The Challenge of Political Islam: Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State

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The rise of political Islam has provoked considerable debate about the compatibility of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism with the Islamist position. As The Challenge of Political Islam reveals, Egyptian Islamists today are more integrated into the political arena than ever, and are voicing a broad spectrum of positions, including a vision of Islamic citizenship more inclusive of non-Muslims.

Based on Islamist writings, political tracts, and interviews with Islamists—including members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and other important contemporary thinkers—this book looks closely at how modern, politically-oriented Egyptian Islamists perceive non-Muslims in an Islamic state and how non-Muslims respond. Clarifying the movement's aims, this work uncovers how Islamists have responded to the pressures of modernity, the degree to which the movement has been influenced by both a historical Islamic framework and Western modes of political thinking, and the necessity to reconsider the notion that secularism is a precondition for toleration.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Scott presents her timely subject with the nuance and complexity that it deserves . . . [S]tudents of Christian-Muslim relations and of the intersection between religion and politics in the Middle East will find Scott's research to be a rich mine of data and analysis. The book will be of considerable interest to those who wish to learn about the political situation of Middle Eastern Christian, especially the Copts in Egypt."—Dustin W. Ellington, Missiology

"Drawing on her extraordinary access to both Coptic and Muslim Brotherhood intellectuals, Rachel Scott provides a lucid and important study that transcends the posturing and the polemics. A must-read for anyone interested in Christian-Muslim relations in general and the issues being negotiated in Egypt in particular."—Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Georgetown University

"The Challenge of Political Islam stands alone. It addresses a very sensitive topic with great subtlety and detail, revealing the many faultlines in the complicated and evolving debate over non-Muslims, dhimma, and citizenship." —Andrew March, Yale University

"Scott gauges seismic changes within Middle Eastern society from the bottom up. This exemplary work demonstrates how far some Islamists, namely the moderate middle, have departed from their contemporaries, and links crucial debates framed mainly in Arabic discourse to broader debates concerning citizenship, national identity, and public consensus in 21st-century Egypt."—Bruce Lawrence, Duke University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804769068
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/17/2010
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel Scott is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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Read an Excerpt

The Challenge of Political Islam

By Rachel M. Scott

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6906-8

Chapter One


ONE OF THE PRINCIPAL FEATURES of the Islamist movement is the insistence upon the application of shari'a as the foundation of a proposed Islamic state. Islamist slogans have included "Islam is the solution," "the Qur'an is our constitution," and "Islam is a system." Such statements imply that there is some kind of certainty about what constitutes Islam and what constitutes an "Islamic state." It is often assumed that Islamists are seeking to reinstall a type of religious state-in which religion and state are unified-that existed at some idealized point in Islamic history. Implicit in this view is the assumption that Islam has a specific theory on politics and the state, which the Islamic revivalists are attempting to implement anew. The reality is, in fact, far more complex. Shari'a is not a codified body of law that can simply be applied. Islamic political theory-which was more diffuse and varied than the term itself allows for-often responded to the status quo and legitimized that status quo. In addition, both the interpretation and the practical application of shari'a were subject to change over time. They also varied from one geographical entity to another. An analysis of Islamic history illustrates the divergent interpretations of the law and the flexible and selective ways in which it was applied. The way in which it was interpreted-or selectively ignored-was contingent upon local political, cultural, and social conditions and the pragmatic needs and choices of rulers and elites.

The challenge for contemporary Islamic thinkers therefore lies in differentiating shari'a, or Islamic principles, from the various historical contexts in which shari'a was applied. Regarding the role of non-Muslims, contemporary Islamists face the challenge of identifying what the role and status of non-Muslims in different historical contexts was, and the extent to which that role was-from their perspective-a true reflection of their perception of an essential and immutable Islam. These questions have been addressed by only some Islamists, the majority of whom tend to refer to an immutable transhistorical shari'a. However, an analysis of the Islamist position on the proposed role of non-Muslims within an idealized future Islamic state cannot proceed without a consideration of these issues.


Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, argued that "Islam is a complete system which deals with all areas of life. It is a state, a nation, a government, and a community." Al-Banna assumed that the concept of Islam as a system was embodied in the past, though he was not clear as to the specific historical period that this ideal Islamic state related to.

The discourse of an "Islamic state" or Islam as "religion and state" is a modern ideological construction and is not supported by either a historical analysis or an analysis of Islamic political theory. Indeed, the whole concept of "religion" and "state" reflects deeply secular assumptions about the concept of religion. The concept of "state" is also ahistorical. While the idea of a fixed corpus of Islamic political thought is problematic, "Islamic political thought mostly concentrates on non-state unit analysis such as the community (umma or jama'a), justice ('adl or shari'a), and leadership (khilafa, imama, and sultan)." It also tends retroactively to justify the status quo.

Contrary to the Islamist notion that Islam is a system, the legislative details of which are clearly laid out in the Qur'an and the Sunna (sayings and actions of the Prophet recorded in the Hadith), the Qur'an provided only general guidelines for legislation. Qur'anic legislation is predominantly ethical. Legal verses tend to be very detailed on some subjects, such as inheritance, and sparse on others, such as decision-making processes. The Sunna are more legalistic but tend to respond to specific incidents and do not lay down general guidelines. In the case of guidelines for the rights and role of non-Muslims, verses in the Qur'an about non-Muslims are often unclear and inconsistent. The Sunna are relatively sparse concerning concrete stipulations for the treatment of Christians.

Historical analysis shows there was no single relationship pattern between religion and state. Indeed, that relationship is contested terrain, and modernists, secularists, and Islamist revivalists read and interpret history to support their own narrative. Many contemporary Islamists argue that religion and state were unified only under the small polity established by the Prophet that continued in the early decades of the Islamic caliphate. Muhammad reportedly had religious and political authority by virtue of his role as the Prophet of God and leader of the early Muslim community. However, Asma Afsaruddin argues that the idea that an Islamic state was fully conceived of during the prophetic period is ahistorical and that "there is no evidence at all in the early sources that the Companions invoked a supposedly divinely mandated blueprint for an 'Islamic Government' or an 'Islamic State.'" Rather, she says-in line with a modernist position-that "the shari'a is largely apolitical" and that in "the formative period ... there was no universal consensus regarding a religious mandate ... to elect or appoint a ruler for the polity."

Regardless of the competing claims that have been made about the relationship between religion and state-and these terms are used tentatively and heuristically-in the early formative period, by the middle of the ninth century religious groups had emerged independently and in opposition to the caliph. It is this relationship of distance between the religious groups and the caliph that came to characterize normative classical Sunni Islam. These religious groups were represented by the 'ulama' (religious scholars), who evolved into the recognized carriers of religious knowledge on account of their expertise in the Qur'an and the Hadith. Their religious authority was, in theory, limited to interpreting God's divine law. Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780-855) argued that religious obligations stemmed not from caliphal declarations but from the Qur'an and the Sunna as interpreted by the 'ulama.' The 'ulama', fearing proximity to power, were keen to remain at a distance from the caliph. In fact, the 'ulama' were reluctant to attach shari'a to the authority of a specific ruler and to codify the shari'a, as this would invalidate the shari'a as God-given law. This separation between the shari'a and the ruler was compounded by the fact that by the time the law had developed in its classical form-the early tenth century-"there was no unified state left in the Islamic world." In Egypt, the center of power of the 'ulama' was the mosque and university of al-Azhar, founded in 969 CE, from which the 'ulama', possessing much independence from the state, operated as leaders of the community.

According to the normative classical Sunni position, the caliph possessed neither God's power to make law nor the Prophet's function of proclaiming it. The caliph inherited only judicial and executive power. The role of the 'ulama' was a theoretical limitation on the caliph's power, since the caliph was subject to the law and the state was created to enforce the law. According to Ibn Khaldun, the North African historian and scholar of the fourteenth century (1332-1406), the caliph was head of the Islamic state, and he was representative of the umma (Muslim community), which was based on the shared acceptance of Islam. The caliph was obliged to protect Islam and create the circumstances under which shari'a could be implemented and followed. Other religious duties included waging holy war, administering public interest, and venerating learning and religious scholars, which included the appointment of the mufti, the religious scholar who issued legal judgments.

At the same time, however, the caliph was subject to the limitations of the law only in a general ethical sense. The scope of religious law, which was developed by incorporating elements of the law prevailing in the areas conquered by the Muslims, was limited. From early on, governments had appropriated the administration of criminal justice from the shari'a courts, and practice and custom increasingly influenced the law of contracts and obligations. Some have argued that a gulf evolved between the ideal doctrine of shari'a, which defined the state, and historical reality. This view holds that "practice almost always involved breaches with the doctrine; and that such breaches were due to the idealistic, impractical, and exacting nature of a doctrine that had not changed since the tenth century."

However, such a rigid disjuncture between law and practice is problematic, since in reality the law itself was not isolated; rather, both the interpretation and the application of the law changed over time. During the Umayyad period (661-750), Islamic law developed on an ad hoc basis and included much customary practice. As the ascendant Abbasid Empire (750-1258) encountered new situations, the elaboration of Islamic law accelerated. Claiming the Qur'an and Sunna as sources, Muslim jurists began to develop a body of law known as Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The jurist would undertake ijtihad, the process of employing intellectual reasoning to read the sources of shari'a in order to arrive at a legal judgment. In theory, there is a distinction between shari'a, the transcendental idea of law, and Islamic jurisprudence, the interpretation of that law by religious scholars. In practice, however, this distinction has often not been maintained and Islamic jurisprudence was conflated with shari'a so that Islamic jurisprudence itself acquired an unquestionable status. Some have claimed that the door to ijtihad closed in the eleventh century. Certainly the books of the early jurists of Islam were granted "a special and indisputable status." Both Islamists and Muslim modernists have claimed that Islamic jurisprudence became ossified in some way, although historically the idea that the door to ijtihad closed is questionable.

Most of what emerged in Islamic political thought, at least within the Sunni tradition, reflected historical reality. Thus Islamic jurisprudence sanctioned the status quo, and as a result there was no need for Islamic political thought to theorize on the dynamics of the state in the abstract. This was true in the case of non-Muslims. The classical legal position concerning non-Muslims evolved from the complex interaction between Qur'anic verses, prophetic models, and the political development of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires.

Even once the classical position had evolved, a number of factors combined to create considerable fluidity in how it was applied. First, relations were more harmonious in the early centuries of Islamic rule, at least as far as Jews and Christians were concerned. While there was a great deal of interaction between Muslims, Jews, and Christians early on, that receded and, as Albert Hourani points out, "as Islam changed from being the religion of a ruling elite to being the dominant faith of the urban population, it developed its own social institutions, within which Muslims could live without interacting with non-Muslims." This lack of interaction resulted in the further restriction of the rights of Jews and Christians. In the case of attitudes toward Zoroastrians and polytheists, however, an evolution toward greater leniency took place. Other factors that inhibit a firm definition of the classical normative position include regional differences and changes from ruler to ruler. While rulers were formally obliged to recognize the authority of the shari'a, there was considerable latitude. Some rulers were particularly harsh on the subject and others were particularly lenient. There were also differences of interpretation between legal schools.


Despite temporal and geographical variations, Islamic jurisprudence did evolve a general framework for determining the relationship between the Islamic state and non-Muslims, notwithstanding the fact that there was considerable variation in how it was interpreted and applied. The framework was based on the concept of the dhimma, a contract of protection, and was used to designate a sort of indefinitely renewed contract through which the Muslim community accorded hospitality and protection to Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians (known collectively as People of the Book), and in some cases other non-Muslims, on condition that they paid the jizya (a poll tax) and acknowledged the domination of Islam.

The contract of the dhimma was linked to jihad theory, which emphasized that the Islamic Empire's ruling authority would wage jihad against non- Muslim territories. According to Ibn Khaldun, this idea arose from the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. However, extending the Islamic territories did not mean the annihilation of all non-Muslims. All jurists agreed that for non-Arab People of the Book, jihad would cease as soon as they converted to Islam, or submitted and paid the jizya.

The Qur'anic basis for the dhimma is not extensive. There are only two references to the word dhimma (Qur'an 9:8 and 9:10), in which the polytheists are accused of violating their covenant with Muhammad. It is in the same chapter that the main Qur'anic precedent for the dhimma appears:

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth from among the People of the Book until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission and feel themselves subdued (Qur'an 9:29).

The dhimma was also based on Muhammad's dealings with non-Muslims, the most important of them being the so-called Constitution of Medina. While some revisionist historians doubt its authenticity, according to traditional knowledge a document preserved in the biography of the Prophet that later came to be known as the Constitution of Medina reflects the political compromise that was made with Jewish tribes, probably shortly after the hijra (call for flight) in 622. The constitution establishes the terms for an alliance between Muhammad, his religious community, and the eight tribes of Medina. In it the contracting parties agreed to recognize Muhammad as their leader.

The constitution was an agreement between Muhammad and the Jews, who, as monotheists, were distinguished from other nonbelievers at the time, the Arab polytheists. The constitution stated that "to the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided." The Jews are even described in the constitution as "one community with the believers" while allowing "the Jews [to] have their religion and the Muslims [to] have theirs," although elsewhere the Muslims "are one community (umma) to the exclusion of all men." Ambiguity regarding the precise meaning of umma was natural at such a time of flux. Jews received the protection of the state and were allowed to follow their own religion and to own property. Jews were also able to fight with Muslims. Muhammad did employ non-Muslims in his fighting forces, although this practice was subsequently ended by 'Umar Ibn al-Khattab (caliph 634-644). While the terms of the document represented political compromise and a form of toleration toward non-Muslims, it also rendered Jews subordinate on some level, as illustrated by such statements as "a believer shall not slay a believer for the sake of an unbeliever, nor shall he aid an unbeliever against a believer" and "believers are friends one to the other to the exclusion of outsiders."


Excerpted from The Challenge of Political Islam by Rachel M. Scott Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Notes on Transliteration xiii

Introduction 1

1 Non-Muslims in Classical Islam 1

2 Continuity, Discontinuity, and the Rise of Islamism 34

3 Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State 64

4 The Dhimma 92

5 Toward Citizenship 122

6 Citizenship in an Islamic State 147

7 Coptic Responses 166

Conclusion 190

Notes 197

Bibliography 245

Index 267

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