THE LAST UNICORN: THE QUEST FOR THE
MODERN ISLAMIC STATE
A unicorn is a mythical creature that has an antelope's body, a lion's tail, and a bearded horse's head with a single horn on its forehead. They are believed to bring good fortune and have magical powers of healing. The horn of the unicorn was prized for its healing power and its ability to nullify all kinds of poison.
Similar to the purity and curative power of the unicorn, a number of Islamists have turned to the ideal of an Islamic State, modeled after the polity under Prophet Muhammad and deeply rooted in the Shari’a, in order to address the problems of poverty, war, and social corruption, which were viewed as symptoms of the poisoned lifeblood of the Ummah (Islamic Community), that afflict Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. For our purposes, an Islamist is defined as a person who uses the tenets of Islam - in fact often by claiming to advocate a "correct" view of the religion - for his own social and political ends. It is this Islamist vision of a Modern Islamic State, set to exist in the contemporary age, where social justice (Adl) is the norm under the sovereignty of God (Hakimiyya) that has fired the imagination of Muslims around the globe.
Even For those, such as this author, who might be labeled as “moderates” in the current dichotomy established by the West as to which Muslims are socially up to standard – the acceptable “moderates” and the intolerable “fundamentalists” – the vision of an Islamic State is appealing.
The attraction for many Muslims is easily understandable: Often, at first glance, the arguments for the establishment of a Modern Islamic State appear compelling. On the issue of the model of the Modern Islamic State, one of the most influential and popular modern Muslim thinkers is Sayyid Qutb. Though long deceased, his writings continue to be a source of inspiration, particularly among the more radicalized groups as shown by his influence on the political thought of Osama Bin Laden.
Qutb proposed an Islamic alternative to the political systems, which were then competing in Egypt, based upon, among others, the notions of Jahiliyyah and Hakimiyya. Qutb’s use of the term “Jahiliyyah” - roughly equivalent to a state of societal ignorance and corruption - referred to almost all cultural aspects of the modern world and was a pejorative term pertaining to all things alien to Islam. In his mind, Egypt was in a state of Jahiliyyah and, consequently, needed a revolution to overthrow the corrupt powers – the West and their cronies in the Arab World - and establish a regime of Hakimiyya. According to Qutb, a truly Islamic society could only be established upon the strict tenets of the Shari’a, which was not limited only to legal injunctions or governmental principles but included all aspects of human life and governance. The experience of the first Islamic community in Medina under the Prophet and the Quran provided Muslims with the blueprint for the ideal Islamic State for both the present and the future.
Osama Bin Laden has a similar conception of the Modern Islamic State. According to the so-called “Ladenese Epistle: Declaration of War,” Muslim society’s unfaithfulness to the Shari’a is one of the roots of the problems of the Islamic world. Similar to Qutb’s idea of Hakimiyya, Bin Laden espouses a divine sovereignty and a return to governance under the Shari’a, which would proscribe, among others, modern financial institutions for being in contravention on Islamic laws against usury. Essentially, these Islamists envision a return to the pristine conditions of the original Islamic State, which was an egalitarian, enlightened, and religious community in stark contrast to the present conditions of inequitable distribution of resources, corruption, and vice obtaining in the Middle East.
In this paradigm, the machinery of the State would enforce the Shari’a and all matters deemed un-Islamic would be essentially removed or isolated from society. According to Qutb, the first thing a truly Islamic Government would do is to force the indolent to apply themselves to industry
Accordingly, these views have a powerful magnetic pull for many Muslims, who feel incredibly isolated, marginalized, impoverished, and alienated in the modern world. Certainly, a society built on justice (Adl), governed under divine law (Shari’a), and within a regime of God’s sovereignty (Hakimiyya) is an image of perfection that hardly anyone could resist. However, upon closer inspection, the views propounded by Islamists such as Bin Laden and Qutb, as well as the means they espouse to achieve their ideal polity, are shown to be extremely problematic.
First, in regard the means advocated by Bin Laden and Qutb in order to achieve their ideal Islamic State, both these Islamists adopt a Manichaean view of the world in which only armed struggle and bloodshed between the “good” (true Muslims) and the “bad” (the West) are, ultimately, the means to reach their objective. Both have demonized the West, particularly the US and - although located in the Middle East is seen as an American proxy - Israel. Some of their criticisms about the unfair treatment that Muslims have historically received from the West, such as the current Palestinian situation, have real basis; however, it is their uncompromising view of the necessity of armed resistance to address the problems of the Muslim world that eventually dooms their political enterprise and alienates many Islamic moderates who, while in general agreement for the requirement of reform and the existence of injustice and sources of conflict in the Middle East, have a preference for peaceful methods for social change. In this increasingly global and inter-linked planet, this dualistic approach, categorizing distinct societies as either wholly good or evil, loses much of its appeal and logical certainty.
Secondly, even if Bin Laden were able to achieve the goals of overcoming the West and establishing a new political reality, the Islamist’s paradigm of a Modern Islamic State would nevertheless fail. This failure would be based on fundamental problems, both conceptual and practical, with their model of a Modern Islamic State. Upon deeper analysis, the claims of the Islamists are shown to be irrational and unfounded. Closer inspection of their claims make clear that the Islamist’s indulgence in the apodictic style of discourse, wherein emphatic asseveration is substituted for serious reasoning, ends up with an extremely problematic model for an Islamic State.
A primary setback in the Islamist conception of their ideal State is that their prototype is sui generis. The polity that existed under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad in Medina was a unique phenomenon that can never be replicated. Firstly, no Muslim leader could ever possess the same personal qualities of kindness, charity, piety, wisdom, leadership, and charisma that allowed him to have such a powerful and persuasive effect on his community. Moreover, for any Muslim to even make such an outrageous claim would be the death knell for his leadership ambitions. Additionally, the community that existed during that period was a product of a distinct social, political, religious, and economic context that is impossible to reproduce.
In fact, historically, Muslim leaders who attempted to take the mantle of the prophet and use Islam for their own political gain have often, in the end, suffered greatly. For example, Anwar Sadat, as President of Egypt, did his utmost to cultivate an aura of piety and Islamic devoutness in his persona within Egypt, going as far as preferring to be called by his first name - Muhammad. His wearing of the traditional robe, with his prayer beads and Moses stick as accoutrements, appear, on hindsight, as shallow propaganda. Ultimately, Sadat's misuse of Islam would be his downfall. This is the paradox - or more dramatically, the curse - for the Islamist. His use of Islam to catapult himself to power, at the same time, plants the seeds for his eventual political destruction. Islam brings colossal expectations in terms of social justice, religiosity, and equity. Any person who styles himself as someone who will Islamize society raises the bar incredibly high and ultimately will come up short - much to his and his society's dismay. For some Islamic believers, the downfall of the Islamist is but fitting justice for those who have the temerity to misuse the faith for their own selfish ends.
Secondly, and this is a vital point that strongly undermines the Islamist paradigm, during the time of the Prophet, Shari’a was not implemented via the machinery of the State. To implement Shari’a, the Modern Islamic State would have to enact legislation based on the Shari’a and enforce it through the government apparatus. However, during the Prophet’s period of leadership in Medina, the Shari’a was implemented in the community not via positive legislation and government intervention but instead through the context of the community as a whole – with the genuine piety and great personal charisma of the Prophet providing the normative element, in conjunction with the specific guidance from the Quran, and the close-knit nature of the community and the high level of motivation of the Islamic converts acting as the basis to follow the Shari’a.
The foregoing brings us to a third exceptionally fundamental problem of the Islamist paradigm: The very idea of establishing an Islamic State in order to enforce the Shari’a is conceptually impossible. Put another way, an “Islamic State” is a theoretical nullity because, as a political institution, a State cannot be characterized as Islamic – the proper object of Islam are human beings and not political institutions - and the very attempt to enforce Shari’a as positive law is a repudiation of the Islamic basis of the legislation.
It is important to emphasize that the Shari’a is, by definition, a divine creation and is not a result of a governmental legislative process. To claim that State-crafted legislation, which hews closely to classical Shari’a, is equivalent or identical to the divinely-authored law both undermines and misunderstands the nature of the Shari’a and its genuine purpose. Laws, as expressions of societal norms, are a product of the will of the State; Positive law can never be Shari’a because the Shari’a, as an expression of divine will, is the exact opposite of positive law.
What is more, there are numerous practical problems that result from the Islamist view. The first is that the prototype of the Islamic community in Medina is an anachronism and is no longer viable in the modern age. The concerns of Modern States in providing food, housing, water, electricity, economic policy, environmental preservation, foreign policy, defense, crime prevention, among others, are unbelievably more numerous than the matters that the first Islamic community in Medina had to address. The old solutions to the problems of that classical age would certainly be deficient in the modern era; hence, the aphorism that under the regime of Imam Khomeini the leaders of Iran realized that the Shari’a did not provide answers to the problem of garbage collection.
Furthermore, a rigorous implementation of the Shari’a, specifically in the classical form that developed during the 7th - 9th Century A.D., would be highly problematic in terms of women’s rights, the rights of non-Muslims living in Muslim communities, and human rights.
Actually, the Shari’a as implemented during the 7th - 9th Century was appropriate and, indeed, progressive for its time, especially in regard the rights of women, such as entitlement to a share of inheritance. Of grave concern is the punishment for apostasy under the 7th Century system, which was death, and its obvious inconsistency with the right to freedom of belief as recognized under human rights conventions and international norms. Clearly, in the modern age where there has been a dramatic increase in women’s rights and a greater emphasis on personal freedoms, such as freedom of expression and belief, the 7th Century Shari’a is no longer fully responsive to the times.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the Islamist’s ideal of the Islamic State, crafted in the mould of the Prophet’s community and functioning in the modern age is unworkable, impracticable, and unrealistic. The Islamist vision, while beautiful and enthralling, is shown to be as real and possible as finding a live unicorn. And maybe this is the core problem of the Islamist philosophy – in the search to provide answers and solutions to the grave problems challenging the Ummah, the Islamists have taken the easy route of going back to myths and archetypes instead of finding more pragmatic responses.
However, ironically, it is this return to archetypes, which is the essential escapism of the Islamist enterprise, that partially explains the Islamist’s appeal. The fact that many of the inhabitants of the Muslim world live in impoverished, unempowered, and undemocratic conditions explain the attractiveness of the Islamist message, specifically in regard the ideal of the Islamic State. Even if the Islamist’s methodology in establishing the Modern Islamic State is violent and cruel, it is, nevertheless, an empowering vision - breaking free of the fetters of colonialism and dependency, defeating great powers through self-sacrifice and courage, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds through faith and effort.
It is the social conditions of the Muslim world that provide the perfect nursery for the seeds of Islamist message to take root. This is one of the powerful aspects of the Bin Laden rhetoric: he is able to communicate in plain language the anger, angst, humiliation, and indignation that are felt in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. More than this, he offers impoverished and marginalized Muslims an ideal world, in the Modern Islamic State as conceived by the Islamist, where they can escape to.
This is the real danger that must be addressed by Muslim moderates and those concerned with the increasing appeal of Bin Laden and his ilk. Not only is there a need for Muslim moderates to demonstrate clearly, persuasively, and emphatically the impossibility of the Islamist enterprise but they must also provide viable alternatives and real solutions to the problems of the Islamic world. As is frequently a painful experience when one leaves childhood and enters adulthood, myths must be destroyed, fantasies must be forgotten, and reality accepted and embraced. For Muslims who adopt the Islamist ideal, it is simply time to grow up.
Indeed, the entire Muslim world must sober up to the harsh reality that there are no easy solutions to the problems of war, poverty, and corruption that plague many Islamic communities in the Middle East and elsewhere and that the fantasy world – where the Modern Islamic State exists and unicorns run free – is not the place where the Ummah should begin searching for answers.