Separation of Church and State: In the West and Under Sharia

No explicit basis exists for separating the secular from the religious in Islam. Here are the facts.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | August 17, 2016

In the contemporary West, there is separation of church and state, a clear demarcation between the religious sphere and the secular sphere.

However, this separation of the two spheres was not always present. The Catholic Church, for example, exercised a considerable influence in matters of state for centuries in the past. The Enlightenment period in Europe–culminating in the French revolution–ultimately led to laïcité, the unfettering of religion and state in the West.

The intelligentsia rebelled against what they took to be the unhealthy superstitions of Christianity and its injection into affairs of state. Some Christian intellectuals, fearing this separation, actually argued that nascent Christianity had a solid basis for the separation within its holy source texts—viz., Jesus of Nazareth’s famous statements : “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21), and “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). In sum, what crystallized over time is the idea and practice of the separation of church and state.

Today, the predominant idea in Western countries is that the state should not be an arm of religious institutions, nor should religious institutions be arms of the state. Religious and state authorities are now viewed as autonomous entities which should operate in separate spheres.

The motivation for this idea, which proliferated as a result of the Enlightenment, is quite simple: it is necessary to keep the state from unjustly discriminating against people on the basis of religion, and to keep the state from meddling in the affairs of religion.

The innumerable wars fought on the basis of religion (which, to be fair, have historically been less numerous and less bloody than those fought for other reasons) are testament to the tendency that people have to unjustly discriminate against others on the mere basis of religion.

So the idea of the separation of church and state is founded upon a rational reflection on fear that, if religious bodies ever seize the power of the state,  they will use this power to advance their favored religious agendas to the chagrin of those with different religious or non-religious perspectives.

A preventive measure against this unjust discrimination is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Founding Fathers did not did not want people to be persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs, nor did they want the State to unjustly discriminate on the basis or pretext of religion. They rightly saw that no truly liberal democracy could be built in the presence and exercise of such discrimination.

Indeed, when James Madison sent Thomas Jefferson, who was then in Paris, a copy of the proposed Constitution , Jefferson replied by stating that that he did not like “the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion.” Because of the latent sectarian tendency in man, the Founding Fathers did not want religious tests to be applied to holders of public office. They expressed this belief in what has come to be known as the “No Religious Test Clause” of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, clause three), which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Furthermore, the United States and many other Western countries do not allow for parallel legal systems. Here in the United States the Constitution reigns supreme. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states the following:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby [emphasis added].

This article, in conjunction with the First Amendment, implies that no religious law within the territories of the U.S. shall ever supersede the law of the land, which is secular and non-religious. In other words, in the United States, the laws of the United States, which are to be secular, reign supreme. Hence, it can be readily inferred that the Constitution of the United States does not allow for the existence of parallel legal systems, religious or otherwise, that contradict its legal precepts.


Under Sharia, There is no Separation Between Mosque and State

By stark contrast, in Islamic Sharia there is no such tradition, nor such separation between “mosque and state.”

When ordinary westerners think of religious houses of worship, they generally think of places ringing with sermons filled with religious piety—they do not think of centers where political positions are strongly voiced.

But mosques have historically been places where political issues are discussed. This is because under Islamic law, i.e., Sharia, the political sphere is totally subsumed under the religious sphere. There is nothing that is allowed to exist outside the hegemony of God’s law.

As Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), the leading theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood states quite clearly, “it is an obligation for people to make the Sharia of God that which rules every aspect of every affair of this life.”[1] The idea of the separation of church and state is, for the most part, a distinctly post-enlightenment and Western notion.

The moderness of the concept of separating religion and state and its foreignness to Islam was a point that was heavily stressed by twentieth-century Muslim-revivalist thinkers who vociferously resisted the proliferation of Western and secular ideas amongst the Muslim populace.

Muḥammad Hasan ʿAmāra, one such prominent twentieth-century Muslim revivalist, wrote a whole book entitled, al-Islām wa al-Sīyāsa: al-Radd ʿala Shubuhāt al-‘Almānīyīn (Islam and Politics: A Response to the Heresies of the Secularists), which was given a favorable introduction by Gād al-Ḥaq Alī Gād al-Ḥaq (the grand imam of al-Azhar University from 1982 to 1996).[2]

In this work, Muḥammad ʿAmāra emphatically criticizes the idea behind separating affairs of state from religion, stating that “secularism is a school of thought of modern Western Civilization.”[3] Amara here implies that since secularism is a modern Western concept, it is therefore not compatible with Islam. Indeed, throughout the history of Islam, mainstream Muslims have rarely understood their religion to be an individualistic and pietistic faith, but rather an architectonic system of thought that encompasses all walks of life—including the political.

The vast majority of Muslims throughout history have believed that the state should conduct its affairs with recourse to Islam.

When Muslim Brotherhood member and former Egyptian President Muḥammad Morsī stood in front of a fired-up crowd in Egypt and took an oath before them and God

that regardless of the actual text [of the Egyptian Constitution], God willing, the text will truly reflect the Sharīʿa , and that [the Egyptian people] will not accept the constitution if it does not reflect the true meaning of the Islamic Sharīʿa [4]

he was not acting in an unprecedented manner. On the contrary, he was acting in accordance with the mainstream Islamic tradition that has existed for about fourteen-hundred years. As Abul ‘Ala Maudūdi, another prominent twentieth-century Muslim-revivalist thinker, states:

An Islamist state must in all respects be founded on the law laid down by God through His Prophet. The government which runs such a state will be entitled to obedience in its capacity as a political agency set up to enforce the laws of God and only in so far as it acts in that capacity.[5]

In al-Islām wa al-Siyāsa, Muḥammad ʿAmāra appeals to a number of Qur’ānic verses to justify the position, encapsulated by Maudūdi above, that any legitimate legislation must be grounded in Islam and the Sharia. The following are some of the Qur’ānic verses that Muḥammad ʿAmāra marshals:

Q 4:58-9: Allah doth command you to render back your Trusts to those to whom they are due; And when ye judge between man and man, that ye judge with justice: Verily how excellent is the teaching which He giveth you! For Allah is He Who heareth and seeth all things. O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination.

Q 4:65: But no, by the Lord, they can have no (real) Faith, until they make thee judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against Thy decisions, but accept them with the fullest conviction.

Q 42:10 Whatever it be wherein ye differ, the decision thereof is with Allah: such is Allah my Lord: In Him I trust, and to Him I turn.

The first two verses cited above (Q 4:59-9) are verses that are frequently cited as proof that in Islam there is no separation between dīn and dawla (religion and state).

Indeed, Ibn Taymīyyah (1263 – 1328), a darling of Islamists the world over and one of the greatest theoreticians of the Salafī strain of thought, wrote a whole treatise grounded on these two verses, which he interchangeably names the verses of al-umarā’ (the commanders) and wilāt al-umūr (the guardians of affairs).[6] These two verses seem to be saying that the ultimate arbiter of one’s affairs should be God and his messenger Muḥammad.

In his treatise on these verses, Ibn Taymīyyah states that it is the opinion of the ulema that Q 4:58 speaks of the rulers’ obligations to the ruled, and Q 4:59 speaks of the ruled’s obligation to the rulers. The latter verse, Ibn Taymīyyah says, mandates that the ruled obey their rulers unless the rulers disobey God—viz., the Sharia.[7]

In this, he is in agreement with the position expressed by Maudūdi above. Muhammad ʿAmāra explains Q 4:59 by stating that

the Qur’ān here confirms the Islamicness of the (legal) source of the Islamic state, and it confirms the rule of divine Sharīʿa in various political quarters.[8]

A few verses later in Q 4:65 we read that no one has faith (in Islam) until he lets God—which is here ostensibly the laws of God—to arbitrate their disputes. The recent translator of the Quran A.J. Droge, in the introduction to chapter four of the Qur’ān (sūrat al-nīsa), notes that in the chapter “the Prophet is put forward as God’s representative and the supreme arbiter of all disputes.”[9]

The next verse under consideration, Q 42:10, is a verse that wears its meaning on its sleeve: all disputes between parties are to be decided by Allah. Ibn Kathīr (c. 1300 – 1373), one of the most renowned commentators on the Qur’ān in the Muslim world, states there that this ordinance is a “general [prescription] for all things”—i.e., every dispute that parties have should be decided in reference to what God has revealed through Muhammad.<[10] But clearly this can only be possible in a society where the law is ultimately rooted in Islam. After all, people who live in secular societies, even Muslims in secular societies, do not arbitrate all of their disputes by appealing to Islamic law—Sharia.

The above four Qur’ānic verses are frequently appealed to in justifying the proposition that in Islam religion and matters of state are inseparable. The mainstream Islamic tradition views Muḥammad as being “the supreme arbiter of all disputes.”

As ʿabd al-Rāziq al-Sanhūrī (1895–1971), a prominent twentieth-century and Western-educated Egyptian Muslim jurist who played an important role in the drafting of the Iraqi and Egyptian legal codes in 1949 and 1951, respectively, states: “Islam is dīn wa dawla­.”[11] That Islam is dīn wa dawla­ is now a prominent Arabic and Muslim aphorism that means that Islam is both religion and state.


The above Qur’ānic prescriptions are also supported by what is found in Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, our earliest and best source on the life of Muḥammad.

The Qur’ān describes Muḥammad as a good example for mankind (Q 33:21), and later Islamic tradition praises Muḥammad as al-insān al-kāmil (the perfect man). In the so-called “Farewell Address” or “Last Sermon” of Muḥammad, preserved in the Sīra, he tells his followers that he is leaving behind them two things that if they follow they will never be led astray: “the book of God” (the Qur’ān) and “the practice of his prophet” (i.e., the sunna).[12]

The sunna is “the way” of Muḥammad —i.e., the actions that Muḥammad performed, and which are traditionally held by Muslims to have been partially preserved in the relatively early sīra, hadīth, and tafsīr literature.

The important point to note here is that it is incumbent upon all Muslims to follow Muḥammad ‘s way of life or sunna. All of these data, along with the fact that Muḥammad was both a political head of state as well as a religious leader who, at the end of his life, ruled most of the Arabian peninsula, are strong evidence that there is no separation of dīn and dowla in Islam. After all, how could there be if the seal of the prophets (Q 33:40), the good example to all mankind (Q 33:21), and the perfect man (al-insān al-kamil), did not separate the two spheres? Muslims, of course, must emulate Muhammad. That he did not separate the religion and the state can be gleaned from Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, penned by Ibn Isḥāq, and our earliest and best source for the life of Muḥammad.

When, according to Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, Muḥammad  and his emigrant followers (muhājirūn) emigrated from Mecca to Medina (which was then called Yathrib) in 622 A.D., he instituted a political charter with the people of Yathrib. This came to be known as al-Ṣahīfa (the Constitution of Medina) and it marked the beginning of Muḥammad ‘s ascendency to political power.

The Constitution of Medina is a document that is generally agreed upon by even Islamicists of skeptical proclivities to be genuine. The agreement specified Muḥammad as the leader of the partakers of the Constitution (i.e., the muhājirūn and anṣār ; the anṣār being the people who “helped” or welcomed Muḥammad  in Medina). The Constitution of Medina, reproduced in full in Ibn Isḥaq’s Sīra,[13] is an important document because it shows that from the very beginning of Islam politics and religion were intertwined. Evidence of this is that the document states the following

Whenever you differ about a matter it must be referred to God and to Muḥammad… If any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise it must be referred to God and to Muḥammad, the apostle of God.[14]

Here we see clearly that the first polity that Muḥammad set up was a theocratic one, where God rules through Muḥammad. We can infer that disputes were decided in accordance with religious principles that were “revealed” to Muḥammad.

Indeed, the main parties to this Medinan Constitution were spoken of as religious groups—the “believers” (al-mu’minūn) who “formed a community (umma) to the exclusion of all men,” and the Jews (some of whom, e.g., the Jews of  Banu ‘Auf, are explicitly stated to be “one community with the believers.”)[15]

So according to Ibn Isḥaq’s Sīra, the first political system that Muḥammad set up was one where God ruled through him, and where the main parties of the polity were defined by their religion. Hence, we find, in the earliest biography of Muḥammad, that disputes should be handled by recourse to God and Muḥammad. It is consonant with what we find in the Qur’ānic verses taught above.