Paul L. Heck’s Political Theology and Islam offers a sophisticated and comprehensive analysis of sovereignty in Islamic society, beginning with the origins of Islam and extending to the present.
This wide-ranging study sets out to answer an unassumingly tricky question: What is politics in Islam? Paul L. Heck’s answer takes the form of a close analysis of sovereignty across Islamic history, approaching this concept from the perspective of political theology. As he illustrates, the history of politics in Islam is best understood as an ongoing struggle for a moral order between those who occupy positions of rulership and religious voices that communicate the ethics of Islam and educate the public in their religious and moral devotions. In this sense, sovereignty in Islam is split between ruling powers and pious communities, whose interactions range from close cooperation to outright competition. Heck shows that it is precisely through these interactions that Islamic conceptions of sovereignty are constructed and negotiated.
Political Theology and Islam’s first section spells out the concepts and methods for the study of politics in Islam as a struggle for a moral order, one not only involving varied claims to sovereignty but also a general determination to realize the righteousness of Islam that stands at the heart of the message that the Prophet Muhammad conveyed to his society in seventh-century Arabia. The following sections demonstrate, through examples from both the past and today’s worldwide Muslim community, the diverse ways in which the umma, the community of Muslims, has struggled for a moral order that recalls its prophetic message. Deftly moving in various political theaters and through a wide range of intellectual traditions, Heck’s book will emerge as a touchstone of scholarship in the field of Muslim politics and intellectual thought.
Part 1. Introduction—The Study of Politics in Islam
1. A Moral History
2. Political Theology Revisited
Part 2. Introduction—The Age of the Umayyads
3. Righteous Dominion
4. Imperial Blessing and Prophetic Righteousness
Part 3. Introduction—The Age of the Abbasids
5. Leading by Certainty
6. The Politics of Certainty
Part 4. Introduction—The Age of the Seljuqs
7. The Sovereign Bodies of Kings and Scholars
8. The Sovereign Bodies of Saints
Part 5. Introduction—The Age of Post-Colonial Rule
9. Liberty as the Order of Islam
10. The Struggle for Democratic Culture
Conclusion: Politics in Islam Revisited
Paul L. Heck is professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and founding director of the Study of Religions Across Civilizations (SORAC) project. He is author of Skepticism in Classical Islam: Moments of Confusion (2013) and Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism (2009).
“Paul Heck has written an important, rich, and magisterial book that explains tension between rulers and religion-based activism in defense of popular rights throughout the history of Islam.” —Abdulkader H. Sinno, author of Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond
“This excellent and deeply erudite study offers a sweeping yet layered intellectual history of the conceptual continuities and transformations as well as the political operations of sovereignty in Muslim thought and practice, in both premodern and modern periods.” —SherAli Tareen, author of Defending Muḥammad in Modernity
"Ranging widely and deeply across Islamic traditions, Paul Heck demonstrates the plurality and flexibility of political authority in Muslim contexts. From this fascinating book, the reader learns much not only about Islam but about the way power is divinized in supposedly secular societies as well." —William T. Cavanaugh, author of The Myth of Religious Violence
"Here is the book that will define Islamic political theology for a generation. Expansive and synthetic but also carefully detailed, Political Theology and Islam is sure to open essential conversations not only within Islamic studies but also across traditions and among theorists. Negotiating entanglements of the religious and the secular, the sovereign and the divine, Paul Heck ultimately makes a compelling case for understanding the relationship between ethics and politics in a new way." —Vincent W. Lloyd, author of Black Dignity
The sovereignty of God, as represented by the order of Islam, is twofold. The ruling power, wielder of governmental authority, exists, at a minimum, to ensure security in society, while divine guidance, as mediated by pious communities, educates souls in the ethics of Islam with effect, as noted above, on interactions in society. In this sense, politics in Islam includes two sets of transcendent claims: those of the ruling power to discipline society into order and those of pious communities to educate souls in the ethics of Islam. Theology, the study of transcendent claims, is thus needed to disclose not only the nature of the twofold sovereignty that determines the order of Islam but also the way in which the political devotions of the umma are diversely oriented to the sovereignty of God. It is not our intention to adjudicate these diverse claims to transcendence, only to follow the logic of the twofold sovereignty of Islam, which would see the transcendent claims of the ruling power as ambiguous at best, arguably false, since it is not divine, and those of pious communities as more certain, since, in principle, they are based in divine guidance as revealed by the prophetic message. In other words, the transcendence of divine guidance, in contrast to that of governmental authority, is a true transcendence. As such, it endows the umma, its recipient, with a sovereignty of its own, that is, with its own ethical agency beyond the power of governmental authority to order human life. In sum, the umma’s political devotions are not singular because the sovereignty that determines the order of Islam is not singular, making it necessary to look to theology to disclose the varied claims to sovereignty, over society and also over souls, in the order of Islam.
Put differently, theology is needed for a fuller comprehension of politics in Islam. Theology, as we use it in this study, does not refer to scholastic inquiry into divine matters, known in Islam as “the science of speaking” (‘ilm al-kalām), that is, about God. Theology, here, is political theology, the study of human devotions in relation to politics where transcendent claims are never absent even in societies where politics is expressed in secular terms. However, the discipline of political theology remains a work in progress. The term is used inconsistently in the scholarly literature, not always in refererence to the study of political devotions and the diverse claims to transcendence that would orient them but, more commonly, to the idea that the governmental authority of the ruling power is quasi-divine insofar as it brooks no rivals to its sovereignty. We look to theology as a method to uncover a fuller understanding of the sovereignty of Islam and, in turn, of politics in Islam. Indeed, given the imprecise usage of political theology, there is a need for it to be applied more rigorously as a method. This study is one such attempt to do so, offering perspective on politics in Islam not only as a “secular” phenomenon but also, as Muslims have long seen it, as a divinely ordained enterprise that embraces society as a whole. By this view, all sovereignty belongs to God—over society as well as over souls. However, God does not descend from heaven to rule the order of Islam directly as its unique sovereign. While details differ from one context to the next, what is consistent is the struggle to represent the sovereignty of God in terms of a moral order. However, the struggle for such a moral order has never been averse to non-revealed wisdom, that is, the secular wisdom of the world, nor to cooperation with non-Muslim peoples.
In other words, the sovereignty of Islam, as Muslims recognize, can be realized in societies where the ruling power governs by norms that are not explicitly those of Islam but that still align with its purposes. In sum, politics in Islam cannot be studied simply as a set of power calculations, which, while present, are only partially determinative of the order of Islam. Amidst power calculations are moral assumptions, informed by divine guidance as prophetically revealed. For this reason, theology is needed to grasp politics in Islam as a venture both worldly and divinely inspired.