By Khaled Abou El Fadl
It is fair to say that no one is exactly sure what defines an Islamic state.
There is no question that the Prophet Muhammad founded a city-state in Mecca and Medina and their vicinity. Many Islamic activists imagine that the Prophet's city-state can be transplanted into the context of the nation-state without any substantial difficulty.
This, however, is an illusion.
The challenges posed by the modern nation-state have led to a wide range of portrayals of the nature and function of the modern Islamic state, with some claiming that it is a democracy, a theocracy, or a state based on the rule of the juris-consuls.
Someone like the late Indo-Pakistani Abul A'la Mawdudi tried to invent a hybrid system that is neither a theocracy nor a democracy, which he called Theodemocracy. Other activists insist that an Islamic government is based on a shura system, which is inherently vague because shura, although commanded by the Qur'an, simply means consultation.
While I will not attempt here to define an Islamic state, I do believe that the system of governance that is most consistent with the ethics and principles of Islam is one founded on constitutionalism. It is a state founded on the idea of respecting basic individual rights that should not be compromised or violated by the state. The challenge is to create the institutions that are capable of safeguarding the basic rights of human beings.
The classical discourse on the Islamic state is surprising in many regards. Most jurists argued that two basic components define an Islamic state: the state is composed of a Muslim majority; and the state accepts the shari'a as its guiding source of law, and, in fact, attempts to apply shari'a to the best of its ability.
According to the majority opinion, a state in which the majority of the population is not Muslim cannot be Islamic. For example, if a state existed that in fact enforced the shari'a as its source of legislation but the majority of its citizens was Christian, it would not be considered Islamic. Although Spain was an Islamic state for over six-hundred years, once its Muslim population was eradicated, it ceased to be Muslim. At the same time, a state that enjoys a Muslim majority, but does not enforce shari'a cannot be considered Islamic. It might be a Muslim state, but not an Islamic state.
The complexity, however, comes from the fact that in the classical tradition, these were not the only definitions of the Islamic or Muslim state. Some jurists contended that an Islamic land is wherever Muslims are able freely and openly to practice their faith. Others argued that wherever justice prevails therein is an Islamic state. Still others claimed that once Muslim, a state remains Muslim until the end of times - hence, according to this position Spain, Crete, Sicily, Israel, the Philippines, and India are still to be treated as Muslim states.
However, we need not settle this definitional dispute about what might count as an Islamic or Muslim state (and there is a difference between the two). The issue that interests me here is considerably narrower: it is the dynamics between an Islamic legal obligation or duty and a moral obligation or duty, especially within the context of an Islamic state. For this limited purpose, we need a working functional description of the core purposes of an Islamic state as it was identified by the classical jurists.
Political theorists can argue about the practicality of establishing an Islamic state, the meaningfulness or coherence of the enterprise in the contemporary age, or even its desirability. Depending on their ideological outlooks and commitments, they could develop sophisticated models for a successful Islamic state or challenge the whole enterprise as unwise or wrongful. But these various theoretical efforts, whether pro or con, would greatly benefit from a more sophisticated understanding of the ontological commitments of Islamic law and the relationship of the state to these commitments.
Most classical jurists asserted in a somewhat formulaic fashion that the essential functions of an Islamic state are three-fold. The state must:
- give effect to the shari'a;
- protect and serve the public interest or general welfare; and
- guard and defend Islam and Muslims against any aggressor or oppressor.
These functions were declared to be basic and essential, and a state loses its legitimacy in direct proportion to its failure to serve these objectives.
In addition, historically, it was always a point of pride for Muslim jurists that legitimate Islamic rule necessarily meant the rule of law - Muslim jurists regularly boasted that in Islam, the government is bound by the shari'a and not free to act outside the bounds of law, while barbarians, which usually referred to the Franks in Europe, gave unrestrained power to their rulers. They differentiated between the rule of shari'a, which is founded on principles and rule of law, and mulk, which is whimsical, individualistic and unrestrained by law.
Of course, medieval political realities did not always live up to the ideals of Muslim jurists, but at least the juristic tradition established a principle for future generations of Muslims: Any government that seeks the honour, and burden, of identifying itself with Islam must be a government of laws - a government bound by law where the rule of law prevails.
In this context, Muslim jurists produced a considerable literary tradition that condemned despotism in the strongest possible terms. According to the classical jurists, despotism by its very nature is unjust and regardless of its material consequences, despotism must be condemned - despotism and justice are by their nature opposites, so they cannot be reconciled (al-istibdad wa al-'adl diddan fa la yajtami'an).
At the most basic level, the classical jurists explained that despotism is the antithesis of governance by shura (consultation) - despotism violates both the Qur'anic command to Muslims to conduct their affairs through consultation and the Prophet's practice of consulting with his Companions and deferring to the majority opinion on political issues.
But beyond this basic level, and other than this vague concept, in the juristic mind, despotism was equated with governance outside the bounds of law; it was also associated with the spread of human suffering, mass detentions and imprisonments without proper judicial trials, unlawful executions, usurpations of property, imposition of excessive taxes (mukus, as they were often called) and ultimately, the corruption of the earth. It is fair to say that these practices are illustrations of probable consequences of despotism, but they cannot be considered as the elements of a systematic definition of despotism.
Because Muslim jurists were not political theorists, and because, in a typical juristic method, they dealt with the consequences of despotism on a case by case basis, as situations emerged that warranted condemnation, there is no systematically precise and clear definition of despotism in the juristic tradition. It is fair to say, however, that the classical juristic tradition considered despotism to be morally offensive. Of course, this corresponds with the Qur'anic attitude towards 'istibdad (despotism), 'istid 'af (oppression), zulm (oppression) and 'ikrah (compulsion), all of which the Qur'an decisively and unequivocally condemns as evil, ungodly and a form of corruption.
One of the famous traditions that has a significant impact upon the juristic discourse in Islam asserts that Umar bin al-Khattab, the Prophet's close Companion and the Second Rightly Guided Caliph, exclaimed: "How could you enslave people and they were born free!" The effect of this tradition was to recognize very clearly that liberty is a moral value, and oppression is its antithesis.
One can conclude that any government that lays claim to being Islamic, as an integral part of honouring the shari'a and serving the public welfare, must be bound by the moral parameters described above.
The problem, however, is that as lofty as the ideals and principles might be, it is the technical specifics that pose the real challenge - as the well-known English proverb claims, the devil is indeed in the details. The Islamic historical experience, leave alone the problematic modern attempts at establishing Islamic governments, amply demonstrate that the best of principles could be completely undone by technical aspects that provide a perfect excuse to undermine the moral law.
One of the most significant technical aspects of shari'a law has to do with the treatment of rights. One of the most significant aspects of shari'a law is that it is intended to serve the rights of God (huquq Allah) and the rights of people (huquq al-'ibad). Therefore, an Islamic government that seeks to enforce the shari'a must honour both the rights of God and the rights of people. But there is a third category, which raises a host of difficult issues, and that is: mixed rights (al-huquq al-mukhtalata or mushtaraka) or rights that to various extents are shared by God and people.
The rights of God relate to any matter or act that is expressly reserved for God's Self - acts that are performed solely because God commanded them and that are offered solely for God's sake. In other words, the rights of God are exclusively within God's province. Matters of ritual and worship tend to fall in this category of rights.
The rights of people refer to matters that implicate only the interests of individuals such as owning a horse or car. The interest of owning a piece of property implicates the rights of the owner and other people who are affected by this property in one way or another, for instance as through an easement on the land. Interestingly, the rights of people are considered an original condition - in other words, there is a presumption that everything and every act falls within the category of the rights of people unless God specifically reserves a particular issue or act for God's Self. Unless God affirmatively reserves an issue by claiming exclusive jurisdiction over it, that issue is left to human beings.
Mixed rights implicate issues that God has addressed explicitly and thus laid claim to the matter, but the issue at hand also affects the interests of human beings. For instance, God explicitly prohibited slander and dictated a punitive measure for the crime. This makes slander fall in God's jurisdiction because by explicitly addressing this act, God has expressed a specific interest in the act. However, slander is an offense that takes place against a person or persons and therefore, God has an interest that slander not be committed, but so does the victim of the offense.
The fact that both God and human beings might have a shared interest in a specific act categorizes it as a mixed right. There are easy cases but there are also difficult cases such as the consumption of alcohol. God prohibited the consumption of alcoholic substances and prescribed a punishment as well. However, arguably, human beings also have a public order interest in prohibiting alcohol because intoxicated people tend to commit crimes and pose a danger to the public. If so, then what has usually been classified as a right of God becomes re-classified as a mixed right.
This classical paradigm could be utilized to develop a theory of individual rights, and to create a wall of separation between matters within God's jurisdiction and matters that belong to the state. The state would not be able to play God or claim to represent the Divine judgment and will. This is all the more so considering that the classical jurists argued that since God can vindicate God's own rights, in this world, the state must concentrate on vindicating the rights of individuals. In fact, they argued, the state should not have the power to waive or compromise rights that are held by individuals. If an individual has a claim of right against another, the state acts unlawfully if it ignores or waives away this right without the express voluntary permission of the possessor of the right.
Furthermore, the classical jurists contended that only God can forgive or vindicate God's own rights, and God does not forgive or waive away the rights of individuals unless they do so first. In other words, if an individual's right is violated, God's judgment is contingent on the will of the victim. If the victim does not forsake or forgive his right, in the Hereafter neither will God.
The problem that does arise in this field is that under the guise of faithful service to the shari'a, zealous governments have tended to claim jurisdiction to enforce the rights of God, and in fact, to make the rights of people secondary to the rights of God. Throughout Islamic history and especially in the contemporary age, puritanical states have tended to argue that it is only logical that a faithful and devout government care about vindicating the rights of God much more than vindicating individual rights. After all, it is argued, who is more important: God or individuals?
The venue most susceptible to abuse has been the category of mixed rights. Puritanical governments expanded very widely the category of mixed rights by claiming that even acts of ritual and worship affect the interests of human beings. For instance, if people pray or fast people would be more pious, and if they were more pious, people would be better members of society - they would commit fewer crimes and be more honest in their work. Once puritanical states were able to expand the category of mixed rights, they also greatly extended their jurisdiction and ability to act on God's behalf. Concretely, this kind of reasoning allowed puritanical states to justify imposing the veil upon women or to punish men for failing to pray in the mosque.
Contemporary Muslim scholars have developed the doctrine of rights in a novel, but dangerous direction. Many Muslim scholars have contended that while the rights of people include only private goods, the rights of God are more inclusive - they are concerned with the general welfare of humanity. The main purpose of any body of law, it is argued, is to fulfil the rights of God, but because the very purpose of shari'a is to achieve the welfare of the people, then the rights of God are in reality nothing more than the welfare of people - namely, the same as the purpose of shari'a. Therefore, any act or thought or institution that aspires to achieve the welfare of humanity is encompassed by the rights of God, which may not be violated.
This argument has been developed by scholars of a liberal and democratic persuasion who desire to sanctify the public interest, and therefore, claim a state serves God by serving its citizenry. This idea emerged in the context of the enthusiastic euphoria by which liberal reformers celebrated the idea of public interest (maslaha) as a cure all for all the challenges that Islamic law confronts in the modern age.
The difficulty with this idea, however, is that other than the fact that it lacks any theoretical or theological foundation whatsoever, it unwittingly sacrifices individual rights in favour of public rights. Public rights are rendered divine and the state is given the power to represent them. These functionalist approaches make utilitarianism the only effective moral measure in Muslim societies, and this, I believe, is entirely inconsistent with the Qur'anic message.
But even worse, this approach does not explain why it is that God's rights are nothing more than the general welfare? It is one thing to say that God wishes the well-being of humanity, or that God wills the public good be pursued, but it is quite another to say that when the state represents the general welfare, it is representing God.
The general welfare (al-maslaha al-'amma) is not served by some superficial utilitarian calculation; rather, what embody the general welfare are moral objectives - people are not well-served when they possess a great deal of material objects and are able to consume to their hearts' content; they are well-served when their lives are ethical and their society is moral.
This argument, however, could be exploited to justify the despotism of morals. In other words, acting under the guise of creating a morally upright society, a state can ignore the material needs of people and completely eradicate individual autonomy and personal choice. Every puritanical model from Oliver Cromwell in pre-Restoration England to Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab and the formation of a Wahhabi state in Saudi Arabia has exploited the very same logic. Time and again, puritanical movements have fantasized about creating a morally upright society, and justified the most immoral repression in order to reach this goal.
These puritanical states, however, not only do great violence to their citizenry, but they also completely undermine the integrity of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. As I have already argued, despotism itself is an immoral condition, and the immoral cannot espouse morality. To do so would be hypocritical, and this is another immoral act.
Even more, classical jurists have long recognized that moral order must be premised on justice. Justice is the quintessential and ultimate moral condition because it is what God promises is the final resolution in the Hereafter. Therefore, the quintessential pursuit of shari'a law is not a just order, but justice. This means justice at the individual and collective level, and it is also the basis for condemning oppression as an immoral condition.
Puritanical states must inevitably rely on a great deal of coercion or compulsion to achieve the illusion of a moral order. The use of unlawful compulsion is yet another immoral condition, but as importantly, a puritanical state must threaten and terrorize its citizenry into compliance; this forces people to live an inconsistent dual life, one which is used to gain favour with the state, and another that is concealed. The employment of terror, and the encouraging of social hypocrisy not only creates immoral conditions, it is also a form of corrupting the earth, which, according to the Qur'an, is a highly immoral act.
It is not surprising that the classical jurists considered despotism, regardless of its objectives, to be antithetical to justice, or that they believed that corrupting the earth, by terrorizing people, the use of coercion, or the prevalence of social hypocrisy, could not possibly co-exist with justice. But the classical jurists believed the sustaining of life to be a moral value in and of itself. For the sake of preserving life, limited exceptions to the moral law may be tolerated as long as no life is preserved at the cost of sacrificing another. But the pursuit of Divinity, with all of its subcomponents, such as the pursuit of justice, requires that human life not only be preserved but that it would be provided with all the means that would enable it to engage in moral pursuits. Means must be provided that would empower human beings to exploit their potential regardless of whether in fact they do so or not.
In other words, every human being has a moral potential, which he or she may pursue or fail to pursue. The function of the state is not to make sure that each individual has properly pursued his or her potential - the state has no special competence that allows it to know people's potential or to know how that potential could be best pursued.
The state is expected only to provide for the most apt conditions that would allow human beings to engage in reflection, research, supplication and worship, and the development of their conscience and intuition so that their personal autonomy is maximized. Only when not weighed down by fear, anxiety and need can one be genuinely autonomous. Only a well-developed sense of personal autonomy is capable of supporting the most true and sincere will and intent. In Islamic theology, rituals and good deeds are truly virtuous only if they are done with the most sincere and honest will and intent.
Therefore, the classical jurists argued that the elements that allow human life to thrive and possibly realize its potential are divided into three categories: necessities, needs and luxuries:
- necessities are things like food, shelter, safety, a means of living and dignity;
- needs are things like education, the financial ability to travel in search of knowledge or to purchase educational materials, the ability to afford marriage, the ability to speak one's mind and the freedom to congregate and make friends; and
- luxuries is a catch-all category for everything beyond the needs and necessities of people.
A virtuous and just state is one that enables people to enjoy these conditions that allow human life to thrive, and in direct proportion to its ability to first meet the necessities, then needs and finally, the luxuries of people, is the virtue and justice of a state.
This three-part division is fundamental to the notion of the rights of people--as noted earlier, God vindicates God's own rights, and therefore, according to a large number of classical jurists, on this earth, the rights of people take priority over the rights of God. Consequently, an Islamic state is charged with the obligation of maximizing the conditions for justice, and it does so by serving the rights of people. The rights of people consist of necessities, needs and luxuries, and the virtue of the state lies in its ability to serve as many of those rights as possible.
At this point, some will be tempted to revisit the concept of maslaha (welfare); when all is said and done, it could be argued, we have returned to a utilitarian model. The Islamic state's primary objective is to serve the material needs of people, and therefore, in the final analysis virtue has been reduced to material objects, even if these objects are essential for human survival. This maslaha oriented view of justice is bound to repeat processes that took place in Islamic history - processes that produced mischievous results, and defeated any moral aspirations that might have existed in the public order.
Historically, classical jurists tended in theory to insist that the general welfare can only be served by justice. But the reality was that the state's laws were often unjust and unethical. Jurists, particularly those of a conservative orientation, were unwilling to argue that unjust laws should not be obeyed, and so they were forced to argue that the general welfare and justice can only be served by perfect order. Gradually, the only virtues truly honoured were order and stability, no matter how unjust the laws.
Judith Shklar once wrote: "The idea that law exists in order to impose agreement is the counsel of despair ..." I think this is exactly the point. Although the arguments about historical inevitabilities and pre-determined failures are very popular with secular critics of Islamic law, it ought to be recalled that the argument that justice is served when the law imposes a forced agreement was not just a concession to order and stability, but an act of despair.
The classical jurists did not possess the knowledge of institutions that could be used to force the hand of government or restrain it in any way. Jurists attempted to restrain government by offering it counsel - at times, by shaming it, but ultimately, their primary tool was their charisma and legitimacy among the masses. Ultimately, they would mobilize the masses to threaten rebellion or insurrection and frequently the state was forced to give in.
I believe that in the modern age, Muslims could do much better. Institutional restraints and the role of civil society in resisting despotism and oppression has become something of a science, and it would serve Muslims well to use the advances in the knowledge of institutional and non-institutional restraints against government in order to pursue more effectively the objectives of shari'a. In the same way that laws cannot be moral just because people assume it to be so, homogeneous values adopted and imposed by the state have no serious claim to true virtue. From the fact that conservative jurists in the past despaired and settled for the least that could be expected from a state, it hardly needs to be said that we are bound by the counsel of despair.
The other objection that will be raised to the necessities, needs and luxuries paradigm will come from a very different front. It will be argued that this material-oriented view of virtue is entirely counter-intuitive as to the role and function of a state that associates itself with religion. Especially in the modern age, a large number of activists and popular writers have insisted that, whether the argument posed here comes from the classical tradition or not, this approach is fundamentally flawed because it fails to realize the binding and morally objective character of the shari'a.
Muslims cannot pick and choose which Islamic laws to follow and which to reject, and there is a moral duty to obey all Islamic law without distinction. To be truly faithful to God's omnipotence, individual choice and autonomy cannot exist for a Muslim. Before anything else, Muslims are commanded to submit, and therefore, for a Muslim the primary virtue is complete and total submission. Submitting to God, the state must enforce God's law. But fundamentally, neither the state nor the individual has a choice but to submit to God's law.
This idea seems so intuitive that most Western scholars writing on Islam have claimed that God is the sole legislator in Islamic law, and that human will and thought is irrelevant to any legislation. Furthermore, such Western scholars assume that disobeying a law in an Islamic state is a sin - moral and legal.
This argument, which ironically is equally popular with modern puritanical Muslims and Western non-Muslim scholars, is founded on several premises:
- God's law is pre-existing and eternal; it is absolute good and ultimate justice, and in an Islamic state God is the Sovereign. As the sole Sovereign, God is also the Legislator of all laws.
- The state in Islam is solely an executive state - it exists for the sole purpose of maintaining and enforcing the law, and it performs no legislative functions. But the state has a moral educative role, and its laws are actually God's moral lessons to people.
- By faithfully enforcing God's Legislation, the state also enforces God's ethics and morals. The only source of moral as well as legal Legislation is God; hence, what defines the moral from the immoral is the technical law.
This distinctively modern orientation provides a sense of decisive certainty, and also the security of knowing right from wrong by just looking to the laws of the state. The law is assumed to serve the justice as well as the general welfare by its very existence. Law defines the general welfare, but general welfare does not define the law.
Although primarily modern in origin, this approach does have roots in the classical tradition - Ibn Hanbal (855 A.D.), the eponym of the Hanbali School of jurisprudence and the Zahiri School of jurisprudence seem to be the most representative of this approach. This approach is supra-textual; it relies on the text to be the faithful conveyer of God's Will, and also assumes that human beings can faithfully report the text's determinations. Consequently, the only remaining task left for human beings is to enforce the commands of the text.
A major flaw with this argument is that it assumes too much. First, it confuses between the shari'a and fiqh, or obliterates the distinction between the two altogether. It assumes that on most issues the text is clear and precise and it also assumes that human beings are capable of objectivity to the point that homogeneity becomes possible.
These assumptions, however, are nothing short of farcical and fantastical; they are not supported by any field of study - whether history, sociology, psychology, or hermeneutics. Puritans create a fantasy world, and many Western scholars for reasons of their own believe, or want to believe, that these fantasies do represent the reality of Islamic law. Unfortunately, however, very often when fantasies are taken too seriously, they become dangerous.
Submission to God is hardly the issue; every practicing Muslim will concede that for humanity's own good, it should sincerely submit itself to God. Puritans, however, have a much narrower conception of submission than did the classical jurists. Puritans see submission primarily as an issue of correct practice.
The majority of classical jurists and the position that I advocate here understand submission to be a complete and total engagement in which human beings constantly wrestle with the Divine Will. Submitting to God does not merely mean obedience but reflection and thought - a process according to which a human being lives thinking about God, for God and with God consistently and persistently. This, I believe, is a truer fulfilment of the Qur'anic injunction advising people to live in a state of remembrance - to remember God night and day, standing upright and laying down, and while working or playing.
We also agree that God is Sovereign, but what does that mean? God is Sovereign because God may do as God pleases, but does that mean that God's Sovereignty must void human sovereignty? Does the fact that God is Sovereign necessarily negate human autonomy? The puritanical concept of sovereignty is irreconcilable with the Qur'anic concept of individual accountability. It makes sense to say that if the individual is not autonomous, then human beings cannot be individually accountable.
Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, all humans are the viceroys of God. All those who seek the true path are equal before the eyes of God. This is reaffirmed by the Prophet's well-known saying, "All people are equal as the teeth of a comb. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is no better than an Arab except through piety." As the Prophet repeatedly emphasized, true piety is in the heart, inaccessible to human beings. In addition, the Prophet also stressed that human beings are not given the authority to assess the piety of others - in fact, it is impious to judge the piety of others. Human beings are authorized to evaluate public conduct, not intentions except in mitigation.
All humans have the potentiality of reaching the true path by reflection, knowledge and faith. In fact, without thought and reflection it is not possible to seek out God's path. The Qur'an states: "Hence, those who are deeply rooted in knowledge say: We believe it; the whole [of the divine writ] is from our sustainer albeit none takes this to heart save those who are endowed with rationality [understanding]." Rationality is the one feature that gives distinction to human beings, and makes them worthy of the viceroyship. However, this rationality must recognize the superiority of God and His path because the correctness or error of human rationality is judged by God's objective moral path.
In the very first chapter of the Qur'an, God distinguishes His own sovereignty by noting that He is the Judge of the Hereafter and that He is the Owner of the Right Path. As the early conflict between 'Ali, who was the Prophet's cousin and also the Fourth Rightly Guided, and the puritanical Khawarij demonstrates, when human beings legislate for themselves, they do not void or transgress upon God's Sovereignty. In the course of launching their bloody insurrection, the Khawarij raised a banner proclaiming: inna al-hakimiyya li'llah (all sovereignty belongs to God), and accused 'Ali of violating God's law because he agreed to settle his political disputes with Mu'awiyya through arbitration. At the time, Mu'awiyya was Ali's governor over Syria, and later became the first Umayyad Caliph. According to the Khawarij, it was inconceivable that 'Ali would agree to settle a dispute through arbitration because doing so implies that God is not the sole Legislator and also that God's Sovereignty is incomplete. In the Khawarij's view, God's law clearly resolves all problems and issues in all their particulars and details, and therefore, 'Ali was duty-bound to enforce these laws without compromise. Of course, the only recognized details and particulars of God's law were as the Khawarij saw them, which they arrogantly assumed to be God's definitive Will. 'Ali agreed with the literal words written on the Khawarij's polemical banner, but he disagreed with its import and meaning. God is the Sovereign because God is the Final and ultimate Judge and because God's Will is the authoritative frame of reference, not because God's law is all encompassing.
For all practical purposes, puritans end-up equating human subjectivities with God's path, and God's truth with human claims. Human comprehensions and understanding define, restrict and channel God's path with the result that the path of God obediently follows human law instead of the opposite. The text was created for human beings; human beings were not created for the text. Puritans imagine that human life with all its diversity, richness and complexity can be imprisoned within a text and that the Divine Will with all of its transcendence and omnipresence can be captured in a text, whatever the nature of this text, and that this text can then in turn be fully represented by human beings.
Humans represent God's ethical existence on earth; they do not represent His truths. This is exactly why the law of creation itself defies puritan fantasies. Very much like birth and death, the Qur'an emphasizes that diversity and disagreement is a part of God's law. Puritans imagine the construction of homogeneity through law, but it is the text of the Qur'an itself that takes issue with this aspiration. Below are samples of the Qur'anic discourse on human diversity:
And unto thee have We revealed the scripture with the truth, confirming whatever scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. So judge between them by that which God hath revealed, and follow not their desires away from the truth which hath come unto thee. From each We have appointed a divine-law and a traced-out-way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. By that He may try you by that which He hath given you. So vie one with another in good work. Unto Allah ye will return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ.
Had Allah willed, He could have brought them all together to guidance--So be not thou among the foolish ones.
Had Allah willed, they would not have been idolatrous. We have not sent thee as a keeper over them, nor are thou responsible for them.
And if thy Lord had willed He would have made mankind one nation, yet they ceased not to differ.
And if thy Lord willed all, who are in the earth would have believed together wouldst thou [Muhammad] compel men until they are believers?
There is no compulsion in religion.
These passages indicate that it is inevitable that people will continue to disagree and differ up to the Final Day. This disagreement and diversity is not only expected but is desirable. The Prophet is reported to have said, "The disagreement of my companions is a mercy." Furthermore, a person is not only rewarded for being right but also for being wrong. The Prophet said, "He who strives after the truth and is (ultimately) erroneous is rewarded once, and he who is right is rewarded twice."
Diversity in thought and opinion is accepted, but the truth of God is one.
This brings me to my final point. The Qur'an says, "Let there be of you a nation who invite to goodness, enjoin the right conduct and speak against indecency." The Qur'an does not say, "Let there be of your government ..." The duty, which is a core value in Islamic morality, mandates that there not be a moral monologue from the state to the people, but a moral dialogue between people.
In my view, an Islamic state is duty-bound to seek after the moral values of shari'a, but people have a right to interrogate the state on its success or failure in the pursuit of the objectives of shari'a. Institutionally, there must be mechanisms that protect the integrity of the moral conversation taking place within society, but if the state assumes the role of the despotic moral teacher - the one that speaks while all humbly and faithfully listen - the state has usurped the role of the Divine. There is a moral duty to obey the law of the state, but only if the person, who will ultimately be held accountable before God, believes the law is moral.
Before 'Ali, the Prophet's cousin, became the fourth Caliph, at one point he was commanded by 'Uthman (the third Caliph) not to visit or speak with Abu Dhar al-Ghafari, one of the Prophet's Companions. 'Uthman had exiled Abu Dhar for being too critical of the state's fiscal policies, and forbade anyone from congregating with him. 'Ali, however, refused to obey the order. When 'Uthman brought him in for questioning, 'Ali responded: "Is it that if you command us to do something that we see the obedience of God and His prophet in its opposite, we should blindly obey? No, by God, we will not."
At the risk of punishment, 'Ali took a conscientious stand to uphold a moral principle, and it seems to me, 'Ali was exactly on point. Truly submitting to God must mean that when all is said and done, a person must be able to answer the call of his conscience and stand on the Final Day before God, able to defend his actions. Hopefully, if one is not being presumptuous or whimsical, if he is not rewarded twice at least he will be rewarded once.
Ultimately, Muslims do have a moral duty to obey God's law, but not the state's version of God's law.
Originally published on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics Website