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Islam and State: Rethinking Muslim Politics?
31st OCTOBER 2006
London - England
INTERNATIONAL FORUM FOR ISLAMIC DIALOGUE (IFID)
JOINTLY WITH THE
MUSLIM INSTITUTE AND THE CITY CIRCLE
The International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID)
IFID was established in 1994 as a UK based non-profit organization. It is an independent voice calling for an enlightened and modern understanding of Islam. We believe that Muslim democrats can potentially become a stabilizing and a constructive force in developing institutions, modernizing Muslim societies and playing their full role in world peace. The key to a better future for Muslim nations lies in developing interpretations of Islam, Muslim thought and attitudes that are compatible with the contemporary world. IFID was founded by Dr Laith Kubba, who served as it’s first executive director (1994 to 1998). He was succeeded by Dr Mansoor Al-Jamri. IFID’s current director is Dr Najah Kadhim.
1. To identify, encourage and introduce new, enlightened Muslim writers to engage in debate and discussion on key Islamic issues and establish a network for the sharing of ideas and experiences on the challenges faced by Muslims today. 2. To initiate innovative ideas that provoke contemporary Islamic thought and generate much needed debate and dialogue. 3. To assist and strengthen the efforts of enlightened and liberal Muslim democrats in propagating a modern understanding of Islam and it’s values, focusing on human rights, democracy, pluralism, non-violence, civil rights, modern institutions and in identifying future trends and strategies.
1. The “Friday Note” - whereby, concise articles, by known Muslim writers from a number of countries, address contemporary Muslims concerns. These are emailed on Fridays, to our online community. Each year a collection of these articles are published in book form. 2. To improve and update “Islam21.net” Web site. 3. To implement and develop a “Muslim Civic Participation (MCP)”, catering to the needs of Muslims, that is modern, scientific, and flexible - to be used by teachers of civic education and religion. 4. To publish the quarterly “Islam21” journal, focusing on specific themes. 5. To host Seminars, addressing specific topics relevant to current Muslim reality and to publish and circulate them to individuals and organizations. 6. To publish the quarterly “Islam21 Youth”, focusing on Muslim Identity from a youth perspective.
Islam and State: Rethinking Muslim Politics?
Lead Speaker: Asghar Ali Engineer *
Chairman: Najah Kadhim I hope that this session is going to focus on a number of familiar questions. Some of these include: Was the role of Islam to establish an ideological state or to promote a moral code? What is the relationship between the state and Islam? Is Islamic governance, or hukum as we say in Arabic, indispensable to the Islamic faith? There are a number of questions related to this: Are democracy, rights, transparency, accountability, part of governance, alien to Islam or are they really part of our faith? We hope that the talk by Dr Asghar Ali Engineer and the questions which follow later try to touch on a number of these crucial points that are affecting the Muslims all over the world. Dr Asghar Ali Engineer: Salam ‘alaykum. This is a very important and controversial issue: the Islamic state. In Islam, religion and politics cannot be separated. Basically, it is not a Qur’anic injunction. It was a situation requirement. Let us see where Islam originates. Islam originated in a society that did not have any state. The Holy Prophet was born in Makkah, which was a tribal society. The tribal chiefs, whenever any decision had to be made, met and took a unanimous decision. If any decision was not unanimous, it was not enforceable. They had what in modern terminology we should call a senate (billa). There was no king, no head of state, no police, no bureaucracy, no army, nothing! There was a complete vacuum. There was only a civil society – no state. There was no written law, there was no scripture, and only tribal customs were followed – as in any tribal society. Customs and traditions were their main guidance. This is what the Qur’an also says: “you do not possess any scripture, any written law; only customs and traditions.” In addition, the main concern was with certain values. The ideal surahs of the Qur’an, the Makkan surahs, are all exaltations about justice, taking care of orphans and widows. A tribal society was developing into a commercial society in Makkah. It was a centre of high international finance. Islam was not born in a desert, it was born in Makkah, a centre of high finance that was en route to the Roman Empire and the Silk Route, which originated in China and passed through Yemen, then India and came to Makkah. Then they [the traders] would cross the great desert, the Rub’ al-Khali. The Arabs were just guides for crossing the desert, though soon they learned the trade and became traders themselves. We know that the Holy Prophet, in his early days, accompanied those caravans to the Roman Empire on behalf of Khadijah, whom he later married. The Arabs were going into high finance, yet there was no political authority and no values, no state structure. So the Qur’an was mainly concerned with the weaker sections of society because the tribal society was breaking [down], tribal bonds were breaking and inter-tribal trade corporations were developing. They were in need of a state because a society that is a centre of high finance needs some governance, some state structure, yet it did not exist because of the tribal form of the society. The earlier Qur’anic surahs were mainly concerned with the weaker sections,
because in a tribal society, there is no poverty. No wealth is generated in tribal society, for there is no agriculture. In the entire Rub’ al-Khali and Makkah, there was no agriculture and no production of wealth. [Wealth] came only from [the] trade exchange of commodities. Therefore, in a tribal society, there is no concept of poverty: whatever is there is equitably distributed automatically. There is no concept of weaker sections either. However, in Makkah, weaker sections came into existence because of this new development and they were being totally neglected. The rich traders reinvested money and spent part of it on ostentation and their own luxuries and totally neglected the weaker sections. So, the Qur’an was mainly concerned with them. Look at that man who collects wealth and counts it again and again and thinks it will give him eternal life. So, what is hutuma? That which breaks into pieces. There is a strict warning about the social tensions that were developing between the haves and have-nots. Look at the person who disowns orphans and does not feed them. That was the main concern: to establish a society that was just, which took care of the weaker sections of society – the orphans, widows, the poor and needy – and no injustice is done to anyone. Anyway, the Prophet was persecuted. It is important to note that the Prophet was persecuted not by the common people in Makkah, but by the powerful, rich international traders, because if they accepted the logic of the Prophet, then they would have to dispense with their wealth and distribute it. The logic of a trading society is to reinvest wealth rather than to redistribute it. Secondly, if they listened to the Prophet, those powerful traders would have to obey an orphan, a poor boy, because the Holy Prophet started as a poor man who had no wherewithal until he married Khadijah. Therefore, that hurt their arrogance. How can we expect a poor man to lead us? That is why they persecuted him. Not because he was denouncing idol worship. They hardly bothered about worshipping anything. They were worshippers of Mammon, they were worshippers of wealth. Because the Prophet attacked the concentration of wealth, they were hurt, and because they were powerful and rich, they thought it was beneath their dignity to follow a poor orphan. That is why the Prophet was persecuted. He had to migrate to Madinah, where the situation was altogether different. It was an agricultural society, where there was production of wealth rather than simply an exchange of wealth. However, Madinah did not have any state structure either, for the Jews controlled the state structure. The main tribes of Madinah were fighting among themselves and the Jews were enjoying the leadership in that situation. When the Prophet was there, the power balance changed: the Jews lost power and the power was transferred to the Prophet and his followers. This was an entirely different situation. During the life of the Prophet, no state structure developed, even in Madinah. There was no police, no army, no bureaucracy – everything was one entity. When the kuffar of Makkah attacked Madinah, the Prophet would appeal to the Jews and others. It is also important to note that the Holy Prophet established a society in which all were partners. He called the Jews, the pagan idol-worshippers and, of course, the Muslims, drew up a treaty, which is known as Sahiafat al-Madinah (or Covenant of Madinah) and formed a community. Madinah was a pluralist city with people of
three different religions: the Jews, the Muslims and the pagans. He gave full freedom to all three communities to follow their respective religions. Jews were allowed to follow their religion and their tribal traditions. There were different kinds of tribes in Madinah and each tribe was given the freedom to follow its religion and also its tribal customs and traditions. The pagans were there and the Muslims, of course, were there. It was a sort of pluralist society and the Prophet allowed all of them to follow their respective religions. There was only one condition: that if Madinah was attacked, it would be defended by all and it was called Ummah Wahadah. The concept of Ummah Wahadah is not of Muslims alone but of Jews, pagans and Muslims. Even in Madinah, no state structure developed. There was no army and, if Madinah was attacked, the Prophet appealed to all to volunteer. There are several Qur’anic verses that induce people to fight in the way of Allah. I should also like to draw your attention to the much-misused word “jihad”. The word “jihad” has not been used in the Qur’an for war. There are two other words for war: harb and qital. And fight in the way of Allah those who fight you. And do not be an aggressor: Allah does not allow aggression. It is very clear. For war or fighting, the word harb or qital is used. In Arabic, jihad does not mean to fight. It is to make an effort. That is the root meaning of jihad. Unfortunately, in the post-Qur’anic period, the meaning of jihad changed completely and jihad was used for Holy war. That concept does not exist in the Qur’an. Even when the Prophet was asked about jihad, he said that the best form of jihad was to speak the truth in the face of a tyrannical ruler. He clearly defined jihad. But that is another story. In Madinah, there was no army or bureaucracy. Everything was voluntary. However, as the situation developed, the Prophet appealed for various conditions. Even the Qur’anic injunction about believers to enforce what is good and forbid what is evil. It is every believer’s duty, not the duty of the police or any bureaucracy but of every believer. The concept of the state developed only in a very rudimentary form during the period of the first caliph, Hazrat Abu Bakr. It clearly took shape during the time of the second caliph, Hazrat ‘Umar. Conquest took place and a strong need arose for the police and the bureaucracy. ‘Umar prepared a diwan for the first time. He took the concept of a paid army from Iran. Otherwise, the tribal concept in Arabia was that whatever was looted in the war was distributed among the fighters – there was no salary. For the first time, diwan is developed during Hazart ‘Uthman’s time. Then he starts paying soldiers a regular salary. Even the concept of Bayt al-Mal (Public Treasury) was new. You will not find it in pre-Islamic society, for there was no tax system at all. The concept of zakah – a tax – is given by the Qur’an and, subsequently, a treasury was established. During the Prophet’s time, it was directly distributed and since there was no salary, whatever was acquired during warfare was distributed among the people quite equitably. This situation continued even during ‘Umar’s time. The principle of justice was
most important in the distribution of acquisitions. We know in history that somebody told Hazrat ‘Umar: “You have taken more.” He called his son. He asked him how much he had taken. This was done to prove to civil society that they had not taken more, even though they were rulers. By ‘Umar’s time, it was quite a sizeable empire, yet the caliph took only what the other believers were given. Thus, the concept of Bayt al-Mal (Public Treasury) emerged after the Prophet’s death, not during his lifetime. The state structure also began to develop after the death of the Prophet, because there was a total vacuum in that society – there was no state. Therefore, a state was needed, which is why the concept arose that in Islam, you cannot separate politics from religion. What is din here? This is most important. It should not be taken in the sense of technical religion Islam but values. Even if the Zunjais (Blacks) rules in this way it is acceptable. The Zunjais came to mean rule without any value, which is based on oppression and exploitation. In that sense, the modern nation-state or the Islamic state or any state in which there are no values means rule without values and therefore resulting in oppression. You will see in the Qur’an that there are four fundamental values: justice, compassion, wisdom and benevolence. These are the most important values of the Qur’an. Any rule without these values would be a rule that would lead to exploitation and oppression. Therefore, any state that makes these values its guidance is a proper state with proper governance. Governance must be based on these values. If you look at what has been called an Islamic state throughout history, these values were never followed, not even during the twenty years of Rashid’s caliphate, because, by the time of ‘Uthman, the third caliph, there was a revolt in civil society and ‘Uthman himself was assassinated. It was perceived by mushrikun that the people of ‘Uthman’s circle occupied all the important positions and other Muslims were deprived of that opportunity. You may have read a very important work, Fitnah al-Kubra by Taha Hussayn, an Egyptian scholar, who described what happened during ‘Uthman’s time. Even the fourth caliph, Hazrat ‘Ali, was assassinated. Although ‘Umar was also assassinated, it had no connection with a revolt by civil society, for he was killed by slaves. However, two other caliphs were assassinated by members of civil society. More than 70,000 Muslims were killed in civil war during the era of those two caliphs. The caliph really made sincere efforts to govern in accordance with Islamic values. But what happened in the entire history of Islam, in 1400 years of history we will not find one single state that was governed in accordance with these Qur’anic values. On the contrary, we have the Umayyad rule, which was most oppressive, and we have Hajjaj, who killed 100,000 Muslims and sent 50,000 Muslims to prison. The very founder of the Abbasid state shed blood. The entire Abbasid rule was, again, based on oppression and exploitation. Of course, there was never a central state and regional states came into existence. After the fourth caliph, the very concept of caliph disappeared. Then a concept developed that if a most oppressive ruler enforces salat, he must be followed. Although he might be an oppressor, you have to follow him because he is enforcing salat. The entire history of Islam shows that a state that was based on these four fundamental values never developed. Take the modern world. Show me one single Islamic state. They all declare that they are Islamic. Show me one single Islamic
country where these four values are followed. They assert that they enforce the Shari’ah, though in a very ritualistic sense. If these values are not followed, what is the use of enforcing salat? As far as worship is concerned, be it salat, fasting or praying, it has to come from within – it can never be imposed. If it is imposed, we do it outwardly, yet it has no spiritual content. You do not really need a state to enforce these rituals, for they are very spiritual in nature. If I pray, I must pray because my inner being is desperate. If I fast, I must fast because my inner soul tells me to. Otherwise, they will be empty rituals. They have become empty rituals. We pray five times, yet we lie, we exploit. Throughout Islamic history, we have had a feudal system. If we go by the Qur’an and the Hadith, there is no ownership of land at all. Land belongs to Allah. You can never rent it. Shared profit was condemned by the Prophet, yet the whole feudal system is based on shared profit: one quarter, one third or one half. The Prophet clearly said that a believer who does not till land for more than three years should give it to one who can till it. Nevertheless, a feudal lord sits at home on the land, the peasantry works and he takes away half the produce. This is oppression, a very negation of justice. So, on what basis do we talk about an Islamic state? In the twentieth century, many Muslim countries started declaring that they were Islamic states. And what would they enforce? Punishments. Henceforth, we shall cut off the hand of a thief, stone adulterers. Is this a sense of the Islamic state? Moreover, ultimately, on whom do they enforce these punishments? Their political opponents. In Pakistan, there is a lot of evidence about it. Zia al-Haq, who declared an Islamic state in the late 1970s used to flog for drinking those journalists who were writing against him. Yet, he would generously allow the officers to drink. We are bound to have such a deep concept of an Islamic state because we have no conscience. We want to punish our political opponents. A friend of mine from Pakistan wrote a book, Press in Chains, during Zia al-Haq’s time. There was no freedom of opinion, which is also against Qur’anic injunctions: la ikraha fi al-din, which in a sense means freedom of conscience. If there is no freedom of conscience, there is no dignity of the individual. How can you have a just society? I have studied the Qur’an from the perspective of human rights as well. I have written on that. In the Charter of Human Rights declared by the United Nations Organization in 1948, clause by clause, you will find a mention of those things in the Qur’an. Yet, show me one single Muslim country that honours those human rights. What Islamic state are we talking about? In Saudi Arabia, if you do not pray, you are flogged. This is a total mockery. You are denying freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, you are denying the very dignity of individuals, and then you are enforcing prayers. Ma’ruf does not mean only fasting, it means all those values. Truth again is the greatest value. Do we have truthful Muslims in the world, who would make truth part of their conscience and practise nothing but the truth? The surah will ask. I think that represents the entire essence of the Holy Qur’an. Truth and patience go together. Speaking the truth and practising the truth require great sacrifice and that sacrifice needs much patience. Imam Shafi‘i said that if only Surat al-Ashraq had been revealed, that would have been sufficient. Let us search our own conscience. Do we practise it? Are we ready to make sacrifices? Are we ready to be patient in the path of truth, in the way of truth? Still
we talk of an Islamic state. It is most oppressive, denying all the human rights so clearly mentioned in the Qur’an and, again, Islamic society is known for oppressing women, as if they do not have any rights. I am very much pained by two things in the Islamic world: violence and the denial of rights to women. Islamic society, unfortunately, has become notorious for these two things. Violence was pre-Islamic; Islam came to do away with violence, to establish peace and justice in the world. Justice and peace – if there is no justice there cannot be peace. When we are committing gross injustices in Muslim countries, we want to take revenge on non-Muslims by killing innocent non-Muslims and we call it jihad. Islam came to establish both justice and peace. Peace is essential to the concept of Islam. It is Allah’s name: Allah’s name is Salam. Therefore, when we worship Allah, his name is Salam, Peace. If we want to worship him, should we worship violence or peace? Peace is central to Islam. Violence was permitted only under very extraordinary situations – when you are under attack. Let us look at ourselves. Are we harbingers of peace? Another important value is compassion. If our God is compassionate, can we be cruel? Can we kill innocent people? Today, Buddhism is known as the religion of compassion. The Dalai Lama always talks of compassion. Why do we not hear a single Muslim talking of compassion when he or she declares: “My God is compassionate”? Why do we not talk of compassion? Along with Buddhism, Islam should be known as the religion of compassion, yet it is known as the religion of violence. There is something wrong with our society. We have no right to establish a state that is oppressive and not centred on the din of Islam. There is not a single verse in the Qur’an which refers a state. It refers only to a society: a just, value-based, compassionate, peaceful society. Even Paradise is a place of peace and security. Which paradise are we aspiring to enter: one where there is violence, a total absence of compassion, justice, human dignity and truth. Before we talk about any state, we should talk about these values and, in my opinion, any state that practises these values is a real Qur’anic state, be it a secular state, be it a Western or Eastern state. Any state that practises these values, that honours human rights is a truly Islamic state. The Islamic state to which we refer is based on oppression, exploitation and the denial of human rights. It simply enforces rituals. That does not make it an Islamic state.
Najah Kadhim: Thank you, Dr Asghar for this enlightening talk. Let me start by asking the first question. What about the verses in the Holy Qur’an that actually say: “Rule among them by that which Allah has sent down.” This is in a number of surahs: surahs 4, 5 and 12. To me that does not mean political power. It could well mean a source of legislation. Some people may remind us of the wilyat, which is mentioned in the Qur’an. However, wilyat could be established by social empowerment, as you said, social institutions that would protect the rights of the citizens. Therefore, it could be achieved socially rather than with political power. That is my understanding. What is your view? Asghar Engineer: The concept of wilayat (authority) means you need a state structure. Nobody says you can do away with the state. They are all human beings.
Simply becoming believers or unbelievers, they start practising those values. Authority is needed but it should be an authority based on values. If there are no values, there might be a society without that authority, which is oppressive and unjust. A state had to come into existence but a state based on these values: not simply the formal concept of a state. A state for what? A state is not an end in itself. We think as if the state were an end in itself. The Holy Prophet’s style was far, far better qualitatively than in any following era that developed real statehood. In the Prophet’s time, there was no statehood, and yet it was a much better society. That is why the Qur’an talks of a just society, a society based on values. There was no state structure, yet it was much better than following societies which had full statehood. So a state for what? This is more important. If a state is for developing a society based on values, then, yes. It is not a denial of state. The question is: What form of state? A state for what? A state for proper governance. A state for the development of better human values, better human society, and in modern times we cannot live without a state. Even Marx thought of a stateless society. However, when the revolution erupted in Russia, it became a most oppressive state. To make everyone follow the principles of communism was the greatest challenge, so the state became more authoritarian and more powerful though the communists’ concept was a stateless society. Therefore, nobody is denying the state. We are discussing whether it is indispensable. I have said it is not indispensable. Take Sufi Islam. It was based on developing one’s soul, enriching one’s inner self. Therefore, the Sufis did not need any state, any authority. They themselves voluntarily controlled their desires. In addition, their priority was to control their desires. If you read the history of Nazeem el-Din Olia, a great Sufi of the Indian sub-continent. He used to fast for 352 days, except for the days when fasting is haram. Why? He started every day with a piece of bread dipped in water. They wanted to control their desires. Without controlling your desires, you cannot be truthful, you cannot be patient. They did not need a state authority. However, we know that not everyone can become like him, so we need a state. Najah Kadhim: I think we do need a state and we do need politics. The question is: Which model? If we borrow one from the Middle Ages, such as that based on alAhkam al-Sultania by Mawardi, and use those ideas and try them today, we shall then have many contradictions. Question: I am surprised that there is no new concept of the Ummah. To be an Islamic state, you must implement the rules of Islam. This is not happening in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Islam is empowering women. The West talks of human rights, yet it was burning witches. To implement the hudud, you need a state. Answer: I never said that a state is not needed. I am critiquing the concept of an Islamic state. What is an Islamic state? If Saudi Arabia is your model of an Islamic state, it is better we do not have any such state – or Pakistan for that matter. In that case, it is better we do not have a state. You do not need to enforce the Shari’ah. Shari’ah should be practised from within, and you do not need an outside authority to enforce it. You do not need a state to tell you to pray or to fast. I have already told you about it. Again, there is a misconception about hudud laws. They have become most oppressive. In a society that is unjust and where there is no distribution of wealth,
how can you cut off the hands of thieves? When people are dying of hunger, starvation, if they steal, will you cut off their hands? There is a story about Harun Rashid. A man was brought to him and it was said he had committed theft. What was the punishment? Harun Rashid said: “Cut off his hands.” The man was desperate that his hands were going to be cut off. He told the caliph: “If my hands are cut off, you should be given the death penalty.” Harun Rashid was shocked: “Why the death penalty?” He said: “All the wealth is in your treasury and we are starving. If I have committed theft, there is a reason for it. You are not distributing wealth. It is an unjust society. Therefore, you should be given the death penalty for all these injustices. So how can you impose these hudud?” In a society that is not based on any values, for us the hudud laws have become an end in themselves. This is wrong. Hudud laws are not an end in themselves. They also have a certain philosophy and certain aims behind them. This is the unfortunate part. We think salat is an end. No! Is our salat of the quality that prevents us from all evil? No! We do more together. We pray and at the same time, we indulge in all evils. Therefore, hudud laws and Shari’ah laws are not an end in themselves. They are a means to achieve a different kind of society. In addition, there can be different means. There cannot be a single means. Question: The current discourse about the idea of a state among Muslims is dominated by the knowledge of current Islamic movements. However, the discourse is state centrist. The formation of the state has become the absolutist end that will solve all the problems. Because of the state centralism, people are confused between state, government, society and individuals. There is a kind of demarcation in the conceptualization of what a state is and what government is. There are different types of government or governing systems and the state is one of them. Najah Kadhim: Indeed, this is the political naivety of most Islamic movements, for they lack a political format, nor is there any depth to their ideas of state and politics. They do not distinguish between the role of the state and the role of the government and people talk about khalifah. How are you actually going to accommodate the role of the government? Is khalifah considered a state or a government? Although we are not actually against the state as a concept, we do ask: Which model? The model that we have at the moment (and the politics associated with it) is from the Middle Ages or borrowed from other people like the nation-state, which was developed 200 years ago with the onslaught of the colonial powers. In addition, we are living in a global world. That is why the role of civil society is very important and that is where social institutions should come in. That is my view of it. We need a fresh look at the whole concept. We need a modern theory of the state and fiqh (jurisprudence) such as political fiqh, constitutional fiqh, etc. We need a number of things that we are lacking at the moment. What we have are ideas and tools from the Middle Ages and we are trying to fill the vacuum we have at the moment with those ideas and tools. Comment: That is what I am trying to say. There is a lack of understanding and that is not only among the Muslims themselves. As a young child, I was involved
in radical Islam and we were told that the khalifah was the golden, shining era of the past. That is the problem. It is the projection of the past onto the conditions of the present. Therefore, when we talk about the state, all we are doing is projecting modern conditions onto the past. The sheikh needs to elaborate on this. Najah Kadhim: So what is your question? Question: Part of my question is basically… Najah Kadhim: He mentioned that a Bedouin society would produce a Bedouin state and an advanced society would produce an advanced state. It is as simple as this. Asghar Engineer: All I am saying is that a state is a means to an end. A good society is a society where there is justice and peace: a society based on values. This is what the Qur’an wanted to achieve, yet the Muslims never fulfilled their duties towards this end. They concentrated only on rituals because an oppressive state came into existence. They could not fight its power, so they thought they would do better to concentrate on rituals and that was their Islam. Question: The West is rich in political thought. The Muslims lack this kind of scholarship and have skirted the issue of society and state. Part of the solution is to encourage real serious political and economic thinking in trying to bring some of the concepts you mentioned now into modern times. It is worrying that the radical activists talk of imposing the Shari’ah on Britain. The Western state with all its faults and problems is closer to the kind of state system that offers some kind of dignity and rights more than we ever have done. Asghar Engineer: You see, nobody can idealize Western states today. There may be internal democracy. There may be some attempt to ensure human rights within the country. However, what are these states doing to other countries. If they exploit other societies, then the state is not a good state. It cannot be an ideal state at all if American attacks Iraq for cheaper oil and provides cheap oil for the American people for a higher standard of living. It cannot be a just state at all. What I am saying is that whatever the government, if it is enforcing its values, that is, justice, benevolence, compassion and wisdom, it can be called an Islamic state – this is the state that should be established. Najah Kadhim: That is what we are talking about: a modern political theory for our system and our culture. Otherwise, we should have borrowed or called for the complete adoption of the Western theory. Answer: Unfortunately, we are calling a feudal state an Islamic state. Najah Kadhim: Yes. Question: I think the debate here is evolving around syntax and not semantics. What is Islamic and what is not Islamic seems to be creating confusion. One way you call it a state in which wisdom, compassion, benevolence and justice are established. That is an Islamic state. That is what the Qur’an describes. You refer to states that existed. Whether or not they were Islamic is a different question. It just expresses frustration about what happened historically and what continues to happen today and you are not presenting anything new. There are Islamic movements that are seeking to establish a system by which governments ensure social justice and values like benevolence and compassion. You are not differing from them, yet you are saying that what exists today is not an Islamic state and that we should aspire to something that is closer to the model of the society of the Prophet. That is our frustration.
Najah Kadhim: What is your answer? Answer: What is there today makes us unjust. Dr Najah Kadhim: We are going by the examples we have today. The Taliban in Afghanistan were one of the biggest drug producers in the world. Other models have failed miserably. Answer: They may be Muslim countries but they are not Islamic. By any standard, they are not Islamic states. Therefore, when you say such a country is an Islamic state, you are contradicting yourself and doing an injustice. Asghar Engineer: This is what I am saying. You are completing what I am saying. They do not deserve to be called Islamic states at all. However, let me tell you, the Qur’an does not refer to any single concept of a state. Not in a single verse. It has only the concept of society. Question: There must be a system to let us know what to do. Moreover, to my mind this system is ijtihad, which must be used to bring us to the modern state. Iran is applying itjihad. In Iran, there are women judges now. I think the itjihad factor has to be applied and this is missing to some extent. Asghar Engineer: I don’t think Iran is a model either. The very concept of wilayat al-fiqh means that you are giving all the power to one person. Therefore, it is a very negation of democracy. What makes us think that the person will be motivated only by those values and not by some selfish interests? You cannot give all the power to one person. He has to be answerable to the people, which he is not. Therefore, the law that is passed by parliament has to be approved by that person. He can say no and the people’s representatives have no meaning. I do not think there is ijtihad in Iran, either. In fact, the principle of ijtihad is most needed today to come out of that frame of mind in which Muslims exist. Although the principles of ijtihad are there in Islam, no ‘alim is permitting it. They say, “We have no qualifications,” yet what qualifications do you need if you have knowledge of the Qur’an and the Shari’ah, and it was formulated in Medieval Ages? If you have a knowledge of Islamic history and Hadith, that is more than enough for ijtihad. However, because they do not want to encourage ijtihad, they say no one is qualified to do it. All the ‘ulama’ and rulers in the Muslim world are doing that. That is the real tragedy. Ijtihad will be the dynamic principle of Islam, which will continue to update laws because laws are based on values. Although values cannot change, laws should continue to change, otherwise values will be injured. What we are doing is worshipping the Shari’ah, saying that it is divine. It is immutable, it cannot change. Let values be endured but laws cannot change. This is very distasteful. Question: There is also the inner aspect of ijtihad. Although people may be in authority, there is not an inner transformation of the self. Ultimately, I feel there needs to be a spiritual revival; it is a means to an end. Salat is also a means to an end in a slightly different way. People can perform salat: they can pray. A spiritual revival is necessary. In the very early days of Islam, there was a real emphasis on developing God-consciousness and reflecting on the natural world. The natural world is a way of imbibing God-consciousness. Asghar Engineer: This is exactly what I have been emphasizing. There has to be God-consciousness and God-consciousness means value consciousness. God embodies those values. God is the ultimate in justice, knowledge, compassion and wisdom. Let us try to approach all the values …
Najah Kadhim: But in a modern state, you do need some kind of institutions with checks and balances … Asghar Engineer: Yes … Najah Kadhim: This is what we said a few minutes ago. People use the Shari‘ah as a front and behind it, they pursue their political interests. We have one example after another. All the society, all the peoples would play their role in actually maturing the models. Like the First Republic and the Second Republic in France and what have you. That was the maturing of the state model, by doing one experiment after another, which was a reflection of the era, whereas the government is a reflection of the status quo. Question: I should like to ask a very direct question about Somalia, where the movement is defining itself as an Islamic movement? Najah Kadhim: What is the question? Question: During the past ten years or so, a lack of justice and anarchy has resulted in a lot of injustice in Somalia. Now, during the past few months, there is a movement that is defining itself as an Islamic movement. Does Dr Asghar have any comments on this? Asghar Engineer: All these movements, once they come to power, they degenerate in the same way. Unless you establish a state and then show that, yes, we are governing according to these values, only then will it have meaning. In opposition, I can say anything, yet once I come to power, my whole behaviour changes. Therefore, the test lies in being in power and then upholding those values and governing according to those values. I come from India where the BJP is a Hindu inter-communal party. However, when it was in opposition its slogan was “party with a difference”. We are clean, we are just, give us a chance to govern the country. Now when that party with a difference came to power, it became a party of differences, I think among themselves, and it turned out to be much more corrupt than Congress. There was so much bloodshed and killing of innocent people. In opposition you can say anything, yet the test lies in when you are in power, how do you govern? That is most important. In addition, we do not have a single example of this in the post-khalifah period. Najah Kadhim: So what you are saying is that Muslims are no different from other people. You have to take into account human nature and that is why you need some kind of institutions and checks and balances. Question: Brother, you are putting words into the doctor’s mouth that he has not said. Najah Kadhim: Just a minute, it is your opinion. Question: The Prophet spoke against wealth. That is when he was really persecuted. Isn’t that what is happening today against Muslims because it is Islam that calls for justice? It sticks to the values, therefore, the system is persecuting Muslims at present. In India, for example, you have Sonja Gandhi, who was elected by the people. Yet they did not want Sonja Gandhi as president. We are not tackling the real issues, which are the economic and political systems. If we were true to our values, we should stand up against the world trade rules, for the environmental issue. Our Muslim brothers all over the world are going to be bloodied, killed and starved to death …
Intervention: And non-Muslims … Question: This is my whole point. Muslims become so worked up. They need blood pressure tablets to calm them down. It is just ridiculous. We need to be involved with the movements, whether it is secular Muslim or whatever they call them and start shaping the agenda within them. If we keep out the media, which have their own agenda, they will paint us the way we do not like to be painted. This is getting worse. We need to be involved with the system, to shape it and that is the only way. That is where it lies for the Muslims – to be involved with mainstream organizations. Asghar Engineer: To be involved, you need democracy. If there is no democracy, how do you become involved? Can you become involved in Saudi Arabia? Can you become involved in Algeria, Malaysia? There are no human rights, no democratic rights? How do you fight foreign governments? How do you fight against this or that evil? Comment: I am not disagreeing with you. Here we have some kind of democracy. I am talking about us here, where we are. There is no point in speaking about what is happening in Pakistan. Asghar Engineer: You are right to be involved. You must be involved. You are a member of this society, you are a citizen of this country, and of course you must be involved. Najah Kadhim: We are talking about social empowerment. Everyone must play his or her role in the activities of society. Question: I should like to thank the speaker for his talk. I have a comment and a question leading on from that. I appreciate what you are saying: that there is no injunction for a state and the emphasis is on developing civil society. Nevertheless, in today’s age, particularly in Europe where the situation is that nation-states are in the ascendancy and there is a big state consensus where we have come to rely on the state to provide social institutions. That is why I think work has to be done developing some ideas about how the relationship between state and society should work. My question is this: Given the ascendancy of nation-states in this period of time, what concept of the Ummah should we have? Does that concept of the Ummah mean leadership and, if so, by what mechanisms could it be delivered? Asghar Engineer: I want to state again that this rhetoric about the Ummah should be criticized. There has never been a single Muslim Ummah throughout Islamic history. Let us not go by the rhetoric. Let us go by the reality: whether it was during the Umayyad, Abbasid or Safavid period, there never was in practice the concept of the Ummah. We have always been divided along ethnic lines, along cultural lines, along linguistic lines, around our different nations. Had there been such a concept in the first place, there would not have been so many different Muslim countries. There would have only been one nation. I should like to refer to Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and his discussion with the king of Saudi Arabia. Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser was talking about Arab nationalism. So, once King Faysal asked him: “Brother, why don’t you talk of Muslim nationalism? Why Arab nationalism?” He asked politely: “What do you have in common with Indonesian Muslims? Tell me! Can you found one nation with them?” Syria and Egypt came together to form one federation. How long did it last? Two and a half years. So, where is the Ummah? When the Holy Prophet himself included non-Muslims in the concept of
Ummah, what stops us from doing that? When there was partition in my country, Jinnah was talking of two nations, Muslims and Indians. Maulana Hussein, a great ‘alim, wrote a book challenging Jinnah. The name of the book is: Composite nationalism and Islam. He quoted so many verses from the Qur’an and so many hadiths to show that nation has nothing to do with Islam and composite nations should be accepted. He quoted Makkah and Madinah. When our Prophet included non-Muslims in the nation city-state, what right has Jinnah to talk about separate Muslim nationalism? People do not know about this. They just want to exploit certain things or certain rhetoric politically. However, you have to be realistic at the same time. Muslims could never unite and can never unite. What is happening in Sudan? Arabs are massacring non-Arab Muslims, yet both are Muslim. Such a massacre has been going on and we see it in several countries like this. So let us not go by rhetoric, let us go by reality and accept the nation-state as a reality. Whether we like it or not is another question. The reality is that nation-states exist not only in Western countries but also in Muslim countries. There are so many nations. Would Saudi Arabia permit Pakistani and Indian Muslims to settle there? No. After every Hajj season, they start a campaign and throw out all the Muslims who have stayed behind. A mawlana made the same point, saying, “If I go to Saudi Arabia as an ‘alim, they will welcome me. However, after six months or one year, they will say, ‘Thank you very much, you have lived here for a year. Now, please go back to your country.’ So as a Muslim ‘alim, would I be allowed to become a citizen of Saudi Arabia or any Muslim country for that matter? No. So let us go by reality, not by rhetoric, and the reality is that nation-states are here, they are here to stay. I cannot say for how long. I cannot predict changes that will happen tomorrow. However, today, it is reality and the Muslims have accepted that reality. They are divided. They go for ten or fifteen years to another country for employment and then they have to come back. We have to be realistic. Indian Muslims have nothing in common with Indonesian or Malaysian Muslims. When I go there, I cannot even converse with them because I do not know their language. I need an interpreter to talk to an Indonesian or Malaysian Muslim. Even in my country, when I go to Kerala or Tamil Nadu, I cannot talk with them because I do not know the Tamil language. They are Indians, I am Indian, yet I do not know the language and I need an interpreter. Both of us should know English, and then we can talk. I am talking to you because I know English. Otherwise, Muslims are speaking different languages. In this congregation, if I started speaking in my language – Urdu – only two or three people would understand. Therefore, we cannot even communicate with one another. That concept was useful when Islam was confined only to Arabia. The moment it went out of Arabia, the whole reality changed. Comment: The theory that the true state did not exist can be debatable, using the example of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. The Treasury reached a level where they were paying people’s debts and helping young people to get married. I think there is confusion in the semantics and use of the words. Organizations like Hizeb al-Tahrir are not working for an Islamic state. They are working for the central Islamic government. I think this is what is meant by khalifah. The best way to describe khalifah would be as the central Islamic government. I think I agree with Dr Asghar that an Islamic government is a good idea. I disagree with him that it is unrealistic.
I believe that a central Islamic government did exist and it is realistic. I also agree with him that it is a means, not an end. I believe that some Muslim organizations today treat the khalifah or the Islamic government as an end. I do not believe that. I think that we should strive for it by not propagating it but by being good Muslims and encouraging others to be good Muslims. That is the way to establish eventually the central Islamic government. It is not by striking some military revolution in one country and then that country declares that it is the caliph and fights with other countries and non-Muslims. I do not think that is the way. The way is for Islamic countries to become better Islamic states, better Islamic countries and then we can have central government using a system like the UN. Question: I am asking: Why not treat the central Islamic government as a realistic and an applicable end to some efforts that we make today? There were obligations in the age of the Prophet and there was a state during the time of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz … Asgher Engineer: ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was poisoned because he was being very idealistic. He could not rule more than two and a half years. Can we, by citing this example, prove that there has been an ideal Islamic state in Islamic history? Powerful vested interests gave him no time because he was denying them their exploitations and their injustices. They killed him. It is very difficult to follow certain values and ideals. If you believe that a central Islamic state is possible, I do not want to come in the way of your belief. It has never been there and it will never be there. Let us be realistic. Simply being idealistic does not help. We have to face harsh realities in life: that no two Muslim countries are prepared to come together. Question: There was a comment that Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have nothing in common. They have a common God. We all worship one God and listen to the Prophet. How can you say we do not have anything in common? We have a lot in common. A Muslim from Nigeria is part of the Ummah. You criticized Jinnah. Okay. Jinnah was criticized by many people. Asgher Engineer: What is happening in Baluchistan, sir? What happened in Bangladesh? India is not broken. Pakistan is already broken. Question: I detect a slight negativity from you about the Ummah. I understand where you are coming from. However, at the same time, if we just take the example of Europe: for hundreds of years, Europeans were involved in wars and there is a slight grudge now between the French and the British. Yet Europeans have been able to come together in a way where English without a doubt is the lingua franca. I went to Egypt and I thought I was clever trying to speak a bit of Arabic. The average man in the street tried to speak English to me. I went to Angola, same thing. Europe has common currency, common laws, there is a European parliament. Let us take the United States. By definition it is united: 52 states. There is a possibility of a common culture when we have a common religion. I am happy now that Bobby wood is being watched throughout the Arab world. So why are we so negative? Europeans who have been at war with each other are now building very constructively. Asghar Engineer: Thank you for this question. Compare comparable, not incomparable things. When considering the European Union, take its geography and take the geography of the Muslim world. How do you bring them together? All the European countries that have formed this union are democratic. They have constitutions; they have laws that are passed democratically by parliament. These
countries have come together and formed a confederation while still maintaining their sovereignty. Each state maintains its sovereignty, whereas when you talk of one Ummah, there is no concept of the sovereignty of different peoples. Ummah is a religious rhetoric, in which all will follow the same set of laws that were framed in the Middle Ages under very different conditions. So we must compare comparatively. If all Muslim countries are situated geographically closer to one another, all are sovereign countries with democracies with constitutions, then it is a different situation. Yet there would be rhetoric of one Ummah, because one Ummah means one community. Moreover, when you say one community, all will follow the same set of laws, and there will be sovereignty, no different laws, and no power to legislate. Those who are talking of an Islamic state should just examine that concretely. It implies the imposition of the Shari’ah. The Shari’ah as it is was inherited from earliest times, when it was formulated. Now even on matters of Shari’ah, Muslims are divided: there are Shafi’i, there are the Malakis, Hanafis, Ismailis, and there are so many different schools. How do you bring them together and make them follow only one Shari’ah? Some will say: “We shall follow only the Shafi’i School,” others will say: “We shall follow the Hanafi School,” others will follow the Ismaili School. How will you create unity? When you talk of one Ummah, keep that concept in mind. The European Union is a very different thing. France has its own laws regarding hijab, which other countries may not have. There is a different situation, different laws. It is a confederation, a political concept, not a religious concept. Question: To what extent do you think that a historic, contextual view of the Qur’an can undermine the idea that it is a universal, timeless message? You share the analysis that current governments that call themselves Islamic states are not Islamic states for whatever reason. There are different reasons. Am I right in assuming that your prescription is to remove religion from public life, to remove the Shari’ah from legislation and make religion a matter of individual consciousness? Asghar Engineer: You see, I do believe that religion is something very personal and spiritual. When it comes to collectivity, you have to take so many other things into account: language, geography, there are so many things, so many factors. You cannot have one culture and one way of life. There are different ways of life, different cultures that have to be taken into account. Religion, if you take it seriously, has to be individual, where your inner richness, inner spirituality matters, spiritual desires matter. That is the real practice of religion. I do not believe in practising the Shari’ah in religion, because Qur’anic values are important, not how those values were interpreted in the Middle Ages. This is an entirely different thing. Unfortunately, we do not even distinguish between values and laws that were made in the Middle Ages. Values are permanent. Another thing: the Qur’anic verses are of two categories, contextual and normative. The contextual verses can be seen historically, whereas normative values are universally applicable. Question: Who is to decide which are which? Asghar Engineer: There is one contextual verse that all the ‘ulama’ use to suppress women, even today. Allah has given us the right to beat women. These verses are quoted again and again by the ‘ulama’ to have the right to beat women. They do not even want to read the meaning of daraba. It has several shades of meaning and they have taken only one meaning – how it was understood in the Middle Ages – and they even insist today that the man has authority over the
woman. That is not the Qur’anic concept. Why was this concept accepted as if it were mansouf? Because it was contextual. Normative verses are all value based, whereas contextual verses have some reference to that society and the problems that were arising in the Arab society of that time. Question: With all due respect to your academic background and experience, can I just ask you not to generalize by saying all ‘ulama’, all Islamic states and so forth. Generalization is not an academic approach to anything. There are people out there like you, who are great thinkers and who are working to establish or guide people through ijtihad. That would help as well. Question: Do you not think that there is such a thing as a global ethic? Should international organizations be strengthened? Should organizations like the OIC not have more power? They should not be dominated by Saudi Arabia but give a voice to India, Malaysia and Indonesia, where the majority of Muslims live. You do not mention anything about international law and international organizations. Asghar Engineer: Yes, international law is important. In Islam during the Islamic period, there was international law. That was developed in their own situation. Today, international law is very different qualitatively and it is applicable to Islamic states as well. They are signatories and they cannot say it is not Shari’ah law and they will not accept it. That is not possible in the modern world. Najah Kadhim: I think now is a good time to finish. I would like to thank Dr Asghar for his point of views and for you taking part with your comments. You have actually made the discussion very stimulating. Thank you very much.
** Dr Asghar Ali Engineer was born in Rajasthan, India in a Muslim ‘alim’s family and was trained in tafsir, Hadith and Islamic jurisprudence. Later, he pursued a secular education, obtaining a degree in civil engineering. However, he then returned to Islamic learning. Dr Asghar subsequently participated in the movement for inter-religious harmony in which he has participated for the past 40 years. He speaks several languages: Urdu, English, Gujarati, Marathi, Arabic and Persian. He has published 51 books on Islam and inter-religious problems in India, South and South-East Asia and contributes regular articles to several newspapers and research journals. Dr Asghar was granted several awards, including the Right Livelihood Award from a Swedish Foundation, also known as the alternative Nobel Award. He was conferred an Hon.D.Litt by Calcutta University and also by Jami‘ah Hamdard University, Delhi. He has lectured in several universities throughout the world.
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