Al-Kawakibi published two books in Cairo, both drafted in Syria: Umm al-qura (The Mother of Cities) (Mecca) and Taba'i` al-istibdad wa masari` al-isti'bad (The Characteristics of Tyranny and the Death of Despotism). In Umm al-qura the Muslim leaders belonging to different nationalities gather in Mecca to discuss the causes of the decline of Islam and to offer remedies. The question of the caliphate is discussed, and it is argued that the problem of Islam would be solved if the caliphate were returned to its rightful holders, the Arabs. In the second book, al-Kawakibi formulates a pointed criticism of tyranny, alluding to the despotism of Sultan Abd al-Hamid II. He states that despotism is destructive to man and is caused by ignorance. Only through education and enlightenment can ignorance be eradicated.
To reconstruct al-Kawakibi's concept of man, one has to glean it from his statements on this subject inserted in a variety of unsuspected places. One also has to infer it from the general framework of his philosophical outlook on life. The shortcomings of this method are obvious, however, because one has to remember that he was a political and religious thinker, not a philosopher.
In his relationship to God, man is a "witness to God the Sovereign" (Koran 28:88). As His creature, man bears witness to the existence of God, and he serves Him by obeying His laws in order to achieve his own true liberty and dignity within the community, and in order to achieve eternal life in the hereafter. Man's liberty does not consist in blind acceptance of fate or authority. True liberty is obedience to God achieved through the use of reason. God has created man free and guided by reason; ungrateful to his Creator, man prefers to remain a slave guided by ignorance. God has provided man with a father and a mother to sustain him until he reaches maturity, and He has made for him the earth a mother and work a father, but man has turned his own mother into a slave and his own father into a ruler. Approaching the concept of fall, al-Kawakibi determines that man's rationalism is equivalent to his original innocence. True Islam confirms this position because it is based on reason. This might not be the Islam of the majority of Muslims, but it is the Islam of the Koran.
The thrust of al-Kawakibi's thought is directed toward going back to the first principles, the usul. This is nowhere more obvious than in his opening statement to the fictitious meeting he describes in Umm al-qura. There he calls for a return to the usul, that is, the Koran and the ascertained Sunnah (the Prophet's sayings and actions). The revival of Islam cannot be achieved except by removing the dross of superstitions and considering as marginal the heresies that accrued during centuries of immobility and reliance on authority. Any true revival has to resort to ijtihad, that is, personal opinion, or personal reasoning, and has to consider it among the first principles.
Like Abduh and al-Afghani, al-Kawakibi's starting point, the return to first principles, was not meant to make Islam freeze itself back into the first decades of its history, but to move forward on what is considered its true pillars: reason, freedom, and justice. It is only by considering Islam at its authentic best and not in terms of its periods of decadence that a fair assessment of these three aspects of Islam can be made. A religion replete with false beliefs cannot exist in one and the same head with an enlightened mind.
A return to pure Islam, therefore, is not a return to a rigid fundamentalism; it is simply making reason and wisdom a companion to the Sacred Law. The value of reason is not in challenging the revealed and uncontested doctrines of Islam but in helping the establishment of a free and just society. In summary, what might appear as al-Kawakibi's conservatism (salafiyah) is in reality a call to an open-minded, common-sensical, and true revival of Islam. Its implications are an affirmation of the need for reform, for the renewal and updating of Islam. In fact, his "conservatism" addressed itself to propelling Islam into new channels of modernity and progress.

Reform Inspired by Rationalism

Because of the closeness between the spiritual and the political in Islam, it is obvious that political, social, and moral reform for a Muslim believer like al-Kawakibi should derive from the doctrines of Islam. How did al-Kawakibi conceive of the needed reform? Freedom was al-Kawakibi's main preoccupation, not only in individual but also in national terms. In fact, the Arab nationalist possibilities were first expressed by him. He was opposed to the Ottoman rule over the Arabs as much as he was opposed to the despotism of Abd al-Hamid II over the citizens. His book, Taba'i' al-istibdad, is nothing but an outpouring of his great desire and appreciation for freedom. Unlike any other Arab writer before him, he deals with the problem of despotism comprehensively and systematically. He examines the relationship of despotism to religion, knowledge, glory, wealth, morality, education, and progress. He also offers some of the most enlightened solutions for doing away with it. The rationalistic approach to reform comes out clearly and strongly in al-Kawakibi's criticism of those oppressed among the Muslims who, instead of fighting despotism, console themselves with the hope of a better life in the next world, and who consider this world as "the prison of the faithful." Some rulers, he believes, have encouraged this otherworldly resignation in order to strengthen their hold over the citizens.
Islamism, according to al-Kawakibi, is based on freedom and the inherent dignity of man. All those who attempt to abridge man's dignity are encroaching on the divine prerogatives. The Islamic doctrine of the Oneness of God implies that God alone is great. Therefore, no human being is greater than another before God.s God created man to think for himself. He endowed him with the right to live free and to improve his life on this earth socially and morally through education. The espousal of ijtihad is an assertion of this freedom. Are not all the teachings of the great scholars and founders of the schools of jurisprudence merely personal interpretations? Consequently, a Muslim does not have to follow the opinions of any particular school, because, except for the Prophet, none speaks with the authority of a Messenger of God. The differences of opinion should not be a cause of friction but an opportunity to relate the Sacred Law to the constantly changing conditions of the world. Even talfiq (selections and combinations), as a method, may be considered when reason dictates it could or should be used.
In Umm al-qura, the value of this personal interpretation, or personal reasoning and the repudiation of authority, is clearly expressed in the pronouncement of the Russian Orientalist (in his dialogue with the Mufti of Qazan), who is a fervent partisan of the use of reason and personal interpretation in all questions related to the social order:
Even if the matter were of a positivist nature, it would be unwise for the people of our time to be under the obligation to follow the opinions of those who have preceded them ten centuries, or for the people of the West to be under the obligation to follow the laws of the people of the East. It seems to me that this act of restriction has led to what you view as the decline of respect for the Sacred Law.

Freedom is Democracy

Ijtihad, therefore, represents the capacity and obligation to use one's own reason: it also represents the God-given right to enjoy freedom. In politics, al-Kawakibi's conception of freedom is close to the liberal definition, which opposes any abridgment of it by government. He makes this definition very clear in both his extant works:
Free nations have guaranteed freedom of expression, authoring, and publishing, placing limitations only on defamation of others. They [free nations] opted to tolerate the impairments that might result from chaos rather than impose restrictions [on freedom] because there is no guarantee against a ruler's turning a hair of restriction into an iron chain with which to strangle the eternal enemy: freedom.

To me the affliction is our loss of freedom . . . the other dimension of which are the equality of rights, the accountability of rulers inasmuch its they are the custodians, the temerity to demand [one's rights] and to offer advice. The freedom to speak out and to publish, freedom to carry out scientific research are its other dimensions. Also total justice so that no man dreads a tyrant, nor a usurper nor a treacherous assassin. Other dimensions are security for religion and life, security for honour and dignity, and security for knowledge and its exploitation.
If man is then born rational and free, how can this freedom be translated into political action? The principles of freedom in Islam, according to al-Kawakibi, are based on the elimination of all kinds of tyrannical domination and arbitrariness: Islam commands justice, equality, fairness, and brotherhood, and encourages charity and love of one another. True government rests on the principle of democratic consultation of the community representatives (Ahl al-hall wa-al-aqd), those who "untie and tie." These are the people who use their minds and not their swords. Islam sets up the principle of the nation's administration on democratic legislation, that is socialist, as we shall see later ... It is well known that in Islamism there is no religious authority absolutely except in questions related to religious rites [Sha'a'ir], also the general legislative principles which do not exceed one hundred principles and rules. All are among the best and noblest discovered by legislators ever.

One of the striking aspects of al-Kawakibi's thought is his distinction between freedom and the democratic form of government. The first is one and indivisible, whereas the second, may be adapted to different circumstances. However, whatever the form of government is, its basic role is service to people. It is only under such governments that man can develop his mental potentialities, his personal, religious, and intellectual freedoms. A constitutional government can also be a despotic government unless a balance of power is set up between the executive, legislature, and judiciary, and all branches are made accountable. The purposes of governments should be defined clearly in accordance with the wishes of the total population, or the opinion of a majority comprising three-fourths of their number.
Another striking aspect of al-Kawakibi's thought is his belief that the Islamic system is a socialist one. Moved by the injustices against the poor, he thought that socialism, like Islam, aimed at establishing equality of standards of living among mankind, people's ownership of the land, immovable property, and large industrial factories. Socialism, according to him, is at the origin of Christianity and Islam, but the socialist life in Christianity has remained in the realm of the potential, whereas in Islam, the Rashidun (Orthodox) caliphs were able to found a government that equalized even their own persons with the poor of the nation in happiness as well as in misfortune. They produced among Muslims feelings of brotherhood and links of a socialist society the likes of which did not exist even among brothers who are provided for by one father and cared for by one mother.
The socialist tendencies which distinguish al-Kawakibi from the reformist school of Abduh and al-Afghani need to be further considered, and I hope this task will be undertaken on another occasion. However, al-Kawakibi stands clearly apart from this school in his promotion of the liberal doctrine of the separation of church and state.
In the chapter on despotism and religion in Tabd'i al-istibdad, al-Kawakibi surveys the historical stages in which religion and politics interlocked. In all stages, he notices the appropriation of divine attributes by human beings, which is contrary to the doctrine of the oneness of God. Islam has refined the doctrines of both Judaism and Christianity by putting an end to all association (shirk, worshipping others besides God) permanently. It has set up a system of political freedom which combines the best in democracy and aristocracy. Unfortunately, this system was practiced only for a short period, up to the time of the third caliph. Since then Islam has been trying in vain to recapture and reinstate the system. Muslims will keep crying to the Day of Judgment unless they substitute their present system with the consultative political system, which constitutes the true miracle of the Koran, "the system discovered by certain Western nations who, so to say, benefited from Islam more than the Muslims themselves." This consultative rule is similar to the assembly of chiefs of clans in the Bedouin tribe that advise the shaykh and consent to his decisions. Consultative rule is ingrained in the true Arab tradition.
This concept of democratic rule and political equality as represented by consultative government is extended by a liberal outlook on individual religion:

Religion is what the individual believes in, not what the crowd believes in. Religion is certainly an action, not mere knowledge and memorization by heart. Is not the collective duty [Fard kifiayah] one of the bases of your religion, which means that a Muslim fulfills his own obligation without much heeding whether the others fulfill theirs or not?

Al-Kawakibi's secularism is made even clearer in his cull for u nationalistic approach to government, following in tile footsteps of those nations that have separated state from church:

Oh, people, I mean you who are speakers of Arabic among the non-Muslims. I call upon you to think no more of past wrongs and grudges and to overlook whatever offenses have been perpetrated by our fathers and grandfathers. Enough has been done at the hands of trouble-makers. I don't consider it beyond you, you who have been forerunners in enlightenment, to discover the means for unity. Look at the nations of Austria and the United States, which have discovered through science several means and solid principles to achieve patriotic rather than administrative association. Why shouldn't we consider following one of these or similar means, thereby enabling our wise people to say to the instigators of hatred, whether foreigners, or non-Arabs, please, dear sirs, leave us alone to manage our own affairs; to communicate between us in out own Arabic; to have, through brotherhood, compassion for each other; to console each other in adversity, and to share equally in prosperity? Leave us alone to manage our worldly affairs and to make religion rule only in the next world. Let us unite under one slogan: Long live the nation, long live the homeland, long live freedom and self-respect.

Whether al-Kawakibi's secularism was complete or not is a debatable question in more than one way. His introduction of the idea of spiritual caliphate led him necessarily to consider politics as an autonomous discipline, a position which placed him almost alone among the modern reformers of Islam. This impression becomes stronger when we look at his ideas in the perspective of the times. He certainly was more outspoken in his secularist tendencies than any other Muslim intellectual of his age. Even his friend Rashid Rida was very much aware of this position when he pointed out his disapproval of al-Kawakibi's concept of the separation of state and religion. Furthermore, when Rida serialized Umm al-qura in his al-Manar, he attempted to delete alKawakibi's attack on the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Muslim caliphate.
In an article entitled "Pan-Islamism," published in al-Muqattam and signed by a "Muslim Free Thinker," al-Kawakibi criticizes those Muslims who believe that the dangerous situation in which Islam finds itself will not disappear until the Christians are humiliated. He affirms that such an attitude is what drives the Christians to seek the protection of Europe. The solution to this problem, he asserts unhesitatingly, is the separation of state and religion. Those who think that the state does not stand by itself without support from religion are mistaken. The purpose of the state's existence in our time is a worldly purpose, that is, the protection of people, the legislation of just laws, and the application of those laws. Religion, on the other hand, has one purpose in all times and places, that is, providing the opportunity for man to lead a sane life in this world in order to gain paradise in the next. Religion is a relationship between God and the individual, and each individual has his or her own religion-"If God had willed it, He would have made all the peoples into one nation." If this is not secularism, what else could it be?
To sum up, although a contemporary and in some ways a disciple of Abduh and al-Afghani, al-Kawakibi differs from them in that he clearly differentiates between the Arab movement and Pan-Islamism; he explores the concept of Arab nationalism and the return of the caliphate to the Arabs. He holds socialistic views in his consideration of the distribution of wealth, and he especially espouses the doctrine of separation of state and religion and the protection of the state from religious hegemony.
Humanism and Secularism in Arab Heritage
The Ideas of al-Kawakibi
George N. Atiyeh