A Huge Error in Understanding Islam
By Nayyer Ali MD
More innocent blood shed in Lahore and Brussels in the last few weeks, and again those claiming to be champions of Muslim Ummah take the credit! This ongoing global terror campaign unfortunately has its roots in a deeply confused and misguided application of Islam which began a hundred years ago and has gathered steam in the last few decades. These terrorists are fighting to create an “Islamic State”, and even call themselves ISIS, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But they are also Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban and other groups around the Muslim world. What they share is the ideology of political Islam.
Islam is a religion, and as such offers an explanation of the fundamental nature of reality, of God, of the origin of the universe, and the relationship humans have to their Creator. Islam provides a clear set of instructions on how to please God and hopefully earn his forgiveness and blessing in the afterlife. The problem arises when some Muslims believe that Islam also gives clear instructions of how a state should be set up. That religion should dictate who holds political power, and to what purpose. That religion should dictate the relationship of various groups in society (male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim, Sunni and Shia, etc.) to each other. That a privileged group should decide what Islam means and doesn’t mean, and how it should be turned into laws and punishments.
This is a huge error in understanding Islam, and has caused all manner of trouble to Muslim nations, and resulted in tremendous loss of innocent life. Any serious student of the Qur’an quickly realizes that it is essentially silent on the question of politics. There is no “Islamic” version of politics to apply or realize. Outside of a brief mention of deciding affairs through “shura” or “mutual consultation”, the Qur’an does not endorse any particular political structure. It seems rather obvious to me that “mutual consultation” in the modern world is best achieved through democratic elections, not through some sort of dictatorship like the Saudi royal family or Supreme Leader as in Iran. Muslims in the West run their institutions such as schools and mosques and political organizations through elections because we see that as the most fair and just way to handle affairs.
The problem can be traced back to various thinkers from the last century. Men like Syed Qutb, the Egyptian who first wrote about the distinction he saw between a “Muslim” nation and an “Islamic” nation. He saw the Muslim nations of his time as un-Islamic and in need of a revolution. Qutb in many ways is the intellectual grandfather of Al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad and the Taliban. His thinking was mirrored in South Asia by Maulana Mawdudi while in Shia Iran, Khomeini put forth his new ideology of “Velayat e Faqih” meaning that society should be ruled by Islamic jurists and not by regular politicians.
The basic problem with this thinking is that it ignores reality and does not understand that political questions cannot be answered by religion. There are several reasons for this. First, and most important, there is no single Islamic point of view on any given question. Muslims can and do disagree. There are six religious based political parties in Pakistan alone. There is in Iran a wide range of opinions even among the Ayatollahs themselves much less average Iranians. How is deciding Iran’s stance on nuclear development a question best answered by a religious scholar? Given the diversity of views, how can we decide what interpretation of Islam should be imposed on society? Who should be given the power to make that decision, and if not by elections, then how? It simply can’t work.
Secondly, the highest value expressed in the Qur’an is the command to do justice, even if it is against yourself. Doesn’t justice demand that all citizens of the state be treated equally? Men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim? If everyone is entitled to equal treatment, then shouldn’t everyone have a say in deciding how they are governed? Doesn’t that require a real democratic system?
Thirdly, why is it that every so-called “Islamic” state or group seeking to create one is so obsessed with limiting the lives of women? How they dress, who they can travel with, what jobs they can hold if any, how much education they can receive, and what role they can play in society is a central obsession of all these groups. This desire to subordinate women is unacceptable to many Muslims, and has no basis in the Qur’an, which places no restrictions on the public role of women.
Finally, every attempt to create an “Islamic state” has rested on force and violence. It has never been freely accepted by a society, because the average person quickly sees through its hypocrisy. The Saudis claim they are an Islamic state. They impose public piety on their people and employ a religious police to enforce the wearing of headscarves or closure of businesses during prayer times. But at the same time the debauchery and luxurious living of the Royal family is well-known to all. A rigid stifling society for the Saudi people, while the royals jet off to Europe as their private playground.
The Lahore bombing by the Pakistani Taliban and the ISIS bombings in Iraq and Lebanon and Brussels and Paris show the true nature of this distorted thinking. All methods are acceptable to those who believe they are creating an “Islamic state”. But instead they offer Muslims nothing but the death of innocents and shame at the behavior of their fellow Muslims. The only end to this is when Muslims abandon the whole notion of an Islamic state. The government should be secular, neutral between Muslim sects and opinions, and neutral between its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. Everyone should be treated with justice, regardless of who they are. Such a state, and only such a state, would actually be Islamic.