Printed in Islam 21 (London), October 2000. Pp. 15-16



The Rise and Decline of the State. By Martin van Creveld. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Pp. 439. ISBN 0-521-65629-X.



Islamists of our times have given us umpteenth schemes for the revival of Islam that all somehow converge on the single vision of the Islamic state. Islam’s response to the challenge of modernity and its world-order, they have argued to a man, ought to be the regimentation of the Muslim community under the banner of an ideological state. Little wonder that they perceive no priority higher than that of Islamizing the state, no challenge greater than that of bringing the territorial state under the hegemony of Islam. (In the case of Iran, some of them ardently believe, the state, submits as it does to the governance of the faqih, actually constitutes the regime of Islam.) That traditional Muslims have great difficulty with this ideological vision, which bequeaths, in their view, intractable moral and intellectual problems to Islamic conscience, is no secret. Nor may we deny that this proposition, simple and straight from the point of view of the fiqh, runs into overwhelming difficulties when it comes to implementation, just as it leads to irreconcilable tensions and divisions within the Muslim community itself.


The sobering of the Islamist discourse that we witness today is however not only due to the chastening historical experience, not merely an outcome of the extreme hostility and ire of the powers that be. No, it has a lot to do with the realisation that the intellectual vision informing the fundamentalist ‘doctrine’ of the Islamic state has serious intellectual flaws. The traditionalists’ strictures against modernist concoctions and hybrids like the Islamic state, it has become apparent by now, were not without the force of argument and political sagacity. Even other not-partisan observes of this ideological debate have come to the conclusion that modernists, be they the ‘fundamentalists’ of yesterday or the ‘Islamists’ of today, have paid scant attention to the ideological difficulties that stem from a fundamental conflict between the theory underlying the nation-state and that of the Islamic legal tradition. One hopes therefore that this lamentable fallacy of the Islamist doctrine is not due to these ideologues’ ignorance of Islam but because of their inability to penetrate the modern myth. Only a gross misreading of the institution and ideology of the state could be responsible for this intellectual confusion. Be that as it may, the striking fact is that the Islamist theory has come about in almost total default of any sustained reflection on this, the most characteristic and singular of the modern institutions.


Today every student of modernity recognizes that all the modern discourses, not only the political but also the ethical, the legal, the sociological, are informed by the spirit of the state: it prefigures and pervades every discussion, every vision, every theory. The modern perception of reality, not only of the political world but also of the moral, aesthetic and intellectual dimensions of our existence, is largely through the prism of the state. The embarrassing realisation that the ideologues of modern Islam have had very little insight into the ‘ontology’ and ‘mythology’ of the state, that they have been blissfully ignorant about its history, may now be probed against the backdrop of a recent study that presents a highly suggestive reading of modernity as an edifying tale of the birth, growth and the now impending doom of this quintessentially modern phenomenon.


Articulating an insight that has been with us for some time but which has never before been subjected to such a penetrating and unrelenting analytical scrutiny, Martin van Creveld, a Professor of History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, contends that the state is a recently discovered species, a totally new kind of animal in the political zoo that must not be confused with government, rule or political order, which are all  universal phenomena. For the state is nothing but an abstract entity ‘which can be neither seen, nor heard, nor touched’. It is not identical with either the rulers or the ruled; it includes both of them and claims to stand above them both. It is like a corporation, having a legal persona, possessing rights and duties, and it does engage in various activities as if it were a real individual. It differs from other corporations in that it authorizes them all but is itself authorized (recognized) by others of its kind; secondly, in that certain functions, the attributes of sovereignty, are reserved for it alone; and thirdly, in exercising these functions over a defined territory inside which its jurisdiction is both inclusive and all embracing.


This is however not a theoretical treatise but a historical account, a profusely documented and coherently presented array of myriad of facts that are far more cogent and compelling than any theoretical vision that they may engender. Aiming to encompass ‘the evolution of the idea and practice of the modern, impersonal, abstract state’, van Creveld’s study recounts the political experience of the pre-state period of world history before 1300 C.E. into four major categories: 1) tribes without rulers, 2) tribes with rulers (chiefdoms), 3) city-states, and 4) Empires. All of these political organisations lacked, according to him, the distinguishing features of modern statehood. Anyhow, the story really starts in the 14th century Europe and unfolds in the gradual victory of monarchy over its rivals, first the Church, then the Empire, the nobility and then the towns. During this time, however, the system of government was purely personal and the state ‘as an abstract organisation with its own persona separate from the ruler and the ruled’ did not yet exist. Neither may the emergence of the absolutist regimes per se be regarded as the real story of the state. For, its genesis essentially relates to the way in which, between 1648 and 1789, ‘the person of the ruler and his “state” were separated from each other until the first became almost entire unimportant in comparison with the second.’


The story thus represents an almost purely European phenomenon, even if the state today is a universal institution and acts as the linchpin of our international order. This singular development is noticeable, according to the author, first of all in the rise of the bureaucratic structure and the way in which it emancipated itself from both royal control and civil society; secondly, in the way that structure strengthened its hold by defining its border, collecting all sorts of information about it, and taxing it; thirdly, in the manner in which the bureaucracy and taxes made it possible for the state to create armed forces for the external and internal use and thus establish a monopoly over the use of violence; and finally, it is also traceable in the evolution of a political theory which both accompanied these developments and justified them. The period thus led to the separation of the state from civil society and the creation of many of its most characteristic institutions; including its bureaucracy, its armed forces, its police apparatus, and its prisons. All this is amply documented, skilfully arranged and lucidly presented by the author. 


During its heyday, from the French Revolution to the Second World War, the state was transformed from an instrument into an end, an ultimately, into a ‘living god.’ Little wonder that in the political discourse, it came to be represented by the imagery of the ‘Mortal God’ (Hobbes) and ‘Gods march on earth’ (Hegel). Incarnating  the highest ideal of political existence, the state turned to disciplining the people, playing the  role of ‘an educational institution writ large’, conquering money, but eventually leading them on to ‘the road to total war’. However, as we all know it, the apotheosis of the state produced nothing more edifying than the pitiless logic of the final solutions. Today, when the forces of globalism are strongly challenging its monopoly over power, money and education, and when the borderless universe of cyberspace renders meaningless any pretence to territorial integrity, the state is in decline. For van Creveld, however, it is not a sad moment: ‘The devil’s bargain that was struck in the seventeenth century, and in which the state offered its citizens much improved day-to-day security in return for their willingness to sacrifice themselves on its behalf if called upon, may be coming to an end. Nor, considering the number of those who died during the World War II stood at approximately 30,000 people per day, is its demise necessarily to be lamented,’


If the thesis about the impeding demise of the state is to be trusted, the world is moving away from a state-centred to a civilisation-centred order of politics. Martin van Creveld’s Euro-centric reading of the modern period may therefore redeem, albeit unintentionally, the claim of Western hegemony in the world and perhaps even revive the Islamophobic images evoked by Samuel Huntingnton’s notorious ‘The Clash of Civilisations’. For Muslims, who have been singularly unsuccessful in harnessing the power of the modern state, it is imperative however that the story of its rise and decline, as recaptured by Martin van Creveld’s epic narrative, becomes the object of earnest reflection and debate. Any Muslim thinker aspiring to reconstruct Islamic political theory may neglect it at his/her own peril.



S Parvez Manzoor


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