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The Predicament of the State not Religion - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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An article by Mshari Al-Zaydi published in Asharq Al Awsat, 11 May 2006, brought my attention to the problematic debate that is taking place in the Saudi press regarding the civil state and its relationship with legitimacy. This healthy debate reflected the positions that are now salient in Arab discourse concerning the nature of the state in Islam with regards to the foundations and legitimacy.

The article by Saad Al Breik, which launched the debate, repeated an opinion that is dominant in Islamist literature that the “civil state is antithetical to the religious state which rules according to Sharia.” However, it missed out some partial revisions that have taken place over the past few years to absorb democracy within Islamist thought.

The problem has three aspects that are rarely discussed in detail. The first has to do with the concept of a religious state. The second is related to the compatibility of democratic principles and mechanisms with Islam; while the third is related to the modern nation state that replaced the caliphate (is it a secular state or can it be included in the Islamic realm of governance as long as it announces that Islam is its official religion?) I am not concerned here with dealing with those three aspects. It is enough to say that most Islamic trends of thought are based on the assumption of the comprehensiveness of Islam and its absorption of the political field. This is expressed very well in a statement made by Hassan Al Banna who said, “Islam is state, religion, Quran and sword.”

Despite the fact that some Islamist intellectuals deny the religious label of the Islamic state believing that it has no sanctity with respect to governance and that it is based on allegiance and consensus, the legitimacy of that state is still derived from religion.

It is evident that Islamic thought has not entirely rid itself of the traditional paradigm of Ahkam Sultaniyyah (authoritative rule), which is largely based on two fixed pillars: the obligatory nature of Imamate, and the consideration of the nation in its religious conceptualization as the basis for society and the scope for citizenship. Therefore, undoubtedly the real problem in contemporary Islamic thought is related to the changing nature of the state rather than the theory of authority in Islam.

The relationship between religion and state forces us to examine the new nature of the contemporary nation state and how it could be linked with religious affairs in general to examine more than the clear differences that distinguish various global cultural-social contexts.

The modern nation state was based on a new approach to power and to public affairs. The pillar of this new approach is the legal procedural perspective of the political community as based on a contractual relationship deriving its legitimacy from within the social pattern itself. The state in this perspective is nothing but a regulatory body of the individual conflicting interest. It is no longer a comprehensive framework to entrench virtuous values and to achieve happiness as the case was in Greek and medieval political theory that was adopted by Islamic thought.

However, this transformation seemingly led to two contradictory conclusions: the demolishment of the totalitarian character by hindering the principal of political organization to the procedures of contractual authority on one hand, and replacing the absolute religious principle that used to be the base of state legitimacy by the political principle or loyalty to the state as a national and symbolic concept on the other hand.

The modern mind strove to overcome this problem by inventing central concepts such as sovereignty, representation, and national character. They are all expressions of the objective need to unify divided parts of the political body following the end of religious loyalty. It is clear that the legal paradigms that released these concepts, which aim to organize relationships in society with full neutrality towards value systems, has been transformed in to a positivistic value-laden structure. This system was fed by historical positivistic ideologies that formed the basis of salient secular perspectives. Thus, religion became excluded on one hand because of the civil societal contract, which became the source of political legitimacy, and included on the other hand because it symbolizes (in a perplexing manner) the absolutist character of the modern political entity or what Rousseau called “the civil religion.”

Thus, the major mistake of modern Islamic trends is that they try to re-Islamize the state unaware that its intrinsic absolute modern character can absorb and diffuse any political-religious ideology. The state could embody the traditional religious functions and transform any religious call to an effective ideology by re-employing it towards the entrenchment of absolute loyalty to the national entity. This was the prominent phenomenon in Iran and Sudan a few years ago.

The question then is not whether Islam is religion and state but rather whether it is related to the possible conditions and implications of the relationship between the nation-state, which is the principal aspect of modern political organization in Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike, and Islam as a spiritual and cultural paradigm that had managed before to adapt to various forms of the medieval state (guided caliphate, dynasties, sultanates, factional Imamate, and loose systems.) Muslim jurists throughout these phases have managed to create the appropriate adaptive mechanisms that could be compatible with the transformations of political organization. They mainly focused on Ijtihad on two central principles: that the Imamate is a situational contract even if it was a religious obligation, and that justice is the absolute goal of any theory of authority.