The Islamist Appeal to Quranic Authority: The Case of Malik Bennabi

By Bruce B. Lawrence, Duke University

 * This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Islamist Politics” conference, January 24, 2014. 

All students, observers and stakeholders in Islamist politics agree that political action is preceded or informed by thought: Islamist ideology is a crucial index to Islamist agendas, not just in the abstract but in multiple, variant contexts.

The thrust of this paper will be to trace, or try to trace, Islamist Ideology to its Quranic roots. “Where is the Quran, and what is its role, in Islamist ideology?” will be my central query. A major tome, The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics (OHIP), was published in 2013. It reviews eight figures as the crucial players in Islamist movements. They are divided into three categories. The two founders or trailblazers of political Islam are deemed to be Hasan al-Banna and Abul Ala Maududi. They are followed by three revolutionary ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, and Ayatollah Khomeini, while a third subgroup is dubbed “The ‘Intellectuals’ of Political Islam.” They include: Hasan al-Turabi, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Mohammad Khatami, and Abdolkarim Soroush.

Curiously absent from this list are any women and three or four prominent individuals who are integral to almost any consideration of Islamist movements and ideological profiles. They include: Mohamed Abd as-Salam Faraj, author of The Neglected Duty, Mohamed Husayn Fadlallah, the chief ideologue for Hezbollah, Abd al-Fattah Dukhan, the likely author of the Hamas Charter, and also, of course, Osama bin Laden. Ironically, bin Laden is mentioned in the final chapter of OHIP, Chapter 41, devoted to “al Qaeda and its Affiliates,” but he is cited only in passing and with no mention of the scriptural or ideological bases of his worldview.

The great need is to provide a broad gauged engagement with the full range of Islamist ideology in relation to foundational texts, with the Quran at the head of the list. An attempt in this direction has been made in another edited work, Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, eds. Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (2009). Here the roster of major thinkers is framed in five parts. Islamism is first reviewed as an emergent worldview, with four representatives: Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi, Sayyid Abul-Hasan Ali Nadwi, and Sayyid Qutb (Part I). Those who then remake the state in an Islamic mold are said to be four: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mohamed Baqir al-Sadr, Hasan al-Turabi, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Part II). There is no separate category for intellectuals linked to political Islam. Instead, we are offered three distinct yet related parts: first, Islamism and gender, with excerpts from Murtaza Mutahhari, Zaynab al-Ghazali, and Nadia Yassine (Part III); then a further section, on violence, action and jihad, with chapters dedicated to Mohamed Abd as-Salam Faraj, Umar Abd ar-Rahman, Hamas, Mohamed Husyan Fadlallah, and the Taliban (Part IV). So significant is bin Laden deemed to be that the fifth and final part is dedicated largely to him, with a concluding chapter on the most (in)famous of the 19 suicide bombers of  9/11: Mohamed Ata al-Sayyid (Part V).

The frameworks for these two works provide a vivid contrast. Both are largely devoted to Islamism, yet have markedly divergent notions about what and who needs to be studied in understanding the origins, developments, and outcomes of Islamist movements. Though many questions are raised by the unspoken assumptions in both works, I will pursue but one: the use of scripture in each instance. For some, notably Khomeini and Baqr al-Sadr, the Quran is no more than a backdrop to their exposition of a new revolutionary, often messianic appeal, while for others such as Abd al-Fattah Dukhan in the Hamas Charter and also Osama bin Laden in the “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” it is crucial to have ample Quranic verses, and to underscore their “clear” meaning. Equally fascinating is the appeal of Mutahhari to a large number of Quranic verses that justify his central argument, to wit, that in the Islamic worldview there is equality, but not uniformity, between the roles of men and women, while the voices of Islamist female activists tend to rely less on Quranic dicta than on a narrative of loyalty to their relatives, many of them martyred, in the cause of Islamic liberation.

But equally important is what is omitted from both these formidable, and often informative, anthologies. Both presume a hierarchy of value, where those on the margins are downplayed or ignored. Among those nearly absent from consideration is Malik Bennabi. He is cited in OHIP in the essay on Rached Ghannouchi. Bennabi influenced Ghannouchi, we are told, especially during the latter’s custody in the early 1980s. It was while in custody that Ghannouchi translated (from French into Arabic) “a booklet authored by Malik Bennabi entitled al-Islam wa al-Dimuqratiya (Islam and Democracy), which inspired him (Ghannouchi) to begin working on his most important work, al-Hurriyat al-‘Amma fi al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (Public Liberties in the Islamic State).”[1]

I want to argue that Bennabi illustrates the hierarchy of value that informs our collective reflection on Islamism in the Anglo-American scholarly world. It is not just non-Arabic speaking Muslims who are devalued. Lower down the hierarchy of value, prestige and authority are those who speak in French or represent a Francophone perspective not easily translated into English, Arabic or any ‘universal’ language of the Internet age. Consider the biography of Bennabi. Trained as an electrical engineer in Paris, he now enjoys a rebirth in Algeria as both an Islamic loyalist and a radical modernist. Yet, after his studies in Paris, Bennabi could not return to Algeria immediately following the 1962 revolution due to his pro-Islamic stance, and so he lived in Egypt for a time before finally returning to Algiers, where he held weekly salons, or open meetings, in both Arabic and French until his death in 1973.

Bennabi serves as a counterpoint to political Islam, with its focus on the public domain of government and governance, alliances and rivalries, and interests and strategies. Nor does Bennabi advocate the slippery project known as Islamization of knowledge. Instead of making modernity Islamic, he advocates revisiting and revitalizing the roots of Islamic civilization, beginning with the Quran. Bennabi focuses on the religious principle at the heart of every civilizational endeavor, but especially Islam. It is not enough to be Muslim. One must be a reasoning, rational subject, in short, a thinking individual, and the basis for all reflection begins with the Quran. His initial book was a stunning, if sometimes opaque, effort to apply Quranic dicta to the modern world. Titled Le phénomène coranique: Essai d’une théorie sur le Coran (1947), it addresses young Muslim scholars, especially those in Algeria, who have to seek foreign authors imbued with Cartesian methodologies, in order to satisfy intellectual needs, including their grasp of Islam. Predating Edward Said by three decades, Bennabi views Orientalism as threatening Muslims’ historical orientation, and as a counter force Bennabi introduces a brilliant, modern, multidisciplinary, and comparative exegesis. He examines Quranic revelations side-by-side and verse-by-verse, specifically the story of Joseph as revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. In a theme common to all his publications, Bennabi extolls the virtues of the rational intellect and sees it as compatible with spirituality. On the one hand, he wanted to raise the consciousness of Muslims and persuade them to pursue a religious revival based on scriptural reflection, but at the same time he aimed at a non-Muslim audience, urging those of good will to acquire a better understanding of Islam, again through attention to its foundational scripture. Le phénomène coranique is an inclusive work. In its ecumenical dedication he extols exemplars “who showed me that man has his brothers and his enemies among all peoples and all races.” While one could point to flaws in his Quranic exegesis, not least his overtly positivist methodology, the larger issue is his marginal, asymmetric position among those considered to be intellectuals or forerunners of Islamic reform or Islamism. It was, I argue, his linguistic heritage, above all — French more than Arabic, Arabic being the language into which he translated texts first written in French — that inhibited his reception in larger scholarly circles.

The conclusions I will draw from my limited inquiry are two-fold. Islamism has become a category of convenience rather than consensus for those dedicated either to the practice or the study of Islam and politics. Islamists differ among themselves, not only along sectarian lines (Sunni-Shiite-Sufi) but also in relation to other agents (local leaders, regional opponents, European and U.S. observers, the United Nations, and NGOs). Just as clearly, those who attempt to understand them differ among themselves about both the object and the trajectory of their study. At the same time, Islamism as an ideology is less concerned with the project of interpretive truth (what does scripture really say and how is its message nuanced) than with the asymmetric practice of modern-day politics, where Islam must always be the victimized, but also valorizing, other in every arena — domestic, hemispheric, global. But asymmetry also burrows into the a priori assumptions that shape analytical inquiry: It works among our subjects, but also among ourselves. Because it is extremely hard, it is all the more necessary, to give adequate, if not equal, attention to those on the margins, not just those at the center of media/policy priorities, whether we are looking at movements, political or religious, whether our gaze is at home or abroad. Malik Bennabi is high on the list of those Islamic reformers who have been either ignored or devalued yet warrant closer scrutiny in assessing the multiple sources and the diverse agendas of contemporary Islamism.

Bruce Lawrence is the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus professor and emeritus of Islamic studies at Duke University and adjunct professor in Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University in Istanbul. He is the author of The Qur’an: A Biography (2007), New Faiths, Old Fears: Muslims and Other Asian Immigrants in America Religious Life (2002), and Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia (2000). He is co-editor of On Violence: A Reader (2007) and co-author of Sufi Martyrs to Love: The Chishti Brotherhood in South Asia & Beyond (2002).


[1] Espisito, John and Emad El-Din Shahin. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics. Cambridge: Oxford University Press. 217.

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