What do the Islamic State, Boko Haram and the Taliban all have in common? Extremism? Caliphatism? Violence? All these things are merely incidental to these groups. What is essential to them is that they are all thoroughly modern formations. So what do I mean by this, given that they tend to strike us as the very antithesis of modernity?
First of all, it is crucial to ask ourselves what it is that we understand by modernity. We assume that modernity means reason, science, freedom, justice, racial, gender, and sexual equality. These are the assumptions. They are the ideals that are projected by a strident western discourse, where the West is seen as their progenitor and purveyor.
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Perhaps it will strike the reader as a little odd if I say that these ideals are far from being realised within the West. That there are massive inequalities of sexualities, of genders and of races in the West. That western freedom, whether political, economic or consumerist, comes at the expense of the freedom of people living in non-western countries.
And this lack of freedom runs far and deep, reaching into the history of how non-European people were made to think during colonial times. For example, any serious study of the history of colonialism and its educational projects in its colonies reveals the extent to which Europe reconfigured indigenous modes of knowing with its own mode of thinking – a manner of thinking which has its roots in the Enlightenment, with its own idiosyncratic means of reasoning.
This reasoning – which is riddled with inner contradictions and inconsistencies – is placed over the rest of the world as a hegemonic narrative (discourse is French philosopher Michel Foucault’s choice of word), according to which the rest of the world’s rationality is measured.
But what does all of this have to do with the violence of our above-mentioned groups? Surely violence is violence and I’m certainly not arguing for a relativistic understanding of what constitutes right and wrong in the name of an idiosyncratic logic?
My argument rests on two central areas of discussion, which have to be carefully reflected upon: 1) the colonial reconfiguration of the institution of sharia and 2) the inherent conditions of the modern state.
The historic institution of sharia
Renowned historian of sharia Wael Hallaq, has perhaps definitively described the far-reaching changes brought about by colonialism to the historic institution of sharia – an institution that was fundamentally rooted in the people, and was profoundly ethical in nature.
The historic sharia was not punitive. It is important to appreciate the history of sharia because the efforts of modern groups at establishing an Islamic state revolve around the desire to implement sharia. Hence, much of their violence may be traced back to their understanding of what sharia entails, both now and under the aegis of a dream Islamic state.
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The purpose of premodern sharia was to bring about communal cohesion, through local qadis or judges – who were not affiliated with the state in any way – and their mediation between and for aggrieved parties. In premodern times, the punishments we are now conditioned to instantly associate with sharia were rarely, if ever, carried out.
To repeat, sharia was a fundamentally ethical institution, whose central purpose was the maintenance of social harmony, based on love and trust within and between communities and towards God.
So what are we witnessing today? As a result of the colonial dismantling of the historic institutions of sharia – which included the waqfs or endowments and the madrassa or religious schools – and their replacement with European legal codes, sharia ceased to be studied and practised in the manner it had been for centuries previously.
Imagine modern medicine trying to function without multi-billion dollar investment in research, the institutions of doctors, nurses and hospitals, all working at various levels, with hundreds of thousands of women and men being trained in modern medical logic and methodology each year. Without all of this, the very institution of modern medicine would be reduced to little more than quackery. What remains of the institution of sharia?
In addition to the dismantling of the financial institutions that supported the study and cultivation of sharia, like any vibrant branch of knowledge, the tradition of Muslim parents sending their brightest children to madrassa, in order to become Islamic legal scholars is a thing of the past.
And although it is not the case that all who do study sharia today are dunces, the long history of serious intellectual engagement by amply capable people has been affected by the colonial displacement of traditional learning by modern Western education. Hence the now proverbial emphasis on the brightest in the Muslim world becoming doctors and engineers. Incidentally, it appears that a large proportion of our would-be Islamists have engineering degrees.
Sharia and the modern state
The modern state has become the most normalised and natural of political formations, and yet there is hardly anything natural or inevitable about it. It came about due to a cluster of historic events in Europe – not least of which was diplomacy between European powers competing for the wealth of the colonies. The modern state has particular form-properties, as described by Hallaq in his Impossible State, the centralisation of the law being one of its most far-reaching aspects.
When sharia is reconfigured according to the logic of the modern state – remember that the sharia was never centralised in premodern times – then it follows a one-size-for-all logic. Under the conditions of the modern state, people’s thinking about the sharia itself becomes that of do’s and don’ts, and, most significantly, of punishment.
Thus sharia becomes a system of punishment where the most extreme punishments are meted out, or are dreamed of being meted out, en masse, with no sense of differentiation and contextualisation, as was the case with the premodern sharia, and this is true whether the law is implemented by a sophisticated state apparatus in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Brunei, or by the Islamic State group – formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Boko Haram and the Taliban, who use a more ad hoc method.
It is for this reason that Hallaq argues that the Islamic state is a contradiction in terms. An Islamic order, as exemplified by the premodern sharia described above, is fundamentally ethical; while the modern state is only incidentally moral, if not in fact amoral or immoral.
And this, therefore, is my point. These groups are not primitive barbarians seeking to return to a primeval age – despite their wanting to return to what we now know is a fictitious past. They are fundamentally modern, and they are products of modernity. Therefore their thinking is inescapably modern and post-colonial – in the sense of being unconsciously inflected by the history of colonialism – even though we struggle to find any family resemblances between them and ourselves. They are, in the words of political theorist Roxanne Euben, the “enemy in the mirror“.
That is, there are aspects of ourselves within them, and aspects of them within us. Though, whether we choose to see this and seek to readdress things accordingly is another matter entirely.
Hasan Azad is a doctoral candidate specialising in Islamic Studies at Columbia University.