In an Islamic State of Mind: Fantasy & the Ideal Polity

In an Islamic State of Mind: Fantasy & the Ideal Polity on

Muhammad Noor

Since 1922 the Muslim psyche has been inundated with a nefarious notion, a placebo of both false premise and hope: the Islamic State.  Before the daily news was peppered with references to Caliphate, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko, Ikwan, Shabab, this or that Jamaat, and before our collective religious ethics were martyred in its cause, this “state” was a figment of imagination born out of desperation, not revelation.  Contrary to what you may have heard in your MSA days, or what you continue to see and read in countless platforms inside and outside the Muslim community, there is no scriptural basis for such a polity, and no such utopian landscape ever existed.  This notion does not harken back to our earliest heroes and predecessors, but rather to late 18th century geopolitics, and the succumbing of a weakening despotic empire to the rise of western nation states.  It should be noted that the idea that religion and state should be unified is not unique to Islam but was found throughout the pre-modern era, or at least the era around the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.  The Roman Empire was Christian, and the Sassanid Empire Zoroastrian. China and India were also bastions of empires of officially sanctioned and legally enforced versions of faith.

So What Happened in 1922?

In November of that year the Ottoman Sultanate, which had ruled over wide territories reaching into Europe, Russia, and the Islamic heartland of the Middle East and the North African coast since 1517, was abolished.  Two years later the ceremonial title of “Caliph” was retired as well, marking the end of an institution in use since the 7th century.  The collapse and partitioning of the empire, a consequence of the Ottoman Central Powers alliance and defeat in World War I, was an outcome predicted by many Muslim and Western thinkers alike.  Ultimately the massive sums spent on Western civilian and military technology to try to modernize and compete with the encroaching European powers indebted the empire to those same powers.  This dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by non-Muslim European colonial powers was both celebrated and denounced in the Arab world.  In the diaspora and amongst the pious, the move dealt a huge blow to pan-Islamic morale for generations to come, marking the end of an age of empires. In this context, revivalist strands in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East gained wide currency as did classical political writings of Al Mawardi (d.1031) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328).  Many negligibly rehashed the political works of these savants, without providing the reader with the proper context or nuances of the writer’s medieval, fractured, and centralized dynastic ambiance.  The publications of Jamal ad-din al-Afghani (d.1897), Muhammad Abduh (d.1905) and Rashid Rida (d.1935) preached Islamic alternatives to the political, economic, and cultural decline of the empire.  Their ideas included the creation of a truly Islamic society under sharia law, and the rejection of taqlid, the blind imitation of earlier authorities, in favor of a literalist and seemingly purified approach to Islamic Law that did not tolerate dissent.  In the face of Western technological advances, Muslims were beginning to understand their civilizational decline.  Abduh famously remarked: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam”.  Along with this was the emotive component in some quarters for the restoration of the Caliphate as a protectorate against political fragmentation, and Western designs.

Thought vs Reality

Partition led to colonization, followed by the struggle for independence that did not measure up to expectations.  European powers retained influence in many modern Muslim states, by proxy, under harsh dictatorships or monarchies.  Today Iran, Mauritania, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all claim to be constitutional Islamic “Republics." The reality is that Islamic Republican thought originates in Platonic thought, a fact often missed by observers and activists.  In lieu of Aristotle's Politics, unknown in medieval Islam, Plato's political philosophy assumed the primary role in an explanation of the nature and purpose of the Islamic state1. Many in fact see the rise of totalitarianism as a consequence of Plato's “philosopher kings,” with their dreams of social order and 'idealism.'  The Utopian historical revisions of Muslim writers in the early period grafted this platonic order upon the Prophetic Madinan model, a belief that lingers in the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses today.  The assassinations of three of the four “Rightly Guided” Caliphs following the death of the Prophet (Peace & Blessings upon Him), provide us with varying causes for social tumult that shatter the all too common nostalgic romanticism for that period.  Treatment of religious minorities, popular discontent, and the threat of uncompromising zealotry all led to initial instabilities that gave way to repression, and legitimized the beginnings of dynastic rule.  Hereditary caliphs in turn were turned into political props, stripped of any effectual power, by their former soldiers and advisors.  Early on, many scholars strongly resisted the state apparatus, to maintain neutrality and avoid being co-opted.  In fact all of the four Imams who gave their names to legal methodologies (Madhahib) were either interrogated or tortured for perceived or actual endorsements of uprisings.  This sentiment has remained strong throughout the scholarly class.

As the Caliph’s power decreased, classical writers of the Middle Ages had to bring constitutional theory in line with political reality, attempting to reconcile the concept of the Caliph as the highest authority in theory and the Sultan as the actual wielder of power.  Jurists from all schools of thought2 made accommodations in Islamic Law to allow for a façade of joint spiritual and temporal power.  This compromise prolonged the Caliphate institutional ideal, well after its effectual end in 1258. The writings of the late Abbasid period must then be read in light of this constitutional struggle, and reflect the existing political order notwithstanding their theoretical superstructure of espousing valid teachings of the Quran and Sunnah.  Muslim political ethicists such as Ar-Razi (d.1209) and Miskawaih (d.1030) did not differ that much from their Christian and Jewish counterparts in seeing man as a fundamentally religious creature living within a religious society.  The goal in this paradigm is “happiness resulting from action directed towards God”, by following prophetic revealed laws that allow man to live in society.  The legal theory (Usul Al Fiqh) of the Caliphate or Imama is then posited by Al Ghazali (d.1111) as solely based upon consensus (ijma).  Consensus is deemed irrefutable based on the hadith, “my Community will never agree upon an error”3.  Al Ghazali also spoke of the advantages of a centralized leader in keeping perceived deviance at bay (in his case the sectarian and political opposition of the Batini Ismaili's).  What this informs us is that most of the scholars who wrote on politics in the classical age sought to maintain political and social stability.  In fact the Hanafi Abu Yusuf Yaqub (731-98) wrote Kitab al Kharaj for the Caliph of 1,001 Nights fame, Harun Al Rashid.  The Shafi’i Al-Mawardi’s (991-1031) famous work Akham Sultaniyyya was an attempt to give credence to the Abbassids, while true power lay with the Shi’i Buwayid emirs.  Al-Mustazhiri by Al-Ghazali was written for its namesake patron, the impotent Caliph Al Mustazhir, as a means to attack the Batini doctrine of an infallible Imam, suspending the reality that true power was vested with the Seljuq Viziers.  The bulk of these classical writings attempted to legitimize the ideal Caliph, while accommodating the existing status quo.   In fact the cleavage between the ideal of the Caliphate and political reality was complete and irremediable before any of these works were penned. The Jurist view from the Sharia was that power was in the wrong hands.  Therefore the only alternative to keep up the appearance of unity was to drop more and more of the previously sacred stipulated conditions of the office of Caliph.  In a very deep sense the fiction of the ideal Caliphate was more real than the transitory political structure of any given empire.   In clinging to an ideal, all of the scholars noted above had to compromise.  Those who object will undoubtedly cite one source, the scholar whose political and religious views trump all others, and who is arguably the sole source for Islamists of all stripes:  Ibn Taymiyya. In his own time, having fled the Mongol incursions as a youth, Ibn Taymiyya stated that jihad upon the Mongols was not only permissible, but obligatory.4  The ruling was buttressed by the argument that the Mongols could not, in his opinion, be true Muslims despite the fact that they had converted to Islam because they ruled using what he considered 'man-made laws' (their traditional Yassa code) rather than Islamic law or Sharia. Because of this, he reasoned they were living in a state of jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic pagan ignorance.5 This concept influenced later thinkers such as Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Hasan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), Sayyid Qutb, and other twentieth-century Islamist groups to declare jihad against ruling governments, democracy, and socialism by  practicing anathematization (al-takfır) of governments and citizenry.

Usurping God’s Words for Political Gain

The Quran does not have fixed prescriptions of matters of a changing nature such as governing a country. What the Quran does offer are ethical mandates and foundations for moral governance.  Every generation faces different circumstances and thus many laws and ways for society cannot be fixed for all time. This is also why the Quran advances timeless rules governing rites, ethics, and relationships that are universal in their application.  A related criticism is that Islamist "politics of identity” have relegated the Sharia to a level of political slogan, "instead of elevating it to the level of intellectual complexity at which our jurisprudential forefathers discussed it, debated it, and wrote about it. Superficial political chants claiming that 'the Qur'an is our constitution' or that 'the Shari'a is our guide,' are heard but there is no discussion of what a constitution is, which parts of the Qur'an are 'constitutional,' or how the Shari'a is to guide us on any particular matter of legal relevance."6  Slogans such as Deen Ad Dawla (Religion is State), or the “Governance is God’s alone” are based upon newly invented exegesis of Sacred scripture.  The latter example was popularized by the South Asian journalist and founder of Jamaat Al Islami, Al-Maududi. The statement “Hukm is God’s Alone” taken into the wider context of the verse, fails to impress upon the reader the need for an Islamic polity:

Those who you adore outside of Him are nothing but names that you and your fathers have given them. God has granted them no authority. Hukm is God's alone. He has commanded that you adore none but Him. Such is the right religion, but most people do not know [12:40]

The Quran is talking about God's superiority over pagan idols, rather than His role in government. The famous companion Ibn Abbas commented, “Hukm (the decision) the judgment of commands and prohibitions; it is also said that this means: judgment in the life of this world and in the Hereafter (rests with God only, Who hath commanded you) in all revealed Scriptures (that ye worship) that you profess the divine Oneness of (none save Him) save Allah”.7

Another favorite of Islamic state advocates addresses the believers with this command:

O you, who believe, Obey Allah, Obey His Messenger and those in authority from amongst you and if you differ then refer it to Allah and His Messenger if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. [4:59]

These activists state this and other similar verses or ahadith mean, “that the basis of the Islamic State is Islam and none other. The state of the Muslims must be Islamic, i.e. where Allah and His Messenger (Peace & Blessings Upon Him) are obeyed both by the rulers and by those who are ruled. It must be a state where the Muslims refer to Allah and His Messenger and this is a requirement of their belief in Allah and the Last Day.”8  Such a claim echoes truths, but does not clearly support a schema to facilitate those ends.  The companions of the Prophet (Peace & Blessings Upon Him) were not left with a set of rules as to how to settle disputes or lead their worldly lives. They were, however, compelled to perform ijtihad, or independent reasoning, based on a sound understanding of scripture and Prophetic practice.  This is why the immediate successors were given authority via methods in currency at the time in their tribal social order, namely nomination or limited consensus.  The above mentioned understanding of those early companions is telling.  Ibn Abbas’s commentary, for example, fails to mention political leadership, “’and those in authority from amongst you’ means the leaders of military expeditions; it also said that this means: the men of sacred knowledge”.9 This then ignites a search for ahadith (Prophetic Statements) in support of an obligation to prop up an Islamic state of our making.  Statements such as, “there is no obedience to the disobedience of the Creator”10, or “anyone who abandons obedience to the amir for even a short time dies the death of the Jahiliyya (ignorance)”11, are taken out of context once again, and could easily be more accurately applied to personal piety and civic responsibility.  Based on the premise that in fundamentalisms of all stripes, authority is dependent on a totalitarian epistemology, the authority of Islamism that claims to be grounded in scripture can easily be shown to actually extend beyond scripture via their users' earnest efforts of application.

What Then Is the Real Basis For an Islamic State?

In the havoc and chaos of the more recent tumult in many parts of the Muslim world, defining political Islam has become difficult, as it is seen as a:

 “unsustainably flexible movement of ... everything to everyone: an alternative social provider to the poor masses; an angry platform for the disillusioned young; a loud trumpet-call announcing `a return to the pure religion` to those seeking an identity; a 'progressive, moderate religious platform' for the affluent and liberal; ... and at the extremes, a violent vehicle for rejectionists and radicals.”12  

The appeal of a so-called Islamic polity attracts some Muslims living in both Muslim and Western societies who feel alienated from their cultural values, or are trying to resist a globalized consumer culture.  This alienation is than buttressed by the fanciful collective memory of the many centuries of "cultural and institutional success" of Islamic civilization.  This then creates an intellectual resistance to an alternative 'civilizational order,’ such as open Western societies and liberal democracies.  In the post-colonial age, it seems that the tool most frequently employed to reverse the inferiority complex was to instill a false superiority complex.  “Islam” is a utility of nostalgia for Muslim cultures to regain a sense of dignity and acutely display dissatisfaction with the status quo. Ironically, these trends simultaneously challenge religious and political authority on behalf of perceived authenticity, reinventing the tradition they claim to aspire to uphold.  Militant groups claim to want to establish Islamic Law, but violate its aims (maqasid) to achieve that goal via indiscriminate killings.  The extreme nihilism that we see expressed by the most violent groups is troubling. Whereas the “goals used to justify the means,” it would now seem that means become the goal in it of itself, and both are wrong.  Violence and terror broadcasted in ceremonial beheadings, kidnapping of young girls, bombings in marketplaces, or declaring a “Caliph” become the goal itself with little foresight into the particularities of governance or creating a civil society.  Extremist critiques of the world shows us that one can be logically correct and morally wrong at the same time.  In the end, it seems that the goal is actually attaining power for glory's sake, but not God’s Glory.

Conclusion: Changing Our Minds

Western patronage of corrupt de facto rule for the sake of stability, and the long tentacles of oil wealth are easy targets of blame, but the plain truth is that each any every believing Muslim is responsible for our collective malaise.  For too long we have supplanted theology for ideology. We have engineered a faith of absolute certainties that lacks any reasoning.  A literalistic reading of scripture artificially simplifies contested concepts by restricting the meanings. This has confined our thought and our hearts.  Do any of us really believe that a construct like liberal democracy threatens the exclusive and ultimate sovereignty of God? That democracy constitutes shirk (associating partners with God)? Does not the intellectual deviation (bidah) of establishing a so-called Islamic polity serve as an abstract obstacle in our own spiritual paths, where we pervert our eternal goal for a temporal one?  Can we afford to conflate our fealty to faith, with its individual (Fard ‘Ayn) and collective (Fard Kifayya) Sharia responsibilities, with claims of establishing the Sharia under coercion? The hypocrisies bred by such an approach in Muslim countries and households threaten our very identity, with many of us living double lives, suffering a sort of spiritual schizophrenia.  The Ummah’s obsession with political power as the panacea for all our problems, serves as a novel egotistical distraction from our unruly inner states.  We must acknowledge that a faith that longs for a fanciful past misses its present moment to connect hearts and minds to the message of God and His Apostle (Peace & Blessings upon Him).  A message that calls us to a higher state of Being through submitting ourselves to the Divine Will, and not espousing the will of those who claim their understanding is the will of God.  Living in an Islamic state is beyond boundaries, and exists in the recesses of our hearts and souls.  Like the scholars of the past who dealt with their realities and ideals, we are in need of a mental shift that unfetters our mind from the notion that our spiritual success is tied to temporal power.  A repositioning of collective consciousness, away from calls of vengeance and grotesque actions in the name of the sacred law, towards the immutable truths of that sacred law that provide us the ethos to live truly sacred lives in all times and under all forms of good governance and civic engagement. 


 1. Butterworth, C.E. ed. The Political Aspects of Islamic Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992. (An up-to-date collection of essays on, among others, al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Bajja, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd).
2. Rosenthal, Erwin Isak Jakob. Political Thought In Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline.
3. "Verily Allah will not make my Community agree on error", Tirmidhi with a fair (hasan) chain.
4. Y. Michot, Muslims under Non-Muslim Rule. Ibn Taymiyya on fleeing from sin, kinds of emigration, the status of Mardin (domain of peace/war, domain composite), the conditions for challenging power. Texts translated, annotated and presented in relation to six modern readings of the Mardin fatwa. Foreword by J. Piscatori (Oxford-London: Interface Publications, Dec. 2006). The translation of the Mardin fatwa is p. 63–65.
5. Kepel, Gilles, The Prophet and the Pharaoh, (2003), p.194.
6. Abou El Fadl, Khaled, The Authoritative and Authoritarian In Islamic Discourses: A Contemporary Case Study . Austin, TX : Dar Taiba, 1997.
7. Tafsir Ibn 'Abbas, trans. Mokrane Guezzou.
8. Khilafah Magazine, Editorial “The Basis For An Islamic State.”
9. Tafsir Ibn 'Abbas, trans. Mokrane Guezzou.
10. Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9: Hadith 363.
11. Agreed Upon.
12. Osman, Tarek, Egypt on the brink, 2010, p.111.

By Muhammad Noor , 31 Jul 2014

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