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Theorizing Popular Sovereignty in the Colony: Abul Aʿla Maududi's “Theodemocracy”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2020


Abul Aʿla Maududi (1903–1979), the influential Indo-Pakistani Islamist thinker, proposed a detailed vision of what he called “theodemocracy.” This has been seen widely as a theocracy despite Maududi's explicit rejection of the term and its philosophical underpinnings. I suggest here that Maududi's vision of theodemocracy opens up a productive space for reflection on the relationship between popular and state sovereignty. Maududi saw popular sovereignty as an ethical problem; it corrupted the potential for individual moral development that the institutional mechanism of the state could otherwise allow for. Highlighting the complicated relationship of his ideas with colonial rule, and showing that he used the colonial liberal state as both a foil and model for his analysis, I argue here that “theodemocracy” was his attempt at divorcing sovereignty from the state. This endeavor generated creative tensions, and forms an important contribution to the global discussion about sovereignty and the state.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of University of Notre Dame.

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I am grateful to the three reviewers for their thoughtful comments, and to Jan-Peter Hartung and Georgios Varouxakis for their detailed feedback on earlier versions of this paper. Versions of this paper were presented at the King's College London, University of Oxford, Williams College, and Simon Fraser University. I am grateful to the organisers and audiences for their feedback.

Research for this paper was carried out as part of the European Research Council funded Starting Grant titled “Tolerance in Contemporary Muslim Polities: Political Theory beyond the West.”


1 In Euro-American scholarship Maududi's influence has been noted mostly through the imprint of his ideas on Syed Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist ideologue; see, for instance, Euben, Roxanne, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 55, 75, 189CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Nasr, S. V. R., Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 80107Google Scholar; Adam, Charles J., “Mawdudi and the Islamic State,” in Voices of Resurgent Islam, ed. Esposito, John L. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Hartung, Jan-Peter, A System of Life: Mawdudi and the Ideologisation of Islam (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014), 108–9, 124–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 For a representative work see Nasir Khan, “Islamist Radicalism in Pakistani Politics,” Foreign Policy Journal, December 18, 2017, (accessed June 19, 2019).

4 Maududi's influence on political practice is also widely acknowledged. See, e.g., “How Islam Got Political: Founding Fathers,” (accessed August 24, 2019).

5 Ahmed, Irfan, “Genealogy of the Islamic State: Reflections on Maududi's Political Thought and Islamism,” Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 15, no. 1 (2009): 145–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hartung, A System of Life. However, Hartung recognizes that Maududi worked within a wider intellectual context of debates about communism and fascism.

6 For discussions of new approaches to history of political thought and intellectual history beyond diffusion see Ganger, Stefanie and Lewis, Su Lin, “Forum: A World of Ideas: New Pathways in Global Intellectual History, c. 1880–1930,” Modern Intellectual History 10, no. 2 (2013): 347–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sartori, Andrew, “Beyond Culture-Contact and Colonial Discourse: ‘Germanism’ in Colonial Bengal,” Modern Intellectual History 4, no. 1 (2007): 7793CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sartori, Andrew and Moyn, Samuel, eds., Global Intellectual History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

7 Maududi, , Tehrīk-e-Azādi Hind aur Musalmān (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1999 [1938]), 269Google Scholar. Hereafter TA.

8 Ibid.

9 Maududi developed these examples in much detail in several writings. See, for instance, TA, 295.

10 Maududi, Islām Kya Hai! (Lahore: Manshoorat, n.d.), 10; and Qur’ān ki Chār Bunyadi Islāhain (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 2000 [1939]),124–33.

11 Maududi, Qur’ān ki Chār, 132.

12 Asad, Talal, “Thinking about Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today,” Critical Inquiry 42, no. 1 (Autumn 2015): 166214CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zucca, Lorenzo, “A Genealogy of State Sovereignty,” Theoretical Inquiries in Law 16, no. 2 (2015): 399CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Skinner, Quentin, “A Genealogy of the Modern State,” Proceedings of the British Academy, no. 162 (2009): 325–70Google Scholar, esp. 330–35.

13 Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 4044Google Scholar.

14 Creppell, Ingrid, “Secularisation: Religion and the Roots of Innovation in the Political Sphere,” in Religion and the Political Imagination, ed. Katznelson, Ira and Stedman-Jones, Gareth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 3637Google Scholar.

15 This association between the nation-state and popular sovereignty remains dominant today, too. See Yack, Bernard, “Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism,” Political Theory 29, no. 4 (2001): 527CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Hont, Istvan, “The Permanent Crisis of a Divided Mankind: ‘Contemporary Crisis of the Nation State’ in Historical Perspective,” Political Studies 42, no. 1 (August 1994): 166231CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Varouxakis, Georgios, Mill on Nationality (London: Routledge, 2002), 23–37, 6067Google Scholar; Yack, “Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism.”

17 Kelly, Duncan, “Popular Sovereignty as State Theory,” in Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective, ed. Bourke, Richard and Skinner, Quentin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 296Google Scholar.

18 Miller, David, On Nationality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar and Citizenship and National Identity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000); Tamir, Yael, Liberal Nationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Karuna Mantena, “Popular Sovereignty and Anticolonialism,” in Bourke and Skinner, Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective, 297–320; Mayall, James, “Nationalism and Imperialism,” in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, ed. Ball, Terence and Bellamy, Richard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983)Google Scholar.

20 Menon, Dilip, “An Eminent Victorian: Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy in the Nineteenth Century,” History of the Present 7, no. 1 (2017): 3358CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Maududi's concerns here are shared independently and separately by both Bluntschli in the nineteenth century (Kelly, “Popular Sovereignty as State Theory,” 281–83) and Schmitt in the twentieth (Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005]CrossRefGoogle Scholar). There is little evidence of any direct conversation between Schmitt and Maududi, although both articulated anxieties about the place of the moral, or what Schmitt called “the political idea,” which is, for him, ultimately a moral question (Political Theology, 65), in discussions about state sovereignty. I take this similarity as a symptom of connected, but not identical, global institutional arrangements rather than the confirmation of a derivative discourse in the world beyond Europe.

22 See, for instance, Maududi, Abul Aʿla, Al-Jihād fil Islām (Lahore: Idāra Tarjumān-ul-Qur’ān, 2007 [1930]), 106–7Google Scholar; also his Islām ka nazariya siyāsi (Bareilly: Maktaba Al Furqan, n.d.), 7–9, hereafter NS.

23 Maududi, Abul Aʿla, Islamic Law and Constitution, ed. trans., and Khurshid Ahmed (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1960), 231Google Scholar. Hereafter ILC.

24 Zaman, Muhammad Qasim, “The Sovereignty of God in Modern Islamic Thought,” Journal of Royal Asiatic Society 25, no. 3 (2015): 405CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Moosa, Ebrahim, “Shari‘at Governance in Colonial and Postcolonial India,” in Islam in South Asia in Practice, ed. Metcalf, Barbara (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 317–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 English term in original Urdu text.

27 Maududi, Al-Jihād fil Islām, 596–97.

28 The association between the Ottoman Empire and the so-called Muslim World was a late nineteenth- / early twentieth-century development fueled paradoxically by the efforts of Christian missionaries and European powers. See Cemil Aydin, “Globalizing the Intellectual History of the ‘Muslim World,’” in Moyn and Sartori, Global Intellectual History, 187–204.

29 Aydin, “Globalizing the Intellectual History,” 172. See also Aydin, Cemil, “Beyond Civilization: Pan-Islamism, Pan-Asianism and the Revolt against the West,” Journal of Modern European History 4, no. 2 (2006): 204–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Ansari, K. H., “Pan-Islam and the Making of the Early Indian Muslim Socialists,” Modern Asian Studies 20, no. 3 (1986): 509–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Ahmed, Khurshid and Ansari, Zafar Ishaq, eds., Islamic Perspectives: Studies in Honour of Sayyid Abul Aʿla Mawdudi (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1979), 361Google Scholar.

32 Aziz, K. K., The Idea of Pakistan (Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1987), 8892Google Scholar.

33 Quoted in Ansari, “Pan-Islam,” 518.

34 Iqtidar, Humeira, Secularizing Islamists? Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Urban Pakistan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 6164CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Maududi was not alone in finding the lack of existential humility an important element of modernity. In India, Gandhi had seen popular sovereignty as a trap and argued against the notion of inalienable rights (Devji, Faisal, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence [London: Hurst, 2012], 185–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar and chap. 6). In recent decades the Tunisian scholar Taha Abdrrehman has articulated an influential and very differently inflected reading of shariʿa that foregrounds the role of humility in political and social life (Wael Hallaq, “Re-Forming Modernity: The Philosophical Ethics of Taha Abdurrahman,” unpublished manuscript, 198–99, 295–97, 328–33).

36 This remained an enduring concern. In a speech to the Karachi Bar Association in 1952 Maududi argued once more that “if we invest some human agency with this superhuman mantle of sovereignty, overlooking the inherent shortcomings, would it be of any service or advantage to humanity? No human being whether invested with this status individually or collectively, can easily digest such a heavy dose of sovereignty, where in he has unlimited powers to enforce his will over large numbers of people. Such authority whenever and wherever invested in human agency has invariably resulted in injustice” (ILC, 216).

37 This relationship between epistemic humility, morality, and politics that the idea of hakkimiyat ilahi engendered was of great importance to Maududi and he developed it further in a later essay, the influential Qur’ān ki chār bunyādi islāhain (Four fundamental concepts of the Quran).

38 For the classical meaning of the term see L. Gardet, “Fitna”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed.,

39 “The real meaning of fitna is a test or a trial. . . . Set by other humans, it is oppression because human beings don't have the right to put others to trial. When a human [insān] puts another to fitna his objective is to appropriate the freedom of conscience, to enslave him and to push him towards moral and spiritual degradation. Within this context the word fitna is closest in meaning to the English word ‘persecution.’ Only, the English word does not have the depth that the term fitna does” (Maudidu, Al-Jihād, 106).

40 Zaman, “Sovereignty of God,” 389.

41 In that sense, as Yuvari, Naguin, Advice for the Sultan: Prophetic Voices and Secular Politics in Medieval Islam (London: Hurst, 2014)Google Scholar, has suggested, Islamic polities were secular before European secularism was articulated.

42 See Kaviraj, Sudipta, “The Modern State in India,” in Politics and the State in India, ed. Hasan, Zoya (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar, for the Mughal Empire.

43 Alam, Muzaffar, The Languages of Political Islam in India 1200–1800 (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2005)Google Scholar.

44 Moin, Azfar, The Millenial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 See ibid., 282nn2–3 for the varying portrayals of Akbar's new religion in contemporary scholarship.

46 The title can be translated as “Islam's political viewpoint” but nazariya can also mean “ideology.”

47 Maududi was erratic with referencing in general. Here he did not provide any references to Bodin or any European theorist of sovereignty. He used extensive references primarily for his first major book, Al-Jihād fil Islām. That he read some translations of French and German thought in English, as well as English and American books on history and philosophy, is clearly indicated in that book. For discussions related to international law he referred, for instance, to Birkenhead, International Law (1927); Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832); Otfried Nippold, The Development of International Law after the World War (1923); Edward Gibbon, History of the Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire, vol. 2 (1776); T. J. Lawrence, Principles of International Law (1900).

48 This has been an immensely important reconceptualization of individual responsibility and its popularity has meant that many explicitly Islamic groups see it as their duty to question monarchic and autocratic regimes in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia.

49 Maududi argued that since one of the roles of the leaders of the Islamic state was to lead prayers, the leader had to be a man (ILC, 243). In practice, and until the ideal Islamic state could be fully established, he was willing to modify his stance. In 1965, he and his party Jamat-e-Islami allied with the opposition parties in Pakistan against the dictatorship of General Ayub Khan, and backed Fatima Jinnah, a woman, for the presidency.

50 This is one area where Maududi could comfortably draw upon Islamic history and philosophy for providing a relatively solid ground for his argument. For an overview of this separation in Islamic legal and social history see Hallaq, Wael, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics and Modernity's Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 3774Google Scholar.

51 The term had been also used by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith in 1844 and remained in use by the group into the twentieth century. See Mason, Patrick Q., “God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” Journal of Church and State 53, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 349–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, it is not clear if Maududi knew about this use.

52 Hallaq, Wael, Sharia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)Google Scholar; Zaman, Mohammed Qasim, Custodians of Change: Ulema in Contemporary Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

53 In tracing an exclusively Islamic lineage to Islamist ideas, some scholars have highlighted the influence of Ibn Taymiyya. However, as Anjum, Ovarmir, Politics, Law and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 270–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar, has convincingly argued, Ibn Taymiyya was focused primarily on the relationship between the community and shariʿa, and not specifically the state.

54 Ahmed, “Genealogy of the Islamic State”; Iqtidar, Secularizing Islamists?, 38–54.

55 Metcalf, Barbara, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband 1860–1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Gilmartin, David, Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan (London: Tauris, 1988)Google Scholar.

57 Kugle, Scott Alan, “Framed, Blamed and Renamed: The Recasting of Islamic Jurisprudence in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 35, no. 2 (May 2001): 257313CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 Sarkar, Tanika, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

59 Van der Veer, Peter, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Critics such as Gandhi argued that even if the colonial state did not actively pit Muslims against Hindus in India, its appropriation of neutrality made Hindus and Muslims unable to proclaim any impartiality at all; their concerns, proposals, and solutions immediately became either Hindu or Muslim (Devji, The Impossible Indian, 154–59).

61 This is not to say that states elsewhere were not sophisticated but that they did not bring together impersonal bureaucracy with the focus on managing the individual citizen in the same way as some European states. Early modern imperial states in Asia, such as the Mughal (Guha, Sumit, “The Politics of Identity and Enumeration in India c. 1600–1990,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45, no. 1 [2003]: 148–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar), the Ottoman (Barkey, Karen, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008]CrossRefGoogle Scholar), and the Qing (Wang, Liping and Adams, Julia, “Interlocking Patrimonialisms and State Formation in Qing China and Early Modern Europe,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, no. 636 [July 2011]: 164–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ocko, Jonthan and Gilmartin, David, “State, Sovereignty, and the People: A Comparison of the ‘Rule of Law’ in China and India,” Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 1 [Feb. 2009]: 55133CrossRefGoogle Scholar) had already developed elaborate bureaucracies for purposes of taxation and stability but not the emphasis on managing individual subjects/citizens.

62 Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), esp. 130–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar and chap. 6, traces liberalism's focus on the individual through its continuity with European Christian ideas of individual salvation managed through the institutional mechanism of a hierarchical church. Sidentop, Larry, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Civilization (London: Penguin Books, 2005), e.g. 243–44Google Scholar, also traces the emphasis on individual conscience and rights in liberalism to specifically Christian ideas about individual conscience.

63 Internalist histories of the development of the state in Europe tend to sequester colonialism and state building, but scholars—from dependency theorists such as Frank, Andre Gunder (“The Development of Underdevelopment,” Monthly Review Press 18, no. 4 [1966])Google Scholar to postcolonial theorists such as Prakash, Gyan (“Who's Afraid of Postcoloniality?,” Social Text, no. 49 [Winter 1996]: 187203)CrossRefGoogle Scholar—have long argued for recognizing these intertwined histories. For others, such as Scott, James (Seeing Like a State [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998])Google Scholar, the modern state is inevitably a project of internal colonization.

64 As observed, Christopher Bayly, “By the start of the First World War in 1914, the state could deploy more men, more authority, more resources, and more destructive power against its own citizens and against other states than it had done earlier” (The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons [London: Blackwell, 2004], 265)Google Scholar.

65 In India an important source of liberal nationalist enthusiasm for state capture was Guiseppe Mazzini, whose ideas found wide circulation in many parts of the world. See Bayly, Christopher and Biagini, E. F., Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalization of Democratic Nationalism, 1830–1920 (London: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Mitchell, Timothy's suggestion is productive: that through the twentieth century the state became a “powerful idea” that provided political legitimacy to a range of power relations (“The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” American Political Science Review 85, no. 1 [1991]: 7796)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Skinner, “Genealogy of the Modern State.”

68 Kahn, Paul, Putting Liberalism in Its Place (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 266Google Scholar.

69 Bayly, Birth of the Modern World, 302. In fact, exclusions across gender, race, and class were the norm through the first quarter of the twentieth century within the more developed democracies.

70 For instance, for anxieties about mass democracy among German thinkers such as Thomas Mann and Max Weber, see Timothy Stanton, “Popular Sovereignty in an Age of Mass Democracy: Politics, Parliament and Parties in Weber, Kelsen, Schmitt and Beyond,” in Bourke and Skinner, Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective.

71 Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), esp. 77–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

72 Gibbins, John, “J. S. Mill, Liberalism and Progress,” in Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth-Century Political Thought and Practice, ed. Bellamy, Richard (London: Routledge, 1990), 102Google Scholar.

73 Gilmartin, David, “Scientific Empire and Imperial Science: Colonialism and Irrigation Technology in the Indus Basin,” Journal of Asian Studies 53, no. 4 (1994): 1127–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar. From the 1930s onwards these ideas about progress were linked to the idea of development. See Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 8283CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Escobar, Arturo, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

74 Gilmartin, David, “Towards a Global History of Voting: Sovereignty, the Diffusion of Ideas, and the Enchanted Individual,” Religions 3, no. 2 (2012): 411CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 Devji, The Impossible Indian, esp.102–18.

76 Kapila, Shruti, “Self, Spencer and Swaraj: Nationalist Thought and Critiques of Liberalism, 1890–1920,” Modern Intellectual History 4, no. 1 (2007): 126CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

77 Having opposed the formation of Pakistan precisely because to him a state for Muslims without a commitment to Islamic governance made no sense, Maududi made the decision to move to Pakistan as he saw a greater potential for establishing his ideal Islamic state in a Muslim-majority country. However, he had to contend with intense criticism because there was no ready consensus on what Muslim nationalism was to mean and because of the strength of left secular ideas in the cultural sphere. See Ali, Kamran Asdar, “Communists in a Muslim Land: Cultural Debates in Pakistan's Early Years,” Modern Asian Studies 45, no. 3 (2011): 501–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 Hallaq, Wael, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 75, 262CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Ibid., 266.

80 Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State, 49.

81 Yusuf, Maulana Mufti Mohammed, Maulana Maududi par aitrazāt ka ilmī jaiza (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1971)Google Scholar. For an alternative vision of divine governance see Moosa, “Shari‘at Governance,” 319.

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