Islamic perspective

Islamic states have no Qur'anic sanction

A number of Islamic countries claim that they are an Islamic state and that secularism has no place in their society. Some Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia consider secularism to be a great sin. Is there any concept of an Islamic state in the Qur'an?

Or in the Hadith literature? Does an Islamic state fit into any classical model? The answer is a categorical no. The Qur'an presents a concept of society, not of any state. When the Qur'an was being revealed, Arabia had no state whatsoever whereas in Rome and Persia, the two great empires of the time, there was monarchy.

Arabia was basically a tribal society that was governed by tribal leaders through a tribal council. There was no taxation system, no police force or army. It was a civil society governed by tribal customs and traditions. Consensus was a must. Even if one tribal leader dissented, the decision could not be applied.

The Prophet was concerned with social malaise rather than with any political problem. In the Arabian peninsula at the time, tribal bonds were breaking down and a new commercial society was being born in Mecca which was the centre of high finance and commerce. There was urban-desert malaise on the one hand and problems of breaking down of tribal structure within Meccan society and polarisation between the rich and poor on the other.

The Qur'an was greatly concerned with establishing a just society. It exhorted the rich to be sensitive to others' suffering and required them to redistribute their wealth and levied Zakat which was to be spent on the poor. It was, therefore, quite a revolutionary programme. The Qur'an laid stress on justice and benevolence in all socio-economic matters.

In spiritual life too stress was on equality and justice. While praying, all Muslims stand in one line as all humans are equal in the eyes of Allah. Even the Holy Prophet was described by the Qur'an as a servant of Allah though Allah had chosen him to send His revelation through him. No social hierarchy was recognised. Equality and justice became the primary values of Islam. And it became the duty of all believers men and women, to ``enforce what is good and eradicate what is evil''. The primary concern of the Qur'an is to provide moral guidance and develop moral and spiritual atmosphere and set up a society which is just and benevolent for all, including the people of other faiths.

As long as the Prophet was alive all problems were referred to him and his authority was supreme. He had also drawn up a covenant between people of different faiths in Madina including the Jews, Christians and the pagans. The Prophet had given full freedom to all to practice their respective religions. Madina was a pluralist society and there was no attempt whatsoever to impose Islam on anyone unwilling. It was `secular' in as much as plurality of religion was recognised.

However, after the death of the Prophet a political crisis developed which was sought to be resolved through historical experience as there was no categorical statement in the Qur'an or Hadith about his successor as per the Sunni tradition. Thus there was a split among the Muslims on the question of succession. Those who came to be termed later as Sunnis believed the Prophet has left no specific directive for his succession. The Shi'ah Muslims, on the other hand, believed that he had appointed Ali, his son-in-law as his successor. There was no unanimity on the question of the Prophet's political heir and successor.

The Muslims differed on the question of state after the death of the Prophet. The Muslim political theorists had to develop a new political theory -- that of two simultaneous caliphs ruling over the Muslim world. Earlier it was theorised that only one Caliph could be a legitimate one, the other, if any, being dubbed as a mere usurper. And later of course many caliphs and rulers, Fatimids in Egypt, Umayyads in Spain, Abbasids in Baghdad, Ghaznavids and others in Central Asia came into existence. Not only that Turkish generals captured real power and the Abbasid caliphs became mere figure-heads. Thus the political theories had to undergo repeated changes in the Muslim world. All a ruler could claim was that he was enforcing the Islamic Shari'ah to claim the Muslim support. But even the Shari'ah was never implemented in its real spirit. Most of these rulers were tyrants rather than God-fearing.

The Qur'anic concept of a just and benevolent society was an ideal concept which could not be realised in practice except for a brief attempt which lasted for a few years. Muslim countries claiming to be Islamic states are far from these ideals. The greatest ideal projected by the Qur'an is justice -- both in personal conduct and in distribution of wealth. It is conspicuous by its absence in the Muslim countries.

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