The Idea of the Islamic State

By Syed, Muhammad Aslam | East-West Connections, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

The Idea of the Islamic State


Syed, Muhammad Aslam, East-West Connections


The phantom of an Islamic State has haunted the Musalman throughout the ages and is a result of the memory of the glorious past.... that makes the Musalman of today live in the past and with the dead weight of centuries on his back, frustrated and bewildered and hesitant to turn to one corner or the other. The freshness and the simplicity of the faith, which gave determination to his mind and spring to his muscle is now denied to him.... He therefore finds himself in a state of helplessness, waiting for someone to come and help him out of this morass of uncertainty and confusion. (1)

These are the words of Pakistan's Federal Court in 1954 assessing demands by certain Islamic groups that the government acts as an Islamic State. Although given more than fifty years ago, this judgment captures the trends and intent of many of those who propagate the idea of the Islamic State today.

In the post-Colonial era in the Muslim World, no political theme has been more frequently discussed than the idea of the Islamic State. Initially, the concept emerged as a Muslim response to the different political systems introduced by the Colonial powers. Gradually, however, due to the failures of the post-Colonial governments to effectively address issues that affected the common people, corruption, authoritarianism, and the politics of the Cold war, the idea of the Islamic State gained currency and popularity. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 then demonstrated that the Islamic State was not just a utopia but could be a reality. More recently, the September 11, 2001 events and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and related developments in Pakistan and Central Asia have given the concept even more prominence. The elections in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, seen by many Muslims as American efforts to support or install corrupt, non-Islamic governments, further strengthened the attraction of an Islamic alternative not only in these countries but also in the other parts of the Muslim World.

This study explores the origins and development of the idea of the Islamic State from the theological, historical, and philosophical dimensions. It also looks at some of the contemporary models of "Islamic states." In so doing, it attempts to address such questions as: "Are religion and politics separate domains in Islamic tradition, or is there no separation between religion and politics in Islam?" "Is Islam compatible with democracy or not?" And "Why is the idea of an Islamic State becoming popular in some Muslim societies today?"

This essay is organized in eleven sections. The first looks at why and under what circumstances the idea of the Islamic State emerged. The second part considers the various verses of the Quran and the sayings and the deeds of the Prophet relevant to the concept, including the governance of the City State of Madinah. The third section examines the governments put in place by the Companions of the Prophet, which became both models as well as sources of subsequent disputes among Muslim thinkers and theologians, while the fourth recounts the experience of the Umayyad and Abbasid periods which provided a totally different model of the state absorbing pre-Islamic institutions of the Byzantines and the Persians. The fifth part presents a summary of the different reactions to the question of the relationship between religion and politics over this time--a formative period when Muslim intellectuals, theologians, and dissenting groups articulated their ideas on the subject. This leads to a discussion of the development of the Sunni model of the state, still a major influence in the contemporary thinking, followed by a section devoted to the speculations of the philosophers and statesmen on the institution of the state in the light of history. The eighth part presents the ideas of Ibn Taimiyyah who revolted against history and authored a political philosophy that gave birth to the Wahhabi school of thought. …

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