Last week, I followed an exciting debate in the Saudi press between Saad Al Breik, a famous Islamic preacher, and journalist Qanan Al Ghamdi. Al Breik attacked the concept of a civil state because, “there would be no place in it [the state] for Shariah as the civil state is antithetical to the religious state which rules according to Shariah,” (found in the Al Risalah supplement of Al Medina newspaper, 28 April 2006.)
On May 4 2006, Qanan Al Ghamdi responded in the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, with a heated article in which he clearly asked Al Breik, “what are the civil mechanisms that they (the West) apply in terms of freedoms and justice that are in conflict with Islam?” This level of debate is healthy and required because Saudi society, like any real society, is home to several opinions and orientations.
There are similarities between Al Breik and Abu Izzadeen, the new Jamaican leader of Al Muhajiroun and the successor of Omar Bakri, concerning his view on democracy. In an interview with Asharq Al Awsat published 8 May 2006, Abu Izzadeen said democracy was among one of the factors that undermines religion. Similarly, Al Breik in his article stated, “Democracy is an annulment of the concept of religion.”
However, this is not my concern here. The essence of the issue is that the question of the religious versus the political in Islamic culture is very complicated and not as clear-cut as Saad Al Breik thinks. Since the beginning, there has been debate and discussion on how to define politics in Islam, how to determine its characteristics, the role of religion in it and how to distinguish the amount of leeway. Disputes amongst jurists are not a new phenomenon. Generally, there have been more questions than answers since the days of the Al Saqifa until today.
The following questions have been raised: does the Islamic religion include a political project? Is Islam reduced to such a project or did Islam not establish a new doctrine and civilization? What is the political project of Islam if there is one? Who truly represented it? Why would the Abbasids, for example, be better representatives of that project than the Umayyad dynasty? Why is the Taliban the only contemporary and modern representative of the political Islamic project according to its supporters?
Some intellectuals consider that every religion has political potential. However, each religion is peculiar in terms of its structure, transformations, and particularly, the history of its foundation. For example, due to the Roman persecution of Christians, the notions of sacrifice and the kingdom of heaven, became central to the Christian doctrine even after the Roman Empire itself embraced Christianity in 313A.D.
In Judaism, something similar occurred. The Jews were persecuted for many years preventing them from applying their political project due to the Babylonian Captivity, as well as the destruction of the sacred temple in 70 AD by Roman Emperor Titus. Since then, the Jewish political project was dormant until Israel was established in 1948. However, according to American researcher Bernard Haykal, religion remains a complex issue in the current Jewish state. But what about the Islamic state?
The matter of the Islamic state is very complicated; however, let us divide Islamic history in to two stages: the Mecca period and the Medina period. In Mecca, the aim was to build the religion and establish it in the hearts and minds of the Muslims. This was a very difficult task but through the struggle of the Prophet and his companions, Islam succeeded. As the pressure increased, the Muslims had to leave Mecca for Medina. Here a huge transformation occurred that clearly distinguished the two periods. In Mecca, there was no state or authority, but in Medina, the political carrier existed. That carrier protected the group and ensured its existence. However, according to Dr Abdul Ilah Balqaziz in his book entitled, ‘The Foundation of the Political Realm in Islam,’ the state of Medina was a state of Muslims and not an Islamic state in the modern fundamentalist interpretation of the term. Balqaziz added, “Initially this state was not restricted to Muslims but also included the Jews. Later however, the Jews were excluded when they allied with the non-Muslims.”
Balqaziz stated an important point in his book that the short time spent in Medina prevented many (especially those from outside of Medina) from establishing firmly their beliefs, and in fact, followed Islam due to the new power situation. What indicated this is the large number of converts throughout the last two years of the Prophet’s life and the quick withdrawal from Islam by many after the Prophet’s death. Thus in the Ridda wars (the apostasy wars), Abu Bakr was obliged to connect Islam to the state through political power against revolutionary tribes. In other words, politics in Islam was used to hold the new Islamic society due to the ‘softness’ of the doctrine. Balqaziz asserted, “During the peak of the prophet’s call, there was a need for political authority. After his death, the need doubled.” (p43)
Thus, perhaps the close connection between state and religion in early Islam was justified by the “softness” of the doctrine in the hearts of the new converts and due to the conditions of the foundational period and the necessity to protect the nascent group. This second reason is akin to the foundation of every new call, especially one as large, deep and inspirational as the call of Islam, which has had an impact on the whole of humanity. However, as 14 centuries have passed since this initial period, and since faith has become strongly entrenched in the hearts of Muslims who have become a major component of human history with their civilizations and cultures, the obsession with the protection of the group or entrenching the new religion may no longer be justified.
The relationship between state and religion has never been embodied in a single model throughout Islamic history. For example, each of the four rightly guided caliphs was selected through various methods. Then we have the example of the Umayyad state and its relationship with the religious scholars imposed by Muawiyyah. If we jump forward in history, the example of Arab and Islamic contemporary states belong to this era, just as the Abbasid caliphate belonged to its era and did not return to the example set by the Caliphs after it defeated the Ummayad dynasty. Why then would those who like to oversimplify history, want to impose a single model of the relationship between Islam and politics on us whilst history presents all kinds of colors and interpretations to us.
This is merely an attempt to come close to the issue of state and religion in Islamic history, completely aware of how much controversy and sensitivity surrounds the issue. However, it is necessary to open discussion and debate about it. It is like reaching the top of a mountain by following different routes. The most important thing is that debate keeps away from incrimination and stoning as we need not bleed more than we already have bled.