The fundamentalist founders argued that the decline of Islam began not, as popular wisdom held, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, but much earlier, in 661 C.E., when the Umayyad dynasty rose to power and turned the caliphate into a monarchy. Muawiyah who founded the Umayyad caliphate was not a companion of the Prophet or respected for his religious standing. He was a general who strong-armed his way to the top to rule an empire that he then passed on to his son. From that time on, went the argument, clerics had betrayed the faith by submitting to the will of religiously unqualified rulers who in turn sustained them through patronage. They had allowed for religion to be separated from politics, which fundamentalists thought ran counter to the religion’s intent. “The chief characteristic of Islam,” wrote Pakistan’s Mawdudi, “is that it makes no distinction between spiritual and secular life.”
Mawdudi was particularly effective in articulating this vision of history and politics. He taught that Islamic history after the seventh century was therefore “un-Islamic”—a shocking assertion, rejecting as it did centuries of impressive achievements of Islamic society in the sciences and arts, culture, and the building of powerful empires. Those achievements did not impress him, and he found fault with the manner in which, throughout history, as Islam spread to new regions of the world, it had found expression through local cultures. Such compromises he thought had altered the true meaning of Islam. He also dismissed the moral efforts and spiritual accomplishments of the countless Muslims who had lived by and handed down their faith’s teachings across all those centuries.
Mawdudi did not preach violence; on the contrary he argued that the goal of an Islamic state would be achieved by a steadfast process of proselytizing. To Mawdudi fundamentalism was all about a practice of educating; he would write and give speeches, argue and persuade, and his followers would do the same. The process would be slow and tedious, but by this means, more and more believers would be converted, until everyone was in the fold. The Islamic state would then follow naturally. He told his followers in 1941, “we desire no demonstrations or agitations, no flag waving, slogans, or the like … [for us] such display of uncontrolled emotions will prove deadly. … You do not need to capture your audience through impassioned speeches. … but you must kindle the light of Islam in your hearts, and change those around you.” There was more than a pinch of elitism here. Mawdudi wished first to convert the educated—professionals, bureaucrats, and intellectuals; the same class upon which Ataturk and Reza Shah had pinned their hopes. If the best and brightest converted to Mawdudi’s cause, then an Islamic state could not help but follow, he argued, as the educated elite would be running the state.
His teaching was also not expressly antidemocratic. The Islamic state was not conceived of as a true democracy, but through tautological reasoning, Mawdudi and his followers did claim that their Islamic state would be democratic. If democracy is a cherished quality in a state, then the Islamic state must by definition have it too, so Mawdudi described his imaginary republic as a “theodemocracy” or a “democratic caliphate.” The state’s duty was not however to enact the will of its citizens but to make sure that its citizens followed religious dictates in their daily lives. Mawdudi assumed that this in itself would win the state popular support. After all, he argued, in a gemlike example of the closed-circuit rhetoric at which fundamentalists excel, if a state truly reflects God’s will and its citizens are good Muslims, then how could they possibly want otherwise or disagree with their rulers? If you offered sovereignty to the people, they would give it right back, assuming they had been properly educated in what is expected of them. Fundamentalism is therefore not, in its own mind, antidemocratic; it merely thinks democracy is irrelevant.
Mawdudi doesn’t sound all that different from a million other revolutionaries—religious or secular—who have no use for democracy until everyone is properly (re)educated and therefore can be expected to vote the approved way.