Can Muslims Separate Religion and State?

Time to circumscribe the interpretation and applications of sharia This week the press has reported widely about the case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghani Christian on trial in Afghanistan for the so-called high crime of leaving the religion of Islam. He converted to Christianity over fifteen years ago while working with a Christian aid group. It is actually hard to believe that such archaic laws are instituted under the guise of モIslamicヤ law, the rule of law, and most absurdly under a new democracy of a people we liberated. This is not a case which can be easily dismissed by any Muslims or our foreign policy makers. This is our business as Americans and as Muslims since America has recently invested so much in liberating Afghanis from the stranglehold of the Taliban. If that investment includes some strings demanding religious freedom for all, so be it. While in many ways the Afghani Constitution was rightly heralded as a モprogressive documentヤ for a previously devastated and oppressed Muslim society, it is incredulous that we missed the residual groundwork in its language which permitted the continuation of laws that allowed the courts to question Mr. Rahmanメs choice of faith. Did the Afghani Muslims involved in this case forget the Golden Rule when treating those of other faiths? Did they forget that the faith of the vast majority of their liberators was the same as that which Mr. Rahman chose to adopt? To accept their liberation from the Taliban with open arms only to turn around and leave laws which lift up Islam over other faiths is hypocrisy and in fact un-Islamic. Specifically, the Afghani Constitution, while supposedly guaranteeing religious freedoms, established Islam in Article 2 as the official religion of the state but allows other religions to perform their ceremonies モwithin the limits of the lawヤ. Then, in Article 130, the Constitution states that Islamic law takes over when no other laws apply. Thus, we find the continuation of many draconian モIslamicヤ laws. Perhaps, we should have been more clear, more public, and more critical as liberators about the meaning of liberty and which rule of law the world community would find acceptable from a human rights perspective for the new Afghani nation. If the principles of their nation are not made clear in their Constitution, tribal theocratic propensities will often return to rule. This type of apostasy trial is in the eyes of many Muslims not Islamic and in fact anti-Islamic. It begs the question of what type of debate and public accounting their framers had when they left their constitution vague about freedom of religion and pluralism. While their courts have yet to ultimately decide this case and while today it appears he may be released due to the wise intervention of President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, the apparent public acceptance of this trial and the legal permissiveness of the question of apostasy raise some significant concerns over Afghanistanメs so-called democratic formula and its version of Islam. It should certainly be abundantly clear that Afghanistanメs system does not represent a modernized or moderate Islam. All freedom-loving Muslims have responded to this case with disgust and calls to free Mr. Rahman immediately. It is clear in the faith of Islam that decisions of personal conscience have nothing to do with the state. The Qurメan states clearly モLet there be no compulsion in matters of faithヤ (2:256). The sheer ignorance of such apostasy laws is that faith is a personal decision of conviction which could never be forced upon an individual regardless of what the government makes them say or fear in the end. For, their heartfelt faith is only theirs and Godメs to ever truly know. While the Afghani society is certainly beleaguered by tribalism, militarization, and massive deconstruction, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz and the Center for Islamic Pluralism note poignantly in their release on the subject yesterday, モevents transpiring there should not be taken by non-Muslims as representative of Islam as a whole or as evidence regarding the wisdom of U.S. policies in the Islamic world. モ Mr. Rahmanメs unfortunate apostasy case is not only about whether this Afghani interpretation of sharia law is correct or not in Islam —which it clearly is not. It is not even about whether the law is outmoded. Historically, the only even remote example of such laws can be found at Islamメs inception. This example did not apply to all Muslims but only to those who fought in the military. For those who chose to fight in the Muslim military against the pagan enemies who had declared war on Muslims, loyalty to the Muslim army and its nation under the leadership of the Prophet Mohammed was an obvious prerequisite. Thus, a soldier who subsequently chose to leave the army and leave Islam would be violating his oath to his nation and his military. As such, only at that specific time in history when Muslims were threatened at extermination by pagan Arab tribes, did a concept of desertion and treason apply. This was not about leaving one’s faith but about leaving a military and the community it was protecting. This was certainly a mixture of religion and nation which we may find abhorrent today, but such were the realities of mankind in the seventh century. Christian Europe took until the eighteenth century to fix this toxic mixture. Muslims now need to get around to doing so ourselves. Yet, despite this mixture, the penalty for departure was not meant for all Muslims but only those who were part of the military. This was not a system of rules which punished individuals just for leaving the faith. It only related to the Muslim military which was struggling to survive against its military enemies. Islamists and historical revisionists may choose to interpret these rules as apostasy laws, but the same faith which preached pluralism, free will, and religious choice, cannot also enact apostasy laws. Strict rules about military allegiance which are also a part of all codes of military justice in democracies today should not be confused with belief in God and personal faith. The unique nature of loyalties in this history of pagan Arabia and the new Muslim community at the time of Mohammed has been irrelevant for over a thousand years. Muslims who have to this day continued to mix national security issues and its loyalty issues with personal issues of faith are simply Islamists with political agendas. So, in essence the greater question for today in 2006 and the one at the core of our ideological battle against the Islamists is why a government which happens to be majority Muslim is even contemplating the vagaries of sharia and all of its complex interpretations from the fundamentalist and archaic to the most moderate and modern. There are many interpretations of what exactly is meant by the separation of religion and state. But the one which I believe most applies in this case and in the war against Islamism is that representative governments and their elected lawmakers should not get into theological law and its encumbered language. This exclusion is what Islamists fear the most. Regardless of the percentage of the majority faith in a nationメs population, to write law based upon scriptural language and its interpretation is to effectively eliminate all those of other faiths from being able to argue the validity of law. No matter how egalitarian is the sharia, once it is used to govern non-Muslims it excludes them. It excludes non-Muslims from the development, interpretation, and modification of that law since they do not personally follow Muslim code and have never been students of that faith. Certainly, the values, ethics, and morals of a government can be driven by a love and respect for the Creator which all faiths share. So, a mention of God in our Pledge of Allegiance or an ecumenical prayer in the legislature of our government is still in keeping with this separation since it does not inscribe a specific faithメs theological law. It is in keeping with the spirit of piety which all faiths respect and is vitally necessary to a successful democracy. In fact, as I have argued before, an openly pious majority (i.e. Christians in America or in Europe) can help empower minorities to feel comfortable to publicly practice their faith. But this public comfort can come only when the public space of government and their legal institutions which govern all people of all faiths or those of no faith for that matter, is entirely free of theological language. Once the majority, however, begins to articulate a specific theological language (i.e. sharia) in the space and House of a nationメs People, it automatically oppresses the minorities of other faiths regardless of their good intentions. Sharia is, simply put, a religious legal manifestation of the interpretation of the word of God in the Qurメan and the tradition of the Prophet. It is in fact analogous in its theological derivation to Talmudic law in the Jewish tradition. To describe the sharia as a static or fixed body of laws is to misrepresent it. It is, and should be, an evolving body of laws much as other religious and civil law has evolved in our national and religious communities. In the past five to six centuries for Islam this law has been basically fixed if not regressive. This has been due to an absence of a legitimate ijtihad (critical interpretation of scripture in light of modern day understanding). This is a manifestation of the state of Muslim culture not of Islam. An appropriate discussion of the sharia and its evolution and devolution past, present, and future fills texts and is the basis for many schools of graduate study. I could not do it justice here. In the case of rules against apostasy, or leaving a faith, it is clear to many Muslims that these laws are not only barbaric and draconian but a profoundly malignant interpretation of Islam which is not born out in the moderate tradition practiced by most Muslims. A faith in God is no longer a faith when coercion is involved. Muslims who utilize these laws in actuality negate their faith. The faith of Islam which I know would never be so insecure and feel so inferior as to be threatened by the departure of any believers regardless of what they may say about the faith of Muslims. If Muslims believe in complete freedom of religion and pluralism, they must begin to pronounce a resounding enmity with those who in positions of power enact laws which coerce belief. This enmity must go beyond a simple declaration of the outmoded nature of laws of apostasy. We need to begin a public discourse within the Muslim community about the role, place, and limitations of implementation of sharia in Muslim majority nations. It is time to begin the process of dismissing sharia which is outside the few areas which can be limited to only Muslim-Muslim interactions (i.e. family law, religious charities, mosque administration, religious education, and any arbitration between mutually agreeable Muslim parties). A government which begins to dabble in the language of sharia becomes a theocracy no matter how moderate they try to be. Such is the wisdom of our American democracy. Some have contrarily argued that the solution really lies in only the advancement and modernization of religious law (sharia) which when applied to all society remains democratic. This modernization is certainly a necessary step for the ivory towers of Islam but irrelevant to the question at hand in as far as government is concerned. When it is applied to all society, it becomes a theocracy moderate or not. The real question remains what type of government a majority Muslim nation would choose to empower. Afghanis may not be ready to answer this question in a way palatable to Muslims in the west, but Muslim in America and Europe need to make it clear where we stand on this issue. As long as Muslim majority nations keep the sharia out of their legislative language and refrain from identifying the state as a モMuslimヤ nation, the hope for liberty, freedom, and democracy will thrive. Sharia can then take its time in evolving for those very limited areas (i.e. family law) where it can exist side by side (as many other arbitration systems do) with the nationメs constitutionally derived civil and criminal law. All faiths should have the opportunity when dealing with internal practices to practice their faith within the sanctity of their families, charities, houses of worships and schools with rules they agree to and judges they choose. But an entire nation should not be subjected to a faithメs rules. We, Muslims, can learn from American history. The westメs system my family came to America to enjoy is not in any way just a modernized Christian theocracy which recognizes freedoms and liberty. Rather, America through its revolution dismissed theocracy in exchange for a system of government which eliminated theocratic language from our legislatures so that no single religion would be endorsed by the state. I hope that no matter whether Muslims are a majority or not, that they should establish a clear religious consensus opinion that in Islam sharia can drive our own personal code of life, but that our government should never entertain the language of sharia. We should prohibit the governmental implementation of any explicit sharia language and relegate such theological language to non-governmental very limited situations involving very circumscribed areas of religious practice. Moreover, my hope is also that Muslims deconstruct the concept of the モIslamic stateヤ and begin to build an ethos of allegiance to governments which are pious but not identified with one faith regardless of a Muslim majority population. This would do more to save the lives of individuals like Mr. Rahman than any single denunciation of a backward interpretation of sharia. M. Zuhdi Jasser is chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. He can be reached at

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