Absolutism and dissent among Muslims — I

October 25, 2020

In the realm of politics, transparency and personal integrity of the caliph was the hallmark of the Muslim rule

It is my proud privilege that some very esteemed people take out time to read and occasionally comment on what I write for TNS. Today’s column is a response to a brief but profound comment by such a figure who, without the shadow of a doubt, is a beacon of hope for many idealists like me. His contribution to make this world a better place for others is incontrovertible. That comment was about my last week’s column.

In that column I tried to analyse the reasons for not countenancing dissent by the Muslim societies in general. In those societies and states, dissent is equated with evil (rebellion, treason or subversion) therefore the synthesis between the two opposite viewpoints ceases to come about. This has caused intellectual stasis.

His comment was as follows: “I don’t think lack of tolerance is because of Islam. I believe questioning the leadership was an accepted feature [of early Islam]. All dictators or absolute rulers, irrespective of their faith were intolerant.”

To start with, I will put forward two points:

(a) do we think that all dictators and absolute rulers were equally intolerant, is there any quantifiable mechanism to measure the extent of intolerance in various dictators who ruled different states? Obviously, Adolf Hitler was far less tolerant than Salazar and Joseph Stalin more lethal than Ceausescu of Romania.

(b) This point is more significant because it deals with the rationale (or ideology) that legitimises the dictatorial dispensation. The intolerance exhibited by a dictator or absolute ruler remains inexplicable if the ideology that underpins the dictatorship is not subjected to deliberation.

Oddly enough, religion has been deployed as the legitimising tools by several rulers to justify their being in the saddle and bossing around the people. Zia ul Haq was an eminent example of the dictators who used religion as an instrument of self-perpetuation at the helm of Pakistan.

Here the point that I would like to emphasise pertains to the fact that the ideology/rationale working behind the enforcement of dictatorship is exceedingly more perilous than the dictatorship itself. Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, but the totalitarian ideology outlasted him by several decades. This form of absolute rule has not become extinct even now although many call this the age of democracy.

Strangely enough, the trend is markedly visible in democratic dispensations. The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo is a bit twisted realisation of this form of total control in a country that once prided on its plurality. Many political pundits earnestly argue about Putin is the most powerful and one of the most effective rulers of the current era.

Now one may argue that such absolutist dispensations are sustained by an ideology that endorses personalised absolutism. Often, religion is ascribed convoluted meanings to suit such kinds of rule. The Saudi model can be cited as an example in this regard.

Absolutism has manifested itself with added force with the emergence of China as a world power with its enviable record of development which some analysts argue may not be possible in a democratic set-up. Decisions are taken without unnecessary hair-splitting. That usually happens when dissenting voice exists and command tangible force, which China has precluded. Swift execution follows the decisions without nursing any apprehensions about the outcome.

Singapore is yet another example of an absolutist form of rule, which appears in the words of late Sir Christopher Bayly as a colony of the planet, Mars.

In such countries, firm belief disseminated far and wide holds that quick development may only be notched up, if there is a single-party rule and a single person sits at the helm with unlimited powers vested in him. Dissent and opposition are considered superfluous irritants. The only qualification for the person ensconced at the top is unquestionable integrity.

Now let us turn our gaze to Muslim history and try to figure out the essential traits of the political and administrative structures. The first and foremost assertion is that no religion offers any political and governing structure as such. The nations and communities evolve these structures in the light of their past traditions and convention or they borrow them from the contemporary empires/civilisations like Byzantium and Sassanids. When Arabs embraced Islam, they forged a new synthesis by putting together various aspects of the Byzantium’s administrative structure with the autochthonous spirit of accountability.

Arabs lived in a tribal social set-up in which no blueprint was available whereby a variety of people could be effectively administered. (This inference is based on my reading of Tarikh-i-Ibne Kaseer). Similarly, the concept of the professional army was borrowed from the Byzantium and was executed in a creative manner.

The Arabian asbiyya (in the Khaldunian sense, it is usually translated as social solidarity) coupled with the organisational pattern from Byzantine made the Muslim army invincible. In the realm of politics, the transparency and personal integrity of the caliph was the hallmark of the Muslim rule. Then two events occurred which changed the characterisation of the Muslim political culture, which had been the result of a newly forged synthesis between the Arabian asbiyya and Byzantium’s administrative and organisational structure of the state.

The conquest of Persia during Hazrat Umar’s rule was a gargantuan feat with long-lasting impact not only on the conquered but also on the conquering nation. It was in a sense a re-enactment of the Romans conquering Greeks.

In other realms than the physical occupation, Greeks established their dominance over the Romans. Similarly, Arabs conquered Persia but gradually they were sucked into the socio-epistemic tradition of the conquered. The second event of far-reaching consequence was the shift of the capital from Hijaz to Syria and then to Iraq. This drew Muslims away from the Arabian mainland, which was the well-spring of asbiyya.

(to be continued)

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Absolutism and dissent among Muslims — I