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The Time of Medina will Never Come Back

Voices from Islam /3. The aspiration to achieve a pure Islamic state in which shari'ah is perfectly applied is still present today amongst a large part of Muslim opinion; indeed, those who are opposed to this are considered apostates. But there is a major paradox that should be bought out.

Last update: 2018-06-11 15:00:33

The main problem with the idea of an Islamic state that can enforce shari'ah as positive law or official policy is that in view of the inherent subjectivity and consequent diversity of all interpretations of the Qur'an and Sunnah, such an effort will necessarily rely on the specific interpretation accepted by those in political power to the exclusion of other interpretations which are equally valid for other believers. In other words, the impossibility of enforcement of shari'ah by the state is due to the nature of shari'ah as a religious normative system and the nature of the state as a political institution. Yet, the paradox persists. On the one hand, Muslims not only continue to aspire, in theory at any rate, to the illusion of a pure Islamic state in which shari'ah is enforced as the only law, but many of them even regard opposition to the idea of an Islamic state as tantamount to apostasy a capital crime punishable by death. On the other hand, the vast majority of post-colonial Islamic societies have in fact avoided the enactment of shari'ah as the legal system and the basis of public policy in their own independent states, and the very few countries that have tried it, such as Iran, Pakistan, and the Sudan, are encountering severe problems in making it work in practice. To summarise: Islamic societies seem neither willing to abandon the illusion that shari'ah could and should be the only law under which they live, nor willing or able to actually implement it through the institutions of the state as such. This paradox can be mediated, it seems to me, by providing an Islamic rationale for the religious neutrality of the state, whereby shari'ah can play a positive role in the public domain, without being enforced by the state as positive law and public policy. I would first emphasize that the states that have ruled over Muslims throughout history have always in fact been secular, and could not have been otherwise. Secularism should be understood as a particular type of deeply contextual relationship between religion and the state, varying from one setting to another, that enables the state to claim religious legitimacy without enabling it to appropriate religious authority as such. The second argument against the fallacy of an Islamic state that purports to enforce shari'ah as positive law is that it is more damaging than a secular state for the freedom of religion and integrity of religious experience of Muslim as well as non-Muslim citizens of the state. To begin with, while Muslims have always continued to aspire to the model of the Prophet's state in Medina (622-632 CE), it is clear that that experience can neither be repeated nor logically compared to any other period in Islamic history or the future of Islamic societies. In addition to the extraordinary fact of the actual existence of the Prophet, who continued to receive and explain revelation throughout that period of time and to exercise his personal charisma and moral leadership, the state in Medina consisted of close-knit tribal communities of highly motivated new converts who lived within an extremely limited space. In other words, the state of Medina was based more on the moral authority of the Prophet and of social conformity within a small, close-knit community than on the coercive power of the state as in other human societies. The model of the Prophet's state in Medina cannot be applied in the present context of any Islamic society because it was a unique phenomenon that ended with his death. The Four Caliphs Regarding the rest of Islamic history, it is also clear that the Islamic legitimacy of the state has always been a cause of conflict and civil war since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. The majority of Sunni Muslims believe that the reigns of the first four Caliphs of Medina (the seat of the first state in western Arabia) continued the ideal Islamic state and community of the time of the Prophet. But according to Shi'a Muslims, the first three of the Medina Caliphs were illegitimate usurpers of the position to which only Ali (the Prophet's cousin, who became the fourth Caliph of Medina) and his decedents from Fatima (the Prophet's only surviving child) were rightly entitled. Throughout his reign as the fourth Caliph (656-61), Ali was locked in a bitter civil war against the Umayyad clan and other factions, including some of his own supporters, known as al-Kawarij (the breakaway group), who condemned him for accepting mediation with the Umayyad. Upon Ali's assassination by one of al-Kawarij in 661, the Umayyad clan established a monarchy that ruled the expanding Muslim Empire from Damascus, Syria, until 750. The Abbasids launched their successful challenge to the Umayyad dynasty in the name of Islamic legitimacy, but the Abbasid state (750-1258) was also a monarchy that ruled from Baghdad, Iraq, more in accordance with political expediency than shari'ah principles. The same has been true of the other states of various sizes and durations that have ruled Islamic societies ever since: from Spain, North and West Africa, and Central Asia to India, including the Ottoman Empire, which was finally abolished in 1923-24. The tension between Islamic legitimacy and political expediency was usually mediated at different phases of history through mutual accommodation between al-umara (rulers) and al-ulama (scholars of shari'ah) whereby the former acknowledged the theoretical supremacy of shari'ah and the latter conceded the practical political authority of the rulers. Occasionally, some rulers professed commitment to more rigorous implementation of shari'ah, as happened during the early Abbasid dynasty, the Ibadi Khariji kingdom of Tlemsen, Morocco (761-909), the Almoravids in Morocco and Spain (1056-1147), and the Isma'ili Shi'a Fatimati dynasty in parts of North Africa (969-1171). It is difficult to assess the scope and efficacy of those episodes of shari'ah application because of the lack of independent and sufficiently detailed historical sources. But it is reasonable to assume that the highly decentralized nature of the state and of the administration of justice at those times in history would not have permitted the sort of systematic and comprehensive application of shari'ah as is demanded or expected by the Muslims of many modern countries. One of the basic difficulties that has frustrated efforts to establish a state that can effectively implement shari'ah has been the lack of political and legal institutions to ensure compliance by the state itself, and its officials, with the demands shari'ah makes on them. While the ulama were supposed to be the guardians of shari'ah, they had no resort except that of appealing to the moral and religious sentiments of the rulers. Another factor was that the ulama were too concerned with safeguarding the unity of their communities, and the maintenance of peace and public order, to forcefully press their demands on rulers, especially at times of internal strife and external threat. The few scholars who expressly addressed constitutional and legal matters, such as al-Mawardi (died 1058) in Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniya ('Principles of Government'), and Ibn Taymiya (died 1328) in al-Siyasah al-Shar'i yah ('Islamic Public Policy'), confined themselves to elaborations of what ought to happen, in the form of advice to the ruler, without addressing what should happen when the ruler fails to comply with the application of shari'ah as an obligation of the state. Impracticable Model It seems clear to me from this brief review that the states that have ruled over Muslims throughout their history have been secular, in the sense of a mutual accommodation between al-umara (rulers) and al-ulama (scholars of shari'ah). In particular, the difficulties those states had in enforcing shari'ah were due to the inherent nature of shari'ah itself, and could not be overcome over time. Neither al-umara nor al-ulama could combine the two functions of exercising coercive political authority and being the scholarly guardians of shari'ah at the same time. In other words, there is no historical precedent for a so-called 'Islamic state' in Islamic history, and the model will be even more unworkable in the future, partly because of the inherent nature of shari'ah as a religious normative system. The idea of an Islamic state is conceptually incoherent and at a practical level very dangerous for the integrity of the religious experience of Muslims themselves, in addition to its serious violations of the rights of women and non-Muslims, who are not addressed here. The idea is incoherent in that a state is necessarily a political institution, and not a natural person who is capable of belief in Islam or any other religion. In other words, 'Islamic' may be used to refer to states where Muslims constitute a clear majority of the population, but the adjective 'Islamic' logically applies to a people, rather than to a state as a political institution. The fact that a state calls itself Islamic by proclaiming Islam to be the state religion, or alleging that it is making shari'ah a formal source of legislation, does not accurately reflect an Islamic quality of the state itself as a political institution. Unless one is willing to accept every claim by a state to be Islamic, the question becomes one of who has the authority to determine the quality of being Islamic, and according to which criteria. Thus Saudi Arabia is not likely to accept the claim of the present government of Iran that it is an 'Islamic' republic and Iran is not likely to accept that the Saudi monarchy can ever be 'Islamic', regardless of its claim to enforce shari'ah as the sole legal system of the land. Finally, it is clear that the forms of political and social organization by which all Muslims live today, and the types of economies they have to operate with and depend on for their survival, make even the much more recent history of the Ottoman and Mogul imperial states of the Middle East and India too alien to be revived or resurrected in the present post-colonial world of global economic and political interdependence and integration. Accordingly, claims to establish an Islamic state to enforce shari'ah today are dangerously naive, if not cynical and manipulative. In view of the nature of shari'ah, as historically understood by Muslims, the modern territorial state should neither seek to enforce it as positive law and public policy nor claim to interpret shari'ah doctrine and principle for its Muslim citizens. At the same time, the organic relationship between shari'ah and the culture and politics of each Muslim society means that shari'ah principles will remain relevant to varying degrees to matters of public policy and legislation. That is to say, as shari'ah principles will continue to strongly influence the moral sensibilities of Muslims from early childhood, those principles are bound to find expression in the public policy of their state, and rightly so. It is simply not possible, and not desirable in my view, to attempt to prevent shari'ah from influencing the political and public behaviour of Muslims. But that cannot mean the direct enforcement of shari'ah principles as such through the official institutions of the state. In other words, what is problematic is for shari'ah principles as such to be enforced as positive law, but the ethical principles and values of religion are certainly necessary for the proper functioning of society. ------------- [This article is a new version of Abdullahi A. An-Na'im, 'The Future of Shari'ah and the Debate in Northern Nigeria', in P. Ostien, J. M. Nasir and F. Kogelmann (eds.), Comparative Perspectives on Shari'ah in Nigeria (Spectrum Books Limited, Ibadan, 2005), pp. 327-357]

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