Michael Kennedy: Islam and the Modern State

Scholars across disciplines have debated the relationships between Muslims and the Modern State; across geographic, temporal, and demographic circumstances, majority Muslim states have faced unique challenges both international and domestic. To some political scientists, these issues stem from Muslim’s hesitancy to adopt the secularization and centralization of Western modern powers. Others have argued that state-building processes were sabotaged by direct European colonization and ongoing relations of economic imperialism. In the contemporary era, fundamentalist critiques of the state have been mischaracterized as extremist; while modern Islamic extremism functions off of fundamentalist ideologies, these critiques are important to understand as political philosophy. It is important to distinguish that Islam and political understandings drawing upon Islam are not monolithic, but highly diverse throughout history and in the contemporary era. Scholar Carl Brown, in his work summarizing the various political ideologies and their unique- and often conflicting- ideas of the optimal state, explains the biases of essentializing Islamic approaches to politics to one idea:

“… the history of Muslims and Islamic civilizations is too rich, diverse, and ever changing to be reduced to a few eternal essentials… No one suggests a timeless and unchanging Christian approach to politics. The same should hold for Islam. The possible difference in its worldly manifestations between the Christianity of Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, or Luther is readily accepted. Christianity has a history. So does Islam. Christianity also has its diversity. To take just modern American examples, one appreciates that Paul Tillich and Billy Graham both fit under the rubric Christian. The same holds for a high church Episcopal service and a revivalist tent meeting. Islam has its equivalents.”[i]

Case Study- Egypt and the Impetus of Conflict

The modern crises of modernity stem from the European colonial presence and direct colonization in the Middle East from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century. However, it is important to distinguish that changes in Middle Eastern (and Muslim-ruled) states was not entirely European-imposed. For example, Egypt- though technically still belonging to the Ottoman Empire- was transformed into a modern state through the rule of Muhammad Ali and his dynasty until British directly colonized in 1882. The government bureaucracy, educational system, and military was based off a French model, whether these changes were attempts to fend off European aggression or out of genuine admiration for Western state capacities is still a debated issue. Regardless, the structures of the modern state conflicted with the institutions of pre-modern Muslim society. Under the rule of Isma’il Pasha, the Egyptian government created Mixed Courts governed by French law that overruled the pre-existing Shari’a courts and laws agreed upon by Islamic jurists. This issue, in the words of William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, put Egyptian society “…in conflict with itself.” [ii]

The example of Egypt demonstrates not only the ways in which modernity caused conflict with pre-modern Islamic ideas but also suggests the different approaches taken by Muslims to address this conflict. Contemporarily, most Muslims believe in one of two frameworks for understanding this conflict. The accommodationist perspective suggests that domestic issues pre-existent within Muslim society are of major issue; foreign solutions can be used to transform the Muslim state and society’s problems. The anti-colonial perspective posits that the issues plaguing Muslim society have been largely foreign, especially imperialism, and that the solutions to these issues are mixing pre-Islamic institutions and practices with modern technologies and approaches. While the colonial legacies of European resource extraction and divide and rule allows many to relate to the anticolonial framework, the Egypt example demonstrates that the accommodationist perspective has had a formative role shaping Middle Eastern states.

Accommodationist Approaches

The recent Arab Spring served as a “wake up call” to the world that a vast population of Muslims from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, are dissatisfied with their current governments. While the circumstances of political strife differed in each country, the mass demonstrations of 2011 demonstrated had some common themes. Muslims protested governmental regimes that abused constitutional authority, suppressed dissent, were unfair to ethnic and religious minorities, and held on to massive power. These framings suggest that rulers were not living to the values of the state and that the issues present in their societies were due to the people in power, not the systems of power themselves. Believers in this system advocate that modern forms of government are compatible with Islamic visions of community and justice, but that state actors must be replaced.

In some of the more successful Arab Spring movements, the people embraced modern democratic reform. The religious Ennahda Party won Tunisia’s first free elections in October of 2011 on the platform of ending repressive tactics of the previous regime.[iii] Although the Party was voted out of power in the following election, the example demonstrates not only how some Muslims are relying on pre-existing government structures to create reform but have been able to incorporate Islam into their politics.

Anti-Colonial Approaches

Anti-colonialists are much more critical of the modern state, some arguing that it’s theory conflicts with the practices and tenants of Islam itself. Rather than an anarchist position, it contends that the European ideals embedded into the modern form of government-such as self-autonomy and the creation of morals through law-were not made to coexist with Islamic practice. Recognizing the imposition of modern forms of government onto Muslim-majority countries, they advocate that the state and governance be reformed to best fit the contemporary practical and religious needs of citizens. One of the most prominent conflicts is between secular law and Shari’iah. Wael Hallaq extensively discusses these tensions in his book The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. Hallaq explains:

“The Shari’a… represented and was consititued by a moral law… Its paradigmatic status for us lies in the very fact of its being a moral system in which law (in the modern sense) was a tool and a technique that was subordinated to and enmeshed in the overarching moral apparatus but was not an end in itself. In the Shari’a, the legal is the instrument of the moral, not the other way around.” [iv]

While the deal law ensures the moral, Hallaq argues that the modern state utilizes coercive tactics to enforce the legal and tends to ensure that judges routinely uphold the interests of the state over the moral obligation to its people.[v] Those that share the anti-colonial view of modernity hope to create a universalist form of government that can utilize the capacities of the modern state but build that state upon the moral frameworks of Islam. The Iranian Revolution is considered the most successful of these ventures in combatting conflicts of modernity by incorporating an Islamic theocracy into the Iranian central government. However, Hallaq is critical of this venture and suggests deeper reflection of the capability of Islam and the state.

Fundamentalist Reactions

The most radical Islamic responses to the crises of modernity have stemmed from fundamentalist approaches. Fundamentalists believe that the various conflicts that arose with modernity, including colonialism, could have been avoided if Muslims did not reform over their history. Though there are competing fundamentalist ideologies, all promote one specific understanding of the Qur’an and hadith and a return to the way of life of the earliest Muslims. Although many anti-colonialist Muslims want to strengthen the role of Shari’a, they do not share the belief in a single literal translation of Islamic law that fundamentalists do. Fundamentalists deny the validity of thousands of years of Islamic law and jurisprudence that has shaped most contemporary understandings of Shari’a.

ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are two of the most prominent groups promoting fundamentalist governance, utilizing violence as means to coerce local populations to support them. Although extremist and fundamentalist ideologies are not shared among most Muslims, it is important to understand these ideologies as political visions in reaction to modernism. Carl Brown elaborates:

“These calls for being true to one’s religious roots, so common of late, must not mislead, however. The radical Islamists offer not simply a ‘return of Islam’ in the sense of getting back to some history-defying Islamic essence. They also advance new ideas served up in familiar old terms. Although the radical Islamists… claim to be restoring the golden age of the early Islamic period, they are, in many important respects, revolutionaries.”[vi]

Fundamentalists are advancing a political vision that depends on the past as means of addressing modern issues; the governance of the Taliban and the Islamic State are radically different by goal. These examples do not represent most Muslim’s vision of state change nor their vision of Shari’a. The fundamentalist project is highly intertwined with Islam, but so are most Muslim’s politics; the same can be said for followers of any religion.


To effectively understand the political phenomenon in the Middle East, from the Arab Spring to ISIS, one cannot look at factors of politics without religion and vice versa. Modern governments pose conflict for practicing Muslims across the world, and the different theoretical approaches to these conflicts differ across political beliefs and religious understandings.

[i] Carl L. Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pg. 175.

[ii] William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East. Sixth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2016. Pg. 90.

[iii] Mahallati, “The Arab Spring: Failure or Transition” Class Lecture, 10/5/2017.

[iv] Wael B. Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pg. 15-16.

[v] Hallaq, Pg. 40.

[vi] Brown, pg. 176.


Works Cited

Carl L. Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

Wael B. Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press

William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East. Sixth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press