Written on Nov 29, '01
U.S. Muslims Must Tackle Question of 'Mosque and State'
It has never ceased to amaze me that the same religion, whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism, can magnify the noble tendencies in one person and the evil tendencies in another. It is a mystery as old as time. But in this modern era, where progress in almost all fields of human endeavor has been enormous and the pace of change rapid, it seems to me that fusing politics with religion magnifies the evil tendencies. Keeping the two separate magnifies the noble ones. Western critics have raised certain questions about Islam in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on America that call for soul-searching and thoughtful response by Muslims. Chief among them is the issue of "mosque and state."
Does Islam promote rule by theocracy, or can there be a separation between political institutions and places of worship? Traditional Muslim theologians have suggested an integration of the two. Modern Muslim men and women must revisit this view, and add or amend to it with their own knowledge and understanding. American Muslims must take the lead in this effort because here, we have more freedom and opportunity than Muslims in other parts of the world. In America, we need not fear fatwa (religious ruling) from anyone, and we can practice ijtihad (independent reasoning) to make the teachings of the Quran resonate with new meaning for modern times. We understand how an enlightened Islamic life is possible in a pluralistic society. We are informed by history, but are not hostage to it.
As one of these moderate American Muslims, I look first to the Quran for guidance on the question of mosque and state. The Quran, of course, is a book of moral guidance, not a treatise on statecraft. As such, there is no mention in it of theocracy, monarchy or democracy, to name just a few forms of government. The Quran gives an outline only and not the details of statecraft, since rigid institutions cannot respond to changing political, social and economic conditions. The divine words in the Quran duly note the constancy of change. However, the Quran does contain general references to the sanctity of faiths, and the importance of tolerance, diversity and consultation. The right to defend one's faith is important to all Muslims. But the Quran mentions diverse faiths when noting this fact: "If God had not enabled people to defend themselves," one verse reads, "all monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques in which God's name is abundantly extolled would have been destroyed." And religious faith is not to be forced upon anyone, even in a state where a majority are Muslim: "Let there be no compulsion in religion."
One of the most eloquent interpretations of these ideas, in my opinion, came not from any imam, but from ex-heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who said: "Rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams. They have different names, but all contain water. Religions have different names but all contain truth." Tolerance is paramount in the Quran, so much so that it tells us, "If anyone kills one innocent person, it is as if he has killed all humanity." And among many verses affirming human diversity, two are: "If God had so willed, He could have made you a single people," and, "We made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another." With such diversity of faiths and peoples, how do we all get along? In a chapter called Shura (Consultation), one verse offers a clue: "Blessed are those who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation." Within such broad guidelines, and framed by the moral principles summarized by Islam's "five pillars" -- belief in one God, prayer, fasting, charity and (if possible) pilgrimage to Makkah -- our faith requires Muslims to carefully consider the dynamics of changing times to arrive at peaceful and progressive solutions for governance. The sanctioned practice of ijtihad challenges Muslims to come to conclusions on such issues as behavior, civic responsibility and government through argument and reason -- not through dogma.
Therefore, while the words of the Quran are immutable for Muslims, what they suggest in the context of different times and environments can vary, depending on Muslims' understanding and insight and their widening horizons. So while the Quran never speaks directly to the separation of mosque and state, every time I read it, it tells me separation can be a good thing. I cannot offer any "proof" of this, other than to note that nations that have prospered in the last hundred years have done so by untangling the religious from the political, while nations that have stood still or regressed insisted on their inseparability. The Taliban's rule in Afghanistan is the most recent example. Blindly following the past or closing the door on reason violates the spirit of our faith. It's time for American Muslims to bring a spirit of inquiry into our scholarship, knowing that religion, like science, is full of enduring and unsolved mysteries.