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The "Islamic State": A Continuing Controversy

Farzana Hassan *

No longer an elusive goal, the face of Islamic moderation has recently sprung into limelight with the publication of two popular, though controversial books demanding a clear repudiation of political Islam as a philosophy advocating a global Islamic state. Historically, the controversy over the two streams of Muslim political thought, one  demanding a "state of Islam" whereas the other proposing an Islamic state has been resolved in favour of the latter view. Chasing a Mirage by well-known journalist Tarek Fatah and Islam and the Secular State by Emory University professor, Dr. Abudllahi an-Naim, 

however, both build a compelling case for the ascendancy of the spiritual side of Islam, advocating secular rather than theocratic governance as the preferred political order in Muslim countries. 

Catalyzed by the events of 9/11, the debate over a religious requirement for the creation of an Islamic state may very well turn into the debate of the century, as both political Islam and its antidote in the more benign interpretations of liberal and progressive Muslims appear to be gaining a steady momentum. It may determine how our future will  unfold, what sort of a world order our children and grand-children will inherit and who the chief players in the ever-changing arena of geopolitics will be.

 The entrenched view among traditional Muslims is that Islam will eventually prevail over all other worldviews. For this to materialize, a mechanism--a political system, a form of governance with legislation rooted in divine dicta must be put in place, assert the Islamists. The view, formalized in the medieval Muslim philosopher Al-Mavardi’s writings, emphasizes the need for such a state because the faith must be safeguarded at all costs. Needless to say, modern Islamists, be they militants or Islamist-lites, draw inspiration from such religious constructs. They find further support for their opinion in historical precedent, stating that the prophet was not only a religious leader, he was also a statesman who ruled the nascent Islamic city-state of Medina. As an expositor of the Quran, the prophet’s example must be followed and therefore, Muslims of all subsequent generations must establish a state that replicates the first “Islamic state”.  Also at the root of this viewpoint is the belief that sovereignty belongs to God alone, therefore God’s rule and God's laws must be established on earth.

Fatah questions this view based on his analysis both of history and contemporary Islamic societies. He contends that the absence of explicit injunctions in the Quran for Muslims to establish such a state absolves them of any obligation to revive a global caliphate or to create a theocratic state. He further builds his case by stating that the prophet Mohammed did not name a successor or devise a comprehensive system of Islamic governance. Fatah regards these as indications for the absence of a requirement for Muslims to establish an Islamic state.

Though the conclusions above may be reasonable on all accounts, the issues, namely: The religious validity of an Islamic state and the form of governance it might assume have been somewhat conflated in the discourse. They need to be addressed separately. While many might concede that Islam does not specify a form of government, the establishment of an Islamic state is still imperative based on the arguments that Al-Mavardi propounds. It is up to Islamic communities to develop mechanisms for good governance, but the state must still be based on shariah law as an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty on earth.

Fatah’s position like that of An-Naim’s is a rational position demanding the abandonment of an archaic political worldview, however his claim that the absence of a stipulated system of governance indicating the redundancy of an Islamic state needs fortification through a stronger theological base. It will take more than the odd comment to constitute a solid theological challenge to the entrenched belief in a global caliphate.

An-Naim cites history to support the thesis that an Islamic state never did exist, nor was it ever a religious requirement. But this view can be easily challenged from an Islamist  standpoint who will argue that the so-called unislamic states were in fact deviations from the norm, the ideal still being the establishment of an Islamic  state. An-Naim highlights the incidence of human rights violations wherever such states have come to approximate the Islamist ideal. Additionally, he concludes that Islam is diverse, accommodating several opinions, interpretations and schools of thought therefore, it would be wrong to impose one interpretation on all citizens of an Islamic state, hence the need for a secular state. While these sensible arguments may be embraced by rational Muslims readily, the die-hard Islamists will demand more than a common-sense approach to eschew the idea of an Islamic theocracy. Their counter-arguments will have to be addressed effectively through better religious discourse.  

Fatah who describes the idea of an Islamic state as a “tragic illusion”, and An-Naim who views it as a “dangerous illusion”, both present cogent reasons for the establishment of  secular Muslim states but fall short of providing hard theological evidence to support their opinions. Their books are important contributions to the cause of promoting secular, liberal and progressive values among Muslims. However, the debate as it currently stands, remains unresolved at least from a theological perspective—a necessary ingredient in any religious controversy.  Traditionalists will argue that the “sunnah” or practice of the prophet as an exemplar of the Quran must be followed to the letter. Perhaps it needs to be asserted with equal if not greater force that it is as much the sunnah of the prophet to be a stateless advocate of faith and righteous conduct during the Meccan period of Islamic history. And though a rudimentary Islamic polity came into existence in response to the peculiar circumstances faced by the prophet in Medina, similar circumstances do not exist in our contemporary world, hence negating the need for an Islamic state based on sharia law.

Farzana Hassan is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest".