The Future of Political Islam?


Review of The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thoughtby Andrew F. March

Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019



The Middle East is still reeling from the violent failure of the so-called Arab spring. Many Islamists in the region had hoped that the ouster of former dictators Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia would open up a democratic space for Islamist groups to make their project of Islamizing state and society in Egypt and Tunisia more of a reality. In Egypt, while it appeared that the Muslim Brotherhood was in a position to do so, control of the Muslim Brotherhood was brought to an end in 2013 by a “popular-backed” military coup. Most of Egypt’s state institutions survived and remained relatively unchanged. Amendments that Islamist groups made to the constitution were partially reversed. In Tunisia, while the outcome was much less violent, the Islamist Ennahda party had to compromise with secularist groups, a compromise which included giving up the sharia provision in the constitution.

The failure of the Arab spring has no doubt focused many minds on the future direction of political Islam. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, political Islam has largely failed to bring about lasting democratic revolutionary change. While it has brought about some legal and social change, the relative lack of its success raises the question of what political Islam is really calling for and how can its goals be reconciled with practical and institutional realities. This is the starting point for Andrew March’s investigation of the concept of popular sovereignty in Islamist politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. March asks whether a new democratic Islamic politics can work given the two issues facing many Middle Eastern societies: the divisions over the question of religion and the endurance of state structures inherited from colonial regimes.

March’s main concern lies at the heart of modern democratic Islamic political thought—what is the relationship between divine and popular sovereignty? March quite rightly eschews the question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible. Rather, he probes the various visions that Islamist thinkers have of a democratic Islamic politics, which advocates the concept of “dual sovereignty according to which the people’s supremacy over its governors is absolute” while also being constrained by a higher, divine sovereignty” in the form of Islamic law (x). Yet, “what does it mean,” March asks, “to hold that both God and the people can be said to be ‘sovereign’” (xvii)?

March conducts an excellent in-depth investigation of some key intellectual figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to tease out the complexities of the commitments to divine and popular sovereignty. This dual conception sovereignty is referred to as the caliphate of man, which encapsulates the idea that humankind is a collective custodian of God’s sovereignty and that mankind is “God’s vicegerent—or caliph—on earth” (xi). God is the principal agent and has entrusted the umma (the Muslim community), his deputy, with the realization of Islamic law.

In some respects, March’s work is a kind of genealogy of the concept of the caliphate of man. Yet, March points out that this is not a simple genealogy that connects all the missing links. Rather, March focuses on a selection of thinkers, prioritizing in-depth analysis over broad coverage. He thus follows a debate “that has some internal coherence and shared lineage,” even though some of the thinkers represent “more radical breaks and realignments” (153).

March identifies the seeds of “a commitment to popular sovereignty” in the thought of the Egyptian thinker Muhammad Rashid Rida (40). In the wake of the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, Rida argued for its continued necessity because, the caliph, he argued, guaranteed the rule of law. To perform this role, the caliph should be an independent scholar able to undertake ijtihad (legal reasoning). This would enable the caliph to have considerable legal discretion. While Rida emphasized the semi-sovereign role of the juristic elite and not the umma at large, he did lay the seeds of the concept of popular sovereignty by emphasizing that the caliph is an “agent of the people charged with enacting the law that is the patrimony of all Muslims” (46-7).

March then proceeds to the Pakistani thinker Abu Al-‛Ala Mawdudi. With Mawdudi, the idea that man is God’s vicegerent “fully enters the intellectual bloodstream of modern Islamic thought” (xx). While for Mawdudi, the scholarly experts still have an extensive role, he emphasizes the umma’s “collective custodianship of God’s sovereignty” (78). Indeed, March points out that “the responsibility to uphold God’s presence on earth is difficult to monopolize. Rather, it pulses and circulates throughout the entire umma (103). In Mawdudi there is the beginning “of a belief in a kind of ‘sovereign believer’” who can resist laws that are contrary to the sharia and—potentially—interpret it (103). Yet Mawdudi’s populism was still limited since “a people’s freedom should only extend as far as authorizing state power to enact God’s law” (83).

An analysis of the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb follows. Qutb employs a common trope in Islamist apologetics concerning the practically or ease of Islamic law and its harmony with human nature. Qutb claims that Islamic law reflects “the essential needs and motivations of fitra” (the innate nature of human beings) and constitutes a perfect “concession to human inclinations” (117; 133). March shows how such a trope is linked to Qutb’s populist political vision, since “the divine law is the law we should give ourselves” (116). The claim is that “Islam is not only easy or practical but is also fundamentally emancipatory for human selves” (115).

One of the many strengths of this work is that March undertakes a detailed reading of the thought of these key intellectual figures utilizing numerous primary sources. March engages with their work in a kind of dialogue constantly pushing back against their arguments and thinking through their implications. He points out the contradictions, tensions, and unresolved questions. March raises as many questions as he answers. For example, he asks in relation to Mawdudi, “if we need the sharī‘a to make us free, how can we choose the sharī’a before we are free? Although our nature may incline us to Islam, we need to be socialized to virtue through the law before we can fully apprehend the sharī’a’s emancipatory quality” (91).

Here, March points to what he sees as one of the greatest challenges undergirding democratic Islamic politics: the assumption of a unified collective will. For Mawdudi, for democracy to be curtailed by Islamic law, it must be based on an association of “people already committed to specific and shared moral ends” (109). It is with the thought of the Tunisian thinker and politician Rashid Ghannushi that the emphasis upon the need for a collective will as a basis for democracy is taken further. The people’s commitment to the law “is both prior to and immediately constitutive of the people” (187). This moral unity is necessary for “the functioning and flourishing of the political realm” (164). It is the law that enables people to legitimize or de-legitimize those who rule in their name. For Ghannushi, “the right of any particular human to command and coerce another is derived solely from the authority of God’s law” (158). Likewise, the ability of the people to check tyranny exists “precisely because the sharī’a is seen as emanating from outside even the people’s own will” (169-170).



March compares Ghannushi’s thought from before the revolution of 2011 with that of after the revolution. This yields some fascinating insights. March’s examination of the change in Ghannushi’s thought since the Arab spring illustrates the challenges facing the future of Islamic democratic politics. In post-Arab spring Tunisia, a new political order was established through bargaining which involved concessions by the Islamist Ennahda party. This resulted, March argues, “in a new political order that bears no resemblance to the ideal theory of an ‘Islamic democracy’” (207).

Such a compromise, has, as March so effectively shows, caused Ghannushi’s ideas to shift, in some respects quite profoundly. March argues that while before the revolution, Ghannushi saw the sharia’s capacity to limit the ruler as one among many of its features, in his present account, his conception of what the sharia can do has been radically truncated. Now, sharia, for Ghannushi, only came for the purpose “of limiting the authority of the ruler and subjecting him to the law” (211). Thus, he argues, as a result, “the Islamic sharī’a is reduced to nothing other than the mundane, secular purpose of creating limited, non-arbitrary governance” (211). This, March argues, is very different “from Ghannūshī’s prior vision of a virtuous public deliberating on God’s purposes and instructions with the advice and assistance of experts in the divine law” (211). Ghannushi’s concept of pluralism has also been disconnected from the sharia. In his discussion of why Ennahda agreed to drop the sharia clause from the constitution, Ghannushi argues that “because pluralism is decreed by God…Muslims are morally and epistemically required to accept it, tolerate it, and act politically in light of it” (219-20).

Such a shift in Ghannushi’s thought, March argues, means there are grounds for “thinking that the ideal form of an Islamic democracy is not only unrealized but also inherently unrealizable” (209). March argues that an Islamic democracy is potentially impossible because “Muslim-majority societies are characterized by the same fundamental challenge of pluralism as other modern societies” (222).



One of the reasons for the failure of democratic Islamist politics, March argues, is that moral unity has failed to take root. However, March does not explore why. He argues that such “moral consensus around religion” “can no longer be assumed in modernity” (xxii). Yet, what is it about modernity that makes this idea of moral consensus unrealizable? Is it correct to assume that this is inevitably so?

One of the features of modernity is of course the power of the modern nation state. March quite rightly says that, “all Islamist political thought occurs in the context of an existing state form that…did not emerge organically from the political history and conceptual legacy of the Islamic legal tradition” (225). It is for this reason, he argues, “Islamic political thought may need to be, in a deep sense, post-sovereigntist and post-statist” (xxii). March is right in one sense: the centralized modern state that presupposes unitary state law does not sit easily with some of the assumptions behind pre-modern Islamic law. Yet, this does not mean that Islamist politics is not able to form a statist conception of Islamic law. Indeed other authors have pointed not to the impossibility of the Islamic state but to its very possibility, as Noah Salomon has shown in the case of the Sudan.

While the kind of democratic vision that the thinkers March addresses is quite different from what happened in the Sudan, the reader would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the question of why it is that this kind of moral unity failed to take shape. While March ends by focusing on Tunisia and the divisions between those who wanted the sharia and those who did not, in Egypt, the divisions did not so much relate to whether to have sharia or not, but rather to who would have a monopoly over its interpretation. Discourse consistently framed the central challenge facing Egypt as a conflict between the religious and the secular.

Yet, in many respects, such language formed a foil for other political battles. Very few actually pushed for removing Article 2 of the constitution and there was greater consensus on articles that were often labelled as “Islamist” than is often assumed. Indeed the fact that it was the Muslim Brotherhood—and not other less flexible Islamists—that was so violently removed indicates that there may well have been more behind its removal from power than a disagreement over religion. March argues that lack of consensus over religion means that a democratic Islamic politics needs to be jettisoned. However, why is this necessarily the case? When Egypt had free and open elections, the Islamists gained a majority. Granted, this did not constitute a consensus, but, given the contours of the Egyptian political and socio-cultural landscape, it would have been beneficial for readers to have a further exploration of why an alternative politics is more appropriate.

March argues that there is a tension between the constraining role of a pre-political Islamic law and democracy, pointing to the uncertain nature of the extent to which people have the freedom “to create, design, and reform the legal rules for those political offices and institutions for which the people is seen as the source of legitimacy” (184). Yet, March acknowledges that “Islamic constitutional theory explicitly anticipates a realm of lawmaking that is distinct from law derived from classical fiqh” (12). Here it would have been beneficial for March to think through the similarities and differences between the idea that the sharia should impose restraints on the realm of lawmaking and the idea that constitutions also restrain democratic processes.

Returning to the question of moral unity, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt frequently emphasized the need to focus on the organization’s social and charitable work and felt that the creation of a moral unity could only be achieved slowly. This is why many in the organization were reluctant to form a political party with a party platform. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood’s younger generation infiltrated the media and the professional syndicates. These members pushed for the development of a party platform. Yet before the revolution, there are some indications that the Muslim Brotherhood had emphasized that its priority was not to gain control of the state but to advance reform by educating the people and that it was better to assume power once citizens were fully committed to the implementation of sharia. However, the revolution gave impetus to members of the organization who were interested in capturing state power. This resulted in the formation of the Freedom and Justice Party shortly after 2011 revolution and the fielding of a presidential candidate in the 2011-12 presidential elections. Some Muslim Brothers were deeply opposed to such a move. Many others—no doubt—bitterly regret it.



Another question that March touches on that I would like to think through is the argument that the concept of popular sovereignty has been “invent[ed]” (32). In his second chapter, March discusses the question of sovereignty in classical Islamic thought and argues that pre-modern theories of legitimate governance in Islam also recognized that the sultan’s legislative authority was constrained. While sultans, he writes, “reserved the power not only to execute that law but also to adjudicate its application in the name of public welfare or expediency,” the sultan was not fully sovereign and “derived his legitimacy from the application and enforcement of a law that he did not make and could not alter” (19; 21).

March argues that, “the ‘people’ figure very modestly in this tradition” (29). He argues that it was not from the people that the scholars got their authority to interpret and impose the law. While he concedes that the scholars emerged from the people, this was “at most, a kind of delegatory authority” and that sovereignty “was largely a matter of a kind of power sharing between various elites or experts” (26; xix).

Yet, it seems from his discussion that March does in fact identify some beginnings of the sovereignty of the people. Why then is March so keen to say that the caliphate of man is an invention? March argues that this vision of popular sovereignty “reflects a genuine intellectual revolution in modern Islamic thought” and that “if popular sovereignty is an important commitment for modern Islamist thinkers, it required inventing” (x; xix). While he states that there are resources “that make certain aspects of popular sovereignty easier to accept,” for March “this is not a mere application or light repurposing of Islamic tradition prior to the nineteenth century” (xix). 

I wonder if what March is showing readers is less the invention of popular sovereignty in modern Islamic thought and more the use of some populist aspects derived from pre-modern thinking fashioned in the service of the proposed democratic Islamic state. In fact, populist dimensions can be seen in many aspects of Islamic history and we should not dismiss contemporary Islamist references to them as mere apologetics. There of course is the principle of consensus. While the religious scholars largely emerged to monopolize consensus and the people became sidelined as a result, there was a time when the scholars had not become formalized into four Sunni schools of law and had not yet monopolized legal authority. This is a point that the Muslim Brotherhood made when it argued, in early 2013, that Egyptian People’s Assembly—and not the religious scholars of al-Azhar—should be able to interpret the sharia.

This is, of course, not to overstate the seeds of such populism or to deny the undemocratic nature of pre-modern theories of the caliphate. However, it seems that March is pointing to some consistency between pre-modern and modern thinking on the concept of sovereignty as a whole, in the sense that both refer to the constraining role of Islamic law. In other places, March points out that the idea of expertise in the divine law persists in Ghannushi’s thought and that he does not do away with the idea of traditional scholarly authority. Could one therefore also say that the caliphate of man does not so much constitute an invention but rather an important reworking of the relationship between Islamic law, divine sovereignty, and popular sovereignty to produce quite different outcomes?

Regardless, March is to be commended for the unparalleled acute intellectual wrestling that he undertakes by engaging in such depth with the thought of these Islamist intellectuals. This is a vital read for anyone interested in political Islam, Islamist politics, or the question of sovereignty more broadly. March’s sharp and unrelenting analysis makes this a vital contribution to the field of modern Islamic thought.


Posted on 19 March 2020

RACHEL M. SCOTT is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Tech. Her second book, Recasting Islamic Law: Religion and the Nation State in Egyptian Constitution Making, is forthcoming (spring, 2021) with Cornell University Press.