Islam and Politics

Islam and Politics


Islam and Politics

Salaam alykum,

I have gotten a few questions about “Islam and Politics,” which is a subject my studies are focused upon, so I’m excited. That being said, please don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind answering questions about anything, like marriage/dating or music, for example, but I’m actually excited to answer this question.

These questions have mentioned several issues, but I will try and condense them, and will attempt to address the following: 1) Islam and Politics (can it work?); 2) How does Islamic morality intersect with governmental policies, legally? (enforcing hijab, etc); 3) Does Islam mandate that we keep religion and politics together?; 4) What is the Islamic governmental system?

I would like to begin this post by urging you to not associate current events with my answer; I’m obviously speaking about the AK Party in Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Nadha in Tunisia, etc. 

With this in mind, I would like to go about answering these questions as I would to my classes: let’s have a firm grasp of our definitions, so that we know exactly what we are discussing.

Politics is the competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership.

An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intentions, and with the making and enforcing of rules governing cooperative human behavior.

Islam is for ballers.

All jokes aside, I would like to underline the importance of the distinction between politics and institutions. This is the most important aspect of this entire articleso if you don’t pay attention to this difference, then you will not understand anything that I am going to be saying. I purposely used definitions that were found in dictionaries, so that they could be as neutral as possible.

When people ask about “Islam and politics,” they are not actually asking about whether Islam (a religion) can be incorporated into politics. What they are actually asking about is whether Islam and institutions can work together. This is a very different question, and one that is never answered, because within political discussions, we apply one set of standards for Islam, and another set for other forms of politics, that we (inaccurately) define as “secular.”

The term “secular” is commonly used in reference to a person/group’s particular politicsHowever, this is problematic, because the term “secular” is not a political-level label, it is an institutional label. Thus only institutions can be described as secular properly, politics is a different matter entirely.

Why do I say that politics cannot be secular? Most of the time, people offer the example of ardently atheist political groups, or a communist party, illustrating that these are examples of “secular” politics. Look at the definition of politics, again. With that in mind, realize that politics is simply a competition over what currently exists or is an attempt to change what exists, at the most extreme. Either way, there is a set of institutional structures, and politics functions within them.

The way that this is done, is that these competing groups utilize the cultural symbols and language of the specific society within this competition. Cultural symbols, language, and the very idea of a society requires a sort of belief structure in intangible definitions that require individual belief. So whatever the society believes in, that is, in essence, “it’s religion.” Regardless of what that belief is, it is a cultural construct, whether that culture holds that God doesn’t exist or that Nicki Minaj is a holy goddess from an alien planet, they simply function as the cultural presumptions of political discourse.

Thus, whether your society is atheist or Muslim, it matters very little, because politics will simply be conducted within the cultural understanding of the particular society in question. The limits of political discourse is defined by the cultural structures of the society, so, when Barack Obama says: “God Bless America” in a political speech to Congress, he’s not violating the separation of “Church and State,” that is an institutional structure, he is simply communicating within the cultural understanding and traditions of America.

So, when people ask “can Islam and politics mix together,” it becomes a curious question, because the obvious answer is that, of course they can, and in Muslim countries, they do. Islam is part of the essential cultural fabric of many Muslim cultures, thus, an attempt to separate the two, on a political level would be not just difficult, but impossible. Why? Because, even if you did succeed, somehow, to limit the use of a Muslim society’s Islamic culture within its politics, what would take its place? How would a candidate appeal to the values of the society?

So, politics is simply an expression of a society’s values and concerns. Thus, if a society is Islamically inclined, and by that, I mean that they are not just Muslim religiously, but that Islam is central aspect of their values, concerns, and choices, then Islam and politics will and does work together.

The relative success of politics (i.e. that people are happy about what happens) is not a function of the political “game,” rather it is a function of how efficient the institutions are.

It is within the realm of institutions that we can have a discussion of whether a system (a collection of institutions) is either defined as “secular” or “religious.”

Secularism is the institutional separation between religious institutions and governmental (not political) institutions. There is a range as to how strict this separation can be, with the “generalized” range put between American-style “separation of Church and State” and French Laicite. Just for full-disclosure, I think Laicite is stupid, for reasons I can explain later. As far as whether Arab Muslim countries today are actually “secular” or not, I have addressed that question here.

You would imagine that in classical Islam that there would be no distinction between the institutional aspects of religion and government. Isn’t that the famous characteristic about Islam, that it does not separate the two?

Er. About that.

Thus we are brought to our second issue, because when it comes the separation of religious institutions and governmental institutions in Islamic history, they have always been separate. Let me repeat that, in classical Islam, the power of the government was separate, as in not in control, of religious institutions.

Now, before we dive in further, let’s define what are religious institutions and what are governmentalinstitutions.

Religious institutions are those, unsurprisingly, that are concerned with religious practice: those who control houses of worship, maintain religious doctrine, provide and promulgate religious education, and other associated services, and in the particular case of Islam, this meant training people who function as lawyers and judges, mostly, but Islamic institutions also provided the basis for education in all fields, meaning that the benefits of Islam were seen as far wider, than just “religious” issues.

Governmental institutions are those institutions that are directed towards the governance of a particular society, and my favorite definitions of governance are: “the exercise of political authority and the use of institutional resources to manage society’s problems and affairs” and “the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised.”

So on this level, governmental institutions are designed to exercise power, while religious institutions, specifically Islamic ones (because of Shariah), are concerned with things that are very different: they want order of the society, and it was through their role as the maintainers of the law, specifically the limits, rights, and responsibilities of the citizen and the ruler, in which we see the only overlap between these two institutions, otherwise, they were separate.

Before you message me and tell me I’m stupid, and that “scholars say this and this and that,” let me stop you, and let me abundantly clear and actually, a little more rude than I’d like to be. If your scholar says that religious and governmental institutions were always together, your scholar is wrong, full stop. I’m usually open for debates, I like to listen to other perspectives, but the simple fact of the matter is that religious institutions were separate, and please don’t take this as a “see separation of Church and State is the best, point for the West!”

Yeah, I’m definitely not saying that, because, while the institutions were separate, not only were the politics not and can never be separated from Islam (or indeed, any other cultural/religious construct of a society), but the actual laws that governed these Islamic states, were derived from religious sources, i.e. The Qur’an and Sunnah, from which laws were made (by different bodies in different places) and then judged and evaluated by, what we today call, “scholars.”

This last part, is where there is an institutional separation, yet still there was this connection between the laws that governed the state and the people, and religion, this is where we get the idea that “Islam does not separate between religion and government.” So, when you look at it this way, you can see why people would say that, but then again, you have to say, that’s not exactly true.

The big reason why we had this was because of the institutional arrangements of classical Islamic state systems. This is where we get into another issue: when we discuss classical Islamic institutions, for some reason we go to the Sahaba, who are a fantastic group to follow, but when we are discussing the historyand what has affected us, today the most, it is the history of Empires, none more so than the structures set about by the weak period of the Abbasid Caliphs, Salah ad-Deen (Saladin), and the Ottoman Empire. The institutional arrangements between these three, although there is much more complexity and other important examples, but for the sake of this summary answer, these three, are, in my opinion the most important.

The reason why secularism emerged in France is because of their particular history, and because of a struggle between the Church and the King between the control of not just political power, but for control over governmental institutions. This is not about “religion” inherently being incompatible with politics, rather, this (history of secularism) is the product of two competing forces, struggling over institutional control.

Thus, the first real test of this potential struggle over institutional control in the historical experience of Muslims was when the Abbasid Caliphs became weak. Please, note, when the Abbasid Caliphs became weak, they were simply figureheads, that provided legitimacy towards those that governed them. So, when they became weak figure heads, they were controlled by Sultans, who were actually Shia, while the Abbasid Caliphs were Sunni. The Shia Sultans didn’t care that the Caliphs were Sunni, as long as they gave them the legitimacy they desired, and the Caliphs at the time were unconcerned with governing anyone, and more concerned with living their particular lifestyle. The Ulama continued to serve in their positions as lawyers and judges, so they were useful to the Sultans, and thus, it is from this history point that Islam avoids the power struggle that was a feature in Western European Christianity.

The second major factor was when Salah ad-Deen took over Fatimid Egypt, and changed the curriculum of Egypt’s Al-Azhar to a Sunni direction, and thus created the institution which served as the center for Islamic learning from then on. It is through the traditions of Al-Azhar that our modern universities find many of their roots, and through which proper Islamic education is modeled after.

The third point is the institutional arrangement within the Ottoman Empire. Most important was how the Ottoman Caliphs maintained the institutional dignity of the scholars, and ensured that their place was central towards the legal maintenance of the Empire. It was through the Ottoman Empire that we saw the pinnacle of Islamic judicial efficiency, or what we like to call today the “rule of law.”

Thus, through these three major historical periods, we see the reasons why Muslim populations (whether the rulers or people) did not see the benefit for removing their religious institutions from being involved within the legal frameworks of their governmental institutions.

Thus the desire for “Shariah” today is nothing more than just a desire for an efficient and just legal system.

The reality is that, historically speaking, Shariah was a very efficient judicial system and thus, the legal traditions that are found in the Muslim world, and which are seen as the “authentic” formulas for the law, is Shariah. Whether God exists or not, matters little in this context, for the people, their legal tradition is based upon their cultural context, and thus, Shariah, or Islamic law, is the tradition of many (not all) Muslim countries, and thus, is seen as the legitimate source of law.

Now, what made Shariah a very effective legal system is that not only did it consistently apply the law, not only did it provide a predictable and fair set of judicial outcomes, but it enforced the law upon the people and also obliged the rulers to be accountable to the law as well. When it comes to public policy and politics, you cannot have a system that trusts in people’s morality, you should have a system that accounts for the possibility that someone will not be moral.

So, Islamic morality intersects with government policies in that the government should be viewed as the constructs and basis of a society, a mechanism in which we can conduct politics properly and fairly, which is different to what the actual politics are. Islam’s role, legally, was in enforcing that the politics of the society were conducted fairly, and that the ruler was accountable to the law and specifically, the moral codes therein. So, regarding the second question, the intersection between government policies and morality are on a public policy level, and not on the individual, in classical Islamic history, and indeed, in Shariah.

Thus, when I get the question: “is it Islamic to enforce the hijab through law?” My answer would be “no,” and allow me to explain, from the perspective of public policy and not through individual morality. Studies show that when a society enforces women to wear hijab, they hate hijab. However, when a society restrictswomen from wearing the hijab, they love hijab, and many times wear it in protest, yet still, are prevented from doing so. Assuming that your goal is to have women wear hijab, then, the question becomes “what do you do with this in mind, on a policy level?”

By enforcing hijab, aren’t you going to be harming the respect for hijab, and banning it would be absurd, so then you ensure that the law is neutral on it, because ultimately an issue like hijab should be left to the morality of the population. Once you look to laws to enforce morality, you have a bigger problem that laws are not going to be able to fix. Thus, on a policy level and NOT a individual basis, you stay silent on hijab, and simply create laws that protect the rights of women to wear hijab, and allow the society to decide how they will choose to act.

Thus, in this round about way, I’m answering the third question, in that Islam does not mandate that we keep religion and politics together, the people do. However, now that we look at the issue as an institutional issue, rather than a political issue, again, we see that it is not that Islam enforces that it (Islam) is infused with politics, rather, whatever is the basis of a society’s culture and world-view (Islam, atheism, whatever) will be intrinsically apart of its political structures.

So, when people who say they are “secularists” in the Muslim world, I laugh, because they are notsecularists, they simply want politics to be conducted in a way that makes them feel comfortable. If they were actually secularists, then they would advocate that religious institutions would be free from control by the government, which is not the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

The fourth and final question, which is “what is the Islamic governmental system,” is a tough question, because, quite frankly, there is no true Islamic system of governmentI wrote an article about this issue, which you can read here.

However, if we want to see the historical legacy of Islamic institutional arrangements, I’d use the Ottoman Empire, since that is the best example, and compare that to the American set of institutions, and then bring us back to what The Prophet’s tradition for us was, and why that means we have so much flexibility, and why that is a great thing.

So, in America, our institutional arrangement is, basically, we have three branches of government: the legislative (make the laws), executive (enforce the laws), and judicial (evaluate the laws).

In the Ottoman conception, and indeed, the majority of Islamic states, with some variation, the institutional structures were essentially: the Ulama were the jurists or what we, today, call “scholars,” and they had the job of the judicial branch, to evaluate the laws. Now, the Caliph/Ottoman Sultan, was boththe legislator and the executive. Now, it must be noted, that while some Sultans, like Suleiman for instance, were very “hands on” in legislating the law, many times, it would be his Viziers (ministers) who would handle the legislative jobs. Regardless, this separation of branches, ensured that you had an efficient and just system.

It was actually once the Ottoman’s decided to apply a “secular” and “European” style system of government that the systemic tradition of a dictator began to enter within the Muslim world. Here’s the cliff notes version:

The Sultan removed the Ulama from their posts, and then put in a French-style system of judges and lawyers, which meant that the strong and legitimate sources of judges and lawyers (Ulama) were removed from power, and weak bureaucratic replacements, who followed the European model, were now much easier for the Sultan to control, and then, “staying with European, secular” styles, he created a parliament. Parliaments first job is to complain about the executive (the Sultan, or President, etc) and only after that, do they make laws. Don’t believe me, look a the US Congress.

So, the Sultan is like, “I can control the court systems now, and my friends can do whatever they want, and I can do what I want, but this parliament is really annoying, and they’re complaining about me…” So what does he do? He closes down the parliament, and assumes control of the entire institutional structure of government.

This is why we had dictators, because of colonialism, and the adoption of Western institutional systems, without thinking about the need for what is authentic and legitimate in the society. So by removing the traditional sources of judicial authority, and the sole check upon the power of the executive, the system collapsed. Thus, if we are to attempt to create an Islamic governmental system, we have to take into account these different roles, and also, importantly, to return the traditional role of Islam, which was constricted towards the judicial duties of government, and that’s it.

Now, the institutional structure of The Prophet was a little different, precisely because he was The Prophet and was in direct communication with God. However, when The Prophet created a political arrangement, he actually created a constitution that did not have The Qur’an as central towards its structures. Of course, Islamic ideals were central towards forming this arrangement, but this constitution was directed towards a certain time and a certain place, because that’s what was required. This document, one that Muslims don’t discuss often enough, is The Constitution of Medina.

The Qur’an and Sunnah are timeless, and they can guide human actions for all eternity, in all situations. However, they are not supposed to provide us with the way to specifically create our institutions. If you read the Constitution of Medina, it will seem weird, and it will mention things that don’t make sense to you. That’s the point, it’s not for you, it’s for the community of Medina, which had Muslims, Jews, and pagans, living together in one society.

It was the people of Medina (then known as Yathrib) that asked The Prophet specifically for his mediation and his guidance for the city. Thus, it is the people of a given society, whether that’s a city-state or a federation of 50 states, that must, themselves, create their institutional structures that they see fit. That is the tradition of The Prophet, and what we must learn from him.

The reality is that, governments that follow the principles of The Qur’an and Sunnah, whether they know it or not, are those that do the best. Even more important, is that when a society has Islam as part of their everyday fabric, they will not just prosper when things are good (economically, etc) but they will be able to get through the toughest times, which I think I can say about the Muslim world today. We are at our lowest, and the sort of poverty that we are witnessing, and if you compare those facts to the relatively low rates of theft, violent crime, and other social ills, considering what they have to deal with, daily, it is truly impressive, alhamdulilah.

In closing, I would like to point out that this article is not exhaustive, nor is it my complete thoughts. However, I feel like it would be important to answer a few questions in one go and that I could also provide an article which was requested by you guys.

If you, or anyone else has questions on this or any other topics, please do not hesitate to ask me, insha Allah.

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