This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera English
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released their latest results from a survey of Muslims around the world on religion, politics and society. Although there is wide variability, it seems that most Muslims want Sharia (Islamic Law) to be the governing law of their countries and to play an important role in the political process. However, although the majority of Muslims agree on the general principle of applying Sharia, they do not seem to agree on what that term means. Given the diversity of understanding and sources one can be exposed to in the Islamic tradition, this disagreement should not come as a surprise.
A romanticised history leading to failed reality
Although valid religious reasons might be cited from average Muslims for the desire of Sharia, the lack of Islamic education and awareness about how Sharia operates raises a flag to dig deeper into their motives. Children in the Muslim world are typically exposed to a romanticised and utopic historical account of how Muslims of the past were. It is an image of saints walking upon the Earth fulfilling the commandments of God and striving for more self-purification, while at the same time studying the world and contributing to science and the advancement of human knowledge at a miraculous rate. They are taught that Muslims today have strayed away so far from Islamic teachings that God is punishing them by depriving them from what the West has accomplished.
What has been lost on Muslims today is the methodology of “how” to be a Muslim. In selling their hypothetical utopia of the days that have passed, those who teach Islamic history in the Muslim world have inadvertently switched the focus from how one can be a practising Muslim who contributes to the greater good of society, to focusing on attempts to replicate the exact way past Muslims supposedly lived. Hence, many Muslims today are working hard to bring about quantum mechanical speculations to reality and take everyone back in time away from “evil” modernity. One way they do this is through advancing their various versions of Islamopolitics.
Winston Churchill said that “tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip”. This tact is exemplified in the contemporary experience of the failure of Islamopolitics in Sudan. As Nesrine Malik pointed out last year in response to another oppressive act of the Sudanese government in the name of Sharia, Islamic rhetoric in politics was initially “a way of paying lip service to religion for the government to gain legitimacy”. She mentioned how this false cloak of religiosity now serves as a “potent tool that allows the government to apply punishment harshly (but inconsistently) whenever it feels the need… to invoke the emotive power of religious offence”.
Aside from siphoning as much as $9bn out of the impoverished country, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is also charged with the Darfur genocide where he is accused of trying to wipe out three non-Arab ethnic groups. The propaganda machine al-Bashir employed to recruit young men to commit these atrocities based its message on a call for Jihad. This is the consequence of an Islamopolitical movement’s rise to fame and popularity, then to power, and finally to hegemony and oppression in the name of religion.
The situation as it stands today is not a positive one. Not only do many Muslims have a caricatured conception of different political models, they have also done a disservice to Islam by presenting a caricatured simpleton image of what in reality is a rich and very complex tradition. As the author of Islam and the Destiny of Man Charles le Gai Eaton would put it, Islam has become a “Boy Scout religion” where one simply opens up the book of rules and implements them. Moreover, such a presentation of Islam has made it seem to be unable to address modernity.
Islam was never meant to be a prescribing force that dictates how society should be like. Rather, it acts as a filter that can be taken in various societies and seeks to eliminate ailments and celebrate their healthy aspects. In other words, Islam does not seek to turn its adherents into a monolithic group, but instead celebrates diversity and pluralism. Numerous verses in the Quran explicitly state this such as, “Another of His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. There truly are signs in this for those who know” [30:22].
Another verse states that God “made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another” [49:13]. Even when it comes to diversity of religions or an outright disbelief in God, the Islamic message is about asserting that people have the right to self-determination. In fact, according to Islamic ethos, belief is of no value if people do not have the freedom to disbelief.
In contrast to the Islamopolitical worldview, which sees that man was made for religion, the Islamic worldview asserts that religion was revealed for man, and this can be practically shown by way of an example. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam and author who was at the forefront of the Ground Zero mosque controversy in New York, published a paper in the University of St Thomas Law Journal in which he systematically shows how the American Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution are all consistent with Islamic Law. What this paper shows is the fallacy of assuming Islam as something foreign to be brought in place of already existing paradigms.
In addition, it also confirms a statement Averroes – the 12th century Spanish Andalusian Muslim polymath – made about Sharia, which is that “God created the intellect and revealed the Sharia, and the two will not contradict”. In fact, the attempts to ban Sharia law can be viewed as comical from an Islamic legal perspective because it would entail undermining one’s own legal system and banning laws that are already in place.
Interestingly, the use of Islam as a platform with slogans and promises of a better tomorrow is not a permissible act according to the same Sharia these movements are calling for. Even if a slogan is changed in order for it not to carry a religious connotation, the presence of a religious name for a party like the “Muslim Brotherhood” poses a problem.
Within the first two pages of the Quran is a verse that says, “When it is said to them ‘do not cause corruption in the land’, they say, ‘we are only putting things right’, but really they are causing corruption, though they do not realise it” [2:11]. One of the insights from this verse noted by the commentators of the Quran is that we should always be weary of those making claims about rectifying current states. In Islamic history, whenever a political movement arose with the claims of “applying the rule of God”, it was never a positive experience for the masses. For those that came under their dominion it was expected of them to walk a very thin line.
Many Muslims might object and exclaim that Islam is a complete way of life. However, the assertion of Islam being a “complete religion” and a “system” does not mean that it sets out specific details about every single aspect of life. If that were the case it would never be able to cope with progress and modernity. Rather, it comes with general prescriptions (as opposed to descriptions) that have objectives which things can be tailored for. The objection really stems from a lack of recognition of the distinction within Islamic Law that Muslim jurists have always recognised.
Islam can be generally divided into two branches: acts of worship and acts of worldly transactions. The acts of worship have indeed been set out in detail and the juristic principal that governs them for a Muslim is that all acts of worship are impermissible except those which have been prescribed by the Sharia to be performed. In contrast, the juristic principal governing the acts of worldly transactions is that all actions are permissible except those that have been singled out by the Sharia to be impermissible.
The relevance of the principal governing worldly transactions relates to the role humans must play in the world. As per the Islamic worldview, God did not create human beings with intellects so that they can turn them off and behave as automatons merely carrying out orders. Part of being in this world is using the intellect to deliberate, reflect and make choices that can later be reassessed in light of their consequences. Although some specifics are dictated, and general guidelines are given, human reason must play an active role during its presence in the world.
Islamic perspective on politics
Several Muslim jurists have written various works on the role of religion in politics. One of the best definitions for politics as understood in Islam is one given by the early jurist Ibn Aqeel (d 1119) who said:
“Politics is whatever action that brings the people closer to rectification and further from destruction, even if it wasn’t something dictated by the Prophet or no Revelation has come down regarding it.”
One of most prolific and often-quoted jurists in the Islamic tradition (ironically more so by modern Saudi clerics than others) was Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (d 1350) who pointed out a problem that continues to this day. He said:
“The fault is not with the religion. Rather, it’s with those who close every door to cultivating beneficial interests; investigating the higher objectives of the Sacred Law; reflecting on the consequences and priorities; and they constrict for people what God as expanded for them and they waste for them many benefits by their lack of understanding, stubbornness, and dogmatism. On the opposite extreme are those who disregard the Sacred Law completely, don’t stop at the limits of God, don’t restrict themselves to the Revelation, and turn religion into malleable dough in their hands to shape it into whatever form they see fit based on their egos, whims, and desires.”
Raghib Isfahani (d 1108), a prominent Muslim philosopher and political theorist, divided politics into two types: the politics in which an individual deals with his own affairs, and the politics employed by an individual to manage the affairs of others. Ibn Khaldun (d 1406), quite possibly the most prominent Muslim political theorist and one of the pioneers in codifying the discipline of sociology, noted that proper adherence to religious principals elevates the people from tribalism and allows them to see beyond their own immediate interests. This is due to having an absolute reference point that they all must go back to. In other words, when everyone’s focus transcends him or herself to an absolute higher power, only then can they overcome personal interests for a higher cause.
Islam versus Muslims
The human element must be brought to the forefront of this conversation. The way in which Islam is being considered the driving force behind Islamopolitical movements as if it is an autonomous agent removes accountability from the people within those movements. While their desire for economic and social reform is commendable, their approach is highly questionable.
After nearly a century of religious oppression by dictators, delegitimised Islamic institutions and romanticised historical accounts that at times may not be grounded in reality, all one has to do is organise an Islamopolitical party, and highly educated Muslims will go along with their delusion. Without economic, social and health care plans, and a deep understanding of how modern geopolitics operate, these parties will fail. But their failure will not be their own; in the minds of people it will be a failure of Islam.
Much of the supposed conflict Muslims view with regards to separation of religion and politics has more to do with a false perception in their minds than with an objective reality. It is also their knee-jerk reaction to reject anything non-Muslims do as if the quality of any action is judged by who carries it out. Sharia is an organic activity that involves human intellect.
The current struggle is between rationalist Muslims who want to bring forth the Islamic tradition in its complete spectrum and dogmatist Muslims who think classical political works written in completely different contextual realities have some divine quality or sanctity to them. More importantly, Muslims need to come to terms with the fact that progress is not going to come from political parties that exploit the population’s emotional connection with Islam as a means to gain power.