Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Critique on Amr G.E. Sabet's Islam and the Political (The First 3 Chapters Only)

It is imperative to note that in the introductory part of the book[i], he emphasized the primal objective of his thesis is “toward the integration of knowledge, whether secular or religious, through a measure of intersubjectivity” in a converged Islamic thought and social theory. It also seeks for a (definite) linkage of Islam with the study of decolonization so as to underscore in his words, “Islam’s liberating commitment to humanity.”
     This aim is quite appalling that in the par excellence of Western literature is Gargantuan and an arduous task to fulfill with underlying question that Islam’s characterization of being omnipresent which also transcends over temporal and spatial elements had existed prior to postcolonial era. Why the need to set a link with a disciplinal area (social theory) when in fact it is autonomous and able to stand and challenge Western Sophia’s dominance? Is it for some purpose that Islamic thought must and should be explained and linked with other areas of disciplines to serve its commitment to the humanity and make it universal?

Seeking a (Political) Theoretical Framework
He began the discourse on the conceptual issues between Islamic Politics and Politics of Islam, where he clarified that it involves “a process of conceptual construction, a creative and mutually buttressing theoretical conceptualization and understanding competencies and capabilities as well as linking the abstract and the concrete.” By conceptualization, he meant for an “undergoing the theoretical process by which advancement from the level of abstract ideas or constructs toward policy development and application.” This line of thinking is pretty much comparable with American theoreticians’ projects, whereby they theorized and analyzed world event(s) funded by stealth government agencies and organizations for purposes of explaining and justifying their actions, and preemptively giving guidelines for policy-making procedures.
     In this part he failed to concretize the difference among the two conceptions, but regardless of concretizing differences he was able to present at least the operational medium by comparing certain Muslim countries juxtaposed with their policies and Islamic norms. Is it troubling to say that by using the preposition “of” to two nouns - gave new, oftentimes contradicting, meaning(s) to its conception, and/or omitting “of” follows the same dilemma? I may be wrong with this premise because of the intersubjectivity it connotes (shared and agreed divergences of meanings).
     Advertently, Sabet presented the conditions, internal and external, of the Muslim world concomitant with reflections on the Sunni-Shi’ite controversy. Conditions besetting the Muslim world internally were characterized as “a state of disarray.” Here, he asked “why the regime in Iran, a system is based on the principal structural components of allegiance and choice is legitimate in terms of its independence … and preservation of Islamic dignity and values internally vis-à-vis the external world, designated as fundamentalist and not just Islamic?” He compared it with Saudi Arabia that “has brought about the historical shift away from Islamic Caliphate to the corrupt form of tyrannical and hereditary kingship.” Saudi Arabia was also perceived as a staunch advocate of disuniting the Muslim world, even Arabs, to suffice its own personal interest particularly maintaining Saud family’s legitimacy.
     On the other hand, External conditions were characterized by Islamic and non-Islamic relations based on an Islamic approach that connects the domestic and international imperatives of religious values. He criticized Abu-Sulayman’s assertion that “the classical Islamic theory is no longer relevant and his attempt to adaptively reconstruct Islamic theory in order to fit it into some form of a nation-state framework” is essentially the theory of the modern state.
     Sabet contended that the only Islamic nation who can lead and legitimately aspire for an Islamic solidarity is Iran, given that it is conceived as a Shi’ite nation as opposed to the dominant Sunni countries. He outlined why Iran is the only option by comparing Sunni’s deficiencies to Shi’ites moral project. One primal criterion is that Iran doesn’t categorically factor into the pitfalls of becoming a Western puppet regime and thus integrating secular codes which undermined Islamic principles and values.
     He examined “the dynamic relationship between religion and social change within a theoretical framework that links elements of liberation theology with the revolutionary work of the Iranian intellectual Ali Shari’ati.” He aimed at “proposing a theoretical framework within which the nature of the conflictive relationship between religious and modern regimes in religiously mediated societies may be analyzed.” He takes first to explain modernity as Habermas puts it “irresistible inner dynamics” dictates by reason as “a religion of culture.” It thus far has “failed to achieve the multi-dimensional fulfillment required by human society.” The problem here started with the omission of religion as a discourse in Western political theory, so in order to resolve this astounding state of difficulty Sabet examined the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution as a new religious dimensional case of both politics and social change.
     He gave four tasks for researchers, first it requires one to address the autonomous role that religion plays as a source and agent of change, second is to specify the relationship between changing ideas and existing social groups, third is to identify any attempts to shape and re-politicize and to relate these to an identifiable power base, and finally, determine how religious principles and structures exhibit flexibility or rigidity in the face of changing times and demands.
     This research agenda permeates resounding interactions of ideas and social structures to translate these into actions. Further, he also expounded on the “autonomous role that religion plays within its social context.” It means that “religion is not totally shaped by social structures, conflicts or transformations; instead it plays an active role in the construction of a subjective, objective and institutional worldview which shapes the social experience of the collectivity.”
     Going back to the Iranian Revolution, the challenge here is that “it provides new religious standards for moral references which are seemingly opposed to secular traditions of popular ethical judgments and conceptions of popular sovereignty.” He uses here the “epistemology of good and evil” wherein the discourse is a tool in addressing the question of how do we know? It is considered a confluence of historical and cultural traits and spiritual leadership; in short, Ayatollah Khomeini provided the revolution with its praxis of leadership while Ali Shari’ati provided a theory of discourse.
     The theory-praxis combination was described by Hugo Assman as the “epistemological privilege of the poor,” differentiating the oppressed from the oppressors. Shari’ati’s thinking was based on an analytical distinction between two alternative types of Islam: a static Islam characteristic of the oppressors and a dynamic, liberating Islam committed to the oppressed. It is the duty of what he calls the “free thinker,” who is conscious of his own human condition and the condition of his society and of the period in which he lives.
     The theory-praxis or Khomeini-Shari’ati combo is quite vivid and vague on what elements and how these precipitated the revolution, thus acquiring tantamount area of social change through religious motivations. Are we to say that an independent Khomeini lacks the explanatory power of the revolution and leads to an untestable hypothesis posited by Shari’ati, or vice-versa?
     We should also take into considerations the (other) forces, e.g. the geopolitical aspect (Shah’s corrupt regime, external influences from great powers, etc) and technological variation (referring to how Khomeini was able to propagate his ideals and aspirations and instilling it to the people minds). Consequently, I would argue that I find the research agenda helpful and as a tool (kit) guide for researchers in trying to attempt to include religious discourse as part of political theory, and giving an alternative and substitutive explanation to mainstream Western ideas of modernity and rationalization.
An Appropriation of Modernity
In this section, the goal is to understand modernity within the confines of Islam. Sabet introduced first a culmination of studies done by Burhan Ghulyun, Mohammed Arkoun, and Hassan Hanafi. Ghulyun argued that “elites in Islamic countries have become mere reflections of the Western civilization’s productive and intellectual capacity.” He suggested that Muslims need some sort of “consciousness elevation” through reason and cognitive strategies based on an independent understanding of reality. Sabet exclaimed Ghulyun’s cognitive analysis which inevitably “leads to a commensurate reductive solution” that sets in effect “determining presuppositions.”
     Arkoun follows Ghulyun’s cognitive approach but with slight difference emphasizing that “reason questions its own status in the psychological configuration of the mind, and certainly, in the unfolding of all cognitive activity.” Sabet refuted Arkoun’s “open-minded secular” approach basing on “Foucauldian power framework.” He asserts that Arkoun’s conception of Islamic self-referentiality ultimately reduced Islam to the confines of Western cognitive matrices. 
     Hanafi proposed a methodological alternative that goes beyond Ghulyun and Arkoun in the form of radically constructed ‘Occidentalism’. It purports to reconstruct the self-defining Islamic identity and overcoming its alienation. Further, Islamic and Western heritages “must be critically and objectively evaluated from a vantage point that eschews either apologetic or condemning pretensions.” Sabet positively argued that Hanafi’s Occidentalism opens for the introduction of a normative dimension by “reducing the cognitive aspect of its natural boundaries which allows for de-fusing the predominance of Western civilization from concomitant notions of universality.”
     Second he goes back to the work of al-Shafi’i’s ‘Risala’ (message) that gave precision and parametrically articulated the foundations of Jurisprudence (usul al-Fiqh). Shari’ah according to al-Shafi’i is a subject reproducing its own conceptions of itself and of society; it cannot consequently import identities and differences from the outer world, but will have to decide upon itself, in realistically, by the ulama. His Risala’s ‘closure approach’ was keener on establishing the methodological foundations of self-referential religio-normativity than on engaging with the evolutionary dynamics of cognitive openness. It contradicts the notion of ijtihad (interpretation) whereby Shari’ah may undergo any requisite change as long as the circular organization is uninterrupted. So, in short, some legal codes of Shari’ah twenty years ago may be altered of constituting different codes that represent the present times.
     Then lastly, Sabet presented his idea of a hyper-appropriative strategy for the appropriation of modernity into Islam. First he enunciated the paradox of historical dynamics between centrifugalism as against to centripetalism. In Islamic thinking, reason has always been linked with faith and certainty, while for Western thinking it is a conjunction of skepticism and passion. Reason is seen as a centripetal force opposed to the centrifugal historical dynamic. Sabet claimed that centripetalization may be a paradox resolution mechanism in modernizing Islam from within, though secularization (in particular its sub-product ‘democracy’) can be considered as the standing block of his proposition. 
     In his hyper-appropriative strategy, he identified three circular mechanisms: (1) ijtihad/normative closure, i.e. variation, selection and retention; (2) evolution/cognitive openness, i.e. reversal, capture and closure; and (3) centripetalization, i.e. normative stem, rationality and cognitive branch or corresponding the full dimensions of individual existence (spirit, mind and matter). These identifications need extensive and elaborate correlations with regards to its plausibility of appropriating modernity with Islam as he suggested.
     Consequently, amidst his mere slapdash, sometimes repetitive, rhetorics of finding an ontological-epistemological ‘know-how’ skills of appropriating (in essence) modernity with Islam, I absolutely agree with his last paragraph that “to the dilemma of how one can be genuinely modern and authentically Islamic renders a foundation for a methodological solution by re-formulating the question of how Muslims are to fit into a predominantly Western episteme toward one of how to appropriate the modern epoch, i.e. create one’s own episteme.” This premise resonates of how and what should categorize, describe and explain the criteria and constitution of being modern and of being an authentic Islamic at the same time. In this latter according to Sabet, “it attempts to elaborate theoretical and epistemological expositions.”

The Case for Iran
This presumptively addresses the criteria and parameters of an authentic Islamic leadership, i.e. state-society relationship, given the modern condition by proposing a preliminary synthesis of the salient works of Ibn Khaldun, Antonio Gramsci, and Khomeini. By studying Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, he reflected on three different forms of leadership: (1) leadership based solely on social solidarity, pertaining to assabiya as unmitigated power; (2) leadership based on reason and natural law in conjunction with assabiya; and (3) leadership based on Shari’ah. In respect with Khaldun’s typology of leadership, Sabet utilized Gramsci’s theory of hegemony which is a combination of force and consent (characterized by its centaur description, half beast and man) as an intervening tool of investigation, then linking Khaldun’s assabiya with Khomeini’s theory of Wilayat al-Faqih.
     Robert Bocock argued that the concept of assabiya is crucial in linking the social sciences to Islam. (p. 102) Sabet framework laid three regime typologies that provides patterns of power and governing relationships: (1) domination, i.e. tyranny and autocracy; (2) hegemony, i.e. rational regimes and democracy; and (3) assabiya, i.e. regime of law and Shari’ah. Moreover, he referred assabiya as a “regime capable of fusing the compulsions of ‘dominion’ and ‘intellectual and moral’ authority in the body of the leadership.” Adding to this ingredients are al-Jabri’s three key organic determinants of Islamic historical and social analysis: (1) the tribe or collectivity; (2) the spoils or economics; and (3) the faith or Islam. However, according to Sabet, al-Jabri fails to follow his organic approach by implying a Western epistemological finale, thus “inadvertently aborts any potential independent Islamic approach to modernity.”
     Instead of oftentimes referring to ulama which according to him was used abusively because of its rigid interpretations and sometimes a source of conflicts based on different imposed fatwas, he suggested al-Khawass that “incorporates the principle of ilm (knowledge) but also takes it upon themselves to bear the practical social, political, and economic consequences of religious rulings.” In addition, Sabet opined that aside from the theoretical and practical projection of assabiyat al-khawass, Wilayat al-Faqih enjoys “the unique potential of engaging with the secularists and co-opting them into the broader horizons of Islamic rationalism”. This is in reference with the Iranian Islamic revolution where Khomeini successfully encourages non-secularists and secularist in a similar direction or objective.
     On the nature of Islamic state, Sabet explained that Khomeini’s political theory is not a theocratic principle sanctified by the totality of a divinely commissioned sacerdotal (priesthood, though in Islam is null) order. Rather, it expanded assabiya through the exercise of Ummah’s will within the parameters of faith. In sum, he reiterates that in the political frame of Wilayat al-Faqih, the Islamic bloc (Imam, the Islamic leader; Faqih, an expert in Islamic law; Fuqaha, the Jurists) and the Ummah (collective nation of predominantly Muslim states or union of different Muslim ethnical communities) constitute the foundation of the assabiya of Islam.
     In the prism he presented about reconstructing an Islamic Weltanschauung (worldview) through the branches of assabiya that stems through the concepts of Islamic leadership (Imam, Faqih, Fuqaha), state-society relationship (Wilayat al-Faqih, Assabiyat al-Khawass), and the Ummah is a viable task for all Muslim scholars that may permeate a modernizing mechanism. Democracy can be relegated by shura (consultation) in finding ijma (consensus) through the interest of the ummah, equivalent to Western’s ‘public interest’ representing the ‘will of the people’. The Shari’ah subject for ijtihad (interpretation) based on contemporary times and needs of the Muslims may include women’s rights, civil rights, minority rights, etc. 

[i] See Amr G.E. Sabet, Islam and the Political: Theory, Governance and International Relations (London: Pluto Press, 2008). Most of the texts were extracted from the book parallel with my views and criticisms.