Book Reviews

Book Review: Islam and the Secular State:

Is future of sharia with secularism? —by Khaled Ahmed

Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia
By Abdullah Ahmed an-Naim
Harvard University Press 2008
Pp324; Price $35

The author links the concept of civic reason with the Quranic edict of shura or consultation even though it does not lay down any exact mechanism for this consultation. For the sake of avoidance of conflict in the modern state, he advocates consultation between the various communities inhabiting the state

Author Abdullah Ahmed an-Naim says: “This book is the culmination of my life’s work, the final statement I wish to make on issues I have been struggling with since I was a student at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, in the late 1960s. I speak as a Muslim in this book because I am accountable for these ideas as part of my own religion and not simply as a hypothetical academic argument.” And he has made us all think afresh about the nature of the state inhabited by Muslims.

There are many ways you can save the Muslims from going pre-modern and hurting themselves in the 21st century. Some of us say Sharia itself is secular and that the state after the first immaculate caliphs separated the religious from the political. Some others say the Prophet PBUH himself created a state that gave equal status to all Muslim and non-Muslim communities living in it. This book gives an inside view of how Islam needs to absorb some of the values of secularism that don’t militate against Islam.

The case is put like this: “The historical relationship among Islam, the state, and politics clearly reflects the permanent tension between claims of the conflation of Islam and the state and the need of religious leaders to maintain their autonomy from state institutions in the interest of their own moral authority over both state and society. The basic framework for the constant mediation of that tension was the expectation of Muslims that the state should uphold Islamic principles in fulfilling its obligations, on the one hand, and the inherently political and secular nature of the state, on the other.” (p.49)

The state is inherently bisected by its religious authority and its political exigencies. The ulema may insist on a seamless state but they often lack the power to implement what they have in mind; and since what they have in mind is not a functional Islamic state but a utopia based on theory, an Islamic state ruled by them may run the risk of becoming like all utopias, beginning with the one visualised by Plato. Dangers arise from the lack of the will of the ulema “to confront practical questions of maintaining the peace among local communities, regulating economic and social relations, or defending the realm against external threats”. The ulema may have to become users of force by cutting themselves off from the mainsprings of their theory of the state.

Author Naim refers to the authority of Ibn Taymiya (d.1328) to posit the possibility of a pragmatic state and its reliance on skill rather than religious piety with the support of the leading Islamic thinkers who asserted that ‘the selection of each public officer or magistrate should be based on the pragmatic requirements and the individual’s capacity to comply with the ethical and professional code of the job being assigned, not considerations of religious piety”. Ibn Taymiya cited in this context the example of how the Prophet PBUH repeatedly appointed Khalid bin Walid as commander of Muslim armies, despite his frustration and dissatisfaction with Khalid’s attitudes and behaviour from a religious point of view. (p.49)

Ibn Jawziya too thought that intelligence and practical wisdom should be the principle on which to run a government and held that it was only “through misunderstanding the political dimension of Islam that rulers misconceived the relation between Sharia and the actuality of experience” thus making serious mistakes under the rubric of applying Sharia. (p.50) The book points out that the same principle was favoured by Imam Ghazali too.

Naim tackles the more problematic question of the function of the state in regard to its population. He says: “Citizens often have a sentimental attachment to and identification with their state but this is not an essential characteristic of a state. The concept of the nation-state assumes common features, such as ethnicity or language, among groups that may identify with the state in this manner. But this can be misleading, because there is hardly ever a complete correspondence between a territory and the ethnic, religious, or other unity of its population. Such unity can be true of several groups within the territory of a state and may be shared by others living within the territory of another state. The fact that most states seek to cultivate feelings of uniform national identity is not a defining characteristic of the modem state.” (p.87)

What then is the defining characteristic of the modern state? The book brings in the concept of civic reason here: “The concept of civic reason entitles all citizens to publicly debate any matter that pertains to or reflects on public policy and governmental or state action, including the views of citizens about such matters.” Here the fundamental purpose is to allow all citizens of the state regardless of their religion and ethnicity to join the debate from their separate points of view. Naim says: “Muslims are of course free to observe the ban on riba personally or to organise zakat through civic associations, all through an entirely internal Islamic discourse. But if they wish to involve state institutions in the process, then they must provide civic reasons through a civic reasoning process in which all citizens can participate without reference to religion.” (p.93)

He links the concept of civic reason with the Quranic edict of shura or consultation even though it does not lay down any exact mechanism for this consultation. For the sake of avoidance of conflict in the modern state, he advocates consultation between the various communities inhabiting the state. And in this validation of the non-dominant communities together with the dominant ones he sees the function of the state as a neutral entity concerned with justice. And this no doubt is the fundamental characteristic of a secular state. (Daily Times)

About the author

Abdul Nishapuri


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