The author of this compact book has a long and distinguished academic association with the Middle East and North Africa. Following Arabic language study and early tours with the State Department in Lebanon and Sudan, Carl Brown earned a Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, and taught there for a time. Since 1966, he has been teaching at Princeton, where he is now Garrett professor in foreign affairs, emeritus. As the book’s bibliographical essay makes clear, the subject of “the Muslim approach to politics” has not exactly been neglected by scholars, especially those responding to the stimuli of recent events in the Muslim world. In his introduction, Brown lays out his particular purpose in addressing the subject:
It is the argument of this book that both the radical Islamist spokesmen and… disparate non-Muslim observers have it wrong. Yes, they are strange bedfellows, but they converge in positing an Islam existing outside of history, an unchanging Islam. They are conflating theology and history… No serious person maintains that the this-worldly manifestation of, say, Christianity is the same today as it was in the time of Luther or Aquinas or Augustine or Paul. One accepts Christianity’s diversity throughout time and space. Isn’t it plausible to expect roughly the same of Islam in history (p. 3)?
Accepting this, he imposes upon himself “the task of seeking out the distinctive strands of Muslim experience throughout the centuries that have produced an identifiable civilization,” and to this end he concludes it will be useful to “compare this religion with its two Semitic sisters, Judaism and Christianity” (p. 3). Some of the doctrinal similarities between Islam and Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, are rehearsed: the transcendent deity, the emphasis on the law, and the limited role of a “clergy.” There is also a “communal solidarity (among Muslims) much more like that of Judaism” (p. 59).
Remarking that all three religions contain militant, even violent traditions, the author allows himself to bring some balance to current partisan discussion with a sobering quote from the Old Testament Pentateuch: “In the cities of those nations whose lands the Lord your God is giving you as a patrimony, you shall not leave any creature alive. You shall annihilate them” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17 cited; p. 27).
Moving beyond such observations, Brown develops an interesting thesis in Chapter 6 that Islam “created a political culture that nurtured a pessimistic attitude toward politics and out of this political pessimism, a submissive attitude toward government” (p. 60). He sees this sense of submission as rooted also in the central political and economic control dictated by the prevalence of irrigated agriculture in the original West Asian homelands of Islam. In addition to Wittfogel, the “insights” of Marx and Weber are given credit for partially explaining the “classical Islamic synthesis (that tended) to compartmentalize state and society” (p. 67). “Mamlukization” is identified as a manifestation of this tendency in the structure of the great Muslim empires of early modern history. Brown sees a “resulting tradition of political quietism,” even though “Muslims today are almost oppressively concerned with politics and the state” (p. 67).
He then considers “Muslim Attitudes Toward the State” (Chapter 7), taking off from the beguiling metaphor of “traditional Muslim residential architecture, which offers the outside world windowless walls at street level, shuttered windows above, and entrances that provide no view of the living quarters within, . . . a turning of one’s back to the public world [that shelters a family but] serves as well to obscure from the state one’s wealth and one’s lifestyle” (p. 69).
The author opens Part Two, “Convulsions of Modern Times,” with a summary of the arguments he has presented on the relationship between Islam and politics; his orderly and persuasive arguments have been based on stated doctrine and “by reference to history and to existing historical scholarship” (p. 80). It is at least refreshing then to read, immediately following, that “. . . this interpretation of mainstream Islam in its relations to politics offers not just an inadequate but a plainly wrong picture of Muslim thought and action in today’s world” (p. 81). And, further on the same page:
Why then did this book (begin) with a sketch of classical Islam in its relations to politics? Since the Muslim religio-political radicals are largely dictating the discourse, do these earlier mindsets matter? Yes, these earlier mindsets do matter. By setting out the past as a frame of reference, we are better armed to understand just how innovative and revolutionary many of the ideas now being advanced really are.
The remainder of the book is devoted to the past 200 years, first to “meeting the Western challenge” (Chapter 9) and then to the rise of “radical Islamists.” The author does make clear that other things were going on in the Muslim world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, things that were not simply a reaction to military defeat and the various other forms of encroachment from the West. He first singles out for examination three Muslim leaders who were “accommodationists”: Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, Sir Sayid Ahmad Khan and Shaykh Muhammad Abduh (notable as a member of the Egyptian ulema as well as a modernizer).
In due course, the reader is provided with longer biographical sketches of al-Banna, Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and finally Ayatollah Khomeini. Brown regards these four as especially pertinent to an understanding of Islam and politics today. He weaves around their stories a thoughtful consideration of when and why the outlook of the Muslim world began to change from one of “beleaguered impotence” to something more centered and dynamic:
No one event can be singled out as the turning point for the entire Muslim population, but it would not be far off the mark to situate the turning of the tide in the mid to late 1960s. … One began to hear of Muslim fundamentalists, Islamists, political Islam. Such terms as ayatullah and jahiliyya and such medieval Muslim theologians as Ibn Taimiyya became no longer cloistered in the vocabulary of specialists (p. 122).
For the Arab world in particular, the Six-day War of 1967 “can hardly be exaggerated … [a]s a traumatic event bringing into focus the failures of previous decades of ideology and institution building . . .” (p. 123).
Chapters on “The Return of Islam?” and “The Radical Muslim Discourse” bring together the author’s earlier exposition of the sources of Islamic thought and his view of current expressions of “Islamic modernism.” This leads us to a reflective “Conclusion,” which is intelligently inconclusive:
Will radical Islamism win out by seizing power in even more countries, or, no less important, will the ideas of the Islamists, Al-Banna, Mawdudi, Qutb, Khomeini, and their many followers, outlive them and thereby modify later thought and action in the Muslim world? Are we witnessing throughout the Muslim world a historic change as decisive as was the Reformation for the Christian West (p. 177)?
And, at the end:
This book, while concentrating almost exclusively on the “Islamic factor,” adopts a position much closer to those who would insist that Muslims are very much like other people. Islam is not sui generis. At the same time, certain differences clearly distinguish Islam and Muslims from other religions and peoples. Islam is not, as the fundamentalists would have it, “the solution,” but Islam is very much a part of whatever solutions Muslim societies choose. This book has sought to identify the distinctive Muslim approach to politics, past and present, even while keeping in mind that we “are all from Adam” (p. 180).