Islam and the Arab Revolutions – Book Review – Eurasia Review
Usaama al-Azami Islam and Arab revolutions: the ulama between democracy and autocracy (Oxford University Press, 2022) focuses on the responses of several prominent Muslim religious scholars to the popular Arab uprisings of 2011, particularly in Egypt, which toppled longtime autocratic rulers. It also examines their reaction to the ensuing military coup in 2013, which toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader and led to the brutal and bloody crackdown on anti-coup protests.
However, the importance of the book goes well beyond the events surrounding the Egyptian revolt by discussing the relationship between the Muslim clergy and the state and the theology and jurisprudence that lie at the heart not only of the revolts but also of competition between the main Muslims of the Middle East and Asia. Majority states in defining what constitutes Islam, and particularly moderate Islam, at a time of geopolitical transition.
Mr Al-Azami’s account juxtaposes the pro-revolt legal opinions of the Qatari-backed cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, widely considered one of the most eminent living scholars of Islam, and those of two Egyptian scholars beholden to the Egyptian state, Al Azhar. Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb and former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, as well as two academics who are supported and reflect the UAE’s militant advocacy for autocracy, Abdullah Bin Bayyah and Yusuf Hamza.
By laying bare the issues that divide scholars, the book highlights two major fault lines in Islamic jurisprudence with regard to political governance: the relationship between ruler and ruled and how to prevent anarchy and chaos.
Mr. Qaradawi rejects the principle held by counter-revolutionary scholars that Muslims owe absolute and unconditional obedience to their ruler and defends their right to peacefully oppose and resist an unjust regime. Similarly, Mr. Qaradawi argues that greater transparency and accountability prevent anarchy and chaos while counter-revolutionaries believe that only a strengthened autocracy can maintain order.
None of this makes Mr. Qaradawi a democrat even if he would like to be seen as such. Nevertheless, he has developed an Islamic legal argument for a more open political system that is at odds with the legitimization of autocracy developed by Mr. Bin Bayyah, a former associate turned rival of Mr. Qaradawi.
The differences highlighted in Mr. Al-Azami’s book, as well as in a recently published work by David H. Warren, who will be a guest on this show in the coming weeks, gain importance because they oppose influential clerics who have provided religious services, legitimized policies and/or shaped the thinking of the rulers of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
By setting out the different positions in a very detailed and documented way, Mr. Al-Azami’s book makes an important contribution to the understanding of the debates among scholars in which, in his own words, the counter-revolutionaries have for the moment the upper hand. on the political level while the most reformist the clerics retain the high discursive level.
This interview was first published by New Books Network, which hosts the audio version of the interview. The video version is available here