Afghanistan Ansari Article In Payam I

Afghanistan: Ansari article in Payam-i Mujahid

The most recent Payam-i Mujahid, the organ of the Afghan Jami`at-i Islami

(a major stream in the “Northern Alliance”) carries an article by Bashir

Ahmad Ansari on the history of absolutism in Islam. The article begins

with an assertion that consultative (mashvirat) government and voting were

normative in very early Islam. It argues that this early Muslim

republicanism was swept away by the subsequent caliphs, beginning with the

Umayyads and extending to the Ottomans, who preferred to rule by force and

to make claims to absolutism in politics. The article blames the medieval

Muslim clergy for going along with this corruption of Islam, and

attributes it in some part to ancient Iranian and Sasanian notions of

royal absolutism, imbibed by the Muslims. The article attacks virtually

every Muslim government of the past, from the Mamluks to the Mughals.

Ansari, who appears to have lived in the U.S. until recently, is putting

forth a conception of Muslim history that locates sovereignty in the

people or umma (the Muslim community), but it is an umma re-imagined along

Jeffersonian lines. It is anti-monarchical, and thus has the side effect

of rejecting the position of those Pushtuns who wanted to bring back Zahir

Shah either as monarch or president. It is anti-caliphate and thus has

the implication of condemning Mulla Omar, whom al-Qaida had tried to

promote as the neo-Caliph for the Muslim world. Indeed, among many

radical Islamists the revival to the caliphate is a prime goal, whereas

Ansari depicts the history of the caliphs as a sordid one of oppression

and skullduggery. Bin Ladin implied that the end of the Ottoman empire

over 80 years ago and the abolition of the caliphate were disasters for

modern Muslims. Ansari is breathing a sigh of relief that such tyranny

masquerading as Islam was overthrown. He argues that it never mattered

whether the “caliph” was Arab, Persian, Turkish or other, he was always an

unscrupulous despot.

Ansari’s point of view as a committed Muslim is analogous to that of the

American Baptists of the 18th century, finding virtuous democratic

republicanism the system of government most compatible with religion.

Unlike Khomeinism, which is also anti-monarchical, Ansari does not seem to

want to give a leading role to the Muslim clergy, and I suspect he would

denounce the Supreme Jurisprudent in Iran as just another absolutist


I am aware of the association of the Jami`at-i Islam with former President

Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose record was disastrous to say the least. It is

not clear whether Rabbani’s party can overcome its past to achieve a truly

democratic vision. Ansari appears to be trying to move in that direction.

The sort of thinking Ansari and other Muslim democrats are doing in

post-Taliban Afghanistan might be fairly important to the fortunes of

Islam as a whole. It is most unfortunate that his essay will not be read

in most of the Muslim world, because it is in Persian.


Juan Cole

U of Michigan

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