Date of Degree

6-2020

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Middle Eastern Studies

Advisor

Anna Akasoy

Subject Categories

Near and Middle Eastern Studies | Political Theory

Keywords

Alfarabi, Islam, politics, secularism, religion, Middle East

Abstract

Much Islamic history evinces a separation between religious and political registers of thought and action. To be sure, these two registers always remained, to some extent, mutually intertwined since the origins of Islam. However, in about two hundred years into Islamic history, or, in other words, in the 9th century, the political register based on coercion began to mark itself off from the moral concerns associated with the religious register. Political authority acquired an increasingly absolute character. It focused more on ensuring the obedience of its subjects than the moral/religious purpose of creating a just society where even the weakest or most vulnerable Muslim could expect fair treatment. Religious authority, in turn, developed independently of political power and was vested, not in sultans or caliphs, but in scholars of Islamic law (fuqahā'). The bifurcation of authority into distinct political and religious registers continues to shape political development in the contemporary Islamic world, even though nation states have by now mostly supplanted the legislative authority of religious scholars. We observe the continuing impact of this bifurcation in the religious/secular divide in the Islamic world. We observe it in the bitter estrangement between religious and secular citizens of Muslim nation-states. This study turns to the political thought of Al-Fārābī (d. 870-950) in its search for intellectual foundations for remedying the problems caused by this estrangement. Al-Fārābī offers resources, I argue, through which Muslim publics can establish a common ground between Islam and politics. This common ground would be the welfare of Muslims, the key purpose of both religious law and political governance. Al-Fārābī’s thought allows for the creation of this common ground as it tethers political authority to a fusion of theoretical and practical wisdom. Al-Fārābī knots together morality, the characteristic concern of religion, and expediency, the defining logic of politics. Further, he understands the category of religion as historically evolving and changing. It is the task of responsible political leadership, he argues, to steer the evolution of religious law in line with changing circumstances. All this prepares fertile intellectual ground for a common civic discourse between religious and secular citizens in the Muslim world.

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