header image
HOME arrow RESEARCH ARTICLES arrow Islam and Modernity arrow Islam arrow Overcoming the Religious-Secular Divide
Overcoming the Religious-Secular Divide PDF Print E-mail
User Rating: / 38
Written by Louay Safi   
Nov 29, 1999 at 08:00 PM
Article Index
Overcoming the Religious-Secular Divide
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
Page 6
Page 7
 belongs help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided.”[16]

Fourth, the Compact stipulated that the social and political activities in the new system must be subject to a set of universal values and standards that treat all people equally. Sovereignty in the society would not rest with the rulers, or any particular group, but with the law founded on the basis of justice and goodness, maintaining the dignity of all. The Compact emphasized repeatedly and frequently the fundamentality of justice, goodness, and righteousness, and condemned in different expressions injustice and tyranny. “They would redeem their prisoners with kindness and justice common among the believers,” the Compact stated. “The God-conscious believers shall be against the rebellious, and against those who seek to spread injustice, sin, enmity, or corruption among the believers, the hand of every person shall be against him even if he be a son of one of them,” it proclaimed.[17]

Fifth, The Compact introduced a number of political rights to be enjoyed by the individuals of the Madinan State, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, such as (1) the obligation to help the oppressed, (2) outlawing guilt by association which was commonly practiced by pre-Islamic Arab tribes: “A person is not liable for his ally’s misdeeds;” (3) freedom of belief: “The Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs;” and (4) freedom of movement from and to Madinah: “Whoever will go out is safe, and whoever will stay in Madinah is safe except those who wronged (others), or committed sin.”[18]


Adhering to the guidance of revelation, the Ummah has respected the principle of religious plurality and cultural diversity during the significant part of its long history. The successive governments since the Rashidun period have preserved the freedom of faith and allowed non-Muslim minorities not only to practice their religious rituals and proclaim their beliefs, but also to implement their religious laws according to an autonomous administrative system. Likewise, the Ummah as a whole has respected the doctrinal plurality with both its conceptual and legal dimensions. It has resisted every attempt to drag the political power to take side with partisan groups, or to prefer one ideological group to another. It has also insisted on downsizing the role of the state and restricting its functions to a limited sphere.

Any one who undertakes to study the political history of Islam would soon realize that all political practices, which violated the principle of religious freedom and plurality, were an exception to the rule. For instance, the efforts of the Caliph al‑Mamoon to impose doctrinal uniformity in accordance with the Mu’tazili interpretations, and to use his political authority to support one of the parties involved in doctrinal disputes, were condemned by the ulama and the majority of the Ummah. His efforts to achieve doctrinal homogeneity through suppression and force eventually clashed with the will of the Ummah, which refused to solve doctrinal and theoretical problems by the sword. This compelled Al-Wathiq Billah, the third caliph after al‑Mamoon to give up the role assumed by his predecessors and abandon their oppressive measures.

Obviously, Muslims have historically recognized that the main objective of establishing a political system is to create the general conditions that allow the people to realize their duties as moral agents of the divine will (Khulafa), not to impose the teachings of Islam by force. We, therefore, ascribe the emergence of organizations working to compel the Ummah to follow a narrow interpretation, and calling for the use of the political power to make people obedient to the Islamic norms, to the habit of confusing the role and objectives of the Ummah with the role and objectives of the state. While the Ummah aims to build the Islamic identity, to provide an atmosphere conducive to spiritual and mental development of the individual, and to grant him or her the opportunity to realize his or her role and aims of life within the general framework of the law, the state makes efforts to coordinate the Ummah’s activities with the aim to employ the natural and human potentials and possibilities to overcome the political and economic problems and obstacles that hinder the Ummah’s development.

Differentiating between the general and particular in the Shariah and distinguishing between the responsibilities of the Ummah and the state, is a necessity if we want to avoid the transformation of political power into a device for advancing particular interests, and ensure that state agencies and institutions do not arrest intellectual and social progress, or obstruct the spiritual, conceptual, and organizational developments of society.


Historically, legislative functions in Muslim society were not restricted to state institutions. Rather there was a wide range of legislations related to juristic efforts at both the moral and legal levels. Since the major part of legislation relating to transactional and contractual relations among individuals is attached to the juristic legislative bodies, the judicial tasks may be connected directly with the Ummah, not with the state. The differentiation between civil society and the state can only be maintained by dividing the process of legislation into distinct areas that reflect both the geographical and normative differentiation of the political society

The importance of the differential structure of the law is not limited to its ability to counteract the tendency of centralization of power, which characterizes the western model of the state. Rather, it is also related to guarantees extended to religious minorities. The Islamic model should maintain the legislative and administrative independence of the followers of different religions, as the sphere of communal legislation does not fall under the governmental authority of the state. On the other hand, the majoritarian model of the democratic state deprives religious minorities of their legal independence, and insists on subjugating all citizens to a single legal system, which often reflects the doctrinal and behavioral values of the ruling majority.


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

Creative Commons License