The Problematic Notion of the “Islamic state” in the Discourses of Contemporary Islamists

By Sami Emile Baroudi
Submitted to Session P4737 (Reflections on the State and Statelessness in the Post-Arab Spring Era, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
The Arab uprisings have rekindled interest in "reviving" an "Islamic state". But long before 2011, contemporary Islamists have expended considerable ink on the notion of the “Islamic state”, elaborating on its origins, guiding principles and organization, and its relationship with non-Muslim states and peoples. This paper examines the conceptualizations of the "Islamic state" by four well-known Arab Islamist scholars: The Egyptian Mohammad Abu Zahra (1898-1974), Mahmoud Shaltut (1893-1963), and Yusuf Qaradawi (1926- ); and the Syrian Wahbah al-Zuhaili (1932-2015). Based on a close analysis of the discourses of these scholarly-sheikhs, I contend that they largely fail to provide clear and internally consistent answers to four key questions. First, does the “Islamic state” presently exist, or is it yet to be established; and if the latter is the case then by whom and how? Second, was the historic caliphate which allegedly extended from the death of the Prophet Muhamad in 632 until the Ottoman caliphate’s dissolution in 1923 an “Islamic state”? Third, is the “Islamic state” universal in scope, or can there be several Islamic states at the same time? Fourth, what is the relationship between the “Islamic state” and Islamic unity; and can the latter be achieved outside the context of the “Islamic state”? After providing a detailed critique of the answers they provide to the above four questions, I argue that the persistent ambiguities surrounding the notion of the “Islamic state” emanate from a political reading of the Quranic verses that refer to the Muslims as one Umma; particularly verse 21: 92 “This then is your Umma, a single Umma”. This paper makes two important and overlapping claims. First, contemporary Islamists construe the unity of the Muslim Umma, primarily in material/political terms (i.e. physical unity), rather than in emotive terms (i.e. feelings of compassion towards and solidarity with fellow Muslims). Second, their conceptualizations of the “Islamic state” are heavily influenced by “modern”/European ideas about the nation-state as a sovereign entity with authority over its citizens and territory. I conclude that the “Islamic state”— as imagined by contemporary Islamists – is a stillborn idea as it is a hybrid of two highly incompatible sets of genes: the Islamic tradition, which does not conceive the Umma in territorial terms, and the “modern”/ European notion of the territorial state. In sum, the “Islamic state” is not a plausible alternative to the troubled nation-state in the post-Arab Spring world.