Published On:26 October 2010
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

BOOK REVIEW: The Contemporary Arab Reader on Political Islam

Edited by: Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi
Publisher: Pluto Press, London
Year: 2010
Pages: 312
ISBN: 978-0-7453-2889-8

Reviewed by Yoginder Sikand

Recent decades have witnessed the birth of a veritable ‘political Islam’ industry, with hundreds of books having been published on the subject in just the last decade and many millions of dollars being poured in, by governments and think-tanks, to research the phenomenon.

Much of this writing has been by Western, non-Muslim, researchers and analysts, many of who continue to view the subject through an inherently biased and heavily distorted neo-Orientalist lens. The bulk of this literary output sees the phenomenon of what is controversially called ‘political Islam’ or Islamism from the point of view of its real, alleged, perceived or imaginary security threats and implications, and not as representing a potentially positive agenda as such. On the other hand, very little has been written by Islamist ideologues in English and geared particularly to the non-Muslim general or specialist reader.

This timely book makes a very valuable contribution to ongoing debates on ‘political Islam’/Islamism. It consists of translations of articles by almost three dozen leading contemporary Arab Islamist activists, ideologues and spokesmen, most of which have been published in English for the first time. The articles cover a wide range of themes of contemporary interest central to the subject of Islamism.

The first section of the book deals with the theory of Islamism in the contemporary Arab world. In his essay, Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti refers to contemporary Arab Islamism as ‘Salafiyah’, as going back to the Quran and authentic Sunnah, and refusing to being restricted by centuries of human interpretation of the divine revelation and the tradition of fiqh. In this way, he argues, Islamism seeks to provide a specifically Islamic response to modern challenges, fashioning anIslamic modernity, rather than seeking to deny modernity altogether, as is sometimes alleged. Fathi Yakan builds on this to provide a critique of some literalist and radical tendencies in contemporary Islamism, arguing that these pose a major danger to the very Islamic project itself. At the same time, he argues that the Islamist movement is the answer to the cultural, moral, economic and political crisis facing Arab and Muslim communities. This, too, is broadly what Ahmad Kamal Abu al-Majd insists in his piece titled ‘Towards a Modern Islamic Perspective’, where he stresses the need for ijtihad, or contextually relevant understandings of scripture and jurisprudence, and the need for, and legitimacy of, and benefiting from the experience and knowledge of others. The last essay in this section, by the noted Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali, titled ‘The Headscarf Battle’, stresses the need for some revision in traditional gender roles and the need to recognise and respect women’s autonomy and freedoms within a broad Islamic paradigm.

The second part of the book consists of essays on Islamism and jihad. The first, by Abdullah Anas, an Arab who spent years in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets, is about people like himself, called ‘Afghan Arabs’. He describes the passionate commitment to the Muslim ummah that attracted such people to Afghanistan in the first place, and relates how they were dumped by the USA and its client Arab states once their agenda in Afghanistan—expelling the Russian forces—was fulfilled. He also reflects on the implications of their experiences fighting in Afghanistan for domestic politics in their own countries. The second essay is by Abdullah Azzam, ideological mentor of, among others, Osama Bin Laden. His essay, titled ‘What Jihad Taught Me’, brings out clearly how without placing US imperialism, Israeli brutalities in Palestine and the slavish subservience of Arab regimes to US diktats at the centre of analysis the phenomenon of contemporary Al-Qaeda-style jihadism cannot be understood. This is further elaborated on in an essay by Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, who talks about jihad as a means for securing justice and ending oppression, and specifies the clear moral and ethical rules that must circumscribe and guide it. Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah, head of Lebanon’s Hizbullah, makes much the same points in his contribution.

The third section of the book contains three essays on the Palestine issue, which is central to the ideology and politics of Islamism notjust in the Arab region but, rather, globally. Ismail Faruqi’s essay ‘Islam and Zionism’ castigates Zionism as a politically as well as religiously illegitimate ideology and project and insists that Muslims (and even Jews) can have no truck with it, arguing that it represents a total betrayal of traditional Judaism as well. It is inherently expansionist and imperialistic, and there is no option but resolute and consistent option to it, he stresses. Muhammad Abu Sway repeats this argument in the light of the consistent opposition of Israel to Palestinian demands. An incisive and well-documented piece by Ataullah Bogdan Kopanski and Mohsen Saleh details the immense influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in the USA, both Zionists as well as Christian evangelicals, without recognizing which the consistent American support for Israel, American imperialist offensives in the Muslim world and America’s generally hostile attitude to Islamist parties cannot be understood.

Part Four of the book discusses the need for Islamists to engage in self-critique and introspection. In their respective essays, Abdul Qadir Awdah and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah warn Islamists against cooptation by the state, while Shaykh Umar Abdel Rahman points to the often hypocritical manipulation of Islamic symbols and sentiments by Muslim states allied to the West in order to serve their own purposes and to subvert the Islamist opposition. Four other essays, by Sami al-Aryan, Rashid al-Ghannoushi, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Jamil Hamami, warn against extremism, excessive literalism and harshness, plead for Islamists to seek to engage with democratic and progressive forces on issues of common interest, and argue the case for Islamists to reflect a more socially-engaged understanding of Islam that goes beyond the prescriptions of traditional fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence. They press the need for Islamist parties to become much more active and inclusive as civil society pressure groups and to take up and incorporate into their agendas a wide range of social issues.

The book’s fifth section consists of six essays on Islamism and the West. Taken together, they argue that the West has failed to understand Islamism on its own terms, and is ignorant of the positive agenda that it stands for. But besides berating the West for its sometimes deliberate ignorance and blind opposition to Islam, these writers plead for the need for inter-civilisational dialogue, insisting that Muslims, who are entrusted with the task of communicating God’s word to all peoples, take up a central role in this task.

The final section of the book consists of country-specific case studies that look at the emergence and development of Islamist parties in several parts of the Arab world—Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Syria, the Gulf and Iraq. These show broadly similar patterns, with such movements articulating demands for cultural ‘authenticity’, protesting against Western cultural invasion and continued Western neo-colonialism, and articulating widespread opposition to dictatorial regimes and their client ulema. The articles also reflect on the problems these movements have faced, including repression by ruling regimes and the West, which have limited their appeal, their political prospects and their ability to facilitate meaningful transformations in their societies.

Bringing together a diverse range of influential Arab Islamist voices on a wide spectrum of issues, this book is a very valuable contribution to studies of forms of contemporary Islamic ex-pression, and cannot afford to be missed by anyone interested in the phenomenon. That said, numerous lacunae remain. Crucial issues, most notably Islamism’s economic agenda and its controversial attitudes to democracy, gender relations and women’s statuses, are excluded from this selection of writings. Many of the articles are repetitive, and not a few sound like crude propaganda. Yet, despite all of this, this book excels.

[Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National LawSchool, Bangalore. He can be contacted on ysikand@gmail.com]

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on October 26, 2010. Filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on October 26, 2010. Filed under . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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