Understanding the Relationship between Islam and State

The Islamic world is struggling to define the relations between religion and the state in contemporary times. The Taliban took over Afghanistan and imposed harsh rules on the people, especially on women, in the name of Islam. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Iranian regime established theocracy and tried to impose laws on the people; women were the sufferers here too. The world is witnessing how the morality police killed a girl in their custody for being improperly dressed, defying the dress code set by the Iranian state. On the other hand, the Saudi regime is relaxing the harsh laws, though most are still rigid and harsh. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam but largely remained in the hands of the military. Mustafa Kemal's Türkiye started as a strict, secularist country but has recently tilted towards Islam. Almost all Muslim-majority countries struggle to define how the state should be organised, how the rulers should be elected, what's the role of the ulama, the status of minorities, and whether the state can excommunicate any individual or group. These are some of the questions on the political front that the contemporary Islamic world faces, which cause the rise of fundamentalism in both secular and religious groups.

   The question comes to mind: it has been fourteen centuries since the last prophet came, and people need answers to these questions, which directly affect their lives, especially the relations between Islam and the state. It is also not true that people have struggled with these questions throughout Islamic history. The thing is, the contemporary case is exceptionally new for Muslims. If we even see the statements of fundamentalists or radicals, they invoke a return to the "golden age" of Islam, the period of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and the four rightly guided caliphs. And it is without a doubt that every Muslim believes this; interestingly, the Shi'ite sect stretches this golden age to the martyrdom of Husayn. Does this mean that the fundamentalists or the Muslim community as a whole believe that Muslim states or previous empires deviated from the right path, which the fundamentalists want to restore through any means? From where did this deviation start, which they are pointing out? And if the deviation took place somewhere in the past or is it at present times, do the rulers have the right to fix this with any means they want? To know all these, it is necessary to know why, in the first place, these questions arise in the Muslim world.

  There is no denying the fact that Islam, from the beginning, became a religio-political community and achieved in three decades what Christianity achieved in three centuries after the Christ with the conversion of Constantine in 312 C.E. Islam started in urban centres like Makkah and spread to the vast land from Spain to the eastern reaches of south Asia. Its capitals and major cities like Makkah, Madinah, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, Delhi, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Isfahan, a cosmopolitan religion, had always been the attraction of different people, art, and culture. Between north-western Africa and the eastern reaches of south Asia, only Muslims faced no challenges from the outside world. There were only two cases when Muslim rulers faced defeat at the hands of outside power: the Mongols' intrusion into Baghdad and the killing of caliph al-Mustasim in 1258, and the defeat of Ottoman Sultan Bayazid by Timur in 1402. Apart from these two, there was no threat until the modern age; the Muslim world was self-sufficient and secure; even the loss of the Muslim empire in Spain in the fifteenth century posed no danger to the Muslim heartland.

  Before the Enlightenment period in the Western world, the rulers were despots, and there was a conflict between the church and the state. Most of the western world's political ideas, political philosophies, and political thought were mostly related to the questions arising from the conflict between the church and the state. In these contexts, the concept of state sovereignty emerged, so much so that Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan cannot be challenged. Why there is less emphasis on how the Islamic state should be could easily be understood from the fact that there is no such thing as a church or Muslim pope in Islam. The concept of the caliph is neither related to Islamic theology nor Muslims believe in any attribute of divine right to rule as caliph. Throughout Muslim history, after the prophet Muhammad and the four rightly guided caliphs, the title of the caliph was used for its ease, not for any unique attributes. Therefore, after the end of the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate system, there were almost three conferences and meetings that happened in Cairo and Mecca to establish the caliphate, but there was no response from the Muslim world to do so; even the Khilafat Movement, which occurred in India, did not even send delegates to the Cairo conference. 

  In Islam, the revealed knowledge mentions who should have authority, “O believers! Obey Allah and obey the messenger and those in authority (Quran 4:59), and in another verse, "And hold firmly to the rope of Allah, and do not be divided (Quran 3:103)," along with a hadith, “Should we not fight against them (bad rulers)?” Prophet replied, “No, not so long as they establish prayer among you.” These two Quranic verses and a hadith at least clarify the relations between the state and Islam, for which the Western world had to produce vast knowledge to get this separation of state and religion.

    As mentioned above, the colonial powers disrupted the Muslim world. For the first time, Muslims were under the rule of non-Muslims, which challenged Muslim intellectuals to react to this unprecedented challenge. There were two types of reactions to this challenge: accommodationist and rejectionist. It is the rejectionists, from the beginning till today, who are of the view that Muslims cannot be ruled by those leaders who violate God’s ordinances or those leaders who imitate Western values over Islamic values. Therefore, the world has seen the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in recent times. It is often the accommodationist who won the support of the larger Muslims. Both extremes are not good; therefore, it is the work of Muslim intellectuals to bridge the gap through dialogue, debate, and literature.

About the author:

Abdur Rauf Reza is doing a Master’s in International and Area Studies at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and has a bachelor’s degree in the Chinese language from Aligarh Muslim University.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily mirror Islamonweb’s editorial stance.

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