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The Brink

Islam & Anarchism: Relationships & Resonances

Discourses around Muslims and Islām often lapse into a false dichotomy of Orientalist/Fundamentalist tropes. A popular reimagining of Islām is desperately needed and anarchist political philosophical traditions offer the most towards this pursuit. By constructing a decolonial and abolitionist, non-authoritarian and non-capitalist Islāmic anarchism, Islam and Anarchism philosophically and theologically challenges authoritarian and capitalist inequalities in the entwined imperial context of so-called post-colonial societies like Egypt, and settler-colonial societies (the U.S./Canada) that never underwent decolonization and are symbolically, historically, and materially interrelated.

You ask: How can Islām and anarchism bear any resonances? I assert: How do they not, when Islām bears within it anti-and non-authoritarian concepts that resonate with anarchism? How dare we speak of Islām and anarchism as singular formations and interpretations when Islām and anarchism are “dead” because neither are monoliths or unified belief systems?

Discourses around Muslims and Islām often lapse into a false dichotomy of Orientalist/Fundamentalist tropes. A popular reimagining of Islām is desperately needed, and anarchist political philosophical traditions offer resources toward this pursuit. Commencing from the historical marker of 1492 that ushered in Columbus’ invasion of the Americas, coinciding with Muslim and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish eviction by Crusaders from Andalusia, Spain in the same year, Islam and Anarchism: Relationships & Resonances addresses the casting of these former communities alongside Indigenous and transatlantic Black peoples (20-33% of whom were Muslims from the Iberian peninsula) as “savages” and “heathens.”

Islam and Anarchism argues that the “War on Terror” represents an ongoing crusade on Islām and Muslims, while casting doubt on the “secularity” of the U.S./Canada, given their undergirding in Protestant Ethics, anthropocentric conceptualizations of land and non-humxn life, and Doctrines of Manifest Destiny and Discovery. Islam and Anarchism asserts the inseparability of race from spirituality, politics from religion, and capitalism from all nation-states. The book simultaneously disrupts two commonly held beliefs – that Islām is necessarily authoritarian and capitalist; and that anarchism is necessarily anti-spiritual.

Deeply rooted in key Qurʾānic concepts and interdisciplinary textual sources, and drawing on radical Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) social movement discourses in an effort to connect the flames of the 2011 Tahrir Uprisings with those of Black Lives Matter (BLM)-No Dakota Pipeline (NoDapl)-Idle No More (INM), I propose “Anarcha-Islām.” By constructing a decolonial and abolitionist, non-authoritarian and non-capitalist Islāmic anarchism, Islam and Anarchism philosophically and theologically challenges authoritarian and capitalist inequalities in the entwined imperial context of so-called post-colonial societies like Egypt and settler-colonial societies like the U.S. and Canada that never underwent decolonization and are symbolically, historically, and materially interrelated.

Anarcha-Islām is then, in part, founded on the premise that in the wake of post-colonial independence movements, Muslims (and Arabs in particular) altered the meanings of their own language to correspond with European definitions, ontologies, and terminologies associated with “the nation” and capitalist-states. Amongst what is at stake in this text is the (pre)modern evolution of the concept of siyāsa (the Arabic term for “politics” or the “art of governance”), the modern Uses of Waṭaniyyah (nationalism/patriotism), and Qawmiyyah (pan-regionalism as in an Pan-Arabism or Pan-Africanism, and even Third Worldist-secular approaches exemplified within Bandung conferences that “preserve Western/Christian hegemony while depoliticizing [the notion of] religion”).      

Anarcha-Islām represents a heterogeneous and pluralistic series of traditions and discourses. Liberalism has stolen words and their meanings when Orientalists continue to claim that Islām means “submission” (the actual Arabic term for which is khuduʿ) as opposed to willed-choice based deliverance (from the root sa-la-ma). Similarly, this is what has happened to the meaning of anarchism — its synonymous mis-conceptualized association with “anarchy” or “chaos” (in Arabic, fawḍāwiya) when its correct translation is la sulṭāwiya (without authority).

Anarcha-Islām is an urgent reminder that there is no central authority within Islām. Moreover, the non-negotiable Qurʾānic monotheistic concept of Tawīd implicitly and explicitly means that the deification of any other besides God —be it through pledging allegiance to an authority figure or that of any (settler or post-colonial) nation-state, a flag, the worship of one’s tribal allegiances, or even the longing for prestige, wealth, and the worship of one’s family and children— is forbidden and referred to as širk (polytheism). How do not Islām and anarchism resemble one another, when other anti-authoritarian Islāmic concepts include the Qur’anic pluralistic ideas of Khulafā (caretakers), Shūrā (mutual consultation), Ijmāʿ (community consensus), and Maṣlaa (public welfare)?

Most Muslim and non-Muslim movements tend to neglect Islām’s former anti-authoritarian commitments. They forget how they must act as “building blocks” or binding principles for an egalitarian social justice and horizontalist framework of Muslim governance through the Qurʾānic concepts of Umma and Dawla that are often simultaneously mistranslated as “nation” and “Islāmic state.” Most Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and movements begin from the historically emergent albeit non-Qurʾānic framework of governance referred to as the “Caliphate,” which arose as a political reference after Prophet Muḥammad’s death. To most Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, the Caliphate is supposed to be led by the belief in a singular Khalīfa or “Caliph,” also often (mis)interpreted as “political successor,” despite the fact that the concept of “Caliphate” is not a fundamental part of Islām. Rather, both the terms “Caliph” and its associated framework of “Caliphate” are derived from the pluralistic Qurʾānic term Khulafā or Khulafāh as in Verses 2:30 and 6:165. The Qurʾān regards our collective species as Khulafā, a pluralistic term instead of a singular one, which can be translated as Caretakers or Viceregents who are locked in dynamic and temporary symbiotic relationships with the Creator and non-humxn life.

The book’s argument further distinguishes itself in terms of its re-reading of the concept of the Īmām (spiritual successor). After all, the same pre-modern and modern Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who argue for the need of a single human Īmām also argue that the “Umma is independent of the human ruler Imam.” Most scholarship on Muslim governance also always affirms that human leaders must “be subordinate, in one sense or another, to those supreme textual Imams,” the Qurʾān and aādīth (the Oral Tradition). Modern Muslims have internalized the misleading and unnecessary puritan goal of emulating the non-Qurʾānic, organic, pre-modern governance “Caliphate” model, which emerged after the Prophet’s departing, without reflecting on the revolutionary commitments that informed Muslim mannerisms during what is often referred to as the “Golden Era of Islām.” What led to the successive accumulation of tyranny and decadence, particularly following this fetishized golden era, is the collective Muslim abandonment of the revolutionary anti-authoritarian spirit and radical grassroots practice of direct horizontalist-democratic practices, namely mutual consultation (Shūrā), consensus (Ijmāʿ) and collective welfare (Maṣlaa) that informed the early nascent period.

In a similar vein, Muslims and non-Muslims alike often excessively repeat and promote the dehistoricized view that an “Islāmic state” existed in premodernity, and indeed conflate the medieval conceptualization of Dawla with its misinterpretation and mistranslation as “the State.” For example, Arab nationalists use Dawla as a post-colonial term to refer to each individual Arab and predominantly Muslim state, and Dawla has been deployed by movements such as ISIS in the form of al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya (the “Islāmic State”). The term represents a distortion of Dawla’s intended linguistic and material meaning as it emerged out of a violent and forceful desire by Arabs and Muslims to develop a discursive correspondence with European-liberal and patriarchal nation-state projects, globally, regionally, and locally, given the matter of fact that no Arabic term actually exists for the ”modern state.” During Islām’s early medieval period there were a multiplicity of Dawlas within one Dawla, loosely resembling a decentralized confederacy and Qurʾānically referred to as an Umma. Within pre-colonial Muslim usage, sovereignty lay with the Umma (a non-territorial concept denoting a community of Muslims and non-Muslims alike) and not the Dawla, because, as Tamim al-Barghouti writes, a “Dawla, by definition, cannot form an Umma seeing that the Umma, as an idea, is the purpose beyond the Dawla, not in defining matters of worship, but in defining matters of political identity and relation with the other.” Furthermore, al-Barghouti argues, the legitimacy of a Dawla in pre-modernity was not gauged “by the welfare the Dawla provides to its own inhabitants regardless of the Muslims or regardless of the ideal image of the Umma, rather it is measured by both, the welfare of its inhabitants as the welfare of other Muslims and the service of that ideal image.”

In formulating this argument, Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances draws on Islāmic political theological conceptualizations like those above in addition to queer-feminist, critical race, postcolonial, psychoanalytic and decolonial theories, as well as social movement histories, to construct an anarchistic interpretation of Islām and Islāmic interpretation of anarchism, which I refer to as “Anarcha-Islām” or “Islamatismo,” akin to the Zapatista movement of Chiapas’ coined political philosophy named “Zapatismo.”

The long-standing identity crisis that Muslims have been struggling with spawns from the fact that most Muslims do not fundamentally understand political concepts in Islām like Dawla or Caliphate or Umma. Nor do they comprehend the historical and material relationship between capitalism and the nation-state, and how they individually and co-jointly function in a neoliberal age wherein the former cannot be divorced from the latter; this implies that any progressive attempt at disrupting their fusion (e.g. through enshrining universal health care and minimum wages) is strategically limited, if not doomed to tactically fail. This misunderstanding led to and continues to drive progressive and even leftist movements globally, as well as innumerable neoliberal and neoconservative “Islāmists,” to attempt to seize the nation-state in order to, in the case of the former, enact revolutionary change or, in the case of the latter, establish a neo-Conservative Umma or alternatively become reactionary militants. Both neglect Audre Lorde’s teaching that “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house,“ that any nation-state—a paternalistic cis-heteropatriarchal and hierarchical colonial governing order—was never meant to be a tool for liberation.

Liberal and conservative, SWANA Muslim appeals to nation-state structures and discourses has led to the perversion of Islāmic conceptualizations of leadership, collectivism, and sovereign, decentralized, governance. This explains the reactionary Orientalist and Conservative  false choices that Muslims participate in due to the poverty of their imaginations and conflation of pre-modern and modern concepts and practices.

Part of the book’s argument centers how Muslims are globally struggling with a Duboisian identity crisis, which has led to the aforementioned reactionary responses. As noted, one of these responses is that we seek to become neo-fundamentalist terrorists re-enacting our colonially internalized traumas by adopting violence as a sole holistic strategy. This is exhibited in non-statist movements like al-Qaeda and proto-statist movements such as ISIS or Daesh. Both have embraced warped notions of the Umma (i.e., a global community of Muslims that historically and traditionally included non-Muslims). The other response is how diasporic SWANA settlers in the U.S. and Canada are content with liberal or progressive electoral approaches and strive to become good law-abiding citizens, in the process reifying and mimicking anti-Blackness, and participating in the U.S. and the Canadian states’ settler-colonization of Indigenous peoples at the expense of Afro-Indigenous futurities.

Furthermore, self-Orientialization by SWANA migrant Muslims does not only occur in the context of assimilation: it was visible in the initial 18 days of the 2011 Tahrir Uprisings. During Tahrir, innumerable segments of the Egyptian population were united under the false banner of nationalism and abstract chants of “bread (ʿyesh), freedom (uriyā), social justice (ʿdālaʿijtimāʿiya),” over which no consensual meaning existed; this camouflaged ethical-political, ethnic, gendered, spiritual, and factional differences between them. Secularists, leftists (e.g. the revolutionary socialists), feminists, liberals, Islāmists, Nasserites, atheists, middle to lower classes, and even queer folx neglected to interrogate how fascism is a mass psychology, which within itself demands that we combat our micro-fascisms and recognize the need for a greater internal jihād  (al-jihād al-akbar)against the monstrous authoritarian and materialist-individualist mini-Obamas, mini-Trumps, and mini-Mubaraks inside each of us. Continuing to defer to liberal Euro-American conceptualizations of “secularism,” “democracy,” “development,” and “human rights,” Egyptians were (and still are) arrogantly ambivalent about how true decolonization and revolutionary changes necessitate that we embrace and put into practice a land-based, anti-statist politics of responsibility — the opposite of what Charles Taylor, Frantz Fanon and Glen Coulthard call a statist “politics of recognition” or rights.

Egyptians dreamed small and were too naïve in assessing the local, regional and global geostrategic forces at play and that stood in their way; they thought they alone would show the world what a revolution is, without adopting a humble strategy that learns and builds on radical movements that preceded and excelled beyond them.

Anarcha-Islām demonstrates what should have rung true all along: that an abolitionist, decolonial, and socially just egalitarian Islām exists. It a beacon worthy of serious engagement given how it shines paths forward for how revolutionary BIPOC movements can see through genuine liberation for our species, non-humxn life, and all our relations.

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