Islam and Anarchism


16th November 2022

Before engaging with any text – particularly a text with such a declarative title, indicating particular associations – it is vital for a reader to clarify with themselves their expectations and the criteria by which they intend to judge. Of course, these criteria shift as the book indicates the true direction of its contents and certain aspects are unpicked, but beginning the text with some degree of critical engagement is vital to ensure that there are no biases being allowed to filter through.

Therefore, to clarify: before engaging with Mohamed Abdou's Islam and Anarchism, I had decided very firmly not to critique from a theological perspective. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, I am not an Islamic scholar and am therefore entirely unqualified to make nuanced judgement on any specific claims of theological detail that might spring up throughout the course of a book with this title. Secondly, the aim of the book – as stated on the back cover – is not to provide a justification for Islam more generally but rather to attempt to synthesise elements of it with anarchism and explore apparent connections between the two, and therefore it makes sense that this book can be read in either direction; in this case, from anarchism to Islam, rather than the reverse. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, it is clear that writing on anarchism from an explicitly religious position is a somewhat controversial action, and I believe in a spirit of academic generosity with such issues. Sharpening a blade over whether or not the axioms seem inherently convincing to me as an individual helps nobody. My approach, in conclusion, to this text was as follows: assuming that I take the claims of Islamic faith on their face, how convincing do I find the arguments insofar as they address various anarchist positions?

Quite apart from this, it is also worth noting that this is the rare book for whom a target audience is named explicitly by the audience – and it is a target audience of which I am not a part. A white person from within the colonial core falls outside the spectrum of the ‘BIPOC’ audience that Abdou names as priority in discussions surrounding the book. While this has inevitably impacted my reading and is therefore worth noting, the book is by no means inaccessible to, or vehemently against, readings by white or non-Muslim individuals.

With all of these preliminary concerns well addressed, it is the book itself that falls under discussion. The results of my approach, my particular engagement with the text, were mixed. Beginning, however, with the strengths of the text seems an appropriate start, as Islam and Anarchism itself begins exhibiting these strengths within the first few pages of the introduction. Abdou, rather rapidly, establishes a strong sense of tone that carries throughout the book and there is an air of learned experience to the arguments being made, as though they had been well honed over time. For the most part, this is to the advantage of the arguments, which are presented with a finesse and a careful selection of quotations from across the gamut of scholarship, both anarchist and Islamic, as well as occasionally dipping into sociological, anthropological, and philosophical territory.

A second strength of the text lies in the simplicity of the central claim; that is, that Islam and anarchism are, far from irreconcilable, capable of some degree of cross-over. As with any religious or spiritual tradition with a number of sects and diverse branches, this is undoubtedly true; one potential oversight in the text reveals itself here when the affinity of the Sufi tradition, which has a long history of being included in anarchist discussions by figures as ‘canonical’ as Peter Marshall, receives no mention whatsoever; perhaps this is an oversight, but given the rigorous citation present elsewhere in the book this seems somewhat unlikely and therefore strikes me as an odd choice on the part of the author.

Further, the depth of this scholarship, and a dependence on a breadth of Islamic sources lends the book a sense of credibility which almost certainly would provoke thought in the mind of any Muslim reader; it is hard to deny, for example, the exegesis given of particular Qur’anic, especially as Abdou reinforces the ‘essential’ nature of the text and rejects the subjective, interpretation-based readings of the texts promoted by figures such as Olivier Roy, who ‘ignore’ the primacy of Allah’s word given via scripture. For any Muslim reader, this vehement defence of the core texts almost certainly provides a sense of safety; reading Abdou, you are in the hands of a true believer who is not attempting to lead you astray. This is a scholar who is serious about the faith.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the text exemplifies a handful of core anarchist principles in the body of its own argument; Abdou extols the virtue of a continued self criticism, even mentioning a need for an ongoing ‘interrogation’ of the ideas, beliefs, practices, et cetera, of all Muslims. That this is fitting with anarchism, a philosophy and praxis built upon taking literally Marx’s demand for a ruthless critique of all that exists, goes without saying, and the insistence of such a claim in a text which nevertheless attempts to draw broad lines between anarchism and a theological tradition many take to be authoritarian is to be applauded.

These positive traits, fantastic as they may be, however, are not the sole qualities of Islam and Anarchism. Despite the strength of the argument, particular to the Muslim readers who comprise the intended audience, there are nevertheless some central issues which concern a reader approaching from outside perspectives and potentially those from differing Islamic traditions who might have instinct to distrust the interpretations offered by Abdou. The first of these issues, and one which must be confronted immediately for a reader such as myself who is limited to only English and French as a reader, is the concern of language; firstly, Abdou – as most Muslims – assumes that the Qur’an is the literal dictated word of Allah. This is to be expected, of course, and while this will be a bone of factual contention for certain individuals, is something that I am willing to grant on its face for the sake of the review, as noted earlier. The concern, however, is that when faced with criticisms – in this case, the idea of Islam as an inherently authoritarian belief system – Abdou retreats into linguistic defense. Most anarchists, the author accurately states, ‘have never read the Sunnah […] in the language in which they were dictated and written – Arabic’, and are ‘ill versed in interpretative traditions within Islam’. This is followed by a basic explanation of the concept of ambiguity and interpretation. Both of these facts may well be true; certainly, they are true in the case of this reader, as I am illiterate in Arabic other than basic transliteration and am not an Islamic scholar. Convincing, however, is a different issue; if someone has a criticism that is inaccurate, it should be possible to simply explain this inaccuracy to them (though whether they will listen or not is another issue). For Abdou here, this is impossible; Islam’s authoritarian nature simply isn’t real, and you would know that if you read Arabic. The actual claims being made by the authors cited are not refuted in any more direct fashion than this.

In other parts of the text, Abdou seems to be interested in engaging in some kind of pseudo-apologia for various negative aspects of historically Muslim cultures – this is despite emphasising the difference between Islam qua Islam and Islam as cultural presence early in the text. In particular, with regards to the idea of an Islamic history of imperialism, Abdou writes that while nobody can deny ‘injustices committed in the name of Islam’, these empires were nevertheless ‘effective rulers, builders rather than destroyers’ whose rulership often ‘brought peace’ to embattled communities and often brought lower taxes and similar boons. That these caveats are useless to the point of insulting is not worth mentioning; as an English reader, it rings heavily of British patriots informing us that the British Empire brought trains and civilisation to India as absolution for genocide. What makes this particularly odious section of the book worse is the fact that it is unnecessary; if we are providing a truly anarchist reading of history, and we are separating Islam from Islamic cultures, there is no need to run any interference for these historical empires. They can be dismissed as horrific and left to rot. That Abdou feels the need to speak in such terms about them belies an equivocation error of his own, eliding the history of Islam and the behaviour of Muslim conquerors into one by mistake – a mistake possible impossible to avoid as, despite Abdou’s refusal to accept the commands for conquest in the history of Islamic literature, they are indeed present. Similar downplaying of Islamic manifestations of slavery occur throughout the book despite acknowledgements of the horror of slavery and the presence of anti-African racism in many culturally Muslim countries today. Abdou, it seems, finds it as difficult as the Europeans he decries to separate the faith from the historical practice, in this way.

Ultimately, the conclusion therefore has two primary layers. Firstly, that while this text is well written and well researched, citing most of the names I would expect to see and then a few more for good measure, it is not a book whose connections I find particularly persuasive; that is to say, I do not come out of the book believing more firmly than I did going in that there is any inherent affinity of Islam with anarchism. However – and far more significantly when considering Abdou’s intended audience of BIPOC and Muslims – the book does appear far more persuasive when making the point that there can be strains of anarchism that do not run contradictory to Islam. By this measure (and for the author, this is the measure of primary import), Islam and Anarchism has far more success and weight. That the more problematic aspects of the text weigh heavily on it, however, is impossible to dismiss. ■

"Islam and Anarchism" is available from Pluto Press here.

Jay Fraser

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