The Middle East: The Politics of the Sacred and Secular

The Middle East: The Politics of the Sacred and Secular

by Shahrough Akhavi


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The Middle East: The Politics of the Sacred and Secular by Shahrough Akhavi

Amidst recent hype about events in the Middle East, there have been few attempts to get below the surface and develop a fuller understanding of what politics means there. The Middle East: The Politics of the Sacred and Secular redresses this balance and provides essential historical and theoretical context.

In this book, Shahrough Akhavi shows that the way people think about politics in the Middle East has developed in response to historical experience. Islam has obviously played a pivotal role and the book does much to disentangle myth and reality about Islamic responses to politics. Refreshingly, however, the book focuses on the universal concepts of the individual, civil society, the state, justice, authority and obligation and how these have been interpreted by Middle Eastern thinkers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Akhavi builds a dynamic picture of a politically exciting and engaged region. The fresh perspective this book brings to global political theory, and the background it gives students of politics in the Middle East make it an important addition to the World Political Theories series.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842778975
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 08/13/2009
Series: World Political Theories Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Shahrough Akhavi is Professor of Political Science at the University of South.

Read an Excerpt

The Middle East

The Politics of the Sacred and Secular

By Shahrough Akhavi

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Shahrough Akhavi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-551-2



This book, as part of the World Political Theories series, examines the intellectual debates in contemporary Middle Eastern political theories on such issues as the nature of society, the role of the individual, and the conceptualization of the state. At the same time, it is also my purpose to critique aspects of these theories, in the hope of contributing to the dialogue that their authors deserve in writing them in the first place. This book is not meant to be a sustained engagement with the secondary literature on Middle Eastern political theories.

There is a rich store of such literature, beginning in a sustained manner since the early 1960s. Perhaps among the first publications were Albert Hourani's magisterial Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962), Serif Mardin's seminal The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought (1962), and Malcolm Kerr's innovative Islamic Reform (1966). Some works have been in the nature of edited volumes, such as Kamal Karpat's Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East (1968, 1982) or Sylvia Haim's more narrowly based collection, Arab Nationalism: A Compendium (1962, 1976). Other works have focused on single societies, such as Anouar Abdel-Malek's Egypt: Military Society (1968). Yet other efforts have been in the tradition of single-authored works influenced by the literature on modernization and development, either in the form of various essays written at different times, such as Leonard Binder's The Ideological Revolution in the Middle East (1964), or a sustained argument presented in the form of a monograph, such as the same author's Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies (1988). Somewhat different from the latter was Hamid Enayat's Modern Islamic Political Thought (1982), and Issa J. Boullata's Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought (1990), both written more from the perspective of the history of ideas. Many works have more recently been published with a focus on Arab nationalism, political Islam (Islamism), and democratization and civil society, such as, respectively, Adeed Dawisha's Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (2005), Basam Tibi's The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New Disorder (2002), and Michaelle Browers, Democracy and Civil Society in Arab Political Thought: Transcultural Possibilities (2006) As a result of all these efforts, the overlap of Middle Eastern studies and social and political theory has become a fascinating and exciting area of research. I hope that the present work will make a small contribution to this steadily growing library of research.

The region is, of course, much too large and the period of time too extensive to do more than provide representative coverage. Entire monographs may be devoted to many of these topics or many of the thinkers that I have chosen to focus upon. I have also had to be selective. Thus, I do not discuss the role of women in contemporary political theory; nor do I assess writings on international relations. It is not that these matters are not important. Clearly, they are. But giving them proper consideration would have made an already lengthy manuscript even longer, and one has finally to make choices of inclusion and exclusion. This does not mean that these choices may not themselves be criticized, but that is another matter.

Reverting to my initial comment that this volume is part of a series entitled World Political Theories, two factors need to be discussed. First, one must conceptualize political theory itself. Second, one needs to identify and define a newly emerging field that scholars call comparative political theory, since this is the field that best can make sense of the subject matter suggested by the general rubric of the series.

What is political theory?

Theory is "a form of systematic knowledge systematically pursued." Political theory, then, is systematic knowledge about politics systematically pursued. Western political theory started with the ancient Greeks. But it has also had a long tradition in non-Western societies. The kinds of questions systematically posed and systematically addressed in the various cultures that have possessed a tradition of political theory have varied with their mutually diverse material and cultural experiences. But just as Socrates (470–399 BC), Plato (428–348 BC), and Aristotle (384–322 BC) are often invoked as pioneers of Western political theory, other civilizations also have had their founding fathers in this realm. Thus political theory in Egypt reverts to the Maxims of Ptahhotep (lived c. 2400 BC), in Mesopotamia to the Code of Hammurabi (d. c. 1750 BC), in China to the Analects of Confucius (d. 479 BC) and the Mencius of Mencius (d. 289 BC), in India to the Arthashastra of Kautilya (lived c. 300 BC), and in Islam to al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya of al-Mawardi (d. 1058 AD) and the Siyasatnama of Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092 AD).

Politics pertain to the dynamics of cooperation and contention among people seeking to promote their interests in public arenas. Thus, political theory is the study of what human beings think are the key issues of politics and of how people have tried to solve the questions germane to those issues. Political theory is not to be equated with ideology, nationalism, or policy. Instead, it consists of conceptualizations of such values as justice, authority, responsibility, obedience, and freedom and how these values are related to such purposes as well-being, the common good, happiness, and a virtuous life. Ideology, nationalism, and policy all bear on these values and purposes. They provide the context for a society's orientation to public life. Political theory, by contrast, is the study of how these three factors impact the expectations and the conduct of the people who advance such ideologies, nationalist sentiments, and policy preferences.

In his 1969 article, "Political Theory as a Vocation," Sheldon Wolin writes that political theory deals with "'wholes' made up of interrelated and interpenetrating provinces of human activity," and the task of the political theorist is "to locate 'divisions' in the human world and embody them in theoretical form. For example, what aspects of that division which [sic] we call 'religion' have a significant bearing on the activity called 'economic?'" In dealing with these "wholes," political theorists seek to provide explanations, evaluations, and, at times, prescriptions.

Comparative political theory

Middle Eastern political theories have long been influenced by theories about politics that they have encountered from outside the region. In the "era of recording" ('asr al-tadwin), as the period of scholarly activity in early Islam has been called, bodies of knowledge from Greek, Persian, and Hindu civilizations were transmitted to, translated and debated by Muslim scholars, who integrated important concepts from those discourses into their own understandings of Islamic theology and law. This trend may also be seen since the French Revolution.

The interactions between autochthonous Middle Eastern political theories and political theories from other regions bring us into the realm of comparative political theory, a fledgling sub-field of political theory that is closely associated with the pronounced trends of globalization in international relations identified especially in the decades of the 1990s and 2000s. In Dallmayr's words, comparative political theory refers to "inquiry which, in a sustained fashion, reflects upon the status and meaning of political life no longer in a restricted geographical setting but in the global arena." It suggests that theory is by its nature comparative, and so its practitioners advocate bridge-building between "comparative politics" and "political theory" as these traditional sub-fields of political science have been historically understood. As Dallmyr puts it, comparative political theory stresses "mutual interrogation, contestation, and engagement" across cultures. In that process, comparative political theorists acknowledge that scholars working within specific civilizational traditions may differ in the degree of emphasis they accord to particular concepts and theoretical frameworks. But they also maintain that the immanent critiques of those frameworks can show that alternative understandings of common concepts can shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of those same frameworks.

Middle Eastern political theories are neither regionally specific nor are they converging with Western political theories. Instead, the emphasis is upon how the modern and post-modern experiences of societies in the contemporary world impact upon the understandings Middle Easterners have about their own politics. Because those experiences have in great measure involved interactions with Western cultural traditions and Western imperialism, Middle Eastern political theorists have long been both deeply influenced and highly critical of Western political theories and political practices. At the same time, the historical heritage of Middle Eastern culture provides a storehouse of concepts and contingencies upon which Middle Easterners have drawn in the effort to construe the contemporary world.

Middle Eastern political theories

It is advisable to utilize the plural, "theories," since no monolithic body of knowledge exists that one can apply to politics of the entire region over different historical periods. This would be true even were one to discuss narrower periods since the French Revolution, World War II, or the period since the collapse of the Communist political systems in 1989–91.

Moreover, as already mentioned, these theories are not sui generis. Critical dimensions of a theory or theories include (i) the sorts of questions that they pose, (2) the analytical processes involved in trying to answer those questions, and (3) the responses generated by those processes. Considered in this light, many questions that seem relevant for Middle Eastern political theories are also relevant for the political theories of other world regions. To select just one, what forms of rule and representation of interests are best suited to achieve the maximum benefit for the people as a whole?

Furthermore, analytical approaches seem equally available to Middle Easterners as to non-Middle Easterners, whether these be hermeneutical (i.e. interpretative) or positivistic methods, whether one applies class analysis (focusing on the impact on politics of social stratification) or elite analysis (emphasizing the role of the circulation of power brokers on the political system). Finally, the answers given to particular questions, employing particular methods of analysis, can be as relevant to Middle Eastern political theories as to non-Middle Eastern political theories. After all, the answers to questions about the best form of rule and model of representation of interests could be secular republican, authoritarian, liberal pluralist, Marxist, corporatist, or some combination of several of these.

Returning to the question of what is particularly Middle Eastern about Middle Eastern political theories, the only logical reply is that these theories relate to such generic building blocks of political theory as justice, equality, freedom, reason, obligation, representation, and the like, as these are relevant for people living in the Middle East region. One can establish frameworks for an understanding of how these concepts "play out" for Middle Easterners from either a religious or a non-religious perspective.

But things are not so simple as that. For one thing, the very notion of a religious perspective is itself divisible into at least two dimensions: (i) a doctrinally religious perspective; (2) a culturally religious perspective. Moreover, secular orientations could be deistic, meaning that they could leave some scope for transcendental factors. On this argument, God created the universe but, having done so, did not thereafter interfere in its workings, including decisions made by people bearing on social, cultural, political or economic matters.

Additionally, it is difficult to separate religion from the secular. The first amendment of the American Constitution bars Congress from enacting laws regarding "an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," but it does not restrict Congress from passing laws that authorize public expenditures on parochial schools, whose purposes include transmitting values on behalf of the religion with which they are associated.

The sociology-of-knowledge approach

Whether through engagement with the outside world or with Middle Eastern thought and experiences, Middle Eastern political theories have emerged as a result of the actual realities through which Middle Easterners themselves have passed. In other words, those theories do not take shape in some "natural" way, full-blown from the head of Zeus. Consequently, the best approach for the understanding of Middle Eastern political theories is that of the sociology of knowledge, an orientation that stresses the social sources and social consequences of contemporary Middle Eastern political theories. It is also an approach that interests itself in turn with how knowledge, once produced, is utilized by individuals and groups to shape social processes, organizations and movements.

This approach emerged in the nineteenth century as a way of suggesting that the pursuit of objective truths will likely be fruitless, because all knowledge is socially generated. That being the case, purely scientific truth was unattainable. The approach originated mainly under the influence of Marxism, and particularly the concept that one's beliefs and actions need to be understood in terms of the actor's class position, or educational and social background, or political affiliations and interests. In the twentieth century, refinements to the arguments were made, particularly by those who felt that it was too simplistic to maintain that beliefs and actions based on those beliefs were essentially determined by monocausal variables such as class affiliation.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, political theorists such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Charles Taylor have refined such ideas by emphasizing that our moral preferences and judgments are a product of the interaction of ideas and material conditions that, as it were, we process through frames of language and cultural interpretation. Such thinkers often cast their thought within a critique of atomistic liberalism (or libertarianism). They do hold on to the assumptions of earlier sociology of knowledge writing that human actions are bounded by the roles that they occupy, that there is no telos driving human behavior, that history is the product of international and unintentional behavior of human beings located in concrete temporal and spatial circumstances, and that it does not unfold in some disembodied way, abstracted from the actual people who alone make it. These later writings, in short, refine certain earlier assumptions that seemed to be causally overdeterministic about the impact of background factors on behavior but continue to emphasize the social construction of knowledge and reality.

If we apply some sociology-of-knowledge assumptions to Middle East or Islamic history, therefore, it is difficult to conceive that Shi'ism could have emerged apart from the historical legacy and role of the South Arabian (as opposed to Central and Northern Arabian) tribes at the time of the rise of Islam. We know that for the former leadership ought to be vested in charismatic leaders. As these tribes embraced the new religion of Islam, they could not be unmindful of their own traditions. Accordingly, Shi'ism, which stresses the rule of imams who are direct descendents of the Prophet's family through his daughter Fatima, became a doctrine and set of practices that were particularly associated with these South Arabian tribes. As Weber might say, such tribes had an "elective affinity" for a form of rule that stresses the charisma of the leader of the household, whose authority would be passed to the next in the dynastic line. It took a century or so after the Prophet's death in 632 ad before the major principles of Shi'ism became crystallized, but the basics were in embryo already at the time of the succession crisis faced by the members of the Islamic community upon their Prophet's departure.

By contrast, the Central and Northern Arabian tribes lacked a monarchical tradition. For them, leaders were "first among equals," rather than privileged and entitled rulers. Instead of conceiving of leadership along dynastic lines, their historical experiences had taught them that leaders should be identified through consensus. In this way, the choice of leader would occur by taking into account the person best able to lead the community under the then prevailing circumstances.


Excerpted from The Middle East by Shahrough Akhavi. Copyright © 2009 Shahrough Akhavi. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Sacred and the Secular
3. History and Social Change
4. The Individual
5. Society
6. The State
7. Conclusions

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