Contemporary Islamist Perspectives on International Relations: The Discourse of Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra (1898-1974)

By Sami Emile Baroudi
Submitted to Session P4691 (Islamist Discourses in MENA, 2016 Annual Meeting
Intl Rltns/Aff
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper examines the international relations discourse of a prominent Egyptian, Azharite religious scholar (’alim) and public intellectual: Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra. Despite Abu Zahra’s prominence in the Islamic world – which earned him the appellation: “Imam of His Era” – his writings have received scant attention from Arab and non-Arab academics. The paper seeks to partially rectify this by presenting a close reading of Abu Zahra’s two principal works on international relations: al-‘Alaqat al-Duwaliya fi al-Islam (International Relations in Islam) and al-Wihda al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity). This reading has two aims: First, it seeks to shed light on three principal themes that permeate his works on international relations; the underpinning principles of international relations, the meaning of jihad and its role in the contemporary era, and the road to Islamic unity. The second more ambitious aim is to situate Abu Zahra’s international relations discourse within its proper historic and ideational contexts. The paper thus reads this discourse against the backdrop of two pivotal twentieth century developments: 1) the division of the Muslim world into separate, often rival, independent states and 2) the proliferation of political, economic and cultural ties between Muslim and non-Muslim states. Dissecting Abu Zahra’s responses to these watershed developments, the paper posits that he adopts an embracing stance which advocates for an incremental, long-term and peaceful approach to achieving Islamic unity(whose realization does not hinge on establishing a universal caliphate),while encouraging strengthening ties with non-Muslim states as being in line with the tenets of Islam which, according to Abu Zahra, emphasize peace, collaboration and dialogue among peoples. On the ideational plane, the paper explores the impact of the ideas of the renowned religious reformers Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905) on Abu Zahra; and the latter’s influence on the international relations discourses of more recent prominent Islamist scholars, such as Wahba al-Zuhaili (1932-2015) and Yusuf Qaradawi (1926- ). The paper argues that Abu Zahra represents an indispensable link in one unbroken chain of reformist (or modernist) religious thought, which extended for over a century from al-Afghani and Abdu to Zuhaili and Qaradawi. Clearly, international relations constituted a central, albeit understudied, arena in which this reformist current manifested itself. Finally, analyzing Abu Zahra’s discourse provides an opportunity to compare the Islamic reformist international relations’ perspective to that of salafi-jihadist movements.