A decade after the revolution of 2011 in Egypt, Usaama al-Azami's Islam and the Arab Revolutions: The Ulama Between Democracy and Autocracy sheds light on a dimension of this event that has been overlooked for too long, namely, the critical role of religious scholars.
This precisely researched work offers a detailed exploration of the intricate dynamics between religion and present-day politics. The study examines why certain ulama (Muslim scholars) in Egypt and the Middle East either endorsed or opposed the revolution. Moreover, it elucidates the reasons behind the silence of the majority of the Egyptian population when a faction turned against a Muslim Brotherhood president, opting instead to support the army that seized control of the country amid a popular revolt. The book's subtitle hints at al-Azami's analysis, suggesting that some scholars advocated for democracy, while others aligned themselves with Sisi's autocratic regime.
Al-Azami writes for both academics and non-academics, for the experts on the subject matter of the book, and also for those with limited knowledge of it. He takes the reader step by step through his work. First he explains the underlying research question of the book and his aim of tracing “the engagements of some key Middle Eastern ulama with the Arab revolutionary context” (1). Thereafter, he explores and analyzes the role of several prominent ulama in the region, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Ali Gomaa, and Ahmad al-Tayyib. He provides extensive contextual information and clearly illustrates the theological training of each of the scholars he examines. In addition, he provides the reader with an overview of the different denominations of Sunnism. This is a crucial part of the book, where the differences between terms such as “neo-traditionalism,” “Salafism,” and “Islamism,” as well as how al-Azami uses these terms in his book, are explained.
Three primary perspectives emerge in al-Azami’s analysis: 1) Islamism, embraced by ulama whose perspective on Islamic politics closely resonates with that of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots; 2) Neo-traditionalism, representing a contemporary sect of Sunnism advocating for strict adherence to the four Sunni schools of law (a preference for two specific schools of theology, particularly those fostering philosophical theology [kalam], and the incorporation of Sufism; and 3) Salafism, encompassing a group of Muslims who arguably prioritize the earliest period of Islam more than other denominations. It is crucial to note, however, that these designations are not rigid categories, and substantial overlap exists among them, as al-Azami emphasizes.
Al-Azami further argues that, in the initial stages of the protests, the ulama could be categorized into three groups: those supporting the revolution as democrats and those opposing it as authoritarians, along with a third group that initially expressed cautious enthusiasm for the uprisings but later turning against them. Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian scholar residing in Qatar, remained unwavering in his support for the revolutions, driven by his opposition to despotic rulers and his commitment to challenging oppression, according to al-Azami. This stance was rooted in the Islamist perspective on political freedom and the fundamental Islamic principles of enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi-lma‘ruf wa-l-nahy ‘an al-munkar). Continually advocating for peaceful protests against military dictatorships in the Arab world, al-Qaradawi maintained his enthusiasm for change. In contrast, al-Tayyib, the rector of al-Azhar, and Gomaa, the Grand Mufti, staunchly opposed the protests, contending that they were inciting anarchy (fawda) and constituting rebellion (khuruj). They argued that such movements would inevitably lead to social discord and breakdown (fitna).
Al-Azami concludes that these different perspectives, and the unstated hermeneutical assumptions of the ulama he explores in his work, were influenced by more than one factor. Firstly, their institutional memberships and affiliations are relevant—whether a scholar was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or Azhar, for example. Secondly, their values mattered. Were freedom and democracy highlighted, or was the fear of social breakdown and chaos emphasized? And lastly, their use of texts from the Quran and hadith is pertinent. As an illustration, the author concludes that “the citation of weak hadiths is far more a feature of counter-revolutionary scholars than pro-revolutionary ones” (247).
In his epilogue, al-Azami unequivocally reveals his position in the debate, offering a personal reflection: "A religion whose senior scholars advocate mass murder and autocracy possesses precious little moral authority" (255). Delving into the dynamics between authoritarian and democratic scholars, he elucidates this perspective in the final two paragraphs of the book.
The comprehensive research undertaken by al-Azami contributes significantly to the scholarly examination of, and discourse surrounding, the Arab revolutions and their aftermath. Nevertheless, while this work constitutes an admirable first step, its scope is confined to the Egyptian context. To achieve a more comprehensive understanding, further research is imperative, particularly with respect to other nations within the region, including Tunisia, Libya, and Syria.
Samira I. Ibrahim is a theologian and researcher affiliated with the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands).
Samira I. Ibrahim
Date Of Review:
January 30, 2024
Usaama al-Azami is a departmental lecturer in Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford. He completed his BA in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford, his seminary training at Al-Salam Institute, and his MA and PhD in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He specializes in Islamic political thought.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.