Popular Sovereignty in Islam

We start the week with an interesting-looking book from Harvard on how Islamist movements have adopted popular sovereignty–an idea unknown in classical Islam–as a main element of their political programs. In classical Islam, Islamic law was the domain of scholars, who had authority to guide the ruler, or caliph, in governing the umma. But many contemporary Islamist movements distrust, or at least diminish, the role of scholars. Instead, these movements argue that the Muslim people have the authority to instantiate God’s law and govern society in a godly way. This is a real transformation in Islamic thought, with major implications. The book is The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought, by political scientist Andrew March (University of Massachusetts-Amherst). The publisher’s description follows:

A political theorist teases out the century-old ideological transformation at the heart of contemporary discourse in Muslim nations undergoing political change.

The Arab Spring precipitated a crisis in political Islam. In Egypt Islamists have been crushed. In Turkey they have descended into authoritarianism. In Tunisia they govern but without the label of “political Islam.” Andrew March explores how, before this crisis, Islamists developed a unique theory of popular sovereignty, one that promised to determine the future of democracy in the Middle East.

This began with the claim of divine sovereignty, the demand to restore the sharīʿa in modern societies. But prominent theorists of political Islam also advanced another principle, the Quranic notion that God’s authority on earth rests not with sultans or with scholars’ interpretation of written law but with the entirety of the Muslim people, the umma. Drawing on this argument, utopian theorists such as Abū’l-Aʿlā Mawdūdī and Sayyid Quṭb released into the intellectual bloodstream the doctrine of the caliphate of man: while God is sovereign, He has appointed the multitude of believers as His vicegerent. The Caliphate of Man argues that the doctrine of the universal human caliphate underpins a specific democratic theory, a kind of Islamic republic of virtue in which the people have authority over the government and religious leaders. But is this an ideal regime destined to survive only as theory?

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