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Written by Louay Safi   
May 12, 2001 at 09:00 PM
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Islam and the Secular State
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As will be shown bellow, the Islamic system in the past did not lead, nor should it lead in the future, to imposing a narrow and limited concept or a particular opinion on society. This is because the principle of religious and doctrinal plurality has been considered since the very inception of the Ummah, as a cardinal political principle. Here the Quranic verses both the, Makkan and Madinan, clearly stress on the centrality of the principle of religious freedom in the Islamic concept.


Lately the concern over how religious commitments relate to the exercise of power reached into the ranks of Islamists. Mainstream Islamic groups have been moving gradually away from the early concept of centralized Islamic political order envisaged by early leaders, such as Hassan al-Banna and Taqiyuddin al-Nabhani. Leaders of major Islamic movements in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and Tunisia, to name a few, have come openly in favor of a democratic, pluralistic political system in which freedom of speech and association is guaranteed for citizens, regardless of their political orientation or religious affiliation.[7]  




The notion of the Islamic state advanced today by populist writers is, as I tried to show above, a mixture of the nationalist structure of the modern state with the communal structure of historical Shari’ah. The concept of the state that emerges as a result is in a complete contradiction with the nature and purpose of the polity found by the Prophet, or developed historically by successive Muslim generations. A quick review of the guiding principles of the first Islamic polity reveals the disparity between the two. The principles and structure of the early Islamic polity are epitomized in the Compact of Madinah (Sahifat al-Madina) that formed the constitutional foundation of the political community established by the Prophet.[8]


The Compact of Madinah established a number of important political principles that, put together, formed the political constitution of the first Islamic state, and defined the political rights and duties of the members of the newly established political community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and drew up the political structure of the nascent society. The most important principles included in this Compact are as follows:


First, the Compact declared that the Ummah is a political society, open to all individuals committed to its principles and values, and ready to shoulder its burdens and responsibilities. It is not a recluse one, whose membership rights and securities are restricted to a select few. The right to membership in the Ummah is specified in: (1) accepting the principles of the Islamic system, manifested in the commitment to adhere to the moral and legal order; (2) declaring allegiance to the system, through practical contributions and struggle to actualize the objectives and goals of Islam. Thus, allegiance and concern for public good are the principles determining the membership of the Ummah as defined by the first article of the document: “This is a Compact offered by Muhammad the Prophet, (governing the relations) among the believers and the Muslims of Quraish and Yathrib (Madinah), and those who followed, joined, and labored with them.”[9]


Second, the Compact delineates a general framework that defines individual norms and the scope of political action within the new society, but preserved the basic social and political structures prevalent then in tribal Arabia. The Compact of Madinah preserved tribal structure, while negating tribal spirit and subordinating tribal allegiance to a morally based legal order. As the Compact declared that the nascent political community is “an Ummah to the exclusion of all people,” it approved a tribal division that had already been purged of tribal spirit epitomized by the slogan “my brethren right of wrong,” subjecting it to the higher principles of truth and justice. The Compact therefore declared that the emigrants of the Quraish, Banu al- Harith, Banu al Aus, and other tribes residing in Madinah, according “to their present customs, shall pay the blood wit they paid previously and that every group shall redeem its prisoners.”[10]


Islam’s avoidance of the elimination of tribal divisions can be explained by a number of factors that can be summarized in the following three points. (1) The tribal division was not mere political divisions but also social divisions providing its people with a symbiotic system. Therefore, the abolition of the political and social assistance provided by the tribe before developing an alternative should have been a great loss for the people in society. (2) Apart from its being a social division, the tribe represented an economic division in harmony with the pastoral economy prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula before and after Islam. The tribal division is the ideal division of the pastoral production as it provides freedom of movement and migration in search of pasture. Any change in this pattern requires taking an initiative first to change the means and methods of production. (3) Perhaps, the most important factor that justified the tribal division within the framework of the Ummah after the final message had purged the tribal existence of its aggressive and arrogant content, is the maintenance of the society and its protection from the danger of central dictatorship, that might come into existence in absence of a secondary social and political structure and concentration of political power in the hand of a central authority.


Hence Islam adopted a political system, based on the concept of the one Ummah as an alternative for the divisional tribal system and upheld the tribal division having cleared it from its aggressive elements. It left the question of changing the political structure to gradual development of economic and production structures. Although Islamic revelation avoided any arbitrary directives, aimed at immediate abolition of the tribal division, it criticized openly tribal and nomadic life.[11]


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Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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