A Memory of Just Governance: Early Islamic History and Modern Islamist Governmental Theory in Egypt and Iran

By Aaron Hagler
Submitted to Session P3469 (Trajectories of Islamism, 2013 Annual Meeting
Egypt; Iran; Islamic World;
19th-21st Centuries; 7th-13th Centuries; Historiography; Islamic Studies; State Formation; Theory;
In the absence of divinely-revealed guidance on the proper system of modern forms of government, Sunni Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, have looked to the examples of the Rashidun Caliphs—in particular Abu Bakr and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab—to provide paradigms of proper governance. Shi’ite Islamist movements, on the other hand, do possess a divinely-revealed governmental structure of power, with the Imam and the regency of the jurist at the top.

While, in Sunni Islamist political discourse, the paradigms of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar occupy places of prestige and authority, it is not surprising to see the two figures, and other rivals of 'Ali, largely absent from Shi’ite treatises on governance, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Vilayat-i Faqih (“Governance of the Jurist”). Indeed, Khomeini argued that proper Islamic governance could be instituted without reliance on the precedents of the early Islamic community—a view in harmony with the Shi’ite notion of ‘aql (and the reluctant embracing of ijtihad after the ghayba kubra), and in opposition to the Sunni notion that bid’a is absolutely unacceptable. What role, then, does the history of early Shi’ite Islam play in developing Shi’ite notions of the “proper” governmental structure?

This article will contrast the role of early Islamic history in Shi’ite Islamist governmental theory (specifically in Iran) with its role in Sunni Islamist governmental theory (specifically in Egypt). It will also demonstrate that the different versions of the history that are remembered by each group, Sunni and Shi’ite, are used in different ways in the construction of political theories of governance.

This paper will draw on sources such as (from the Shi’ite side) Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Government and Islam and Revolution, Sachedina’s The Just Ruler in Shi’ite Islam, Skocpol’s “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution,” Zickmund’s “Constructing Political Identity: Religious Radicalism and the Rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution”, and Maghen’s “O Ali, O Husayn;" and (from the Sunni side), Qutb’s Milestones, Moussali’s Radical Islamic Fundamentalism, al-Samman’s Usus al-Hukm fi al-Islam, el-Hibri’s Parable and Politics, and, finally, Bayat’s “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution.”