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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’islam, l’État et l’impossible politique

by Pierre Saly

Islam, the State And the Impossibility of Politics

Translated Sunday 19 February 2012, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Historian Pierre Saly ’s review of L’Utopie de l’Islam, la religion contre l’État (Islam’s Utopia , Religion Against the State) by Leïla Babès, Colin pub. 2011.

Leïla Babès is an academic and a sociologist. In this book she draws upon her knowledge of the history of thought and her expertise in the extremely diverse field of ancient Muslim theological approaches. The bulk of this study is an erudite scrutiny, in the light of the Koran and Hadiths, of the action and thought of the early companions of the Prophet, then of the doctors of Islam (mainly from the 7th to the 10th century), in relation to a single central problem, namely the question of the compatibility of Islam and politics.

Islam’s message promotes the Koranic values of brotherhood, social justice, equal redistribution, together with the intensity of the individual’s own religious feeling. But the demands of politics have very soon diverted and perverted the hard core of the values of the message, already with Mahomet, an inspired prophet but also the leader of a community that became an army and a State, or again with Omar, the second of the four “well-guided” caliphs, a holy figure that could only imperfectly avoid the ambivalence. Those demands were the incontrovertible condition for the unity of tribes launched into the conquest of a vast Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean empire, then of the creation of states, which, in their times, were the most elaborate in the vast space that stretches between the Indus and the Atlantic.

Only specialists can discuss the subjects that Leïla Babès analyses in greatest detail. What is the meaning of Kharidjite Islam, so rigorist and equalitarian, and the “libertarian-theocratic States it gave rise to? What contradictions does Shiism carry? or the thought of Islam’s” pre-socialists” like Abu-Dharr, or again Mu’tazilite “rationalism”? What class-reading can be made of the exploited labourers’ great uprisings in the name of equality in the Mesopotamian plantations? What does the ambivalent face of Sufism mean, being sometimes the quest for another kind of power beyond the impurity of the existing social and political order? What gross religious misinterpretations feed the various jihadist currents launched in a mad race for political power?

But one constant theme runs through all these analyses: no political Islam is possible. That is what the title means; which is surprising enough at first, but in no way means that Islam is pure alienation in utopia.

This takes us far from the all too frequent simplistic idea that Islam totally subordinates politics to religion, which is the common approach both of extremist Islamism and of the essentialist denunciation of Islam. On the contrary, Leïla Babès’ approach seems to imply the historically established impossibility to submit the political sphere to religious dictates all the more so as these dictates are contradictory.

One question however remains to be answered by the author: what charge of illegitimacy could possibly damn a militant political approach, engaged in modern progressive practices and motivated by a quest for meaning that were itself nourished by the full awareness and consideration of the fundamental values of the universalist human message that is also at the heart of Islam?

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