Wednesday, June 03, 2020


‘May you live in interesting times’

Supposedly originating as a curse in Chinese, though used more colloquially as an expression in English – ‘May you live in interesting times,’ appears to be quite an apt descriptive phrase to chart the course of current events.  Perhaps more so than usual, it carries with it an even bitter sense of irony.

Globally, the Coronavirus, or rather the specific strain called Covid-19, has in the face of a very short space of time, not only dominated pretty much all discourse, but resulted in severe restrictive measures being imposed on a sizeable portion of humanity at large.  Outside of major international conflict, the restrictive measures that have been swiftly imposed upon populations are unprecedented in modern times.  Media outlets report death tolls across continents by the hour; politicians reinforce their policy adoptions by the force of security agencies, and an international billionaire with a messiah-like complex, positions to think of himself as the ‘saviour of humanity.’

Although, unlike other forms of contagion witnessed in history, such as the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, or the Spanish Flu of 1918, the death-toll in numbers is not at present what could be construed as reaching ‘apocalyptic’ levels.   That said, one key message that is being reinforced throughout almost all mainstream media platforms, much to the delight of nefarious political forces, is a primordial, at times pathological, fear.

Trial by contagion?

During times of monumental upheaval, one can unwittingly be carried by the tide of events.  To many, these events can seem to take on a life of their own; like a tidal current, pulling all along with it, drowning many, casting others to the rocks.  And yet it is in these very times of adversity, that the wheat is separated from the chaff.

Collectively, as the nation professing the message of the last Prophet sent to all mankind, we publicly claim adherence to the divine unaltered revelation that he, peace be upon him, brought.  Tests, trials or even the turbulence of a perceived pandemic, shouldn’t cause the message in that revelation to be relegated to the extent that even the most basic fundamental principles it outlines are not in the forefront of our minds or even oft-repeated.  Being put to a test or trial, is a core message recurring throughout the Qur’ānic text:

ولنبلونكم بشيء من الخوف والجوع ونقص من الأموال والأنفس والثمرات وبشر الصابرين
الذين إذا أصابتهم مصيبة قالوا إنا لله وإنا إليه راجعون

And We will most certainly test you with something of fear and hunger; loss of property and lives and fruits; and give good news to the patient, Who, when a misfortune befalls them, say: Indeed, we belong to Allah and indeed to Him we will return [2: 155/156]

This is not the first and by no means will it be the last tribulation that we may witness during the course of our lifetime.  While its effect and ramifications may well be profound, and even more far reaching than many would be willing to countenance, the very fact that the Qur’ān stipulates that tests will be made of us, should help to equip our mindset with the fortitude to endure it.

لا يكلف الله نفسا إلا وسعها 

On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear [2: 186]

أحسب الناس أن يتركوا أن يقولوا آمنا وهم لا يفتنون ولقد فتنا الذين من قبلهم فليعلمن الله الذين صدقوا وليعلمن الكاذبين

Do people think they will be left alone after saying ‘We believe’ without being put to the test We tested those who went before them: Allah will certainly mark out which ones are truthful and which are lying [29: 2/3]

Fear of the dark?

One can rather easily be caught up in the daily cacophony of fear that the mainstream media manufactures. Yet solace from the primordial fear of dying, particularly from a perceived pandemic, cannot be achieved in a maelstrom of messages that are devoid from reference to revelation.  One need only look to the number of scare stories being circulated across social media platforms to see that.  Emphasising this point though is not to make light of the pain that is naturally felt through bereavement.  But the solace we have comes ultimately from the message delivered to us from the one who created all that exists – including life and death.

Death is the great leveller which will come to us all.  From the moment that we are born we are taking one step, day by day, to our eventual demise.  Whether we are to die young or old, from serious illness or even contagion, there is ultimately no escape.  But the final revelation furnishes us with this understanding succinctly: that life and death have been created to try us; that the present life is not all that there is to existence.  Beyond the realm of this world lies a hereafter to which we are all, inextricably, heading towards.

تبارك الذي بيده الملك وهو على كل شيء قديرالذي خلق الموت والحياة ليبلوكم أيكم أحسن عملا وهو العزيز الغفور 

Blessed is He in whose hand lays the dominion, and He has power over all things.  Who created death and life that He may try which of you is the best in deeds; and He is the mighty, the forgiving [67: 1/2]

كل نفس ذائقة الموت وإنما توفون أجوركم يوم القيامة فمن زحزح عن النار وأدخل الجنة فقد فاز وما الحياة الدنيا إلا متاع الغرور

Every soul shall taste of death, and you shall only be paid fully your reward on the resurrection day; then whoever is removed far away from the fire and is made to enter the garden he indeed has attained the object.  The life of this world is but the comfort of illusion [3: 185]

Fear of death also carries with it other, indeed wider, profound ramifications.  As we read in the eloquent tradition reported in the Sunan of Abu Dāwud al-Sijistāni, the Prophet peace be upon him forewarned of the calamitous implications that such enervation would bring:

حدثنا عبد الرحمن بن إبراهيم الدمشقي حدثنا بشر بن بكر حدثنا ابن جابر حدثني أبو عبد السلام عن ثوبان، قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يوشك الأمم أن تداعى عليكم كما تداعى الأكلة إلى قصعتها فقال قائل ومن قلة نحن يومئذ قال بل أنتم يومئذ كثير ولكنكم غثاء كغثاء السيل ولينزعن الله من صدور عدوكم المهابة منكم وليقذفن الله في قلوبكم الوهن فقال قائل يا رسول الله وما الوهن قال حب الدنيا وكراهية الموت

Abdur-Raḥman ibn Ibrāhim al-Dimishqi narrated to us Bishr ibn Bakr narrated to us Ibn Jābir narrated to us Abu ‘Abd-al-Sallām narrated to me from Thawbān he said the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said: The people will soon summon one another to attack you as people when eating invite others to share their dish. Someone asked: Will that be because of our small numbers at that time? He replied: No, you will be numerous at that time: but you will be like the rubbish that is carried down by a torrent, and Allah will take fear of you from the breasts of your enemy and cast ‘wahn’ into your hearts. Someone asked: What is ‘wahn’, O Messenger of Allah?  He replied: Love of the world and dislike of death.


Circulating anonymous, often unverified information, most notably via social media, helps often inadvertently, to the climate of fear that is continually being programmed by government forces.  That in turn, is solidified in mass consciousness by a passive, uncritical mainstream media.  Greater diligence is required not simply to push back against this tide overall, but remain steadfast to the principle injunction we are instructed with, namely, to verify information:

يا أيها الذين آمنوا إن جاءكم فاسق بنبإ فتبينوا أن تصيبوا قوما بجهالة فتصبحوا على ما فعلتم نادمين

O you who believe!  If an evil-doer comes to you with a report, verify it, lest you harm a people in ignorance then be sorry for what you have done [49: 6]

Helping to promote or circulate anonymous, unverified information can become even more calamitous, particularly when that is directly attributed to the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him.  Although not peculiar to present events, memes are often circulated attributing unverified or untraceable statements to the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him.  Often these are devoid of the original Arabic text; the channel of transmission (isnād), the primary companion narrating it from the Prophet peace be upon him, and which collection it has been cited from.  Caution should always be exercised lest a commonplace false statement becomes directly attributed into revelation.  The warning is indeed stark, as noted by a great many traditions in the corpus of Prophetic Sunnah, an example being:

وحدثنا محمد بن عبيد الغبري حدثنا أبو عوانة عن أبي حصين عن أبي صالح عن أبي هريرة قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم من كذب علي متعمدا فليتبوأ مقعده من النار

(Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim) And Muḥammad ibn ‘Ubaid al-Ghubary narrated to us Abu ‘Awānah narrated to us from Abi Haṣin from Abi Ṣāliḥ from Abu Hurayrah, he said the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said: Whoever lies upon me intentionally, then let him take his seat in the fire.

A false equivalence

Pandemics, epidemics, contagion, is not something that has been obviated from the texts of revelation altogether.  Many Prophetic traditions make mention of ‘Ṭā’un’ – plague, contagion.  Arguably one of the most well-known traditions in this regard is to be found in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhāri.

حدثنا إسحاق أخبرنا حبان حدثنا داود بن أبي الفرات حدثنا عبد الله بن بريدة عن يحيى بن يعمر عن عائشة، زوج النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أنها أخبرتنا أنها سألت رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عن الطاعون فأخبرها نبي الله صلى الله عليه وسلم أنه كان عذابا يبعثه الله على من يشاء، فجعله الله رحمة للمؤمنين، فليس من عبد يقع الطاعون فيمكث في بلده صابرا، يعلم أنه لن يصيبه إلا ما كتب الله له، إلا كان له مثل أجر الشهيد

Isḥāq narrated to us Ḥabbān reported to us Dāwud ibn Abi Furāt narrated to us Abdullah ibn Buraydah narrated to us from Yaḥya ibn Ya’mar from ‘Aisha, wife of the Prophet peace be upon him, that she asked the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him about Ṭā’un (plague, contagion) and the Messenger of Allah informed her saying: Ṭā’un was a punishment which Allah used to send on whom He wished, but Allah made it a mercy for the believers. None remains patient in a land in which Ṭā’un has broken out and considers that nothing will befall him except what Allah has ordained for him, but that Allah will grant him a reward similar to that of a martyr.

This is an incredibly important tradition that should be read more than once not only to discern the deep wisdom that it outlines, but to take heed from the solace that it also provides.  Another famous tradition, again cited by Bukhāri, relates to an epidemic breaking out in the region of Syria, during the time of the second-Caliph, Umar.

حدثنا عبد الله بن يوسف أخبرنا مالك عن ابن شهاب عن عبد الله بن عامر، أن عمر خرج إلى الشأم فلما كان بسرغ بلغه أن الوباء قد وقع بالشأم، فأخبره عبد الرحمن بن عوف أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال إذا سمعتم به بأرض فلا تقدموا عليه وإذا وقع بأرض وأنتم بها فلا تخرجوا فرارا منه

Abdullah ibn Yusuf narrated to us Mālik reported to us from Ibn Shihāb from Abdullah ibn ‘Aāmir that Umar went to Shām and when he reached Sargh, he got the news that an epidemic had broken out. `Abdur-Raḥman ibn `Auf told him that the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said: If you hear that it has broken out in a land, do not go to it; but if it breaks out in a land where you are present, do not go out escaping from it.

Authentic traditions such as these set out general guidance concerning the approach to contagion.  However, there has been a dangerous trend of late to try and seek to equate Prophetic guidance in this regard to the political actions of modern secular states.  Some have even been trying to read into traditions what frankly isn’t there.  Such an approach is gravely mistaken. There is a chasm between the mercy sent to mankind, the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, and the malevolent, unjust cliques that wield power oppressively over humanity.

Political Contagion?

Political viruses can be just as deadly as those at the microscopic level.  One need only look to the history of the twentieth century to see how much incalculable suffering many of humanity endured being on the receiving end of such political contagion.  Is, as the phrase has been coined, history about to repeat itself?  Time will only tell.  What can be discerned, is that there are dark political forces across the globe which are preparing the ground for enabling a level of surveillance tyranny unseen before in human history.  The speed with which draconian restrictive measures have been introduced by governments, perhaps shows that commitment to the idea of human liberty, as opposed to slavery, is only skin-deep.

Even the most oppressive political regimes in recent living memory did not have the technological tools now being proposed at their disposal.  While a sizeable proportion of people may even clamour to gleefully submit in servitude, here again, reference to the final revelation must be made paramount.  The final revelation brought forth by the mercy sent to mankind, categorically stands in opposition to the very idea of mass surveillance.

Salvation does not reside in the nightmare scenario of an all-encompassing tyrannical surveillance, whether that is borne in the East or soon to be imported into the West.  Salvation is only to be found in the divine guidance that has been sent to all of mankind.  That is only antidote to the unyielding injustice that humanity finds itself subjected to.

قل هذه سبيلي أدعو إلى الله على بصيرة أنا ومن اتبعني وسبحان الله وما أنا من المشركين

Say: This is my way: I call to Allah with certain knowledge, I and whosoever follows me, glory be to Allah, and I am not one of the polytheists [12: 108]


Islamic activists need to learn from Imam al-Ghazzālī

Imam Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzālī in his magnum opus, Ihya Ulum al-Din, supports a series of searching recommendations that I would have, regretfully, scoffed at many years ago when starting in the world of Islamic activism. Yet at the same time, I was ready to quote al-Ghazzālī when his statements accorded with my worldview.

But study, time and events have enabled me to realise that his central recommendation in his chapter on knowledge, to discipline the soul, is one of the most important personal duties of any Muslim that seek to engender a social or political change. Like the public debaters al-Ghazzālī encountered at his time and whose number al-Ghazzālī once belonged, those that gain prominence through public activism are trialled by a host of negative traits, which if not recognised and addressed, can lead one to troubling places.

I would highly recommend that all Muslims, especially young Muslims, embark upon an in-depth study of his Ihya in its broader work and find a means to set up mechanisms for ongoing personal self-reflection and correction.

In this regard, good companionship is key. If your peer group only consists of brash people; that criticize and knit-pick, have a disdain for Muslims that do not share your worldview, deny the need for self-reflection and are used to backbiting then inevitably you will be a party to the acquisition of these traits. Sadly, I observe too many young brothers that come to Islam with sincerity, yet the many negative effects of activism obscure their minds and muddy their priorities.

This is not to deny the enormous social and political change that is required today and young people are key to producing the creativity that is sorely needed in the Islamic da’wa space. But with any attempt to make change externally, there must be a carefully thought out project to create an internal transformation. Unfortunately, many activist outfits prioritise the former but give scant attention to the latter. As a result, their people often do more harm than good, contributing to divisiveness in our community that polarises an already fractious landscape. One such example is how these activists are quick to pick up on faults of others, especially scholars, often based on interpretations of interpretations yet are ready to give their own leaderships and scholars a free pass. Husn udh-Dhann only applies to the ‘righteous’.

Part of the problem is how, to convince the young to a cause, the recruiters attach exceptionalism to their groups. One is part of an association that is inspired by a prophetic work and emulates the path of the Sahabah. Their elders are lionized, and a myth surrounds the social movement to the degree that the good works of others become the subject of disdain and even pity. Instead of seeing their work as part of a patchwork of activities that help elevate the ummah, they attach an exaggerated status to their efforts. At a time where unity is in short supply, they sow discord.

Islamic activism of its various kinds is required, but the dangers that come from it must also be understood and addressed through a serious programme of development that utilises the breadth of past Islam scholarship.

Here are some pertinent remarks from al-Ghazzālī

On disciplining the self

If you are longing for the hereafter, seeking salvation and flight from eternal damnation, then pursue the science of inward diseases and their remedies… that’s because once the heart is cleansed from what is blameworthy, it is filled with that which is praiseworthy. Just as the soil where all kinds of plants and flowers would grow as soon as the grass is weeded out. Without this removal, no plants nor flowers would germinate.

On focusing on others without first looking at yourself

He who would spend time in pursuing what would reform others (before he reforms himself) is weak-minded. How foolish is the man?

On the rotten heart

It should be known that he whose heart is saturated with anger, greed, indulgence, and readiness to slander people is a beast as far as its content is concerned, although in a form of a human being.

On the negative traits that develop in the debaters

…It should be known with certainty that debates are devised to overcome and silence an opponent as well as for displaying one’s excellence and honour, big-headedness in the sight of people, boasting, showing off, or attracting the elite. These are the main sources of all blameworthy traits in the Sight of Allah and praiseworthy in the sight of Satan, His avowed enemy.

On picking up on faults of others as a means to debate

People should safeguard themselves against lies and against those stories which point to trivial faults and compromises which the public fail to understand or fail to observe that they are nothing but rare and slight faults being followed by atonements and rectified by good deeds that are supposed to cover them up.

On shortcuts to gaining a following

But as long as prestige requires a following then nothing attracts a following better than bigotry, cursing and slandering opponents. They have adopted fanaticism as their rule of conduct and their method of approach and call it a defence of religion and protection for the Muslims, even though it leads to nothing but the destruction of all people.

On seeking the truth from your adversary

A debater should seek after the truth in the same way as he is searching for a lost thing and it is the same to him, whether the truth appears at his hand, or at the hands of anyone who helps him. He regards his companion as a helpful friend and not as an adversary and gives thanks to him in case he drives him to a mistake and shows the truth to him. His example is like the one who follows a particular path in search of his lost possession. His companion draws his attention to the fact that his lost thing is on another way, which he should follow to find it. In this case, he should not criticize him as much as he should appreciate his deed, honour him and rejoice with him.

On the emptiness of the debaters

Consider the debaters of your time now, how the colour of the face of anyone of them would grow black (out of grief) if the truth becomes clear on the tongue of his opponent. How he would disregard it and exert his utmost effort to refute it and how he would criticise for a lifetime the one who has silenced him.

On how Shaytaan leads the debaters astray

Just as the person who has been given the free will to choose between intoxication and the other sins, regards the intoxication as the slightest [sin] which he took up, only to be led by his intoxication into committing all the other sins. So is he who surrenders to the love of overcoming and silencing opponents in debate, falls victim of the desire for power and boasting.

On insincerity

The debater keeps eating the flesh of the dead, as shown from his secondary reporting of the speech of his adversary, in an attempt to traduce him. As far as he is eager to be truthful in relating his speech, he is mainly concerned with the portions of his speech which show only the points of weakness of his arguments, and the inferiority of his excellence; and this is backbiting, while lying is sheer calumny.

On attacking your opponent

The debater could not keep his tongue from dishonouring anyone who turns away from him and that listens to his opponent. He would even ascribe to him the labels of ignorance, foolishness, lack of understanding, and stupidity.

On hypocrisy

Hypocrisy also is one of those blameworthy traits, and there is no need for evidence to criticise and condemn it. Nevertheless, they need it in their debates, for when they meet their adversaries, lovers and devotees, they could find no way but to make themselves lovable to them by good speech and showing longing for them and high estimation for their positions and lives.

On duplicitousness

They show love to each other only with their tongues, even though mutual hatred lurks in their hearts.

These are just some select quotations from the great scholar, Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzālī in his chapter (quarter) on knowledge.

Muhammad Jalal

Politics lecturer, London. Host of The Thinking Muslim Podcast


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

India: Death toll rises as deadly riots continue to take place in New Delhi

New Delhi remains on edge after three nights of rioting against Muslims. Armed mobs have targeted Muslim homes, shops and places of worship.

Photographs and videos on social media have highlighted the shocking acts being carried out by Hindu extremists as their mobs beat unarmed men with sticks, iron rods and stones.

Yesterday, in the capital a mosque was set on fire as violent protests continued to take place across the city. The death toll has increased to 21 and nearly 200 injured.

On Tuesday, in the Ashok Nagar area of the capital a violent mob shouted the Hindu slogan “Jai Shri Ram” – a slogan that praises a Hindu ‘deity’. The mob paraded around the mosque as it was being burnt down. [1]

Chilling footage went viral on social media showing the violent mob climbing the minaret of the mosque where they attempt to plant a saffron flag. Shops in the area have also been targeted by the mob.

Police imposed a restriction on large gatherings in northeast Delhi as reports emerged of stone-pelting and more structures being set ablaze.

The medical superintendent of Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, Sunil Kumar, has said that 13 people have died in the violence.

A student from a riot-hit area said that: “Since yesterday, we’ve been calling the police to enforce a curfew, to send reinforcements,”

Senior police officer, Anil Mittal said that around 150 people were injured in the violence that started as US President Donald Trump arrived on his two-day trip to India.
“Some of the people brought in had gunshot wounds,”

India’s Murder Cry: “Jai Shri Ram”

These incidents are not the first of its kind. In the past, footage emerged of a 22-year-old Muslim being “mercilessly beaten” and killed by a mob who had tied him to a tree and forced him to chant slogans praising two Hindu ‘deities’. [2]

Other reports include Muslim youth and students being attacked, a Hindu ‘extremist’ mob chanting outside a mosque and threatening to attack it, and a 40-year-old Imām being rammed by a car, all in the name of the same Hindu ‘deity’. [3] [4] [5]

These cases make it evident that this Hindu slogan, which had traditionally been used as a Hindu greeting, is one that is now used to “intimidate” those who worship differently, with Muslims appearing to be a main target. With Modi’s landslide victory in achieving a second term as India’s prime minister, it appears that Hindu ‘extremist’ mobs have used it as motivation to continue their torturing ways.

Under Modi’s rule in the past, the country had seen a rise in ‘extremist’ killings of Muslims. In 2002, for example, he reportedly allowed Hindu mobs to “vent their anger” with anti-Muslim riots during his rule in Gujarat – riots that killed 1,000 people in the process. [6]

Furthermore, after Modi became prime minister in 2014, the country saw a rise in what has been referred to as “cow vigilantism”. This is a term that is given to the violent and hateful Hindu mobs who target and kill human beings in the name of the cow, in which they consider a deity.

In 2018, the way in which the police handled 28-year-old Akbar Khan’s death highlighted how the country’s state and institutions had become “part of the mob”. [7]

The BBC reported a 48-year-old Muslim food stall owner had been forced to eat pork by Hindus who had disagreed with the selling of beef curry. The stall owner, Mr Ali, labelled it as an “attack” on his faith. [8]

These incidents have led to Muslims in India living in fear under Modi’s second term. With a prime minister who seemingly gives way for the ‘extremist’ attacks of those who worship differently from the Hindu majority, and even rules a party that refuses to give amnesty to Bangladeshi Muslims – despite promising amnesty for other religions – one could ask whether those fears are slowly becoming the reality.

May Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) protect the Muslims of India under Modi’s rule. Āmīn.



Saturday, January 11, 2020

Can the Human Be Possessed by Jinn? | Iyad Hilal

Allah (SWT) has sent down the Qur’an as a book of guidance to mankind. He created the human for the sole purpose of worship (i.e. to seek His pleasure by living the way of life THAT Allah has ordered him to adopt. He can do so within the framework of the guidance that Allah (SWT) has revealed concerning this. However, he can only do so if he properly understands its meanings and implications. Al-Arqam Institute has been conducting the online Tafsir class since 2011 and has completed Tafsir of Juz’ ‘Amma in its entirety.

We now are progressing through the Tafsir of Surah al-Baqarah. Some facts about Surah al-Baqarah: - It is the longest Surah in the Qur’an occupying more than two Juz’
- Its revelation started with the Prophet’s migration to Madinah and continued throughout the ten years of the Prophet’s life in Madinah.
- It contains the longest Ayah in the Qur’an (Ayat al-Dayn – 282)
- Surah al-Baqarah is also called Surah an-Nisaa’ al-Kubra – The Major Surah of Women. This is because it contains more rulings related to women that Surah an-Nisaa’

Surah al-Baqarah is comprehensive in its scope as it covers issues pertaining to:
- 'Aqeedah
- Ahkaam regarding social order
- Qiblah
- Financial Transactions and more

However, its theme can be summarized by one word – Guidance. The style in which Surah al-Baqarah will be presented is that of analytical Tafsir. As such, we will be addressing the topic in-depth while depending on well-known great books of Tafasir of each type – Tafsir bil-Ma’thoor wal-Riwayah (Reports and Narration-based Tafsir) & Tafsir bil-Dirayah (Tafsir Relevant to the Current Situation)

The sessions will be conducted by Br. Iyad Hilal who holds a MA in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) & Islamic Legal Theory (Usul al-Fiqh).


Muslims, Islam and Liberal Democracy | Dr Reza Pankhurst

(The following is a section reproduced from an article originally published in the academic journal Political Theology 11.6 (2010) 826-845)

Research supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security conducted in 2007  found that an average of 71 percent of those interviewed across four Muslim countries (Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan) agreed with the goal of requiring “strict application of Shari’a law in every Islamic country”, with 39% agreeing strongly, while 65% agreed with the goal of unifying “all Islamic countries into a single state or Caliphate” in line with classical orthodox Islamic position that holds that there should be a single ruler for the Muslim community. The same research found that 74% wanted “to keep Western values out of Islamic countries”, and yet 75% held positive views of globalization while 67% believed that “a democratic political system” was a good thing[1].  Other research in 2006 which covered 10 Muslim countries found that 79% wanted Shari’a incorporatedas a source of legislation, while majorities in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, and Bangladesh wanted it as the “only source” of legislation.  Yet at the same time, results also show that majorities also admire the West for its democracy and the overwhelming majority would include provisions for freedom of speech or “allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day” if they were drafting a new constitution[2].

Can it be that Muslims really want a democratic state with the Shari’a as its basis? Could such a model work within the existing nation-state framework, and how would it correspond to the aspiration of unifying Islamic countries under a single Caliphate? Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito write that though those surveyed showed they admired aspects of Western democracy, they did not want “wholesale adoption of Western models of democracy”, and suggest instead that they seem to want “their own democratic model that incorporates Sharia[3]. This is reflected in a lot of thinking in the Middle East by Islamic scholars and intellectuals, termed “New Islamists” by Raymond Baker, with their belief that “democracy in modern times affords the best means to justice”[4]. Not only in the Middle East, Muslim intellectuals in the Western tradition have also formulated their own ideas about how polity in the Islamic world should be organised. There are those who talk about a separation between religion and the state, though not politics, with Islamic values informing the views of the Muslim part of the population, such as Heba Ezza[5], Abdullah Naim[6] and Mohammad Ashmawi[7]. Abdelwahab El-Affendi talks about the “self-evident advantages of democracy”[8], while Asma Afsaruddin thinks that many in the Islamic world want to live as observant Muslims at the same time as living in democratic societies[9]. Muqtedar Khan firmly states that “Muslims must widely and unambiguously accept that Islam and democracy are compatible”; those who do so are approvingly referred to as “Muslim democrats” whereas others are scolded as “Muslim isolationists”[10]. Others such as Khaled Abou el Fadl make the case for liberal democracy as the most effective form of government to protect and promote Islamic values, while part of the premise of Naim’s work is to prove that “Muslims can be liberal in their own right, from an Islamic perspective”[11] . But as mentioned by Saba Mahmood in her response to Abou el Fadl, rather than ask how Muslims could become better liberals, can we not ask whether the world could be lived differently, with alternative visions being explored rather than succumbing to the hegemony of Western political ideals[12]. It is this hegemony that needs to be taken into account if the positions of Muslims, whether intellectuals, politicians or otherwise, are to be understood correctly.

This hegemony of the superiority and universality of democracy has underlain much of the approach to analysing the politics of Islamic individuals and groups across the Middle East and general Muslim world. Briefly, analysts normally fall into two broad camps, widely known as the Orientalists on one side and their detractors on the other, alternatively named ‘essentialists’ and ‘contingencists’[13] or ‘internalists’ and ‘externalists’[14].  The common narrative is that the Orientalists hold a limited set of conceptual categories derived from the classical texts of Islam that are applied universally in their analysis of political Islam[15], whereas their opponents view such an approach as reductionist and rather argue that the various social movements and developments should be understood as the product of particular local socioeconomic and political woes[16]. The first approach generally holds that the incompatibility of Islam and ‘modernity’ as the trigger for regional discontent and the support for various Islamic movements, whereas the second contends that factors such as the failure of secular nationalist movements to resolve the societal problems of poverty and denial of political representation are the main causes of the backlash. While some Orientalists consider that any calls for democracy by Islamic parties are purely utilitarian in nature[17], their opponents consider that any reference back to Islamic tradition by such parties are in fact a tactical instrument or simply a call for participation and better governance articulated in a more authentic form[18]. However, for all their differences and arguments, since the end of the Cold War both sides implicitly make liberal democracy as the ultimate reference in their approach to analysis, such that Michael Salla notes that “the relationship between liberal democracy and political Islam is unidirectional: Political Islam either responds to liberal democratic norms by demonstrating their consistency with the Islamic heritage; or reacts to them as contrary to the Islamic heritage”[19]. As such, the two schools of thought could also be categorised as those who believe in the incompatibility of Islam and liberal democracy, and those who argue its compatibility, with both sides implicitly accepting the assumption of the universality of liberal democratic norms.

This assumption is standard fare, with undergraduate books on comparative politics dividing governments into “democratic” on the one hand, with various models and shades, and anything completely outside the democratic category generally considered “authoritarian”[20]. The promotion of democracy is considered to be an explicit objective of the West, and it could be argued that for any political discussion to be taken seriously requires the adoption of the slogans that aspire towards democracy and freedom. Alternatively it could be argued that the adoption of such slogans, whether by the general Muslim population or Islamic movements, obscures what is really being said by all sides involved. For example, as mentioned previously research has shown that some Muslims simultaneously believe in having Shari’a as the only source of legislation while believing that a democratic political system is a good thing. To highlight the issue further, while research shows that 94% of Egyptians polled would put freedom of speech in any new constitution they were charged with drafting[21], 71% from another poll believed that “the government should have the right to fine or imprison people who publicly criticize a religion, because such criticism could defame the religion”[22]. Just as the apparent belief in democracy must be qualified, the profession of belief in freedom of speech must also be qualified.

These differing conceptions extend to thinkers and activists. El-Affendi mentions 3 trends amongst Muslim thinkers – those who enthusiastically espouse the ideas of democracy and claim compatibility with Islam; those who accept democratic procedures, but voice philosophical objections to democracy and put limits to ensure conformity to Shari’a; and those who reject it[23]. If these three positions were unpacked the first position could be generally explained as those who claim compatibility between Islam and democracy, and by that mean the basic underlying idea that sovereignty for legislation lies with the people rather than with a monarch or an elite class (with or without reference to natural law). This group who could be referred to as the ‘Muslim secularists’, which includes some of those mentioned such as Naim and Ashmawi, believes that all decisions are subject to popular sovereignty, though the opinions of the people may be informed by their personal religious beliefs. They also generally consider that there is nothing called an “Islamic State”, which they view as an historical construct (although they will differ over when it was constructed, with some considering it a purely modernist phenomenon), that there are no clear political instructions in the original Islamic sources of the Quran and Sunnah (authenticated traditions of the Prophet Mohammad), and that those who believe in an Islamic State or Caliphate articulate a model where the ruler of such a State is a type of autocrat who derives his authority from God directly and therefore must be obeyed.

Members of the second group, such as the well known Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, claim that there is a compatibility between Islam and democracy since the heart of democracy is that “the people choose who will rule them and manage their affairs”, while they should not “have a ruler or system they hate forced upon them”, that they have the “right to account the ruler” and “the ability to change or remove him if he goes astray”[24]. However, while these are some of the values of a democratic system, this conception says nothing about the sovereignty of the people to rule which is arguably the fundamental core of “rule by the people”. Qaradawi simultaneously holds that ruling must be by the law of God, and further claims that this principle is firmly established and uncontested in Islam, and, indeed, that it forms the basis for the Islamic State[25]. In other words, through his understanding of the values of Islamic and Democratic rule, Qaradawi thinks he has identified an overlap, and consequently sees no problem in talking about their ‘compatibility’. This group sees no specific Islamic ruling system beyond some general principles though they do assert that Shari’a should be implemented in its entirety, and so the shape and form of the Islamic State remains, for them, largely undefined, even though many (like Qaradawi) maintain the principle of a single, unified leadership or Caliphate state for all Muslims.
The third group, which includes scholars like Taqiudeen an-Nabhani who founded the Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, denies the compatibility of democracy with Islam in origin. At the same time, they believe that the ruler of the State should be elected, that the people have the right or even duty to account their rulers, and that the ruler can be removed. In other words, they believe in the values that Qaradawi has claimed as being “democratic”, but they reject democracy because they consider that it is the idea of popular sovereignty that contradicts the foundation of the Islamic State, where, they argue, sovereignty lies with God or the Shari’a[26]. In effect, there is no real difference between the second and third group on their view of the commonly held philosophical underpinning of democracy, other than the use of terminology. Though between the two groups there are different conceptions of how detailed the Islamic system of ruling is and to what extent institutions can be “borrowed”, this is inconsequential to their understanding of democracy as a set of values.
In conclusion, for the sake of this particular discussion if democracy is understood to mean popular sovereignty then there appear to be in effect only 2 schools of thought regarding it: the ‘Muslim Secularists’ who deny Islamic government while affirming politics being informed by general notions of Islam and that sovereignty lies with the people, and those who believe in Islamic government based upon the principle that sovereignty lies with God, or more precisely the Law of God, the Shari’a.

Dr. Reza Pankhurst is the author of The Inevitable Caliphate (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Untold History of the Liberation Party (C Hurst & Co, 2016)

[1], “Muslim Public Opinion on Us Policy, Attacks on Civilians and Al-Qaeda ” (The Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 2007).
[2] Dalia Mogahed, “Special Report: Muslim World – Islam and Democracy,” (Washington D.C.: The Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, 2006).
[3] John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? : What a Billion Muslims Really Think : Based on Gallup’s World Poll–the Largest Study of Its Kind (New York, NY: Gallup Press, 2007), pp.48.
[4] Raymond William Baker, Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp.171.
[5] Heba Raouf Ezza and Ahmed Mohammed Abdalla, “Towards an Islamically Democractic Solution,” in Faith and Secularism, ed. Valérie Amiraux and Rosemary Bechler (London: British Council, 2004).
[6] Abd Allah Ahmad Naïm, Islam and the Secular State : Negotiating the Future of Sharia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008).
[7] Mohammad Said Ashmawi, Al-Islam Wal-Siyasa (Beirut: Al-intishar al-Arabi, 2004).
[8] Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Who Needs an Islamic State? (London: Malaysia Think Tank London, 2008), pp.34.
[9] Asma Afsaruddin, “The “Islamic State”: Genealogy, Facts, and Myths,” J. of Church and State 48, no. 1 (2006).
[10] M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “The Politics, Theory and Philosophy of Islamic Democracy,” in Islamic Democratic Discourse : Theory, Debates, and Philosophical Perspectives, ed. M. A. Muqtedar Khan (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).
[11] Naïm, Islam and the Secular State : Negotiating the Future of Sharia, pp. 269.
[12] Khaled Abou El-Fadl and et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).
[13] Fred Halliday, “The Politics of ‘Islam’ – a Second Look,” British Journal of Political Science 25, no. 3 (1995): pp.400-1.
[14] Peter R. Demant, Islam Vs. Islamism : The Dilemma of the Muslim World (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), pp.181-200.
[15] Michael E. Salla, “Political Islam and the West: A New Cold War or Convergence?,” Third World Quarterly 18, no. 4 (1997): pp.730.
[16] Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “Political Islam and Foreign Policy in Europe and the United States,” Foreign Policy Analysis 3(2007).
[17] David Brumberg, “Rhetoric and Strategy: Islamic Movements and Democracy in the Middle East,” in The Islamism Debate, ed. Martin Kramer (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), pp.15.
[18] John L. Esposito, Unholy War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp.54.
[19] Salla, “Political Islam,” pp.737.
[20] As an example – Rod Hague and Martin Harrop, Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction, 6th ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
[21] Mogahed, “Special Report: Muslim World – Islam and Democracy.”
[22], “Defamation of Religion,” (The Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 2009).
[23] Abdelwahab El-Affendi, “On the State, Democracy and Pluralism,” in Islamic Thought in the 20th Century, ed. Basheer M. Nafi and Suha Taji-Farouki (London: I.B.Taurus, 2004), pp.189.
[24] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Min Fiqh Al-Dawla Fil-Islam (Cairo: Dar al-Sharouq, 1997), pp.132.
[25] Ibid., pp.102.
[26] See for example Abdul Qadeem az-Zalloom, Nitham Al-Hukm Fil-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Ummah, 1996), pp.31.