The foundational principle in Islam --- there is no god but God --- is not just a statement of belief, the acknowledgement of which requires the Muslim to submit or to surrender totally to God. It is a principle that embodies an entire worldview, a worldview anchored in the oneness of God or Tawhid. No sphere of human existence is separable from Tawhid. What this means is that state and society, government and politics, the economy and culture, law and policy have to be based upon, and guided by, Tawhidic values or values such as justice and compassion, dignity and love, equality and unity which are all enshrined in the noble Qur'an. Indeed, Tawhid, the Oneness of God, is the basic premise for the unity of the universe, the unity between the human being and his natural environment, the unity of humankind, the unity of the sexes, and the unity of the family. At another level, it is Tawhid that unites the material and the spiritual, life and death, this world and the next. Within such a worldview, divorcing life from God, or society from the Divine, would be anathema.
There is another reason why Muslims are so concerned about making their faith in God the basis of state and society. The Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) himself had established a community in Medina which possessed some of the rudimentary characteristics of a state. A charter was formulated which sought to regulate relations between different communities, laws were enacted, public roles were assigned to individuals to manage the affairs of the community and even emissaries were dispatched to neighbouring kingdoms and states. Because Muhammad was more than a Prophet or Messenger of God --- he was a political leader, a military commander and a law giver --- Muslims have invariably associated state power and governance with the essential message of Islam.
This view of what Islam stands for was reinforced by the evolution of the shariah as a code of conduct a few decades after the death of the Prophet. Through laws and precepts, the shariah gave concrete expression to some of the values and principles contained in the Qur'an and in the example of the Prophet (the Sunnah). In the course of time, it emerged as a body of jurisprudence commanding its own autonomous authority on a whole gamut of issues affecting the life of a Muslim. In fact, the shariah today has become almost sacrosanct as Muslims in a number of countries clamour for its introduction --- especially its penal code ---in their quest for the establishment of so-called genuine Islamic states.
If there is any psychological force that propels this quest, it is the collective Muslim memory of what their civilization had accomplished in past centuries. Many Muslims know that there was a time when Islamic civilization was at the forefront of almost every sphere of human activity. Their past convinces them that their religion will once again reach the pinnacle.
At the same time however they are aware that their civilization has been vanquished. Ironically, defeat at the hands of the West was in a sense one of the factors that prompted Muslim scholars to visualize an 'Islamic State' as the antidote to Western colonial empires. It is significant that it was in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, as a result of both colonial military power and colonial intrigue, that the Muslim intellectual Mustafa Raziq introduced the term 'Islamic State' --- a term that has no precedent in Muslim history. It is worth noting in this regard that the community-cum-state that the Prophet established in Medina was not described as an 'Islamic polity'. The contemporary yearning for an 'Islamic state' is therefore --- to a certain extent at least --- a response to Western hegemony.
I have attempted to explain why many Muslims understand the role of religion in society in terms that are somewhat different from the majority of non-Muslims. The reasons, it is apparent, are complex. But both Muslims and non-Muslims, it should be reiterated, are attached to religion, and have been witness to its expanding role in present-day Asia.
In a number of countries, at the time of Independence, the ruling elites were secular and religion was not central to politics. Because of socio-economic challenges, electoral politics and flawed governance, segments of society have over time turned more and more to religion which serves as an identity marker, a source of morality and an embodiment of the ideal.
The reconciliation between, or harmonisation of, religion and state is a major issue in a number of Muslim and non-Muslim societies. In some instances, it is a question of how religion will transform existing secular structures while in other cases it is a question of how the understanding of religion itself will be transformed by the secular environment.
The perpetuation of global domination by the US and its allies and the injustices it generates within the Muslim world (ummah) has induced a fringe within the ummah to resort to acts of terror which in turn has distorted perceptions of Islam among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Equally important, the US-Israeli agenda has been detrimental to reform movements within the ummah seeking to develop a more inclusive, universal vision of Islam.
In those instances when religious groups have succeeded to acquire power, the emphasis appears to be on protecting identity expressed through regulations pertaining to women or gender interaction or manifested in changes to prevailing conceptions of history and culture. Often, religion on the throne of power has led to authoritarianism arising from a desire to impose a certain doctrinal interpretation upon the rest of society.
(The writer is a leading Malaysian public intellectual and can be reached at [email protected])