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11 April 2011

Religious States


Generally, domination of religion over politics is a result of weakness of the state and its institutions. When they fail to fulfil the demands of the people and become inefficient in protecting them against internal and external threats, the gap is filled by religious elements who claim they will establish a society based on justice and get rid of the corrupt political setup.

In such an eventuality religion dominates politics and uses it as a tool for the implementation of its practices. There are two types of religiously dominated politics: in one case, a ruler, in the interest of his rule and the stability of his dynasty, implements religious law and allows the clergy to play a leading role in the affairs of the state; in the second category, the clergy, after capturing political power, establishes a religious state and forces the people to follow their religious agenda.

Such religious states, whether they were founded in the West or in the East, basically believed that human beings could be reformed only by coercion and control over their actions. Therefore, to set up a purified society, strict and exemplary punishments were given on minor crimes. It was also believed that worldly rulers were corrupt and evil-minded, therefore, only religious scholars could rule with honesty and work for the welfare of the people.

One such example is the city-state of Geneva that was established by the Christian reformer Calvin (d.1599). After acquiring political power, he was in a position to realise his religious ideals. The first thing he did was to announce that those who were not in favour of his religious ideals should leave the city. Those who stayed back faced his rigorous disciplinary action on different offences, including excommunication from Christianity, exile from the city, imprisonment and even the death penalty.

On his orders, all hotels and guesthouses which provided sexual gratification to the guests were closed down. Those traders and shopkeepers who were found involved in adulteration or were cheating customers by selling less than the weight were severely punished. Vulgar songs and playing cards were prohibited. Care was taken that the Bible should be available at all important places. Those who were found laughing during a sermon were reprimanded; it was declared obligatory for every citizen to thank God before eating.

As a result of these strenuous laws, every individual and family in Geneva came completely under the control and supervision of the spiritual police of Calvin. Punishments were severe and no one was exempt; once a child was beheaded for the crime of having struck his father. It is said that in a period of six years 150 heretics were burnt alive. The result was that the citizens of Geneva were soon fed up with this system and ended it by expelling Calvin from the city.

In the Islamic world we see this model in Najd and Hijaz where in the 18th century a religious movement erupted and soon engulfed the whole region. Its founder, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab (d.1792) launched a campaign to purify Islam of irreligious practices. Muhammad Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi ruling dynasty, was influenced by his teachings and made matrimonial alliances with the cleric’s family. When one of the members of his dynasty, Saud (d.1814), defeated his rivals and established his rule he made the Abdul Wahab’s religious ideals his state religion.

As followers of Abdul Wahab believed in revivalism and purity of religion, they demolished tombs, took away religious relics which were kept there and banned pilgrimage to shrines. The new creed wanted to revive the ideal society of early Islam by ridding it of what they considered innovations; they destroyed historical monuments of the early Islamic history only because people had emotional attachments to them and regarded them as sacred. They implemented strict rules and regulations for observation of religious practices such as praying five times and those who tried to avoid these were hounded by the police and forced to go to mosques.

This model inspired religious reformers in other Muslim countries and a number of movements emerged to capture power and reform society on the basis of religious agenda. In India, the Jihad movement of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid (d.1831) followed this pattern. To fulfil his mission, he migrated from northern India to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in order to establish his Islamic state. In 1827, he proclaimed himself as caliph and Imam.

He and his followers used all sorts of coercive methods to establish a pure and virtuous society. Mirza Hyrat Dehlvi, in his book ‘Hyat-i-Tayyaba’ writes that Sayyid sahib appointed many of his followers on important posts with the order that they should force people to follow Sharia. However, some of these officers misused their authority and sometimes forced young girls to marry them. Some young holy warriors forcibly took away young ladies from bazaars and streets to mosques and married them, observes Dehlvi.

Officers appointed to look after the peasants also misused their power and mistreated the common folk. The result was that poor and simple villagers became fed up with their presence. The officers, in order to assert power, declared anybody who challenged them kafir (heretic). If an official found somebody’s beard not according to the declared standard, that man’s lips were cut off as punishment. If somebody’s tahmad (simple cloth to cover up lower body) was longer than the prescribed length, his ankles were broken.

We have seen such models applied in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban, and in an altered shape in the Iranian Islamic state, which was established after overthrowing the Shah in 1979. Such states use all coercive methods to implement their own version of Sharia.
Past present: Religious states By Mubarak Ali

The learned writer has touched upon the Religious rule by extremists only. There is a middle way, not so rigid, the way of tolerance and moderation which should be followed. Muslim Spain, Modern Malaysia and now Turkey, Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan is well balanced, it includes 'Objective Resolution' which could be cited as an example for a modern Islamic State, though the rulers failed to implement it in latter and spirit.  

"And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way:"Qur'an,2:143]

Muhammad Asad in "Message of Qur'an" explains:
"middle-most community" - i.e., a community that keeps an equitable balance between extremes and is realistic in its appreciation of man's nature and possibilities, rejecting both licentiousness and exaggerated asceticism. In tune with its oft-repeated call to moderation in every aspect of life, the Qur'an exhorts the believers not to place too great an emphasis on the physical and material aspects of their lives, but postulates, at the same time, that man's urges and desires relating to this "life of the flesh" are God-willed and, therefore, legitimate. 
On further analysis, the expression "a community of the middle way" might be said to summarize, as it were, the Islamic attitude towards the problem of man's existence as such: a denial of the view that there is an inherent conflict between the spirit and the flesh, and a bold affirmation of the natural, God-willed unity in this twofold aspect of human life. This balanced attitude, peculiar to Islam, flows directly from the concept of God's oneness and, hence, of the unity of purpose underlying all His creation: and thus, the mention of the "community of the middle way" at this place is a fitting introduction to the theme of the Ka'bah, a symbol of God's oneness.