this and so have ‘fallen victim to extremism’, so much so that ‘this has given force to the argument of the anti-Islamic forces that Islam and terrorism are synonymous’.

3. The Extremist Challenge

Tahan bitterly critiques those who ‘claim to be lovers of Islam’ but who at the same time insist that ‘violent extremism’ is an integral part of the Islamic Call, arguing that Islam allows for the spilling of innocent blood, which they label a jihad. He says that this argument is completely ‘false’, and that it has ‘rendered irreparable damage’ to the Islamist movements, more so, in fact, than the efforts of the ‘anti-Islamic’ forces. Tahan also mentions in passing the other challenges that he sees Islamist groups today having to contend with, including Western imperialism, growing regionalism and racial, sectarian and ethnic conflicts and the problem of ethnic and religious minorities. Islamist movements are active today in many countries, notes Tahan. Some of them are local or regional in their scope, while others are global. Despite their common agenda, there appears to be a lack of understanding among many of them. While some do work in tandem with similar groups, others believe that they alone are on the ‘true path’ and go to the extent of branding others as ‘disbelievers’ (kafir).

At the outset, Tahan clearly says that he does not wish to get involved in this controversy, for, he says, he believes that the ‘global Islamic movement’ is broad enough to include ‘all individuals and groups working for the cause of Islam’. He describes it as encompassing all groups which are local, regional as well as international, every government agency working for spreading Islamic awareness, organisations involved in providing social services to Muslims, Islamic political parties, Islamic students’ movements and Sufi groups engaged in Islamic missionary work. It is not linked to any particular school of thought (maslak), nor is it the ‘monopoly’ of any particular community, sect or group. In this context, Tahan forcefully rebuts the claims of some Islamic groups that they alone are true followers of Islam and are thus the only true representatives of the Muslims. He notes with dismay the fact that ‘by and large’ the mutual relations between different Islamic groups are characterised by conflict and suspicion. Tahan pleads for these groups to ‘open their hearts wide to one another’. He sees the root cause of this conflict in ‘groupism’ (asabiyyat) and ‘prejudice’, which can only be overcome through good-will and fear of God. He points out that differences between different groups on minor matters of the interpretation of Islam (furui masail) are but natural, while they all agree on the basic elements of the faith. Differences on minor matters, he argues, should in no way come in the way of reaching a broader unity and understanding between different Muslim groups, for all Muslims are united by a common faith in Islam. When differences arise they need to be sorted out through discussion and dialogue in an environment of ‘sincerity, brotherhood and love’. The various Islamic groups should try to sort out their differences, not magnify them, and should not let divergences on matters of jurisprudence (fiqh) and sect lead to internecine conflict.

Tahan says that divergences on jurisprudential affairs are ‘natural’, but these should not be used as a pretext to spread hatred and conflict or spawn new sects on this basis. Islam, he says, allows for freedom of thought and ‘holds knowledge and those who possess it in the highest esteem’. Hence, he argues, all differences should be settled on the basis of a free exchange of ideas. He says that differences may continue to exist even after that, but, despite this, the various Islamic groups should remain united on the basis of their common aims. In this regard, Tahan warns Islamic activists that they must desist from hurling accusations and false allegations against each other. Issuing fatwas of disbelief against each other must be strongly resisted, for, Tahan says, Islamic activists are ‘missionaries’ (dais), not judges (qazis)’. Islamic groups must reform their attitudes and policies vis-a-vis each other and appreciate the fact that all groups and individuals working for the progress and spread of Islam have their legitimate space. They must also begin to cooperate with one another on maters of mutual concern. For this purpose, they must form a common platform and a common advisory body (shura), through which important issues concerning Muslims can be debated, after which common policies can be adopted by them all. In the absence of such consensual means, says Tahan, it is impossible for the Islamic groups to attend the objectives that they are working for.

The Aims of the Islamist Movement

Most contemporary Islamist movements, notes Tahan, came into existence in the early twentieth century, particularly after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, in place of which a secular, Westernising regime came to power in Turkey. At this time, Western imperialist powers were effectively in control of almost all Muslim and Arab lands, and in order to consolidate their rule, they aggressively promoted a process of Westernisation, particularly through the educational system. Students from these countries went for their higher education to Western countries, where deeply influenced by such ideologies as Secularism, Liberalism and Socialism. On their return home, they ardently propagated the view that the development of their countries was possible only through a complete adoption of Western culture and by abandoning Islam. It was in this context and as a response to this challenge that the contemporary Islamic movement emerged, Tahan writes. One of the basic aims of Islamist movements, Tahan says, is to restore to the Muslims their lost confidence and to instill in them a love for and pride in Islam and a spirit of activist dedication to the Islamic cause, for which they would be ready to sacrifice their all. Another principal objective of the Islamist movements, as they emerged in the 1950s, was to liberate Muslim lands from Western imperialism. Such groups thus played an important role in liberation struggles against European colonial powers in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Nigeria, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia, etc..

The Political Challenge

Tahan notes that among the various Islamic groups active in the world today, there are some which completely shun political involvement as ‘the snare of the devil’, and focus, instead, simply on personal piety. He sees this as a form of escapism which has no sanction in Islam, and as only helping strengthen those forces that stand to gain from the status quo, such as ruling elites in Muslim countries and their Western masters. Islam, says Tahan, covers every aspect of a believer’s personal as well as social life, and this includes politics as well. There is no contradiction between worship (ibadat) and politics (siyasat)’ in Islam, so he argues. Given this understanding of Islam as a comprehensive or total way of life, it was but natural that Islamist movements would face fierce opposition from ruling regimes as well as conservative religious elements. While the former tried to suppress them by force, the latter, says Tahan, attempted to counter their growing influence by hurling accusations against and fuelling suspicions about them. In this way, the conservative religious stablishment was used by the ruling regimes to at bolster their authority and to stave off the challenge that the Islamist movements posed at the political level.

To be actively involved in political affairs, as Islamist movements
are, says Tahan, in no way means that the cultural intellectual and spiritual dimensions of the Islam are ignored. Rather, he says, all these are to be found in right measure in what he calls a ‘balanced Islamic movement activist’. In other words, the Islamic agenda is not, as some allege, simply a means to grab political power in the name of religion. A true Muslim is necessarily political, says Tahan, for he must have a clear understanding of the problems of the Muslim community and must constantly be concerned with solving them. Many books have been written on the issue of Islam and politics, but, Tahan notes, some basic issues of contemporary concern are yet to be explored in these writings. He says that one reason for this is that Muslim scholars have committed the’ mistake of ‘going beyond the limit’ in searching for parallels in Muslim history, and have failed to mould those past parallels and principles in the light of the present-day context.  ‘So sacrosanct have they considered past thinking that they want to recreate that in its entirety today”, without attempting to refashion that thought in the light of the contemporary situation. In this way, he says, many Islamist ideologues have failed to present the Islam as a political system capable of meeting the challenges of changing times and conditions. What is needed, he says, is to draw’ inspiration from the past, but, at the same time, to view the models of the past in their own specific historical contexts. The inspiration from the past must be ‘balanced with a realistic understanding of present-day realities’ in order to fashion a political system that can respond to changing conditions ‘on the basis of debate, research, renewal and reform’, he stresses.

The Islamic political system that Tahan proposes is based on freedom, equality, justice and respect for the rule of law. The responsibility of the ruler is to implement the laws of Allah. He is answerable to the Muslim community, which has the right to guide him if he goes astray or even to remove or replace him if he fails to fulfill his responsibilities. The ruler is assisted by a council of advisors. Political parties, including organised
opposition parties, would be allowed to exist and function, freedom of expression and political rights for all would be guaranteed and the state’s attitude towards issues like women’s rights, the distribution of wealth, economic policies, etc., would be clearly spelled out.

In this regard, Tahan says that there are some crucial questions that Islamic scholars must urgently seek to grapple with:

1.  What is the definite structure of the Islamic political

2.  What are its unique characteristics that set it apart from
other political systems?

3.  To what degree do other political systems share features
in common with that of Islam?

4.  Can the Islamic political system
take advantage of human experience?

5.  What is the role of the consultative body in the-Islamic political system?

6.  What role does shura play in the election of the ruler and in solving the problems of the Muslim community?

7.  What conditions apply to the ruler of the Islamic state?

8.  How is he chosen?

9.  Will he be elected for life or can he also be removed from office?

10.  What are his rights and responsibilities?

11.  What are the foundations of governance and political activity in the Islamic state?

12.  What is the relation between the judiciary, executive and the ruler in the Islamic state?

13.  How can a political culture be developed that will enable
people to be ‘politically trained’ so as to develop a
comprehensive understanding of social and political affairs?

14.  How can a climate of freedom of expression, constructive criticism
and dialogue be developed in order to bring into being this
political culture?

The Islamic political system is based on ‘politically conscious’ Muslims nurtured in an ideal political culture, Tahan says. Islamic political consciousness, he opines, is based on a deep understanding of historical and contemporary events and situations, critical insight and a passionate commitment to change conditions, win freedom and solve the many problems that afflict society.

The Challenge of Democracy

Democracy, notes Tahan, has been denigrated and condemned in much Islamist literature in recent times. It is presented as a system wherein it is the people themselves who make their own laws, while in Islam the actual law-maker is God.  Hence, several Islamist activists forcefully argue that democracy is a ‘kafir system’. Tahan seeks to critically examine this position, without, he says, attempting to ‘distort Islam’ or to promote Western thought or to project what others have called as ‘Islamic Democracy’ or ‘Islamic Liberalism’.  He writes that there are only two systems of governance in the contemporary world: democracy and dictatorship.  In the former, human beings and protection of their rights occupy a place of central importance, while in dictatorships there is no such consideration for the individual’s rights. In such a context, asks Tahan, what should the position of Islamist activists be?

. Tahan sees democracy, insofar as it champions basic human rights, human freedom, parliamentary elections, existence of opposition parties, freedom of dissent, political participation of women, protection of and equal rights and opportunities for religious and ethnic minorities, the possibility of peaceful change of governments and peaceful coexistence between different political parties and communities, as similar in many respects to Islam. Tahan’s conception of democracy sharply contrasts with the sort of ‘democracy’ that the West has sought to impose in Muslim and other ‘third-world countries. He bitterly critiques the West for its hypocrisy on the issue of democracy and human rights, seeing these as mere slogans used to bolster Western hegemony over the rest of the world. What happened to the West’s claims to championing democracy and freedom, he asks, when it conquered lands in Asia and Africa and shed the blood of millions in the name of its ‘civilising mission’? Can the West’s protestations about democracy be at all taken seriously when it spares no efforts to bolster pro-Western dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world, to crush all attempts at challenging such regimes, and to defend Israel, which has forced an entire people out of their own homeland? Where, he questions, were the Western champions of Democracy when the election results in Algeria, which brought the Islamic opposition to power with a thumping majority, were suddenly annulled by the country’s military dictators? Did not the West whole-heartedly support this, and then go on to assist the Algerian authorities to crush the Islamist movement with brutal force, resulting in the tragic death of thousands of innocent people?

Tahan sees no contradiction between his understanding of Islam and the basics of ‘true democracy’, as he defines it. He sees the confusion about the relation between the two as having much to do with the West’s apprehensions of its control over the Muslim world being increasingly challenged through political participation by Islamic groups. He writes that as Islamic political parties began participating in elections, as in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia, and rapidly grew in popularity and strength, the West, fearful of its loosening stranglehold on Muslim countries, began a propaganda crusade against Islam, branding it as an enemy of democracy, and, at the same time, promoted wrong, world-renouncing interpretations of Islam that see Islam as prohibiting Muslims from participating in elections or even to ‘think about politics’. How can Islamic groups be seen as challenges to democracy in the Muslim world, asks Tahan, when almost all the governments in these countries which they are struggling against are themselves brutal anti-democratic dictatorships bolstered up by an equally anti-democratic West? Most Islamist groups, he notes, are themselves fighting for human rights and political freedoms, which are the cornerstones of democracy.

Since many Muslims want to be governed by Islam, says Tahan, democracy demands that they be allowed to do so and that Islamic political systems be established in Muslim-majority countries where the majority of the populace wants to live under an Islamic political dispensation. In the light of this, he says there is no contradiction between the Islamic movement and the majoritarian rule principle that is the foundation of democracy as it is generally defined. The concept of shura or consultation is a central one in Islam, he says, and it is a mechanism that allows for people’s participation in governance. The Quran, he notes, enjoins upon Muslims to settle their affairs through mutual consultation. The principle of shura is binding on all, including even the head of the state and the leaders of the Islamist movements. For this it is essential that political parties, including the opposition, be allowed to freely function. Tahan then discusses in detail certain basic principles of democracy and Islam to see where they differ and where they agree. Basic human rights, a cornerstone of democracy, Tahan says, are clearly spelled out in the Quran and the Hadith,
the sayings of and reports about the Prophet Muhammad. Islam upholds the dignity of Man as a creature of God. The Quran repeatedly stresses that Muslims should abide by the rules of justice and piety, and refrain from evil and oppression. Every human being, irrespective of religion or ethnicity, Tahan says, is dear to God. God has granted all people the same basic faculties so that they can all play their role in the construction and
development of society. Likewise, God has also given all people certain basic human rights, which are not a favour bestowed on them by any worldly ruler that can be snatched away at will. Rather, these rights are inherent to human beings and have been clearly laid down in the Islamic shariat.

Tahan here reminds his readers that Quran insists ‘There is no compulsion in religion’. This lays the foundation for religious freedom, and in this way, says Tahan, the religion and religious susceptibilities of non-Muslims are protected. ‘No Muslim has the right to mock the religious beliefs or laws of non-Muslims’, he declares, adding that ‘In Islam every person qua human being is worthy of respect’. A non-Muslim living in an ‘Islamic system’ is ‘under the protection of Islam’, and so ‘must be given equal protection’ unless he commits such a heinous crime that merits the withdrawal of such protection. As creatures of the one God and as children of the same primordial parents, Adam and Eve, all people, Tahan writes, deserve respect as human beings, whichever religion they might happen to follow. This principle of respect for life should inspires Muslims to crusade ‘against every oppression’ and to protect life, for to save one human life from wanton killing is like saving the entire, humankind. As the Quran says, the wrongful killing of just one person is tantamount to killing the whole human race. Islam calls for freedom of thought and for education for all. On the economic front it calls for the protection of the rights of the poor. In this regard, the large-scale violations of human rights in many Muslim countries, says Tahan, has nothing to do with what he sees as normative Islam. To the contrary, it owes itself to wrong interpretations of Islam or to ignoring the commandments of Islam altogether.

Human Rights and the Islamic Movement

Given the centrality of human rights in Islam, Tahan says that it is of ‘urgent importance’ that Islamist groups clearly spell out their stand on the subject and then act on those principles. Islamists, Tahan insists, must extend freedom of thought and freedom to enjoy human rights to all.  No person, says Tahan, can be denied his basic human rights simply because of his beliefs or views or because he is a political opponent. Islamic groups must under no circumstances support dictatorial regimes that heap oppression on the masses and resort to slaughtering their opponents. An important question in this regard is the proper attitude of the Islamic groups vis-a-vis other forces who are also in the forefront of the struggle for the promotion of human rights. Tahan mentions in this context the instance of the. Prophet Muhammad, who instructed some of the early Muslims of Mecca to seek refuge from the persecution of the Quraish by migrating to Christian Ethiopia, because the king of Ethiopia, although not a Muslim, was a just ruler. This suggests, he notes, that Muslims can indeed cooperate with other people of goodwill in crusading against oppression.

One of the most complex issues in the human rights debate relating to Islam is the position of non-Muslims in an ‘Islamic state’. Tahan says that there are clear instructions about the issue in the Quran and in the Traditions of the Prophet. He refers here to the pact that the Prophet signed with the non-Muslims of Medina which formed an integral part of the constitution of the first ever Islamic polity. Under the terms of the pact, the non-Muslims were entitled to full protection and were assured that they would not face any harm. ‘In the light of this’, Tahan writes, in an ideal ‘Islamic state’ non-Muslims and Muslims both would ‘enjoy the same citizens’ rights’. There would be no discrimination on the basis of religion in social and political affairs. For, Tahan says, the Quran itself explicitly lays down that Muslims are to deal with justice with all, except for the oppressors and tyrants. Allah, the Quran says, ‘loves those who are just’.

Islam and freedom go together, Tahan asserts. Islam, he goes on to add, supports religious and political freedom, including freedom of thought.
Religious freedom in Islam is based on the Quranic commandment,
There is no compulsion in religion’. Individual and communities can only be really free, Tahan’ says, when they are free from external, military, political or economic oppression. Islam calls for a fine balance between personal freedoms and the rights of social groups. Since freedom is so central to Islam, says Tahan, no true Muslim can ever support a despot or a dictator who has no concern for human rights. Significantly, in this regard he laments the fact that some Islamist groups have actually done that. Tahan sternly warns Islamists against allying with dictators who wish to use them to bolster their own fragile legitimacy. Tahan considers the issue of people’s participation in governance to be a vital one, and one which, he says, Islamist movements must seriously examine and clarify their position on. They must, he says, make it clear that they cannot under any condition support dictatorial and repressive regimes.

Islamist groups must be concerned about the freedoms of not just Muslims alone but of all people, says Tahan. Writing at a time when apartheid was still official policy in South Africa, he appeals to the Muslims to support the struggle of the blacks there for a just society, even though, as he notes, most South African blacks are non-Muslims. Muslims, he says, must speak out and struggle against oppression irrespective of the religion or ethnicity of the victims, for that is a duty binding on them by Islam. This is why, he says, that while the Jews were for centuries persecuted in Christian Europe, they found peace and security in Muslim lands. Tahan contrasts the normative teachings of Islam on human rights and freedom with the pathetic state of affairs in much of the Muslim world today, where, he notes, the masses are, for the most part, cruelly denied many basic rights by regimes that are supported by the West. Likewise, he regrets that some Islamist groups do not believe that their opponents, too, should be able to enjoy rights and freedoms. ‘No movement can genuinely claim to be an Islamic one until it grants personal and social rights to all irrespective of colour or race’, he insists.

The Will of the People

One of the basic underlying principles of democracy is ‘live and let live’, says Tahan. This means that all citizens of the state, irrespective of religion and race, are entitled to equal treatment. Their views must all be taken into account, and all political, social, cultural and other problems must be settled through a process of dialogue. In the political sphere, this means that people subscribing to different views are freely allowed to express them and mobilise public support for them, enabling them to influence policy-making through the politics of the ballot-box. In Islam, the people have the right to choose their own ruler, who is considered to be a mere deputy (naib) of the people. Citizens can oversee and, if necessary, critique his actions. In this sense, he Tahan writes, Islam does not oppose the basics of democracy, provided the political system is based on the fundamental principles of Islam and its law, the shariat. In such a system, all human rights are fully protected, and the fundamental duty of the state is to ‘promote virtue and combat vice’.

Tahan writes that some ulema oppose such a form of rule as, they argue, it gives rise to ‘groupism’ and ‘factionalism’ and, in the process, undermines the unity of the Muslim community. Elections, they say, are based on each candidate hailing his own virtues and denigrating his opponents. Contrarily, some other ulema hold that such a system is indeed in conformity with Islam, and argue that the fact that although such a system may not have been in existence in its entirety in the past, as long as it does not entail anything that is clearly forbidden (haram) in Islam, it is permissible. This system, they believe, is a suitable way to implement the decisions of consultation (shura), keep a watch on the ruler, uphold human rights and basic freedoms, maintain the stability of the polity and clamp down on terrorism. Several advocates of this view believe that the Islamist movements must attempt to mobilise public opinion in their favour before acquiring political power. In this way, they admit to the possibility of cooperation with secular forces to attain their aims.

Separation Between Religion and Politics

In the dominant Western political discourse, religion and politics are considered to be two completely separate domains, and religion is treated as a purely personal affair, having no bearing on political life. How should Islamists relate to groups and individuals who advocate such a position? Tahan writes that an ‘Islamic state’ must, of necessity, be based on Islamic law, because Islam does not accept the division between religion and politics. The Islamic political system does not allow for laws to be passed in violation of the shariat, but it does give the people the right to choose their own ruler, someone known for his honesty, piety and wisdom, whose responsibility shall be to rule, for a fixed term, in accordance with Islam, and in consultation with members of the democratically elected consultative body. This system provides guarantees for the freedom of all non-Muslim minorities. Political differences within the parameters laid down by the shariat, says Tahan, are to be accepted as ‘natural’, and they can be sorted out through peaceful dialogue.  Thus, the Islamic system accepts the existence of multiple political parties free from control by the state, provided they all accept the Islamic law as their constitution. The system allows for political competition between these parties and for the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another through free and fair elections. After all, says Tahan, historically, Islam has accepted the existence of several Muslim schools of jurisprudence and so multiple political parties may be similarly accepted.

A system that clamps down on political parties and stifles freedom, Tahan writes, ‘is an oppressive dictatorship’, which ‘must be stiffly opposed’. Many Islamist movements, he says, are veering round to the view that multiple political parties must be accepted and that differences among them as regards programmes and policies ‘may actually be a blessing for the community’. Multiplicity of political parties does not mean that Islam allows for ‘groupism’ to flourish, as the basic aim of such parties should be the service of Islam and not the pursuit of personal or parochial worldly interests. In this context, he notes, Islamist groups in some countries have entered into agreements with secular democratic parties in pursuit of common ends, principally in their struggle against oppressive regimes.

The issue of non-Muslim political parties is also one that Islamist groups must contend with. The ‘Islamic state’, says Tahan, allows for non-Muslim minorities full rights and protection, including the right to vote, to carry on with their political activities and to set up their own associations, including political parties. Tahan writes that Islam allows for Muslims to cooperate
with non-Muslims for the welfare of the society at large. He adduces as an instance, in this regard, the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who headed a group, the hulf-ul fuzul along with the non-Muslims of Mecca to help the oppressed and the poor. Some ‘extremists’, Tahan notes, have condemned parliamentary elections as un-Islamic, but they represent only a fringe minority. Islam actually insists that the views of the community must be taken into account by the ruler through their elected representatives. The representatives of the people should not put themselves forward for election, however. Only such persons who are trustworthy, learned, experienced and pious Muslims with leadership qualities are fit to be elected as people’s representatives. The election process must be governed by basic Islamic morals and norms, and there should be no room for false propaganda and bribery.

Several Islamist parties have, Tahan notes, participated in, parliamentary elections, as in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Kuwait, Yemen Sudan, Malaysia and Pakistan. By taking part in the electoral process, Islamist parties, he writes, will be, able to keep a check on the ruling party, struggle for a peaceful transfer of power, present the Islamic message and programme to the public and strive to uphold Islamic rulings and principles inside Parliament. For this they can join hands with other, even non-Islamic, parties for common ends. Islamic parties are, he says, ‘a. democratic force’, and thus must address themselves to the general public, and one way to do so is by participating in elections. Tahan notes that several Islamist groups insist that there is no point in participating in elections held under the auspices of an ‘un-Islamic’ regime on the grounds that this would only further entrench the existing system. They point to the recent examples of Algeria and Turkey, where Islamist political parties entered the electoral fray and were poised to win impressive victories but were forcibly prevented from coming to power by Western-backed regimes. Tahan recognises a certain validity in these arguments, but says that ‘there is no other political course open to us’. Terrorism as a way out of this impasse, he says, is a ‘destructive course’, harmful for all, including the army, the people and the Muslim community as a whole.

Political Differences

The ‘Islamic state’, says Tahan, allows for all citizens to freely express their views. In such a situation it is but natural that differences will arise. Since freedom, equality and justice are the pillars of the Islamic order, the Islamic political system must accept the existence of political differences. Differences in matters of the detailed interpretation and application of the minor details of the Islamic laws (furui masail) are also but to be expected. Differences among the ulema may emerge because, being humans after all, they differ in their powers of understanding of various issues. Factors such as historical context also play a role in conditioning such differences. Given this, says Tahan, it is understandable that consensus may not be able to be arrived at on all matters. Hence, such differences must be accepted and accommodated, and should not become the cause of conflict and prejudice. Differences among the ulema on points of law can be sought to be overcome through debate and dialogue in a spirit of ‘love’ and ‘understanding’. Many Islamist groups have come to realise the need to respect and tolerate such differences, Tahan writes.

Several Islamist movements, Tahan laments, have attempted to forcibly suppress or even crush differences of opinion, some of them even having resorted to violence for this purpose. This, Tahan says, is because they ‘have not truly appreciated the import of differences in their true spirit’. Early Islamic history, on the other hand, provides numerous examples of how Muslim leaders allowed differences of opinion to be expressed. To accept the opinions of others when they are proved correct, says Tahan, is ‘a civilized and Islamic principle’, be it within the home and family or in politics. Rebutting the charge that this would encourage dissent and factionalism within the Islamist movements themselves, he says that the actual causes of ‘groupism’ within the movements are ‘egoism’, the ‘dictatorial mentality’ and the belief that no one but oneself or one’s party represents the truth.

Islamist movements, Tahan advises, must respect the opinions of their members, allow them to freely and fearlessly express their views, whether supportive or critical, and take them into consultation. Constructive criticism and respect for the views of others, says Tahan, is a must for the progress of these movements and of society at large. He alludes to several instances in the life of the Prophet Muhammad which clearly suggest that even among the early Muslims there were times when different opinions were articulated. The Prophet, he says, encouraged his followers to freely express their views, even though some differed from the others. In Islam, this respect for different views is given practical expression in the form of shura or consultation, through which the ruler takes decisions guided by the advice of others, he points out. Dissenting opinions are allowed to be aired and a decision is finally arrived at after weighing all views, in a search for the truth. The ideal Muslim ruler is not a dictator who rules according to his whims. Rather, he is guided by shura in his responsibility of implementing the rulings of the shariat. Muslims are to follow their ruler only insofar as he rules by the shariat, but not if he transgress it.

Blind following of the leader is sternly condemned in Islam, says Tahan. Rather, such obedience should be based on careful analysis, understanding and critical thinking. Obedience does not mean that the people cannot question the actions of their ruler. Tahan criticises those Islamist activists who, in the name of discipline and obedience, have resorted to ‘enormous crimes’ and ‘destructive actions’. He argues forcefully for the need for respecting differences and inner democracy within Islamist movements. This tolerance for different opinions, says Tahan, extends even to non-Islamic groups, who, in an Islamic state, are allowed to express their position, provided this is done peacefully and without in any way challenging the Islamic law. By thus accommodating differences, Islamist movements can pave the way for the establishment of a just political system, Tahan contends.

Acquisition of Political Power

The context for the emergence of contemporary Islamic movements was provided by the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and Western imperialistic control over almost the entire Muslim world. Islamic movements emerged in various countries in Asia and Africa, seeking to liberate them from colonial rule and establish states ruled according to Islamic law. Some such movements chose to adopt peaceful preaching as a means to mould and build up public opinion in their favour and to then acquire political power, while others stressed that power should be immediately acquired at all costs, even through resorting to violent means, seeing Western-style democracy as a hollow sham designed to protect the interests of a small ruling class. By resorting to indiscriminate violence, Tahan notes, these groups have not only inflicted grave damage to the people but have also worked against their own long-term interests. Allying themselves with dictatorial regimes, or being inspired by their example, some groups styling themselves as ‘Islamic’, he notes, ‘turned to supporting the oppression of the people in the name of Revolution’. Armed insurrections generally cause much avoidable loss of life and suffering on a mass scale, and in this way, Tahan writes, ‘are not much different from military take-overs’.

Tahan is critical of some ‘Islamic’ groups who, in their quest for power, have resorted to extremism and terrorism in the name of jihad. This is no jihad, however, says Tahan, and in no way is it a service to Islam, either. On the contrary, it has given Islam a bad name, with Islam being sought to be equated with terror by those opposed to it. It has strengthened the opponents of the Islamists, and has given ruling regimes an excuse to clamp down on Islam in the name of weeding out ‘terrorism’. Hence, Tahan advises, Islamic groups must clearly announce that they have no link whatsoever with indiscriminate violence and the targeting of innocent people. To kill one innocent person, says the Quran, is tantamount to killing the entire human race, he tells his readers. Violence may, however, be resorted to, he says, in the struggle against oppressive regimes, when other means have been explored and have failed and if the political system forcibly denies any space to Islamic groups to function. Tahan here warns against the violence descending into indiscriminate killing of innocents or even into a war between different contending Islamic groups attempting to settle their scores, as in the case of Algeria, Syria and Afghanistan, where, he says, because of the continued violence, ‘the words jihad and mujahidin have caused humanity to hang its head in shame’. This has greatly weakened the Islamic movements, as a result of the loss in this spate of violence of thousands of Islamist cadres and by discrediting the movements in the eyes of many. It has also resulted in wide-scale destruction of property.

While Tahan insists that Islamic groups must continue to seek to acquire political power, he argues that the path forward is not that of armed revolt or terror and indiscriminate killing, but of democratic means of persuasion and preaching, which, he says, are in harmony with the spirit and teachings of Islam. This entails building up Muslims of ‘genuine Islamic character’, he says. Change must begin with the individual, strengthening his or her faith and commitment to Islam, for, as the Quran says, God does not change the conditions of a people until they begin to change themselves. From the home the movement progresses to society at large, and gradually the field is prepared for it to gather such public support as to enable it to acquire power without resort to violence.

In the process, Islamist movements might also need to enter into cooperation with other opposition parties, participate in elections, or share power with other parties in a ruling coalition. Care must be taken that all means that are adopted are fully legal. True, Tahan says, this path is a long one and entails great effort, but it is the only way to reach the goal with the least possible loss. He quotes in this regard Syed Abul Ala Maududi of the Jamaat-i-Islami as saying, ‘If the reigns of the army were put in my hands, I would use them to prevent an armed revolution’. Today, says Tahan, most Islamist groups have come to the conclusion that the path to acquiring political power is not through indiscriminate violence or armed insurrection or terror but through peaceful means of education, persuasion and using democratic and legal channels of building public support. Islamic rule cannot be imposed by force. Rather, it must be based on the willing consent of the people, and this can only happen through preaching and by convincing people about the Islamic programme. This path to political power is, however, a demanding one, Tahan recognises. Often, even Islamic groups who abide by legal means and emerge victorious in elections are ruthlessly denied power by ruling regimes backed by the West.

The issue of participating in coalition ministries is one that has caused great debate in Islamist circles, with widely differing opinion being expressed on the matter. In several countries, Islamic parties have shared power in coalition governments with secular parties, from the both the left as well as the right, and have also joined hands with them in the struggle against dictatorial and oppressive regimes. Some Islamic groups have condemned this as ‘un-Islamic’. Tahan, on the other hand, remarks that it would be ‘opposed to the practical spirit of Islam’ for the Islamic movement to remain aloof from other forces and refuse to dialogue with them. ‘Extremism’, he says, ‘will only render the movement hollow from within and lead it far from its goals’. Islamist groups might actually find it in their own interests as well as that of the Muslims at large to enter into coalitions with other forces and groups that do not necessarily share their goals. However, they must always keep in mind the fact that acquisition of power for its own sake is not their objective, and they must not compromise on their principles and ideology, the interests of the people and human rights and freedoms in the process. It is not appropriate for them, says Tahan, to adopt any means that are not democratic and legal in their attempt to acquire power. Before joining a coalition with other forces they must carefully examine the prevailing situation and convince themselves that by doing so they will be better able to serve the cause of Islam and of the Muslim community than by remaining in the opposition.

Tahan refers to the Prophetic example to buttress his case for the possibility of Islamist groups to enter into political agreements with other forces. He says a close examination of the life of the Prophet Muhammad clearly suggests that the early Muslims ‘entered into agreements with others, keeping in mind the prevailing circumstances’. Thus, when in Mecca, the Prophet entered into an agreement with his uncle, Abu Talib, who was not a Muslim, and who granted him protection from the unbelieving Quraish of Mecca. Faced as the early Muslims were with fierce opposition from the Quraish, he instructed some of his disciples to migrate to Christian-ruled Ethiopia, because, he said, the king of that country was just. In Medina, where the Prophet established the first Islamic state, he cemented a pact with the Jews and polytheists of the town, according to which the rights of all parties, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, were clearly spelled out, allowing for them to live in harmony with each other. In order to further strengthen the Islamic state and stave off attacks on it, the Prophet signed no-war pacts with several non-Muslim tribes living in the vicinity of Medina, according to which they and the Muslims were to come to the defence of each other in case of external attack. Likewise, he entered into an agreement with the non-Muslim Quraish of Mecca for several years when he and his followers came to Mecca to perform the umra. In the light of this, says Tahan, Muslims, following the Prophet’s example, can, indeed, enter into pacts with others, provided this is in the interests of Islam and does not go against its basic principles and beliefs. It is in this perspective, Tahan notes, that in several countries Islamic groups have co-operated with other political groups, both on the left as well as the right, because it was not possible for them to achieve their goals on their own.

However, Tahan warns, under no circumstances should Islamic groups ally themselves with forces of oppression and those who ‘wage war’ against Islam, because agreements with others can be entered into only for the sake of Islam and for winning human freedom. ‘Islam and oppression’, Tahan says, can never go together, and so ‘there can never be any unity between the slaves of Allah and the worshippers of oppression’. Agreements with others, in accordance with the Prophetic example, can be undertaken only for two reasons: either for the protection and promotion of Islam or to protect Muslims from calamity. The agreement between the Prophet and Abu Talib was undertaken in order to enable the Prophet to carry on with his preaching unhindered by the opposition of the Quraish. His agreement with the Jews and polytheists of Medina was motivated by a concern for the protection of the rights of the inhabitants of the city. Hence, inspired by the Prophetic example, Islamic groups may enter into agreements with other forces, if, after closely examining the prevailing situation, they come to the conclusion that by doing so they would be able to overcome certain obstacles in the path of their achieving their goals. It is also essential to ensure that by entering into such: an agreement, no hurdles would be placed in the work of preaching Islam, because that is the essential task of the Islamic movement. For these agreements to be successfully implemented, says Tahan, it is essential for Muslims to be united, for the leadership of the Islamic groups to be firm and strong and for their activists to be well disciplined. It is the duty of the leadership to explain to and convince the cadres of the movement about the necessity and the conditions of such agreements lest they begin to doubt their Islamic validity.

Taking note of the fact that regimes in Muslim countries allied to the West have consistently sought to keep Islamic forces away from the citadels of power, Tahan says that their claims to democracy are hollow.  When Islamic groups express their willingness to enter the democratic political process by participating in elections, the ruling elites, fearful of power slipping out of their hands, voice the concern that if these groups were voted to power they would, once established, abolish democracy and institute a dictatorship.  In this way, Islamic groups who have emerged clearly victorious in elections in several Muslim countries, such as Algeria and Turkey, have been brutally denied the right to assume power by the ruling elites and their Western masters who falsely claim to be ardent defenders of democracy. Tahan opines that this question is one that merits close examination by Islamic activists. He remarks that some ‘Islamic’ groups have taken an unrealistic stand in assuming that the masses are ‘full Muslims’ and all that is needed is the toppling of the rulers, ‘whom they brand as kafirs, through resort to violence, which they label as a jihad’. They believe that there is simply no possibility or scope for reform within the other existing parties and organisations, all of which they assume to have deviated from Islam. In their passionate, yet misplaced, zeal, they resort to terrorising people. Tahan says that such acts inflict grave damage on common people and only serve to give Islam a bad name.

The question of the transfer of power has not, says Tahan, received the attention it deserves by ideologues of Islamic movements. They sees themselves as enforcing God’s law and, therefore, for them to give up power once they have acquired it would, so they believe, be tantamount to working against their very raison d’etre. Tahan recognises that there may seem to be a contradiction here, between the Islamic movements’ insistence on democracy and seeking the views of the people, on the one hand, and the refusal, on the part of some sections of the movements, to give up power once they attain it if the people so demand. A way out of this seeming dilemma, he says, is the position adopted by the Ikhwan-ul Muslimin in Egypt. In a communique issued in March 1994, the Ikhwan declared that, ‘A logical consequence of our accepting the existence of multiple political parties in an Islamic society is that we affirm the possibility of a transfer of power from one to the other, and this is possible only through periodically-held elections’. Tahan also quotes from a fatwa issued by the noted Islamic scholar and activist, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, who says that if an Islamic party is voted to power but proves unable to keep its promises to the people and fails to act on its party programmes, and, consequently, loses the support of the people, it must respect the people’s opinion, admit its mistakes and transfer power to those who enjoy the support of the public. Thereafter, it must once again try to win the people’s support, albeit through legal means such as preaching, so as to, once again, to come to power.

Women and Politics

The issue of the role of women in politics has generated much debate within Islamist circles, and Tahan devotes an entire chapter to this question. He bitterly critiques those who believe that Muslim women should be restricted to a virtual ‘prison’ from which they should emerge only three times in their entire lifetime: the first time, when they ‘comes out of the womb of their mothers’, the second time, when they ‘enter the house of
their husbands’, and the third time, when they are ‘taken to the burial ground’. In this way, Tahan rues, these ‘narrow-minded’ people seek to shackle women in chains, denying them the opportunity to meet each other, to express their views and to participate in political and community affairs. ‘Such restrictions’, says Tahan, ‘have no place in Islam’. Tahan refers to the life of the Prophet Muhammad to reinforce his assertion that women, too, should be allowed to play a role in the affairs of society at large. Thus, he says that when the Prophet received his first revelation from God, he was greatly fearful and told his wife, Hazrat Khadijah, about
it. She comforted him, saying that God was with him. When the early Muslims, persecuted by the Quraish of Mecca, migrated, first to Ethiopia and then to Medina, there were several women among them, and, says Tahan, they ‘made great sacrifices’. Women, too, gave the oath of allegiance (baiat) to the Prophet. Muslim women at the time of the Prophet even participated in wars, giving water and food to male soldiers, tending to their wounds and taking the bodies of martyred fighters back to Medina.

Muslim women have an important role to play in the conduct of the consultative assembly which advises and guides the ruler of an Islamic state, says Tahan, and their advice must be taken into account. Women performed this function at the time of the Prophet himself, he argues. Women in Islam’s early history also played a part in the election of Caliphs. The Quran clearly says that Muslim men and women are ‘helpers of each other’, ‘enjoining the good and forbidding the evil’. Islam, says Tahan, has provided for an appropriate place for women and has granted her rights. They have the right to education and, if necessity demands, of employment and even the right to participate in political affairs. This is why several Islamist groups have been active among women as well, with some of them setting up their own women’s wings. Commenting on the differences of opinion among Islamist activists about the political rights of women in an Islamic state, Tahan approvingly refers to a communique issued by the Ikhwan-ul Muslimin of Egypt in 1994, which, he says, ‘has closed all doors for doubt and debate’ on the question. The communique clearly states that Islam in no way forbids women from participating in elections, for the Quran says: ‘Believing men and believing women are helpers unto each other. They enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil’. Women have the right not only to vote for electing members of the consultative committee (majlis-i-shura) or the Parliament but also to become, members of these bodies, and there is nothing in Islam that prevents them from doing so.  Further, Tahan adds, ‘If men and women can participate on an equal footing in Parliamentary elections’, they should similarly ‘cooperate with each other within the Islamic movement, so that they can benefit from each other’s views’.

The Ikhwan’s communique goes on to state that barring the post of the head of state, women can be appointed to all public posts. As far as women judges (qazis) are concerned, Tahan notes that there is considerable dispute among the ulema on the matter, but says that the issue is one that requires the exercise of ijtihad or reasoning based on Islamic principles, after taking account the provisions of the shariat and the interests of the community, because there is no clear Quranic commandment on the issue. Given the rights that Islam has provided for women in the political domain, Tahan laments that most Islamic groups have given hardly any representation to women in their consultative assemblies and do not care to take their opinions into account in administrative matters. If women are denied their Islamic rights, Tahan warns, the Islamic movements themselves cannot prosper. Summing up his discussion of the various challenges facing contemporary Islamist movements, Tahan says that it is not his intention to ‘distort’ Islam or it force it into a ‘Western’ mould. He is critical of efforts that have been made to develop what some have called ‘Islamic liberalism’ or ‘Islamic socialism’,
for that, in his view, is a caricature of Islam made to suit a different political agenda. He notes that in the contemporary world there are only two systems that are in force—democracy and dictatorship. Democracy upholds human freedom and rights, while dictatorship seeks to strangulate them. In this context, Tahan says, the Islamic movement has to make its position clear. He suggests that Islam shares much in common with democracy as he defines it. Democracy and Islam, he says, agree on the following: protection of human rights, full freedom, plebiscite, parliamentary elections, opposition parties, protection of minorities, transfer of power and women’s
political rights.

Democracy, Tahan says, is a human invention, but it is ‘ a great success for the human mind’. Shura and Democracy share much in common. He refers here to a fatwa delivered by Shaikh Yusuf al-Qardawi in response to a question asking whether democracy is incompatible with Islam and is a form of disbelief (kufr) or falsehood (munkar). Qardawi’s reply was that it was ‘unfortunate’ that ‘these issues were being mixed up’, as a result of which for many it ‘becomes difficult to distinguish between truth (haq) and falsehood (batil)’, which opens the door for the hurling of fatwas of disbelief at others. He lamented that ‘It is simply amazing that some people outrightly condemn democracy as kufr and batil, whereas they have no knowledge at all about the truth of democracy’.

Tahan agrees entirely with Qardawi here, and says that Islamic groups must have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism, for that is not only a violation of democracy but is also against the against teachings and spirit of Islam. Protecting innocent lives is a fundamental tenet of Islam. Critiquing groups who have resorted to terror in the name of jihad, he says that such policies reflect a fundamental immaturity and a poor understanding of the prevailing conditions on the part of their leadership, which ultimately results in a calamity for the society at large, for the Muslim ummah as a whole and for the Islamic movements themselves. Tahan expresses the hope that Islamic activists would adopt a balanced policy, focus on creating awareness of what he regards as the true teachings of Islam, advocate justice and righteousness, crusade against evils and play a constructive role in the society, instead.

Tahan believes that extremism has today emerged as a global problem, and he locates its principal cause in the fact that its advocates believe that they possess a monopoly over the truth and that, therefore, there is no room for differences of opinion. They accuse all others of being kafirs and of straying away from Islam. Its most extreme manifestation is when usurping the life and the wealth of others is declared to be legal for them. Of the various forms of extremism, says Tahan, the most dangerous is religious extremism. In order to gain legitimacy for their stance, religious extremists seek fatwas from ‘corrupt’ ulema declaring others to be disbelievers, and then set about killing them. It will clearly not do, Tahan remarks, to dismiss extremism as simply a result of a conspiracy by external forces to which the extremists have fallen prey. There are other, internal causes as well, including wrong beliefs and interpretations of religion, poor training, weak and incompetent leadership, and a la