Discourse and our terms of reference

Politics and religion in Islam – one world or two?

A heated debate is raging in the Islamic world about whether the religious and political spheres in Islam are one and the same. Before this matter can be settled, the terms "religion" and "state" have to be clarified, says Syrian writer Morris Ayek. This, he says, is the only way to avoid misunderstandings

Over the years, the slogan "Islam is both religion and state" has triggered many controversies and debates. In this essay, I would like to examine whether it is a modern concept. There are two fundamental views on this: the first sees this idea – in terms of both its wording and its contents – as something new.

This view holds that the idea of Islam encompassing both religion and state is the product of a modernisation process and the attempt to integrate Islam into the modern world. According to this standpoint, the concept is, therefore, the expression of a new vision of Islam that is closely linked to the ideology of Islamism and the history of its development.

The second view, generally fostered in Islamist circles, holds that this concept already existed in the early years of Islam and that the only thing about it that is new is the way it is formulated.

According to this standpoint, as far as the content of the faith is concerned, Islam has always been both religion and state. I would like to understand the origin of the dispute between these two viewpoints. Is it a question of two different perceptions of Islam? Or is it a question of what the words mean?

To put it another way, do we disagree about the very essence of Islam or does our understanding of the terms "state" and "religion" differ?

Those who hold the view that the phrase "Islam is both religion and state" is a modern concept can be divided into two camps: the first holds that Islam is just a religion and has no political content whatsoever. According to this standpoint, everything that is political would be a purely societal exercise without any kind of religious dimension.

The Egyptian scholar of Islam Ali Abdel Razek, who wrote "Islam and the foundations of political power" in 1925, is considered an early advocate of this view. Personally, however, I feel that it is one that is very hard to defend.

On the one hand, it does not fit with everything we know about the history of Islam; on the other, it contributes nothing to the debate about the modernity of the slogan "Islam is both religion and state". Instead it just ignores every political dimension of Islam. It sees Islam as a religion that reduces belief to cultic activities. According to this view of Islam, relationships between people are completely dissociated from religion.

Cover of Ali Abdel Razek's "Islam and the foundations of political power", translated by Maryam Loutfi (published by Edinburgh University Press)
Contentious seminal work: along with other Muslim authors of the early 20th century, the writing of Al-Azhar scholar Ali Abdel Razek significantly influenced discourse on the relationship between state and politics in Islam. Drawing on Islamic tradition, Ali Abdel Razek establishes the political anchoring of the caliphate and caliphs. Thus the caliphate loses its religious veneer and is reduced to a simple form of rule

The modern state: unbending, repressive and omnipresent

As already mentioned, there is a second camp that considers the phrase "Islam is both religion and state" to be a theory of the modern age. This camp does not set out to ignore the political dimension of Islam – as a religion practiced in historical contexts – but nevertheless considers the idea of "Islam as both religion and state" to be a modern innovation.

Which brings us neatly to the debate about what "state" means in the first place. The state is an institution that holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of force on its territory. This also includes the monopoly on power, which is the first prerequisite for the legality of the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

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Our concept of the state is closely linked to a territory (the nation state), which is the term used to describe the area where a state's constituent people lives. By virtue of its laws, the state holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and, consequently, the right to rule. This also includes a monopoly on the administration of justice and legislation as well as on the definition of the public good and public law. Such a concept of state is, however, a modern concept and has its roots in the era of absolute monarchy in Europe.

In almost all of these areas, the modern state differs from its precursors throughout history. Historically, the concepts of territory or nation were alien to the state. The state governed individual areas of land that submitted themselves to its rule.

However, state entities did not demand any legislative or judicial competence, but as a rule let local societies continue as usual. Even in those cases where a legal order was adopted – as in the case of the Islamic Sharia – its implementation was a matter for the societies in question. After all, in former times, states preserved the natural order of things. By comparison, the modern state seems unbending, omnipresent and repressive.

The state and its historical precursors

The American scholar of Islamic law Wael Hallaq has dealt extensively with the issue of the "state" in Islamic history. As a critic of the modern age and globalisation, he rejects the notion of an Islamic state and uses the term "state" exclusively for a modern state.

By contrast, when referring to pre-modern state forms, he speaks of "ruling systems". Sociologist Armando Salvatore does something similar in his project "Sociology of Islam". For example, he uses the term "state systems" for precursors of the modern state.

Those who hold that the concept of Islam encompassing state and religion is a modern one also believe that the term "state" is itself modern. There is, they argue, no equivalent in Islam's traditional political thought.

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Those who hold that the idea of Islam as both religion and state in one was originally inherent in Islam are not putting the term "state" in a historical context. They use the term "state" in a broad – indeed almost bloated – sense, which means that, for them, the term "state" can even refer to the early Islamic caliphate. They consider any exercise of power to be a "state", regardless of the historical differentiations between very different forms of rule.

For them, the Constitution of Medina in the early seventh century AD, is just as much a state as the absolutist state of Louis XIV or the modern French Republic. In other words, they approach classical texts using contemporary terminology, without giving a thought to the historical character of the terms.


Such an inflated use of the term "state" is problematic because it throws together fundamentally different, modern and pre-modern concepts of the state. This blending of different concepts is, for example, to be found in statements made by the late leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, who said that even a Malaysian Muslim could become ruler of Egypt.

In saying this, Akef was moving along a pre-modern conceptual horizon where the "state" was not yet equated with territory, nation and people. It is the horizon of the traditional Islamic system of rule that is not defined in terms of territory.

After all, the territory of Islam covers every country ruled by a Muslim leader and where Sharia applies. The "people" of Islam, the umma, includes all Muslims, regardless of their ancestry or origin – albeit within the framework of a strictly hierarchical system that makes the Muslims members of the umma, but excludes groups like the Copts, whose forefathers have always lived in Egypt. Of course, this pre-modern concept was also used by the Ottomans and the Mamluks. It is the antithesis of the modern state.

The powers of the modern state

Is it possible to survey the modern state using an approach rooted in Islamic studies by starting with the historical forms of Islamic rule?

In order to answer this question, one must be aware of the substantial difference between the modern state and earlier systems of rule. Only then, can such a survey take place on the basis of an academic interpretation of the sources.

Those who insist that Islam is simultaneously both religion and state do not even acknowledge the conceptual difference between the modern state and the forms of rule that existed in earlier eras.

Political parties who hold such views now belong completely and utterly to the world of the modern state. They pursue their policies, seek to rule and to use the state – with all its authority, power and ability to intervene in the lives of people and control these lives, more so than any other type of state in the past – to their own ends.

In short, the phrase "Islam is both religion and state" is indeed a product of the modern age and the expression of a new interpretation of Islam in the context of the modern world. The idea of an Islam that is both religion and politics in one refers to the state in its current form. However, this does not mean that Islam has never – in all its long history – flexed its political muscles, nor does it mean that there have never been any forms of rule with religious components.

Those, on the other hand, who defend the Islamic origins of the idea rely on a broad definition of the term "state" and choose to ignore that there is a fundamental difference between the modern state and its precursors, indeed that both can even blatantly contradict each other.

If we are to have a proper debate about whether Islam is both religion and state, we must begin by asking what we actually mean by the terms "religion" and "state".

Only by clarifying the terms of reference can we avoid misunderstandings. After all, though we may think we are all talking about the same thing, we could be referring to completely different phenomena.

Morris Ayek

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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