An Islamic State or a State for Muslims?

11 May, '06

That’s the quintessential question that we need to explore, it doesn’t matter if we ever answer it really, as long as we honestly pursue the various answers, a variety of which are going to be correct. The more we explore our history in context and without dogmatic set interpretations, we might actually arrive at answers which will allow us to just get on with our lives and get on with the rest of the world.

Mshari Al-Zaydi explores this issue in his column in Asharq Al-Awsat of 11 May, ’06 in which he says something really important and I have heard before:

Mshari Al-ZaydiThe matter of the Islamic state is very complicated; however, let us divide Islamic history in to two stages: the Mecca period and the Medina period. In Mecca, the aim was to build the religion and establish it in the hearts and minds of the Muslims. This was a very difficult task but through the struggle of the Prophet and his companions, Islam succeeded. As the pressure increased, the Muslims had to leave Mecca for Medina. Here a huge transformation occurred that clearly distinguished the two periods. In Mecca, there was no state or authority, but in Medina, the political carrier existed. That carrier protected the group and ensured its existence. However, according to Dr Abdul Ilah Balqaziz in his book entitled, ‘The Foundation of the Political Realm in Islam,’ the state of Medina was a state of Muslims and not an Islamic state in the modern fundamentalist interpretation of the term. Balqaziz added, “Initially this state was not restricted to Muslims but also included the Jews. Later however, the Jews were excluded when they allied with the non-Muslims.”

Balqaziz stated an important point in his book that the short time spent in Medina prevented many (especially those from outside of Medina) from establishing firmly their beliefs, and in fact, followed Islam due to the new power situation. What indicated this is the large number of converts throughout the last two years of the Prophet’s life and the quick withdrawal from Islam by many after the Prophet’s death. Thus in the Ridda wars (the apostasy wars), Abu Bakr was obliged to connect Islam to the state through political power against revolutionary tribes. In other words, politics in Islam was used to hold the new Islamic society due to the ‘softness’ of the doctrine. Balqaziz asserted, “During the peak of the prophet’s call, there was a need for political authority. After his death, the need doubled.” (p43)
Asharq Al-Awsat :: Mshari Al-Zaydi :: 11 May ’06

So there were two distinct periods that shaped Islam at the time of the Prophet: the Meccan period which was typified with spirituality and holisticness, and the Medina period which was more concerned with building a state and entrenching a rule of law.

Could it also be that the Quran – the base of Islam – was also revealed in this way? That is, the Quran’s chapters of Mecca are the ones which should be taken as the base of Islam, while the Quran chapters of Medina were simply a “how to” temporary manual to rule the fledgeling state?

Could it then be that Allah and his Prophet were more concerned with creating a State for Muslims in a tumultuous arena, than creating an islamic state?

hat tip: Crossroads Arabia

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  1. James Holyfen says:

    Great post, thanks for the link to a first-rate article. Makes me happy to see these sort of questions being pursued.

  2. sadferret says:

    Thanks Mahmood for what looks like a great link! Look forward to more.

  3. Ingrid says:

    That is absolutely fascinating. I love history and I love people being able to take an honest look at their own. Religious history included. I never knew about the disctinction between the state of Mecca and the state of Medina. But then, I know pittifully little about Islam, save for this book I had to read in my Middle Eastern class by Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy. Now I am so much less sleep deprived (child wise) I can start catching up on my reading.
    Great post Mahmoud.

  4. Ibn says:

    Mahmood! Im back, sorry for the long delay – I had a buttload of finals – and now its over, so its now time to hit the beach and entertain the layydeeesss. heehe

    This is a fascinating article Mahmood. Its one of many that can be garnered when we stop and think about history, and put alot of it into context. I remember, when I used to read the Qur’an, I would come across verses that were very spiritual, and then those that were very detailed, almost like laying down a law. Not surprisingly, the latter verses were more political, and I would usually get a “what the…” thought in my head.

    In my experience, there are two main groups who choose to not judge history in context, and/or religion. They are:

    1) Islamic fanatics.
    2) All Far-right/ Some right-wing Westerm groups.

    An example of the former, are the people who for example wanted to kill Abdul Rahman because he converted to christianity. I actually got into a face to face argument with a, lets just say, “dubious leaning” Muslim on campus. I couldnt squeeze a straight answer out of him, and he preferred to remain in ambigous territory. Nevertheless, he told me that in the prophet’s time, they would kill apostates.

    I told him: Look, you have to remove the political aspect of early Islam, from the religious aspect of today’s Islam. Here is how I explained it: In early Islam, especially when Mohammad’s religion was gaining ground, he was faced with death threats, and even wars, due to his new faith. Pretty soon, you had those who chose to be Muslims, and support Mohammad – but there’s a catch to this! People weren’t simply “Muslims” – his supporters were now part of the “Party of Mohammad” – a political group of sorts – thus it would be tatamount to TREASON, if a person who had formally pledged alliegance to this new party and state, and then suddenly defect. Either he was a operative for the other tribes, or he would simply defect to the other warring side, and fight Mohammad’s “state”.

    Back then, saying I am a Muslim was a very POLITICAL thing.

    Abdul Rahman is not defecting the party of Mohammad. Abdul Rahman had a problem with the THEOLOGY, not the POLITCAL elements. Thus, calling it treason today is ridiculous. This is how they dropped context, and this is what I explained to him. He didnt really say anything, nodded a little, so I think I clarified it for him.

    Regarding far-right Western groups, their motivation for taking passages out of the Qur’an out of context is because it fuels other ulteriour motives. It is very easy to fight something, and point fingers at someone or an entity, if you magnify its un-attractive aspects. Thus, it is no surprise in this regard that they will take a political verse out of the Qur’an that related to the at-the-time-current wars taking place, and say “see! see! violence! violence everywhere!” Its easy, and the desired effects can be enourmous. This is like someone finding an ancient manuscript of US government operations during WWII, 1000 years in the future. In it, they would find discussions of nuking Japaneese, and killing 100,000 people in the process. In an everyday scenario, this would obviously be barbaric! But in the context of its time, one could at least “understand” why Japan was nuked. (My personal opinion on this exact issue sits on the fence), but the point here is context, and dropping contexts are a deadly issue.

    Anyway, just wanted to put that out there.

    I will write some more later on Mahmood, but right now I am very tired, and need some rest after a week’s worth of reaming due to evil finals! 🙂


  5. mahmood says:

    Welcome back and hope you did us proud in your exams! Now get a glass of your favourite beverage on me, and relex. Looking forward to your input…

  6. Ethan says:

    I recall saying this exact same thing a couple of years back – that the Koran is divided into two halves; Meccan and Medinian. The Meccan verses were spiritual, while the Medinian verses were all about maintaining power.

    Now, maybe someone will believe me when I wax loquacious on the Theology of Islam. 😛

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