A movement in motion
IF MAULANA MAUDOODI, one of two or three people who gave birth to modern political Islam, were to travel through the Muslim world now, he would find some mildly pleasant and very unpleasant surprises. Some 35 years after his death, the political movement he founded, Jamaat-i-Islami, remains an influential force in Pakistan, especially in the area bordering Afghanistan. In Bangladesh, meanwhile, the movement’s leaders look likely to be executed (one has been already) on war-crimes charges relating to the country’s independence struggle in 1971, which they opposed.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was certainly influenced by Maudoodi’s thinking, has seen its fortures soar and then crash; a Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president in June 2012, only to be ousted by the army last July. The Brotherhood was declared to be a terrorist group last month, and today security forces were clashing with Brotherhood supporters in several parts of Egypt. Among prominent Egyptian Muslims, Maudoodi especiallyinspired Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist thinker who was executed in 1966; and Qutb in turn influenced the future leaders of al-Qaeda as well as Brotherhood offshoots which were not quite so extreme.
For south Asian Muslims living in the West, the legacy of Maudoodi and Jamaat remains quite strong (stronger in certain Bangladeshi-settled parts of east London, for example, than it is in Bangladesh), but it has also mellowed a little. The Islamic Foundation, a research institution based in Leicester in the English Midlands, published several of Maudoodi’s works in English and hence brought them to the attention of politically active British Muslims; but the Foundation now strongly denies any particular association with Jamaat, and stresses its credentials as an inter-faith dialogue partner.
Maudoodi had a huge effect on the course of the 20th century, by insisting that Islam in a pure and rigorous form could be a recipe for contemporary life, law and politics. But he is now seen, even by his admirers, as a “historical figure” rather than someone whose exact prescriptions could still be applied. At any rate, that’s the conclusion of a German-born scholar, now a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Britain, who has spent 15 years studying Maudoodi’s life and work. As Jan-Peter Hartung recalls in “A System of Life”, it was Maudoodi who popularised the use of certain key words which assertive Muslims still like to use: words like jahiliyyah—ignorance—which can mean either the benighted state of the world before Islam, or (on Islamist lips) the state of affairs when the rulers of Muslim societies govern in a secular way instead of following Islam. But these days, even the people who use Maudoodi’s terminology are investing it with new meanings, Mr Hartung says.
It’s hard to generalise about the ways in which followers of Maudoodi’s vision of an Islamic state have evolved. Some have become more pragmatic and compromising, some even more Utopian, some more fanatically and almost nihilistically violent. You could say the same of Karl Marx’s followers: some turned into social democrats only a millimetre to the left of centre, some grew more committed to using force, others insisted they would settle for nothing less than a worldwide, class-free paradise.
Amidst all this tangle of evidence, are there any lessons about how the genie of violent Islamism might be kept at bay? One negative point jumps out; brutal repression does not work, in situations where political Islam has a strong popular base. The experience of Egypt seems to illustrate this point. Hanging Sayyid Qutb did not exorcise his ideology; his stature, whether among future terrorists or non-violent advocates of Islamism, only grew after his execution. Maudoodi, who died peacefully in New York state, is much less remembered. If the Bangladeshi authorities execute the entire Jamaat leadership, or if Egypt now starts putting to death prominent Brotherhood activists, the countervailing reaction could once again be pretty fierce.
(Photo credit: AFP)