Unity of Church and State: The Islamic Political Model

Syed Sharfuddin

As the philosophical and political discourse of the past century has been dominated by western ideas about state politics and popular culture, no one in the Islamic world is unfamiliar with the theory that the unity of a nation-state, which is itself a legacy of the west’s two world wars, can only be safeguarded if there is separation of the church and state enshrined in its constitution. Numerous examples are given in support of this intellectual argument, citing former empires and pluralistic states which broke apart when their political systems came under pressure from popular movements for political and economic freedom and keeping the church and state under one crown. Interestingly, when advancing this argument other factors such as poverty, exploitation, ethnicity, ideology and religion are pushed behind the mainstream argument.

In the Islamic political system, tracing it as far back as to the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, state and religion are not separate pillars of power but are two sides of the same coin. In a conceptual Islamic state, combined power is exercised by the same sovereign authority or entity that governs the state in the name of the sovereign. It is another topic whether Islam spread by sword ( a function of state power) or by good and just governance (a function of God’s ministry, i.e. church), but in an Islamic polity, a Muslim ruler is not merely the symbolic commander in chief of the armed forces, but he is also the Emir or leader of the faithful. This is not a novel idea because other Abrahamic religions also followed this principle until a few centuries ago when they abandoned this in favour of having two separate heads of power, one being supreme (the state) and the other being subordinate to it (the church). However, in practical terms, the Jewish state of Israel remains a religious state for all practical purposes and the UK which is the mother of democracies has a monarch whose official title is ‘Head of State of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island and other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith’.

In his book ‘The Great Arab Conquests’ published by Hodder and Stoughton Limited, London in 1963, ISBN 0-7043-333368, the author Lieutenant General Sir John Bagot Glubb, KCB, CMG, DSO, OBE & MC writes: “the fact that Muhammad’s career transformed him from something resembling an Old Testament Prophet into a politician, a ruler and a lawgiver, has profoundly affected the development of Islam to this day. All the Apostle’s successors automatically followed his example and combined religious and political rule. Islam never witnessed the rivalry between pope and emperor which so often disturbed medieval Europe. The Islamic lay state, in which the government is independent of the religious hierarchy, is a novelty of the last forty years, in imitation of Europe…This attitude finds its origin in the fact that Muhammad made himself the political as well as the religious ruler of his people, and that government has ever since been combined with religious leadership in Muslim states, at least until the twentieth century. This identification of religion with political rule has been a fundamental cause of misunderstanding on the part of Europeans in Muslim countries. Non-Muslims are inclined to be critical of the intervention of Muslim religious teachers in politics and to ask why they do not limit themselves to their proper field of spiritual teaching, leaving politics to those whose concern they are. But this separation of the religious from the political is a Christian viewpoint. To the old Muslim, if not to the modern Arab nationalist, religion and politics were inseparable.”

As we enter 2022 in a few months, this criticism of Islamic state that promotes cooperation between the state and church is getting sharper and louder from within the Muslim community than from non-Muslims, whose position is known since long. But these are people, undoubtedly well meaning Muslims, who have been deeply influenced by western political thought. Their measure of success is material ascendency for monetary gain. They think that if the clergy in Muslim states is pushed back to perform only worship with no room for political contribution, the state will progress rapidly and achieve development. They forget that the requirements for successful governance are more than the practice or preservation of faith; these are good economic policies, better systems which weed out corruption and inefficiency and encourage independent and working institutions. If anything, the clergy helps to enhance these values in governance. It is opposed to neither the separation of powers nor rewarding efficiency.

There should be no cause of concern if a modern Islamic state appears keen to rediscover its deeper roots and makes the clergy partners in governance instead of keeping it away against popular aspirations. The fact that today many Muslim-majority states that have decided not to declare Islam as their official religion have managed to carry on happily is a matter of time. As soon as the western political model of separation of church and state loses its shine or is replaced by another political ideology (for history is witness that no civilisation or ideology is permanent except the universal values of justice and freedom) all those countries would require a political readjustment with their Muslim-majority populations which would eventually bring them to comprise with the church. I therefore welcome the efforts on the part of the state of Pakistan to continue to talk to its Muslim clergy for reaching a mutually agreed governance system that guarantees peace and justice for all, while at the same time does not alienate the church from the state as two mutually separate power poles.

There are two disadvantages which a separation of church and state model handicaps Muslim majority states. One is the distrust of the clergy about their secular governors which leaves them free to encourage to form a ‘de-facto state’ within a de-jure state based on sharia law as opposed to state law. The second is the ineffective writ of government because the authorities cannot use force against their fellow Muslims and subject them to harsh punishments just because they demand the state to be sensitive to Islamic values and principles. By combining the state and clergy, not only the clergy can be won over and kept in check against going too far to resemble the “khawarij’, but the state can also exercise its writ with effective control having gained the confidence of its majority population that it is working not for a section of the society but for the entire society.