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Islam and the State

Our in-depth re-evaluation of the Qur'anic conception of Shari’ah implies a corresponding re-orientation of our entire understanding of the purpose of an Islamically-inspired politics. Having retrieved the Qur’anic conception of Shari’ah as fundamentally pluralist and inclusive, values-oriented rather than rules-driven, we are compelled to revise our understanding of the function of an Islamic polity.

This suggests that we must re-evaluate the contemporary Islamist presumption of the obligation to establish an ‘Islamic State’ – whether it is inspired by the modern bureaucratic structure of the nation-state, or modelled on the centralized political administration of the pre-modern Muslim empires. 


The State as Islamist Innovation


The word 'khilafah' is commonly used by some contemporary Muslims to refer to the idea of an Islamic political structure. In the English language, one frequently hears khilafah being used to denote an "Islamic State," and proponents of this view argue that the concept of an Islamic State is an inherent and unambiguous dimension of authentic Islamic sources.

However, the very concept of an ‘Islamic State’ is a misnomer that deviates from the Prophetic model. Needless to say, the sovereign nation-state is a modern invention, only coming into existence within approximately the last two hundred years. Before that, states did not exist, borders were in flux, and empires based on aristocratic and dynastic rivalries used force to extract tribute from subject populations and monopolise trade. This was even more the case fourteen hundred years ago. The concept of the ‘Islamic State’ as thus developed by modern Islamist movements drew extensively and often subliminally on modern political theories of the state, despite their puritanical avowal of adherence to Qur’anic and Prophetic norms. (Abdullahi an-Naim, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a, Harvard University Press, 2008)

Indeed, all modern conceptions of the ‘Islamic State’ emerged as reactionary ideological responses to Western colonialism. The first modern conception of an Islamic State was developed in response to the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate in Turkey in 1924, when most Muslim communities were suffering from territorial division under the impact of European colonialism.

Between 1937 and 1941, this conception evolved with the writings of Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, a leader in the Indian Muslim movement for a political ‘Khilafat’, which was radicalised in the context of the devastating impact of British colonialism in India. Hasan al-Banna's endorsement of “an Islamic nationalism that is far superior to any local nationalism” was similarly a direct response to British interference in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s. For al-Banna, and thus for the Muslim Brotherhood which he founded, Islam amounted to “a fatherland and a nationality, a religion and a state, spirituality and action, a book and a sword.” Sayyid Qutb built on these concepts in the continuing context of domestic political turmoil, while in prison after a major confrontation with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of wilayat al-faqih, focusing less on the idea of compliance with religious law than on the obligation to establish a ‘just government’ led by the fuqaha (jurists) themselves, was developedin the context of rising resistance against an oppressive regime supported by the US and Britain. And of course, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s Palestinian mentor, drew on the works of Mawdudi and Qutb to formulate his doctrine of continuous war for a pan-Islamic state – in the context of the early years of the Afghan war to repel Soviet invasion (Nazih N. Ayubi, et. al, “Islamic State” in John Esposito and Natana J. DeLong-Bas (eds.), Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World , Oxford: Oxford University, 2009).

Thus, as the late Egyptian scholar Prof. Nazih Ayubi convincingly shows, the Islamist doctrines of political revolution, the bureaucratic state, and offensive warfare were modern ideas, developed recently in the historically-specific context of the collapse of the Muslim empires and the consolidation of Western secular power through the age of colonisation. Political turmoil continued in the course of decolonization when anti-imperialist struggles for nationalist independence from British, American, and European colonial rule were breaking out across the ‘Third World’. The categories these doctrines invented are thus uniquely modern, in the sense that they reformulated strands of classical thought and remobilised them to legitimise political responses to Western forms of political, socio-economic and cultural imperialism in their own countries.

That is not to say that Islam has nothing to say about politics, but rather that the political principles espoused within the Qur'an and Prophetic model do not automatically and explicitly set out detailed prescriptions for the establishment and management of a bureaucratic, centrally-administered state. 

That is why modern Islamist political doctrines of necessity borrow numerous ideas from layers of modern political theory, as well as political concepts innovated during the classical period, the scope of which went well beyond the ethical injunctions and principles contained in the Qur’an and ahadith. Ayubi et. al observe that: 

“Islam is indeed a religion of collective morals, but it contains little that is specifically political – that is, the original Islamic sources rarely convey much on how to form states, run governments, and manage organizations... Islam had spread in regions where the modes of production tended to be control-based and where the state had always played a crucial economic and social role. The ‘monopoly’ of a certain religion had always been one of the state ’s usual instruments for ensuring ideological hegemony, and the historical Islamic state was heir to this tradition... Given the limited nature of political stipulations in the Qur’an and the hadiths, Muslims have had to borrow and to improvise in developing their political systems.

Crucially, Ayubi shows that the 'Islamic' political systems which thus evolved were inspired by a combination of things: firstly, by politically and culturally delimited interpretations of "Islamic law"; secondly, by "Arabian tribal traditions"; and thirdly, by the "political heritage of the lands Muslims conquered, especially the Persian and Byzantine traditions." (Ayubi, et. al, as above)

In short, the idea that there can be such a thing as an "Islamic State" constitutes a colossal bidah (prohibited innovation), whereby a modern Western political concept-structure entirely foreign to the Qur'anic-Prophetic model has been artificially grafted onto 'Islam.' 

Therefore, the modern state or medieval empire-system does not provide a valid avenue by which to understand Islamic principles on authentic political action. This vindicates the necessity to revise our conception of the Islamic polity on the basis of returning to a Qur’anic conception of khilafah.