The Myth of The Islamic State

June 2, 2016

Emory University’s Professor Abdullahi An-Naim was recently in Malaysia and commented on the current hudud controversy triggered by PAS leader Abdul Hadi’s private member’s bill in Parliament. I re-post my earlier book review of An-Naim’s “The Myth of the Islamic State” that appeared in October 19, 2008.–M. Bakri Musa (pic above)

The Myth of The Islamic State

by Dr M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

Book Review:

Islam And The Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Shari’a

Abdullahi  An-Na’im
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

324 pp, Indexed, US $35.00, 2008.

Every so often I would read a book that would profoundly affect me. I have yet however, to get two such books written by the same author, that is, until now.

In 1990 I came across a paperback, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law, by Abdullahi An-Na’im. I do not remember what prompted me to browse through let alone buy the book. Its cover design was nondescript, and neither its author nor publisher (University of Syracuse Press) was exactly well known. But I bought the book , after scanning only a few pages.

Despite being only 255 pages, it took me awhile to finish it. I have read it over many times since. It is not that An-Naim’s prose is dense (far from it!) rather that the ideas he expounds are breathtakingly refreshing. They also appeal to my intellectual understanding of my faith.

That book resurrected my faith in Islam. Brought up under the traditional teachings of my village Imam, I had difficulty reconciling that with the worldview inculcated in me through my Western liberal education. The certitudes that had comforted me as a youngster were becoming increasingly less so as an adult.

I knew however, a religion that gave my parents and grandparents (as well as millions of others) their anchoring stability despite the terrible turbulences in their life must have something substantive to offer. I took that as a matter of faith. It was just that I was not getting the message, until I read An-Na’im’s book.

I discovered that many of the issues I had wrestled with were shared with and have been dissected by many great minds in Islam of the past. This realization reassured me. Far from weakening my faith, those doubts ironically strengthened it.

Shari’a: A Human Endeavor

In that earlier book, An-Na’im developed further the thesis of his mentor, Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha, that while the Shari’a was based on the Quran and the Sunnah (sayings and practices of the prophet), nonetheless it remains the works of mortals. As such the Shari’a suffers from all the limitations inherent in such endeavors.

It is time to revisit it using the same rigorous intellectual tools used by our earlier scholars, while cognizant of today’s universally accepted norms of constitutionalism, gender equality, and human rights, among others.

That is exactly what An-Na’im has been doing with his “The Future of Shari’a Project” at Emory University, Atlanta, where he is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law. Islam And The Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Shari’a is the culmination of his scholarly effort.

Like that earlier book, this one is also a slow read despite being written in highly readable prose. The book is packed with substantive and innovative ideas that require some digesting and much contemplation. An-Naim’s writing is also precise and concise; he conveys in one sentence what others would take two or three, or even a paragraph.

An-Na’im is a solid scholar but the book is written for a general audience, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He uses Arabic phrases sparingly, and there are adequate references in English, Arabic, and other traditionally native Islamic languages including Bahasa (Indonesia).

An-Na’im asserts, “The historical reality is that there has never been an Islamic state, from the state of Abu Bakr, the first caliph in Medina, to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and any other state that claims to be Islamic today. This obvious reality is due to the incoherence of the idea itself and the practical impossibility of realizing it, not simply to bad experiments that can be rectified in the future.”

The immediate rebuttal by many Muslims is that there is historical precedent – and a very excellent one – of an Islamic state, that of the first Muslim community in Medinah. Muslims rightly hold that as the ideal, but it cannot possibly be replicated, led as it was by Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. He was both spiritual and political leader. To have a similar state today would require us to be endowed with another prophet, a blasphemous assumption in Islam.

Not only is an Islamic state not achievable, it is also not desirable. The very idea of an Islamic state, according to An-Na’im, is based on later European concept of the nation-state and the law, not on Shari’a or Islamic tradition.

Throughout Islamic (indeed, world) history, there has always been tension between ulamas (and religious establishment generally) versus the state and its rulers, with each trying to use the other to further their own ends. Caliphs and sultans have co-opted ulamas to justify their (rulers’) power, while ulamas are not shy in maximizing the bounty they get from the state from such collaborations. In Malaysia for example, they vie with ministers and mandarins for government-issued worldly trinkets as the plushest bungalows, sleekest sedans, and most exalted royal titles.

A few ulamas have been known to leave their mimbar (pulpit) for political office. Some like Kelantan’s Nik Aziz do not even bother to separate their roles. Islam is actively being subjugated by political rulers while religious functionaries eagerly prostituted themselves to the state.

“As a Muslim, I need a secular state in order to live in accordance with Shari’a out of my own genuine conviction and free choice,” An-Na’m declares, “… which is the only valid and legitimate way of being a Muslim. Belief in Islam, or any other religion, logically requires the possibility of disbelief, because belief has no value if it is coerced.”

Emory University’s Dr. Abdullahi An- Na’im

He goes on, “Maintaining institutional separation between Islam and the state while regulating the permanent connection of Islam and politics is a necessary condition for achieving the positive role of the Shari’a now and in the future.”

Caution here, before hurling the epithets! An-Na’m’s “secular” state does not mean the atheistic communist regime of the Soviet Empire where religion is completely vanished from public sphere, rather one where the state is “morally neutral” with respect to religion.

America proudly cites its “strict” separation of state and church. The reality is far different. Prayers are regularly offered at opening sessions of Congress, and as the current [2008] presidential campaign demonstrates, religion is never far from voters’ considerations.

Muslims yearn for an Islamic state without having the foggiest idea of what that would entail, except for some vague mumbling about it being based on the Quran, Sunnah, and Shari’a. The reason for the longing is obvious; most so-called Muslim states today fail miserably in the basic task of governing. Worse, they regularly trample with impunity on the basic rights of their citizens.

Perversely, this obsession with the Islamic state detracts these leaders from their basic task of governing, and citizens from taking their leaders to task for this elemental failure. Such fundamental and pressing needs as providing heath care, housing, education, development, and a modicum of freedom are best handled less by fussing over the Shari’a or the Islamic state and more with acquiring the skills of modern management. Today’s Islamists would get closer to achieving their vision of an Islamic state if they would first learn how to build effective and enduring institutions of governance.

Negotiations, Not Religious Fiat

While An-Naim advocates the separation of Islam and Shari’a on one hand from the politics and the state on the other, nonetheless he actively encourages nurturing the relationship between the two, including the state’s regulating the public role of Islam.

This would first involve reexamining the Shari’a. “For Muslims, Shari’a should be known and experienced as a source of liberation and self realization,” writes An-Naim, “not a heavy burden of oppressive restriction and harsh punishment. No action or omission is valid from a Shari’a perspective unless it is completely voluntary, and there is no religious merit in coercive compliance.” The emphasis is mine, and I would have it in huge fonts framed in every JAKIM office!

In its time the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in intellectual as well as juridical achievements. It emancipated women. Whereas before, women were part of her husband’s inheritance, to be disposed off like the rest of his estate; under the Shari’a they were entitled to their own rightful shares.

As that other law professor, Harvard’s Noah Feldman, wrote in his Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, “ … for most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.”

Feldman notes further that with Shari’a the scholars provided the crucial and fundamental checks and balances on the powers of the rulers. This is exactly what is glaringly absent in many Muslim countries today. Consequently, self-professed Islamic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more in common with fascist Germany and totalitarian Russia, both in the traits of the regimes as well as the tendencies of their leaders.

It was the genius of those early scholars to be able to reconcile the apparent contradictions in the Quran and Sunnah by resorting to “abrogation,” where certain verses of the Quran “override” earlier ones. With that they formulated a coherent body of laws that had served the community well for centuries. They successfully reconciled the earlier Meccan verses that there be no compulsion in matters of faith to the latter Medinah ones relating to apostasy. Likewise, the latter verses relating to the differential treatment of inheritance between sons and daughters to the earlier verses that declare everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah.

Abrogation was the tool devised by the ancient scholars; it was not a divine mandate. Today’s scholars should likewise use their insights and intellectual prowess to formulate a new Shari’a which should also be based on the Quran and the Sunnah. This is the only basis to make it acceptable to Muslims and not violate our basic beliefs and traditions. Such an exercise must be inclusive, with engagement of the entire community, utilizing the insights from various disciplines.

If we were to incorporate the Shari’a into the laws of our country, the objective of advocates of an Islamic state, such “negotiations,” as An-Naim puts it, must necessarily also include non-Muslims, especially for a plural society like Malaysia. The consequence of this is that the Shari’a formulated for Malaysia would necessarily be different from those for homogenously Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, just like there are significant variations in the Shari’a in the various fighs (jurisprudence) in Islam.

In short, An-Naim separates the concept versus content of Shari’a. The concept is readily apparent: a body of just laws applicable to all based on divine revelations (Quran) and the sunnahs. All Muslims agree to that, while most non-Muslims could be readily persuaded to the viewpoint of “just laws applicable to all.” The content however, must necessarily vary with time, place, and culture. That is An-Naim’s central message.

The central enduring values of the concept of the Shari’a are regularly missed and often confused by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In the West, as Feldman noted, the Shari’a is caricatured by such odious hudud laws as stoning to death for adultery while ignoring the Shari’a stringent standards for conviction. Contrast that to the gross perversion of justice in many capital convictions in America today, as revealed by the Innocence Project.

The central premise of the Shari’a is that all – ruler and ruled alike – are subject to its rule. That is the rule of law at its most fundamental level. That is a novel concept in the West for most of its history (the prince being above law) as well as in today’s self-professed Islamic states. Malaysia amended its constitution removing the sultans’ immunity with respect to their personal conduct only in 1993.

An-Naim has advanced and elevated the debate on the Shari’a and the Islamic state by a quantum leap. His is a much-needed intellectual antidote to those who would mindlessly exhort “Islam is the answer!” to every political problem, as well as those who delude themselves that the myriad problems facing Muslims today would magically disappear once we establish an Islamic state or a caliphate.

This book will be widely read in the West. I hope it will also reach a wide audience in the Islamic world. Muslims – especially leaders – would do well to expend the necessary intellectual diligence to ponder the totality of the ideas and concepts presented in this book. We should not dismiss them because they challenge our comfortable assumptions.

20 thoughts on “The Myth of The Islamic State

  1. Apparently, the Daesh “state” in Iraq/Syria is attracting European-born foreign fighters who are lumpen proletariat i.e. alienated criminal and semi-criminal elements. Criminal tendencies combined with “born again” religious extremism. Hence the extreme brutality.

  2. With all the ‘experts’ and the people in power following their own ‘experts’ and thus having different interpretations of the Quran, thus other leaders such as the ’25’,
    the rakyat especially the non-Muslims, may excused for being confused as to what is the true interpretation.

  3. /// “As a Muslim, I need a secular state in order to live in accordance with Shari’a out of my own genuine convict.ion and free choice,” An-Na’m declares, “… which is the only valid and legitimate way of being a Muslim. Belief in Islam, or any other religion, logically requires the possibility of disbelief, because belief has no value if it is coerced.” ///

    Amen to the above, or should it be Inshallah?

    An Islamic State is not defined by how Arabic its adherents dress or cover up. It is not defined by how hududized its laws are. It is not characterized by how many items are classified halal. And certainly it is not defined by how zealous its religious police are.

    An Islamic State is defined more by how its government implements its policies such that most of the time it is in line with true Islamic teaching and precepts. It is defined by how its citizens are allowed to practise Islam (and other religions) freely.

    In this context, Ireland and Singapore are certainly more Islamic than Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

    Selected rankings in Islamicity:
    1st – Ireland
    2nd – Denmark
    3rd – Luxembourg
    7th – Singapore
    33rd – Malaysia
    91st – Saudi Arabia
    111st – Qatar

  4. 1. There is no such concept of Islamic state in the Quran. The fundamental order to all governments is to administer justly. (Quran, 4: 58). When I was charged with “disparaging Islam” by JAWI, I noted that at the top pane of the Shari’ah Court was inscribed that great verse.
    2. In the great Medina Charter, the first written constitution in the world, according to Prof. M. Hamidullah, it is expressly stated that religion is autonomously administered by its adherents, thus at one stroke doing away with religious conflicts.
    3. There is no such thing as fixed punishments in the Quran. Even great scholars are known to have made big mistakes. The so-called Hudud Law, now being tabled in Malaysian Parliment, is one.
    4. Prof. Naim is right. When a matter enters into the subjective mind of mortals, especially those in Shafi’e-shaped conservative Malaysia, it becomes dangerously narrow and rigid. Thus it is better not to adopt the so-called sharia’h law.
    — Kassim Ahmad

  5. The only “Islamic State” that will ever work and work forever and ever is the one that will come about in Heaven.

  6. While i’m in complete agreement with the good Prof An-Naim, Dr Bakri and Sdr Kassim, i’m afraid i have no locus standi when it comes matters of this sort.

    Islam is theoretically a religion based on tolerance and logic, not punishment. But then it is also all about ‘submission’ is it not? Freewill is an anathema.

    Let’s start with simple things – like Masturbation – and see what each school of jurisprudence say:
    Shia (including the Alawites): Absolutely Forbidden;
    Maliki Sunnis: Not Allowed under any Circumstances;
    Hanafi: Can do it under certain circumstances, but only to avoid a bigger sin, like adultery.
    Shafi’e: Any comments?
    PASUMNOb sect: Sama Sama Suka.

  7. These writings are great hopes of what must be the last great conflict of humanity. National conflicts pales in comparison to what Islamic practises is with the rest of the world. Even China,North Korea nukes etc does not compare.

    Fact is Muslims must get along with the world not insist that everyone else get along with them, their way, they are right without question. The idea of Islamic Hegemony, homogeneity under Islam is insane and will only destroy ultimately, not build an imaginary lasting.

  8. Eastern Europe made efforts to build a country called Utopia based on the socialist-Communist ideology. Over time the economic cake got smaller and smaller because of population growth and not because the economy was stagnant. In this regard nations have to take in this in order to ensure that the future sold to the citizens is sustainable. Wen you do things in the name of the State it should last for a 100 years. Even a simple thing like the road signs should last a 100 years and when they are changed they should fetch a premium price in the antique market.

    • Last year, Professor Aaqi [BBC Head of Religion and Ethics] courted controversial when he wrote that the Biblical flight from King Herod to Bethlehem was similar to that of refugees massing at Calais in a bid to get through the Channel Tunnel.

      Now, he says people should admit the “uncomfortable” truth that Islamic State (IS, ISIS, Daesh) is made up of Muslims and their doctrine is Islamic.

      What is the truth?

  9. The root of the myth is the misconception that in the early days there was an Islamic State (with Sharia and Hudud) and that that Utopia can be replicated today.

    Even a simple reading of that era informs us there was no such thing…no need to go into writings of this that or other scholar…

    As for Reformation…it will be a piecemeal affair…very slowly and country by country…make that VERY,VERY slowly…

  10. In Arabic Islam means submission to the will of God. All prophets before Mohammed pbuh also preach the same message i.e. submission to the will of God (or whatever name they call the Supreme Being) The Prophets were sent to the various tribes or community and not just to the Arabs.

    The 5 pillars of Islam include the Shahadah or There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Messenger.

    The Rukun Iman requires a Muslim to believe in all the Prophets, i.e. Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, and all the books sent down to these prophets. Many Muslims claim that prophet Abraham, Moses and Jesus are Muslims but nowhere can I find these prophets declaring that There is no God except Allah and Mohammed is his messenger. These prophets lived before the coming of Mohammed pbuh.

    Thus Islam is not unique to Muslims but encompasses the teachings of all prophets before Mohammed pbuh.

    So for a Muslim he/she believes in the 5 Rukun Islam and 6 Rukun Iman, they must accept the teachings of Judaism and Christianity just as they accept the prophets that brought these religion before Islam. So why the enmity towards these other religions?

  11. In other words they – “they” being any religious person who discovers the real intent of secularism , i.e. not the protection of the religious person but the defence of religious dissent – realize the religious is the personal.

    Professor Abdullahi An-Naim is a lot more complex than his Islamists nutjob detractors give him credit for. Take a look at his piece here –

    – something I find intellectually sleight of hand-ish but interesting because it nicely fits into the “dissonance” narrative that the New Atheists like to bandy about and something that as an atheist, I disagree with.

    But, he’s on the right path and by “right” I mean sane compared to the rest of his brethren.

    Life is complex, I guess.

  12. “…belief has no value if it is coerced”… yes, but exactly this statement is already in the Koran…

    If only we could all follow this…

  13. Quote:- “The Prophets were sent to the various tribes or community and not just to the Arabs. The 5 pillars of Islam include the Shahadah or There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Messenger”

    That being the case, the last part should read — “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed and all Prophets before him are his Messengers”

    The question is asked “So why the enmity towards these other religions?”

    That’s your answer right there?

    All religions, (just like all non-religious organizations, commercial, social or sports), suffer from the human need / obsession to create a “power structure”

    So you have popes, bishops, pastors, imams, ulamas, rimpoches, chairmans, CEOs, directors, fathers, uncles, aunts, class monitors, captains…..

    In the non-religious case, we can understand the need as there must be someone to lead, to organize, to take responsibility, to collect subscriptions and spend money for the common causes. In the religious sphere, it too we can understand as centuries ago only the literate could read all those holy books. Now with a high percentage of universal literacy these religious power structures are maintained merely to perpetuate the personal grandiloquence of those wielding such power over their congregations.

    In any case, why would God Almighty be concerned whether His creations are literate or not or whether His message must be disseminated through self-appointed middlemen go-betweens who are just as imperfect, perhaps more so, as any of their congregations?

    And when these religious leaders have political ambitions as well, the power structure will be abused. This is exactly what is happening in PAS which is doubly worse because a religion, Islam, is used or hijacked to give unfounded legitimacy to a mere political party which is paraded as being somehow “holy”

  14. ” Islamic State ” is a fallacy. What is desirable is FOR EVERY INDIVIDUAL on Earth is to be ” in the state of Islam ” , there’s a great distinction there. One can be a Muslim after a fashion, or one can be a true Muslim at the deepest core of his heart , ie . not superficial.

    Why do the Islamic authorities everywhere talk only of the Shariah , which is the face value of Islam , there are at least three more levels descending deeper through the Tariqat (the way ), to reach the Haqiqat , and finally reaching the inner-most ‘ Ma’arifat ‘ level – there’s no equivalent in the English language , but I shall try and explain them briefly. Haqiqat is to reach the level of the ‘ real ‘ , and its in the prelimenery stage of experiencing the amnesia . Finally , on reaching the state of ‘Ma’arifat ‘ , it will entail in loss of part of inter-related memories… ( its different from hallucination ) – And , its partly ‘experience ‘ , partly a kind of ‘ revelation ‘ !

    Coming back to the first level of the Sharia , the terminology relates to the five Pillars of Islam ( Rukun Islam ) ,( but Rukun Iman – the articles of faith is another matter ) : declare the Shahaddah, pray 5 times daily in submission, perform the yearly Fast, give alms, and perform the Haj once in a lifetime. If one sees the outward rituals of Islam , we can see that the Islamic Sharia , is a ‘ kind ‘ of Islamic Secularism….because we are performing these in our outward expression of the ‘Rukun Iman ‘ (the article faith ) –

    In the above stated sense, it is a ” Scientific ” spirituality …..indeed its not a Contradiction ( because sciences deal with methodology as well )

  15. In the state of amnesia in the third and the fourth levels ( Haqiqat & Ma’arifat ) , there are no Words to describe the ‘ Experience ‘ or the ‘ revelation’ – It is simply ” Know ” …….. (all words or human language completely fail & fall apart in this state of ‘ Consciousness…..) – its the true state of Submission and Peace !

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