Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Some Reflections on Pan-Islamism

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Friday, February 24th, 2006

Is it an intellectual anathema or a political panacea?
By Kafkazli Seyed Javad

There are many questions, which haunt Muslim intellectuals but they all could be boiled down to one single central question of ‘moral decline’ or ‘religious endarkenment’. The story of modernity has been narrated as the Golden Era for all those nations, who brought it about and who have contributed to sustain its ethos in a global sense. On the other hand the same story once one changes its point of location has been all but misery and disintegration and an endless chase after elusive ideals of al-Medina in the past or the reign of Messiah in the future. Of course to view the history of Islam is not as clear as many do claim in contemporary era. It depends on where one stands within the major schools of Islam. For some the glorious period within the history of Islam is demonstrated in the Medina of the Prophet and divinely illustrated by the practice of his four guided Caliphs. For others, the Golden Era did not stop there and then but it did continue up to the very day when Kemal Atatürk de-established the institution of Caliphate in 1924. In this school of thought what is of importance is not the moral aura or religious functionality or dys-functionality of the institution which is of central significance but the political power this institution did historically generate among Muslim nations from Spain to Ural Mountains in Russia, regardless of its real religious or decadent character of many historical caliphs up to the last one, namely Sultan Abdul Hamid. Within this school the Golden Era of Islamic Nations did start when the institution of Caliphate was destroyed formally and nationalism reigned instead among Muslims of many various ethnicities. There are still other schools within Islamic thought where the story of moral decline is not confined to the emergence of modernity or the post-Rashedun* era. On the contrary, the decline of Muslim Community did begin right after the demise of the Prophet in Medina and the Golden Era of Islam never rightly and completely took place. Within this school the Golden Era is a divine promise of a profound eschatological character, where the Muslim community and the whole world will witness the reign of divinely guided leadership and the nature of reality will be uplifted accordingly. There are still other schools within Islamic thought where the Golden Era is not of a material or political nature but a purely spiritual character and the Medina one thinks of is the individual realm of existence, where the various forces of good and evil, vice and virtue are in constant battle against each other. Once the equilibrium of mind-soul-spirit-body is reached then the city of Man (or his individual life) is turned from a decaying existence to a Madinat al-Nabi or a Prophetic Citadel, where all forces of existence are in balance and under the command of divine soul or symbolically prophet himself. For the Prophet Muhammad is to Muslim city what Soul is to human body, without divine soul in body the life of man will be nothing but a decadent state of affair as the City of Muslim community would be not but a decaying citadel. In other words, within this school the political affairs as one understands the term within Humanistic tradition and modern context are of no interest at all and the major efforts are of a Stoic character. The question of leadership and Muslim community and approaches to these issues are very complex and multifarious but could be reduced to three major schools:

1)The school of Caliphate
2)The school of Imamate
3)The school of Sufism

Within the school of Caliphate the political aspiration, if it attempts to be puritan and truthful to the pristine forms, is of necessity a ‘reactionary’ movement. But by this term I don’t intend to pass an ideological judgment and disfavor or favor its tenets over against other schools. What is meant by reactionary is simply the idea that the proponents of this school do attempt to be truthful to the ‘Pious Forebears’ in the Ancient Time and the nature of such outlook would surely be characterized by reaction especially against radical political or social change. In this school the element of ‘Piety’ is an adjective of past and best institutionalized by the ‘Four Rightly Guided Caliphs’. On the other hand, there is the school of Imamate or ‘Madrasatul Ahl al-Bayt’, where the element of piety is not confined to an era or the property of few at the mercy of powerful statesmen. On the contrary, what is at stake here is the idea of ‘Leadership’ or ‘Imamate’, which is not a new phenomenon within the sacred tradition and Islam included. As a matter of fact the Imamate is a divine element, which precedes and exceeds other functions of Prophethood which distinguishes the sacred history from secular historiography. In other words, a Saint might be elected as a Nabi or a Rasul, but all prophets were not Imam as was the Last Prophet in sacred tradition as narrated by Koran. Abraham, for instance, became Imam in the final years of his Prophethood. This is to say, the element of leadership is not a new invention of the School of Imamate and moreover it is not a result of political power game, which does characterize all human societies. In this school, the Imam is the center of being in its cosmological as well as social sense but the latter may not be recognized by all members of human society at a given time. The lack of social or political recognition would not minimize the religious or cosmological significance of the Imam as he is like a Sun, regardless of clouds or otherwise. Within the school of Imamate the Golden Era has not yet arrived and the Elixir of Life, which will be brought about when the reign of Imam comes to prevail, is not of a denominational character or for specific groups of Mankind. The Imam is everything God is in His Divine Image: a total dynamic of all current potentialities in an immeasurably elevated form both individually and collectively. In other words, if the decadence of modernity is due to the fact that it denies the imperative significance of ‘Revelation’ within the modern paradigm of existence, the decadence of Muslim Community is not due to the temporary incursion of West into its geographical territory, the reign of modernity within Islamdom, or not even the demise of Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. On the contrary, the reign of decadence has started from the very date when Muslims started de-linking between Prophethood and leadership and ascribing the former to a divine source and the latter to a matter of haphazard royal and dynastic arbitrary expedients. The school of Sufism is illustrated in its intellectual dimension with a total lack of recognition of the significance of impermanence in relation to permanent Reality. This dis-inclination to recognize the importance of Justice within the socio-political realm and its significance for the health of body of Umma has driven the proponents of this school to a strong and powerful spiritualization of all tenets of sacrality. In other words, the relation between Justice and Poverty is not of a material or social concern but deeply connected to the states of spiritual pilgrimage. Although there are many significant issues within this school nevertheless the lack of concern for the real body of Umma does reveal a very deep distortion that characterizes spirituality without the notion of ‘Divine Inspiration’ or ‘Imamate’. In this school the Golden Era is confined in its historical sense to the era of Prophets in the past and possible only within the individual self.

The politics of Islam has been in one way or another a result of constant battles between these various currents and sub-currents, which do result from borrowing from the followers of one school from the other and so on and so forth. Now, after this brief introduction to the history of the notion of leadership within the intellectual tradition of Islam it is of great importance to look at the idea of ‘Pan-Islamism’ in the light of modernity and Imperialism.

Historical Pan-Islamism

In the process of nation building, the construction of the national consciousness is related to a number of factors. Nationalism as a modern idea among Muslim Umma, which is relatively a young one among other nationalist movements, developed in close association with the attempts at modernization and, in due course, westernization of Ottoman Empire, Persian Empire and Mogul Empire in India. This tendency coincides with the decline of the Empire, and from another respect, it emerged as a response or solution as the decline and the ethnic problems entailing separatist movements became irreversible. Nationalism among Muslim Umma came out relatively late also because national identity had always been under the shadow of religious identity. Ottoman Empire, for instance, being the bearer of the title of the caliphate, was mainly an Islamic state, and the unifying element had been Islam for centuries. However, the idea of unification around the common base of Islam and development of pan-Islamism became a feature of the foreign affairs during the reign of Abdülhamit II and gained impetus after the Balkan Wars.

The notion of caliphate was for Ottoman Empire not only a necessity of interior politics, but also a means of power in foreign politics. Thus, it can be said that politics of Islam was a question of interior and foreign politics. Since the seventeenth century, there was a considerable decline in the ability of the Sultans to exercise their authority over large areas of their realm. This decline could not be measured only in terms of loss of power. Levy argued that “The weakening of central authority over the provinces, the gradual breakdown of effective administration, and the continued deterioration of public security were among the salient features of general Ottoman decline”. (1979. p 325) Recourse to a theory of nationalism is necessary, or even useful in explaining why various provinces in the Ottoman Empire broke away in the early nineteenth century. However, it must be kept in mind that nationalist movements were in close relation with the decline in the central authority. The Sultans, as their power declined, sought to strengthen their claim to absolute authority by increasingly stressing their religious role as caliphs, or the divinely inspired leaders of Islam. According to Becker, pan-Islamism had an international claim, and the idea of political solidarity of all believers was in the old times a slogan of war, under which Islam conquered the world. He added that this aggressive character of pan-Islamism vanished, and when Turkey in her foreign policy pursued pan-Islamist politics, she did this only for self-defence. For Becker, Turkey was not able to confront the military threat from England and Russia, and the financial threat from France in equal terms of strength, thus she had to use her spiritual means of power. (1915. p 104)

Pan-Islamism as an Intellectual Idea

What does it really mean? The term vaguely refers to an intellectual position where the central emphasis is on what unites the Islamic Thought as a frame of intellectual reference. It is conceded that there are many intellectual issues, which are of great dis-similarity among Muslim intellectuals and these differences have caused grand many schisms among Muslims at large but there are still many aspects, which could give rise to unity among the Nation at large. This is the central argument within this movement and could, to employ a modern terminology from American Philosophical Tradition, be termed as ‘Philosophical Pragmatism’. The cardinal tenet of this tradition in its philosophical sense is not solely of transcendental character and its proponents do not view philosophical system as metaphysical framework sui generis. On the contrary, the value of any idea within the various philosophical schools of Islam and theological systems of different denominations of Islamic religion relates ultimately to its practical effects. By practical effects, the proponents of Pan-Islamism do intend a very peculiar meaning, which comparatively could be resembled with the idea of ‘Practice’ as was endorsed by C. S. Peirce in Philosophical Pragmatist Tradition. In Peirce’s view, the efficiency of any idea could be decided by its capacity to cope with new occasions. The same does apply to the idea of ‘practical efficiency’ within Pan-islamist discourse.

The Pan-Islamism as an intellectual movement brought a new dimension to the political thinking of Islam by distinguishing between theological and political dimensions. To some this distinction was equivalent to secularization of Islamic philosophy in the realm of politics and social ethics by denying the significance of theological disputes in practical sense. The notion of ‘practice’ was not anymore related to what within Islamic Ethical Philosophy was termed as ‘Amal but deeply indebted to the German Geist-Tradition of Praxis. Pan-Islamism borrowed the idea of Praxis from German Romanticism and attempted to alter substantial tenets of theological Islam in the light of political realities of colonial Islam. Within Pan-Islamism under the influence of German Romanticism, Praxis came to replace the idea of ‘Amal by denoting a purposive political action to alter the material and social world, including Man himself. By the material and social world, the major discourses within Pan-Islamism intended either the colonial reality, which dominated Muslim Lands or corrosive nationalistic movements, that prevailed in all three major Muslims Empires of late 19th century. As a central general concept within Pan-Islamism, Praxis drew attention to the colonially constructed modes of economic and political malfunctioning and the possibility of changing these – Umma’s capacity for emancipation, which cannot be achieved entirely by separate nationalistic states at war against each other in the Grand Game designed by Imperial Powers.

Pan-Islamism as a Political Solution

The political message of Pan-Islamism is based on the idea of ‘Unity’ or the ‘Unification of Muslim Nations’ under one political umbrella, namely Islam. The call to this unity is not as many modern critics argue, i.e. an inherent theological endorsement of Unity among Muslims of various schools and denominations. The reality of politics of Islam is far from this state of affair and it is hard to imagine for the foreseeable time this ideal could be achieved or such a mode could be able to realize among Muslims at a theological level. On other hand, the nature of Pan-Islamist call for unity is of a political nature, which is only fathomable as long as the external reality to Political Islam is of imperial character. In this sense, Pan-Islamism is not an anathema but a political panacea and the early modern, modern and late modern geo-political reality of international politics is one of imperialism and colonialism towards Muslim Umma in its all aspects. Within this frame of reference, then one should re-appropriate the idea of Pan-Islamism and be reminded that the Nation of Islam or Muslim Umma does not have any option whatsoever except to opt for a political union and actively work towards the marginalization of concepts and institutions of Nationalism, Nationality and Nation-State and forge alliances of para-national character between contemporary Muslim states. But the main political question does remain as ever unanswered and that is how such a political move is possible within the frame of imperial governmentality of a Global nature?

Before addressing the external hurdles in achieving unity among Muslim Umma, it is of great significance to realize and reflect over the internal obstacles, which prevail among Muslims and belittle any coherent attempt towards Pan-Islamism.
The first thing, which should be realized and recognized is the fact that Pan-Islamism is not a theological panacea for the denominational divisions among Muslims or a philosophical meta-theoretical umbrella in overcoming the metaphysical disputes among various schools of thought within Islam. This is not what Pan-Islamism is all about and it cannot bring such a unity and it is rather undesirable to opt for an integralism in the realm of philosophy or theology. What is actually Pan-Islamism about is the idea of Political Unity, which is of great socio-economic benefits for all the inhabitants of Muslim Lands, whether Muslims or otherwise. In this account Pan-Islamism is a political umbrella by which to unify Muslim Umma, which includes in her body non-Muslims too, over against imperial forces. It is not unique to argue that what gives to imperialism its domineering force is the internal coherency and external application of force in all aspects and on all domains of Imperialistic System. This coherence is not a result of political division but a fruit of union and alliance beyond language, geography, nationality and whatever divides Muslims among themselves and considered sadly as progressive ideas by many modern Muslims or non-Muslims alike in Muslim Land. There are certain projects, which are of cardinal importance for Muslim intellectuals to work on and spread among the common people. One is the idea of ‘Imagined Community’ and the symbolic significance of this idea once it has been operationalized among common people. This project should target the imaginal dimension of people and replace the modern images of nationality, nation, and territorial identities. The psychology of Muslim man within modern political context is one of corrosive nationalism based on ‘blood’, ‘soil’, and ‘language’ and falls short of ideals of Pan-Islamism.
The intellectual project of re-imagining the symbolic universe of contemporary de-colonized (but still under imperial rule) Muslim politics based on Pan-Islamism is to address the institutions of ‘Territory’ and ‘State’ within contemporary secular thought in Islam. There must be reasons for drawing lines between things in the phenomenal world. I used the term ‘reason’ in its dual sense, namely in the sense that there must be a logic behind the act and at the same in the sense that there must be a motive behind the act. The faculty of reason by its very nature is dividing between and categorizing the items within the phenomenal world. In other words, as mentioned earlier, the reason in its very nature is logical and following a mathematical pattern of soundness and proportion. Now having said that it would be useful to study the state of Muslim political affairs and analyze if the logic behind their contemporary disunity is of an internal character or of an external source. Because if it proves that the logic behind this contemporary disunity is of an external nature and does not, in fact, follow any internal logic and moreover it is incompatible with the Muslim social life in its pragmatic sense and as a matter of fact detrimental to its organic coherence, then the reasons should be reconsidered. In other words, if one finds out that the basic argument of Pan-Islamism that claimed to be the unity of political Islam for the pragmatic reasons are sound enough, then it would not prove very hard to discover the unreasonable nature of nation-state system for the organic survival of Umma as a political force as well as a spiritual reality.

There are certain questions, which have been posed in one way or another since the idea of Pan-Islamism as a political ideology and an intellectual school came to the global stage endorsed by the Third World intellectuals of Muslim origin. One of the most powerful arguments against this ideology has been the argument that Pan-Islamism is a mythical wishful thought endorsed by ignorant people, who are not able to recognize the reality of multiplicity in terms of nations, ethnicities, races, lands, and dispositions and instead force ignorantly the strait-jacket of unity on multifarious reality under the pretext of Islam. Although a very interesting claim nevertheless it is ill-informed in terms of the actual purpose of Pan-Islamism as a political project based on strong and powerful intellectual arguments that is, indeed, more sensible in terms of Realpolitik rather than corrosive nationalistic policies since the colonial and post-colonial imposing policies towards the Third World Nations within the Imperial System of finance and military-economics. The second more significant misunderstanding about Pan-Islamism is the notion of ‘panacea’. The morally decadent Muslim nations those were (and are) stricken by many various kinds of illness were under wrong impression that this ideology would rectify all the ills of their contemporary society. Instead of recognizing what are the main targets of Pan-Islamism as an ideology and intellectual system for political betterment in the face of imperial aggression, people came to consider it as a remedy for all diseases and ills which, have enveloped Muslims for centuries. When it could not deliver such a remedy many nationalistic leaders and dignitaries came to ascribe the very idea to the last attempts of a sick Caliph in Istanbul, who wished to save his own despotic reign over Muslim lands and used it as a tool in his foreign policy. This mis-interpreted conclusion came to be very popular among those who wished to opt for a secular and imperialistically-tailored political units (nation-state with territorial integrity and equipped by sovereignty endowed upon each state within Muslim land by either Queen of England or Tsar of Moscow) and played were well in the hands of opportunistic politicians such as Ataturk, Reza Khan, and many others. Pan-Islamism was never intended to be a panacea for all ills of Muslim Umma and all ills of Umma, it should be recalled, are not of a political nature. To reduce all problematic issues to the socio-political dimensions is in itself another ill of modern kind that weighs upon Islamic Political thought on another level.
But at the face of imperialism it should be admitted that the unity of Muslims is the only political remedy before her total abdication from the face of earth as a dynamic force. It is not the first time that a religious community disappears from the face of history as a dynamic force and it won’t be the last. The community of Zoroastrians, the community of Christians, the community of Jews and many others such as Aztec and known and unknown came and disappeared as a historical dynamic force. The unity of Islam in political terms hinges upon the efforts of intellectuals to work beyond the images produced by nationalistic discourses. These images are so powerful and all-pervasive that one can imagine their effect upon our political understanding once one learns to live in borderland of national images and symbols and master the languages of Islam, which are spoken by ordinary Muslims. Then one may realize the gigantic task ahead and may appreciate the efforts of early Pan-Islamists and recognize their pragmatism in the face of ‘Imperial Challenges’.

Dr. Kafkazli Seyed Javad is a Professor of Human Sciences and Philosophy, Department of Human and Social Sciences, Harbin Engineering University, China


Avigdor Levy, “Ottoman Attitudes to the Rise of Balkan Nationalism” in War and Society in East Central Europe, vol.I. (eds.) B. K. Kiraly and G. E. Rothenberg. New York, Brooklyn College Press, 1979.
C. H. Becker, “Islampolitik,” Die Welt des Islams 3/2 (1915)

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