The Separation of Religion and State in Islam

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Islamists and CNN proclaim alike that religion and state are one in Islam. The oneness of religion and state justifies the existence of Islamic states like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. It is a claim which inspires Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir to petition for the re-establishment of the Caliphate in the twenty-first century.

In his Allahabad Address in 1930, Muhammad Iqbal held that “the religious ideal of Islam…is organically related to the social order which it has created.” Yet Iqbal discusses neither what that social order is nor how those ideals are embodied in a social or political organization. Indeed, the idea that religion and state are one in Islam is a recent one with little historical precedent.

First, Islam originated in a society where there was no state. The revelations of the Qur’an are moral commands on how a Muslim should live, on the Oneness of God, on the inevitability of the day of judgement and on the line of prophets before Muhammad. Whereas the revelations do speak to some matters of marriage, divorce, the payment of alimony and inheritance, they say little on how states should be formed, how governments should be run or organizations managed.

Second, the idea that religion and state are separate in Islam is not borne out by history. The Prophet of Islam did not appoint a successor for the community. Although the Caliphate was the religious and political head of the early Muslim community, its authority remained temporal, leaving matters of religious doctrine to the Ulema. After the siege of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the Caliphate existed essentially as a figurehead until it was abolished in 1924. As Ayubi makes clear, the early Muslim communities were concerned more with the politics of survival and succession than political theories of the state.

The great Islamic empires of the medieval ages – the Ottomans in Turkey, the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India – saw powerful rulers run their empires through bureaucracies, economic systems and armies all of which had little if anything to do with religion. The Ulema meanwhile monopolized matters of religion, the preaching and administering personal law. Religion and state co-existed, but separately.

Third, the Qur’an does distinguish between the temporal world (dunya) and an eternal, spiritual world (akhira). The temporal world can be further separated into matters relating to the “secular” world (dunya) and to religion (din). This distinction is similar to the Christian idea of the “secular” as the temporal world of human activity and the “eternal” world of God or the spiritual.

Ironically, the father of secularism in the West is the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) or Averroes. Ibn Rushd distinguished between religious knowledge (ilm al-kalam) and philosophical knowledge (ilm al-falsafa) and between the human soul into the divine (eternal) and the individual (non-eternal), distinctions again important for distinguishing between the “temporal” or secular world and the “eternal” or spiritual world.

Fourth, and as a modern-day ideology, the characteristics of Islamism are shaped by the times and societies in which it originated. As Ayubi points out, Islamism emerged in post-colonial Arab societies amongst groups who felt excluded from power, who were distrustful of state authority, were also disdainful of modernity and sought to resurrect the “authenticity” of their culture which they presented as Islam. It was up to the Islamists to reassert the supremacy of that culture and to root out social, political and cultural corruption by seizing the instruments of power.

Like Islam however, Islamism has no specific theory of the state. What is “Islamic” for an Islamist is typically identified in opposition to what is “un-Islamic” (modernity, non-Muslims, foreign powers). There are little if any positive political theorizing or policy solutions in Islamism. The tendency of Islamists is to escape upwards to the Heavens by seeking absolute submission to God.  For them, Ayubi points out, “Islam is the solution” (al-islam huwa al-hall), with the implication that if Islamists took power, and declared the full sovereignty of God, social, economic and cultural problems will somehow solve themselves.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

Nazih N. Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (Routledge, London: 1991).

William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East (Westview Press, Boulder, CO: 2009).

Charles Taylor, “Modes of Secularism” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1998).

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