An influential Iranian historian of Islamic political thought, Hamid Inayat, had opined in one of his books that Muslims had never taken political science seriously until they and their lands were overwhelmed by colonial powers. Afterwards, they had an encounter with Western political and social philosophies and started to write political literature of their own. This included luminaries such as Maulana Maududi, Rashid Rida of Egypt, Hasan-al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Muslims have always treated political science as a sub-heading of Sharia. This has led to a situation where they could only produce normative principles about politics, that comprise a series of ‘dos and don’ts’ of politics. This resulted in complete lack of analytical power to examine the political realities as they exist – and not as they ought to be.
From ancient times, Muslim societies had always engaged in hero-worship and had attached hopes for a stable and affluent life with these individuals. The absence of political science as subject in Muslim societies resulted in a situation where morality and religious ethics were projected as solution of purely political problems. Understanding of politics as a process of power management in the society and as a process that ensures smooth distribution of resources in the society, and politics as a management of class conflicts and several other types of conflicts – are all treated as Western heresy. The result is not that all these problems ceased to exist in Muslim societies. The result instead is a situation, where these problems were swept under the carpet and they continued to rot the social and political life of the society in the absence of proper management.
Institutions were never at the centre of Muslim political thought since ancient times. In modern times, the situation has become even worse. In the post-colonial period, Muslim societies from Egypt to Indonesia always attached their hopes with towering individuals. Each decade produced its own heroes in Muslim societies. The 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian nationalist leader. The 1970s saw the rise of Shah Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. The 1980s saw the rise of military strongman General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan. In the 1990s we saw the rise of Mahathir Muhammad in Malaysia. This trend continued into the 21st century with the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
When discussing the qualities of an ideal leader, we mention honesty and sincerity—two vague terms that are hard to define in our society which is at the cusp of monumental change—instead of political effectiveness, capacity to understand complex political, economic and social realities and expertise in managing conflicts
Muslims idealised individual heroes from the very beginning and this trend mutated into different political forms. But the emphasis on individuals as political heroes who can transform the political economic and social conditions in Muslim societies continued. Most of these larger-than-life political leaders could not be described as politically successful on any of the modern criteria – like bringing affluence to Muslim societies or taking them on the path of economic and social progress, or raising the living standards.
Some of them, in fact, did achieve wonders: like Shah Faisal brought the West to its knees on account of the oil embargo, Bhutto introduced modern political and military institutions in politically backward Pakistani society, Mahathir brought affluence to Malaysian society and raised living standards there, etc. Nevertheless, by and large, political institutions remained absent from the public and political discourse in Muslim societies in all these years.
We never developed the tradition of institution-building as we have been too deeply immersed in hero-worship. We always thought in terms of individual leaders coming to our rescue and imagined these leaders to be in possession of some magic wand that would solve all our problems. Worshipping individuals and attaching all our political hopes to individual leaders remained the central focus of our political thinking all these years. Our political leaders, political commentators (with few exceptions) and ideologues never idealised the path of institution-building as a path to political salvation. No serious political ideology in our lands ever proposed institution-building as a path to be pursued. Even the secular ideologies that penetrated into Muslim societies were influenced by the logic of hero-worship. Marxists promoted Lenin and Marx, and portrayed larger-than-life images of them. Nationalists created their own secular demigods. These secular ideologies were influenced by Muslim societies’ penchant for hero-worship.
If we trust the Iranian historian of Islamic political thought Hamid Inayat and build our argument on the premise that Muslims started taking political science seriously only when they had an encounter with Western political philosophies in colonial period, then the first thing we notice in the intellectual history of Muslim societies is that the first thinkers who started producing political tracts were the religious revivalists like Rashid Rida, Maududi and Syed Qutb. They didn’t produce any serious political literature that could have described the political dynamics of Muslim societies as they existed in their times. What they produced was normative literature: a kind of public morality, or some kind moral philosophy. Political analysis based on the definition of politics as a process that leads to distribution of resources in society was simply discarded as Western heresy. In modern times, politics is defined as a process through which we define “who gets how much and when.” You will not find this kind of analysis in any of the tracts, for instance, that Maududi, Rida and Khomeini had written.
The gap between what is happening on the surface in any given society—let’s say Pakistan, where, like everywhere else, politics is essentially about distribution of resources in the society—and what literature is produced and later widely defused in Muslim societies is filled by endless prattling about how much morality is necessary for political leaders. The result is a political culture where the public image of political leaders is built on the notion that they are honest (corruption-free), sincere and that they always indulge in giving alms to the poor and needy. While actually the essential function these leaders are performing is nothing else than presiding over a process of distribution of resources in the society. The process of distribution of resources in society, which is the essential function of any government or its leader, is always dubbed as a form of corruption. Sometimes serious media presents the process of distribution of resources in society as a sinister plot by some overly corrupt political leader.
In our society, we still don’t take the lessons of political science seriously. What our media discuss in the name of politics is akin to some kind of convoluted morality. When discussing the qualities of an ideal leader, we mention honesty and sincerity—two vague terms that are hard to define in our society which is at the cusp of monumental change—instead of political effectiveness, capacity to understand complex political, economic and social realities and expertise in managing conflicts in society.
The result is an avalanche of propaganda from opportunistic political leaders who profess and preach morality and frugality in public, and support business cartels’ financial interests when they take government behind closed doors. This deceitful behaviour is rarely noted in the media or in public discourse – as society at large remains ignorant of the true nature and content of politics due to the poverty of public and political discourse on these issues. As a result, we have leaders who are habitual liars and there is no mechanism that exists in the society to detect their lies.