MAAS-537-01 Islamic Political Thought
Fall for 2014-2015
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References to Islam as a source of political legitimacy are abundant in the political discourses of contemporary Arab governments and opposition movements alike. Sectarian violence has generated and revived medieval historical narratives and theological polemics in more than one Arab country. While violent and non violent Islamic opposition movements call for the establishment of an “Islamic state” to replace modern nation states in the region, some Arab governments claim to be the embodiments of such a state and/or to be in line with Islamic teachings.
This course is an attempt to explore what is meant by Islamic political culture, thought, or theory. What is Islamic political thought? Does such a thing exist? Why do political actors in the Middle East frequently cite quotations from books written between the 8th and the 14th centuries? What makes these works political, and what makes them Islamic? Does such a political culture matter in understanding the contemporary politics of the region? Is the material found in medieval sources of Islamic political thought preserved or modified through modern reproductions and representations?
To answer these questions, we shall revisit the medieval sources of Islamic political theory. From the seventh century on, there have been many interpretations of the Islamic holy texts, and just as many sects and political systems. We shall however be studying the ones that are cited today as references and sources of legitimacy. Therefore we shall focus on the question of the Imamate in the great debates between The Murji’ites, the Mu’tazilites, the Ash’arites, Ashab Al-Hadith, and the Wahhabis, among the Sunni Muslims, as well as the arguments of the mainstream Twelver Ja’fari version of Shiism. These of course were not always the major schools in Islam, yet, they are the schools used today by various political forces in the region as sources of legitimacy or as labels in polemics against an actor’s political opponents. References to various versions of Kharijism, Ismaili and Zaidi versions of Shiism will therefore be used only in as much as they illuminate the debates of the schools mentioned above. Similarly, and despite their importance in the formation of Islamic theology, we shall only mention the arguments on the attributes of God or the historicity of the Quran when they are relevant to the theories of Government. With every interpretation of Islam comes a distinctive narrative of the formative years in Islamic history. The narratives of Al-Fitna Al-Kubra, the Great Upheaval, are thus just as important as the theoretical work on the Imamate in understanding medieval as well as modern Islamic political theory and discourse.
The course shall therefore be divided into three parts: First we shall explore modern and medieval narratives of the formation of the various Islamic sects, then we shall explore the main arguments of those sects relevant to understanding the political discourses of contemporary political actors in the region, and finally, we shall discuss these contemporary discourses in relation to their medieval sources, and their contemporary political environment.
Students should have a fairly adequate background in the contemporary politics of the Middle East. Like in any other region, balances of military and economic power are major variables in understanding the political discourses and positions of actors in the Arab world. To answer the question: “does culture matter and how?” one requires an adequate knowledge of other factors that matter too. The Language of instruction is English and all required readings are also in English. Some of the classical Arabic texts are added only as optional readings.
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