Contributed by Usman Asif. Originally published at Baghi.


The institution of a central religious and political authority in Islam is something that has been changing drastically through times. Furthermore, what constitutes a Muslim – the pure definition of being a believer – is something that has not a consensus. These two concepts become quite central when some movements talk about the so-called revival of an Islamic state. Is there a canon for an Islamic state, the community and the political leadership of this?

This series of three articles will focus on these three subjects, the institution of the Caliph, what the Muslim community (Ummah) is and what is in this concept of an Islamic state. Focus will be on the plurality in understanding these institutions and concepts and how through history they have developed.

Part I – Caliph

Part II – Ummah


Late last year Gambia passed a constitutional amendment, declaring the country to be an Islamic state. In terms of social life, or state apparatus, there has not been any major changes, yet the news were received as something dramatic.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Gambia is not the only Islamic state which is declared so by an act of law, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Some of the Gulf countries amongst others are those who claim to be so. In addition, you have the regional breakaway movements, or the manifests of terrorist organizations with their own declared states. What is evident is the differences in between all these states.

A hybrid-democracy as Pakistan and the theocratic regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia have all three stark differences in how a so-called Islamic state should look like. In other instances there are states which are declared Islamic, but in where the law is primarily secular, while other states have a religiously based personal law (as in India), while the state is nothing but secular.

Turkey is a secular country which went from being a one-party authoritarian state to a majoritarian democratic state – in both these instances the majority of population remained Muslims, while cross the border to Iran the state was a secular tyranny, and became a theocratic state with both legislation and framework based on so called Sharia. Iran post and pre-1979 had the same amount of Muslims, yet change was dramatic.

Not to forget the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) in contrast to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance/Kabul Government) where both claim the title of being a Islamic, while fighting each other. To complicate it even more the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has put the bar for what future generations will know of what such a state would look like.

What is in this state – i.e. to declare a state Islamic. What source of law would govern this state, more exact; has human reason any take in this, why are its manifests so different in contemporary times, and how did it look like since Islam’s earlier days?

De facto and De jure

There are states that are Islamic by name, but not so Islamic in character or practice. Tyrannical rulers, authoritarian structures or police states were among the main factors for why young Arabs revolted. They were joined by Islamist movements and traditionalists who considered rulers to be in contrast to Islamic principles and that rebellion was a religious duty.

So far so good. Yet the quietist tradition in Islam is still present, that of either keeping away from political matters, or to find it necessary to obey the ruler of the time, and considering it to be a duty – an act of rebel in this regard becomes an act of defiance against Islam.

Latter was the position of the many Salafi branches in North Africa, though in the end decided to actually follow up with protests and take part in democratic elections. Such a swing from one position of dogma to another is resented by even the traditionalists, but pragmatism, opportunism and quest for power becomes the means to the end goal – that of an Islamic state.

But whose Islamic state? Salafists of Egypt wanted the entire basis of legislation to be that of Sharia, and that too according to their premises. The Ikhwan wanted a traditional interpretation as a guidance for legislation. Al-Azhar, the traditionally political independent school, wanted faith to be its sole domain, and not a concern for politicians or Parliament.

This was the impossibilities in a post-Mubarak era Egypt, imagine the complexities in rest of the Muslim world.

Question is therefore not if a declared state is Islamic or not, rather to what degree a Muslim majority state is in fact so called Islamic. How to evaluate the ‘degree of’ how much Islamic a state is? For this, one needs to separate the society from that of executive politics, what one will see is the direct state patronage in individual’s spiritual life, and the decrease in individual’s free will to choose what is best for them on matters of faith.

At current, personal laws, matters of marriage and inheritance are in many Muslim countries regulated by Islamic personal law. In Turkey, on the other hand the state adopted Swiss civil code. In other instances, the law itself can have a watermark from a religious ruling, even though vetted by a civilian elected Parliament. The influence of Islam on inhabitants of a Muslim majority state cannot be ignored, it is part of the picture – trouble comes when one refuses to accept the diverse opinions and interpretations of the sacred law and instead tries to trench down one set of ruling on all the citizens.

For Pan-Islamists of the 19th and 20th century the nation-state was a human construction, while the divinely ordained Islamic state were to have boundaries crossing cultures, people and regions. Such a vast state were to be determined by the landmass inhabited by a majority Muslim population. Now already at this point several Islamist movements had to amend themselves, most of today’s movements actually do acknowledge the necessity of political boundaries alongside nation-state lines. The subcontinental Jamaat-e-Islami that at first opposed the creation of Pakistan later on accepted such a result and would pursue with their agenda within this new state.

Reason and Revelation

In Islamist theories since early 20th century, the main emphasis has been laid on man-made laws versus the law of God. It may be understood as a relative new phenomenon, but the tussle between reason and revelation has been a debate since origin of Islam. From the early examples of Mohammad’s life, following the Arab-imperialism to the Turkic dynasties, the relationship between reason and revelation can be painted as an alliance of convenience.

The late and post-colonial Muslim thinkers tried to argue for a revival, in where revelation became an important tool, as it was ones ‘own’ in contrary to the foreign influenced concepts of nationhood, constitutions and democracy. As these thinkers were in majority reformists or progressive – i.e. not anti-modernists, they tended to adopt what the west had progressed on, with a sprinkle of own traditional legacies, among them the influence of Islam.

Later Islamists, most notably Abul A’la Maududi, Hassan al-Bannah and Seyyed Qutb in addition to the Ruhollah Khomeini were in turn a product of the anti-colonial sentiments, with it an inherited anti-modernist aspect. And thus, democracy, nationhood, constitution, individual rights were dismissed as contrary to Islam – for this lot the answer was in the past, a glorified past, one which needed a revival, not a reform.

While for Europeans the law was a result of reason, after a long struggle with the church and its grip on power, for the Muslim reformists and later the revivalists the law was always there, the law of the path (Sharia). However, even though the law itself was clear enough, its sources and interpretations varied quite a bit. Questions arose cross sectarian divides as to which elements of this law and the tools used to interpret they could or should implement. For long, Sunni and Shia ulema (clergy) among the majority battled their tools, but in came the Bedouins from Najd, with them the strict interpretation of Salafi Islam, one which was not progressive, rather anti-modernist and always looking back to an imaginary past – way more than the already backwardness of the traditional schools.

Who was to interpret such laws, in an assembly, and who were to be in such an assembly? Question were many, especially faced with democracy. Should one man and one vote principle be valid, or should the clergy have the power to this domain? If popularly elected assemblies were allowed, who should check their faithfulness to the creed, and how could one regulate their legislation whether or not it was in accordance with sacred law?

As hurdles came in the way, and the traditionalists started accepting the realities of their time, the ultimate compromise became a dance of reason and revelation. Unfortunately few Muslim countries had in the 20th century experienced a true democracy, and would add up to the strict ruling of the state. The Kemalist, Nasserist and Baathist winds produced for a while an aggressive secular nationhood, where even the Mosque was the property of the state.

Facing with criticism when such states could not deliver, the anger was channelled by Islamist movements who sold the message of a religiously ordained pious legislation and leadership. Where the errors of human reason, were to be corrected by the wisdom from revelation.


Political Islam had to answer how to legislate a so-called Islamic states law. As Muslim countries lacked home-grown institutions, they were either established by western colonialists, or created a new from the rubble of imperialism and post-Ottoman period. What is evident is the influence of western ideas from enlightenment on the state fabric envisioned by Islamists.

The Parliament, a popularly elected institution, a fundament to a democratic proceeding in legislation, was adopted as an already existing concept, that of a majlis. The rule of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali from 632-661 was dubbed the period of the righteous caliphs by Sunnis and the Imamate of Ali by Shias. This period marked the early concepts of an assembly, modelled after tribal customs from Arab cultures.

In these assemblies, representatives of different tribes and clans had their say, but matters were not always decided in a majority. Members were there because of birth, and not by merit. Neither had such assemblies any power to appoint or depose a ruler. These assemblies, loosely fitted, were to consult the ruler of their time. Their legality was from Arab customs, which Mohammad himself had used during his time.

During one of his wars with Mecca based Quraysh clan, he consulted his disciples and soldiers on how to face the incoming army towards Medina. His council gave different views, of them Salman the Persian advice to dig trenches. Mohammad had the final say, and he took the advice of Salman. The battle was victorious, and the whole process witnessed that human reason, advice, and consultation, was a part of the play to cope with realities. Many a rationalist movements have used this and many other examples to prove that reason has a say in worldly matters for a Muslim.

When Muslims and its clergy especially faced the new thoughts on democracy and assemblies as representatives of the people, they split. One part found it to be a continuation of early Muslim and Arab customs, while another considered it a breach of the will in the revelation. Several thinkers tried to come up with a solution between this issue of the sovereign man, and the sovereign will of God. The India based thinker Sir Mohammad Iqbal, who considered the ordinary man to be of no good in order to interpret the will of God, and therefore emphasised a religiously learned judiciary to keep in check the popularly elected members of assemblies.

Pakistan went on to create one such instance, as the judiciary itself was not ‘learned enough’ in Sharia law. In 60s, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) was appointed as an advisory body to the elected assemblies and the executive. Creating another branch within the judiciary circuit, the CII became more powerful than what was originally intended.

CIIs function is de facto not merely advisory, rather it quashes legislations on matters of rights for individuals or groups as women or minorities. The council has in effect become a body that can annul a law passed by Parliament as being contrary to Islamic law. One example is the women’s protection bill or the bill to set a higher minimum age for children to marriage. It becomes evident that popularly elected Governments always will be under the scrutiny of a clerical body which can at will set aside the popular will.

In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, there is no civil judiciary. Its entre judicial branch consists of clerics who give verdicts according to the Salafi tradition developed as a hybrid between enforced pietism and the strict interpretation of law. This is at odds with the population in where 10-20% are Shia Muslims, mostly Twelver but also Zaydis and Ismaili’s, and which among Sunnis have a large share of non-Salafi denominations.

Iran on the other hand does not limit clergy’s role in civil matters or to those of being a check on Parliamentary affairs – its clergy IS the state. The Supreme Leader is the result of an interpretation within Usooli tradition of Twelver Shia Islam that emphasised rule by clergy, and the representatives of the hidden Imam.

Not all Shia Muslims agree to this, while Ruhollah Khomeini launched his doctrine of vilayet-e-faqih, even his teacher Abdul-Karim Haeri was in principle opposed to intervene in political matters. Here comes the interesting part within Usooli tradition. While the Safavid Iran emphasised a stronger clergy in order to fend off local fiefs and lords, the older bases of Shia Islam in Mesopotamia and Lebanon was for the majority of time under Sunni rule.

The latter would care for the subjects of Mesopotamian lands who followed the creed in Najaf, and had to make an apolitical setting in order to survive, while in Iran it was part of the state apparatus and zealous to the core. When Iranian clergy lost its power during Qajar and later Reza reign, and with the increasing secularisation and authoritarianism, the clergy tried to fight back by claiming more than their traditional role.

In the decades before Iranian revolution, Khomeini’s ideas were radical, even among the clergy. While he was a firebrand cleric – a politician to the core – the clerics of their time, Ayatollah Borujerdi and Musa Sadr were the ones who sought a more diplomatic approach to solve the political issues in Iranian society and rejected the concept of rule by clergy.

Ayatollah Shariatmadari, the man who saved Khomeinis life, argued for a Vatican like Shia state in the city of Qom, and not in the entire country of Iran. He was imprisoned until the day he died. Another critique came from Mohammad al-Shirazi who believed in a rule by a council of cleric, and not one supreme leader.

Such a change in fundamentals has not occurred since the days of Allama Majlasi and has proved to be an instrumentalization of a creed within Islam from being quietist to that of a state sanctioned authoritarian Islam.

Ayatollah Sistani, first among the quartet that chair Najaf seminary has several times emphasised civil rule, where cleric’s role should be that of an unofficial guidance. This is a debate that will define Shia Islam for a long time to come, and one which at present has the Islamists in power, but at defensive as their rule has not delivered what the people find necessary. Recent elections in Iran has proven exactly that, while the conflict in Syria has strengthened the muscles of hardliners in Iraq and Lebanon.

One impact of a rule by clergy, or a judiciary which consists of clerics, is their check on who is eligible as people’s representative in different assemblies, be it local, second tier or national. The power a clergy can have on a candidate can limit vastly the scope of a political landscape.

While corruption or criminal charges and convictions are natural criteria’s for expulsion in any state, the clergy in Iran has put in the conditions of being a truthful and practicing Muslim amongst others. These clauses are subjective, highly so, and can be equated to pre-election rigging as candidates of different ideological leaning can simply be dismissed of not being true to the ideals of Iranian revolution, or not have good character (if he/she is not in consistent with majoritarian understanding of Islam).

Pakistan has a similar clause in its constitution which was introduced by Dictator-President Zia-ul-Haq in 80s. According to this clause the nominees for office had to be truthful and good of character – now how can a Returning Officer decide this, without being influenced by his/her subjective criteria’s within a cultural and religious contexts? The problem with these clauses is that they have become tools in the hand of some who can define what is allowed or not.

How do one, after all, measure faith, or pietism? In addition, what are the consequences if one bring forth such models? As is apparent in many a Islamist movements, there seems to be a strong emphasis on the façade and the visible – the struggle to stand out as pious was according to Seyyed Qutb important in order to influence the society into a desired direction.

Ramadan laws in several Muslim countries punish individuals if they are seen eating in the public. In Pakistan, it is even an offence for non-Muslims to do the same, even though they are guaranteed freedom of faith in the very same constitution. The problem with a Muslim man/woman who does not wants to fast in such a Islamic state becomes states intervening, in the moral fight one individual has to fight himself. Thereby a question, which was to be a matter for God in the hereafter, all of the sudden becomes the duty of the state.

Such a weight on the visible strengthens a culture of mob-mentality and hypocrisy. Is fasting in Ramadan done out of one’s own will, in order to please God, or in order to get that promotion, because your boss is watching? The problems with an Islamic state, which tries to regulate a faithful’s acts ends up in becoming the very same society in Mecca Prophet Mohammad was persecuted in.

Separation of Powers

During Ummayad reign the clergy were careful in not to provoke the rulers on matter of politics, but they tried to fix a domain for religious laws. This period marked the beginning of a clergy and an aristocracy that had to fill in its domains and to figure out the conflict lines that erupted. Such positioning could end up in having a ruler by own taste, or be totally banished by state apparatus. Moreover, the clergy itself was not a unitary bloc and would work against one another, both based on theological disputes and those of political concerns.

With Abbasid rule at its zenith clergy was a defining power as it held the domain of judiciary, but at the mercy of the ruler of its time. The Mihna inquisition witnessed of the rationalists led persecution of the revelationists and vice-versa after Mutazilites lost fervour among the rulers. In most cases, the ulema functioned as either a support of state and ruler, or a careful check on the Caliphs powers and conduct. In rare cases, some ulema would even support open rebellions as Abu Hanifa was accused of.

In power, during Safavid era, the Shia clerics of Iran on the other hand became the very oppressor their predecessors were persecuted by. The latter were individuals who would form the backbone of rebel movements and would argue an activist approach against an unjust ruler.

Such is the ironies of history, though with increased power, the Shia clerics became an important check to an all-powerful monarch who would not face opposition from people or an army. This would change with the advent of increased demand for representation in turn for taxation.

A major chunk of religious movements through times used to organise themselves as independents, with financial independence in the form of waqf-institutions. This independence guaranteed clerics of both Shia and Sunni denominations a freedom in matters of faith. This independence was lost when Muslim nation states emerged in a post-colonial world and the increased nationalisation of institutions occurred. The Levantine and Egyptian waqfs were emptied for resources and state demanded a clergy which supported its polices at crossroads.

Big Brother

With recent oil price decrease, and the increase in defence budgets, Gulf-monarchies are in the process of, or already have, implemented services taxes that might be followed by income and property tax. With these taxes, the youth will demand by even stronger fervour a representation based on free and fair election. Such calls are inevitable. With these demands, the legislation is no doubt a people’s elected assembly, elected by popular vote and on a manifesto by party lines. Even the theocratic Iranian regime accepts such a fact, where recently the reformists managed to hold a strong presence in Parliament.

For Islamists this is no more the question, a rule by clergy is not acceptable, but a rule by Islamic injunctions is on the other hand the fundamental precondition to engaging in politics.

Another matter for such a state is the voting right. If non-Muslims are entitled to vote, can they also run for office? In Pakistan even in areas where Ahmadi Muslims make up the majority of population, their candidates have to run on reserved seats as minorities, and by law, a Prime Minister and President has to be Muslim. Such is the case in Iran and Saudi Arabia too, but not in Turkey – a Muslim majority country, which has never had any non-Muslim leader, yet the lack of such a law, has not made it ‘less Muslim’.

Combined with the Islamist fundamental (but for time being ignored) notion of a pan-Islamic nation, how would its borders look like? For that matter, how would such borders actually actualise? Even for the Iran based Shia clerics in power it’s impossible to come on same footing with the apolitical quietist clerics in Najaf. Moreover, non-other than Iranian citizens vote in Iranian election, a Shia Muslim from Bahrain or from Germany has no right to vote in such matters. It seems to be a fundamental flaw in the concept of a global Muslim community with a vice-regent to rule according to Gods will.

The question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy needs to be clarified. When we talk Islam in this picture, it is important to look on the political aspects of it, and even then, there are several variations, as introduced above. On what stage does this collusion occur?

Democracy has four fundaments; Equality in the law, equality before the law, transparency in institutions, and last auditability (i.e. control or oversight) of these institutions. Islam and Muslims in general have been huge proponents of fighting corruption.

On two issues there is a visible conflict between an Islamist state and that of a democracy, that being equality in and before the law. The law requires equal footing for male and female, at which several Islamist movements and thinkers have objected of having a female head of state. Maudoodi supported Fatima Jinnah during the presidential election of 1965 by arguing that it is better to have a woman as President than an unjust dictator (Ayub Khan). In other instances non-Muslims or cultural Muslims, or apostates will have another dealing. Hence, equality will not be achieved.

Same is the case before the law, and more importantly on the aspect of freedom of faith and speech. Can a non-Muslim in a Islamic State designed after Islamists model preach his/her faith openly, or communicate what’s considered blasphemous content? I.e. critique of central Islamic tenets or to promote unbelief among a Muslim majority population? These questions becomes hypothetical, but already, with the limited amount of islamization of several countries legal framework one sees the colliding courses with democracy.

The State of Heart

The recent state, with its institutions, is a new phenomenon. Since the days of the kingdom of Adam, till the days of a spiritual community under Abraham, Moses and Jesus, till the kingdoms of Prophet-Kings David and Suleiman and in the end the political and spiritual city-state of Mohammad, there have been tons of different ways of delivering Gods message to its subjects.

In traditional Islam, there is a huge emphasis on a different Prophet for a different time, which culminated in the Prophethood of Mohammad, and his final message. The message has lived on, but it would be a lie to tell that it has not been understood differently from time to time. With new ages came new ideas gave new debates – these have somehow influenced all faiths and ideologies through time. One good example is the post-colonial emphasis on a supra-nation consisting of Muslim dominating lands, heavily influenced by the colonial masters and their institutions. Modern concept of an Islamic state is none other than a relic from the past, modelled after a past colonial period ignited by resistance and the desperate look back to a glorified past.

There is no way possible to treat citizens of a state equally, if the state is entrenched by one set of ideas from an ideology or one interpretation of faith. Someone will always fall outside. That someone can be a majority, or a minority, but that does not matter. A democracy demands equality in the law, an Islamic, Jewish or Hindu state cannot guarantee that – and if it does so, it is no longer an Islamic state, it is a Muslim majority state.

Several clerics and thinkers since 19th century have argued for the need for an ideological and sectarian neutral state. That the state gives people their right to believe fully what they choose to follow, and does not interfere in their private life. The period of authoritarian secular states from mid-20th century cannot be a counterpunch to this. While these states were themselves involved in using faith for political purposes, and were highly authoritarian in nature, they lacked a democratic and liberal outlook – one that is necessary for a secular state to function according to the wills intended.

Ali Abdel-Razek was among the pioneers on this thought before First World War, since then several noteworthy individuals have come to the same conclusion. Khan Abdul-Ghaffar Khan of the Khudai Khidmatgaar movement emphasised justice and equality and argued for a secular state as the optimal solution to guarantee these rights. Abdullahi an-Naim is a major contributor to the Muslim debate on a secular democratic state and its necessity, he follows in the footsteps of his master Ustaz Mahmoud Taha who emphasised values before visible rituals in faith.

These thoughts will only increase, especially after the experience that Islamist led Governments, as in Turkey can be as illiberal as those strictly secular. In other cases, the Islamists of Tunisia have proven to be more democratic than their counterparts who still resemble the old guard. In the end, it is all about how those in power address the issues of freedom on different fields, be it freedom of expression, of belief and of a decent life. Converting the state to that of Islamic will not solve the brutalities of an authoritarian state, rather strengthen them.

It is no justice to faith nor to free will to mend in religion with state, rather its necessary, in order to guarantee human his free will on faith and to let faith have freedom from interference, that state remains neutral in this.


Usman Asif is a Oslo based Norwegian local politician for the Labour Party, involved in the debate-initiative Minareten and writes on subjects as geopolitical development, activism, rights, society and faith. Usman blogs at Baghi and tweets at @UsmanBaghi. He can be reached at

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