Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

What Do Egypt's Islamists Want? Moderate Islam and the Rise of Islamic Constitutionalism

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

What Do Egypt's Islamists Want? Moderate Islam and the Rise of Islamic Constitutionalism

Article excerpt

What type of political order do Egypt's Islamists seek to create? This question is examined by studying two types of sources: the theoretical works of Egypt's most prominent contemporary Islamic thinkers and the documents issued by the Muslim Brotherhood during its 2005 parliamentary campaign. These sources indicate that a distinctively Islamic conception of constitutionalism has emerged that legitimates many of the key goals of liberal governance, including constraints on state power, governmental accountability, and protection of some civil and political rights. However, the institutions of Islamic constitutionalism support a conception of political order that differs from liberalism in important respects. These differences are most apparent with regard to the purpose of the state, the role of the individual in politics, and the function of law.

In response to both external and internal pressures, many Arab regimes have undertaken reforms that allow greater political competition. The primary beneficiaries of these reforms are Islamist groups. Within the past year alone, Islamists have achieved unexpected success at the ballot box in countries as diverse as Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon.

As Islamist participation in the political process grows, an obvious question arises: what type of political order do these groups seek to create? The Egyptian case provides particular insight into this question. It offers the best-developed discourse on Islamic law and governance of any country in the Arab world. This discourse is led by a vibrant and vocal group of Islamic thinkers whose ideas are influential throughout the region. In addition, Egypt has a popular and well-organized Islamist movement - the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) - that seeks to translate the abstract theoretical principles of Islamic governance into a practical political platform. The MB has shown considerable flexibility and originality in its efforts to develop a viable conception of Islamic governance.1 Thus, a close analysis of the Egyptian experience allows us to study both the theory and the substance of Islamic constitutionalism.

This article begins with an assessment of the conception of constitutionalism articulated by Egypt's most influential contemporary Islamic thinkers. It then examines how these ideas are translated into a specific political agenda by the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly during the 2005 parliamentary elections. It concludes with a discussion of the likely impact of Islamic constitutionalism on democratization in Egypt.


For well over a century, Egypt has been an important center for legal thinkers seeking to adapt Islam to the challenges of contemporary governance. This effort began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the works of Jamal al-Din alAfghani, Muhammad 'Abduh, and Rashid Rida. It moved forward with 'Abd alRazzaq al-Sanhuri's remarkable synthesis of Islamic and French law in the Egyptian civil code. It continues today with a new generation of Islamic thinkers.

The most important figures in this effort are Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Tariq al-Bishri, Kamal Abu al-Majd, and Muhammad Salim al-'Awwa. These writers have varied backgrounds. Al-Qaradawi received formal training in Islamic law at al-Azhar University, where he graduated with a PhD in 1973. He worked briefly at the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments before relocating to Qatar, where he heads an Islamic research center. His many books, tapes, and videos are available throughout the Islamic world. He also hosts a weekly call-in show ("Islamic Law and Life") on the satellite channel al-Jazeera, which has made him a household name throughout much of the Arab world.2 Al-Bishri was trained as a lawyer and embarked on a successful career in the judiciary. He eventually rose to the post of First Deputy President of the State Council, which is among the most senior positions in the administrative judiciary. …

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