New Books Network Review: Islam and the Arab Revolutions

By James M. Dorsey

Usaama al-Azami’s Islam and the Arab Revolutions: The Ulama Between Democracy and Autocracy (Oxford University Press, 2022) focuses on the responses of several prominent Muslim religious scholars towards the 2011 Arab popular revolts, particularly in Egypt, that toppled long-standing autocratic leaders. It also looks at their reaction to the subsequent military coup in 2013 that overthrew Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader and led to the brutal and bloody repression of anti-coup protests.


However, the book’s significance goes far beyond the events surrounding the Egyptian revolt by discussing the relationship between the Muslim clergy and the state and the theology and jurisprudence that is central not only to the revolts but to the competition between major Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states in defining what constitutes Islam, and particularly moderate Islam, in an era of geopolitical transition.


Mr. Al-Azami’s narrative juxtaposes the pro-revolt legal opinions of the Qatar-backed cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, widely viewed as one of Islam’s most prominent living scholars, and those of two Egyptian scholars beholden to the Egyptian state, Al Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb and former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, as well as two scholars who are backed by and reflect the United Arab Emirates’ militant advocacy of autocracy, Abdullah Bin Bayyah and Yusuf Hamza.


In laying bare the issues that divide the scholars, the book shines a spotlight on two major fault lines in Islamic jurisprudence as it relates to political governance: the relationship between the ruler and the ruled and how to prevent anarchy and chaos.


Mr. Qaradawi rejects the principle supported by counterrevolutionary scholars of Muslims owing unconditional absolute obedience to their ruler and defends their right to oppose and peacefully resist unjust rule. Similarly, Mr. Qaradawi argues that greater transparency and accountability prevents anarchy and chaos while counterrevolutionaries believe that only strengthened autocracy can maintain order.


None of this makes Mr. Qaradawi a democrat even if he would like to be seen as such. Nonetheless, he has developed an Islamic legal argument for a more open political system that is at loggerheads with the legitimization of autocracy developed by Mr. Bin Bayyah, Mr. Qaradawi’s erstwhile associate-turned rival.


The differences highlighted in Mr. Al-Azami’s book, as well as a recently published work by David H. Warren, who will be a guest on this show in the coming weeks, take on significance because they are between influential clerics who have provided religious legitimacy for policies and/or shaped the thinking of rulers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.


By laying out the different positions in great documented detail, Mr. Al-Azami ‘s book makes an important contribution to an understanding of debates among scholars in which, in his words, counterrevolutionaries have for now the political upper hand whilst more reform-minded clerics retain the discursive high ground.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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