Islamic Reformation III: Is Islam compatible with a secular state?

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

Ever since, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Khilafat and separated Church from state, a great debate has raged in the Islamic world. Perhaps no where is it more intensely debated than in Pakistan, where Jinnah very clearly and consistently declared that religion would have nothing to do with the business of the state. The debate is whether the concept of the separation of church from state acceptable to Islamic discourse. There are obviously two camps, one which believes that yes it is and the other one which believes that such a concept is alien to the Islamic understanding of politics. For the remainder of the article I will refer to the former as ’secular muslims’ and the latter as ’Islamists’.

Allama Iqbal, the poet-philosopher who the Islamists don’t tire quoting, was infact the first to accept that a separation of church and state is indeed possible in the Islamic political thought. While defending the Republic of Turkey and its actions, Allama said in his famous lecture on ’The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam’ :

“They therefore reject old ideas about functions of state and religion and accentuate the separation of church and state. The structure of Islam as a religio-political system no doubt does permit such a view.”
(Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Page 135)

This is essentially the argument of the secular Muslims, and the idea that was floated by Mahomed Ali Jinnah at the time of the creation of Pakistan. To him the whole debate about a theocratic Islamic state was ’nonsense’ as Islam and its idealism had spoken about complete democracy. No doubt to arrive at this view, he was greatly influenced by Allama Iqbal who had convinced him that ’social democracy’ was not ’revolutionary’ but a return to the true spirit of Islam. Hence to him and most of his comrades, Islam in no way was a limitation, and even when some tried to make it a limitation, Jinnah was quick to shoot it down, by declaring any and all theocratic moorings to be an anti-thesis of the egalitarian and progressive spirit of the Islamic ideals.

But whose idea is more logical? Does Islam really stand for a progressive egalitarian and secular political order, or does it favor a theocratic form of government? In my opinion the secular Muslims by avoiding this debate have in my opinion left the field wide open for the Mullah who has floated weird and obnoxious ideas about Islam. Others like Ibne-Warraq have through hostile criticism alienated themselves from the mass of the Muslims. If only someone was to once again call the Mullah for what he has and expose his lies. For example every Mullah and his mother in law quotes the Mesaq-e-Medina as a true Islamic constitution. What does the Mesaq-e-Medina actually say? Does it really envisage the kind of theocratic state that the Mullah today wants to impose on us in the name of Islam? Mesaq-e-Medina historically was a collection of documents which consist of the agreements between Prophet Muhammad, Muslims, non-muslims and the Jews of Medina declaring them to be one ‘Ummah’. A direct translation from Ibne-Hisham’s famous work on the seerat reads:

This is a document from Muhammad the Prophet between Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrab and those who joined them and labored with them. They are one community (Ummah) to the exclusion of all men …’

The collection of documents that we today know as ‘Mesaq-e-Medina’ is spread over 47 sections. Amongst these sections is a specific mention of complete equality for the Jews and Pagans of Medina who formed equal part of the Ummah as per the preamble of the document. There was no special tax or Jizya levied on them. The city-state of Medina was a federation of all the tribes residing in the Yathrib Area. Member of each tribe was to have complete rights as an equal citizen as well as obligations. Another astounding feature of this document is the nature of authority that the Prophet had over this newly formed Medinan community of Muslims, Jews and Pagans. He was recognized as the political leader and not a spiritual one. Allegiance of the non-Muslims was nothing more than political. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as the head of the state did not derive his authority from the fact that he was the Prophet but because he was the leader of the Majority of the people in Yathrib. Therefore there is no divine right to rule, not even for the Prophet (PBUH), as per this collection. Hence the city-state of Medina or more appropriately the Medinan Confederation of tribes, was hardly an ‘Islamic’ state. Rather it was a practical political alliance designed to fulfill the collective needs of all the people who resided in the city, and nothing more.

The intent of this article is by no means to apologize for Islam or its role historically. It goes without saying that the Jews were ultimately expelled from the City State of Medina after a conspiracy to murder the Prophet (PBUH) was hatched. From that point onward the Medinan state closed its ranks becoming more exclusively Muslim. Ultimately the Jizya was imposed on the ‘Dhimma’ communities but they were discharged from all other taxes and duties as citizens, which served nonetheless to create a distinction on the basis of faith. Whatever the political and religious reasons for these moves, they are irrelevant to this article. The specific intent is to prove that the Mullah’s contention for a theocratic Islamic state in Pakistan on the basis of ‘Medina’ is not without contradiction, as set in the context of the 7th century, the City state of Medina and its constitution were the farthest from a theocracy. Secularism with or without the justification of Islam is the requirement of the time. Ultimately the idea that faith is a personal matter, and that the state has no right to encroach in such a personal sphere will prevail over all ideas of theocracy, oppression and religion’s organized role in the state.

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