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Between Isis and the Aga Khan: Islam’s Political Theology

In Muslim history, religious doctrines and political ideologies overlap

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-11-27 10:41:43

 

islams-politiques.jpgReview of Sabrina Mervin and Nabil Mouline (eds.), Islams politiques. Courants, doctrines et idéologies, Cnrs éditions, Paris 2017

 

It is often put about that, in order to understand Middle Eastern affairs, it is enough to read them in terms of geopolitics, economics or sociology, whilst disregarding the religious factor. That approach is clearly not possible if one considers that the relationship between the religious sphere and the political one has existed since the birth of Islamic civilization and underpinned the split between the three great currents of Islam: Sunnism, Shi‘ism and Kharijism. In later centuries, it was still theologico-political dynamics (understood as the connecting of concepts, symbols and images mixing the terrestrial kingdom with the heavenly one) that resulted in the division between Twelvers, Ismailis, Zaydis, Druze and Alawis. Without going too far back in time, it will suffice to recall, in our own times, the proclamation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 or the hard power deployed by the Islamic State and justified in the light of a particular interpretation of the Scriptures.

 

Islams politiques is a collection of eleven essays dedicated to the great theologico-political debates with which the Islamic world has been concerned from the beginning of the twentieth century until the present day. Its objective is to demonstrate how the doctrines and ideologies overlap and how they are mobilized by the various protagonists (p. 10). The plural form in the book’s title must therefore be understood as a reference to the numerous ideological and doctrinal currents stemming from the marriage between political and religious spheres within Islam. Although all the actors speak in the name of Islam, they have given birth to a plurality of identity constructs in competition with each other.

 

Alongside certain rather hackneyed themes such as the relationship between modernity and reformism, the spread of Wahhabism or the Islamic State’s attempt to bring the caliphate back into exisentence, the book presents some rather original contributions. These include Loulowa Al Rashid’s brief analysis of the Naqshbandi brotherhood’s evolution in Iraq from the 1990s to the present day, which most effectively points out Sufism’s ability to overcome doctrinal differences in order to adapt to a constantly evolving political situation. Equally original is Samy Dorlian’s investigation of the fundamental doctrines and historic trajectory of the Yemeni Zaydis, a Shi‘ite branch that, unlike the Twelvers, has rejected the Imams’ infallibility (except that of ‘Ali, Hasan and Husayn), the possibility of dissimulating one’s faith in cases of danger and the practices of corporal self-mortification linked to the commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom on the day of āshūrā’.

 

Sabrina Mervin is one of the volume’s editors and also the author of two of its contributions. One of these is dedicated to religious and political authority in Twelver Shi‘ism, whilst the other considers the ‘Alawis in Syria and the dynamics that have allowed the Assad family to preserve power for many decades. The volume further presents a contribution by Augustin Jomier dedicated to Ibadism, the only still existent branch of Kharijism and the majority denomination in Oman today. This current is distinguishable for its political and religious ideal of the imamate: for the Ibadis, leadership of the Muslim community does not necessarily fall to one of the Prophet’s descendants but, rather, to the most worthy person, as in the case of the first three “rightly guided” caliphs. The book closes with Michel Boivin’s essay on the political role of the Aga Khan, the forty-ninth manifest imam for the Nizari Ismaili Shi‘ites scattered in India and Pakistan. More of a business-man than an imam, the Aga Khan manages his imamate along lines that follow the general trend towards globalization and the bureaucratization that seems to characterise religion’s current evolution.

 

Conceived of for a non-specialist public, the book certainly offers an interesting overview of the political theology proposed by the three “ways of Islam” – Sunnism, Shi‘ism and Kharijism. Given the vastness and topicality of the subject, however, it would have been worth going more deeply into certain aspects.

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