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Published in the 1-15 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Muslim World and the contemporary
Ijma' on rules of governance - ii

By Syed Shahabuddin

Islam and Multiplicity of Religions
Allah, in His Wisdom, having endorsed man with intelligence and free will and with knowledge, left him free, in plotting the course of his life, even in his choice of religion. As Allah explains in the Quran, it was not beyond His power to let mankind have a common religion. So Islam envisages a multi-religious world. That we live in a multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-lingual world is a gift of Allah. Islam does not project itself as a new religion preached to mankind by the Holy Prophet but as a revival of the same Message by all Prophets and Messages, sent to all peoples, to different parts of the world and lost or distorted in the course of time. In this sense Islam is the original Religion of Man, indeed his natural religion. No race, no language is superior to another. In the Quranic terms 'piety' (Taqwa) is the real test of religiosity, of proximity to Allah. And the gifts of Allah, air, water and sustenance are universally available to all irrespective of his religion or race. This exemplifies the basic pillar of Democracy which is Equality, and of Secularism, which is Non-discrimination by the State in the exercise of its powers.

Islam and Culture
Muslims believe that Islam, is the last message of Allah to mankind for its guidance. They also believe that Islam is thus eternal and universal. The eternality and universality of Islam themselves demand that it cannot be identified with any particular culture which is ever evolving with technology and changes with geography. Muslims are, therefore, free to accept or adapt themselves to any culture within the Islamic limits. Thus there is no monolithic Islam. Culturally there is Arab Islam, Iranian Islam, South Asian or Indian Islam, South-east Asian or Malay Islam, Chinese Islam, Black Islam and now Euro-Islam. But they are all united by their common basic beliefs but wedded to various cultures and ways of life. This strengthens Islam as the natural religion of Man. Like biodiversity which is written into nature, cultural diversity is inherent in Islam. Thus Muslims, everywhere, are free to design their life in accordance with their circumstances so long as they do not lose sight of their basic identity.

But let us look closely at what troubles the orthodox Muslims about acceptance of Democracy. He is convinced that anti-Islamic even criminal elements may easily come in through the process of election. He is apprehensive about grant of equal status to the minorities - ethnic, linguistic and religious - and even about their eventual dominance. He is worried about gender-equality with a mindset based on centuries of patriarchal order. He is worried about passage of legislation which may be repugnant to the Shariat. This is why, even when accepts the idea of a democratic system, he builds a protective wall around it by describing it as 'Islamic Republic'.

Features of Islamic Republic
All these concerns, apprehensions, fears and coercions can be rationally addressed. And the concept of 'Islamic Republic' can be shown to be no more than a populist slogan devoid of any substance and designed to cheat the Muslim masses.

At a Workshop on Islam and Election held in Amman on 6-8 March, I raised the question of defining the Islamic Republic and enunciating its basic features and functions, apart from the moral functions of a state to keep public order, protect the life, property and dignity of its people, to defend its territorial integrity against foreign invasion or occupation, to promote the national interest, to provide for the basic needs of the people, to take measures for its economic development etc. Many Islamists were present but there was no response except that the State must declare Islam as the official religion, its heads of state and government must be persons who profess Islam and its laws, rules and regulations must be compatible with the Shariat with the final authority vested in the religious establishment. Of course that it must have a Muslim majority goes without saying. But there was no indication of the duties, functions and responsibilities that specially pertain to an Islamic state as distinct from a state, not so designated. For example:


  • Does the Islamic State engage in Da'wa, the propagation of Islam, internally and internationally?

  • Does the Islamic state define and enforce 'Amer bil Maroof and Nahi anal Munkar' e.g. Does it force Muslims to perform Salat and keep 'saum' during Ramazan?

  • Does it provide a social welfare net for its disadvantaged people?

  • Does it ban commercial interest and run interest-free banks?

  • Does it Islamise public education?

  • Does it treat its non-Muslims as Zimmis?

  • Does it Islamise mass media?

  • Does it prohibit drinking of alcohol, dancing, prostitution, beauty contests and fashion shows, female immodesty in any form, exhibition of films, even television?

  • Does it act, as the guardian of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries or as supporter of Islamic causes all over the world?

Indeed, in modern times there have been only a few Muslim majority states which have declared themselves as Islamic: First and foremost is Saudi Arabia which is an absolute Monarchy, it has no Constitution because, it says, the Quran is its Constitution. Then come Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There is Tajikistan. Now there is a new entrant Afghanistan. Perhaps Iraq is in the queue. The plain fact is that while a few Muslim-majority states may formally declare themselves to be Islamic States, they are in no substantive sense any different from other Muslim majority or even non-Muslim majority States. So, in the final analysis, the idea of Islamic Republic or Islamic State is no more than an exercise in populism. Incidentally, some states, like Malaysia which is only 44% Muslims in population, are also anxious to be counted as Islamic States!

What is needed in every country - majority or minority - with substantive proportion of Muslim in its population is to institutionalize a National Muslim Authority which can speak for the Muslim community on religious issues, which can address the government, the political parties, the mass media, other communities on issues of concern to the community or on common national concerns. The trouble is that in a Muslim majority country, the Authority shall tend to become a parallel government or at least yet another 'Islamic' party and enter the arena of competitive politics and vie with other 'Islamic' parties for power, to take the country towards the 'paradise' of Islamic State. Even in Muslim minority countries the Authority may also be tempted to assume a political role. An inbuilt constraint should operate against such propensities.

The real issue is that Sunni Islam has no structural authority and Hijaz, with Mecca and Medina having become the patrimony of the House of Saud or even the Holy Cities themselves could not become the seat of an Internationally recognized center of Islam. Today that is a very distant proposition as its realization depends on the conjunction of many improbabilities.
Today the Muslim States, politically fragmented, educationally, scientifically and technologically backward, socially divided, economically poor, except a few oil-producing States, do not count. They are the target of the neo-crusaders and neo-imperialists. State after state is being ripped of its sovereignty and dignity, while the Muslim intelligentsia is fighting imaginary foes, within and without, like Don Quixotes tilting at imaginary windmills and arguing fine points of theology, in the context of a long past era!

The classical division of the world by Islamic jurists into Dar-ul-Islam and Dar-ul-Harb lost its meaning with the evolution of universal international law and the adhesion of Muslim States to the international community of nations. They are now bound by treaties with their neighbours and even with distant States and to inter-governmental organizations like the UNO and the Specialized Agencies. Therefore, they are not free to wage wars against other States to extend the boundaries of Dar-ul-Islam, even if they still look upon themselves as divinely mandated to communicate the message of Islam to their rulers and people. Having signed agreements and treaties for maintaining peaceful and friendly relations, practising mutual tolerance, living in peaceful coexistence and resolving differences through negotiation, arbitration and mediation, there is no option but reinterpret the concept of Jihad strictly as self-defence and as response to violation of treaties by the other States. One may say that the Dar-ul-Harb has become Dar-ul-Mua'hada and the Quran lays stress on the duty of a Muslim to abide by promises and not to violate agreements. 

The other outcome is that whether the head of a Muslim State assumes the high sounding titles like Khalifa-tul-Muslimeen and Amir-ul-Momineen, he has no jurisdiction over the affairs of the Muslim minorities living in non-Muslim States. He and his people may entertain moral sympathies if the Muslim citizens of, or émigrés to, a non-Muslim State, are in distress on account of persecution and are denied their human rights or equality before law but he could not intervene. 

In theory this is a reciprocal situation but as the Christian States of the West are much stronger, there is no balance and reciprocity is lost. Throughout the era of colonialism and imperialism, the Western power could always intervene in the affairs of Muslim States and even squeeze extra-territorial concessions from the Muslim States for the treatment of non-Muslim minorities as in Lebanon, just like in the field of trade, commerce and education. Even today the strong have the upper hand.

But, by and large, since the end of the first world war treatment of ethnic and religious minorities has moved into the domain of international law, rather than bilateral regulations. Today international law determined by UN Declarations, Covenants and Conventions establishes a web of reciprocal inter-dependence as well as a system of international regulation, though it is still largely teethless. So we have the sad spectacle of international silence when superpowers invade weak States and genocides are perpetrated as in Kampuchea or Rawanda. But there are signs of increasing sensitivity among the people, if not among the Governments.

What is important for the Muslim Ummah to realize that international relations are governed by the principle of reciprocity and if Muslim States, individually or collectively, do not apply internationally accepted or acceptable standards in their treatment of religious minorities, the non-Muslim majority States, may, if they so choose, take it as an excuse to harass or persecute their Muslim minorities, sometimes under pressure from their majority groups. Generally, the Muslim States, weak as they are have their own concerns and priorities and are not in a position even to express their feelings even if something terrible happens to Muslim minority. Most of the time their bilateral relations with the non-Muslim state concerned are too important to be jeopardized by raising the question of Muslim minorities. Recently when Gujarat carnage which had a genocidal dimension was enacted in India, western states were impelled by their public opinion to raise their voice but almost all Muslim states kept strictly silent. In fact, in such situations, distant non-Muslim States are more likely to raise their voice or aid the Muslim minorities than the Muslim States in close proximity, sometimes a neighbouring Muslim State may have its own reasons for adopting a critical posture. To sum up, in a shrinking world, governed by international law, Muslim majority States cannot afford to discriminate against non-Muslim minorities, if they desire that Muslim minorities not be subjected to any discrimination or persecution, though they are too weak to intervene effectively.

The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) whose membership is limited to Muslim States, generally to States with a Muslim majority, claims at times to speak for the Ummah, all the Muslims of the world. As stated above 40% of the Muslims of the world live in minority States, principally in India, China, Russia, France, UK, Germany, USA, Canada, Bosnia, Thailand, Philippines, Kenya, South Africa, Israel, to take those with more than 1 million Muslims ( according to the last official Census). The OIC should indeed amend its Constitution to accord Observer status to non-Muslim States with substantial Muslim minorities and to representative Muslim NGO's from those countries.

The OIC can operate within the framework of international safeguards for religious minorities and use its good offices to bring about reconciliation between a non-Muslim State and its Muslim minority. It may offer financial assistance for relief and rehabilitation and for educational and economic development of the Muslim minorities, for conservation and maintenance of Islamic heritage in architecture, literature, folk arts. It may, generally, promote friendly intercourse between the Muslim minorities with the people of Muslim majority countries in their vicinity. But to be effective, it must first set up standards for treatment of non-Muslim minorities in the Member-States and monitor their application. 

On a territorial plane, the OIC may encourage regional associations which would bring Muslim majority and Muslim minority States together in common endeavour, particularly in South East Asia, South Asia and Black Africa.
(Continued in the next issue). «

See also: Muslim World & the contemporary Ijma' on rules of governance - i

Part 3: Muslim World and the contemporary Ijma' on rules of governance -iii  

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