Islam and the Secular StateIt is hard to disagree with the main arguments of Abdullahi an-Na’im’s impeccable book: a healthy religious life requires a secular state, even as political life may remain infused with the religious values of the population. And the historical examples provide added credence to the point. An Islamic state as such never existed historically, even though pre-modern states cannot be regarded as secular in the contemporary sense of the word. But there has never been a state in Islamic history that fused entirely religious and political authority after Muhammad, and it is far from obvious that Muhammad’s own Medina community constituted a state or was meant as a model for any state. All states in Islamic history had a more clearly defined political than religious character, even as they used religion for their purposes or were expected to fulfill some religious roles. In effect, they were political entities that survived to the extent that they accommodated themselves to the diversity (including legal diversity) of Islam and other local traditions. Colonial rule is to blame for rigidifying the sense of what Islam meant, namely by codifying diverse, flexible religious traditions into standard legal formats and ignoring the fluidity of communal boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims. However, this rigid colonial perspective on the meaning of religiosity and identity was inherited by contemporary Islamic political movements and states claiming to be Islamic.

Even though some of these arguments have been stated in one way or another by various Muslim intellectuals and scholars of Islam over the past century, here we find them organized into a coherent and forceful exposition that highlights, given the expertise of the author, the shari’a dimension of Islamic teachings. As such, this exposition constitutes an extremely valuable contribution to the Muslim public sphere. But I am left wondering whether it speaks to the reasons as to why religion remains (or has become) an important source for justifying or contesting the state in our time. I will try to say something about that shortly, but before doing so I would like to offer three rejoinders regarding the meaning of shari’a, and specifically to what extent we can understand it as Islamic “law.”

First, shari’a had historically referred to the sum-total of practical ways of being a Muslim in the world—i.e., it was meant more as a guide to everyday pious life rather than as a set of rules to be deposited unto a uniform state law. Hence, the historical diversity of the shari’a (even within territories and among populations ruled by a single state). This historical rootedness of the shari’a in everyday life appears to be responsible for why Muslims came to see it as organically fitting into their varied ways of life, without a need for force or coercion. Only in modern times does shari’a come to be understood as “law” in a more strict sense of the word, and only in this way did it become a problem.

Second, even when it is asserted as a guide for modern law, one could still maintain the old flexibility of the shari’a by highlighting not the formal rules of the shari’a itself but its “intentions,” maqasid al-shari’a. This kind of discussion is less attuned to what the rules should be, and more to how to make sense of the rules in terms of our values, interconnections, and sense of sociability or purpose in life. Thus whereas pure formalistic discussions of shari’a tend to posit it as external to human agency, discussions of the intentions of the shari’a are geared toward humanizing it and making it, again, into an organic outgrowth of a reflexive process or interactive reasoning.

Third—and this point has to be argued forcefully—no religion can survive if approached strictly or primarily as a set of “laws” that are external to the human interpreter. Indeed, as an-Na’im clearly argues, this is how religious reason itself develops, and in the final analysis it is the believer who is making sense of what their religion is. The problem arises when religion begins to appear entirely external to the individual psyche—that is, as a set of rules that requires obedience for no reason other than that it is the “law,” enforced by an authority (which might be the state), and requiring no personal spiritual investment. A proper religious life, then, is less about obeying the law and more about social and spiritual orientations. As such, religious life that is voluntarily chosen informs ethical conduct in society and spiritual experience vis-à-vis the self.

Many Muslims know that already, yet they highlight the need for shari’a-based life when asked, and often tie its application to state policies. The question then becomes why they do that. The basic problem seems to me to be that the virtues of the alternatives are not yet obvious enough. Secular states in much of the Muslim world were products of the colonial experience rather than of indigenous political development, and as an-Na’im knows well, a substantial part of the modern secular experience is tied to extreme authoritarian systems. Of course, all states, including those formed by arbitrary decisions of European powers, may over time appear natural and become accepted as such by their populations, but not at any price. Such states have to succeed in what modern states the world over are expected to succeed in: namely, they must demonstrate effective sovereignty; deliver public goods; establish universal meritocratic systems; be responsive to grievances; make “citizens” feel that they have an effective voice in their own national affairs (whether through formal democracy or other means); resolve remaining grave historical injustices of colonialism (the case of Palestinians being the most glaring example); and generally not appear to be arbitrary or beholden to foreign interests.

The “return” to Islam as a “total way of life” (including politics and law) is therefore not accidental, and can indeed be timed very specifically to a convergence of failures in the diverse missions of the modern state mentioned above. The modern, secular state failed to become modern enough. Muslims waited quite patiently—from the end of the colonial era until roughly the late 1970s—before returning to Islam. There was nothing natural or eternal about the appeal of Islam as a total way of life, and Sayyid Qutb and Abu Ala Mawdudi alone could not have changed many minds if the conditions were not suitable for that. Indeed, during their own lifetimes, both had little effect on the political systems of their national societies. The fact that so much political energy is credited to their legacy now belies the fact that, given a different set of conditions (see above for a short list of tasks), history could have taken a different turn, and Islam, while remaining important as a reference point for most Muslims, would not have required being “tamed.” What an-Na’im advocates now would in all likelihood have been accepted without needing a book to be written about it.

The arguments of the book are of course very sound. Yet, as tremendously learned, wide ranging and probing as they are, I am afraid they do not address the real problem. The problem, for me, has less to do with arguments about how we should understand Islam, and more with the nature of social and political developments befuddling Muslim societies. A liberal interpretation of Islam, or at least an interpretation that accommodates (or, as in this case, demands) a secular state, can indeed be based on the Islamic heritage itself. So can an authoritarian, dogmatic and intolerant interpretation mandating a state that applies the shari’a as law, and then really only one version of such shari’a.

The question therefore is not which Islam is “true,” or even what kind of arguments are needed in order to prove one approach to Islam to be more valid than another. If we are speaking of a living, interactive human enterprise, then sociologically speaking, Islam is what Muslims make of it. And in making it fit various needs—political, social, cultural, economic, spiritual—Muslims assert the status of Islam as a living and rich repertoire of ideas. If they continue to see the political, even state-oriented, aspects of it to be virtuous, it is perhaps less so because anyone has persuaded them of the point. It is just that the comparative virtues of the alternative are less obvious than its corruption and subservience to unaccountable foreign patrons. I am speaking of course of the secular state, which ruled most of the Muslim world in the 20th century. Obviously that state was far from the ideal that an-Na’im has in mind. Still, that is what many Muslims have experienced as secular rule. As such, it remains for the secular state to prove its virtues before its “citizens,” whether committed Muslims or not, may finally recognize it as theirs.