Toward a Shared Vision
The Sovereignty of God
(formerly entitled “The Internal and External Behavior of Public Religion as an Authority in Islam”)
by Anisa Abd el Fatah
In the United States we have an understanding of separation between Church and State that is based upon the assumption that these are two very different institutions with very distinct purposes. One the state, intended to administer the collective affairs of a plural society, and the other the church, institutionalized to administer and oversee the development of, and to nurture the moral and ethical instincts and perhaps the traditions of a given society, operating privately through the hearts and consciences of private individuals. In Islam we also recognize these two entities as distinct, and Islamic scholars have for centuries labored to offer a precise definition of the two that would explain their relationship as well as their obligations both individually and jointly to the individual privately, as well as to the society collectively and publicly, while also explaining, or at least recognizing, that God has an intention, or wisdom that affects us.
The best examples of contemporary philosophical discussions on such topics might be found in the writings of such noted Islamic scholars as the late Imam Ruhallah al-Musawi al-Khomeni, and from the Sunni school of thought, the late Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Ihkwan al Muslimeen. Both men describe an obligation for Muslims to organize their societies around the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, Sunnah meaning the lifestyle of the prophet Muhammad and his descendants. This emulation is based on the commands found within the Qur’an that tells the Muslim to follow the example of the prophet Muhammad, (May the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his descendants), since the prophet was inspired not only with the revelation now known as the Qur’an, but also with the perfect understanding of its verses, the application of which was demonstrated in his daily life, and imitated, or duplicated without any unlaw! ful innovati! on by his children, and to some degree by those who emulate them through various and differing established Islamic cultures that have manifest as Sunni, Salafi, Shiite, Sufi, etc. There are also some very pragmatic discussions underway, wherein present-day Muslim scholars and academicians are searching for down-to-earth answers to the dilemma created by the Muslim desire to fashion modern Islamic societies according to what are seen by some as ancient ideas, articulated more than 1400 years ago in a desert society being reformed, and not necessarily transformed by an inspired organizational and behavioral model that was translated by Arabic language into moral and legal rights and traditions of citizens, and their government, implying that it works bottom up and not the other way around. It began with halal and haram, permitted and prohibited behavior, and ascended, or expanded vertically into institutions and authority that had the right and power to! encourage,! and enforce conformity based upon knowledge, wisdom and experience. This is why it is within the context of permitted and prohibited, or right and wrong, good and bad that the concept of legitimacy, and legitimate authority is understood in Islam.
The desire to depend upon what is defined as religious guidance, to structure societies legally and morally is not unique to Islam, or the Muslim. Western jurisprudence, even though it is positivist, can trace its philosophical roots back centuries to Mosaic law, or the ten commandments, and its legal ethos clearly goes back to the teachings of Jesus who introduced the concept of redemption and rehabilitation, only minimally touched upon in the Old Testament, except through ritual atonement. The Old Testament seems to present a strict religious and moral code that had little space for mistakes and where the duty of the authority seemed mostly to pursue justice, and to punish, while the duty of the people is observed as conforming. In the New Testament is where we perhaps first witness a migration in social/religious thought, where we leave law, and arrive at faith. A faith that defines the role of a religious authority differently, and expands its emphasis fro! m merely jus! tice, to also include improving the human condition through compassion, demonstrated as forgiveness, redemption and rehabilitation, arguably symbolized by crucifixion (punishment) resurrection (recovery) and ascension ( rehabilitation) to perfect man, without consideration for justice, meaning that anyone, just or unjust has such rights. Justice does not seem to necessarily take a back seat to these concepts in Jesus‘ teaching, but is possibly presented as a secondary obsession, the definition of which is also defined by the manner in which it is pursued which might be where we arrive at the relationship between the means and the end resulting in a definition of justice. Islam drew upon the teachings of previous prophets and the laws they brought, and added another dimension, which is completion and mastery of human “being.” At some point Islam was not only to be instituted, but its institutionalization was to be a crowning of mankind’s accomplishments and achievem! ent beyond! hand cutting, decapitations and floggings, to the complete return to God and restoration of humanity, (redemption) and recovery from the hardships that attended the original sin of Adam and Eve, based upon belief and faith (ascension). This is not a reference to utopia or heaven on earth, but rather a reference to a shifting in human preoccupation from survival to salvation, and belief premised upon the numerous promises made in Holy Scriptures to mankind that include this life and the next, as well as experience with God. Whereas the scripture says that man was born into toil and struggle, it doesn’t say anywhere that we could not, or would not overcome this state. In fact the Qur’an says that mankind will achieve mastery according to desire, and will achieve a level of peaceful existence for a time that is both internal and external. This is the reward for “Islam” or the return to God. The Qur‘an says, “ God has promised to those among you who believe and work ! deeds of! righteousness that he will of a surety grant them in the land, inheritance of power as He granted it to those before them, that He will establish in authority their religion, the one he has chosen for them, and that He will change their state, after the fear in which they lived, to one of security and peace. “They will worship God, and God alone, and not associate anything with God. If any do reject faith after this, they are rebellious and wicked” (Holy Qur’an 24:55).
The logical question at this juncture is what happened? How did Muslim societies become trapped in an unenlightened past? It was not by accident, and its captors were not “agents” or conspirators from the West, or Zionists, or any of the usual suspects. It was the failure of the society to limit power of authority, and to keep to the social priorities identified by the prophets. It has to do with the roles of women, but much more importantly, it has to do with freedom. The Islamic scholar Sayid Musavi Lari wrote beautifully on this topic in the article “Free Will and Determinism” saying: “For man to progress morally and spiritually, the existence of free will is indispensable. Man has value, and values can be expected of him only so far as he is free.” The simple answer to “what happened in the Muslim world?” is that the people surrendered their freedom to large despotic governments who saw it within their interest to construct an Islamic imposter that took bl! ame for pove! rty and ignorance, that silenced and abused women, that took credit for injustices and brutality, and unapologetically made the people captives to materialism, magic and superstitions, all forms of idolatry and that includes personality cults.
The ideological premise of Islamic government is the idea that God is the unrivaled authority over mankind since it says in Qur’an, Chapter 36, verse 83, “ So Glory to Him (God) in whose hand is the Dominion of all things and to Him will you all be brought back.” This statement automatically limits the power of government. It makes it clear that no government can claim legitimacy that holds ideas or seeks other than what is good for mankind internally and externally as we understand “good” from the criteria explained in the Qur’an. When we are taught that such teachings have no relevant importance to issues related to the operations of the State, it stands to reason that we cannot look to such teachings for either guidance or direction, even though they were revealed exactly for that purpose. Without such a definition of good government, we cannot distinguish intellectually or spiritually from right and wrong, or good and bad except through experimentat! ion. This th! en might be the difference between the religious and secular government, while it is not the difference between democracies and theocracy. Theocracy is a reality that is there and cannot be changed or altered by the will of man, or his sovereignty or lack thereof. Democracy on the other hand is a way of organizing a society that expresses the essential need and right of mankind to be free and to have choice, and it is doubtful that any government absent these two primary elements can claim to originate in Islam. Secularism on the other hand inhibits the rights of believers to access the scriptures and to benefit publicly from their guidance, which no doubt impacts also upon mankind’s private faith, and civic actions.
An Islamic government, contrary perhaps to popular opinion, is not merely an authority constructed by Muslims and that enforces a body of laws seen as Islamic because they have basis in the Qur’an. An Islamic government is established for the purpose of carrying out the duties of vice-regency, which is a description of prophet hood , inherited by righteous men and women who are not prophets. That duty is to take care of man and the creation which sustains him, to keep him focused upon the internal struggle, and provide for his material needs to the extent that he is not overwhelmed with earning, and hardships associated with mere survival, and not spoiled into laziness and conceit. It is to keep the path to God clear by safeguarding intellectual, religious, and other freedoms and liberties, and encouraging and rewarding virtue, while discouraging vice, and prohibiting what is clearly forbidden. It is the establishment of systems of merit that recognize ach! ievement and eng! enders excellence in mankind, and offers leadership and authority to those who have proven that they are able to not only lead others, but also to govern themselves. Their description and their intent is spelled out very clearly in the chapter of Qur’an named “Lail” or Night, which contrasts the behaviors and destinies of successful man and unsuccessful man, as in the distinction between night and day, saying:
By the Night as it conceals the light, by the day as it appears in Glory, by the mystery of the creation of male and female, verily the ends you strive for are diverse. So he who gives largely in charity and fears God , and in all sincerity testifies to what is best, we will indeed make smooth for him his path. But he who is a greedy miser and thinks himself self sufficient, and gives the lie to the Best, we will indeed make smooth for him a path to misery. Nor will his wealth profit him when he falls headlong down into the pit. Verily we take upon ourselves to guide, and verily unto us belong the end and the beginning. Therefore I do warn you of a fire blazing furiously. None shall reach it but the most unfortunate ones. Those who give lie to Truth and turn their backs. But those most devoted to God shall be removed far from it. Those who spend their wealth for increase in self-purification, and who have in their minds no favor from anyone for which a reward ! is expect! ed in return, but only the desire to seek for the countenance of their Lord Most High. And soon will they attain complete satisfaction.
This satisfaction, is an achievement, and it represents completion and human perfection for mankind who has journeyed from God through birth into this world, and returned to God upon a straight path (Sirat) that extends beyond this life. In the esoteric sense the path is governed only by God, and only the righteous can enter upon it, and only with His permission. In the mundane sense it is the path of life that is overseen by divine law and principles promulgated by enlightened man for the benefit of mankind, to ease and illuminate our life’s journey through stages of awareness, that might culminate in the complete return to God, our souls pleased with journey and satisfied with its rewards.