Recalling the Caliphate book event — Rethinking the concept of the political

This contribution to our book event comes from Nadia Sariahmed.

In Recalling the Caliphate S. Sayyid makes a refreshing and powerful argument for the necessity of a new articulation of Islam and the political and for the mobilization of Muslims as political agents. As Adam Kotskoremarked in an earlier post, while critical of historical Islamist movements he does not “throw them under the bus,” but rather takes seriously their attempts to articulate a new political project through Islam. Rather than taking the failures of Islamist parties as reason to abandon the project of political Islam, he critically engages with Islamists as a starting point from which we might imagine different possibilities for Islamicate governance.

Yet it seems that two distinct conceptions of the political are at work in Sayyid’s book. On the one hand, the political is defined by public participation and contestation as well as creative engagement with social problems in a constant search for a ‘good society.’ This is the concept of the political at work when Sayyid argues against the depoliticization of Muslims and the emergence of “Muslim monks who find the ummah irredeemably corrupt,” and who retreat from public life and sacrifice the search for a ‘good society’ for the cultivation of ‘good Muslims’ (46-47). In this context the political is a highly creative force, and depoliticization thus leads to social atrophy and to the reduction of the political to mere administration. To the extent that the political is defined in such terms, Sayyid is absolutely right to emphasize the urgent necessity for a new articulation of Islam and the political.

However, the above conception of the political implicit in Sayyid’s text is often overshadowed by his attachment to Schmitt’s concept of the political, which hinges on the distinction between the friend and the enemy. The political enemy is different from a regular opponent, whom we seek to defeat “by the rules of the game” (94). We deal with opponents with a measure of restraint that is completely absent from our fight with political enemies, whom “we want to defeat by any means we think necessary” (95). The political enemy presents an existential threat, and thus there is always the possibility of an existential struggle (122). In such a struggle, “there is potentially no bond, convention or rule that cannot be set aside” (171). The political also signals the “uprooting of layers of sedimented social conventions… The political describes the practice of hegemony: the attempt to establish a structure and institute new social patterns and arrangements” (ibid). Recognizing that this Schmittian conception of the political is “high corrosive of stability or social order,” Sayyid argues that politics are necessary to “domesticate the political” and to tame the antagonisms inherent to it (171). Yet this seems a rather precarious foundation for politics. When the political is conceived in terms of the Schmittian existential threat and friend-enemy distinction, there is no reason that at any moment antagonisms in society should not deteriorate into violent existential struggles. The political opponent will forever be conceived of as a potential political enemy. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that the politics that emerges from the domestication of the political should be just or ethical. As Schmitt himself wrote, the political enemy is not the enemy because of any moral attribute. He is the enemy only because he poses an existential threat to the political community. And in the final calculation, in the domain of the political the only deciding factor is power and violence. I am not optimistic that such a destructive concept of the political has much creative or emancipatory potential.

            It is a mistake, I think, to take the Schmittian friend-enemy distinction as an essential feature of the political rather than a distinctly modern phenomenon. There have of course always been conflicts and wars, and the inauguration of new governing regimes and institutions have always been associated with violent struggle. To push against the Schmittian concept of the political and the friend-enemy distinction is not necessarily to seek a utopic “establishment of neutral, conflict-free social relations” (95). Nor does pointing out the amorality of Schmittian politics necessarily entail an argument that “seeks to rule any articulation of Islam and the political as out of order” (174). As Sayyid himself points out, “the problem of conflict lies not in its existence but rather in how we comport ourselves with reference to it” (174). Yet, to conceive of political conflict in terms of an existential struggle between friends and enemies necessarily produces a comportment of no-holds-barred warfare in which anything can be justified as “necessary” given the existential threat posed by the enemy. In pushing against the Schmittian concept of the political I do not argue for a rejection of the political. On the contrary, I mean to “denaturalize” Schmittian politics and insist upon the dramatic innovation that Schmitt signals in the concept of the political in the modern world. Certainly, if we take the example of the Prophet (pbuh) or an of the caliphs or sultans who engaged in jihad campaigns for centuries, we can observe that these wars were fought under very specific rules of conduct meant to restrain violence. These were of course violent conflicts, and enemies were dealt with violently, but the level of violence was qualitatively and quantitatively different from the violence that has characterized Schmittian existential wars in the modern world.

Furthermore, while the conflict between different governing regimes have certainly always been decided by violent wars, the subsequent changes in political leadership was not necessarily tied to dramatic and sudden social transformation or the institution of a new society (166). We can turn to the example Sayyid offers of the difference between the prophet and the mystic:

In reforming society a prophet has to participate in public life, in the affairs and concerns of the many, rather than in the cultivation of the one. The prophetic appears to combine the ethical with the political. As Iqbal describes it, the Prophet (pbuh) returns: ‘to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history, and thereby create a fresh world of ideals.’ To make a ‘fresh world of ideals’ is an act of foundation, and as such a political act. The creation of a world is inherently political” (169).


To this point I am in agreement with Sayyid, and in thinking about the articulation of Islam and the political the Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) offers an instructive example from which to draw inspiration of the marriage of the ethical with the political. Sayyid begins to open up space for a new and more generative conception of the political, but stops short in developing those possibilities because of his reliance on Schmitt, as we see in the rest of the quote here:


“To bring forth a new order of things means working in a context in which sedimented practices, habits and conventions must be shaken if not discarded. It means instituting different routines, different organizations, and different ways of thinking and behaving. Such a task has to be accomplished in a setting which comes to be dominated by those who are in favour of transformation and those who want to conserve what is already in place. Depending on the scale and intensity of reforms, an antagonistic relationship will be established in which those who support reforms and those who oppose them become reconfigured as friends and enemies. This antagonism between friend and enemy, as has been previously mentioned, is the key defining feature of the political” (169).


I do not believe it necessarily follows that any transformative political project necessarily devolves into an existential conflict between friends and enemies, or even to a violent and sudden rupture in the routines and institutions of society. Sayyid himself pointed out the way in which the shari’a was supplemented by customary practices in different lands as the Islamic empire expanded — thus, change in political regimes did not necessitate an uprooting of practices or an overturning of social order. It took centuries for Muslims to even constitute a majority of the population of the Islamic empire. Social transformations took place through social networks and gradually over time. Certainly there was public contestation and at times antagonistic struggle, but not any struggle with the intensity associated with Schmitt’s concept of the political. The hegemonic project of Islam was not one of rupture and violence but rather of gradual transformation. I do not mean to wax nostalgic by pointing to these past events, or suggest that we must seek to return to the way things were. Rather, in pointing out that things were not always the way we observe them to be now, we can historicize and denaturalize Schmitt’s concept of the political. This seems to me to be a necessary step to imagining a more emancipatory articulation of Islam and the political, as a way to, as Sayyid writes, “fuel Muslim agency and empower the possibility of achieving an ethical horizon” (179).

3 thoughts on “Recalling the Caliphate book event — Rethinking the concept of the political

  1. I do not know which is worse: your ahistoricism or Sayyid’s? Any student of Islamic legal history could tell you that customary practices only supplemented the shari’a when they did not directly contradict it ( That is why, to use the most obvious example — and a Prophetic one, no less — in Muslim lands female infanticide was eradicated and female genital mutilation wasn’t. As for “the level of violence [being] qualitatively and quantitatively different,” that is hardly normative, nor would it matter even if it were. Lives and histories were lost either way ( And while we’re all busy rethinking this and recalling that, more will continue to be so in the future, especially considering that there is not a single conception of political Islam that would even begin to recognize the bare — to say nothing of equal — humanity of sexual minorities, for instance. Agamben, of course, is apt here, and so is sheer reality. If nothing else, surely the recent re-incarceration of Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and current opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is instructive in that regard. And the Malaysian government is not even Islamist!

  2. No: if the relationship between customary practices and the pre-codified shari’a was one of supplement, it was a necessary supplement (and therefore original). Sheer reality is less transparent than this comment.

  3. Yeah, I’m not sure what that comment is saying other than “Islam hasn’t solved every problem.” Sayyid acknowledges that it hasn’t and won’t. To hold it up to that impossible standard seems the ultimate ahistoricism — and I feel like I detect a certain essentialism behind it as well.

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