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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

Maududi’s Theopolitics, the Frankfurt School, and the Critique of British Colonialism

“Indeed, if instead of an Islamic constitution, … the British Civil and Criminal Procedure Codes had to be enforced, what was the sense in all this struggle for a Muslim homeland!” 

Maududi, The Islamic Law and Constitution (1955, 43).

Political Islam seeks a place for Islam in the political sphere. How can Islam, a premodern tradition, seek to become a voice in the modern public sphere? Closely studying the recurring vocabulary of Islam in the works of scholars like Abu Aʿla Maududi (1903-79) in (British India and later) Pakistan, and Iran’s Ali Shariati (1933-1977) underscores the question. Myself and Thomas Greene focus on Maududi and Shariati respectively. Our comparison recalibrates the field of Islamic political ethics and theology; we show how Muslim scholarship in South Asia and Iran critiqued imperialism and the postcolonial befuddlement of Muslims in forming their own laws.

Abu Aʿla Maududi (1903-79) was born under the British Raj (rule) in Awrangabad, India and later migrated to Lahore, Pakistan. A scholar of Arabic and religious sciences, he founded the Jamaʿat-e- Islami in India in 1941. Despite being anti-British, he criticized the All-India Muslim League’s demand for a Muslim state, calling foremost for the reform of Muslim community. As we unpack the deployment of Islam in the works of Maududi, we find him opposed to the Muslim community’s enchantment with the political order introduced by British colonialists. Maududi strikes a strange concordance with Frankfurt School critical theorists who, separated by space and time, eyed the rise of western modernity with similar disquiet. I find the comparison valuable; Maududi ensconced in a colonial order strikes a chord with critical theorists ensconced in “free” democracies.

Reflecting upon Maududi is also pertinent when voices like Shady Hamid deploy the idea of Islamic exceptionalism, i.e., Islam is unique in its incompatibility with democracy. The argument for Islamic exceptionalism is accentuated by  the “democratic dilemma” where western democracies desire the triumph of democracy inside Muslim states but are hesitant in accepting a ‘bad outcome,’ for example, when an Islamist party wins an election. But Islamism is not as exceptional as imagined. In fact, comparative projects demonstrate that vastly different societies can arrive at similar conclusions even if the vocabulary they employ and the routes they take differ. Thinkers in “modern” and “free” societies, like the Frankfurt school critical theorists might correspond to comparable ideas inside postcolonial Muslim societies.

 Christopher Tounsel, while comparing Sudan and India in his latest article for The Brink laments the diabolical ways the British divided the colonized. Maududi too observed a political milieu divided between the secular and anti-British Indian National Congress on the one hand, and the more communal but westernized All India Muslim League on the other. Maududi was disenchanted by the oscillating Muslim activism between the Congress, the League, and the British Raj. Subsequently, he criticized the political game of the British inside India and the uncritical acceptance of the modern democratic order by the Muslim community.  For thinkers like Maududi, democratic activism inside the colony animated a phantasmagoria. Critical theorists like Walter Benjamin compare the ‘modern’ with a phantasmagoria. The phantasmagoria was an eighteenth century illusionistic optical device that projected shadows of moving figures on a wall offering a verisimilitude to reality.  Benjamin opined that the modern capitalist world created an illusion of rational choice, only to appeal to emotions. The illusory quality debilitated rational decision making (Jennings 2006, 13-14). For Marcuse modern societies were deceptive owing to “the rational character of (their) irrationality.”  ‘Modern’ people defined themselves through the commodities they possessed, to such an extent that “they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” Gradually, their ability to oppose oppression “whittled down,” People then lost “the only counterbalance to the material forces that silence and reconcile the opposition” (Marcuse, 1964, 9). Material comforts became facts of life and the system efficiently reproduced “more and bigger facts of the same sort of life.” The repeated efficiency of the system blurred individual reason to notice that each such fact “communicate(d) the repressive power of the whole.” (Marcuse 1964, 10)

Maududi too decried the eventual collapse of the qualities that nurture the soul of an individual: “the noble qualities of courage, sacrifice, generosity, patience and resolution, (which) have been yoked to the service of vicious ends” (Maududi 1974, 6). In an environment where Muslims of India were uncritically accepting of the British phantasmagoria, Maududi pushed and asked pointed questions interrogating the British order. In the seemingly rational democracy, Maududi detected irrational aspects built-in to the apparently free structure of democracy.  The ʿulema (religious clergy) allied with the Indian National Congress (INC), and the more westernized and well-to-do leaders of the Muslim League (ML), were all players in a triangular politics[i] unleashed by their colonizers. On the one hand, the ʿulema sided with the Indian National Congress’s anti-British movement. Regardless of the number games involved, they naively believed in pluralism and supposed inclusiveness of democracy. On the other hand was the Muslim League: dissatisfied with the idea of numerical majority, the League argued that granting importance to a mere numerical majority would easily ignore the weightage of their community’s potential contribution. But this ruling order was irrational. A close inspection reveals a third node of the triangular politics i.e., the British themselves. They conveniently employed slogans of self-rule and electoral constituencies to engage, manage and divide the two flanks (the INC and ML). Using electoral and demographic tools, colonizers successfully frustrated their colonial subalterns by playing the Congress against the League. Ironically, the exciting prospect of democratic activism prevailed under the complete domination of the British Raj. Maududi was perhaps one of the few who interrogated ideas of modernity, democracy, and freedom that British imported into a slave nation. Both the ʿulema siding with Indian National Congress and the Muslim League leaders, unquestioningly played roles assigned to them in a game whose rules were set by the Raj.  The stage was set, and the rules were scripted by a force that was neither democratic nor a free choice for the people of the subcontinent.

Critiquing Western democracy, Maududi observed that often a pure secular rationalization rested not on principles of right and wrong, but on interests and preferences. Consequently, individuals were “cogs in a lifeless machine of a social organization” (Maududi 1974, 21). Colonized Muslims suffered from two kinds of hunger: one for political prestige and the other for economic prosperity. They had little interest in moral reform (Maududi 1940, 13-14). Likewise, Habermas (1984, 1987) repeatedly pointed at how the ‘system’ (economy, bureaucracy, government) penetrated the lifeworld of individuals dominating their meaning making functions. He highlighted that a “complementary error” of modernity is the illusion that a de-centered way of thinking– one that presumes a distinction between objective reality and social norms– leads to a completely rational form of life (Habermas, 1984, 73).  The reality, however, was that all civilized societies required legitimation. Democracies compensated for the collapse of reason through “processes of consensus formation” (Habermas 1987, 272). Failure to do so led to dissonance.

Whereas Frankfurt school theorists evaded discussions of  a pre-existing standard that could check the ills of rootless rationality, Maududi did have recourse to an external moral code. For Maududi, Islamic ethics and theology was the code that could check both the irrationality and the tyranny of the system. Liberation and the acquisition of a separate Muslim state would be futile without reforming the way Muslims approached theology, religious law, and Islamic history (Maududi, 1940, 49). Concerning theology, Maududi’s arguments starkly contrasted with the ‘ulema’ because the latter emphasized the centrality of God and the doctrine of free will and human choice (Nasr 2001, 59). Maududi was critical of the fact that traditional theology was focused on individual salvation, which he viewed as “narcissistic anthropomorphism” (Nasr 2001, 57).  Instead, he argued that theology must help Muslims actively build their relationship with God. Believers should not passively receive Islamic theology. Maududi instead took an activist approach towards theology. He opined that individual Muslims must seek “an active submission to God” to enact the spirit of God’s oneness (tawhid)in their entire ‘life system.’ A new Muslim polity required a new kind of Muslim. The theological anchor for the new Muslim was the idea of iqamat-e-din.  The closest translation of iqamat-e-din would be the (practical) ‘establishment of faith.’ A redefined (new) Muslim would actively institute and discipline individual and social responsibilities. Iqamat-e-din was both a private and public endeavor grounding action in Islamic principles (Maududi 1986[1968], 166).

Concerning creation of an Islamic state, he argued for a Theo-democracy. But he was cautious to distinguish the new term from the experience of theocracy inside Europe. A Theo-democracy would be ruled “by the whole community of Muslims,” such that, “every Muslim who is capable of and qualified to give a sound opinion on matters of Islamic law, is entitled to interpret the law of God.” Theo-democracy did not shy away from privileged human reason (Maududi 1960, 22-23).  He later criticized the constitutional direction of the state of Pakistan. Maududi was keen on the decolonization of laws and court procedures inside Pakistan. The British had kept procedural law obscure and slow, as its loopholes in the colonial legal system gave enough flexibility for the British to control and manage the semi-feudal and semi-capitalist economic structures erected by them inside the subcontinent. Instead, Muslims should propose new laws that connected their legislative acumen with Muslim legal debates. However, Maududi was careful to note that not all those opinions and debates could be categorized as law. Appropriating Muslim ethical and juridical vocabulary, he reminded his readers of the principles of ijmaʿ (consensus)wherein Muslim legal scholars considered an opinion as law only if most scholars accepted the validity of the opinion. According to Maududi, the function of ijmaʿ should be transferred to democratically elected candidates.’ Their consensus alone would turn a legal opinion into law. However, Pakistan as a state could not be free as long as its legal system was continuous with the British colonial legal codes. Consequently, Pakistan’s legal philosophy had to be decolonized.  Unless laws were codified to reflect the moral consensus of the polity, their legal import would soon evaporate (Maududi 1997[1969], 103-109).

Maududi’s thought was not free of failings. In his later life, he led the anti-Ahmadiyya campaign, declaring them as non-muslims despite Ahmadiyya protestations. But as a critical scholar with impact, Maududi like Shariʿati called for the dismantlement of the repressive imperial structures before accepting modernity. Unbeknownst to Frankfurt school critical theorists, Maududi arrived at similar conclusions despite being a colonial subject. If Marcuse and Habermas, citizens of a free society, could see through the project of freedom and rationality, and express disquiet like a colonized subject such as Maududi, what does that speak of freedom itself? Questions like these will continue to grapple comparative religious ethics and political theology. But they dismantle the notion of Islamic exceptionalism. Secular free western citizens and wary postcolonial Muslims realize the same problems, want the same outcomes, but with a different set of vocabulary. Strikingly, placing God at the center of freedom or removing Him from the project of freedom does little to reduce the anxieties associated with freedom.  

Annotated Bibliography:

Maududi, Syed Abul Aala, Musalmān awr mawjūda siyāsī kashmakash, Vols. i to iii, (Pathankot, 1937-39).

A collection of Maududi’s lectures delivered before the partition of the Indian subcontinent. The lectures offer an excellent window into the communal politics of colonial India.

___________________________, Ethical Viewpoint of Islam (Islamic Publications Limited: 1974 (1944).

The study is useful for understanding Maududi’s critique of western modernity and the ethical foundations of a Muslim society.

____________________, Political Theory of Islam (Islamic Publications Limited : 1980 (1960))

A book vital for grasping the key concepts of Maududi’s political theology including the concept of Hakmiyyat-i-Aʿla, i.e., the Sovereignty of God and Theo-democracy.

____________________, The Islamic Law and Constitution (Islamic Publications Limited : 1997(1969))

Maududi lays out the practical problems of continuing with the British legal codes and discusses in-depth the significance of Islamic law for a Muslim state.

____________________, Islami Nizam-e-Zindagi Aur Us Kay Bunyadi Usul (Islamic Publications Ltd: Lahore: 1986 [1968].)

Excellent exposition of Maududi’s concept of ‘din’ (religion).

[i] My insights here are informed by Khalid Bin Sayeed Pakistan: The Formative Phase 1857-1948 (Oxford University Press :2000) who goes back and forth to picture this triangular politics.

Maududi’s Theopolitics, the Frankfurt School, and the Critique of British Colonialism

“But Since I Am an Iranian:” Ali Shari’ati and Experience as a Means to Liberation

“In his struggle against European and American imperialism, and even the post-colonial Pahlavi regime, he believed that the way to liberate oneself and one’s society is to turn inward towards the collective experiences that build a moral heritage of a culture.”

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