Secular Muslim

Muslims require a secular state to freely practice Islam, argues Faizan Arshad

Secular Muslim
‘In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state’, writes Abdullah an-Naim of Emory University, and I could not agree with him more. Islam is a religion that can only be adopted through free choice and the moment there is any coercion involved in the practice of the religion, it undermines the very foundations of Islam. So when the state espouses ‘Islam’ and enforces it as positive law, it begins to regulate something that must inherently be a matter exclusively of personal choice. A state must therefore be secular, and by that I mean it must be neutral regarding issues of religious doctrine. It must simply be an actor that facilitates the practice of religion by its citizens, rather than being coercive and impinging on their personal liberties – those same personal liberties that Islam so vehemently advocates for.

Even if the Islamic concept of personal liberty is overlooked, Shariah by its very nature cannot be enacted into positive law by the state. For us to understand this, we must first understand Shariah:

Shariah is not simply ‘Islamic law’ as is popularly believed, but in fact it is the totality of guidance that God has provided to humanity, explains Imam Shamsi Ali. It covers all the principles of belief, action and daily living. Simply put, it is the gateway to becoming a Muslim. Shariah is founded on the original texts of the Quran and the Hadith, however what is crucial is that these texts themselves are static; it is in fact the interpretation – the human interpretation – of these texts that creates Shariah. Since the interpretation of the Quran and Hadith is a human construct, it means that Shariah is not constant. It is in fact ‘suppositional’, as described by IbnRushd, and therefore depending on the methodology employed by the interpreter, varying claims of Shariah can be present at one particular time. So here lies the problem: since competing claims of Shariah exist, there will always be a differing opinion on the principles of Islam. How then do we decide what is right?

When a state does manage to decide upon this divine dilemma and becomes an ‘Islamic state’, in actuality it only espouses a certain interpretation of Islam, or rather, a certain claim of Shariah that perhaps the ruling class believes in. As soon as this takes place, the competing claims of Shariah that are held by other Muslims are immediately negated. The ‘version of Islam’ that the state adopts will impinge on the rights of people who disagree with that version. In addition, when Shariah is adopted as legislation, it will coerce its citizens into practicing claimed Islamic principles. For example, if the state passes the law that all women must wear the headscarf; it will be coercing everyone: those who disagree with this principle on theological grounds and those who agree with the principle but choose not to follow. Such coercion, as we have already established is against the very foundations of Islam.
The idea of an Islamic state where Shariah is adopted as positive law is actually a post-colonial concept

There are however those who look back at the golden age of the Islamic civilisation and attribute the successes of that time to the existence of an Islamic state in the form of a caliphate. This again is not true because the Islamic state, as we understand it today, never actually existed; the idea of an Islamic state where Shariah is adopted as positive law is actually a post-colonial concept.

Ever since the beginning of Islam, individuals have tasked themselves to the study of Quran and Hadith, interpreting and implementing the religion in their lives without any official or priestly status. Ira Lapidus of University of California reflects that it is these individuals, through their private endeavours, who are the real authors of the Islam as we know it today. He argues that in addition to this, the emergence of the various schools of Islamic thought has also been an important factor in distancing religion from the state. In the course of the eighth century, distinct schools of legal and religious interpretation of the Quran and Hadith gradually took shape under famous imams; Abu Hanifa, Malik, Al-Shafi and others. Religious leaders belonging to different schools became, to differing degrees, involved in community affairs, and played an important role in society as judges, notaries and administrators. Thus, in the past, the community of scholars and holy men have been the real guardians and regulators of Islam whereas the caliph has largely been a patron of the religion, often using it to his political advantage to cease or retain power.

The most idyllic and truest Islamic state that ever existed was during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and that was only possible because those were extraordinary circumstances. The Prophet simultaneously held the role of supreme religious leader, adjudicator, commander and administrator for all Muslims. Everything he did or said became Shariah, because he was the only source of the message of Islam, receiving direct revelation from God. There were no competing claims over Shariah because the defining foundation of a Muslim belief is following the Quran and Sunnah, both of which are sourced from the Prophet alone. Therefore, the period of the Prophet Muhammad, the ‘nizam-e-mustafa’, is too extraordinary to be emulated in today’s world, simply because there will be no other man to assume the extraordinary role that Prophet Muhammad had.


Since the ultimate source of Shariah is God Himself, another problem arises whenever issues pertaining to religious doctrine are debated. Any argument made which holds ‘God’s divine will’ as its justification is unverifiable. This is because such arguments are claims made by humans in light of their interpretation of the Quran and Hadith – claims which are open to contestation when another interpreter employs a different methodology. More often than not, these scenarios result in allegations of heresy and ‘kufr’ by the contesting parties, with each arguing that the other has ‘left the folds of Islam’.

If parliamentary parties start declaring government policies to be wrong because they go against Islam, then it just ends up becoming an affair of whose version of Islam is correct. Therefore, arguments concerning public interests must only be made using what Abdullah an-Naim calls ‘civic reason’. He proposes that the rationale for public policy should be based on the type of reasoning that can be refuted in a public debate without anyone’s religious piety being questioned.

However, in search for religious piety, many Muslims around the world raise slogans for the formation of a ‘Khilafah’ or an ‘Islamic state’. Throngs of supporters raise rallying cries at protests and processions. Thousands of naïve students sign up to the cause. Some even pick up arms in the name of God. I do wonder though how many of these Muslims have thought it all through.

The writer is a medical student living in London. He tweets @faizan_arshad