Four Views on Islam and the State

The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

Four Views on Islam and the State


I need a secular state

By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im

ALTANTA - To be a Muslim by conviction and free choice - which is the only way one can be a Muslim - I need to live in a secular state. By a secular state, I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine to facilitate genuine piety. The state should not enforce sharia (the religious law of Islam) because compliance should never be coerced by fear or faked to appease state officials. When observed voluntarily, sharia-based values can help shape laws and public policy through the democratic process. But if sharia principles are enacted as state law, the outcome will simply be the political will of the state.

Many Muslims equate secularism with antireligious attitudes. Yet I believe that a secular state can promote genuine religious experience among believers and affirm the role of Islam in public life.

The so-called Islamic state is conceptually incoherent and historically unprecedented. There simply is no scriptural basis for an "Islamic state" to enforce sharia.

The leadership of the prophet Muhammad in Medina is an inspiring model of the values Muslims should strive for in self-governance, transparency, and accountability. But since Muslims believe that there is no prophet after Muhammad, the Medina model cannot be replicated.

There's no precedent for an Islamic state in practice. Historically, rulers sought the support of Islamic scholars and religious leaders to legitimize their authority, but religious authorities needed to maintain their autonomy. This was always a negotiated relationship, not a marriage.

The experience of the vast majority of Muslims across the world today is about struggles for constitutionalism and human rights, economic development and social justice - not about the quest for Islamic states to enforce sharia. The world community must support Muslims in these struggles instead of punishing them for the sins of the extremist fringe of political Islamists.

Muslims and others often blame sharia and Islam for the backwardness and underdevelopment of Islamic societies. This view is inaccurate and unproductive. Such blame shifts responsibility and the ability to change away from Muslims as human agents to abstract forces or causes.

Historical interpretations of sharia that discriminate against women and non-Muslims can and should be reinterpreted and reformed. Without such transformation, state officials cannot be expected or trusted to uphold principles of constitutionalism and human rights. Yet those principles are prerequisites for advocating the necessary transformation. The secular state provides the space for and facilitates both aspects of this dialectic process.* Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im is the author of the forthcoming book "Islam and Secular State: Negotiating the future of Sharia."

Burqas and ballots

By Jocelyne Cesari

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. - Islam is often perceived as a potential threat to democratization. Justifications for this view are grounded in the common view that for Islam there's no separation between politics and religion.

In the West, politics based on individual rights and religion as independent of the state have marked the triumph of a liberal vision of the self within a secularized public arena. It may be argued that no similar movement has taken place in the Muslim world. It may be tempting, then, to infer that the Muslim mind is resistant to secularization. However, the reasons for such resistance are political and contextual and have very little to do with the Koran.

Within the Muslim world, Islam either is a state religion or is under state control. Therefore, the state is almost always the primary agent responsible for the authoritative interpretation of tradition.

As a result, Islamic thought has lost a certain vitality, not only in questions of government, but also on issues of culture and society. …

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