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100 Years of Political Theology: An Islamic Perspective (by M. Owais Khan)

Let’s be clear. There is no academic field called “Islamic Political Theology”. So naturally there are hardly any books on Islamic Political Theology. Political Theology is largely a field of study within Christian Theology. This field, as I understand it, examines the relationship between the way we describe God and the way we describe the political. In the history of the Church there has been a strange correspondence between the two. A number of shared concepts, narratives, myths and symbols sustain each.

From the editor: We continue our series of “Top 10 lists,” offering different perspectives on the field of political theology in response to Ted Smith’s “Political Theology Start-up Kit” posted last month at the Religion in American History blog. This week, Owais Khan offers a perspective on what the important texts are in the distinctive landscape of Islamic political theology.

Let’s be clear.  There is no academic field called “Islamic Political Theology”.  So naturally there are hardly any books on Islamic Political Theology.  Political Theology is largely a field of study within Christian Theology.  This field, as I understand it, examines the relationship between the way we describe God and the way we describe the political.  In the history of the Church there has been a strange correspondence between the two.  A number of shared concepts, narratives, myths and symbols sustain each.  Given this genealogy, the question now discussed among scholars of Islam is whether or not such a theo-political problem exists in Islamic thought and civilization.  Given the present political climate, the answer seems to be an emphatic yes, however, the issue is more complicated.

The critique of the secular within the anthropology of religion has upset the political assumptions about modern governance in so far as explanations that advocate a simple understanding of unmediated representative authority are no longer possible.  Secular modernity’s political is unproblematically described as being devoid of any transcendent, religious, or mythical basis.  Critiques of nationalism, rule of law, publicity, citizenship and war; all expose the constant permanence of something beyond pure immanent explanations.  However, this insight into what is called the post-secular, did not emerge in a vacuum.  Challenges to the secularization thesis became most palpable when postcolonial scholars demonstrated the persistence of religion in liberation movements outside of the west.  After 9/11, so-called Islamism occupies a privileged role in the west in exposing the limits of the secularization thesis.  As such, there is an uncomfortable relationship between the rise of so-called Islamism on the one hand and the rise of political theology in Western academic discourses on the other.  In that sense, so-called Islamist scholars have been arguing against the very possibility of a secular politics long before scholars within the west opened the question.  This does not mean that the so-called Islamist scholars are alone in theorizing the question of politics in this manner.  Many non-European scholars have put forward similar theses regarding the illusions of secular modernity.

Although, I am suspicious of the “Islamist” canon as constructed in western academia, the selections below outline the works that I think remain central to most of the current academic discourse.  They mark interesting points of departure for thinking about whether or not there is a similar theo-political problem in Islamic thought and if so, how does one analyze it.  Note: my selections are limited to titles available in English language.

1)    Muhammad Iqbal’s Asrar-I Khudi translation into English with Notes and Introduction by R. A. Nicholson (Lahore: Farhan Publishers, 1977)

  • On his own admission, Iqbal argues that his poetry more than his prose housed most of his sophisticated philosophical arguments on modernity and its discontents.  These poems outline a program of self upliftment for Muslims during the height of British colonialism.  Despite Pakistani nationalist revisionism on Iqbal’s legacy, Iqbal has enjoyed a prominent position among modern Muslim activist across the globe.

 2)   Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal; abridged by N. J. Dawood. Princeton, 1969

  • The writings of Ibn Khaldun have enjoyed a long tradition of Ottoman state commentary.  It is perhaps the longest lasting and most influential statement on the Philosophy of History and political theory within the Muslim tradition.  It was also influential on many European thinkers such as Giambattista Vico, long before the rise of German Historicism.

3)    Sayyid Qutb’s In the Shade of the Qur’an, translation by M.A. Salahi and A.A. Shamis (Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1999)

  • Qutb is perhaps one of the most misunderstood figures within Islamic political discourses today.  His exegesis of the Quran, which was largely written from jail, took over 15 years of his life.

4)   Sayyid Abul a‘la Maududi, Islamic Law and Constitution trans. Khurshid Ahmad, (Lahore: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1992)

  • Maududi’s works have been scantly translated into English.  This work outlines his most detailed analysis of law and the modern state available in English.

5)   Khomenei’s Islamic Government translated by Hamid Algar, (Tehran: 2005)

  • This book was a set of essays written in support of Iran’s Constitutional Theocracy.  It makes arguments in support of an Islamic government and its specific characteristics.  Iran’s central role in the Muslim world makes these essays important in understanding modern political thought today.

6)   Muhammad Asad’s Principles of State and Government in Islam (Berkeley, Univ. of Berkeley Press: 1961)

  • Asad spent a large portion of his life serving the newly formed Pakistani state.  In this book he puts forward his most concise treatment on the role of Islam in modern governance.

7)   Shariati’s On the Sociology of Islam translated by Hamid Algar (Mizan Press: 1979)

  • Shariati was an ideologue for the Iranian revolution.  He was able to bridge the gap between an emerging intellectual class and the classically trained ‘ulema of his day.

8)   Sherman Jackson’s Islam and Blackamerica (Oxford: 2005)

  • Jackson’s book is a serious attempt to work through the problem of Black suffering in America by using classic Islamic theology.  As such it is an excellent example of contemporary Islamic political theology.

9)   Malcolm X’s Autobiography

  • The Nation of Islam was a successful theo-political statement that impacted African Americans and the civil rights movement.  Malcolm X’s contested legacy is encapsulated in his brilliant autobiography.  As a theologian, Malcolm blended third world Marxism with Islamic theology to create a radical black politics of Islamic internationalism.

10)  Weal Hallaq’s The Impossible State (Columbia: 2013)

  • This book exposes the difficulties between reconciling the modern state and Islamic law.  It is the latest statement on the possibility of an Islamic state.  Hallaq engages Schmitt, Islamists and Islamic legal theorists in outlining the often-overlooked tensions between the project of creating an Islamic state and the structures of modern sovereignty.

3 thoughts on “100 Years of Political Theology: An Islamic Perspective (by M. Owais Khan)

  1. Dear Matthew,

    Prof. Naquib al-Attas is a philosopher and spent most of his academic career thinking about, science and epistemology in the modern world. What he is most famous for is his often misunderstood notion of the Islamicization of Knowledge. This idea had a profound impact on many Muslim intellectuals from around the world. The International Islamic University of Malaysia appointed him director of the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (http://www.iium.edu.my/istac/about-us/historical-background). He was intimately involved in the institute’s design and research agenda. During his tenure many Muslim intellectuals moved to IIUM in order to work with him. Due to unfortunate academic politics, Prof. al-Attas was marginalized and distanced himself from the institute. Around that time, many of IIUM’s international faculty left as well. At present, the idea of the Islamcization of Knowledge has been reduced to a caricature as a flat epistemological program of merely slapping the word “Islamic” in front of any discipline (such as the very controversial notion of Islamic Science). However, a closer reading of al-Attas shows that he was proposing something much more substantial. For instance, if one pays attention to his analysis of the secular and his focus on the potentialities of adab within the process of learning, then I think one can appreciate a broader picture of what he was trying to achieve. It is important to keep in mind that he was talking about the secular and bodily habitus long before these things became popular. I am not sure how enduring his ideas will be in the future, however, they surely had a profound impact on Muslim intellectuals in the 20th century.


    1. Thank you very much! My copies of “The Concept of Education in Islam” and “Prologomena to the Metaphysics of Islam” are filled with underlinings and notes. And given how critical he is of just slapping “Islamic” in front of everything, it’s odd (and a little sad) that that’s been the result of his work.

      1. Well, its a bit confusing because there was ambiguity around what “Islamicization” meant. It meant different things to different people. At the same time al-Attas was formulating his ideas, there was also a very influential academic by the name of Ismail Faruqi who was also talking in terms of Islamicization. Faruqi was less sophisticated as a philosopher. His ideas moved in a more reductive, political direction. Although, I am not hundred percent clear on the exact history, I believe his more popularized version caught on in policy of education circles.

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