New Islamic Directions

By Imam Zaid Shakir

Reflections on the Egyptian Coup: The Fate of Political Islam

Posted in articles by Imam Zaid Shakir on 2013-07-13 Thumb

In his, Dictionary of Political Thought, the noted political philosopher, Roger Scruton, defines a coup d’etat as follows:

[A coup d’etat is] a change in government by force resulting in a change of constitution, and brought about by those who already hold some form of power whether military or political. The institution of a coup thereby transforms the terms on which their office is held from a public trust into a private possession.

We start with this definition to spare anyone the need for debating whether what transpired in Egypt was a coup d’etat or not. By any meaningful definition of the term, it was. Saying that is not to deny the role that the massive uprising of June 30, 2013 played in providing a justification or cover for the coup. However, in analyzing what happened, the uprising is of secondary importance. In any case, the events that have transpired, regardless of how we interpret them, will have far-reaching implications, both for Egypt and the region.

One of the questions being asked by many in the aftermath of the coup in Egypt is, “What does this mean for “political” Islam?” This is a critical question considering that in the Sunni Muslim realm, the Muslim Brotherhood, the party intricately associated with the ousted Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, has been the standard bearer of political activism. In answering this question we have to emphasize that politics and every other affair in this creation starts and ends with Almighty God, Allah.

To reiterate, we have to remain firm in our understanding that the affairs of the world are orchestrated by Almighty God and not anyone or anything is His creation. While we may search for the immediate causes of the situation in Egypt, and by so doing examine to role of the Egyptian military, at-Tamarrud, economic realities, behind the scenes machinations of Israel or the United States, the perceived or real incompetence of the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, etc., at the end of the day we have to face an inescapable fact. Namely, Allah, for a wisdom He understands best, did not want a Muslim regime controlling Egypt at this time. He thus created causative means (Asbāb), some mentioned above, to implement His Will. When we accept this reality we can move beyond the frustration and disappointment that is afflicting so many in light of the recent events.

To emphasize that it is Allah who is the only effective “power-broker” in the world, reflect on the following verse from the Qur’an, “Say, O Allah, the owner of all sovereignty! You extend sovereignty to whosoever you please and you withdraw it from whosoever you please. You elevate whomsoever you please, and you debase whosoever you please. In Your Hand is all good, and You, over all things, possess power (Qur’an 3:26).” Accepting this reality and understanding that it is actualized in our world, is one of the greatest manifestations of Tawhid, or the affirmation of divine oneness. In this case, we are affirming that there is one effective source of power in this creation –Almighty God, Allah. This has to be our starting point in moving forward.

In turning to an analysis of the events that have transpired at the level of Asbāb and the interplay between them, there are those who argue that the coup in Egypt and the unceremonious dumping of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime there marks the end of “political” Islam. Ironically, among those making such a claim is Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, even as his venal and brutal regime is being preserved by the direct intervention of Hizbollah and Iran, two of political Islam’s stalwarts, in the Syrian civil war.

Political Islam, in some form, will continue to exist, however, for it to be viable on the global stage, it will need a major reformation. First of all, it cannot be sectarian. The limits of a sectarian political Islam are clearly displayed in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Muslim involvement in the contest for power proceeds along sectarian lines that leave no room for competing ideas in a struggle for hearts and minds. The only argument is blood and the ensuing carnage only generates fear and loathing in the hearts of the masses of ordinary believers. The political bankruptcy of the various “Muslim” parties involved in the contest is plain. The slaughter generated by such groups may continue unabated for the short term, but such groups have no real political future.

Secondly, any meaningful manifestation of political Islam cannot be self-serving. One of the criticisms of Morsi’s regime is that it was self-serving. In other words, its primary focus was advancing the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, this contention is amenable to debate. The perception though was real in to minds of many Egyptians. Any Muslim party endeavoring to rule democratically over a particular country in the Muslim world has to understand that the eclectic ideological nature of the citizenry of most modern Muslim nation-states, combined in many instances with a similar degree of ethnic, tribal or religious diversity makes it nearly impossible for it to pursue a strict, party-line first agenda. Any group endeavoring to do so will alienate many parties whose support will be critical in any efforts to move the state in a new direction.

This makes the principal challenge for an aspiring Muslim ruling-party a constitutional one. In other words, a carefully crafted constitution has to adjudicate how the requisites of the Shari’ah, widely understood, and the historical approach to religious minorities living in Muslim lands, best articulated under the Ottoman Millet system, can best be reconciled with modern ideas of citizenship and individual rights. The task, while daunting, is not impossible if we accept that the arena to be governed by the constitution, the modern nation-state, has no historical precedent in the Muslim world. Therefore, there is no historical precedent for the constitutional order that needs to be created. That being the case, new arrangements must inevitably be created. Recognizing this fact frees us from the belief that there is some sort of ancient precedence that can be neatly retrofitted for the new political condition.

A Muslim ruling-party supervising such a constitutional process has to see itself as the servant of the people, and not the servants, or perhaps more fittingly, the slaves of a nonexistent historical precedence. In the modern political arena, with its complexities, intrigues, and traps defined in large part by an American-dominated neocolonial order, the idea of the Muslim party as servants of the people, with all of their diversity, has to trump the idea of the Muslim party as guardians of a mythical historical order. The former approach is the only way to create the intellectual flexibility needed to begin even conceiving what the possible constitutional arrangement would look like.

Philosophically, such an approach is consistent with the saying attributed to the Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him, “The leader of the people is their servant.” Although some point out that this saying is conveyed by a weak Hadith, another part of the same Hadith is considered authentic. Namely, “The one serving water to the people is the last of them to drink.” The ethos of service and the subordination of the immediate interests of the ruling party is the only way to begin creating the good-will and broad-based of support (social and political solidarity) needed to insure against the kind of machinations that culminated in the ouster of the Morsi regime.

Another critical change needed for Muslim parties endeavoring to rule over contemporary Muslim nation-states is related to what we have discussed above. The broad-based nature needed to advance any sort of meaningful political project domestically has to be replicated internationally. What has been dubbed the Arab “Spring” has been preceded by the Latin American “Spring,” Eastern European “Spring” and the African “Spring.” In other words, all of these regions have preceded the Arab world in attempts to create democratic regimes after varying, in terms of their duration, periods of authoritarian rule. One of the greatest checks against the vulnerability experienced by the fledgling regimes of Arab World is the creation of bonds of solidarity with the more assertively anti-imperial states of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other words, Muslim parties have to understand that they cannot engage in truly independent policies in isolation.

In the case of Morsi’s Egypt, it might have been helpful if his regime had taken an a priori stance against seeking loans from the IMF and instead announced that he would work with nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America to create an alternative international development bank. Of course such a move would have not been favorably received in Washington, which as we are now learning, never favorably received the Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime to begin with. On the other hand, such a move might have created the political imagination in the masses of Egyptians needed for them to believe that the material sacrifices they were making were for greater goals and therefore worth enduring. People will sacrifice where there is a belief that they are sacrificing for something greater than their immediate interests. However, where there is no higher belief or vision, both the people and non-visionary political parties perish.

In conclusion, the themes mentioned in this essay, namely: a “spiritually-rooted” political analysis; a meaningful modern Muslim constitutionalism; a fully articulated Muslim philosophy of service-oriented politics; and Muslim participation in a reconstituted global “Third World” movement are all worthy of book-length exposes. Furthermore, moving from the realm of ideas, once those ideas have been identified and articulated, in each of these areas involve trans-generational social and political movements. These are merely some areas, in my estimation, where “political” Islam might begin reconsidering a fundamental reorientation if they are to remain viable in light of the conditions currently prevailing in both the national and international political arenas.

Reprint from Al-Jazeera Stream:



By James on July 13, 2013 at 2:45pm

Great article and a lot to take head from, for wannabe political parties touting Islam as their base. However in the case of Egypt, the political Islam experiment was never properly attempted and was doomed to fail regardless of how good or bad their efforts, ideals, principles or consititional approach could be. What really took down the Morsi government was an entrenched deep-state and the real power in Egypt: the military. It may be good to see how everything developed via readings such as this: I believe we should stop believing the given narrative for Egypt and see the underlying causes and those who seek fitna on the earth. Political Islam manifests itself in so many different ways, Ikhwan in Egypt may have made some grave mistakes, but some mistakes were made for them.

By AMR ABOUZIED on July 14, 2013 at 11:34pm

I wonder how can we balance between our ignorance of Allah's will and our surrender to His wisdom? I do not think any one can claim that he knows what Allah's will is, that is why we do our best to take the Asbab and never give up and say "Allah must have wanted it this or that way" as we will never know.

By Huzaidi Hashim on July 15, 2013 at 11:28pm

The manifestation of Tawhid does not suggest a fatalistic view of everything that happens around us. For every test (امتحان), there will be an expected outcome (النتيجة المتوقعة) which will depend on the direction that we, the tested (ممتحن) have taken. If we choose to fight for our rights, which are deemed legal under the law (شريعة), then those who die for it are Martyrs (شهيد). But if we choose to run and hide, refusing to support or join in the struggle to redeem our rights, we would suffer the consequences of our cowardice. This is not an issue of 'can or cannot', It is and issue of 'will or will not'. The Egyptian people have the right to defend and reinstate their democratically elected representatives and their removal and replacement with an illegitimate government without a mandate is and can only be viewed as a blatant act of political vulgarity.

By Fahad on July 15, 2013 at 11:49pm

I agree with much of the sentiment in this article. Most religious based movements have not fully realized the potential to align with global justice movements emerging from the global south, and have restricted themselves to outdated modes of diplomacy. The Muslim Brotherhood, in all its failures, is a perfect example of this. Interesting, Hezbollah, a group which has been in the past disparaged by this author, is perhaps the best modern-day example of a Islamist movement that has successfully integrated itself into a modern nation-state, and has readily embraced all the fundamental pluralistic traditions brought upon by modernity, perhaps largely by necessity, since Lebanon is a religious diverse nation. Perhaps this successful re-conciliation of core Islamic principles with modern day politics is an ideal that other Islamist parties should strive for. Unfortunately, given that Hezbollah identifies with a minority Muslim sect, often maligned or seen with deep suspicion by the majority, chances are slim that this blueprint would ever be taken seriously. Tragically, the general theme in the Sunni Muslim world is to either be a Secularist, or align with groups which are disturbingly sectarian. There is no serious alternative. The author of this article certainly provides one, but never have these themes ever truly been realized in the modern world, and there's no indication they will anytime soon.

By Hyde on July 16, 2013 at 10:49am

Ultimately it is the Muslims are not left to their own anymore; to determine their own course of actions. Yes some, if not most Islamic political parties across the Muslim world have fermented a like of religious poisoning, but the idealism of a Muslim world view is present. The West must accent that.

By Usama Hasan on July 18, 2013 at 4:01am

Thank you for this article, Imam Zaid. You say, "Allah ... did not want a Muslim regime controlling Egypt ..." I suggest that "Muslim" here should be replaced by "Islamist", otherwise we make the mistake of equating Islam with Islamism (excessively-political Islam). I wrote about the distinction here recently: Counter-Narratives to Radical Islamism Cf. Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib and Salafi groups supported the undemocratic military coup. The other major parties in Egypt are also generally "Muslim," just as Jamaat-e-Islami and the Taliban are not the only "Muslim" parties in Pakistan, but they are Islamist. Thank you also for the suggestions to reform political Islam.

By Emmadul Muzaffar on July 19, 2013 at 1:58pm

Much needed one. Thanks Imaam Shakir. I believe political Facet of Islam can succeed when Muslim children will be exposed to the Moral, Ethical and Philanthropic aspects of Islam starting from the school level education itself which will very well require redrafting the school level books emphasizing the God Consciousness in our Children, unlike the present day atheism orientation. Instead of Making a separate class for Islamic Education it will require getting all the Subjects that are being taught in schools inline with Islamic thought.

By Pavani Ganga on July 19, 2013 at 5:20pm

Visiting Aljazeera website, I began to read what I presumed to be just another opinion piece on the current Egyptian crisis. Then the hairs of the body stood on end as I encountered so unexpectedly the articulation of profound spiritual truths, especially the truth of the absolute unity and sovereignty of God, which in my tradition we call paradvaita. I cannot tell you how happy I was to experience such a coincidence of conviction. Ordinarily there is so much to separate a Hindu and a Muslim. Yet here there was an essential understanding that would be entirely natural in the mouth or from the pen of sages from my own community. I am thankful to know a person like you exists and I plan to read more of your articles.

By Abo Hady on July 21, 2013 at 6:29am

Assalamu alaykum "EGYPT IS A DEMOCRATIC COUNTRY AND NOT A MILITARY CAMP." Dr. Morsi was an ideal Democrat, he never closed any T.V. channels or confiscated Newspapers of his opponents, he never jailed or sent to prison any of his political opponents. Last year all the Egyptians felt and practiced the freedom of speech. All the opponents Dr. Morsi criticized him day and night without fear and they knew very well that he (Dr. Morsi) is a democratic president and will neither put them in prisons nor confiscate their TV channels and Newspapers. The coup are anti-democrats, they closed T.V. channels that belong to the supporters of Dr. Morsi, they confiscated the Newspapers of the MB and the ruling party and sent the leaders and supporters of many Islamic parties to prison. Most of the Secularists of Egypt supported the coup. They were very happy with a Coup and they sacrificed Democracy. The Egyptian Media criticized sarcastically Dr. Morsi and the Muslims leaders and the Sheikhs of Islam and made strong propaganda against Dr. Morsi and brain washed lot of people. Can the Egyptian media criticize sarcastically the coup leader El Sisi or the Army ? I am sure that he will not do that, they will be afraid to do so, and also because their ROLE is now FINISHED. Now the big question! Why do many leaders and politicians support the Egyptian military coup, we want democracy again in Egypt and our legitimate president is Dr. Mohamed Morsi. Please watch these 34 Videos for the supporters of Dr. Morsi against the military coup, most of the people in these videos are normal Egyptians and not M.B., they are seeking Democracy and their stolen VOTES, these videos were recorded on Friday 19-July-2013. According to estimates the supporters of Dr. Morsi and Democracy in Egypt were more than "Forty millions" citizens. Cairo Alexandria Matrouh Ismailia Sinai Fayoum Mansoura Qena El-Meya Aswan Souhag Asyout Luxor The New Valley Bany Sweif Assalamu alaykum

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