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Religion and the State

Middle EastFrom Secularization To Islamic Revivalism

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Muslim world in the Middle East witnessed a general turn toward secularization. Ottoman reform movements in the nineteenth century (the Tanzimat and, later, that of the Young Turks) and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) were examples of attempts to duplicate European models of building modern states, with separation of religious and secular authority adopted as at least an implicit principle. This trend reached its height with the rise to power of Kemal Atatürk (Turkey, 1923) and Reza Shah (Iran, 1925). They reduced the influence of the ulema significantly and made the separation principle an explicit cornerstone of their reforms.

Ironically, the early twentieth century also witnessed the birth of contemporary Islamic Revivalism, especially in Egypt, where the state failed to take radical reform initiatives similar to those of Turkey and Iran. In response to various national and international challenges and the failure of both traditional and liberal (Wafd party) establishments in meeting these challenges, the Egyptian schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949) established the first modern political party, the Muslim Brotherhood (founded 1928). The Muslim Brotherhood advocated an exclusively Islamic ideology and a radical platform not only to reeducate individual Egyptians in Islam, but also to transform Egypt into an explicitly Islamic society with a self-consciously Islamic state. Another relevant event during the first half of the twentieth century was the birth of what was eventually called the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a state that from the beginning justified its existence based on Islam. Pakistan was also the birthplace of another important ideologue of contemporary Islamic Revivalism, Abu l-A'la' Maududi (1903–1979).

Al-Banna and Maududi opened the road for other, often more radical, advocates of reviving Islamic societies, which would be ruled by Islamic states and according to the Islamic laws. Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) of Egypt and (in a very different context) Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini (1902–1989) of Iran are among such figures. Maududi and Qutb contributed significantly to a new shift in radical Islamic political thought by developing the concept of jahaliyya, according to which Muslims in the contemporary world find themselves living in a state of "ignorance" similar to that confronted by Muhammad and his earliest followers. The concept accused contemporary Muslims of being ignorant of Islam and its laws, or ignoring those laws as the sole legitimate guidance for action in both public and private domains. Al-Banna, Maududi, Qutb, and Khomeini challenged Muslims to re-create the genuine Islamic state, whose principal characteristics could be traced to the prophet Muhammad's experience in Medina.

In Pakistan, after General Zia al-Haq seized power in a military coup (July 1977), attempts were also made to revive an Islamic state, particularly through a program known as Nizam-i Islam. However, it was in Iran that the principal contemporary Islamic state was created in 1979. Coming to power by mass revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates articulated a new and radical interpretation of an older Shia doctrine, that of the "Guardianship of the Jurist of Islamic Law" (velayat-e faqih). According to their interpretation, during the continuing absence of the twelfth Shia imam (al-Mahdi), the only legitimate political authority is that exercised by the qualified jurists of Islamic laws. Consequently, the Iranian Constitution places supreme authority in the hands of a cleric (referred to as the "Supreme Guide" or "Leader of the Revolution"). Thus, in Iran spiritual and temporal authority have once again become unified, albeit in a very modern (and also explicitly Shia) form.

Soon after the revolution in Iran, attempts to build an Islamic state in the Sudan were initiated. Similarly, Afghanistan witnessed the creation of an Islamic state with the fall of the socialist government of President Najiballah (1992), and the establishment of the Taliban regime in 1996. The Taliban ("students" in Persian) movement took root among young Afghan refugees in Pakistan, trained in schools with Islamic curriculums during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Upon coming to power, the Taliban government strictly enforced its version of Islamic law, in yet another attempt to create an Islamic State based on the principles of Prophet Muhammad's commonwealth in Medina.


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Cyrus Masroori

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion and the State - Middle East - The Shia-sunni Controversy, The Early Modern Islamic States, From Secularization To Islamic Revivalism