When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, Muslim intellectuals, clerics, and scholars around the world entered into a frenzied discourse about the future of Islamic leadership and the relationship between Islam and the newly emerged nation state. Although the Ottoman caliphate had become an increasingly symbolic position, the fact remained that, since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, there had always been a caliph—even if his status was contested, and even if he was more of a figurehead than an actual ruler.
Amid the turbulent debates following the formal abolition of the Ottoman caliphate, most critics wondered how the caliphate could be restored, who was qualified to assume the duty, and how Muslim political representation should respond to the rise of the nation-state. However, one voice asked a different question: Should there be a caliph at all? This was the voice of Ali 'Abd al-Raziq.
Born in al-Minia province in Egypt in 1887, Ali 'Abd al-Raziq descended from a family of highly educated and influential landowners. From early childhood, ‘Abd al-Raziq was exposed to the modernist views of Muhammad 'Abduh and other political elites, who would often use his father's house as a meeting place. As a young man, he attended al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious and historic Islamic institutions in the world, where he graduated with the highest certificate in Islamic law and the title of shari'a qadi, or Islamic judge.
The real pivotal moment in ‘Abd al-Raziq's intellectual career came in 1925, when he published the book, Islam and the Foundations of Rule: Research on the Caliphate and Government in Islam, as a response to the intellectual debates surrounding the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate by Ataturk. Islam and the Foundations of Rule put forth the argument that the caliphate was not an obligatory institution and called upon Muslims to adopt political secularism. In simple terms, ‘Abd al-Raziq's perspective is that Islam was purely a religion, and not a framework for political representation. His scriptural and historical analyses separate leadership into the realms of spiritual and temporal and argue that the Prophet Muhammad embodied leadership that was strictly spiritual in nature. Citing Qur'anic verse and Hadith, ‘Abd al-Raziq argued that there was no explicit scriptural precedent for the creation of an Islamic system of government, and that the separation of religious identity and political identity is not only permissible but encouraged upon Muslims.
Another major component of ‘Abd al-Raziq's argumentation in Islam and the Foundations of Rule was a refutation of the legitimacy of previous caliphs. He identified caliphal rule and politics as a central cause of what he saw at the time as a deterioration of Muslim intellectual and cultural superiority. In the text, ‘Abd al-Raziq argues that the power of the caliphate had historically been upheld by means of violence and repression, as caliphs seeking to defend their ephemeral legitimacy to rule lashed out at intellectuals, students, and anyone else who questioned this legitimacy or proposed an alternative system of political representation. Such repression, Raziq claims, was especially bold in its response to the Islamic study of political science: wishing to preserve their legitimacy to rule, previous caliphs had lashed out at intellectuals who practiced and taught inquiry into alternative systems of government. As a result, the subject of political science was neglected in Muslim thought; ‘Abd al-Raziq argues that this partially explains the crisis that ensued among clerics and intellectuals when Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate. Simply put, in 1925, while many Muslim scholars were envisioning the growth and rejuvenation that could come from the return of Islamic government, Ali 'Abd al-Raziq argued that Islamic government was the cause, not the solution to the problem of stagnant Islamic intellectual culture.
‘Abd al-Raziq concludes Islam and the Foundations of Rule by encouraging Muslims to adopt political secularism in the absence of the caliphate. His argumentation, that Islam is a religion and not a framework for a state or political body, draws the conclusion that Muslims can—and should—align their political identities and religious identities separately. In other words, piety as a Muslim and participation in secular nation-state politics can be harmonious endeavors.
When it was released, Islam and the Foundations of Rule unleashed a veritable firestorm of criticism among Muslim clergy. ‘Abd al-Raziq was called before the highest council of 'ulama at al-Azhar and stripped of his status as judge, and his right to practice law. As Souad T. Ali points out, part of what was so incendiary about ‘Abd al-Raziq's call for political secularism was his style of argumentation. ‘Abd al-Raziq states his case using a jurist's approach: he references traditional scriptures, and the writings of reputable Muslim scholars and jurists to support his claims for political secularism. In other words, he substantiates his argument by speaking the scholarly language of the 'ulama, employing familiar sources and interpretations to build an argument against a value that was central to their institution.
‘Abd al-Raziq was only able to reclaim his credentials as a judge years later in the 1940s when his brother became the head rector of the institution. In his later life ‘Abd al-Raziq served two terms as minister of endowments in Egypt. He wrote very little during these years; His work following Islam and the Foundations of Rule is limited to a study of the life of his brother, titled, From the Legacy of Mustafa `Abd al-Raziq (Min athar Mustafa `Abd al-Raziq), Cairo, 1957, and a volume titled, Consensus in Islamic Law (Al-ijma` ft al-shari`ah al-Islamiyah), Cairo, 1947.
At its publication, Islam and the Foundations of Rule did receive some support from modernist intellectuals, such as Taha Husayn and Muhammad Husayn Haykal, and ‘Abd al-Raziq’s argument for the separation of religion and state was adopted and expanded upon by scholars like Ahmed Amin, the well-known Egyptian historian and writer. However, what little support ‘Abd al-Raziq’s ideas received was undoubtedly overshadowed by stronger currents of criticism. Opposition to ‘Abd al-Raziq’s ideas about state and religion extended beyond scholarly discourse, contributing to increased polarization between Muslims believing in the tenets of modernism and secular nationalism and conservative Islamist groups. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1927 in response to the perceived threat of the secular and modernist ideas that ‘Abd al-Raziq and his contemporaries were disseminating. Thus, in many ways, Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq’s legacy is marked by the impact his work has had on tensions between Islamists and secularists: movements and theological interpretations that were born out of the rejection of his ideas are, perhaps, more salient today than those born out of support.
Today, scholars writing on Islam and political identity often refer to Ali 'Abd al-Raziq was the first Muslim secularist. The ideas that he introduced, and the political moment in which he introduced them still echo through conversations happening today in Muslim communities about the relationships between religious and political identities. The notion that Islam could (and should) be observed as a system of ritual practices, and not as a system of government was revolutionary at a time when the future of Islamic government was as uncertain as it had been in centuries. Ali 'Abd al-Raziq's work is fundamentally relevant to anyone interested in questions of Islamic modernism, political secularism, and notions of Islamic leadership in the twentieth century and beyond.
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