Is Islam a political ideology or moral and spiritual guide? Answer depends on ones point of view. It has become commonplace that one cannot separate religion from politics in Islam. And hence one often talks of Islamic state. However, this approach does not bear Qur'anic scrutiny. If one studies the Qur'an carefully, one does not find any mention of Islamic state in the holy Book. It was sheer coincidence that a state emerged in Islamic society almost during lifetime of the Holy Prophet.
No religion comes in the world to establish state. It appears to remove moral corruption and provide spiritual guide. If a state had been necessary to establish a religion, Allah would have made it a universal rule and all prophets would have established one. How could then Islam be an exception? We do not find any prophet in the Qur'an establishing a state. Only two prophets Daud and Suleman (peace be upon them) are mentioned as kings and rulers.
In fact except these two all prophets mentioned in the Qur'an come from among the people and have been of humble origin. They all faced persecution at the hands of powerful vested interests i.e. rulers like Nimrod or Pharaoh or leaders of the community who found prophets' moral and spiritual teachings as danger to their interests. All these prophets were severely persecuted by these vested interests, Nimrod persecuted Ibrahim (A.S.), Pharaoh persecuted Musa (A.S.) and Salih by his community leaders and Mohammad (PBUH) by the powerful and rich tribal leaders of Mecca.
Throughout Meccan period Muslims faced severe persecution and the Prophet (PBUH) bore insults, humiliations and physical persecution with exemplary patience and fortitude. He did not even curse his enemies.
Also, a religion can never be established by state authority, it establishes itself through its own moral and spiritual force. People believe in religion not because it is patronized by a state but because its moral teachings appeal to the people. Those who believe in necessity of establishing Islamic state indirectly think that Islam can be sustained only through state authority and not by its own moral and spiritual appeal.
Some people even argue that if there is no state how shari'ah law can be enforced? For them shari'ah law to be enforced, it needs a state authority. There is obvious flaw in the argument. There are millions of Muslims living as minority in countries like India, U.K., USA, France, Germany, Canada, Switzerland and so on. How about them then? Are they not Muslims? Do they not follow shari'ah laws? In fact more Muslims today live in minority than in Islamic states.
Qur'an strongly believes in freedom of conscience and real foundation of religion rests on this doctrine of freedom of conscience. A person can be truly moral only if his heart and soul accept moral doctrines. Coercive power can never make a person moral in true sense of the word. Coercion leads to hatred of the authority rather than respect for law. Respect for law can be inculcated only through awareness and moral education. Thus it is not a sound argument that one cannot enforce shari'ah without there being a state agency. In fact state is always seen as coercive agency. Also, there is absolutely no guarantee that state actors will not be corrupt and will be always morally sound. Even history of Islamic state in last 1400 years is nothing to be proud of.
Whenever a powerful establishment like a state establishment, based on power and wealth comes into existence, there is struggle to control it and this obviously leads to struggle between various aspirants, resorting to fair and foul means. Even those who were close companion of the Prophet and morally upright and worthy of emulation, struggled among themselves to control state machinery. Even bloodshed could not be avoided and Muslims plunged into civil war and more than 70,000 lives were lost.
This was during the period of pious Caliphs. During Umayyad and Abbasid periods things were far worse. State machinery was controlled by ambitious rulers who used all foul means conceivable to eliminate their competitors. Most unscrupulous means were employed to obtain or retain power. During the Umayyad period only Umat bin Abdul Aziz was morally upright and tried to follow Islamic principles but then he was poisoned by the vested interests.
Yusuf bin Hajjaj was a great tyrant who controlled Iraq during the Umayyad period. He killed about one hundred thousand Muslims and sent to jail half that number. The Umayyad's were overthrown by Abbasids resulting in great bloodshed. So much blood was shed that one who led Abbasid insurrection came to be known as Saffah i.e. one who shed lot of blood. The Abbasids did not spare even newborn Umayyad babies.
The rightly guided Caliphs could not last for more than thirty years and three out of these rightly guided caliphs were assassinated. Thus one can easily say that even pious caliphs found it very challenging to establish a just state which really could rule according to the moral and spiritual guidance of the Qur'an. And even if the ruler at the top is just and scrupulous, there is no guarantee that people around him will not be tempted to become corrupt in order to accumulate wealth and power.
In fact the whole history of so called; Islamic State' is history of coercion and bloodshed. State never succeeded in establishing morality and spirituality in the society. Morality and spirituality can be imbibed only through inner transformation which is possible only through inner conviction. Thus it is conviction which is more fundamental in moral and spiritual matters than coercion. State always represents coercion, not conviction.
The Qur'an not only emphasizes freedom of conscience in matters of deen but also exhorts the Prophet (PBUH) not to act as musaytar (88:22). Thus even the Prophet (PBUH) is only a moral guide, not a warder or supervisor. The Prophet also is not required to perform state function, let alone establish a state to impose deen on anyone. Thus not only that Qur'an does not refer to any concept of state, it does not recommend to Prophet to become a musaytar.
It should also be noted that Islam has spread in the world not due to any state machinery, but due to those who led pious and exemplary life. In fact at times the state became an impediment in spreading Islam. During the Umayyad period when some enthusiastic preachers converted large number of people to Islam in Iran it affected the state income as jizya amount was reduced. The Umayyad Caliph thus wrote to the Governor of the province to restrain the preachers from conversions as state treasury was being adversely affected.
The Qur'an advises the people calling others to the way of Allah to do so through good words and wisdom (16:125). Thus it is certainly not for the state to organize da'wah. Its only function is to legislate in the interests of people and maintain law and order and provide impartial machinery for justice.
Now some can and do argue that state can only impose shari'ah law and cannot legislate as shari'ah law is itself a divine law. It can only enforce what is already given as divine law. Thus some Islamic states follow only shari'ah law and do not legislate. But even Islamic jurists agree that it is only rules of 'ibadat (rules pertaining to arena of worship like prayers, zakat, haj, etc.) that cannot be changed. But those pertaining to mu'amalat i.e. interpersonal matters need changes from time to time. The law cannot remain stagnant in matters of mu'malat.
While principles and values cannot change, law based on these principles and values should keep pace with changing times. A law, for example, thought to be just at one period of time, becomes unjust or oppressive, at another period of time. Thus justice is more important than the law based on it. Many laws which Islamic jurists had thought to be quite just in respect of women, are being thought to be unjust by women today and are demanding changes in these laws. The case of hudud laws in Pakistan is the best example for this.
Today Islam is divided into several sects (and this division is justified by our 'ulama on the basis of a hadith ascribed to the Prophet that Islam will be divided into 72 sects and only one sect will be naji i.e. on right path) and every Muslim country has several of such sects in its geographical boundaries. Each sect has its own laws of shari'ah. Then the question arises which shari'ah law an Islamic state will enforce? If the state follows the laws of one particular sect, other sects will be coerced into following that law. Thus it will violate the principle of freedom of conscience.
Also, any law imposed coercively will not bring about real moral transformation which is the main purpose of Islamic shari'ah. Only in case of crime state should be permitted to use coercion. Thus if someone steals, or rapes, one has to be punished and or such crimes need to be coercively prevented.
In all other matters which pertain to moral and spiritual upliftment, coercion cannot be permitted. Islamic states are coercively imposing even dress code, particularly where women are concerned. And this dress code is often cultural than religious. Such imposition has no meaning because these women, given a chance, will wear mini-skirts and one finds Saudi and Iranian women wearing even outrageous dresses in other countries. This defeats the very purpose of shari'ah law. Shari'ah is not meant for coercion, but for moral transformation.
If you set up an Islamic state, it is 'ulama who will control the state machinery in the name of imposing shari'ah law. The elected rulers, will have to fear them and 'ulama, who are not accountable to the people, often rule by proxy. Thus technically an Islamic state cannot become truly democratic. In Iran, any law passed by the parliament cannot become law unless approved and signed by the supreme faqih or by a council of fuqaha' who will examine it from the point of view of shari'ah as compiled in early Islamic period.
The 'ulama do not even allow re-thinking shari'ah provisions in the light of new developments as their interests can be protected only if shari'ah remains immutable. They do not allow even to use doctrine of ijtihad (creative interpretation) to make shari'ah law more relevant to people's lives. They go on insisting on laws no more relevant to modern age. They even negate the true spirit of the Qur'an which is the most dynamic book for guidance in any age.
The Qur'an stresses certain values as most fundamental like equality, truth, justice, compassion, benevolence (ihsan), freedom of conscience and wisdom. All shari'ah laws should be based on these values and as pointed out above, these values are more important than any law, unless the law embodies these values. Our shari'ah laws were undoubtedly quite progressive when they were formulated by the great jurists but in contemporary world they need to be revisited.
Our ulama who control state power do not allow shariah law to be revisited and that is why all Muslim countries which have proclaimed themselves to be Islamic states are stagnating in the field of modern knowledge. There is not a single Muslim country with Islamic state which can boast of modern laboratories for study of nuclear or atomic physics or other institutions of higher learning. Qur'an so much stresses learning and even says only scientists ('ulama, not in traditional sense) alone can understand this universe and praise its creator (see verses 3:190 and 35:28).
Modern state cannot confine itself to traditional knowledge but has to actively encourage modern knowledge and has to encourage excellence in all the fields of modern science. No country can play leading role today without achieving such excellence in fields of modern natural and social sciences. An Islamic state is constrained by traditional sciences and whole stress in such states is on religious learning rather than on modern science and technology.
Even true religion can flourish only if there is freedom to choose and state does not dictate anything to its citizens. More a person is free more he would be able to develop his religious and spiritual thoughts. If a state is encumbered by a particular sect or school of thought, it will not grant freedom to other schools of thought. This is the dilemma of all ideological states. Only narrow interpretation of the ideology on which a state is based, is permitted and it is official interpretation which prevails. This totally curbs freedom to develop the thought.
Freedom of conscience is most fundamental for true spiritual enterprise and for moral excellence. The Qur'an also requires all believers to choose freely and to sue power of reasoning and intellect to reflect and make moral choice. When angles argued with Allah that we always pray to thee and thou art creating a human person who will defy thee. Allah replied you do not know what I know and created human being(2:30).
What mainly distinguished human beings from angles was freedom of choice. Human beings can choose between good and evil whereas angels have no such freedom. They have to follow good without any option as they have been created as such. Human beings, on the other hand, are free to choose and yet if they choose to be good it makes them superior. Thus it is freedom to choose which made them superior to angels and so angels were asked to bow before Adam.
Any ideological state does not allow such freedom of choice. It is only a modern democratic state unconstrained and unencumbered by any religious dogmas, which can allow people to choose and be morally superior. Human spirit demands freedom and only a free human actor can be held responsible for his/her conduct. One cannot be free moral agent in any ideological state.
In fact Islamic state is not a deeni concept but a historical construct. If one want to understand how the concept of Islamic state evolved, one has to look to history not to religious principles. I have already thrown light on the Qur'anic values and hence Qur'an aims at a society based on these values, and not a state.
When the Qur'an was being revealed in Mecca and also for first few years in Madina, there was nothing like any state there. Moreover in Mecca the Prophet (PBUH) and his followers were in small minority struggling to form a community (ummah), rather than a state. In Madina situation changed somewhat in later years when the Prophet emerged as a supreme authority, not only in religious but also a secular matters. It was historical, not religious need.
The whole emphasis of Qur'an even in Medinese period, is on prophethood, not on kingship or being ruler. Throughout Medinese revelations also Muhammad (PBUH) is referred to as prophet. Thus his pre-eminent position was that of a prophet. He never raised any army or police or did not impose any taxes. Whenever Madina was attacked people were persuaded to volunteer themselves and hence the emphasis on martyrdom (shahadat). Those who fought with the prophet were not paid anything; on the contrary they had to contribute weapons, camels and horses and other provisions. Thus it was a purely voluntary force until the Prophet was living. No state structure of any kind was evolved during the Prophet's life time. Zakat was also a religious obligation rather than a state tax. There were no other employees of any kind.
It was only after the Prophet's death that need was felt for some kind of state of primitive kind. It is also important to note that the Prophet(PBUH), unlike Christ (Isa), was not born in a society where there was ruler. Christ was born under Roman rule. Thus he remained only a prophet. Similarly Ibrahim and Moses were also born under rulers like Nimrod and Pharoah and hence remained only as prophets.
But the Prophet of Islam was born in a society where there was no ruler. It was primarily a tribal society and hence once a religious community came into existence, it needed ruling authority to maintain law and order. And all four pious caliphs ruled through mutual consultation. It was loosely structured state authority to maintain law and order in the society and this need increased as non-Arab foreign lands were conquered.
Many non-Arabs came under Muslim authority who were neither converted to Islam nor did they accept Islamic morals. Thus with these conquests a proper state authority became a must and Umar, the second Caliph during whose regime foreign lands began to be conquered extensively, a paid army and police force began necessary. It was now hardly possible to work with voluntary services. Thus Umar set up an army register (he copied it from Iran) and also shurtat (police) and even market inspectors.
The four rightly guided Caliphs tried their best to keep character of state as non-coercive as possible but with seizure of power by Mu'awiyah, the state really became more and more coercive apparatus mainly concerned with political power than creating a moral value-based society. The Prophet's (PBUH) whole efforts were directed at creating a value-based society rather than controlling political power. The four Caliphs tried to maintain this tradition but Umayyads were mainly concerned with political power, not with quality of the society.
The Islamic world thereafter never saw a period where main concern was creating a moral society but to capture and retain power for once own dynasty. Such states cannot be characterized as 'Islamic State' by any stretch of imagination. In modern times and in globalised world societies are becoming more and more multi-religious and hence best form of state could be one which is not concerned with this or that religious dogmas but fundamental values and people's welfare.
No state can be run today with bias towards one particular religion or sect of religion. Such a state run by imperfect human beings cannot be expected to be impartial towards other religious communities or other sects of same religious community. Even in Muslim-majority countries a state, not based on any one religious dogmas, can be better administered. What is desirable is not Islamic state but a society based on Qur'anic values.