Islam and State: Rethinking Muslim Politics?


 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 like is democracy, rights, transparency, accountability, part of governance,   alien to Islam or they really part of our faith? We hope that the talk by Dr Asghar Ali Engineer and the questions which follow later on try and touch  on a number of these crucial points affecting the Muslims all over the world.

Dr Asghar Ali Engineer: Salam aleikum. 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 which did not have any state. The holy Prophet was born in Mecca which was a tribal society. The tribal chiefs, whenever any decision had to be made, met together and took a unanimous decision. If any decision was not  unanimous it was not enforceable. They had what is modern terminology we would 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, 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 posses any scripture, any written law. Only customs and traditions. And the main concern was with certain values. The ideal suras of  the Qur’an, the Meccan suras, are all exaltations about justice, taking care of orphans and widows. A tribal society was developing into a commercial society in Mecca. It was a centre of high international finance. Islam was not born in a desert, it was born in Mecca a centre of high finance which was enroute to the Roman Empire and the Silk Route which originated in China and passed through Yemen then India and came to Mecca. Then they would cross the great desert, the Rub Al Khali. 

The Arabs were just guides for crossing the desert but 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 Khadija whom he later married.

Going into high finance yet there was no political authority and no values, no state structure. And so the Qur’an was mainly concerned with the weaker sections of society because the tribal society was breaking, tribal bonds were breaking and inter-tribal trade corporations were developing. They were in need of a state because a society which is  a centre of high  finance needs some governance, some state structure but it did not exist because of  the tribal  form of the society.

And the earlier suras were mainly concerned with the weaker sections because in a tribal society there is no poverty. No wealth is generated in tribal society, there is no agriculture. In the entire  Rub Al Khali and Mecca there was no agriculture and no production of wealth. It was only through trade exchange of commodities

So 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. But in Mecca weaker sections came into existence because of this new development and they were being totally neglected. The rich traders re-invested 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? It will reduce into pieces. There is a strict warning about the social tensions which were developing between the haves and have nots.

Look at the person who  throws away orphans, doesn’t feed them.

He deprives them of little things, the basic needs. So there are several  suras strongly denouncing the concentration of wealth and exalting  the need to take care of the poor, the orphans, the widows, the needy. This is the main thrust of most of the suras in the Qur’ran – a very sharp denunciation of the concentration of wealth.

That was the main concern: to establish a society which is just, which takes 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 Mecca but by the powerful, rich international traders because if they accept the logic of the Prophet then they will have to dispense with their wealth and distribute it. The logic of a trading society is to re-invest wealth rather than to re-distribute it.

And secondly if they listen to the Prophet those powerful traders will have to obey an orphan, a poor boy because the holy Prophet started as a poor man who had no wherewithal until he married  Khadija. So 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. And because the Prophet attacked the concentration of wealth they were hurt and because they were powerful and rich they thought it was below their dignity to follow a poor orphan. That is why the Prophet was persecuted.

He had to migrate to Medina where the situation was altogether different. It was an agricultural society where there was production of wealth rather than simply exchange of wealth. But Medina did not have any state structure either. The Jews controlled the state structure. The main tribes of Medina 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 Medina. There was no police, no army, no bureaucracy – everything was one entity. When the kufar of  Mecca attacked Medina 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 co-partners. He called the Jews, the Pagans idol worshippers and of course Muslims and drew up a treaty which is known as  Missa Al Medina and formed a community. Medina 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 Medina 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.

So 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 Median 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.

So even in Medina no state structure developed. There was no army and if Median was attacked the Prophet appealed to all to volunteer and there are several verses which induce people to fight in the way of Allah.

I would 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. So for war  or fighting either the word harb or qital is used. But in Arabic jihad does not mean to fight. It is to make efforts. That is the root meaning of jihad. But 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 tyrant ruler. He clearly defined jihad. But that is another story.

In Medina there was no army, or bureaucracy. Everything was voluntary. But as the situation developed the Prophet appealed for  various conditions. Even the Qur’anic injunction about believers to enforce what is good and contain what is evil. It is every believers 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 1st  caliph, Abu Bakr. But it clearly took shape during the time of the second caliph Othman. Conquest took place and a strong need arose  for the police and the bureaucracy. Othman prepared a diwan for the first time. He took the concept of the paid army from Iran. Otherwise the tribal concept in Arabia was that whatever was looted in the war was distributed among the fighters – no salary. For the first time diwan is developed during Hazar Tuman’s time. Then he starts paying soldiers a regular salary.

Even the concept of Bait Al Maal (The Treasury) was new. You will not find it in pre-Islamic society. There was no tax system at all.  The concept of zakat, a tax, is given by the Qur’an.  Subsequently a treasury was established. During the Prophet’s time it was directly distributed and since there was no salary whatever was acquired  during war was distributed among the people quite equitably.

This continued even during Omar’s time. The principle of justice was most important in the distribution of this. We know in history that somebody  told Azar Tuman you have taken more. He called his son. He asked him how much he took. This was done to prove to civil society that they had not taken more though they were rulers. By Omar’s time it was quite a sizable empire yet the caliph took only what the other believers were given.

So the concept of Bait Al Maal (the treasury) also developed after the Prophet’s death, not during his lifetime. The state structure begins to develop after the death of the Prophet. Because there was a total vacuum in that society –  there was no state. So a state was needed and that is why that 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 Chengazi rules in this way it is acceptable. The Chengazi 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 oppression.

You will see in Qur’an 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 which would lead to exploitation and oppression.

So any state which makes these values its guidance is a proper state, a proper governance. Governance must be based on  these values. And if you look at what has been called an Islamic state throughout history  these values were never followed not even during  those 20 years of Caliphate Al Rashidan because by the time of  Uthman, the  Third Caliph there was revolt  in civil society and Uthman himself was assassinated. It was perceived by mushriks that people of Uthman’s period have occupied all the important positions and other Muslims were deprived of that.

You may  have read a very important work Fitnah Al Kubra by Taha Hussein an Egyptian scholar who described what  happened during Uthman’s time. And even the fourth caliph was assassinated. Umar was also assassinated but it had nothing to do with a revolt by civil society. He was assassinated by slaves. But two other caliphs were assassinated by members of civil society. More than 70,000 Muslims were killed in civil war during those two caliphs time.

The caliph Al Rashada really made sincere efforts to govern in accordance with these values. But what happened in the entire history of Islam, in 1400 years of history we will not find one single state which was governed in accordance with these Qur’anic values. On the contrary we have Umayyad rule which was most oppressive and we have Najat who killed 100,000 Muslims and sent 50,000 Muslims to jail.

the very founder of the Abbasid state shed blood. The entire Abbasid rule was again based on oppression and exploitation. Then  of course there was never a central state and regional states came into existence. After the fourth caliph the very concept of Caliph disappeared. And then such a concept developed that if a most oppressive ruler enforces salat must be followed. He may be an oppressor but you have to follow him because he is enforcing salat.

The entire history of Islam shows that a state which was based on these four fundamental values never developed.  Take the contemporary world. Show me one single Islamic state. They all claim they are Islamic. Show me one single Islamic country where these four values are  followed. They claim to enforce shariah but 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, praying that has to come from within – it can never be imposed. If it is imposed we do it outwardly but there is no spiritual content in it. You do not really need a state to enforce these rituals. 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 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. But the whole feudal system is based on shared profit, one quarter, one third or one half. But 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. But 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 and Islamic state. In the 20th century many Muslim countries started declaring that they were Islamic states. And what would they enforce? Punishments.  Henceforth we will cut off the hand of a thief, stone adulterers. Is this a sense of Islamic state? And ultimately on whom do they enforce these punishments? Their political opponents.

n Pakistan there is a lot of evidence about it. Zia Al Haq who declared an Islamic state in the late 70s used to lash those journalists for drinking who were writing against him.And he would generously allow the officers to drink. They 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: the Press in Chains during  Zia Al Haq’s time. There was no freedom of opinion which is again against Qur’anic injunctions: la ikraha fin 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 UNO in 1948, clause by clause you will find a mention of those things in the Qur’an. But show me one single Muslim country which honors those human rights. What Islamic state are we talking about?

 In Saudi Arabia if you don’t pray you are lashed. 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. Maruf does not only mean fasting. It means all those values. Truth again is the greatest value. Do we really have truthful Muslims in the world who would really make truth part of their conscience and practise nothing but truth. The surah will ask. I think that represents the entire essence of the Holy Qur’an.

Truth and patience go together. Speaking truth, practising truth requires a lot of sacrifice and that sacrifice needs a lot of patience. Imam Shafi that if only the Surah Al Ashraq had been revealed that would have been sufficient.

Let us search our own conscience. Do we pratcise it? Are we ready to make sacrifices? Are we ready to be patient in the path of truth, in the way of truth. And still we talk of an Islamic state. It is most oppressive, denying all human rights so clearly mentioned in the Qur’an and again Islamic society is known for oppressing women as if they don’t 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 Islamic countries, we want to take revenge on non-Muslims by killing innocent non-Muslims and call it jihad. Islam came to establish both justice and peace. Peace is very essential to the concept of Islam. It is Allah’s name, Allah’s, Allah’s name is salam. So when Allah whom we worship, his name is salam, his peace. If we want to worship him should se worship violence of peace. Peace is very central to Islam. Violence was permitted only under very extraordinary situations – when you are under attack.

Let us reflect 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 Dai Lama always talks of compassion. Why don’t we hear a single Muslim talking of compassion when he or she claims my God is compassionate. Why don’t we talk of compassion? Along with Buddhism, Islam should be known as the religion of compassion but it is known as the religion of violence.

There is something wrong with our society. We have no right to establish a state which is  oppressive and not centered on the din of Islam anyway. There is no  single verse in the Qur’an which talks of a state. It only talks of 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, truth.

Before we talk of any state we should talk of these values and according to me any state which practices these values is a real Qur’anic form  state be it a secular state, be it a Western or Eastern state. Any state which practices these values, which honors human rights is a truly Islamic state and the Islamic state we talk about is based on oppression, exploitation and denial of human rights. It simply enforces rituals. That does not make it an Islamic state.


Dr Najah Kadhim: Thank you Dr Asghar for this enlightening talk. Let me start by asking the first question. What about the verses in the Qur’an which actually say :  Rule among them by that which Allah has sent down. This is in a number of chapters: chapter four, chapter five, chapter 12. To me that does not mean political power. It could well mean a source of legislation. Some people may remind us of the vilayat which is mentioned in the Qur’an and therefore we should establish a state. These are the points mentioned by the Islamic state. But vilayat could be established through social empowerment, as you said social institutions that would protect the rights of the citizens. So it could be achieved socially rather than through political power. That is my understanding. What is your take on it?

Dr Asghar: The concept of vilayat, 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 non believers they start practising those values. Authority is needed but authority based on values. If there are no values there may 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 a formal concept of a state. A state for what? A state is not an end in itself. We think as if the state was an end in itself. The holy Prophet’s style was far, far better qualitatively then in any following era which 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 but when the revolution took place 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 their concept was a stateless society.

So nobody is denying the state. We are discussing whether it is indispensable. I said it is  not indispensable. Take Sufi Islam. It was based on developing their soul, enriching their inner selves. So you don’t need any state, any authority. They  themselves voluntarily control their desires. Also their primary thing 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  desire you cannot be truthful, you cannot be patient.  They did not need a state authority. But we know all cannot become like him so we need a state.


Dr Najah Kadhim: I think we do need a state. If you go back to the Middle Ages the Mawaldi, Sultanic and what have you, and use those values and try them today.


Question:  I am surprised there is no new concept of 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 they were burning witches. To implement the hududs 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 is you 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 don’t need to enforce shariah. Shariah  should be practiced from within. You do not need an outside authority to enforce it. You don’t need a state to tell you to pray or to fast. I already told you about it.

          Again there is a misconception about hudud laws. They have become most oppressive. In a society which is unjust, 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 would you cut off their hands?

          There is a story from Harun Rashid. A man was brought to him and it was said he had committed theft. What is the punishment.  Harun Rashid said cut off his hand. The man was desperate that this hands are going to be cut off. He told the caliph if my hands are cut off you should be given the death punishment. Harun Rashid was shocked. Why the death punishment. 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. So you should be given the death punishment for all these injustices. So how can you impose these hudud.

          In a society which 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 which prevents us from all evil? No we do more together. We pray and at the same time we indulge in all evils. So  hudud laws and shariah laws are not an end in themselves. They are a means to achieve a  different kind of society. And 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. But 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 confusing between state, government, society and individuals. There is a kind of demarcation in the conceptualization of what is state and what is government. There are different types of  government or governing systems and the state is one.


Dr Najah Kadhim: Indeed, this is the political naivety of  most Islamic movements. They do not distinguish between the role of the state and the role of the government and people talk  about khalifa. How are you actually going to accommodate the role of the government. Is it considered a state or a government. So there is no political format, there is no depth to the ideas of state and politics. We are not  actually against the state as a concept but we say which model.  The model which we have at the moment is from the Middle Ages or borrowed from other people like the state and  society which was developed 200 years ago with the onslaught of the colonial powers. We are living in a global world. That is why the  role of the civil society is very important and that is where social institutions should come in. That is my take on it. We need a fresh look at the whole thing. We need a modern theory of the state and fikr. We need a number of things that we are lacking at the moment. What we have are tools from the Middle Ages and we are trying to fill the vacuum we have at the moment.


Comment: That is what I am trying to say. There is a lack of understanding and is not only among the Muslims themselves. As a young kid I was involved in radical Islam  and we were told that the calipha was the golden, shining era of the past. And that is the problem. It is projection of the past onto the conditions of the present. So when you talk about the state all we are doing is projecting modern conditions onto the past. The sheikh needs to elaborate on this.


Dr Najah Kadhim: So what is your question.


Question: Part of my question is basically……


Dr 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.


Dr Asghar: 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 but the Muslims never fulfilled their duties towards this end. They only concentrated on rituals because an oppressive state came into existence, they could not fight its power and they thought they better 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 shariah 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.


Dr Asghar:  You see nobody can idealise Western states today. There may be internal democracy. There may be some attempt to ensure human rights within the country. But what  are these states doing to other countries. If they exploit other societies than 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 life. 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 to can  be called  any state – this is the state which one should set up.


Dr Najah Kadhim: That is what I am talking about in modern theory. Otherwise we would have borrowed Western theory for our system, for our culture.


Answer: Unfortunately we are calling a feudal state an Islamic state.


Dr 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 a confusion. One way you call it a state in which wisdom, compassion, benevolence and justice is established. That is an Islamic state. That is what the Qur’an describes.  You refer to states which 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 which are seeking to establish a system by which governments ensure social justice and values like benevolence and compassion. You are not differing from them but you are saying that what exists today is not an Islamic state and we should aspire to something that is closer to the model of the society of the Prophet. That is our frustration.


Dr Najah Kadhim: What is your answer?


Reply: 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. 


Reply: They may be Muslim countries but they are not Islamic. By any standard they are not Islamic states. So when you say such a such a country is an Islamic state you are contradicting yourself and doing injustice.


Dr Asghar: This is what I am saying. You are completing what I am saying. They do not deserve to be called Islamic states at all. But let me tell you the Qur’an does not refer to any single concept of a state. Not in a single verse. It only has the concept of society.


Question: There must be a system  to let us know what to do. And 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.


Dr Asghar: I don’t think Iran is a model either.  The very concept of vilayat al fikh. This means you are giving all the power to one person. So it is a very negation of democracy.  What makes us think that the person will only be motivated by those values and not by some selfish interests. You cannot give all power to one person. He has to be answerable to the people which he is not. So the law which is passed by parliament has to be approved by that person. He can say no and the peoples representatives have no meaning.  I don’t 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.  The principles of ijtihad is there in Islam but no alim is permitting it. They say, we have no qualification but what qualification do you need if you have a knowledge of the Qur’an and the sharijah and it was formulated in Medieval Ages.  If you have a knowledge of  Islamic history and hadith that is more than enough for ijtihad.

          But because they do not want to encourage ijtihad they say no one is qualified to do it. All ulema and rulers in the Islamic world are doing that. That is the real tragedy. Ijtihad will be the dynamic principle of Islam which will keep on updating laws because laws are based on values. Values cannot change, laws should keep on changing otherwise  values will be injured.  What we are doing is worshipping shariah, 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. People may be in authority but 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 do 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.


Dr Asghar: 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 ………….


Dr Najah Kadhim:  But in a modern state do you need some kind of institution  with checks and balances………..


Dr Asghar: Yes……..


Dr Najah Kadhim: This is what we said a few minutes ago. People use shariah 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 maturing, one experiment after another which was a reflection of the era whereas the government is a reflection of the status quo.


Question: I would like to ask a very direct question  about  Somalia where the movement is defining itself as an Islamic movement?


Dr Najah Kadhim: What is the question?


Question: During the past ten years or so a  lack of justice and anarchy have resulted in a lot of injustice in Somalia. Now during the past few months there is a movement which is defining itself as an Islamic movement. Does Dr Asghar have any comments on this.


Dr Asghar: All these movements, once they come to power they degenerate into 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 but once I come to power my whole behaviour changes. So 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. But 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 that party with a difference when it came to power became a party of differences,  I think among  themselves and 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 but the test lies when you are in power, how do you govern. That is most important. And we do not have a single example of this in the post calipha period.


Dr Najah Kadhim: So what you are saying is that Muslims are no different to 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 hasn’t said.


Dr Najan Kadhim: Just a minute, it is your opinion.


Question:  The Prophet spoke against wealth. That is when he was really prosecuted. 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.  But they did not want Sonja Gandhi as president.  We are not tackling the real issues which is the economic and the political system. If we were true to our values we would 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 get so worked up. They need blood pressure tablets to calm them down. It is just ridiculous.  We need to get involved with the movements, whether its secular Muslim or whatever they call them and start shaping the agenda within them. If we keep out the media, who have their own agenda, will paint us the way we do not like to be painted. This is getting worse.  We need to get involved with the system, to shape it and that is the only way. That’s where it lies for the Muslims to get involved with main stream organizations.


Dr Asghar: To get involved you need democracy. If there is no democracy how do you get involved?  Can you get involved in Saudi Arabia? Can you get 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 points in speaking about what is happening in Pakistan.


Dr Asghar: You are right to get involved. You must get involved. You are a member of this society, you are a citizen of this country, of course you must get involved.


Dr Najah Kadhim: We are talking about social empowerment. Everyone must play his or her role in the activities  of society.


Question:  I would 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 ummah should we have? Does that  concept of ummah mean leadership and if so by what mechanisms could it be delivered?


Dr Asghar:  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 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 would like to refer to Jamal Abdel Nasser  and his discussion with the king of Saudi Arabia. Jamal Abdel Nasser was talking about Arab nationalism. So once King Fahd told him brother why don’t you talk of Muslim nationalism. Why Arab nationalism? He politely said what do you have in common with Indonesian Muslims, tell me. Can you found one nation with them. Libya, 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. Mualana  Hussein a great alim wrote a book challenging Jinah. The name of the book is :  Composite nationalism and Islam. He quoted so many verses from the Qur’an and so  hadiths to show that  nation has nothing to do with Islam and composite nations should be accepted. He quoted Mecca and Media. 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. But 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 Muslims. 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 don’t like it is another question but the reality is   that nation states exist not only in Western countries but 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 away all the Muslims who stayed back.  A maulana made the same point saying if I go to Saudi Arabia as an alim they will welcome me. But 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 Mulims Alim would I be allowed to become a citizen of Saudi Arabia or any Muslim country for that matter? No. So lets 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 that changes that will happen tomorrow.  But today it is reality and the Muslims accepted that reality.  They are divided.  They go to 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 can’t even converse with them because I don’t know their language. I would need an interpreter to talk to an Indian or Malaysian Muslim. Even in my county when I go to Kerala, Tamil Nadu I cannot talk with them because I do not know the Tamil language. They are Indians, I am Indian but I do not know the language and I need an interpreter. Both of us should know English, 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 person would understand. So we can’t even communicate with each other. That concept was useful when Islam was confined only to Arabia. The moment it went out of Arabia the whole reality changed.


Dr Najah Kadhim:  The theory that the true state did not exist can be debatable using the example of Oman Ibn Abdel Aziz. The treasury reached a level where they were paying peoples debts and helping youth to get married. I think there is a confusion in the semantics and using the words. Organizations like Hizeb Al Tahrir is not working for an Islamic state. It is working for the central Islamic government. I think this is what is meant by caplipha. The best way to describe khalifa would be as the central Islamic government. I think I agree with Dr Asghar that Islamic government is a good idea. I disagree with him that it  is unrealistic. I believe a central Islamic government did exit and is realistic. I also agree with him that it is a means not an end. I believe that some Muslim organisations  today treat the calipha or the Islamic government as an end. I don’t believe that. I think 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  eventually establish the central Islamic government. It is not by striking some military revolution in one country and then that country claims to be the caliph and  fights with other countries and non-Muslims. I don’t 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 we make today.  There were obligations in the age of the Prophet and there was a state during the time of Omar Bin Adel Asia………………


Dr Asher: Omar Bin Adel Asia 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 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 amah.  You criticized Jonah. Okay. Jonah was cruised by a lot of people.


Dr Asher: 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. But 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 linga 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 and 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 Bobbywood 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.


Dr Asghar: Thank you for this question. Compare comparable not incomparable things.  When considering the European Union take geography and take the geography of the Muslim world. How do you bring them together. All   European countries who have formed this union are democratic. They have constitutions, they have laws which are passed democratically through 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 amah there is no concept of sovereignty of different peoples. Amah is a religious rhetoric when all will follow the same set of laws which were framed in the medieval ages under totally different conditions. So we must compare comparatively. If all Muslim countries are situated geographically closer to each other all are  sovereign countries with democarcies, with constitutions it is a different situation. But there would be rhetoric of one amah there because one amah means one community. And when you say one community all will follow the same set of laws, and there will be sovereignty, no different laws, no power to legislate. Those who are talking of an Islamic state  should just examine that concretely. It implies a position of shariyah. Shariyah as it is as it was inherited from earliest times when it was formulated. Now even on matters of  shariyah Muslims are divided:  there are safas, there are malakis, hanafis, Ismalis, there are so many  different schools. How do you bring them together and make them follow only one shariah? Some will say we will only follow the shafi school, others will say we will follow the hanafi school, other will follow the Islami school. How will you create unity? When you talk of one ummah mind that concept.  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 proscription is to remove religion from public life, to remove shariyah from legislation and make religion a matter of individual consciousness.


Dr Asghar: 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 practise of religion. I don’t believe in practising shariah in religion because Qur’anic values are important not how those values were interpreted in medieval ages. This is an entirely different thing. But unfortunately we do not even distinguish between  values and laws which were made in medieval ages. Values are permanent. Another thing: the Qur’anic verses are  of  two categories contextual and normative. The contextual ones can be seen historically whereas normative values are universally applicable.


Question: Who is to decide which are which?


Dr Asghar:  There is one contextual verse which all the ulema use to suppress women, even today. Allah has given us the right to beat women.  These verses are quoted again and again by the ulema 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 medieval ages and they even insist today that man has authority over women.   That’s not the Qur’anic concept. Why this concept of asif al mansouf? Because it was contextual. Normative verses are all value based whereas contextual verses have some reference to that society and the problems which 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 generalise by saying all ulema, all Islamic states and so forth. Generalisation is not an academic approach to anything. There are people out there like yourselves who are great thinkers and who are working to establish  or guide people through ijtihad. That would help better.


Question: Don’t you think there is such as thing as a global ethic. Should international organisations be strengthened. Shouldn’t organisations like the OIC 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 organisations.


Dr Asghar: 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 Shariah law and we will not accept it. That is not possible in the modern world.


Dr Najah Kadhim: I think now is a good time  to finish. I would like to thank Dr Asghar for his point view 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 secular education obtaining a degree in civil engineering. But returned  to Islamic learning.

 Dr Ali subsequently got involved in the  movement for inter-religious harmony in which he has participated for the past 40 years. He speaks several languages:  English, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Arabic and Persian. 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. He was awarded several awards including the  Right Livelihood Award given by a Swedish Foundation also known as the alternate Noble Award. He was conferred Hon.D.Litt by Calcutta University and also by Jamia Hamdard University, Delhi. He has lectured in several universities throughout the world.

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