How much do the multitude of Muslims and non-Muslims hate the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? Let us count the ways. This militant Sunni movement established its so-called Caliphate in 2014, headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which promoted the wanton killing of Shi‘ah Muslims, enslavement of the Yazidis (a religious minority), beheadings of foreign aid workers and journalists, and gruesome punishments for disobedient Muslims living under its jurisdiction. It also claimed responsibility for massacres on civilians around the globe as part of its jihad, or holy struggle.

From much of the Western media’s coverage, though, one would be forgiven for thinking that IS’s ideology was embraced, at least tacitly, by the majority of Muslims. ‘Where are the mainstream Muslims condemning these atrocities?’ – a leitmotif made popular by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 – has remained a staple question in public debates about IS. Well, one prominent response was the Open Letter to Baghdadi (which can be accessed at:, released in September 2014 and signed by several conservative Islamic scholars, lawmakers and community leaders. (These included the former and current Grand Muftis of Egypt, Ali Gomaa and Shawki Allam, Hamza Yusuf, founder and Director of Zaytuna College in the US, and Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, Professor of Islamic Studies at Rhodes College, also in the US).

Jan-Peter Hartung, A System of Life: Mawdudi and the Ideologisation of Islam, Hurst, London, 2013.

The lengthy letter used sophisticated arguments from within the Islamic canon to refute IS’s excesses and its basis for authority. The signatories blasted IS for its reintroduction of slavery, its persecution of the Yazidis, its wanton killing of innocents, and its widespread use of torture, among other atrocities. The underlying argument behind this litany of criticisms, however, was that a Muslim was only allowed to issue a fatwa (legal opinion) after fulfilling specific requirements in knowledge and by deferring to established Islamic authority. Muslims are not allowed to ‘cherry-pick’ from the Qur’an to derive legal rulings without considering the Qur’an and hadith (recorded traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) in their entirety. Therefore, according to the signatories, the fundamental problem with IS was that it was issuing religious edicts that bypassed the authority of the ulama (religious scholars). IS were basically doing 1950s free-jazz improv on the scriptures, with dire consequences. Or, if you like, this was a nightmare version of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ by Jimmy Hendrix – the ‘Squiggly Black Standard’?

Amongst jihadi groups, IS are indeed unique in that instead of fighting to restore the Caliphate, they claim they have already established it. But if we’re talking about bypassing the ulama or playing fast and loose with Islamic conceptions of the state, then IS is hardly exceptional. These characteristics, among others, were central to the thinking of twentieth century Islamist journalist and philosopher, Abul A‘la Maududi (1903-1979), founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Born in Aurangabad, India, he was the youngest son of Ahmad Hasan, a lawyer by profession. On his mother’s side, Maududi was related to Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the nineteenth-century Islamist modernist thinker. Maududi grew up amid the rise of anti-colonialism in British India and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. At 15, Maududi became a journalist and wrote about concerns shared by numerous other Indo-Muslim writers. Amid the rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims and increasingly aggressive Hindu communalist propaganda, Maududi’s stance began to harden and his activism became explicitly and exclusively Muslim. Although he was initially influenced by the Indian Caliphate Movement, he eventually became disillusioned with its leader, Abul Kalam Azad, who struck an alliance with Mahatma Gandhi and joined the Indian Congress Party – Maududi blamed Congress for what he saw as the betrayal of Islam in India.

Yet neither did he support the secessionism of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. Maududi’s project was more ambitious. Instead of fighting for one independent Muslim nation-state that would exist amongst several others, Maududi was committed to upholding Islam as an ‘all-encompassing system of life’. He was interested in establishing the Islamic state par excellence.

According to Jan-Peter Hartung’s excellent study of Maududi’s ideas, to do this, Maududi drew upon existing concepts within the Islamic tradition and improvised on them. For example, the concept of jahiliyya – the period and state of affairs in pre-Islamic Arabia – existed since the earliest days of Islam. Although reformers such as Ibn Wahhab (1703–1792) and Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328) defined it as a state of moral decay that continued to persist among some Muslims, historical understandings of jahiliyyah were not that monolithic. Maududi, however, jazzed up the meaning of jahiliyyah – to him, it meant ‘sheer ignorance’, ‘polytheism’ and ‘monasticism’ and included Sufism, Shiism and Western ideologies. Maududi effectively equated jahiliyyah (ignorance) with kufr (denial or disbelief).

Maududi also raised the stakes on several other aspects of Islamic tradition. The concept of tajdid (renewal), for example, describes movements within Islam that have aimed to correct or purify the divine message over the centuries after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Conceptions of tajdid went hand in hand with some degree of pessimism about Islamic history that was common amongst Muslims from time to time. Maududi, however, contended that everything went downhill after the introduction of dynastic rule under the Umayyads in the seventh century. To him, Islamic history was basically nearly fourteen centuries worth of wrong turns and dead ends. And according to Maududi, the mujaddids (renewers) of each generation were ineffective because their efforts were piecemeal and did not extract the essence of the Qur’an. Along similar lines, Maududi was also stingingly anti-ulama and anti-monarchy. (And so are IS, who are virulently opposed to the Saudi monarchy and the Wahhabi ulama who support the regime.)

This does not mean, however, that there is a linear trajectory between Maududi and groups like IS. In fact, Maududi’s writings do not appear prominently in IS propaganda. But this is why Hartung’s ‘history of ideas’ approach is so much more valuable in helping us to understand how and why some notions survive, thrive and mutate, but not others.

Most crucially, Maududi developed his thinking not only amidst the political and intellectual upheaval in colonial India. New political ideologies were also reshaping the future of the West. Fascism and Communism, in particular, were proving to be threats to the Western European status quo. Through the intertwining networks of colonial and anti-colonial movements, these ideologies made their way to the rest of the world, including the Indian subcontinent. And although Maududi took great pains to distinguish his Islamism from both these ideologies, he could only do this after carefully – albeit selectively – engaging with and critiquing them.

It is not enough, however, to say that Maududi’s ideas were also influenced by the Western ideologies he purportedly dismissed. Hartung contends that all modern political ideologies are based on the ‘dominant matrix’ of Darwinism, hence their vision of society’s linear progress from the ‘backward’ or ‘uncivilised’ to the ‘enlightened’ and ‘refined’. In effect, Maududi created a linear, Darwinist model of Islamic government, in which there was no turning back. The destiny of humankind depended upon its ability to escape jahiliyya and steadily evolve into an Islamic ‘theo-democracy’ (ilahi jumhuri hukumat – Maududi’s neologism).

Maududi’s thought was able to flourish partly because the cultural and political environment in colonial India provided fertile ground for the widespread dissemination of intellectual ideas. Publicly-recited poetry was immensely popular and was a major mode of transmission of anti-colonial views amongst large sections of the population. The emotive poems of the poet-philosopher-politician Muhammad Iqbal, for instance, demonstrate how such ideas were successfully spread beyond the literate establishment. According to Hartung, in the Middle East and North Africa the reformist agenda was a more top-down affair. Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), the Egyptian jurist and religious scholar, viewed reform as something to be spearheaded by experts. Even the means of communicating reformist thought in Egypt – religious treatises and journals – were effectively focused upon literate and educated elites. In this sense, Maududi’s theological project had far greater populist appeal in the Subcontinent.

Here, Hartung’s ‘history of ideas’ approach does not permit Maududi to be reduced to a mere Islamist. There’s a difference between Maududi’s conscious, deliberate Islamist project and the spread of his ideas beyond the usual Islamist circles. As an illustration, look at the way he read the Qur’an as someone who had an explicitly political and evolutionist approach to Islam. According to Maududi, the Qur’an contained an eternal and unchangeable message which was revealed within a particular context. In fact, the linguistic codes that transported the divine message varied within the Qur’an, depending on the period and occasion of revelation. This is how Maududi explained the difference between the earlier, more universal Qur’anic revelations in Makkah and the later, more specific, legalistic verses revealed in Madinah. But guess what? This methodology shares a lot with that of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010), the Egyptian linguist and liberal Qur’anic scholar who was declared an apostate by the Egyptian shari‘ah court in 1995.

Perhaps this comparison between Maududi and Abu Zayd is where the most problematic elements of Maududi’s thought become clear. In his vision, the ideological purity of the Islamic state meant that only Muslims could become its citizens. Citizenship could never be granted towards non-Muslims – the Islamic state simply had no room for them. Maududi came to this conclusion despite the copious amount of jurisprudence and historical examples of coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths.

More chilling are the implications of this for Maududi’s definition of apostasy. His starting point was a peculiarly linear reading of verse 256 from Surah Al-Baqarah (the Chapter of the Cow) in the Qur’an: ‘There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is from now on distinct from error….’

According to Maududi:

No compulsion is there in religion [la ikraha fi’l-din] means that we do not compel anyone to come into our religion. And this is truly our practice. However, we initially warn whoever would come and go back that this door is not open to come and go. Therefore anyone who comes should decide before coming that there is no going back. Otherwise he should kindly not come.

The implication is clear – anyone is free to enter the Islamic state, but no one can leave. A bit like Hotel California. The Islamic state is thus tasked with applying the death penalty for apostasy, which Maududi defined as disloyalty to God and towards the community of believers.

Maududi’s position on women, elaborated in his book Parda (1939), was equally problematic. Women were meant to ‘remain in their houses’ and obey men as their custodians (qawwam). It was also the Islamic state’s duty to impose strict gender segregation. Ironically, Maududi did not justify this position based upon a rigorous reading of core Islamic texts. Instead, he arrived at these conclusions by relying upon anti-feminist Western literature that painted a picture of moral decay when women were supposedly allowed to roam freely in society. If anything, these sources reflected the patriarchal underpinnings of Victorian and post-Victorian sexual morality. Among the gems consulted by Maududi were George Ryley Scott’s A History of Prostitution (1936), Cyril E.M. Joad’s Guide to Modern Wickedness (1939) and Edith Belle Lowry’s Herself: Talks with Women Concerning Themselves (1911). Maududi’s position on women is thus emphatically not an example of free-jazz improv. It’s not even the equivalent of a bad cover version of a classic. This is more like Alvin and the Chipmunks covering Milli Vanilli and passing it off as Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Internal contradictions and inconsistencies notwithstanding, Maududi’s ideas took root in South Asia and travelled elsewhere, too. Hartung argues that one environment where they germinated well was, ironically, Egypt, via the efforts of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the leading ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s.

The thing is, Qutb played jazz, too. For starters, he adapted Maududi’s conceptualisation of jahiliyya and made it even more total. For Maududi, the concept of jahiliyya was a means to elaborate what he meant by Islam as a ‘total system’. Qutb shifted the emphasis onto jahiliyya as something to be fought and vanquished, turning it into something that was much more useable for aspiring militants.

As with Maududi, the development of Qutb’s thought has much to do with his particular context of oppression. Qutb’s imprisonment and torture by the pan-Arabist and socialist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) meant that he endured a different order of oppression, compared with Maududi’s struggle against colonial rule, escalating Hindu-Muslim conflict and intra-Muslim rivalry. This is what significantly contributed to Qutb’s revision of the concept of jahiliyya and, eventually, takfir (excommunication) and jihad. Qutb was released from prison in 1964 but was rearrested in 1965 on charges of trying to overthrow the government and attempting to assassinate Nasser. In 1966, he was executed by hanging.

Maududi, on the other hand, succumbed to poor health – he had a lifelong kidney ailment which worsened later in life and he also developed heart problems. He went to the United States for treatment and was hospitalised in Buffalo, New York, where his son worked as a physician. He died in Buffalo in 1979 but is buried in Lahore. That same year, he became the first recipient of the Saudi Arabian King Faisal International Award for his service to Islam. In other words, at the end of his life, the anti-Western, anti-colonial Maududi’s life depended upon medical treatment in the infidel land of the US. Not only that, as an anti-monarchist and anti-ulama ideologue, Maududi ended his life being feted by the Saudi kingdom.

This gap between Maududi’s actual legacy and his initial ideals can also be seen in the movement he founded in 1941 – the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). By 1942, JI faced its first serious factional dispute when its leadership split into those who were pro-Maududi and those who supported his long-term foe, Amin Ahsan Islahi. And although Maududi had opposed the creation of the state of Pakistan, he gradually accepted its existence as a conduit for gradual Islamisation. The Jamaat thus split into two independent organisations following the partition of India – Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI-P) and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JI-H).

Within Pakistan, Maududi continued providing an aura of charismatic authority for the movement. Although it was regularly repressed by the Pakistani government from the 1940s to the 1960s, JI-P could claim significant success during the military rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, when it inspired his Islamisation policies. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, JI-P opposed the independence of Bangladesh and supported the Pakistan Army. The new JI-B became a marginal movement immediately after the independence of Bangladesh but, in the proceeding decades, it worked its way through strategic political alliances. In 2001, it achieved impressive electoral success, winning seventeen parliamentary seats as part of a coalition led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Until today, however, the role of the JI in the Liberation War remains controversial and deeply divisive, as explored in issue 23 of Critical Muslim, ‘Bangladesh’.

In India, the JI-H went down a different path. The leadership decided to participate in elections in 1962 but was banned between 1975 and 1977 under Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. After Maududi’s death, JI-H became even more autonomous and pragmatic. After the rise of the right-wing Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its electoral victory in 1998, JI-H became ardent defenders of secular democracy in India.

The movement that was envisioned by Maududi to uphold Islam as a total ‘system of life’ thus had no choice but to fragment and make concessions to the nation-state. In India, particularly, the stance of JI-H now appears almost antithetical to Maududi’s founding vision.

How do we evaluate Maududi’s legacy then? Did it fail? Was Maududi’s vision of an Islamic state unworkable at best and hypocritical at worst? Hartung is more generous than that. To him, the fact that Maududi could influence so many different groups within the Islamist spectrum is proof of the ‘enormous richness of his ideological outline’. The fact that Maududi’s grand theory-building and political project has not come to pass can also be interpreted in his favour. Contemporary Islamists, Hartung argues, do not feel the need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ after Maududi’s extraordinary exertions – they simply want to continue where Maududi left off.

Maududi’s legacy also shows us how unproductive it is to go down the rabbit hole of what constitutes ‘authentic’ Islam and the quest to quash ‘cherry-picked’ interpretations. Maududi was a religious improviser extraordinaire – and look at the following he cultivated. He imbued traditional concepts like jahiliyya and khilafat (caliphate) with new meanings, and conjured entirely new ones like ‘theo-democracy’. This should be a huge relief especially for progressive Muslims, who – like IS – are often accused by the status quo of ‘cherry-picking’ or ‘changing the meaning of the Qur’an’ when they advocate gender equality or full equality for sexual minorities. We are all playing jazz.

This is not to claim that Islam is now a free-for-all. There are urgent discussions to be had about what the Islamic position should be on issues such as injustice, violence and environmental degradation. And so, as flawed as it was, the Open Letter to Baghdadi was an important intervention.

Perhaps the problem with Maududi was not that he improvised on particular Islamic concepts, but the ends to which he put his improvisations. Killing apostates and denying women equal rights as citizens are just not okay, no matter what theological justification one reaches for. And maybe this was his biggest blind spot – Maududi might have gone to great lengths to envision an Islamic state that would protect Muslims from external aggressors, but his vision did not address the nasty possibility of yesterday’s liberators turning into tomorrow’s oppressors.

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