Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah’s justification for Islamic autocracy is far from a throwback to an imagined premodern world of Muslim scholars united with pious sultans, but rather, deeply indebted to the reformist idioms of Islamic modernism. Indeed, the key reason that modern Islamic autocracy enjoys the success it does, aside from its utility for dictatorial regimes, is that it is articulated via modernist rhetoric and idioms of consultative government, representation, and accountability.
This essay is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the Qatar-UAE Contest over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis.
The UAE-Israel Peace Deal and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies
On 13 August, US President Donald Trump announced a deal between Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The deal promised a “full normalization of relations” between the two countries in exchange for Israel halting the annexation of portions of the West Bank–a point that the two sides interpret differently. Though there has long been a close relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the announcement nevertheless came as a surprise to many. Particular criticism was directed at the board of the UAE-sponsored Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS), which published a statement expressing their support for the move. Amid the furor, some of the signatories denied any knowledge of the statement, or distanced themselves from it. One member, Aisha al-Adawiyya, resigned in protest.
For his part, the head of FPPMS and President of the Emirati fatwa council, the Mauritanian Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, published a statement in which he affirmed that “international relations and treaties are among the initiatives that fall within the policy-making purview of the ruler” and expressed his hope that the move would lead toward peace. This seemingly innocuous statement appeared to be a simple re-iteration of the premodern doctrine commonly known as siyasa, whereby a ruler had the right to make treaties with foreign powers and formulate public policy. Yet, Bin Bayyah’s lectures and publications exemplify quintessentially modernist rationales rather than a throwback to premodern worldviews. As academics reflect on this emergent trend in Islamic thought, it can at times be useful to categorize Bin Bayyah as part of a neo-traditionalist trend, or to foreground his metaphysics. However, these categories are less useful for understanding Bin Bayyah’s political thought. This distinction matters since the very reason Bin Bayyah’s version of Islamic autocracy enjoys the success that it currently does is because he articulates it through decidedly modernist idioms of representation, self-governance, and accountability.
The Legacy of Islamic Modernism
Modernist Muslim thinkers such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (d.1878), Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (d.1890), and Rashid Rida (d.1935) reworked the premodern hierarchical relationship between a Sultan and his subjects. Though Tahtawi was not necessarily a proponent of democracy, he envisioned the common man as a citizen with the capacity for self-governance who could be educated into a member of the modern nation-state. Tunisi’s critique of autocracy foregrounded the Qur’anic concept of consultation (shura) in order to argue for consultative government, as even a sincere ruler could not discern the public interest independently and needed the input of Muslim scholars and assorted technocrats. Central to Rashid Rida’s reforms was a critique of religious despotism in favor of popular sovereignty and law-making via collective, institutionalized ijtihad that combined a reading of Islamic revealed sources with an attentiveness to the social realities of the modern day. While many of these inputs have been used to articulate modernist forms of democracy, Bin Bayyah inverts many of these idioms toward a modernist autocracy.
Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the al-Nahyan Royal Family
Bin Bayyah has enjoyed a long-running relationship the al-Nahyan ruling family of the United Arab Emirates, dating back to the 1970s. While Bin Bayyah was serving as a government minister in Mauritania, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Shaykh Zayed al-Nahyan, made a number of high-profile visits to the country. The two developed a close relationship that Bin Bayyah recalls fondly.
The United Arab Emirates was Mauritania’s largest unilateral aid donor at the time. After Bin Bayyah moved to Jeddah in 1981, he maintained a close relationship with the al-Nahyan family. After September 11, the United Arab Emirates sought to differentiate itself from the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood by developing a state-brand rooted in (re)discovering a dormant Sufi history and fealty to the Maliki madhhab. As part of this trend, in the 2000s Bin Bayyah was a frequent visitor to the United Arab Emirates giving lectures in Abu Dhabi, and attending events in Dubai as an honored guest.
Bin Bayyah and Islamic Modernism
Bin Bayyah’s thought is indebted to Islamic modernism. Like his former colleague Yusuf al-Qaradawi, he is an advocate of wasaṭiyya (centrism, moderation), an approach to Islamic thought indebted to Muhammad Abduh (d.1905) and Rida. Bin Bayyah had previously been Qaradawi’s deputy at the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) and the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) until he resigned in 2013 as a result of their diverging views over the Arab Spring. In a 2007 lecture in Jeddah, Bin Bayyah outlined his theory of modernist autocracy and justified his skepticism toward democracy in modernist terms. In the lecture, he noted that democracy is commonly cited as “the cure for all ills, particularly terrorism,” but that the true “medicine” for terrorism was justice, which was “achieved through shura,” not democracy. In contrast to modernists like Qaradawi, who view shura and democracy as essentially the same, Bin Bayyah sees them as different. For Bin Bayyah, shura is a divine principle of consultation that is not confined to politics, but rather animates all social relationships. To illustrate this point, he gives the example of a relationship between a husband and a wife. To Bin Bayyah, though a husband has authority over a wife, the marital bond is characterized by mutual compromise (taraḍi) and mutual consultation (tashawur), rather than domination (imlaʾ) or absolute authority (al-sulṭa al-mutlaqa). A husband exercising his authority without due consultation would negate “the love and mercy that is the essence of the marital relationship.” The nuclear family is the bedrock of the modern nation-state, and just as Bin Bayyah does not imagine any legal constraints on the authority of the husband in the family, only ethical self-restraint, he does not envisage any constitutional or legal constraints on the authority of the ruler. For example, he says that it is up to the husband to decide whether or not to take a second wife, even though that decision has implications for the husband’s whole family. Similarly, the ruler (al-sultan al-akbar) decides to “dissolve treaties and declare war,” with implications for society as a whole. In both cases, according to Bin Bayyah, neither the family nor society at large need to have a say in the husband’s or ruler’s decisions in order to function successfully. The opposite of the harmonious functioning of family and society is chaos. To be sure, the ruler being subject to the law was an important feature of modernists like Tahtawi, but Bin Bayyah does not reject modernists’ rationales for justice and accountability, instead he inverts and repurposes them.
Bin Bayyah foregrounds the modernist principle of popular representation, but discards the need for those representatives to be selected by democratic mechanisms. He notes that the Prophet Muhammad would sometimes consult representatives of the people (nawab al-nas). Citing a hadith regarding Muhammad’s interaction with the Hawazin after the Battle of Hunayn, Bin Bayyah foregrounds the Prophet’s reference to the tribe’s representatives (“urafa,” sg. ʿarif). For Bin Bayyah, the significance of the “urafāa”–a word derived from the Arabic root meaning “to know”–is that it refers to a representative from within a community who knows that community’s affairs and needs intimately. Consequently, for Bin Bayyah the fact that a representative must be selected (ifraz) from within that community is what makes them a legitimate partner for consultation with a ruler, not the manner in which they were chosen. This is different from other modernist Muslim scholars who advocate wasatiyya, such as Ahmad al-Raysuni, who view Muhammad’s references to the “urafa” as evidence of the Prophet’s approval of elections.
The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring caused Bin Bayyah to articulate his reservations about democracy more explicitly. While his former IUMS colleagues like Qaradawi and Raysuni backed many of the uprisings, Bin Bayyah grew increasingly concerned at what he saw as growing chaos across the region. By 2012, he had begun to formulate his own project through a series of workshops in Nouakchott and Tunis when, as he later put it, he saw that the uprisings “had departed from the path of reason, noble-mindedness, virtue, and the public interest.” In 2013, he formerly parted ways with his former colleagues and launched the FPPMS in 2014.
Coinciding with the launch of FPPMS, Bin Bayyah published a book in which a foundational tension emerges around his valorizing of individual Muslims’ capacity for self-governance and skepticism toward democracy. In the book, he advances an anti-clericalist argument by emphasizing that Muslim scholars do not have exclusive control (ḥukr) over individuals’ decision-making. Rather, it is up to individual believers to exercise their own judgement, such as when the sick person must decide for themselves whether they are too ill to fast during Ramadan or not. The tension emerges when Bin Bayyah then extends this reasoning to apply to the ruler. Just as the scholars are not the ones to decide for an individual believer if they are too ill to fast, neither can the scholars impinge upon a ruler’s decision-making in any formal or constitutional manner. As Bin Bayyah puts it, scholars do not know the full facts of the matter (jaliyat al-amr) or the consequences of particular courses of action, nor do they know a ruler’s private judgements (al-dawafiʿ al-khafiya) that are difficult for others to comprehend.
A key element of the modernist argument was that the citizenry was entitled to justice and accountability from their rulers. Bin Bayyah’s theory of Muslim autocracy does not dispute this principle. Rather, he repurposes the argument. In his 2014 opening speech at FPPMS, Bin Bayyah acknowledges the citizenry’s right to justice and consultative governance. Nevertheless, just as Muhammad relinquished his right to enter Mecca and perform the Hajj following the treaty of Hudaybiyyah and his grand-son Hasan renounced his right to the Caliphate, there are times when rights must be waived for the sake of peace,
“Waiving one’s rights is a strong moral position that must not be confused with defeat. It earns the admiration of others and forces them to reconsider their positions […] it is a sublime and honorable position to take. It must not be misunderstood as surrendering to injustice for the sake of peace for one who makes this choice seeks peace by more just and merciful means, and seeks also to reform the oppressor who is regarded with pity as a victim of his desires.”
For Bin Bayyah, then, the citizenry’s right to justice and accountability are not abandoned, but merely deferred. An autocrat is only to be pitied for their inability to restrain their desire to mete out violence to the populace. In Israel, the UAE peace deal has been welcomed as a major diplomatic success. The deal has also been hailed by both President Trump and former Vice-President Biden in the United States, cementing the United Arab Emirates’ place as a key ally in the region despite the horror of the country’s grim human rights record and leading role in the starvation of Yemen. Indeed, as Shadi Hamid notes, “it is hard to imagine an Arab country, if it were democratic, striking a peace deal with Israel today” and the short-lived US policy of supporting democracy during the Arab Spring has now long been forgotten. By using thoroughly modernist idioms and reasonable rhetoric, Bin Bayyah presents Islamic autocracy in a useful package to those for whom supporting democracy is little more than an inconvenient memory.
 Abdullah Bin Bayyah, al-Irhāb: al-Tashkhīṣ wa-l-Ḥulūl (Riyadh: Obekan, 2007), 57.
 Bin Bayyah, Tanbīh al-Marājaʿ ʿalā Taʾsīl Fiqh al-Wāqiʿ (Beirut: Namaa for Research and Studies Center, 2014), 83.
 Bin Bayyah, Irhāb, 58–60.
 Ahmad al-Raysuni, Al-Shura: The Qur’anic Principle of Consultation, trans. Nancy Roberts (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought Press, 2011), 62.
 Bin Bayyah, “al-Kalima al-Taʾṣīliyya,” in Iʿlān Marākush li-Ḥuqūq al-Aqalliyyāt al-Dīniyya fī l-ʿĀlam al-Islāmī: al-Iṭār al-Sharʿī wa-l-Daʿwa ilā al-Mubādara (Dubai: Misar li-l-Tibaʿa wa-l-Nashr, 2016), 35–65 (4).
 Bin Bayyah, Tanbīh, 83.
 Bin Bayyah, Tanbīh, 95.
 Bin Bayyah et. al., In Pursuit of Peace: Framework Speech for the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, (Abu Dhabi: FPPMS, 2014), 22.
[This article was originally published on The Maydan on 27 August 2020.]