Apr 11 2017

Q&A: Is There a Concept of a State in Islam?

By Ramy Osman
April 2017


The following is a transcript of a question-answer exchange between M4L Director Will Coley and author/journalist Mustafa Akyol at the International Students for Liberty Conference held in Washington DC in February 2017. Mustafa Akyol gave a talk titled “Islam and Liberty: Are they compatible?”, and this excerpt is from the Q&A session. In order to assist in readability, I modified only a few words (speech can sometimes transcribe in an awkward way). Also, some short inaudible portions (few seconds) were left out.

Will Coley: At your most recent CATO event, you talked about a concept of a state; that Islam has a concept of a state. However, I think that’s incorrect because there is no concept of a state in Islam. A state implies that there’s a monopoly on the use of force and violence over a given geographic region.  Whereas no monopoly of that kind existed under the prophet Muhammad (saw) in Medina which had competing political and judicial court systems alongside the Muslim community there. What are your thoughts about that?


Mustafa Akyol: I agree with you. I don’t think that the Qur’an and the prophetic example, or the sunnah tradition, necessitate a state; I’m not arguing that. I’m saying that Muslims have built states and they legitimize it for Islam. In Islamic consciousness, state and religion have become tied – and in shariah as well. You see this when you read scholars like al-Mawardi who speaks of a sultanate as if it is something that God has ordained and that the sultan has certain duties while the shariah limits the duties of the sultan.

Islamic jurisprudence, as it developed, took the state as a reality, and it [the state] ended up becoming sanctified. But shariah has always emphasized that the state must obey the law which is higher than the state. This concept I think is a very important rule for us today to help us build some kind of natural law over the state – but that’s another discussion.

I agree with you that I didn’t put it that clearly in the CATO event. The Qur’an doesn’t speak to a state, it speaks to a community. It uses language such as “Oh you who believe…”, “Oh mankind…”. It’s not speaking to an entity called a state, there’s nothing like that.

But in prophet Muhammad’s example, you see that he had military power. And that happened because he was persecuted. He and the Muslims were attacked, some were killed, and they had to flee from their home city [Makkah]. When they went to Medina they were not left alone, and so there were wars between the people Medina and the pagans of Makkah. These were defensive wars.

Does it mean that there was a state in Medina? Do we call it a state in the modern sense? We shouldn’t. But they did have power. Now is that power an inherent feature of Islam – which has to always be there? Or do we see it as a matter of historical circumstance? If the prophet Muhammad’s preaching in Makkah was accepted peacefully and the Muslims were not attacked in Makkah, then they would not have needed to move to Medina.

The question is, what aspects of the prophets example are universally binding and valid, and what aspects are historically contingent? These are major questions. And I agree that it would be wrong to say that prophet Muhammad established a state.

But then you have people like Hizbul Tahrir will say: “No, no, he was there just to establish a state. That’s why he was there! An Islamic state!!”. They are dying for a state. They’re Islamic statists, kind of like communist statists.

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