Foreign Affairs, May/June 2005

To speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in the Middle East is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and lack of concern for the Arab future. Creating a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the region will not be easy. But it is possible, and there are increasing signs that it has already begun.

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For Muslims as for others, history is important, but they approach it with a special concern and awareness. The career of the Prophet Muhammad, the creation and expansion of the Islamic community and state, and the formulation and elaboration of the holy law of Islam are events in history, known from historical memory or record and narrated and debated by historians since early times. In the Islamic Middle East, one may still find passionate arguments, even bitter feuds, about events that occurred centuries or sometimes millennia ago — about what happened, its significance, and its current relevance. This historical awareness has acquired new dimensions in the modern period, as Muslims — particularly those in the Middle East — have suffered new experiences that have transformed their vision of themselves and the world and reshaped the language in which they discuss it.

In 1798, the French Revolution arrived in Egypt in the form of a small expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte. The force invaded, conquered, and ruled Egypt without difficulty for several years. General Bonaparte proudly announced that he had come “in the name of the French Republic, founded on the principles of liberty and equality.” This was, of course, published in French and also in Arabic translation. Bonaparte brought his Arabic translators with him, a precaution that some later visitors to the region seem to have overlooked.

The reference to equality was no problem : Egyptians, like other Muslims, understood it very well. Equality among believers was a basic principle of Islam from its foundation in the seventh century, in marked contrast to both the caste system of India to the east and the privileged aristocracies of the Christian world to the west. Islam really did insist on equality and achieved a high measure of success in enforcing it. Obviously, the facts of life created inequalities — primarily social and economic, sometimes also ethnic and racial — but these were in defiance of Islamic principles and never reached the levels of the Western world. Three exceptions to the Islamic rule of equality were enshrined in the holy law : the inferiority of slaves, women, and unbelievers. But these exceptions were not so remarkable ; for a long time in the United States, in practice if not in principle, only white male Protestants were “born free and equal.” The record would seem to indicate that as late as the nineteenth or even the early twentieth century, a poor man of humble origins had a better chance of rising to the top in the Muslim Middle East than anywhere in Christendom, including post-revolutionary France and the United States.

Equality, then, was a well-understood principle, but what about the other word Bonaparte mentioned — “liberty,” or freedom ? This term caused some puzzlement among the Egyptians. In Arabic usage at that time and for some time after, the word “freedom” — hurriyya — was in no sense a political term. It was a legal term. One was free if one was not a slave. To be liberated, or freed, meant to be manumitted, and in the Islamic world, unlike in the Western world, “slavery” and “freedom” were not until recently used as metaphors for bad and good government.

The puzzlement continued until a very remarkable Egyptian scholar found the answer. Sheikh Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi was a professor at the still unmodernized al-Azhar University of the early nineteenth century. The ruler of Egypt had decided it was time to try and catch up with the West, and in 1826 he sent a first mission of 44 Egyptian students to Paris. Sheikh Tahtawi accompanied them and stayed in Paris until 1831. He was what might be called a chaplain, there to look after the students’ spiritual welfare and to see that they did not go astray — no mean task in Paris at that time.

During his stay, he seems to have learned more than any of his wards, and he wrote a truly fascinating book giving his impressions of post-revolutionary France. The book was published in Cairo in Arabic in 1834 and in a Turkish translation in 1839. It remained for decades the only description of a modern European country available to the Middle Eastern Muslim reader. Sheikh Tahtawi devotes a chapter to French government, and in it he mentions how the French kept talking about freedom. He obviously at first shared the general perplexity about what the status of not being a slave had to do with politics. And then he understood and explained. When the French talk about freedom, he says, what they mean is what we Muslims call justice. And that was exactly right. Just as the French, and more generally Westerners, thought of good government and bad government as freedom and slavery, so Muslims conceived of them as justice and injustice. These contrasting perceptions help shed light on the political debate that began in the Muslim world with the 1798 French expedition and that has been going on ever since, in a remarkable variety of forms.


As Sheikh Tahtawi rightly said, the traditional Islamic ideal of good government is expressed in the term “justice.” This is represented by several different words in Arabic and other Islamic languages. The most usual, adl, means “justice according to the law” (with “law” defined as God’s law, the sharia, as revealed to the Prophet and to the Muslim community). But what is the converse of justice ? What is a regime that does not meet the standards of justice ? If a ruler is to qualify as just, as defined in the traditional Islamic system of rules and ideas, he must meet two requirements : he must have acquired power rightfully, and he must exercise it rightfully. In other words, he must be neither a usurper nor a tyrant. It is of course possible to be either one without the other, although the normal experience was to be both at the same time.

The Islamic notion of justice is well documented and goes back to the time of the Prophet. The life of the Prophet Muhammad, as related in his biography and reflected in revelation and tradition, falls into two main phases. In the first phase he is still living in his native town of Mecca and opposing its regime. He is preaching a new religion, a new doctrine that challenges the pagan oligarchy that rules Mecca. The verses in the Koran, and also relevant passages in the prophetic traditions and biography, dating from the Meccan period, carry a message of opposition — of rebellion, one might even say of revolution, against the existing order.

Then comes the famous migration, the hijra from Mecca to Medina, where Muhammad becomes a wielder, not a victim, of authority. Muhammad, during his lifetime, becomes a head of state and does what heads of state do. He promulgates and enforces laws, he raises taxes, he makes war, he makes peace ; in a word, he governs. The political tradition, the political maxims, and the political guidance of this period do not focus on how to resist or oppose the government, as in the Meccan period, but on how to conduct government. So from the very beginning of Muslim scripture, jurisprudence, and political culture, there have been two distinct traditions : one, dating from the Meccan period, might be called activist ; the other, dating from the Medina period, quietist.

The Koran, for example, makes it clear that there is a duty of obedience : “Obey God, obey the Prophet, obey those who hold authority over you.” And this is elaborated in a number of sayings attributed to Muhammad. But there are also sayings that put strict limits on the duty of obedience. Two dicta attributed to the Prophet and universally accepted as authentic are indicative. One says, “there is no obedience in sin” ; in other words, if the ruler orders something contrary to the divine law, not only is there no duty of obedience, but there is a duty of disobedience. This is more than the right of revolution that appears in Western political thought. It is a duty of revolution, or at least of disobedience and opposition to authority. The other pronouncement, “do not obey a creature against his creator,” again clearly limits the authority of the ruler, whatever form of ruler that may be.

These two traditions, the one quietist and the other activist, continue right through the recorded history of Islamic states and Islamic political thought and practice. Muslims have been interested from the very beginning in the problems of politics and government : the acquisition and exercise of power, succession, legitimacy, and — especially relevant here — the limits of authority.

All this is well recorded in a rich and varied literature on politics. There is the theological literature ; the legal literature, which could be called the constitutional law of Islam ; the practical literature — handbooks written by civil servants for civil servants on how to conduct the day-to-day business of government ; and, of course, there is the philosophical literature, which draws heavily on the ancient Greeks, whose work was elaborated in translations and adaptations, creating distinctly Islamic versions of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.

In the course of time, the quietist, or authoritarian, trend grew stronger, and it became more difficult to maintain those limitations on the autocracy of the ruler that had been prescribed by holy scripture and holy law. And so the literature places increasing stress on the need for order. A word used very frequently in the discussions is fitna, an Arabic term that can be translated as “sedition,” “disorder,” “disturbance,” and even “anarchy” in certain contexts. The point is made again and again, with obvious anguish and urgency : tyranny is better than anarchy. Some writers even go so far as to say that an hour — or even a moment — of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny. That is one point of view — but not the only one. In some times and places within the Muslim world, it has been dominant ; in other times and places, it has been emphatically rejected.


The Islamic tradition insists very strongly on two points concerning the conduct of government by the ruler. One is the need for consultation. This is explicitly recommended in the Koran. It is also mentioned very frequently in the traditions of the Prophet. The converse is despotism ; in Arabic istibdad, “despotism” is a technical term with very negative connotations. It is regarded as something evil and sinful, and to accuse a ruler of istibdad is practically a call to depose him.

With whom should the ruler consult ? In practice, with certain established interests in society. In the earliest times, consulting with the tribal chiefs was important, and it remains so in some places — for example, in Saudi Arabia and in parts of Iraq (but less so in urbanized countries such as Egypt or Syria). Rulers also consulted with the countryside’s rural gentry, a very powerful group, and with various groups in the city : the bazaar merchants, the scribes (the nonreligious literate classes, mainly civil servants), the religious hierarchy, and the military establishment, including long-established regimental groups such as the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. The importance of these groups was, first of all, that they did have real power. They could and sometimes did make trouble for the ruler, even deposing him. Also, the groups’ leaders — tribal chiefs, country notables, religious leaders, heads of guilds, or commanders of the armed forces — were not nominated by the ruler, but came from within the groups.

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