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A separation of state and religion is one pillar of modern democratic societies and a precondition for the establishment of a modern criminal law in the Western World. This principle guarantees - among others - equality and justice before the law. Another important component is the separation of powers, which was first expresses by the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu in his “L’ésprit des lois”. Both principles - the separation of state and religion and the separation of powers - do ensure a modern criminal law practice under which all human beings are treated equally. It took the Western hemisphere several centuries to achieve this principle even though it is not yet fully realised but commonly accepted.
In the Arab world, a separation of state and religion – comparable to the transformation of Christian societies into secular ones in the course of the past two centuries - has never occurred. This was because the Prophet Muhammad exercised judicial, legislative and executive power himself, which gave rise to the tradition of these powers being exercised by the ruler of Islam (the caliph after the death of the Prophet).
Furthermore, the absence of a Muslim Enlightenment or a similar intellectual movement as a result of the stagnation of Islam intellectual reasoning from the 12th century onwards and the lack of openness to new geographical and scientific hemispheres led to an ever existing state religion that involves all aspects of public and private live. There, all citizens are good Muslims just as all European people used to be Christians. An individual faith such as it came into existence in the Western hemisphere since the 18th century does not exist.
But one has to go back further in history to obtain a full understanding of the different interpretation of state and religion within the Moslem community. Unlike the Christian religion that had to emancipate itself against the state, Islam emerged in accordance with the state from the beginning on. Due to a rapid military expansion, it occupied vast parts of the then known world within one generation or two. More drastically formulated one could say that “Islam started out as a faith determined to conquer and convert the world. Politics and the state were subsumed into its mission.”2 Only later on, the religion-political project of the Prophet and his early adherents was gradually replaced although it was a change rather in practice than in theory.
This has strong repercussions on the relationship between the two and reinforced their alliance: Problems touching the basis of the state’s authority and the source of its law do not arise in Islamic political thought. Political science is closely connected with ethics. But unlike Western thinkers following Greek and Roman traditions of political science and therefore putting moral philosophy at the core of it, Moslem scholars discuss it in terms of theology.
The two centuries following the French Revolution and the total emancipation of Western political science from religious matters saw little change or development in the basis of Islamic political thought. Instead of innovation one can only observe adoption and new strategies as a reaction of the stream of Western intellectual thought. Islamic scholars looked at the West like rabbits stare at the snake: They either identified it as a model that needs to be followed in a tremendous effort to catch up with the West or the regard the cultural hemisphere of Europe and America as an ‘other’ and enemy.3
Of course, there are reasons for this development or rather non-development that all derive from the basic foundation of the Islamic world. Islam is defined as a religion in the first place. The term can be translated into the English language as devotion for God. But Islam also shapes and defines the society and therefore it can become a political system. Very often it is claimed that Islam is both, “state and religion”. Islamic scholars justify this strong link by pointing out to the role of the Prophet: He was both, a founder of a new faith and a political ruler. Therefore, he embodied state and religion and caused an inseparable connection between the two. In the Western world, the universal ethic of Christianity has become a part of national and political ethic. Religion, on the contrary, became an entire privately exercised occupation. This has never occurred in Islam, which did not emerge as an institutionalised “Church” but as a system of society.4
This principle - defined by the terms dīn-wa-daula or dīn-wa-dunyā - claims that Islam is a permanent guide to all aspects of life. As a consequence, political science is “not an independent discipline but a branch of theology.”5 The Moslem Umma has to be a religious and political community, individual religious practice is therefore impossible. State and Religion have to act according to the same ethnic, moral and judicial principles. In Islam, the law precedes the state, which exists for the sole purpose of enforcing the law as defined by God and revealed through his prophets and the Koran.
The Koran includes three explicitly defined principles concerning state rule. The presidential idea suggests that one leader should be head of state as a successor to the Prophet. The second idea evokes the principle of consultation. All powers on the executive and legislator level have to exercise their rule on the basis of regulatory consultation. According to the third principle deriving from the Koran, Islam has to be a state religion. That is why only a Muslim can be head of state and the entire law system has to be based on the principles of Islam. It is obviously why those ideas exclude almost automatically the idea of secularism.6
The basis of the Islamic state was ideological and its primary purpose of government was the defence and protection of the faith, not the state. That helps to explain the fact that at the heart of Islamic political doctrine is the Islamic community, the Umma, that is tied by bounds of faith alone. Therefore, Islam distinguishes in theory, only between believers and non-believers.
With the Umma all are on equal footing. It is the implicit and explicit acceptance of the Sharia with all its implications that made the Muslim part of the Umma.7
However, the formula “state and religion” (dīn-wa-daula or dīn-wa-dunya ) does leave some room for interpretation and the – at least – partial exercise of democratic elements and a modern judicial practice. But the phrase “state and religion” often is redefined by Muslim regimes in a sense of “state is religion”. This leads to permanent abuses of religion in those societies. Religion is reduced to control the people and preserve political authority.8
Nevertheless, one should not generalize and oversimplify the relationship between state and religion in the Arab world. There are tremendous historic and cultural differences that need to be pointed out. The Islam scholar Lorenz Müller underlines the fact that Islam is no static system and no monolithic block that exists out of time and space.9 Fundamental differences exist for instance between Turkey and its neighbour Iran even though both countries are pillars of the Moslem world.
2 Black, Antony, The History of Islamic Political Thought From the Prophet to the Present, Edinburgh 2001, 249ff.
3 Black, Antony, The History of Islamic Political Thought From the Prophet to the Present, Edinburgh 2001, 279ff.
4 Compare: Iqbal, Muhammed, Die Wiederbelebung des religiösen Denkens im Islam, Berlin 2004.
5 Lambton, Ann K.S., State and government in Medieval Islam, Oxford 1981, 1ff.
6 Krämer, Gudrun, Gottes Staat als Republik. Reflexionen zeitgenössischer Muslime zu Islam, Menschenrechten und Demokratie, Baden-Baden 1999, 43ff.
7 Siegmann, H., The state and the individual in Sunni Islam, in: The Muslim World, LIV (1964), 14, 26ff.
8 Antes, P., Der Islam als politischer Faktor, Hannover 1997, 92ff.
9 Krämer, Gudrun, Gottes Staat als Republik. Reflexionen zeitgenössischer Muslime zu Islam, Menschenrechten und Demokratie, Baden-Baden (1999), 24ff. / Müller (1996), 67ff.
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