Islamic Imperialism or a Political History of Islam?

By: on June 19, 2009 |

Of all the world’s major religions, none is at the center of as much controversy today as Islam. Wherever it comes in contact with other religions, a political storm arises. From Paris to the Balkans, Chechnya to Xinjiang, Kashmir to the Sudan, and most notably, in the heart of the Middle East itself, Islam seems unable to make peace with its neighbours. Various explanations, excuses and accusations have been made in response to this phenomenon. None, however, seem as prescient or as penetrating as that presented by Efraim Karsh in his latest work, Islamic Imperialism: A History.

Originally published in hardcover in 2006, and now released in paperback, the book is one of the most thoughtful analyses of Islam available today from one of the best writers on the Middle East. Karsh, currently Head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, and is known for taking some controversial positions that repeatedly challenge the accepted wisdom on the region. His works include books on Saddam Hussein, the Iran-Iraq War, Soviet involvement in the Middle East and Israeli history.

While the title of the present work suggests an historical treatment, the book is much more than that. Its stated goal is not merely to provide a history of Islam, but to use Islam’s history to demonstrate a recurring trait running throughout that history: imperialism. According to Karsh, imperialism constitutes the essence, the nature of Islam. It is only by understanding this nature, and by studying its successive historical incarnations, that we can have insight into the political crisis affecting Islam as well as its relations with the rest of the world.

Though many books have been written regarding Islam, Karsh’s stands out because it takes a unique perspective in that he explores the nature of Islam itself. But having done that, he goes further, asking a question that is rarely considered in any depth today. Karsh asks, given this nature, what does that mean for the political life of Islam? While this may not initially appear to be a unique approach, further reflection on the state of religious studies today, along with political studies, will suggest that Karsh has indeed produced a rare work.

This innovative perspective is something to which Karsh himself draws our attention in the first pages of his book. As he notes, there are some rather common approaches to the study of Islam today, none of them too helpful. There are those that treat Islam and its current crisis as a function of envy, specifically envy of once backwards Europe that, through the centuries, has risen to replace Islam as the center of power and civilization. The works of Bernard Lewis figure prominently in this category. While penetrating and insightful, this perspective tends to treat Islam as a function of its relations with the West, rather than seeking to understand what Islam is in itself.

Another approach, not uncommon in some academic institutions, is to treat Islam’s current problems as the result of western colonialism and mismanagement; the most recent manifestation of this imperial interference being inept American intervention and intransigent Israeli militarism. Once again, western influence is front and center, but this time it is tinged with a more sinister anti-Western ideology that still finds a home among leftist intellectuals.

From the outset, Karsh treads a different path. Rather than viewing Islam in terms of its foreign relations, he looks at it in terms of its own experience, its own history and its own nature. This is the first way Karsh sets himself apart from many other commentators, but it leads to a more important and more profound difference. The common approach to religion today is to treat it primarily as a cultural heritage, along with other cultural phenomena. Rather than treating a specific religion as an authoritative source for the obedient, each religion is subsumed under the notion of religion in general, rendering each religion worthy of respect as a cultural possession, but not as a source of truth offering an opinion about the Good. The effect of such an approach is to obscure significant insight into each religion on its own terms. Rather, religions are approached as one of many cultural manifestations all deserving of respect and tolerance, especially if those religions find their origins outside the western context where Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism dominate.

What does this mean in the case of Islam? As regards the religion of Muhammad, this leaves us with the recurring refrain that Islam is really a peace-loving religion being abused by a small minority of radical terrorists. Often tacked on is the assertion that these terrorists are born out of the social context of domestic political corruption, buttressed by American self-interest, oil politics and oppressive Israelis. Karsh does not buy this refrain. Rather, he defies the multicultural illusion regarding pacific Islam and goes to the heart of the matter. Islam is not a peaceful religion misused by radicals. Rather, it is one of the most militaristic religions known to man, and it is precisely this militaristic heritage that informs the actions of radicals throughout the Muslim world.

But we have to be cautious here. Karsh is not attacking Islam; he is trying to understand it as it sees itself, and that means both historically and philosophically. So what is Islam then? As Karsh argues, it is an imperialistic religion seeking universal dominion over the whole earth; it is a manifestly political religion. Islam, like Judaism, consists of a law that is intended to guide the lives of its followers in great detail. As such, it has an immediate corresponding political element. But unlike Judaism, it is also universal, seeking to expand its rule over the entire earth. Judaism, by contrast, limits itself to the particular Jewish people, though it has a universalism imbedded in its view of the world, one that became more prominent in writings such as the later Isaiah.

As far as universalism is concerned, however, Islam is much closer to Christianity. Like Islam, Christianity professes a universal sense of its mission, but it professes it in a creed, not in specific laws. This is the great difference between Christianity on the one hand and both Judaism and Islam on the other. Christianity tends to have something of an imperial view of itself, but Christ’s dominion is primarily for the future, not for this world. Hence, Christianity concerns itself with true doctrine (orthodoxy) while Islam and Judaism are concerned with true practice (orthopraxy). Christianity, especially its western version, has, at its core, a sense of separation between the city of man and the city of God. Islam entertains no such notion apart from a few mystical sects derived largely from Christian mysticism.

Thus, as Karsh points out, Islam is an imperial political religion that seeks to extend its worldly law over all humans in the present. In other words, as the nation-state with its interaction between church and state is the political form proper to western Christianity, so the empire is the political form proper to Islam. Not surprisingly, this leads to a militaristic approach to non-Muslims and against other Muslims. It is this innate militarism that Karsh sees operating throughout Islamic history. He traces it through the three great empires of the Umayyads, the Abbasids and the Ottomans, and he notes both their strengths and their weaknesses. And here again, Karsh does not simply accept clichés. He does not accord with the common academic interpretation to the effect that Islamic empires were all sources of toleration and civilization. Like all political entities, they could be both tolerant and oppressive. The Umayyad dynasty in medieval Spain stands out for both its openness and its civilizational achievements. But there were problems as well, and Karsh quickly picks up on these. Most notable in this regard is the problem of internecine fighting. The Muslim empires were often beset by palace intrigues within as well as by threats from those on the fringes of the empire who were not incorporated into its political life. Islamic empires are not unique in this, but they have tended to endure significant violent challenges to authority. According to Karsh, this occurs because, on the political level, each would-be ruler is seeking sole imperial dominion. The imperial drive imbedded in Islam makes it very difficult for its political rulers to settle for anything other than universal authority. The outcome is ongoing and often violent discord whereby one must fight to reach the top and then fight to stay there, not to mention the difficulty of a smooth succession between rulers. Now, one can argue that this phenomenon is common in all parts of the world, in all political regimes, but in the case of Islam it tends to be the prominent driving force in politics and one accompanied by a great degree of wilful violence.

Having laid out this historical pattern, Karsh moves ahead to the twentieth century, the fall of the Ottomans and the rise of pan-Arabism and radical Islam. Once again, Karsh looks for the imperial impetus driving the modern Islamic world. He finds it in the various intrigues of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran where each national ruler sought to harness the imperial throne for himself. Karsh lays out in detail the various machinations of the Faisals, of Nasser and Saddam, of the revolutionary movement in Iran and of what drives men like Osama bin Laden. In each case, that drive is imperial dominion. But there are some subtle differences between these post-Ottoman rulers and the great imperial rulers that came before, and these differences are reflected in one of the other great assets of this book.

As already noted, Karsh does not fall into the trap of treating religion as simply another cultural manifestation, as is so often done in academia today. But he also tends to avoid another trap: he does not simply buy into the assumption that religion (as a cultural force) is separable from politics (treated as the domain of power). One of the main reasons religion is reduced to cultural heritage in modern thought is that this serves to separate it from politics. And in the case of a religion like Islam, this approach makes understanding Islam and politics impossible. Karsh, however, treats Islam as a religion with a nature, and then looks at how that nature works itself out in politics. He does not separate the religion from politics. By following this approach, he avoids turning politics into simple power relationships devoid of meaning. Rather, he sees religion as influencing politics and linked to it, but he also sees them as distinct realms. This allows him to analyze insightfully the political life and history of Islam rather than subsuming politics under the religious or cultural history of Islam.

Of course, the question may arise: So what? Does it really make a difference how one conceptually looks at the problem? Actually, it makes a huge difference, both intellectually and politically. If one conceives of religion as a cultural force entirely separate from politics, two things occur. The first is the indulgence of that religion according to standards of tolerance without actually understanding the religion and how it does in fact influence politics. This leads us back to the view that Islam is really a peaceful religion high-jacked by radicals for their political ends. Oddly enough, it is that very view that is shared by those same radicals. Men like Osama bin Laden also believe that religion is separate from politics, that politics is mere power games played by the Saudi royal family in league with America and Israel. He too conceives of religion as something outside of political life, but in his view, it is more than just a cultural force, it is an unrelenting law that should be imposed through violence regardless of the damage it does to the political realm. In this regard, there is a distinct difference between Osama bin Laden and the old Islamic empires. A new ideology has entered into Islam, a foreign ideology, and it is the strict separation of religion and politics – a modern western doctrine.

It is this ironic intrusion into radical Islam from the West that must be understood if we want to grasp the current political problems besetting Muslims as well as their neighbours. Karsh points directly to this problem, though he tends to emphasize Islam’s imperial past working itself out in twentieth century movements. On this aspect, while I agree with Karsh regarding both his method and the resulting analysis, I would argue that it is also important to understand how western doctrines on the separation of religion and politics have contributed to the disorder in Islam, while also making it impossible to understand the political form appropriate to Islam.

Karsh is clear that the pan-Arabism of Nasser along with the radicalism of bin Laden and the Iranian revolution are different from preceding empires, but there is a dynamic here that needs to be fully explored and emphasized. The dogma that religion is a cultural force separate from politics is an off-shoot, interestingly enough, of western Christendom and its own nature whereby its universalism is reserved for the next world. This differentiation caused numerous problems and conflicts in Europe, most clearly expressed in the works of Dante. Ultimately, the distinction was turned into the modern doctrine of separation in order to banish religious opinion (along with any opinion about the Good) from politics. This doctrine has had both positive and negative results; the negative results being the attempt to bar religion entirely from the public sphere and to turn it into a cultural heritage. This doctrine found something of a home with men like Egypt’s Nasser, but religion banished has a tendency to return as radical religion, devoid of reason or political prudence. This return of the gods played no small part in many of the ideological and intellectual movements that plagued Europe throughout the twentieth century. It is not surprising that many of the leaders of radical Islam were themselves schooled in these ideologies by professors in France, Britain and the United States. So, while radical Islam today is, as Karsh points out, attempting to resurrect the imperial history inherent to Islam, it does so within an intellectual framework foreign to Islam. Thus we have a double misconception. The radicals think they are true to Islam when in fact they are betraying it for a doctrine devised by western intellectuals. At the same time, the western intellectuals and commentators, trapped within their own doctrine, fail to see that the Islamic radicals are not betraying the presumed peaceful nature of Islam, but rather are betraying Islam – an inherently militaristic, but still political religion – because those radicals share the apolitical doctrine of the western commentators, now merged with Islamic imperialism.

Karsh does us the great service of departing from both misconceptions. He shows us what Islam really is and what this means for politics, while giving no ground to the Islamic radicals who have merged a foreign doctrine with the imperial nature of Islam to seek a new empire that has no respect for any political form, be it empire or nation. But this leaves me with one difficulty as concerns Karsh’s book. Having undertaken this significant analysis, having departed from the misconceptions surrounding both Islam and its treatment by westerners, Karsh seems to endorse an odd solution for Islam. In the epilogue to his book, he briefly makes the point that what Muslims must do is accept that their religion be understood as a private faith. Given all that has come before, it seems a strange and somewhat unlikely conclusion. If Islam is inherently imperial, and if many of the problems of analyzing that imperialism derive from a doctrine that artificially separates religion from politics, not to mention the disastrous effects it is producing through radical Islamic movements, then is it not a bit strange and utopian to counsel that separation? On the other hand, while the doctrine of separations has its clear problems, it has also produced some practical benefits, at least in western Christendom. Politically, that may be the best that can be hoped for in the Muslim world, but we must also be aware of and understand the political history of Islam if we are to deal with the political crisis of Islam today.

About Collin May

Collin May, a member of C2C’s editorial board, is a graduate of Harvard and the Ecole des hautes etudes in Paris. His area of specialization is the history of

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