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Towards a Secular Islamic State

Professor An-Naim

One of the most despised words in conservative Muslim circles is the word ‘secular’. All one has to do to vilify any opinion is to say that it is ‘secular’ (or ‘modernist’ or ‘liberal’ or even ‘Westernised’) and effectively a departure from Sharia. Sharia is the fountainhead of Islamic law, the source of practice of Traditional Muslims’ religious life. To render any element of one’s life ‘secular’ is to abandon Sharia and become irreligious.

This is why I expected an explosive reaction last Wednesday evening at the Muslim Institute, where we had an event entitled ‘Towards a Secular Islamic State’. The phrase ‘secular Islamic state’ in itself seemed enough to indicate a westernisation project, something to irk even the most patient conservative. However, the evening turned out to be a very productive discussion with a convivial atmosphere and friendly banter.

Our very own Ziauddin Sardar chaired the event with the skill of a Dimbleby. He started off by introducing the legendary Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim. Professor An-Naim is a pivotal figure in the circles of Muslim liberal thought. He recounted his personal struggle with the idea of the Islamic state. Although at first he was very much for the idea (believing it to be an expression of piety) , he came to realise that it is in fact an idealists’ concept. In reality there is no such thing as an Islamic state. At best we have states run by Muslims who make subjective interpretations about Sharia norms. Therefore the term Islamic state itself is idealistic and does not convey the reality of the situation.

Professor An-Naim also pointed out that even though Saudi Arabia and Iran both claim to be Islamic states they oppose each other and even hereticise one another. How does one determine which is the true Islamic state? This fact shows that the Islamic state is the product of a subjective interpretation of Islamic sources. It is what I would call a ‘pretence of objectivity’. Acting as if there is no subjectivity or bias to one’s action in order to pass it off as unbiased or in this case, divine. The Islamic state is a human product and must be thought of as such. It is not enough to claim to be inheritors of the Prophet’s ideal state when you have no access to the Prophet himself.

Professor An-Naim also emphasised that the secular state must not be an end in itself. In other words, it is simply an instrument but here’s where the irony comes in. He believes that this model of a state is ideal to facilitate Muslim life! The reason for this is simple – going by the compulsive nature of the Sharia, a Muslim cannot be truly able to test his piety against his human weaknesses. I would agree with this. Even without a proper Islamic state, Malaysian religious authorities have proposed that the Friday congregational prayers have an attendance sheet to ensure every adult male attends regularly. If such a measure is put in place, would one be attending for the sake of not getting fined or jailed or for the sake of Allah. Professor An-Naim’s argument is solid here, I feel.

Professor An-Naim also made a claim that before the 20th century, the concept of the Islamic state was not talked about. He therefore sees the concept as a reaction to colonialism, a hark back to the ‘golden age of Islam’ perhaps. Not only a romantic notion but a dangerously romantic one, given the laws that come along with it.

Instead of legislation based on notions as ‘God said so’, Professor An-Naim proposes that a state has civic spaces where civic reasoning operates. In that space, even ‘religious laws’ may be proposed but must be substantiated with reason. This reminds of me of the ancient and medieval Mutazilite manoeuvres, which believe that reason and revelation can be reconciled. Reason perhaps is the language of objectivity and thus can be used to speak to all regardless of creed. Professor An-Naim proposed that the state be completely neutral, a proposal which would be thoroughly interrogated later this evening.

I must take issue however with Professor An-Naim’s view that we cannot attain purely objective knowledge. If we can only have subjective knowledge in Islam, then does this somehow compromise Islam’s role as provider of guidance. Professor An-Naim did later agree that it is possible to achieve certainty on a ma’rifa (gnostic) perspective. I personally believe in ‘transcendent objectivities’ or ‘transobjectivities’ whereby the individual does achieve objective knowledge but ironically cannot prove it to anyone. He must therefore rely on the language reason alone.

Our next speaker was Dr Usama Hassan, a man whose scholarship belies his piety and humility. I had been bowled over once with his deep insight into Fatiha at a Friday prayer sermon which he delivered and since then have kept a keen ear for his deep insights. Tonight, he recalled his personal history in which he was very much for the Islamic state until he realised its shortcomings. Instead, he now sees the ideal model as a ‘Secular Islamic state’ which I understand to mean that Islamic ethics and morality underpins the direction of a state. This is a little different from the neutral state proposed by Professor An-Naim above.

He believed that the operation of the modern state cannot be left in the hands of the religious scholars. It is far too complex and requires a variety of expertise. Prophet Muhammad himself gave an opinion regarding an agricultural matter which proved to be less than effective. When questioned, he declared that his views on worldly matters are his personal opinion. I would therefore ask at what point does this ‘frame’ Islam though? Where does religion end and worldliness begin? Perhaps Usama is proposing that Islam occupies the field of ethos and morality?

Usama instead talks about the maqasid (or intent) of Sharia and its ‘masalih’ (the aim towards public benefit). These aims and intents can be used as a compass for Sharia legislation. He pointed to the recently elected Muslim brotherhood representatives who have pegged Sharia and Islamic norms in their declarations. They have neglected to mention that there are really dozens of versions of Sharia and even versions where it’s possible for a Muslim to murder a non-Muslim and escape prosecution! Such heinous outcomes can only emerge without a proper orientation of Islamic norms.

When asked by Zia about the role of religion in his ‘Secular Islamic state’ model, Usama asserts that religion is important although it is prone to being misappropriated. Like Professor An-Naim, Usama felt that philosophy (read: the language of reason) must be able to have a conversation with religion. We seem to be hitting on a pattern here in terms of what religion needs – the use of reason.

Next, for our third speaker, we had Emre Kazim of the Deen institute who proceeded to give a very thorough critique of the previous two speakers.

Emre jumped right on the idea of the neutrality of the state proposed by Professor An-Naim. He asked if any entity can be neutral if it were to act upon any policy. I would surmise that it cannot be neutral at all. The state as Emre pointed out is a coercive entity (that’s a given) but what it coerces a citizen to do compromises its neutrality. Even taxation is coercive by that account.

It is ironic that in Emre’s conception of the Islamic state, criticism and even insults to the Prophet have their space. Emre commendably (but unrealistically in my opinion) has an idea of an Islamic state which is very much like the liberal modern state. I do feel that this conception is very Qur'anic but speaking from experience, I must say it would never happen. Blasphemy is hugely problematic in Islamic countries who aren’t even governed by Sharia law.

Our final speaker was Tehmina Kazi from the British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Tehmina pointed out the differences between ideological secularism such as is practiced in France where religious symbols are banned. This clearly impinges upon the right of the individual. This is very different to the procedural secularism which she stands by. In procedural secularism, I gather that one’s religious affiliations do not affect one’s position in the community. This again is closer to the spirit of the Qur'an than the notion of the Islamic state itself which proposes apartheid like laws for the ‘dhimmis’ (non-Muslims who live under the protection of the state). I would even add that these laws are racist in that the people who are discriminated against are born into particular religious traditions and this somehow deprives them of certain privileges (such as becoming judges or soldiers). It all smacks of medieval bigotry, nothing more.

All in all, it was a very calm and collected discussion and very mentally stimulating. Although we would have had far more fireworks had people of a more conservative persuasion been there, at least in this way we could chew on the ideas rather than the drama. As Usama Hasan says, he moved beyond the ‘brotherhood of the Muslims’ to the ‘brotherhood of humanity’. To me, there is nothing more Islamic than this!

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.