Emancipatory politics: the core of Islam

This article is an attempt to thematize an almost unconscious stream of thoughts and a series of reflections on the meaning of a one exclusive modality of being a Muslim today. There seems a whole lot to have been written on who is and who is not a Muslim, what differentiates a Muslims from a non-Muslim and why do Muslims seem to be, almost exceptionally, the only people who take their beliefs deadly seriously?

I will not attempt here to answer such questions. I will only register, put into open, for someone’s curiosity or information what I am tempted to call a new hybrid species of being a Muslim. I know that many subscribe to such a hybrid species without having consciously reflected over it, which is Muslim without partaking in any meaningful sense in the old theological definitions and specifications of what makes someone a Muslim.

A Muslim who suspends or brackets faith in God! Paradoxically, however, and to many it may even seem counter-intuitive, this Muslim believes in the prophet and his prophethood. This may indeed seem almost absurd when asserted as a truth-proposition. Prophethood, by definition, implies divinity: the existence and appearance of God in history through the medium of the prophet-hood. Thus any assertion that the prophet-hood is real, historical while divinity, so to speak, false and derivative is not only inconsistent with the basic understanding of the Islamic religion, but it is simply nonsense.

Historically and theologically the relation between divinity and prophethood was perceived and understood linearly in the following manner: First we have God, divinity and then the institution of the prophethood proceeds by a divine fiat. God, in other words, is ontologically and logically as well as spatiotemporally prior to the institution of the prophethood.

If this interpretation stands as it is then, indeed, one cannot entertain the possibility of believing in prophethood without first believing in some kind of divinity. (This is nearly akin to Kant’s famous distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances. Things-in- themselves legitimize and ground appearances qua appearances).

But suppose we reverse the order. There is no ontological a priori fact or constitution which prohibits such a reversal. In fact, if one wishes to avoid the metaphysical and ideological trap of ‘the illusory manufacturing of necessary entities’, of presenting as inevitable contingent historical formations and socio-religious phenomena and their adjacent interpretations, then one has no choice but to proceed in the obverse direction. God is an entity or a being obtained from the institution of the prophethood. Although God is retroactively posited as a priori necessary being from those legitimizing presuppositions of the prophethood, he does neither ontologically nor historically precede the institution of the prophethood as such. God is a cultural presupposition, a necessary fiction invented and put into circulation by the institution itself in order to legitimize its reformatory role in a society steeped in corruption and injustice. In other words, it is prophethood which is primordial, while God, and a host of other fictional entities, is one of its instruments at a particular moment in history which served, as a kind of ‘vanishing mediator’, the purpose of establishing a more equitable society. In absence of the institution of the prophethood, God may well have remained incognito. It is the prophet who in ‘moments of madness’, of self-reflective withdrawal into the void/abyss of subjectivity gives birth to God to explain what remains mysterious and beyond the purely causal chain of explanation. Not in the sense of Dawkins’ ‘god of the gaps’, viz., God as embodiment of our ignorance of inter-causal connections, but in a much more fundamental sense of explaining the inexplicable, attempting to answer those perennially perplexing questions of who we really are and where lays our destination.

If this presupposition stands – our secular and scientific understanding of religion forecloses any other theological explanation – then it seems perfectly possible to believe the prophet and simultaneously retain an agnostic or even atheistic attitude toward God.

There is however another question which the critic waiting in ambush is ready to disturb and dispose of this so far seemingly unproblematic reversal of the places: “Even if, for the sake of the argument,” the critic argues, “it is accepted that the prophethood is in a sense primordial, does it not follow from this exposition so far that by directly asserting it as an article of faith we somehow plunge into a real contradictions which require to believe the prophet but not what he says? Are we to understand from this that the prophet misunderstood his own mission, or even worse, that he was purposefully manipulating his followers?”

Notwithstanding this objection, the postulate stands firm. It remains perfectly legitimate to postulate that the prophet, in absence of other political forms, employed the notion of God as the best available linguistic and social alternative to explain and implement his political vision or his ‘dream-event’. The Koran in this sense is a literary rendition of those ‘event-bursting’ reflections to which the prophet was involuntarily subjected, in the sense of feeling chosen and burdened with a special mission. The prophet was not being deceitful. If the stories of his persecutions, boycotts, humiliations and scandalous torturing of his companions contain any truth, he could not have been deceived or deceiving. If one reads the Koran carefully one cannot doubt that he strongly believed that he was entrusted with a special mission of freeing his society from corruptions of all kinds.

It is possible therefore that the political dream of a freer society in an already economically corrupt but believing society could only be realized through the religious language of God. Today, for instance, it is not possible to employ such divine vocabulary to implement a political vision. The cultural presuppositions and the unconscious, which legitimized and sustained the theo-mythical use of language, have all but collapsed. That is why there are no more credible prophets these days. (One notices the prophet’s instrumental and pragmatic use of religion, with clearly nonreligious undertones, in his ingenious declaration that the era of prophethood is over, that he is the seal of all prophets). Every political vision today, even those who want to do away with its legacy, speak the language and employ the unconscious of modernity.

Why then believe (in) the prophet if the whole issue is of no more that historical significance? Why believe (in) the prophet if we reject his ‘concrete’ vision of society and the ensuing factual social arrangements? It seems that we reject both God and prophethood and accept the prophet as a pure form detached from most of what he concretely stood for as recorded in the Koran and his collected traditions.

What this Muslim believes in the prophet of Islam is indeed a pure formalism of his unbreakable will to rethink justice and injustice within the parameters of his socio-cultural milieu. The prophet stood for a vision, a dream he had of a better arrangement of the social constellations. A decision he took with no guaranty in the big Other, with no guaranty of success, just the will and determination to see the injustice and corruption end.

In this sense, Islam, primordially, is a political vision not a religious interpretation of the world. It is a political act in progress1. Its basic notion of tawhid (God’s oneness) stands in its very condensed form for pure and unflinching political will to implement equality of all before a deity which stood outside the social constellations and guaranteed, as its constitutive exception, its formal functioning. The oft repeated story that the prophet was persecuted because he wanted his fellowmen to only believe in one God is beyond credulity. He was persecuted because he wanted more than just belief in God. God was a convenient ideological fiction to facilitate his political vision and the reform (93:9-10; 90:13- 20) not the final truth of the prophet’s message (1).

This was a radical message, one that had never been heard before in Mecca… He was not preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice. And for this revolutionary and profoundly innovative message, he was more or less ignored… it is difficult to believe they [the Quraysh, the prophet’s clan] would have been shocked by Muhammad’s monotheistic claims. Not only had the Hanifs been preaching the same thing for years, but the traditions list a number of other well-known prophetic figures living throughout the Hijaz who also preached monotheism… But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about a radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built… ‘There is no god but God’ was, for Muhammad, far more than a profession of faith. This statement was a conscious and deliberate attack on both the Ka’ba and the sacred right of the Quraysh to manage it. (2)

Islam became itself only in Medina; in Mecca it was a utopian ideal. In Medina it renounced the eschatological hope of creating a society on purely religious sentiment for a more practical, worldly and terror-oriented policy. The historical trajectory of Islam in Medina, shows how Islam departed from the religious to a more secular vision, which was only made possible by ruthlessly abandoning its failed religious hope for a secular solution. Islam became what it always was: an Islam devoid of its religious aspect, reduced to a worldly component of politics. From then on, not religion, but politics was the defining order of Islam, the religious component served as an auxiliary dimension to the political concerns of a newly emerging community. The true nature of Islam, finally, displayed its innermost substance by reducing the Meccan religious component to a metaphor of failed encounter of God with the inhabitants of Mecca through means such as grace and otherworldly promised rewards and punishments.

One could venture an interpretation of Islam in Mecca as a covered attempt to transform the socio-economic and political situation by appealing to and interpreting differently socially employed symbols and beliefs in an unprecedented way. When such political attempts failed to gain a momentum as the chances of success were becoming less attainable, a strategic exit in the form of exile (hijra) was sought after. God was no longer interested in bestowing grace and mercy for the sins of the believers but was actively engaged in consolidating normative rules which were to be applied instantly.

In Medina, Islam became what it already was: a political attempt to overthrow peacefully the old establishment. The God of religion had passed away before he could convert enough supporters to his cause. Now, God was preoccupied with waging wars and collecting the booty, and demanding strict obedience to the newly emerging order.

Islam as a religion is but an ideological myth that its followers have forgotten that ideological myth it is; an outer garment, a cultural form, a modus operandi and a language through which a credible political system could have had any chance of obtaining a real political power. It is a mask that hid the pure political will of the prophet as well as its medium. In Islam it is ‘religion’ which is ideological: a process of historicization and symbolization, a temporary negotiation, masking and at the same time escaping from (tempering, neutralizing) the real beneath it, the threatening political message of equality and justice. Religion was the ideal, although only partially and momentarily, fixing of the point de caption of the political imagination of the prophet’s fight for human emancipation.

Since the deadlock of the political emancipation at the time could only be expressed in the religious nodal points, with the advent of modernity other nodal points of articulation have emerged which have made religion as pure ideology of the political inconsequential. The prophet did not proceed from the purely religious to its translation later in Medina into full-blown politics as the traditional doxa of both Muslim and Western scholarship maintains. On the contrary, he started with the political and gradually, by tarrying with his own tradition, developed a symbolic religious language as an instrument to implement his political vision. In Islam, religion developed as a pretext for a political use, and only later, in the hands of the Muslim Empires and more recently of the obscurantist politicization of the religious dimension, as a crashing force of the emancipatory spirit of Islam. He invented the religious story to be able to carry out, to translate his great political ideas into an appropriate, understandable and publicly supportable cultural idiom. Although, on a charitable reading, religion was for the prophet the only possible way forward, the same cannot be said of today’s Muslims. Other political ideologies are certainly possible as they continue to haunt the religious establishment of the Muslim world which so far has been mistaking (the political) reality for (religious) fiction.

It remains true, however, that the ‘return of the religion’ in its various forms is yet another misreading of the prophet’s core message, a consistent refusal to acknowledge the rightful place of the universal (the political) and the particular (the religious). The dubious character of all revisionary or reformatory readings, the so-called ‘return to the fundaments, i.e. the Koran and the prophetic tradition’ remain blind to and confuse the content for the form and the universal for the particular. It is not a surprise, therefore, that sooner or later they are confronted with the particular as a bearer of the universal. Since the return is to the particular they remain entrapped by its limits and framework, while the universal is either not seen, overshadowed by the hazy over-argumentations of whose reading is the correct reading or simply (the universal is) mistaken for the particular. And since, moreover, the particular is often incompatible with the (mostly liberal) values they espouse, their readings either degenerate into flamboyant anachronism or religious apologetics.

To briefly reiterate the main point, what I take to be the significant part of the definition of Islam and Muslims today has very little to do with the content of the Koran and the prophetic tradition and very much with the purely formal decision of the prophet to transform the society. The insight to be taken from this is obvious: The prophet of Islam can only be followed by repeating his formal political gesture, his insights, not the medium through which he implemented in a partial and necessary distorted form his political vision. The prophet chose a religious medium. Muslims need not choose that when the pool of selection is significantly wider. Moreover the world seems to be moving in a direction of liberalism as a particular conception of state and democracy as a possible mode of government. There is no reason why Muslims should not join hands with other progressive and liberal and leftist political forces to fight against all kinds of tyrannies. The prophet is an exemplary figure of the liberation with leftist inclinations which could be of some use to modern Muslims. This would be the proper way to honour the prophet as a political visionary who may be appropriated by Muslims today.

Oslo, Norway


1) ‘The question – posed so often in the historiographic research – of how Mohammed, who had been subject to various oppressions in Mecca, suddenly became a coolly calculating military leader and power politician after the Hijra, is misleading. It presupposes a break in Mohammed’s evolution which never actually occurred. It is possible to clarify the source of this question, which expresses a perspective remote from reality, and the function it fulfils in the Muslim understanding of Mohammed. Suffice it to say that in truth, the Hijra – singled out as the symbolically-charged commencement of Islamic historical reckoning, and thereby elevated to a world-historical turning point only after Mohammed’s death – can only be grasped as a retarding element within a sequence of events, a sequence whose inception was marked by the extension of the prophecies of Muhammad, and one which led, so to speak, on the way to Medina, to the reshaping of gentile cult practices in Mecca, and hence to a far-reaching transformation of power relations in Arabia’. Nagel, Tilman, ‘Mohammed on the “straight path”’

2) Aslan, Reza. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. New York, 2005. (p. 41, 43-44).

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
This entry was posted in Islam, Middle East, Muslims, Progressive Muslims. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s