Edward Mortimer, Faith and Power: The Politics of Islam (New York: Random House, 1982).

Students of the Middle East have always been aware of the necessity of understanding Islam as a substantial part of any inquiry into this region. Books and articles on Islam have always constituted a considerable portion of each bibliography on the Middle East. At an academic level, sources on Islam were available. Western students of Islam traditionally explored Islamic precepts indicated in the doctrinal sources instead of analyzing the corresponding realities. Most were not able to interpret adequately the real social and political phenomena taking place in the Middle East and in the so-called “Muslim world” in the course of “Islamic resurgence.”

Ever since the Iranian revolution, understanding Islam in the format of commercial books and popular journalism has become fashionable. Most of these new authors try to examine those social realities conducive to the re-politicization of Islam. Nevertheless, the journalists who have joined the community of learned scholars of Islam have largely revived the picture of homo islamicus of traditional Western orientalism, and widened the scope of its exposure. Islamic fundamentalists unwittingly have contributed to this process with their claims of a cohesive Muslim umma moving along a specific Islamic path of development.

Is there a cohesive Islamic society, a monolithic Muslim tradition or a specific Islamic system of government? Edward Mortimer is one of those many authors grappling with the problem of understanding Islam. Mortimer, an editorialist for the Times of London, has written on subjects ranging from French colonies to Eurocommunism. The crisis of the Shah’s regime in 1978 motivated him to take a one-year leave from his position and write this book under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1980-1981. To Mortimer, Edward Said’s “criticism of the instant, warmed-up orientalism which we journalists served to the Western public” had validity. Thus, he tried to provide useful information about Islam beyond the widespread image in scholarship and the media. His book is, in this respect, one of the most valuable Western contributions to understanding Islam. It is extremely informative, well written, sympathetic without being partisan, and sound in its judgments.

The first part includes an historical and theological overview, focusing on the question of whether there is in reality one cohesive Islam providing elements for a system of government. It is not difficult to discover the diversity of Islam in these respects. Consensus on the essentials ends as soon as one comes to details. The second part of Mortimer’s book gathers six case studies, covering Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran, Islam in the Soviet Union and the conflict between Islam and nationalism in the heart of the Arab world (primarily Syria and Egypt).

Mortimer is aware of the existence of a “distinctively Islamic approach to politics, not shared by other cultures.” But this derives “from the experience of past generations of Muslims” and not from scholarly sources. In this sense, Mortimer is concerned less with what Islam is than with “what Muslims think, and say, and do.” Islam cannot be rightly considered “a political factor in its own right”; it is rather a “mode of political expression.” Mortimer has difficulty combining his study of Islam as a set of ideas, or as a political ideology, and at the same time its incorporation into reality. His lack of social science training hinders him from conceptualizing some of the points at issue. Despite this, his efforts to understand Islam in terms of existing realities are much more suggestive and valuable than those of some of the scholars who have devoted their professional lives to studying Islam.

Mortimer contests the notion of an immutable Islam, and this is his most important achievement. He is able to understand the most salient feature of modern Islam and hence the underlying problems. Muslims are socialized within the framework of a worldview: of Islam as “the highest and final form of religion, comprehending and transcending all others.” Since Islam is all-regulating, Muslims must ask themselves why the norms they are internalizing in the course of their socialization — that Islam is superior to all other cultures — are completely belied by the existing realities. Since the emergence of industrial Europe “the Muslim world [sic] was strategically on the defensive wherever it came to contact with Christian power…. It found itself virtually encircled.” Mortimer characterizes this situation, which I have called the “crisis of modern Islam,” as “the Islamic dilemma.” The diverse Islamic responses to this dilemma agree that the decay has proceeded from various deviations from true Islam. The remedies vary from a total rejection of the industrial West to the wholesale adoption of Western science and technology. Mortimer never discusses why Muslim reformers have failed in innovating Islam. In my view, they failed because they never have tried to historicize Islam — i.e., to view it within the context of its respective environments. They failed to realize the structural context of the Islamic dilemma. The course of history never depends on a proper understanding of the Qur’an, but of structural constraints. Neither Muslim reformers nor Mortimer are concerned with such issues.

Mortimer’s case studies illustrate the diversity of Islam in political terms. The author focuses on the relationship between Islam and nationalism and the quest for an Islamic state. Does Islam provide the elements of a political system? Has an Islamic system ever existed in history? Islamic fundamentalists answer that an Islamic government should be obliged to adhere to all elements of the shari‘a. They agree that an Islamic system has never existed in history, since the time of the prophet. Mortimer’s case studies show clearly that the governments purporting to be Islamic all perform according to the different local circumstances.

Turkey (and Tunisia, which Mortimer does not deal with) has pursued a secular non-Islamic model of state. Saudi Arabia has an image of itself as the Islamic state par excellence. The Qur’an is considered to be the proper constitution for all humanity. Mortimer illustrates how the effects of the wealth from oil have substantially recast Saudi bedouin society. He views Saudi Arabia as “not a theocracy but an Islamic monarchy, in which the king claims to derive his authority from the people [sic] and to rule with their consent.” He compares the rule of the ulama there with the free press in the West “as both formers of and spokesmen for public opinion.” Even those who dispute this perspective will not doubt his observation of “a gap between private and public morality,” where the Saudis “inside their palaces…remain notoriously in constant violation of the shari‘a as officially interpreted in Saudi Arabia.”

Mortimer’s weakest moment is the chapter on “Arab Nationalism and Muslim Brotherhood.” Referring to Turkey (non-Islamic), Saudi Arabia (universal-Islamic) and Pakistan (specific regional Islamic), he characterizes the relationship between Islam and Arab nationalism as “a hesitation, or oscillation, between the three.” Mortimer seems not to have understood the characteristic feature of the Arab national movement since the nineteenth century. He does not take into account the great differences between the Arab national movement in the Mashriq, which was pan-Arab, and the regional nationalist movement in the Maghrib. In the Maghrib, there are no Christian minorities. Colonial cultural policy in North Africa was very intense. There was a need to reactivate Islam politically and to revive it as a national culture against the French colonial rule. In the Mashriq, emancipation from Ottoman rule and the equality of Christian minorities were the urgent issues. For this reason, Arab nationalism took on a secular character. Mortimer seems not to grasp how Arab nationalists had employed Islam for secular ends. He recognizes that in the 1950s and 1960s Nasserism and Baathism became the pillars of Arab nationalism. He correctly refers to the defeat of 1967 as a defeat of Arab nationalism, which “suffered a blow from which it has by no means yet recovered.” Islamic resurgence in the Arab region should be historically placed within this context.

The context of the Iranian revolution is a different one. Khomeini and other members of the Iranian clergy made great efforts to exploit the legitimacy crises in the Arab region stemming from the 1967 defeat. Mortimer discusses the self-image of the Iranian revolution as a revolution for export in the neighboring Arab countries. He observes that regardless of any success in inspiring revolutionary change in other Muslim societies, “it is impossible to imagine other Muslim countries adopting precisely the same laws and institutions as revolutionary Iran, for these reflect a specifically Iranian Islam, which is a product of Iranian history.”

Islam’s political importance was evident long before the religiously legitimized upheaval against the Shah. Unfortunately, Mortimer offers no systematic treatment of this issue, but he is fully aware of the function that Islam assumes in the contemporary period. Mortimer correctly argues that

religious traditionalism, then, is not something peculiar to the Muslim world. It is, so to speak, a “natural” defense mechanism, triggered by cultural insecurity…. [The] upsurge of Islamic traditionalism in the last ten years or so…encompasses quite a variety of social groups, but in general they are groups whose lives are in one way or other disoriented by rapid change.

Many of the errors in this book are inconsequential. Others should not be overlooked. Some of Mortimer’s interpretations are vague, reflecting uncertainties. The interaction between political rulers and ulama in ancient Islamic history and today in Saudi Arabia (and also in Morocco) is more complex than Mortimer depicts. The assertion that “Sufism was not a challenge to the shari‘a, but a way of strengthening and deepening one&rqsuo;s allegiance to it” is completely wrong. It overlooks the tension between both, similar to the way Mortimer misreads the tensions between Arab nationalism and Islam. Mortimer wrongly indicates that in the nineteenth century Blunt was the first to refer to the Arabs as legitimate claimants of the caliphate. There is no mention of Kawakibi, the Arab writer who indeed raised the claim for an Arab caliphate in that period.

Despite these flaws, Mortimer’s account of modern Islam is most impressive and useful, a comprehensive treatment of the major issues in the study of resurgent Islam.

How to cite this article:

Bassam Tibi "Mortimer, Faith and Power," Middle East Report 120 (January/February 1984).

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