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The First Call To Secularism in Islamic Clothing

 Adapted from “The Inevitable Caiphate” 2012, Hurst and Oxford University Press

Raziq appeared as a critic dressed in “Islamic clothing”, who saw Islam like Christianity, and the caliphate like the rule of the Church, and so for him secularism became “an Islamic solution to an Islamic problem”

Ali Abdul-Raziq was an al-Azhar graduate from a political family who founded the Liberal Constitutionalist party, and the author of the book entitled “Islam and the Fundamentals of Ruling” which challenged the orthodox concept of caliphate. It was published shortly after the official abolition of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal in 1924.

Due to family influence and affluence he was able to study in Oxford University before the outbreak of the Great War, but returned to Egypt to work as a judge in the shari‘a courts. In the midst of the general mourning over the fate of the caliphate post abolition, and a general consensus among the scholarly class in Egypt that the caliphate should be re-established in some form, Raziq’s book flew in the face of Islamic orthodoxy, and challenged the prevailing sentiments of the time. The caliphate to Raziq “has nothing to do with the din, and neither does the judiciary nor anything else from the governmental positions and centers of the state” which were “purely political issues”, since the din “neither acknowledges it nor denies it, and has no commandments regarding it nor any prohibitions” but rather “it has only left it for us, to refer back to the rules of reason, the experiences of nations, and the fundamentals of politics”[1].

According to Raziq, the classical views of leadership were that the caliph either took his authority from God directly, or from the umma, and he compared this to the two schools of thought, Hobbes and Locke[2]. In discussing some of the numerous Prophetic narrations relating to laws, the caliphate and the bay‘a,he referred to the Bible and the words attributed to Jesus to “render to God what belongs to God, and render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, explaining that “everything which is found in these narrations of the Prophet mentioning the leadership and the caliphate and the bay‘a do not indicate anything more than what Jesus was indicating when he mentioned some rules of legislation about Caesar’s government”[3]. He also rejected several of the other proofs generally used to validate the orthodox position stating the obligation of the caliphate, in particular by rejecting the concept of consensus wholesale.

Ali Abdul-Raziq’s book was an attempt to sever any link between Muslims and the caliphate, and to reconstruct Islam in the image of European Christianity but in this case without the Pope.

Historically, the state at the time of the Prophet “was an Islamic unity and not a political unity” with “the leadership of the Messenger between them a religious leadership” and “their subservience to him was one of belief, not subservience to government and authority”[4]. The rule of those who came after the death of the Prophet, including the first generation of Muslims, “was not connected to the Message and was not established upon the din”, and rather than being an Islamic state it was in fact an imperial Arab entity[5]. The caliphate according to Raziq “was only ever, and still remains, a calamity upon Islam and Muslims”[6]. He finished by urging that “nothing in the din prohibits the Muslims from competing with other nations” and to “destroy that obsolete system which they debase and submit themselves to” while building “the fundamentals of their leadership, and the system of government, upon the most modern of what has been produced by human minds”[7].

In conclusion, the book which Raziq claimed he had been working on for up to the last nine years was an attempt to sever any link between Muslims and the caliphate, and to reconstruct Islam in the image of European Christianity but in this case without the Pope. According to Mohammad ‘Amara, up until that point secularism had been seen as a purely European solution to a European problem, which was not promoted in the Middle East except by a small section of the community known to blindly imitate the Western culture. On the other hand Raziq appeared as a critic dressed in “Islamic clothing”, who saw Islam like Christianity, and the caliphate like the rule of the Church, and so for him secularism became “an Islamic solution to an Islamic problem”[8].

Rashid Reda was amongst the first to denounce the book in al-Manar as “a devilish innovation” that “had never been said before by anyone who claimed to be within Islam, whether honest or not”. In fact, the “Islamic caliphate is the best system known to man”, and far from what was being claimed “the Muslims were the greatest nation when they established it” and their decline had only come about as a result of leaving it[9]. He then encouraged the other ‘ulama’ to denounce Raziq, since he had “denied the caliphate, and yet it was an Islamic institute which was obligated by the shari‘a[10].

He was feted by those with him as the “Egyptian Luther”, and his view was propagated as a call for sovereignty to be returned to the umma which struck against the machinations of the Palace.

Raziq was summoned in front of the Council of Grand Scholars in order for his book to be judged by twenty-four of his peers. On November 12th, 1925, a ruling was published with the unanimous decision to censor Raziq and expel him from the circle of scholars. The claims such as Islam was a purely spiritual religion, that the system of ruling in Islam was unclear or that the rule applied by the early generations of Muslim leaders were not based upon the din were all considered heretical, and the council ruled that “it is enough that his innovation puts him in the ranks of the khawarij and not in the ranks of the masses of the Muslims”[11], forcefully echoing the normative understanding regarding the caliphate and politics in traditional Islam.

Raziq opined that he had simply created “a new school of thought in the issue”[12], and his family and friends from the Liberal Constitutionalists and newspapers such as the party mouth-piece al-Siyassa rallied around him against the ruling, claiming that the issue at stake was one of freedom of speech. He was feted by those with him as the “Egyptian Luther”, and his view was propagated as a call for sovereignty to be returned to the umma[13] which struck against the machinations of the Palace. Other major Egyptian politicians had very different opinions, such as Sa‘ad Zaghloul who said in private that he was “amazed first of all by how could a scholar of Islam write in this manner on this issue”, and even though he had “read a lot from Orientalists and those similar to them” he “never came across anyone from them who attacked Islam with such an anger”. In the end Zaghloul felt that Raziq was “ignorant of the fundamentals of the din” since “if not, then how could he claim that Islam is not a civilisation, and that it does not have a system suitable for rule?”[14].

Such was the sustained anger against the book that several refutations were written by scholars in and out of Egypt. From within Egypt the blind Azhari scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Dijwi wrote a refutation of Raziq which was printed in the Egyptian paper “Al-Akhbar”, subsequently ridiculed by Raziq’s supporters which further inflamed the situation. The Tunisian Mohammad ibn ‘Ashur criticised the claim that there was a school of thought in Islam that the caliph takes his power from Allah, and disputed the analogy drawn to the European thought of Hobbes and Locke since no such dichotomy existed in Islamic thought[15]. Rather, “Islam is supported by the State” and “its state is part of it because of the mixing of din with the state (dowla)[16]. In its true meaning, the caliphate was “a religious pillar” or rather it was “the protector for all of the pillars of the din”, and as for Raziq’s accusation that it was a purely political creation this was contradicted by the fact that the bay’a from the time of the first generation of Muslims onwards was always “pledged upon the Book of Allah and the traditions of the Prophet”[17].

The two most comprehensive and dynamic refutations came from Muhammad al-Khidr Hussein, a Tunisian scholar who had spent time in Syrian jails for agitating against the French, and Muhammad Bakhit, the then head of al-Azhar. Bakhit rejected Raziq’s claims from the angle that there was no Islamic evidence to back them up, reminding the reader that “it is not permitted to delve into these issues with reason alone” since ijtihad in Islamic jurisprudence was “to rely upon text from the Qur’an, or the sunnah, or consensus, or analogy”[18]. He also decried Raziq’s claim that the caliphate had only ever been a “calamity”, and in contrary to Raziq’s clear admiration for European thought it was the Muslims after the death of the Prophet who were “the first to practice that the umma is the source of all authority, and that she chooses who rules her”[19] and that this was laid down by the shari‘a. Bakhit’s book reads as a devastating critique, with almost one hundred pages dedicated to detailing out several political aspects of the state under the leadership of the Prophet from dispute resolution to propaganda and diplomatic correspondence, and clear disdain for his target dripping out from time to time.

far from being considered a ‘new school of thought’ Raziq’s opinions were roundly denounced as being derived by an un-Islamic ijtihad and lost any religious credibility.

Al-Khidr Hussain, a close friend of Raziq, set aside personal feelings in his “Refutation of the Book Islam and the Fundamentals of Ruling” which addressed the original arguments line by line with attention to detail. In his opinion “the power authorised to the caliph is no greater than the power which any head of a constitutional government holds” with his election “only for a fixed period” which would be as long as he “establishes the rule of consultation as it should be” as well as “the spending of his efforts in protecting the rights of the umma and the absence of his standing in the path of their freedom”[20]. He, like Ibn ‘Ashur, also rejected the comparison with European philosophers and schools of thought, specifically addressing the thoughts of Hobbes. 

According to al-Khidr’s understanding, Hobbes believed that it was upon every individual to submit to the authority of the King, whereas the scholars of Islam stated that the ruler is not to be obeyed unless he orders with the truth. Where Hobbes claimed that for the ruler to submit to an individual from his people contradicts the necessary nature of hierarchy, the scholars of Islam say that it is upon the ruler to submit to the lowest of the people in stature if that person orders him by the good and forbids him from the wrong.  Additionally, Hobbes made religion submit to the King, whereas the scholars of Islam say that it is imperative that the rulers submit to the rule of Islam, meaning that which is specified in the Islamic sources or that which is derived from them by ijtihad[21]. Far from being an oppressive system, “Islam waged war against despotism from all sides”[22], with the caliphate having “opened many lands and allowed them to taste the sweetness of justice after they had drunk the torment of oppression and despotism”[23].

Just like Bakhit, the process of what would constitute a valid ijtihad was emphasised by al-Khidr, with “the proofs of the shari‘a” being “restricted to the Book, the sunna, consensus and analogy”[24], as well as certain specific rules derived from these sources also being considered as acceptable evidences for any rulings. So if the Qur’an does not contain clear evidence pertaining to the obligatory nature of the caliphate, the proof can be derived definitively from the other sources that have been agreed upon. Any judgement or opinion based upon anything other than these sources was not considered an ijtihad, and far from being considered a ‘new school of thought’ Raziq’s opinions were roundly denounced as being derived by an un-Islamic ijtihad and lost any religious credibility.

The limits of Islamic discourse and ijtihad were firmly upheld, and since the book fell outside the bounds of orthodoxy it was left to be feted by secularists from his contemporaries such as Taha Hussain and Mohammad Husain Haikal who generally argued that the Islamic caliphate had been a perversion of the religion with the caliph acting as a despot as a result of demanding veneration as the representative of God on Earth, and that the Qur’an was a historical document which had to be read within its context rather than a revelation upon which ijtihad could be based. The author himself retracted his views later in life, refusing several requests years later to allow the book to be reprinted, and according to his family he had been working upon a personal refutation at the time of his death[25].

Though some modern studies have opined that Raziq’s book was and remains a significant contribution to the role of Islam within politics, the reality is that from a normative perspective said ideas were roundly derided at the time, and though the book played a role in the political melee that was Egypt in the 1920’s it remains recognised as a study that falls well outside the boundaries of accepted orthodoxy. It is correct however to state that Raziq’s thesis is the original source of those who contest that the caliphate is not an Islamic obligation, and is the genealogical root of such claims after the khawarij. He was also the first to adopt a call to secularism while dressed in “Islamic clothing.”

[1] Ali Abdul-Raziq, “Al-Islam wa Usul al-hukm,” in Al-Islam wa Usul al-hukm – darasa wa watha’iq, ed. Mohammad ‘Amara (Beirut: Al-Mua’sasa al-Arabiyya li-l-darasat wa-l-nashr, 1972), pp.182.

[2] Ibid., pp.117.20.

[3] Ibid., pp.145.

[4] Ibid., pp.163.

[5] Ibid., pp.174-5.

[6] Ibid., pp.136.

[7] Ibid., pp.182.

[8] Mohammad ‘Amara, Ma’raka al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm (Cairo: Dar al-Sharook, 1997), pp.171.

[9] Rashid Reda, “al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm,” al-Manar 26, no. 2 (1925).

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Council of Senior Scholars, “The ruling of the Council of Senior Scholars regarding the book “Islam and the fundamentals of ruling” – 12/8/1925,” in Ma’raka al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm, ed. Mohammad ‘Amara (Cairo: Dar al-Sharook, 1997), pp.126.

[12] Ali Abdul-Raziq, “Opinion regarding the ruling of the Council of Senior Scholars 3/9/1925,” Ibid.

[13] Mohammad ‘Amara, Al-Islam wa Usul al-hukm – darasa wa watha’iq (Beirut: Al-Mu’asasa al-‘Arabiyya li-l-darasat wa-l-nashr, 1972), pp.23-4.

[14] ———, Ma’raka al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm (Cairo: Dar al-Sharook, 1997), pp.150.

[15] Mohammad Al-Tahir ibn ‘Ashur, Naqd ‘ilmy li Kitab al-Islam wa usul al-hukm (Cairo: Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1925), pp.5.

[16] Ibid., pp.11.

[17] Ibid., pp.35-6.

[18] Mohammad Bakhit Al-Mutee’i, Haqiqa al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm (Cairo: Al-Matba’a al-Salifiyya, 1925), pp.4.

[19] Ibid., pp.24.

[20] Mohammad al-Khidr Hussain, “Naqd Kitab al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm,” in Ma’raka al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm, ed. Mohammad ‘Amara (Cairo: Dar al-Sharook, 1925), pp.225.

[21] Ibid., pp.233.

[22] Ibid., pp.258.

[23] Ibid., pp.290.

[24] Ibid., pp.239.

[25] Mohammad ‘Amara, Ma’raka al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm (Cairo: Dar al-Sharook, 1997), pp.172.




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