Arguing About the Islamic State

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Ahmad Fuad Rahmat | Research Fellow, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF)

Over the years, much has been said and judged about the “Islamic State”. A great deal of the attention, however, has fallen on controversial policies that are supposedly associated with it, such as hudud and moral policing. Little has in fact been discussed over what an Islamic Government is in the first place. What should such a government be like? What kind of a society would it produce? Will it be democratic?

It was with the hope to further explore such questions that hundreds gathered at the main auditorium of the International Islamic University of Malaysia for the forum “Revisiting the Islamic State” on Wednesday night, 16 November 2011.


Moderated by public intellectual and academic, Dr Maszlee Malik, the speakers were Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front, Ustaz Fadlan Mohd Othman of  Ulama’ Muda UMNO (iLMU) and Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Islamic Party (PAS) MP of Kuala Selangor.

Anyone familiar with the intellectual landscape of Muslim Malaysia could anticipate the heated battle of ideas in those three hours.



The ensuing disagreements emerged out of the markedly different definitions of the Islamic State that were presented. For Ustaz Fadlan, it would suffice for a state to be regarded as “Islamic” if its inhabitants were Muslims who establish Islamic institutions and facilities.

He emphasized that an “Islamic State” need not be more comprehensive than that, just as it would suffice for anyone to be regarded as a Muslim insofar as he or she had recited the Shahadah (declaration of belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as God’s Prophet) . We need not evaluate the Islamic nature of a person or state beyond the minimal criteria.

Dr Farouk and Dr Dzulkefly responded by emphasizing the need for the right content and substance in the Muslim understand of statehood. Dr Farouk asserted that the maqasid, or higher intention, of any state worthy of the label “Islamic” should be the establishment of daulah madaniah, a truly civil state that aims to uphold justice. It goes without saying that this would entail the conscious mission of ending all conceivable oppression and suffering.

The Qur’an lays emphasis on ‘adl and ihsan, i.e. justice and benevolence. A Qur’anic society must be based on these values. Also, the Qur’an strongly opposes zulm and ‘udwan, i.e. oppression and injustice. No society thus based on zulm and ‘udwan can qualify as an Islamic society. The Qur’anic values are most fundamental. It is thus debatable whether a state, declaring it self to be an Islamic state can be legitimately accepted as such without basing the civil society on these values.

Dr Dzulkefly added that the notion freedom envisioned by a civilized Islamic state is not total and abstract freedom, but freedom from the bonds of the world in order to enable us to serve God alone. In his words, it is an experience freedom that would make manifest, our submission to God, freedom that would in effect bring us closer to the deen (religion).

Understood from the perspective of justice, serving God does not just entail the mere repetition of rituals and the establishment of institutions. Serving God would have a more robust meaning that is fundamentally guided by the need to honour the entire creation of Allah. According to Dr Dzulkefly, this would effectively lead to the safeguarding of cultures and differences. Pluralism too of course is not to be pursued for its own sake, but in respect to all that God has created for Muslims to reflect on in their existence.

The different definitions at work then explain the different responses that were given when Dr Maszlee asked if Malaysia ought to be regarded as an Islamic State. Ustaz Fadlan responded easily with a resounding yes. Dr Farouk claimed the opposite. Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad offered a qualified affirmation. Malaysia is an Islamic State with the score of 3/10. Malaysia is Islamic in name but it offers little to match in meaning and substance.

Democracy is anti-Islamic?

The forum reached a noteworthy height of tension upon Ustaz Fadlan’s claim that democracy is essentially un-Islamic.

His argument took the long winded form of a highly unlikely metaphor that began with a group of Muslims who somehow find themselves lost in a forest. After some time with nothing to eat and nearing death it of course became permissible for them to kill and eat a pig to survive. In the same way that Muslims are now living in a state of emergency without a caliphate, democracy becomes the next best form of government we have to (very reluctantly) work with (hence the part about eating pork).

In real fear of innovation, Ustaz Fadlan insisted on the need to be as true as possible to Islam as it was lived during the time of the Prophet. “Democracy”, at any rate, is not a word to be found anywhere in the Qur’an or Sunnah. We look at the past first, before we engage with anything in the present.

At any rate his metaphor was expectedly met with sceptical questions. The moderator Dr Maszlee astutely pointed out the utter strangeness, if not desperation, in Ustaz Fadlan’s example. Could the lost Muslims not have opted to eat vegetables and plants instead? In other words, should the spirit of democracy be understood as so completely foreign to Islam’s own political aspirations? At best, Ustaz Fadlan’s logic was unconvincing. At worst, it was contrary to the spirit of Islam itself.

This aversion to democracy was seen again in Ustaz Fadlan’s argument for why demonstrations are haram. Since the deaths of Umar, Uthman and Ali were caused by demonstrators, demonstrations should not be a means of making political demands.



Democracy is Islamic

It was left to Dr Farouk to state the obvious: no analogy should be drawn between the leadership of any of the Righteous Caliphs with any existing leader, at least definitely not the evidently corrupt ones of this country.  The demands of the people must be heard and responses given accordingly. It made no sense to deny the use of public space to voice dissent tout court.

Dr. Farouk reminds us that what is evidently wrong is wrong and the task is to find the best solution to correct the error. If the solution does not violate the principles of Islam, then it does not matter if it came from the West, or the East. After all, “the West” too is part of God’s creation. To deny a good simply on the basis that it came from the West is counterproductive to the goal of Muslim progress.  In fact, the Prophet did declare in a hadith, that “the best form of Jihad is to tell a word of truth to an oppressive ruler.” Since democracy, as it stands, offers the best means to do so in a peaceful way, Muslims lose nothing from engaging and utilizing the system in the best possible way to uphold justice.

The concept of democracy was embedded in the Qur’an itself though it uses a different terminology as explained by Muhammad Asad in his book “State and Government in Islam”. It is for this reason that the Qur’an refers to democratic governance when it says: “And those who respond to their Lord and keep up prayer, and whose affairs are (decided) by mutual consultation, and who spend out of what We have given them” [42:38].

Thus the mutual affairs (those pertaining to governance) should be conducted only by mutual consultation which in contemporary political parlance will be construed as democratic governance. Since in those days there was no well-defined practice of political democracy, the Qur’an refers to it as `amruhum syura baynahum, i.e. affairs to be conducted through mutual consultation, which is a very meaningful way of hinting at democracy.

This injunction, implying government by consent and council, must be regarded as one of the fundamental clauses of all Qur’anic legislation relating to statecrafts, and is binding on all Muslims and for all times.

Islam cannot be implemented by the State alone. Islam must be implemented by both the Ummah and the State. The State implements Islam while the Ummah keeps a check and balance on the State. This is where we play our role as Muslims in a democratic Islamic state. If we still remain silent to all kind of injustice surrounding us, and our community, then we failed to uphold the most basic fundamental law of the Qur’an: to exercise our duty as Muslim ummah in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is evil!

Dr Farouk reiterated that Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Hizb an-Nahdah (The Renaissance Party) quoted from a great Islamic thinker Malik Bennabi about Democracy in his book "ad-Dimuqratiyyah fil Islam" - Democracy in Islam; that metaphorically when the tree of syura withered in the land of Islam for lack of maintenance, its seed landed, that is during the Renaissance, in the lands of the Europeans where the tree of democracy grew and blossomed.

Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, concurring with Dr. Farouk, reminded the audience that while notions such as the “balance of power” and “representational democracy” may have originated in the West. The spirit of democracy is clearly already present in Islam, namely in the Islamic concept of Shura and and Ijma’. Recent scholarship in intellectual history also confirms that the European Renaissance and Enlightenment did have Muslim intellectual roots.


Dynamism Needed

Dr Farouk reminded the audience of the need to be attentive to the realities of the present when thinking about the past. This does not mean that the present is to be blindly privileged, or the past discarded altogether. It means that the present cannot be reduced and simplified as a mere distraction from all things Islamic. Thus, he stressed the need for Muslims to be dynamic and embrace change.

We thus must be attentive to change because the mechanisms of oppression and injustice are always mutating into newer forms. In order to intelligently address the problems of the world as we currently live in, Muslims must be informed of what those problems are and why they occur, and this entails the serious and objective engagement with the advances and virtues of contemporary political discourses. The problems of our time are unique to our time.


Ideal versus Reality

Dr Maszlee’s approach throughout the evening was to effectively bring the discussion back to the ground. Both sides, their respective merits and flaws aside, offered their ideals of the Islamic state but could say little of what it would look like in practice. What of the hudud issue? Or enduring claims denying women the right to full social and political participation? What would be the legal framework that could best express the dynamism demanded from Dr Farouk and Dzulkefly? What would the Islamic concept of justice, enforced by a state, look like?


Indeed, little concrete examples could be given, due to simple fact that there aren’t many out there. Ustaz Fadlan claimed that Saudi Arabia is the closest real life example we can find. Dr. Farouk suggested New Zealand based on the newly released Islamicity Index that measured the Islamic credentials of governments all over the world. It is the substance that matters. Hence it is imperative that to warrant the status of an Islamic State, it must ensure good governence, socioeconomic justice and respect human and political rights.



The many qualms that would be typically voiced upon any mention of “the Islamic State” can be summarized to a single concern, and that is whether the citizens of such a state would be free. “What will or will not be permitted under an Islamic government?” is the loudest question posed to Muslims of this era.


All other assurances that may be given in place of freedom – be it peace, security or wealth – appear secondary, if not altogether hollow, to the more urgent need to know about what vision of a truly free society Islam can (or cannot) provide. Any peace, security and wealth we experience would mean nothing if we do not recognize our will and aspirations in them.


What the tensions tonight reveal is that the dispute is not between Muslims who are for freedom and Muslims who are not. To understand what is really at stake we must reject that simplistic binary.


Properly considered, Ustaz Fadlan’s position against democracy however difficult it may be to swallow is in fact based on a demand for freedom: freedom from sin, innovation, “the West” and so forth.  Whereas the vision of freedom offered by the two other panelists, in turn, was a more inclusive one where others too are entitled to partake and contribute to its manifestation.


The dispute then is not over the definition of freedom but the definition of the good Muslim life, in other words, the terms and conditions with which Muslims are to live freely.



It is indeed a unique feature of Muslim political discourse that the present must always be viewed with certain affinity to the past, namely, all facts that can be grasped and conceived about the time of Prophet Muhammad’s life and reign. The tumultuous politics of Muslims across the globe are unravelling in the here and now, but the struggles and inspiration therein must nonetheless be rooted to an attachment to history.


But the reality is that even the most nostalgic political vision can only happen in present time with an eye to what lies ahead. Even the most emotive appeal to Islam’s age of innocence and past glories is made for the sake of a better tomorrow.


Stripped further of all rhetoric and hermeneutics the task appears daunting. We cannot let our certainties of things past speak for the uncertainties of the future.