In Defense of the Secular Narrative of the Holy Quran

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Source: The Muslim Times

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Zia Shah
Zia H Shah MD; Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Does the Quran present a theocratic or a secular state? My short answer is ‘a secular state!’

But, a more interesting question is: Do the Muslims read a theocracy or a secular state, in the holy Quran? The answer to this question is a resounding: ‘both.’

Confusing, isn’t it for the non-Muslims.

The fact of the matter is that even a lot of Muslims are also confused on this issue of what does the Quran say about government, and usually cannot resolve the issue even over a lifetime. I believe, the Muslim masses will always remain confused unless they find the passion to educate themselves, for the clerics will always keep them bamboozled, serving their parochial and selfish political agenda.


According to a recent PEW Research Center survey a very large majority of the Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan want to strictly follow the Shariah Law, whereas only 13% of the Turkish Muslims subscribe to that vision. They cannot all be speaking for the Quran.

Unlike a precise book of mathematics or science, the scriptures allow for multiple interpretations, at least in the mind of the readers, depending on their agenda. The Quran itself states:

He it is Who has sent down to you (Muhammad) the Book; in it there are verses that are fundamental, they are the basis of the book and there are others which are allegoric. As a result, those who have an axe to grind pursue such that are allegoric, seeking to create confusion and pervert their meaning, and none knows of their meaning except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; these last affirm: We believe in it, all of it is from our Lord and none take heed except those gifted with understanding. (Al Quran 3:7/8)

Regarding its divergent effect on the believer versus the non-believer it says:

And We are gradually revealing of the Qur’an that which is a healing and a mercy to the believers; but it only adds to the loss of the wrongdoers. (Al Quran 17:82/83)

Now let me present a possible scenario, how debate about secularism versus theocracy can potentially play out about different verses of the Quran.

Image (1) Zafrulla-and-JFK-e1322703390893.png for post 26889
Sir Zafarullah Khan in a meeting with President John F Kennedy

Sir Zafrulla Khan was the first Foreign Minister of Pakistan. From 1954 to 1961 he served as a member of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. He again represented Pakistan at the UN in 1961–64 and served as president of the UN General Assembly in 1962–63. Returning to the International Court of Justice in 1964, he served as the court’s president from 1970 to 1973. He will be our legal and religious expert here, for secularism.

He wrote in a short article, The Concept of Justice in Islam:

Before Islam, the concept of justice in Arabia was purely patriarchal inside the family and the tribe, and between different tribes a rough and ready balancing up through a succession of tribal feuds and vendettas. The administration of justice on the basis of law, rights, duties, and penalties through the machinery of courts and judges was something unfamiliar to the Arabs. Islam not only introduced this concept but made the settlement of disputes through judicial determination obligatory upon the Muslims.

But no, by thy Lord, they are not believers until they make thee judge of all that is in dispute between them and then find not in their hearts any demur concerning that that which thou decidest and submit with full submission. (4:66)

This verse lays down, first, the obligation that disputes must be judicially determined; then the moral duty that once the judicial process has terminated in a final decision, the decision must be accepted without leaving a trace of resentment or demur in the minds of the parties whichever way the decision may have gone, and finally that it should be submitted to and carried out to the full.

Those who are not familiar with the style and idiom of the Quran might be disposed to restrict the operation of this verse to judgements delivered by the Holy Prophet himself. This would not be correct. Very often when the Prophet is addressed directly, the commandment, injunction, or obligation is laid upon all believers, or has a general application. Nor is there any room here for attributing special sanctity to judgments delivered by the Holy Prophet. He has explained that in determining a dispute he tries to arrive at the truth of the matter on the basis of  the presentation of the case by the parties. He may go wrong and award something to a party to which the party is not entitled. Should that happen the party that under the judgement takes or recovers that to which he or she is not entitled is guilty of appropriating wrongfully that which does not belong to him or her.

This verse is thus emphatic in making obligatory the determination of disputes through judicial process and complete submission to the final judgement is not merely carrying it out, but in reconciling oneself to the judgement in one’s mind so that no resentment or sense of privation is left behind.

Incidentally, the verse quoted above would be 4:65 in many translations of the Quran; for while Sir Zafrulla Khan has counted the very first verse shared by every surah, except one, also referred to as Bismillah, many translations don’t.

Now, the judicial systems in the Western societies have become elaborate and sophisticated over time and given this very articulate presentation of Sir Zafrulla Khan, I believe, the believers have no choice but to benefit from the scholarship and precedence of the last five centuries in Europe, Australia, USA  and Canada.

But, before we feel very reassured in our secular vision, let me warn, that the verse quoted above, “But no, by thy Lord, they are not believers until they make thee judge of all that is in dispute between them and then find not in their hearts any demur concerning that that which thou decidest and submit with full submission. (4:66)” and there are many similar verses in the Quran, can be double edged swords.

Syed Ali Hosseini Khamenei

The clerics can easily quote these verses as submission not to the secular judges, but to the Prophet only and they themselves being next in the chain of command, under one guise or the other.

Take the example of Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, he is not only the head of state of Iran and the commander-in-chief of its armed forces, but also a marja. What is a marja?

In Shia Islam, marjaʿ (Arabic: مرجع‎‎) (Plural: marājiʿ), also known as a marjaʿ taqlīd or marjaʿ dīnī (Arabic: مرجع تقليد / مرجع ديني‎‎), literally meaning “source to imitate/follow” or “religious reference”, is a title given to the highest level Shia authority, a Grand Ayatollah with the authority to make legal decisions within the confines of Islamic law for followers and less-credentialed clerics. After the Qur’an and the prophets and imams, marājiʿ are the highest authority on religious laws in Usuli Shia Islam.

So, whereas Sir Muhammad Zafrulla was presenting the verse in a broader and a secular perspective, it is not hard to see, how such verses with a little literal interpretation and a little passion and zealotry can be used as a prescription for theocracy; which we incidentally have in Iran and it becomes fairly obvious from just reading the roles of Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei in Iran, as noted above. However, for 90% of the Muslims, who are Sunni, the authority of Khamenei means nothing. Absolutely nothing!

So, whereas it is impossible for the Muslims to come together under religious leadership of one sect or the other, for a large majority of them have their own individual ‘marjas,’ they can easily unite and coexist on secular principles, like Protestants and Catholics do in the Western countries, which are also safe haven for significant Muslim populations.

From Iran allow me to jump to USA, some two centuries ago at its foundation.

The deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of USA in 1787 were held in strict secrecy. Consequently, anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall when the proceedings ended in order to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. The answer was provided immediately. A Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

In other words keeping the republic requires constant work and vigilance. The same is, I believe, true for maintaining secularism, in the Muslim societies. Unless, the masses have been educated for decades and centuries, given their love and zeal for religion, they are always vulnerable to fall prey to the religious rhetoric of the clerics and fall into a theocracy.

So, the work and scholarship of the secularist is never complete. We have to constantly present new narratives and old ones in more beautiful garbs, from the Islamic sources to keep educating ourselves and others about the benefits of secularism, human rights, gender equality, justice for every one and checks and balances in governance.

Before I close my case today, I want to share with you a nice excerpt by Maria Massi Dakkake, from her article, Quranic Ethics, Human Rights, and Society, which is a part of a recent commentary of the holy Quran by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and associates. The accentuations have been picked up by me:

One can identify five interrelated principles governing Quranic social ethics: The first is the significance of the religious community, or ummah. The Quran envisions the ummah as a collective of individual believers and has nothing explicit to say about the governance of the community or who has the right to authority over it. Although the Quran enjoins believers to obey those in authority among them (4:59), it never specifies the criteria for such authority or the mechanisms by which such an  authority should be chosen and exercise power. These matters are discussed to some extent in the Hadith literature. The Quran does, however, encourage believers to determine their affairs by consultation among themselves (42:38) and even directs the Prophet Muhammad to consult with his followers in certain matters (shawirhum fi’l—amr; 3:159). Thus, the Quranic conception of the ummah is primarily that of a collective of believing individuals who have moral obligations to the community as a whole and to each of its members as well as to themselves. The good of the whole and the good of the individual are not seen as competing interests that need to be opposed to each other, but as mutually reinforcing concerns. The Quran explicitly states that all believing men and women are protectors (awliya’) of one another (9:71) and thus bear substantial moral responsibility toward fellow believers. Importantly, according to 9:71, both men and women share in this moral responsibility toward fellow believers and the ummah.  Each individual has the duty to uphold the moral standards of the community, and the community has the collective responsibility to enforce these standards. Ideally, the moral health of individuals contributes to the moral health of society, while the moral integrity of society encourages and provides fertile ground for the proper moral and spiritual development of each of its members. This principle can be derived from the Quran’s charge to both individuals and the collective community that they enjoin right and forbid wrong (3:104, 110; 9:71).

Incidentally, Seyyed Hossein Nasr is an Iranian professor emeritus of Islamic studies at George Washington University,[2] and an Islamic philosopher. He is the author of scholarly books and articles.[1][3]

What the promoters of Shariah Law or theocracy often forget is that even if there were any components of theocracy during the life time of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, given his prophethood and constant revelation from All-Knowing God, he did not prescribe any for the future. He did not leave any advice for any political system. He just gave us a vision for justice, human rights, gender equality, peace and compassion, which was to be instituted by mutual consultation.

May God be with every reader, until we meet again on this or some other topic.

Suggested Reading

The Separation of Church and State Is Impossible: Unless of course it is divinely sanctioned

Video: A Wonderful Presentation Against Islamism

Book Review: Islam Without Extremes by Mustafa Akyol


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