It is tempting to argue that both structural and cultural causes lie behind the ideology that is known as “Political Islam.” But theoretical and methodological pursuits in explaining a certain phenomenon inevitably rest upon a worldview, and when a worldview comes into play, one must resort to exploring structural causes for explaining a specific and particular issue.
All worldviews adopt a particular theory for accompaniment, and theories affect the choice of methodology, because all methods or methodologies include what are known as “philosophical underpinnings.” And according to Martin Heidegger, philosophy is metaphysics. Because the formation of a worldview is deeply philosophical, a worldview can thus be seen as being metaphysical.
When resorting to a metaphysical outlook for explaining certain things, one automatically takes a structural approach to an explanation. In the various Islamic intellectual and spiritual traditions (both Sunni and Shi’a), the Holy Qur’an becomes the metaphysical and worldly basis for the theory of interconnection and interdependence, otherwise known in Arabic as “Tawhid.”
The challenge for most thinkers and Western thinkers in particular has been to find something that explains not only everything but also why things are the way they are. Why should there be groups espousing something as nativist as “Political Islam”? Despite the successes of Western models of governance based on the rule of law, elections and democratic processes — as well as guaranteed liberties — why should one regress and resort to a mode of governance that is based on medieval Arabian practices? The fact that there are politically charged groups in the global Islamic community who call for the establishment of a “caliphate” that is based on “sharia” law should have structural explanations and causes.
Four structural causes for the rise of “Political Islam” that come to mind immediately are the issues of corruption, social and economic inequality, the northern-southern economic divide, and the urban-rural divide. These four structural factors or causes are non-cultural in the sense that these factors or causes pervade all societies. These four structural causes or factors can be pulled out of the Muslim World and they can be applied to the United States to explain the rise of the Trump movement and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. “Drain the Swamp” relates to the corruption factor perceived by the rural masses. “Make America Great Again” addresses the reality of social and economic inequalities that have made many Americans feel as though they are no longer great. And “America First” is an expression that can arguably be understood as a rural imposition on an urban class that is globalist and detached from the wants and needs of rural Americans. Obviously, the urban and rural classes are also divided along a northern-southern economic rift.
Similarly, “Political Islam” was an outlook that arose during the era of European colonialism in the Muslim World and reached its culmination in 1928 with the rise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Muslims during the era of colonialism were split the way Americans are now split as a result of certain structural causes or factors. “Political Islam” during the time of the Prophet Muhammad was political to the extent that all the major tribes of the Arabian Peninsula coalesced within one Arabian identity. Prophet Muhammad’s political ambitions did not extend beyond Arabia. Coincidentally, Prophet Muhammad’s life ended soon after he achieved his goal of unifying the Arabian Peninsula under his rule. The Prophet Muhammad is also known to have said that Islam emerged from Mecca as a strange and obscure thing and will return to Mecca as a strange and obscure thing towards later times. Classic Islamic thinkers like Al-Farabi, who is known as the “Second Teacher” after Aristotle, did not believe in a Pan-Islamic society and government.
During the era of European colonialism, there were certain thinkers like Qasim Amin, who believed that Muslims could be great only if they imitated the West. On the other hand, there were also “Salafists” whose main strategy for power was bringing about “reform” in basic religious practices. If people would simply pay more attention to their practice of religion and adopt the ways and means of religiosity that the founders of Islam practiced in the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th Century AD, Muslims would be able to cultivate power and snatch greatness away from the West and possess it themselves, so goes the argument of the Salafists. The fact that the Salafists called for “reform” first and foremost was an implicit acknowledgment of some sort of corruption that existed and thus needed to be fixed in Muslim countries. Corruption and the lack of religiosity, according to Salafists, is the main reason why Muslims lost their mantle of power to the West.
The exploration and examination of these structural factors as explanatory mechanisms for certain realities in both America and the Muslim World leads to a fifth and arguably overriding structural factor, which is power. Any individual, group, or identity that rests upon a worldview seeks for that worldview to prevail over all others, and this pursuit and advancement of a worldview is essentially the pursuit of power.
As Epicurus said, there is no such thing as law, for there is only power. Why the Byzantines and Persians declined and gave way to the rise of the Muslims, and why the Muslims declined and gave way to the rise of the West can only be addressed by an overriding structural factor that is power. “Political Islam”, like the Trump Movement here in America, becomes a radical approach to a decline in a society’s power that many perceive to have been brought about by a corrupted status quo. It is also important to note that the status quo and revolutionaries in America and the Muslim World both identify as Americans and Muslims. Thus, the issues of culture and identity take a back seat when the issue of national and societal power comes into play.
This acknowledgment of power as an overriding factor for the rise of groups like the Islamists and Trumpians leads to the sixth and final structural cause or factor, and the final factor that will be discussed in this essay, which is the issue of status quo versus revolution. One group seeks power (the revolutionaries), whereas the other group seeks to maintain power (the status quo). Thus, religion becomes a means to power. Why religion has not helped groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood attain power goes to show both their lack of religious understanding as well as the defects in their religious practice, or as Machiavelli may have put it, their lack of virtu.
I would argue that the main defect of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate branches around the world and their main impediment to their attainment of power is their nativist outlook and undeniable anti-western sentiments. The Ikhwan like Sayyid Qutb were more keen on acknowledging the flaws of the West as opposed to acknowledging and accepting the numerous good things that have come out of Western nations and are in fact universal.
Good things are universal. As a result, the losses of the Ikhwan have exceeded their victories since 1928. The Ikhwan have suffered immense defeats in recent times in places like Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, and Palestine, simply because of their nativist outlook. One can argue that the major dichotomy in the global political struggle is one between nativism and globalism, and due to the sheer power and knowledge behind a globalist outlook, groups like the Ikhwan and the Trump movement will face pushback from the status quo.
Aside from their defects resulting from their nativist outlook, the Ikhwan also have fundamental defects in their understanding of what constitutes credible and legitimate global governance. The Ikhwan argue that proper governance must be Islamic. But what does it mean to be Islamic? The farthest that the Ikhwan have gone in explaining what constitutes Islamic governance is the establishment of a caliphate and sharia law. But what is a “caliphate” and what is “sharia”? This is where the urban-rural rift occurs within Islamic intellectualism.
It is important to note that both the Ikhwan and ISIS have the caliphate as their end goal. But the means to establishing their caliphate differ. The Ikhwan tried establishing a caliphate through established political systems, whereas ISIS tried establishing a caliphate through brute force. But the more important point to make is that the Ikhwan essentially mistake “caliphate” for “leadership”, when really the technical and tasawwuf understanding of the term “caliphate” is stewardship of the earth. What have the Ikhwan done in the way of stewardship of the earth other than promote a nativist outlook that is anti-western?
With the creation of institutions like NASA that explores astronomy and its relation to the earth, or agencies like the EPA that promotes and strives for a sustainable environment, or even Oxfam which addresses issues of economic and social inequality, the West has actually taken the role of “Caliph” in the technical and tasawwuf sense of the word. Khilafat, or Caliphate, is something that is divinely ordained and instituted, and it is ordained and instituted by God when a nation acquires the knowledge and the wherewithal to become stewards of the earth on God’s behalf.
Divine ordinance and determination of worldly political affairs is something that is not unique to the Islamic tradition. It is something that begins with the Chinese with their understanding of what is known as “The Mandate of Heaven.” What is known as “Sharia”, or jurisprudence or even legal interpretation in a basic sense, which is instituted by a caliph, becomes legitimate and credible only when sharia is interpreted and crafted in the way of proper and diligent stewardship of the earth.
The Holy Qur’an, however, addresses the inevitability of the rise and fall of all nations due to their “sowing corruption through both land and sea” (Holy Qur’an, Chapter 30), and as a result the only real way to address the phenomena of both absolute and relative decline is through what the Shi’a call Imamat, or leadership. Two qualifications render a successful Imam or leader: 1) the rejection of power, and 2) the rejection of luxury and comfort on the part of the Imam, according to the Sufi scholar Abdul Qadir Jilani, who is considered by Sufi traditions as the first Sufi.
The Imam is the leader who addresses the corruption stemming from a wayward caliph, or steward of the earth, and ultimately the Imam guides everyone based on Quranic principles that are the foundation for natural law. From natural law come all other laws. Thomas Jefferson addresses the question of where corruption comes from, and it was Jefferson who argued that corruption and decay stem not from the people, but from established political institutions, who are in a sense the caliphate or stewards of a nation. In a 21st century context, the stewardship of the United States is of a global nature. Thus, corruption and decay in the United States has ramifications of a global nature.
The status quo in all nations and societies, however, is corruption and decay until there is an emergence of an Imam or reviver of Quranic principles. And as a result, the Muslims believe that the final Imam or reviver of Quranic principles is Al-Mahdi, who will emerge in the latter days simultaneously with the emergence of Jesus Christ. Muslims do not discount revivers or Imams for non-Muslim societies. According to Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr, in a book titled An Inquiry Concerning Al-Mahdi, an emergence of a savior, leader, or “Mahdi” occurs at all times and for all nations when the phenomenon of relative or absolute decline takes hold.
But what makes “Al-Mahdi” special is that he is the last reviver and global leader. According to the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States is the final global empire. All other nations and identity groups, based on Brzezinski’s logic, have gone through the natural rise and fall of imperium. By extension of Brzezinski’s logic, the relative decline of the United States will bring about the rise of the final “Mahdi”, simply because the United States is the final global empire. Thus, the conclusion is that the decline of the final global empire will bring about the rise of the final “Mahdi”. Leadership based on Quranic principles is the final piece of the puzzle not only for “Political Islam”, but for politics as a whole.