The Prophet and the Modern State

ANR/DFG Workshop,

Ruhr University Bochum, 17-18 May 2018

Venue: Centrum für Religionswissenschaftliche Studien (CERES)


(Read the full program here)

Since the emergence of the early Muslim empires, the image of the Prophet Muḥammad as a successful and divinely guided war leader and statesman became a model inspiring many Muslim communities of different times and regions in their manifold and often rivalling political projects, whether in imamates, caliphates sultanates, or in the different forms of tribal or communal confederation. More recently, the aura of the Prophet was also evoked by them for the establishment of modern nation states with their monopoly of legitimate violence, their political and bureaucratic structure, their legal and economic system, and especially for their ethical and ideological legitimation. Time and again, the Prophetic model has also been instrumental for the self-empowerment of Muslim individuals and communities in their resistance against foreign powers and, later, against their own governments, justifying an opposition that often included militant action and even terrorism. The political dimensions of the claim to Prophetic legitimacy for Muslim statehood in the 20thand 21th century, after the disempowerment of the larger Muslim states and empires and the ensuing experience of European hegemony, still need to be fully worked out within a comparative framework of study.

The third workshop of our ANR/DFG project The Presence of the Prophet: Muhammad in the Mirror of His Community in Early Modern and Modern Islamengages with this task, as it shall analyse representations of the Prophet that have operated in Muslim states and political movements since the end of the 19thcentury. Four periods of intense political change will shape our approach to his political image:

The first period (ca. 1908-1925)includes the Young Turk revolution, the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution 1917 in Russia, the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. It also covers the transformation of Iran between the Constitutional Revolution and the establishment of the Pahlavi monarchy. Along with the modernist projects in Turkey, Iran and the Soviet Union with their sometimes fiercely secular and even anti-religious policies, the resilience and novel establishment of sharifianmonarchies (in Morocco, Libya, Jordan, Iraq, and Yemen), often instrumentalized by European colonial policies, also belongs to this period.

The second period (ca. 1947-1968)is characterized by the successes of national independence movements and socialist revolutions after the Second World War. Tension between political groups and parties formed by Islamists and secular nationalists, socialists and communists in different configurations and alliances shaped the emergence and development of the new states established in Pakistan (1947) and Indonesia (1949), and also the new independent states of the Arab world. Whereas Islamist mass movements – in this period largely suppressed – pursued their own vision of an Islamic society based on the model of the Prophetic sunna, the regimes established by socialist and nationalist revolutions forced the traditional religious institutions under tight control by the state, at the same time promoting their own ideological images of the Prophet. The defeat of the Arab nationalist and socialist regimes in the Six Day War 1967 and, at the same time, the general crackdown on communist parties in different Muslim countries (beginning in Indonesia 1965) prepared the ground for a novel rise of Islamist political aspirations.

The third period (ca. 1979-1991)was preceded by an unmistakable growth of Islamic religious practice in different Muslim countries and shaped by a continuing weakening of the Soviet Union and her communist and socialist allies. It began with the Iranian Revolution and the attack on the Ḥaram in Mecca, and finally culminated in the breakdown of the Soviet Union. In the course of these events, social Islamization and Islamic political and military movements gained further momentum in many Muslim countries, including several post-Soviet states.

The fourth period (2000 to the present)can be regarded as culmination of Islamist social and political influence and activities. It has been shaped to a large extent by the rise and spectacular successes of new jihadist movements in different parts of the Muslim world and beyond, the outcome and impact of which still remains to be assessed.

The comparative study of the diverse and competing political representations of the Prophet will bring out an ongoing process of both secularization and renewed sacralization of the Prophetic image and model, a process which has gone along with an increasingly globalized struggle over this image and its control. The recourse to Muḥammad’s authority for political legitimation can be found oscillating between the sacralization of existing rule and the political ideologization of the Prophetic image itself. The mentioned sharifianmonarchies base their very legitimacy on the claim to Prophetic descent. The socialist regimes of the 1950s and 1960s, on the other hand, ideologized his figure as the first socialist (Nasserism) or as an ideal revolutionary (Baʿthism). In opposition to secular ideology, Ayatollah Khomeynī even attributed an authority approaching that of Muḥammad himself to the leading Islamic scholar for the administration of society.

A further field of inquiry will focus on the role of the Prophetic model in state and nation building, and in the formation of public institutions and structures. Its central questions will be related to the sacralization of modern constitutions through Prophetic references, the synthesis of modern law with classical Islamic law and hadith, and the significance of the Prophetic biography (sīra) for public education. This also includes Islamic ceremonies which came under state patronage and control in the 20thcentury, such as the still widely used oath of allegiance (bayʿa) to the ruler, the official organization of the pilgrimage (ḥajj), the control and political use of Friday sermons, and of the celebrations of Muḥammad’s birthday (mawlid) and his night journey (miʿrāj).

A final section of the workshop will discuss the Prophet’s significance for individual and collective mobilization and empowerment and will concentrate on Islamic mass organizations and missionary daʿwamovements with their religious activities, their social and educational programs, and their interaction with the state. It further focuses on the transformation of religious living practice into a mobilization tool of political and sectarian struggle, ushering in the rise of militant jihadist organizations such as the Ṭālibān,al-Qāʿida, and lately the so-called Islamic State, where the Prophet has been brought out again as a model warrior fighting against a world of unbelievers.







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