Religion and State

By inter-faith pioneer the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari from his contributory essay to the book “Islam in a World of Diverse Faiths” (1991) edited by Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok. The essay is used here by the kind permission of the publisher Palgrave Macmillan.

Professor Askari (1932-2008) figures as one of eight important Muslim thinkers of the last century in Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen and the Faith”.

Professor Askari writes:

img020INTRODUCTION: The unity of the religious and political is upheld on the basis of the principle that the religious life is an undivided whole. To say that religion is a private affair is to concede to the fragmented view of man and life. It is one of the inherent perspectives within each religion that it encompasses the entire existence, both mental and social. This may not be so at all times for all believing men and women, but as a principle it is beyond question.

RELIGION AND POLITICAL LIFE

One of the reasons for subscribing to a private view on religion is the attraction to the highly individualised character of contemporary man of the late Hellenistic “mystical” conception of spiritual self-realisation, in terms of which a disciple of Plotinus could seek his private salvation within himself and inside his “school”, while his society remained immersed in superstition and injustice. This has never been the case with the prophetic conception of religion: it implied both the individual and collective transformation. In the Islamic conception of prophethood the mystical and the political are joined and balanced so that the inner transformation from the slave of the world to the servant of God is the same as the outer transformation from “tribe” (based on kinship) to “community” (based on fellowship of faith).

The centre of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths is to witness God, the Real Absolute, amidst a situation which is beset with many a false absolute. To say and hear, Allah Akbar, is to live the takbir of God and denounce in word and deed the takbir of everything else. Unless one is confirmed in the negation of la ilah (there is no god), one is not sincere in giving the testimony of illal’ah (except God). The inter-play of negation and affirmation at the deepest level of contemplation and action goes on perpetually, there is no given, static and “systemic” establishment of this dynamic testimony – it has to be given every hour, every day. To say that the religious and the political constitute a unity is to point out that it is in the domain of the political that one discovers the threat of the false absolutes more than in any other domain. Hence, extraordinary care is required in postulating the unity of the religious and the political.

THE THEOCRATIC STATE

Having said that the religious and the political constitute a unity, does it then essentially follow that the only mode in which this unity is genuinely expressed and instituted is that of a theocratic state?

The question raised a set of highly challenging issues. The analysis I give here is of the “Islamic” state, a popular demand of several contemporary Muslim movements. It is not possible to offer within the span of this brief introduction a satisfactory analysis of even one aspect of the challenges involved here. I shall try to refer to only there most basis issues – the postulate that in a theocratic state sovereignty lies with God; the criterion that an “Islamic” state is one wherein Shari’a is implemented; and the problematics concerning the very concept of state.

Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)
Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)

We are told that in a theocratic state sovereignty lies with God. This is, to begin with, a very serious abuse of terminology. “Sovereignty” is a concept which has its proper place in a particular discourse, namely, political science. It is a concept referring to authority as a basis of power within the identifiable limits of a given society. It is a framework of reference within which political authority is legitimised. It can be metaphorically used for other contexts, and as such has no relationship with what it stands for in a discourse on political institutions. It cannot be used in the political sense of the word for God for three reasons: firstly, it limits God and reduces His transcendence to a political frame of reference; secondly, it is a violation of the Scriptural usage wherein, for reasons both earthly and heavenly, historical and eschatological, the proper words are God dominion (mulk) and God’s command (amar) which are spread over all creation and history, over both an Islamic “state” and “the dictatorship of the proletariat” – nothing is outside His dominion and power; and finally and more seriously, God identified with one particular social and historical institution, however close to His will, becomes a deity, and one should say here subhanaka (Glory be to Him) for He is above all such association. The dangers underlying the postulate that in a Islamic state sovereignty belongs to God can be clearly seen through a simple and straightforward example: imagine two states, one Islamic and another Christian, one beside the other, in a state of war, both fighting in the name of God, both having started with a similar conviction that in each state, being theocratic sovereignty lies in the hands of God. Apart from the issue who is in the right, whose theology is more correct, what has really happened is that God of the heavens and the earth, of the known and unknown worlds, of the vast innumerable galaxies in the firmament, and of millions of people who are not all Christian or Muslim has come to be understood vis-à-vis the Islamic and the Christian states as a Christian or a Muslim God, and this to me is the starkest instance of shirk, even of kufr (disbelief). Let me immediately offer the Quranic evidence in support of this assertion: It is verse 4 of chapter 30: “With God is the Command (amar) before and after”. The context of the Verse is that in one of the border raids between the Byzantines and the Persians the later has won, and this news reaches Mecca; the Quraish who identify the Prophet’s teaching as sympathetic to the Byzantine (or Christian cause) taunt him that it is a sign for the defeat of his followers. It is then that the verse cited here is revealed. Instead of taking sides either with one or the other party, the Quran rises above the particular and above both the parties in conflict and reminds its addressees that whether when the Byzantines were vanquished or later when they reversed their defeat, it was God who was in command, whether the victor was one of the other on the stage of history. Such is God whose sammadiyya (transcendence) and subhaniyya (sublimity) do not admit of any “politicization” (which is another type of “association” – shirk).

One of the criteria of an Islamic state is that it is a state which implements Shari’a (sacred law). It is one of those statements which quickly turn in to popular slogans. A slogan sums up in a highly condensed form a vast and complex set of emotions which characterise a particular turning point in the public life of a nation or community. The demand for a Shari’a state founded in the trust that it implements the laws given by God is a genuine and profound critique of the world situation tottering under the contradictions of moral relativism and “situational ethics”. As such its validity is unquestionable but if the Muslim theologians do not go beyond the symbolic value of this demand and persist in using it as a political slogan, they are not honestly discharging their duty as counsels to the community. The Shari’a presupposes that there is a Muslim community, that it believes in the Quranic laws, and that it obeys them because in obeying them it obeys God. Where does state come in? Only at two points; first, to execute the penal laws, and secondly, to provide the framework through education and mass media for the knowledge about Shari’a so that the community having known God’s Laws freely obeys them. Let us note that we have deliberately avoided the phase, implementation of Shari’a. The reason is that Shari’a as God’s Laws cannot be possibly implemented by a state for this will lead to a highly dangerous situation because it rests on an ambiguity with far-reaching consequences. Let us say this much at this stage, that the state, unlike a voluntary association, operates mostly through directly or indirectly inculcating fear. It is difficult to say whether in an Islamic state which is determined to implement God’s Laws, obedience to the imperative of the implementation as such is out of fear of the state, or fear of God. The Islamic state has then inadvertently turned a Muslim into a Munafiq (hypocrite). The key to obedience to Shari’a as God’s Laws is the niyya, the intention on the part of the Muslim who acts according to the Shari’a, and intention, being the internal and central dimension of Shari’a, cannot possibly be controlled by the state. What is at stake is not Shari’a as such but the attitude towards Shari’a. Instead of being identified with God’s will and pleasure, it gets identified with the will of the state.

“Islamic state” is a contradiction in terms. It is something very difficult to notice but as soon as one realises the nature of the tyranny of the abstraction, namely, the state, one sees: as if awakened from a dream, that “islam” which is submission to God alone, cannot possibly be linked up with submission to an abstraction which is the source of all lordships of man over man. The prophetic dynamics in history is a constant combat with what we now know as “state”, the source of the power of the finite over man, the addressee of the Infinite. State connected with government and yet different from government, associated with the concrete and the tangible exercise of power and yet not totally exhausted in it, based on the cultural and the social structure of norms and values and yet transcending them all. Integrated with the structure of economic relations and yet using them to sustain its abstract existence, obtains the status of one of the most difficult of the abstractions, an infinite within the finite, the spiritual in the material, the sacred in the secular. The attributes of good and bad are applicable to governments, not to state, for it is beyond all ethical judgements.

THE UNITY OF THE RELIGIOUS AND THE POLITICAL

The unity of the religious and the political is maintained at all levels. It is, however, a matter of the former being the critique of the later. One should constantly guard against the tendency that the unity in question may easily slip in to a total equation. One may be attracted to state the unity by using such terms of reference as belong to unrelated domains of discourse, thus damaging the Scriptural dimension and ultimately reducing the Transcendental to one of the variables in historical dynamics. To express the unity in terms of a theocratic state, as we have already seen, is a contradiction in terms. Our hope is that the unity of the religious and the political can be expressed in many other ways, valid and non-problematic. Why should we not use expressions like “justice”, “peace” and “service”? Instead of saying all the time “Islamic State”, why should we not say “Islamic Justice” or “Islamic Peace”? We can equally well live the unity of the religious and the political by struggling together for justice (adl), peace (aman), and welfare (falah), and it is in the process of struggle that the dynamic aspect of our shared testimony, there is no god but God, is brought to light.

As I prefer “justice” to the term “state”, to express the unity of the religious and the political, I would like to devote the rest of this study to introduce the Quranic concept of the struggle for justice.

Prophethood, in the Quran, is a critical factor in the history of a group. It is addressed to the corrupted intelligence of man, a corruption that results from forsaking the principle of One God and His Lordship, and constructing, out of psychological and social needs, a false pantheon. All justice is a function of true belief in God, and all injustice is a forgetfulness and corruption of this belief. Polytheism is disunity, irrationality, and imbalance. Monotheism is unity, wisdom and equilibrium. The relationship between them is that of disorder and order. The roll of the individual is important, but the collective order of a polytheistic or monotheistic character is decisive: mark both the positive and the negative plurals in the Quran, muhsinin and zalimin. The disorder exists on the plane of shirk (association of gods with God) leading to kizb (falsehood), kufr (denial), and takabbur (arrogance) which ensue from a social context of ifteraq (division) wherein each division starts believing that it alone is true and right. The total condition is called jahiliyya (ignorance) which responds to truth in terms if inkar (refusal). The form of thought characteristic of this condition is ghafala (unconscious state). In contrast to this, the principle of order exists on the plane of tawhid (unity) leading to sidq (truthfulness), shukr (gratitude), and sabr (patience), which follows from the social context of striving towards oneness wherein all that is true belongs to God and to no particular division of mankind. The love of each group for its heroes, culture and religion is replaced by love for God. Denial is replaced by gratefulness, ignorance by knowledge, hypocrisy by sincerity.

FAITH AND HISTORY

But a realm of order is not permanently secure in history. There is always the danger of order collapsing into disorder, of “islam” being overpowered by “jahiliyya”. It is here that history becomes one of the signs of God, and it is within the historical process that a faith has to be perpetually earned and lived. This can happen only when one has an internal awareness of the sources of zulm and when one overcomes the temptation to identify injustice as caused by extraneous factors only. Awareness of injustice is closely linked up with the awareness of the reality of history, and the historical reality is a reality of conflict whose resolution takes place in the on-going movement of history. The potentialities of order and unity in a social system are linked with how the conflict within that system is perceived and resolved. Islamic society, however, based on Shari’a is only potentially a just society. It only creates the preconditions of justice, namely, equality before law and objectivity of the sources of law. For real justice, a society should look within itself, in the internal order of interests, in the distribution of wealth, power and knowledge. This internal vision is offered in the Qur’an in the following verses; and the occasion is a dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressors, on the Day of Judgement, blaming one another for their damnation:

Those who were considered weak will say to those who were proud, “Had it not been for you, we should surely have been believers.”

Those who were proud will say to those who were considered weak, “Was it we that kept you from guidance, after it had come to you, Nay, it was you yourselves who were guilty.”

And those who were considered weak will say to those who were proud, “Nay, but it was your scheming day and night, when you bade us disbelieve in God and set up equals to Him.”

And they will conceal their remorse when they see the punishment; and we shall put chains round their necks of those who disbelieved. They will not be requited but for what they did.

And we never sent a warner to any city but the wealthy ones thereof said, “Surely, we disbelieve in what you have been sent with.”

And they say, “We have more riches and children: and are not to be punished.”

Say, “Verily, my Lord enlarges the provision for whomsoever He pleases, and straitens it for whomsoever He pleases, but most men know not.” (34,31-36)

These Qur’anic verses, and not all cited in the modern discussions by Muslim writers on justice, seem to hold a totally different perception of social reality. The level of abstraction implied in these verses is quite surprising, and hence we should take notice of it. They do not refer to the tribal self-consciousness, and do not take sides in the conflict of the classes. A totality of social order is assumed wherein both the oppressors and the oppressed are equally responsible for injustice and oppression to continue – the oppressors and “the haves” due to their strength, self-adequacy and arrogance and the oppressed and “the have-nots” due to their acceptance of the state of oppression. The rich blame the poor, and the poor blame the rich. Neither do the rich mend their ways, nor do the poor rise up to overthrow the oppressive order. There seems to be an unwritten agreement seen from the points of view of both rich and the poor, as natural, inevitable and given. The active role is, however, assigned to “the haves”. It is they who “scheme night and day” that neither they nor those whom they dominate and oppress are able to see reality in any other way but as a system of inequality. Thus, “remorse” is a state of mind common to both the rich and the poor on the Day of Judgement. Both shall deserve a painful doom. Furthermore, the verses just cited imply that such a relationship between the rich and the poor perpetuates such moral and intellectual orientations as block the vision of truth and justice. The “disbelief” of the rich and the arrogant is the response of the entire social system based on oppression and inequality. Only a new relationship between the different classes of society could break the spell of oppression.

Now, when there is no more “revelation” to come, when the prophethood is all over with Mohammed, and when history holds the overall threat of weakening and decadence, and when the individual piety and enthusiasm shall not alter the structural conditions of inequality and oppression, what now remains to ensure a reorganised relationship between faith, truth and justice? The Qur’anic intention that the relationship between the rich and the poor be basically altered, though implied in the afore-cited verses, is made explicit in the following passage:

And what is the matter with you that you fight not in the cause of God and of the weak – men, women, and children – who say “Lord, take us out of this town, who people are oppressors, and make for us some guardian from Thyself and make for us from Thyself some helper. (4.75)

The first word which is basically important in the cited verse is mustaz’ifeen, the weak, the down-trodden, the helpless and the forsaken. It is not clear from the text how they come to be weak and helpless. Do they represent a more or less clear class of “the have-nots” who, because of their wretchedness, were dependent on the rich, and however capable they might be of seeing reality differently, saw it nonetheless through the medium of poverty?

Does the concept of mustaz’ifeen refer to the individuals (not to a class) who due to their individual actions of recklessness, irresponsibility, and lack of cleverness failed economically and slumped to a low level of social existence? Or does this word point to those Muslims, rich or poor, who just because they said that there was one God and that He was their Lord, became victims of the oppression of the Quraish? Before we give any hypothetical answer, let us refer to another concept in the verse, namely sabiel (way). The verse begins as thus: “What is the matter with you that you fight not in the way of God and the weak?” It is not just for the weak, for a particular group of the oppressed, but in the way of the weak. The concept of “way” or “cause” helps us to identify the intention of the verse that the cause of the oppressed is much more than redressing the difficulties of one or another oppressed group. It is the very phenomenon of being oppressed – the reality of men, women, children, being made victims of oppression. This condition of being oppressed in its generality, objectivity and continuity as a historical form is therefore coupled with the cause of God and the cause of the weak. One cause from within history becomes the counterpart of the cause that is beyond history. The religious and the sociological ends are thus put together. The gap between theology and sociology is removed. To establish the workship of one God and to establish justice become one and the same objective of the Islamic mission. As the word “mustaz’ifeen” coupled with God contains a general and historical character, so the reference in the verse to the “city of wrong” (qur’t al-zalim) though referring to Mecca becomes a symbol of all injustice whether it be of the eighth century or the twentieth century. Likewise, the two other concepts in the verse, wali (guardian) and nasir (helper) are not without significance. The weak pray: “Lord, take us out of this town, whose people are oppressors, and make us some guardian from Thyself, and make us from Thyself some helper”. The latter concept of nusrat (help) refers to the specific context of oppression and to the particular group struggling for liberation praying for assistance from a particular direction. This is the specificity of the process of freedom from oppression. But as the weak ask for some wali (guardian), they are referring thus to the continuity of the awareness of the challenges of oppression and injustice by invoking God to create in history a group which becomes the guardian of justice, and which emanates the consciousness of conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. This group is the wali of the word of God, of the identity between the cause of God and the cause of the oppressed. It is by virtue of this guardianship that the Qur’an continues to remain a living word of God capable of identifying both within and outside the Muslim society the ever-emerging forms of oppression and the ever-rising responses of protest and revolt against them. The particular act of nusrat flows from the general existence of the guardianship of the consciousness of liberation.

Islam thus becomes a dynamic process in history, continually aware of injustice and oppression and a willingness and a struggle to transform an unjust order into a just order, and it is in this way that Islam becomes one with the other global forces for the liberation of mankind. Justice in Islam is to struggle in the way of God and of the oppressed, and the latter is a category that surpasses religious and communal boundaries. No call for justice is valid unless it is addressed to the whole man and to all mankind.

CONCLUSION

The Qur’anic vision of “the people of the book”, as it rests on the unity of the biblical heritage, however differently understood, holds the promise, yet unrealised, of a common struggle to bring justice and peace to mankind. The Qur’anic dialogue, both critical and affirmative of the Jews and the Christians, presupposes a framework of free and equal communication which, in turn, asks for a socio-political structure which sustains it. A theocratic state, apart from the grave contradiction involved in its formulation, as we have already pointed out, assumes a political inequality between “the people of the book”, and hence threatens the Qur’anic perspective on the dialogical relationship between the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. We are therefore compelled to look for other models which do justice to the Qur’anic vision, and they are: justice, peace and service.

Also available on this blog by Hasan Askari:

“The Dialogical Relationship Between Christianity & Islam”

“Spiritual Humanism” speech from 1995

“There are only Four Communities” from his book “Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision”

Please note spiritualhuman[dot]wordpress[dot]com is not responsible for content on links to sites external to this blog.

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