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Revisiting the Secular State Debate
November 4, 2012 by Ahmad Farouk Musa
One of the most contentious issues in our country is the debate on Islamic State vis-à-vis Secular State. It should be highlighted at this initial point that the Islamic State concept was borne out only early in the twentieth century after the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate. Irrespective of which divide we are on, one basic fact that we have to agree upon is that the terminology Dawlah Islamiyyah or Islamic State was never mentioned in the Qur’an.
However, Islamic State remains the main agenda of political Islam that defines Islam as ad-deen wa-dawlah or “religion and state”. It could be argued that since there is no single predominant interpretation of what an Islamic state is, a vicious contestation still exists among the Islamists about the concept of Islamic State.
The realm of as-siyasi – the political
It is also worth noting from historical evidence that Muslims have been fighting against each other for centuries over political power. Rachid Ghannouchi leader of Hizb en-Nahda – The Renaissance Party – quotes a renowned Muslim historian, Shahrastani, as saying that it was on a question of political power that Muslims drew sword, fought each other and shed blood of one another.
And because of this, Ghannouchi distinguishes what he calls as ad-deeni – the religious, sacred or absolute – to that of as-siyasi – the political, profane or relative. The main problem Muslims especially are facing is in the realm of as-siyasi.
Many Muslims including some conservative political activists from the Islamic Party especially in the Ulama’ and Youth wings are insistent on the idea of replicating the Medinan city-state model of the seventh century. The Qur’an is considered as a constitution that spells out everything that is needed to form a “truly Islamic” government.
Obviously this understanding is anything but a fallacy. The Qur’an only lays the basic foundation that guides mankind. As the erudite Muhammad Asad said: “Every generation faces different circumstances and thus many laws and ways for society cannot be fixed for all time. This is also why the Qur’an fixes time-less law, ethics and restrictions that are universal in its appreciation.”
The companions of the Prophet were not left with a set of rules as to how to settle disputes or lead their worldly lives. However they were compelled to perform ijtihad or independent reasoning, using God-given faculty in order to find their own ways.
The en-Nahda leader, Ghannouchi argues that if Islam is the final divine revelation to humanity then it is only appropriate that no fixed prescriptions are given for matters that are of a changing nature such as governing a country. Muslims should be able to exercise their independent reasoning to devise suitable solutions for emerging problems. And the result of this exercise, Islam is then suitable for all times and all places.
Many Islamists argued that the Qur’an provides a solution to every single problem that faces humanity. Many verses have been cited to prove that Muslims need not find answers anywhere else. Among the most famous is: Today have I perfected your religious law for you, and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings, and willed that self-surrender unto Me – al-Islam – shall be your religion.” [al-Ma’idah – The Repast 5: 3]. And another verse is: ‘No single thing have We neglected in Our decree.” [Al-An’am – Cattle 6: 38]
In interpreting these verses, Ghannouchi asserted that many misunderstood them to mean that the Holy Qur’an has a solution to every problem whether major or minor. However what these verses really meant is that while some answers are already there, which if considered absolute, belong to the realm of ad-deeni; only guidelines and foundations are provided in the case of as-siyasi, so that Muslims may search for the detailed answers in accordance with the requirements of their respective time and place.
To exemplify this, Ghannouchi draws the attention to the Qur’anic declaration that: “And there is no living creature on earth but depends for its sustenance on God”. [Hud 11: 6] For in spite of such a declaration many creatures, including human communities, die of thirst and hunger. Where is then their sustenance? Their sustenance has indeed been stored in the earth and the heavens, but to become readily available, it requires exploring, an exertion of effort, on the part of those to whom it has been destined.
The need for human intellectual exegesis
Having said that, we have to acknowledge the fact that there exist shortcomings of a great deal of what we may believe to be sacred. The acceptance of God as Lord of the universe does not mean that everything is a priori. Islam is not a panacea that provides ready-made answers to all human problems. Muslim scholars have not solved all the problems of humanity, in history and for all times. Rather, Islam provides a moral and just perspective within which Muslims must find answer to all human problems.
Ultimately governing a state is a human endeavor. And there is only one thing that could rescue us from our current impasse: democracy. Democracy is essential for any Muslim group and only democracy could guide Muslim societies towards Islam, where the operation of the community and the demands of Islam are freely debated and refashioned.
This point needs further examination because a key and stubborn misperception of Muslims in regard to democracy is based on the notion that in Islam sovereignty belongs to God, while in democracy it belongs to people.
This is a naive and erroneous notion or interpretation. God IS the true and ultimate Sovereign, but He has bestowed a level of freedom and responsibility upon the human beings in this world. God has decided not to function as the Sovereign in this world. He has blessed humanity with revelations and His essential guidance. We are to shape and conduct our lives, individually and collectively, according to that guidance. But even though essentially this guidance is based on divine revelation, its interpretation and implementation are human.
God does not seek to regulate all human affairs and instead leaves human being considerable latitude in regulating their own affairs. In the Qur’anic discourse, God commanded the angels to honor man because of the miracle of human intellect – an expression of the abilities of the divine.
When we humans, search for ways to approximate God’s beauty and justice, we do not deny God’s sovereignty; instead we honor it. But if we were to say that the only legitimate source of law is the divine text, and that human experience and intellect are irrelevant to the pursuit of the divine will, then divine sovereignty will become an instrument of authoritarianism and an obstacle to democracy. And in effect, that authoritarian view denigrates God’s sovereignty.
The democratic ideals
It should be emphasized that a state has to govern the relations between human beings and the ultimate aim of the state is to set up a society based on justice and benevolence – or ‘adl and ihsan in the Qur’anic terms. ‘Adl and ihsan are most fundamental human values and any state worth its salt has to strive to establish a society based on these values.
But for this, no particular form of state is needed. Even an honest monarch can do it. It is for this reason that the holy Qur’an praises prophet-rulers like David and Solomon, who were kings and just rulers. But the Qur’an is also aware that such just rulers are normally far and few in between. The governance has to be as democratic as possible so that all adults can participate in it. If governance is left to an individual, or a monarch, the power may corrupt him or her as everyone knows absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is for this reason that the Qur’an refers to democratic governance when it says: “And those who respond to their Lord and keep up prayer, and whose affairs are (decided) by mutual consultation, and who spend out of what We have given them”. [Ash-Shura – Consultation 42: 38]
Thus the mutual affairs – those pertaining to governance – should be conducted only by mutual consultation which in contemporary political parlance will be construed as democratic governance. Since in those days there was no well-defined practice of political democracy, the Qur’an refers to it as `amruhum shura baynahum, i.e. affairs to be conducted through mutual consultation, which is a very meaningful way of hinting at democracy.
The Qur’an is thus against totalitarian or absolute monarchical rule. This injunction, implying government by consent and council, must be regarded as one of the fundamental clauses of all Qur’anic legislation relating to statecrafts, and is binding on all Muslims and for all times as asserted by Muhammad Asad, in his book, State and Government in Islam.
Whether the people will decide to choose the path to heaven or hell is a human decision. Whether they will choose Islam or another path, it is a human decision. Whether people will choose to organize their lives based on Islam or not is a human decision. It can be argued that for making wrong choices in this world, Muslims might be facing negative consequences in the life hereafter. But, still it is a matter of choice; there is no room for compulsion or imposition.
Then what happens when the society and leadership faces a conflict where for example the majority of the Muslim society does not want to uphold Islam? It must be emphasized that the leadership cannot coerce the society into what it does not want. There is no compulsion or coercion in Islam. Coercion never delivers sustainable results, and the foundation of Islam cannot be based on coercion.
Observe that God IS the sovereign from the viewpoint of Islamic reality, but not from practical standpoint. When our decisions are to be made based on Ijtihad – and we could be wrong; where our constitution and policies would be formulated through human consultation – and we can err; when our judicial system would be guided by the revealed guidance, yet, based on the evidence presented, there would be chance for an innocent to get convicted and a guilty to go free, God is not acting as a sovereign in this world.
De jure in contrast to de facto
Indeed, ruling a country is human endeavor. Nobody has the right to acclaim that his rule resembles God’s will and wish. Even a Mufti decreeing religious verdict should not assume infallibility. We have seen how a state in this country formulated an enactment that a Mufti’s verdict could not be challenged in the court of law. We shudder to think about the future if such a ruling party that upholds Guardianship of the Jurist or Kepimpinan Ulama rules this country.
The recently enacted law was a clear breach of democracy and basically an exploitation of the democratic process towards authoritarian rule. When such an institution declares that God is the sovereign, then they have the legitimacy to impose their own rule or whims in the name of the sovereign.
History is full of such abuses even in countries that claimed to impose Sharia. We have seen incidents where Sharia has been enforced for the people, but some powerful members of the Royal family or privileged ruling elites remained above the Sharia. Imposition of Sharia does not warrant a government to assume infallibility and that it is God’s shadow on earth.
It is to be noted that we accept the fact that all systems of government are imperfect, and we have to be perpetually vigilant against abuses of any form of government. However, it may also be the case that a genuine and robust democracy is the least imperfect of all imperfect political models today.
Again, since no particular Muslim can claim to have a theocratic authority, and since there are all sorts of Muslims with diverse views, ideas and aspirations, the only system that would be fair for all including those who do no profess the faith would be the one that would include all of them in the political process: a democracy.
A secular democratic state
It is argued then that the best state for Muslims is still a secular state that embraces democracy and will allow people to be Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim. Under such a system of governance, it is agreed to respect the fundamental rights of all people irrespective of race and religion or social status without discrimination and without any commitment to religious frames of reference. What matters in such a system is that despotism is checked.
One of the great accomplishments of secularism is the space it provides for pluralism and a reasonable degree of coexistence. Muslims have been able to live harmoniously in the majority non-Muslim societies for the first time in such significant numbers simply as a result of the secular revolution that liberated the state from the hegemony of the church.
It should also be noted that there is a big difference between a secular state and a secularist one. The former is a state that is neutral to religion and respects the right of its citizens to live by their faith. A secularist state, on the other hand, is hostile to religion and wants to curb its influence in public life, and even in the lives of individual citizens.
Accepting a secular state will allow Muslims not only to follow Islam in the way they genuinely believe but also to eliminate the endless discussions over the ideal “Islamic state” and its system like “Islamic economy” or even the disputable hudud laws. We should instead focus on the fundamentals of a civil state such as justice, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, good governance, separation of power, rule a of law, respect for human rights and economic equality.
The road forward
The issue is not about some mythical blending of “Islam” and “democracy.” All of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, are now citizens of a pluralistic society where we live together as neighbors. We have to begin by realizing the holistic nature of justice, and injustice; that what happens to a minority of us has a profound political and moral impact on all of us.
If we are going to insist that Muslims in Europe or other non-Muslim majority countries are full and complete citizens, not merely tolerated guests, then moral consistency demands of us that we recognize the exact same set of rights and responsibilities for non-Muslim citizens in our society in this country.
In other words, the fundamental commitment of justice demands that our commitment to democracy goes hand in hand with a robust notion of citizenship that encompasses every citizen of a country regardless of race, religion, gender, class and ethnicity.
We have to honor the divine imperative to live justly, learn to be just to ourselves and to others. Constant striving is required to overcome the fragmentation to which most human beings are subjected in the technological age.
We also have to embrace pluralism and to eliminate any form of sexism, racism, classism, and all forms of totalitarianism that lead to the injustices and inequities which characterize the country in which we live in today.
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary!” [Reinhold Niebuhr in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness]
Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa is a director at Islamic Renaissance Front.
This essay was presented at a dialogue on “Islamic State: Which Version, Whose Responsibility” at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, USJ Selangor, Malaysia on 3rdNovember 2012. It was first published by The New Mandala as a follow up to the initial ground-breaking article entitled Arguing for A Secular State.
It was later also published in the Malaysian Insider.