MORE than one Arab ruler besieged by Islamist opposition might be tempted to sympathize with the pagan rulers of Mecca in 622, who persecuted the Prophet Muhammad for subversion and forced him to flee with his followers to Medina.
But that flight, which begins the Muslim calendar, is at the root of many of the problems Arab leaders face today. For in Medina, Muhammad became the temporal, political ruler of the Muslim community. From the dawn of Islamic civilization, religion and politics have been inextricably linked. "Political Islam," the bane of governments from Algeria to Saudi Arabia, is as old as Islam itself.
Nearly 14 centuries later, Islamists of all stripes, when asked how they would replace the political systems they so disparage, still look back to the life of the Prophet, and to the word of God as revealed to him in the Koran, for answers.
"The acid test," says Ghazi Salah al-Din, a key adviser to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in his drive to model the country on Islamic principles, "is how the Prophet organized society."
How exactly did the Prophet organize society? And how can the wisdom enshrined in 6,000 often elliptical, and sometimes contradictory, verses of the Koran be distilled for application in societies far removed from the nomadic tribes of 7th century Arabia? These questions, clouded as much as clarified by centuries of Koranic exegesis and apocryphal embroidery of Muhammad's life, have thrown up almost as many visions of an Islamic political system as there are Islamic thinkers.
Hassan al-Turabi, for example, whose writings and influence over the Sudanese government have made him one of the leading theorists of the Islamic revival, looks to the time of the Prophet "not for a formal model, but for a model of substance. Muhammad said that you have to renew Islam constantly," he argues. "You keep the same values, the same principles, but you choose the form that expresses them most substantively."
The principles of Islam, sharing much in common with the two other great monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Judaism, on which Muhammad drew, "are not controversial," says Ismael al-Shatti, leader of Kuwait's Islamic Constitutional Movement. "But how to understand them is."
Islamic scholars readily agree that shura, or consultation, and baya, or loosely translated as allegiance, constitute fundamental Islamic principles that should govern relations between leaders and their communities. The Koranic message also prescribes struggle against oppression, advocates charity and brotherly love, and condemns dishonesty and exploitation of the weak. That message is enshrined in the sharia, or Islamic law.
In the political arena, the central and most disputed principle is shura, which the Koran recommends as the best way of arranging both personal affairs and matters of state.
Many Islamists, citing the way Muhammad consulted his companions as he built his community, say shura is what the West calls democracy. But in practice it has rarely looked that way.
The rulers of the historic Muslim empires - the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Ottomans - consulted only their court advisers. Today debate is fierce among Islamic scholars as to what should be the modern expression of shura.
In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, state-supported scholars can be relied upon to rule that Islamic consultative councils, whether nominated or elected, have no more than advisory status and can offer only opinions to the Caliph.
To Dr. Salah al-Din, minister of the presidency in Sudan, such an approach to shura "is inconceivable, against the Islamic way of thinking." Defending Sudan as an authentic Islamic experiment, and scorning Saudi Arabia as "the worst model you can take for Islam because they are just using the Koran as a facade," he can match Gulf scholars text for text to support his argument in favor of shura's binding nature.
"After the Koran and the Prophet's example, the next source of law is consensus, the result of shura, insists Salah al-Din's mentor, Dr. Turabi, who would expect leaders to be bound by that consensus. For Turabi, popular opinion is weightier than the opinions of Islamic scholars and clerics, who wield such influence in Iran.
The Iranian theocratic model is anathema to most Muslims in the Arab world, where the Sunni, not the Shia branch, of Islam predominates. The clerics' prominence in Tehran, Sunni scholars say, derives from their mastery of Arabic - the language of the Koran and Koranic studies - in a land where ordinary people speak only Farsi. In the Arab world, any literate person has the same access to the holy book as a preacher.
"Scholars have moral value," Turabi argues, "but they don't have binding authority. They offer options, but the public decides on the law."
How the public expresses its opinion, however, is again a matter of debate. Though Islamists around the region have responded to political opportunities by forming political parties, some Islamists do not favor parties at all. "We need programs for development, not ideologies," Dr. Shatti says. "Parties are not healthy in our societies."
Turabi prefers politicians who represent the "national interest," not those of their own constituencies. "They shouldn't represent their own interests, or those of their class or tribe. So the [legislative] procedure would be different from 50 percent plus one," the system used in Western democracies. But the institutions for arriving at a consensus around the national interest, he says, are still nowhere to be found in the Middle East.
Another political principle, that of baya, is equally open to intrepretation. To some, especially the feudal Gulf monarchs, the word means only the allegiance that a subject owes his Caliph. To others more democratically minded, it implies public acceptance of a ruler's right to govern, which can be withdrawn.
"Baya means that a president cannot be president without the people's publicly announced acceptance," Shatti argues.
The Koran's message - enshrined in the sharia, or "straight path" - governs every aspect of a Muslim's life, from prayer to taxes. The sharia organizes society according to principles much more open-minded and humanitarian than those that prevailed in pre-Islamic Arabia. But its application today is controversial throughout the Muslim world.
While fundamentalist theologians argue that the law itself, and not just the ideas behind it, are immutable, modernists insist on continuing the tradition of adaptation and interpretation of Koranic precepts that flourished for the first three centuries of Islamic civilization.
Thus Kamal Abul-Majd, an urbane minister in former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's government, who proudly displays his Master's degree in comparative law from the University of Michigan on the wall at his law firm, despises the way Islam relegates women to second-class status. "People from the desert and the Egyptian countryside simply translated their rotten social habits into religious philosophy," he argues.
Islam's treatment of minorities is also problematic for Islamists seeking to update their thinking. While Islamic regimes
have historically shown more tolerance toward Christians and Jews than Christendom ever showed to Muslims, the Koran stipulates that in Muslim society, "people of the scriptures" should pay a special tax, are treated as inferior, and do not enjoy the same rights as Muslims.
If Koranic principles can, in general, be interpreted in ways consistent with modern Western ideals, the problem is that "the Islamic community has not developed institutions to apply those principles," worries Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan's last elected prime minister.
Thus those seeking modernization in Islamic political tradition, influential at the end of the last century, proved unable to root their ideas, leaving the field of Islamic thought today as free as ever for "people who disassociate the words of the Prophet from the context of life, and who insist on applying them literally without any consideration for time, place, or circumstance," Dr. Abul-Majd argues.
Such "fundamentalist" Muslims require little reflection to forge an Islamic way of life: They can lift it wholesale from the Koran. But for Muslims who find that difficult, "Islamic political principles have not been sufficiently discussed this century in the context of modern societies," as Shatti says.
In such a socially and economically diverse region, where radicals and moderates, fundamentalists and modernists, vie for preeminence, no single Islamic political system is likely to emerge. In the absence of a dominant approach that looks forward, most Islamists still look backward, to their image of an ideal past.
As Leith Shbeilat, a widely respected Islamist in Jordan, puts it, "It is like when a mayor finds that, over the course of 40 years, landlords have added balconies, extra stories, and unplanned gardens. We have to go back to specifications."