Islam and nation-state: Are they compatible?

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Islam and nation-state: Are they compatible?

Sunday, 15 May 2022 | Prem Anand Mishra

Many scholars claim that there is no inherent issue whether textual or practice, within Islam that makes it incompatible with the nation-state system or even democracy. The case of liberal democracy is a separate category as many argue that Islam is inherently opposed to such ideas

Any discussion on the compatibility between Islam as a faith and the idea of the nation-state as a political, social and economic reality has been exhausted in the hegemonic Islam and western modernity debate. The text and practice distinction has been a historical reality in Muslim societies, and it remained equally significant with the rise of the nation-state system. The question of the separation between religion and politics has been a different historical reality in the pre-scientific world.

The religious experiences among all faiths and societies have a different trajectory. However, there has been a homogenised notion of such division in Islam. The core vision of Islam doesn’t make any distinction between sacred and secular, and political and temporal. The argument is that politics can’t be separated from Islam as its core value.

Propagators of such ideas were not just orientalists but have been equally among Muslim scholars. The division between din (religion) and the dawla (state) has been a usual practice in Muslim societies since its origin, notably after Islam emerged as an organised form of life and the emergence of Islamic empires. But the question remains “why is it a contested concept, and are they compatible”?

The nation-state system is a few centuries old idea born in modern Europe. The nation-state system came to Muslim societies only in the 20th century, under two separate circumstances: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rubric of European colonialism.

The gaze of orientalism has been a central episteme in creating a sustained knowledge power discourse over western understanding of Islam and thus the idea of the Muslim world and idea of Islam has been categorised as a singular category.  There is a vast generalisation over the accordance given to Islam and nation-state compatibility.

With failing democracies and the rising number of failing states in the current world system, and the authoritarian structure in the majority of Muslim states, there is a discussion whether Islam and nation-state are compatible.

Religion and politics: An Islamic context

The boundaries of religion have always crossed the boundaries of politics and vice-versa, both in practice and in the language of Muslim empires. James Piscatori argues that Islam and the nation-states debate has been broadly discussed under two schools of thought: Conformists and non-conformists.

The non-conformists’ refutation is based on the thrust that comes directly from the Quran, shaping the whole human sphere of life; spiritual, physical, individual, social, economic and political through the divine law called Shariah.

The non-conformists’ holy will is supreme, and God’s sovereignty doesn’t allow the human will to trespass God’s divine decree.

After all, the human will is the core idea of the nation-state system, which defines the whole sphere of life.

Therefore, God’s decree under the command of the Quran and Shariah would decide the do’s and don’ts for humans, which is insignificant in the nation-states system. In this regard, the case of Saudi Arabia is significant. The Saudi Arabian case is essential for two critical reasons: It’s where Islam finds its origin, and for Muslims worldwide, it’s the heart of Islam.

And secondly, the Saudi State’s behaviour since the state’s formation in 1932 under the command of the King has been an institutionalised form that foretells the contemporary image of Islam in Saudi Arabia. This is to understand the making of an institutionalised form of Islam or official Islam as many categories in Saudi Arabia under the aegis of the nation-state system.

This makes the case further critical to know how the state has dominated this space despite being considered the most conservative that follows a strict religious command in controlling the Saudi society, its religiosity and the everydayness of life.

In short, Saudi Arabia defies the core nature of the conformists’ view, and therefore, the question of legitimacy needs serious analysis.

The idea that despite being the most conservative country in the world that follows the Wahhabi brand of Islam, Saudi has managed to create a dominant space for the idea of the nation-state.

Therefore, the core assumption of an Islamic state is that authority, regardless of the status of exercising power over the subjects, is legitimate according to the Islamic juridical theory if it follows divine sources like the Quran and Sunnah.

In that scenario, can a Muslim majority state necessarily become an Islamic state, or it can only become genuinely Islamic only by applying the Quran and Sunnah and Shariah laws in the realm of the socio-political feature of the nation as a basic constitution of the country?

The two critical elements of the Islamic state are command (amr) and prohibition (nahy). However, the juridical sphere of the state follows the command and prohibition based on jurisprudential (fiqh) traditions based on the interpretations of the divine command of the Quran and sayings of the prophet.

Islamic philosophical/theological and legal enquiry creates a fundamental difference in the contested aspect of fiqh traditions that have been divided among four schools in Sunni Islam (Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki and Hanbali)

On the issue of Shariah, the vital principle for an Islamic State has four primary dimensions: First, enforcing ordinances of Shariah.

Second, for an administrative position, any stipulation of Shariah is unacceptable. Third, a properly constituted Islamic government is a Muslim’s religious duty. People’s consent is a part of forming an ISIS; fourth, the government comes into existence based on the people’s free choice of the Quranic expression, “from among you.

“As Muhammad Asad helps in understanding these significant distinctions in the rulings of Shariah based on Fard (obligatory-omission of which is a sin) and Mubah (allowed) omission of which doesn’t make a man sinner.

Mandub (recommended) has merit in it, and the deletion doesn’t lead to sin. Makruh: Undesirable but committed acts can’t be a sin. Mutlaq: Neither meritorious nor sinful. This significance of the diversity of ruling Shariah directs the Muslims to accept the divine law (Shariah) and an open road (Minhaj) where ijtihad comes as a free enquiry despite the place for Shariah as divine law is the basis of the Islamic state system for fulfilling all spheres of life.

The practice, however, through fiqh rulings, is based on Qiyas. The room for the state to create its dominance comes from fiqh traditions in the absence of no strict divine commands.

The source of the state sovereignty in an Islamic State as a political framework for Muslim unity and cooperation and means for equity and justice is based on three guiding principles: Injunctions of the Quran and obey God, obey the Apostle and those in authority.

The injunctions, “He who follows me, obeys God; and he who disobeys me disobeys God. And he who heeds the Amir (head of the state) observes me, and he violates the Amir and disregards me.”

Therefore, a Muslim, nature wise and superior ineligibility is a qualification under Shariah for the head of the state. In this sphere of a philosophical-technological and legal aspect, the Saudi state commands its legitimacy and creates a space for an official and institutionalised form of Islam.

Understanding official Islam and its multivariate dimensions

Despite the structural differences, the genealogy of Muslim societies and the historical processes overwhelmingly have placed Islam as an ideology.

This whole idea of putting Islam as an ideology is the root of the concept of Dar-ul Islam (House of Islam) and Dar-ulHarb (House of war) and the violent form of jehad as a language of the Islamic empires more than a Quranic command for Muslims against non-Muslims.

This has been a galvanising force for Muslims on the question of brotherhood and social justice. Second, the idea is Islam needs to be politicised. This has been a core factor of Islamic revivalism. The Islamic movement in the name of pan-Islamism started during the end of the Ottoman empire and the rise of the western intervention of colonial enterprise in the heart of the Muslim world.

This notion reached its more politicised form after the height of the Muslim Brotherhood and found a revolutionary expression in the 1979 Iranian revolution. The argument here is that politics in Islamic colleges lag in institutional development because Islam lacks an organised priesthood.

This has had two consequences. One is that there was no effort of reformation in Islam in the absence of institutional efficiency and the second consequence is that the ulama or clergies were never established sufficiently to wield real power and lacked the ideology and organisational characteristics.

It might be assumed therefore the future stability of Saudi Arabia may well depend on how the government balances demands for political participation and the traditional concentration of power within the Saudi elite. On the ideological factor, a tendency in orientalist tradition is that Islam is antithetical to modernisation.

If the 1950s and the 1960s were dominated by Arab nationalism, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism,” challenging secular ideologies and Muslim governments by appealing to religious dogma, symbols, and rhetoric.

Democracies are failing across the world under the reign of authoritarianism, but no other religious group receives so much attention on the question of compatibility as Islam.

Hence, the final point that many scholars offer is that there is no inherent issue whether textual or practice, within Islam that makes it incompatible with the nation-state system or even democracy.

The case of liberal democracy is a separate category as many argue that Islam is inherently opposed to such ideas. Still, even Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Algeria have classic compatibility cases between Islam nation-state and their multiple forms of expression, including constitutional democracy.

(The writer is PhD from Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU, New Delhi, and is a former journalist)

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