Civil State, Islamic State, Mafia State

Jun 17

Many revolutionaries who voted for Shafik, or who abstained or nullified their vote, did so on the grounds that they were defending the idea of a “civil” state.  This suggests that, in their mind, there are only two kinds of states in the world: “civil” states and “religious” states.  The medieval Islamic political thinker, Ibn Khaldun, however, classified states as belonging to one of three categories: natural, rational and the Islamic caliphate.  For Ibn Khaldun, the natural state was simply the rule of the strongest who, in exchange for protecting the weaker members of the group, is entitled to dominate them.  This is the “natural” state of politics and the most primitive form of political organization.  The rational state is one in which the ruler is subject to law that is reasonably calculated to further the collective good of the governed.  When Ibn Khaldun spoke of the rational state, he was referring to the political ideals, in all likelihood, of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly as they had been incorporated into the Islamic philosophical and theological tradition. While the rational state, in Ibn Khaldun’s view, was superior to the natural state, it was nevertheless inferior to the Islamic state (al-khilafa) because the rational state only secured human welfare in this life, and not the life to come, whereas the khilafa secured human welfare in both.

Ibn Khaldun’s discussion of the type of states is important because it suggests a kind of generic overlap between the rational state and the religious state just as it suggests an essential repugnance between the rational and religious states, on the one hand, and the natural state, on the other.  While the former have a conception of the public good, the latter does not.

In the history of modern Islamic political thought, particularly in Egypt, Muslim thinkers of the Nahda period, such as Muhammad `Abdu and Rashid Rida, introduced the idea of the Islamic state being a civil state, dawla madaniyya, to distinguish it from ecclesiastical rule, i.e., that public officials in an Islamic state are not viewed as holding ecclesiastical power, but that did not entail, on their part, a renunciation of the shari’a as an ultimate reference of legitimacy with respect to adjudicating questions of political justice.  The biggest difference between these modernists and traditionalists centered around two basic issues, which were closely intertwined: first, the question of taqlid, and second, the scope of the shari’a.  With regard to taqlid, Abduh and his followers such as Rashid Rida, rejected the binding authority of the traditional madhhabs, which they believed had put a stranglehold on the ability of the Muslim community to govern itself in accordance with the needs of the modern world.  With regard to the second, they adopted a theological method which I have called elsewhere “theological minimalism,” meaning, they continued to adhere to the notion that the shari’a was the ultimate norm, but they redefined it in such a manner as to minimize its scope relative to those areas of human life that could legitimately be regulated by human law-making.

One can refer to this conception of Islamic law as “madaniyya Islamiyya,” and I believe that the formal texts of the Egyptian legal system, including, its constitution and civil code, adopt this approach.  For that reason, Egypt, objectively, is a confessional state, but not a theocratic one, at least in the sense that public officials do not claim any ecclesiastical authority.  In my opinion, the problem with “madaniyya Islamiyya” is not that it is going to repress systematically personal freedoms, or that it will discriminate systematically against non-Muslims (see, for example, Rida’s discussions of the need for legal equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in his work, al-Khilafa), but rather that the state is still conceived of as a Muslim project, and that non-Muslims, while entitled to fair treatment, are not entitled to participate as equals in formulating the fundamental structures of the state (the constitution), although they would be entitled to participate equally in the realm of “ordinary” politics and policy.

Clearly, such a conception is wanting from the perspective of modern liberal theory, but it is far from the “natural” state which is one of pure domination and exists almost exclusively for the benefit of the ruler or the ruling class.  Moreover, from a realistic empirical perspective, the notion that today’s Egypt is capable of having a purely “civil” constitution without regard to religion is laughable.  “Madaniyya Islamiyya” is, however, in my opinion, an important step toward achieving an unqualified madaniyya.  “Natural” states, however, are one step further removed from achieving an unqualified civil state.

Egypt during the Mubarak years was plainly a “natural” state, directed by no rational ideals or concept of the public good; its only direction was how to maximize payoffs to the members of the regime.  Shafik’s victory will entail an attempt to return to that kind of regime.  It is not a step toward an unqualified civil regime; it is a return to a mafia regime.   Election of the FJP, however, would be a positive evolutionary step, maybe not a large one, but at least it would not represent a step back toward a regime that has no regard or conception of the good beyond the private interests of those in power.

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