The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 17, 2003
George Edmonson – Staff
As the United States struggles to rebuild Iraq and establish a new government, many Muslims are committed to an Islamic state. Shiite Muslims — a majority in Iraq, some with close ties to the Islamic establishment in neighboring Iran — have demanded a major role in Iraq’s future government after years of repression by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.
For some, Islamic law conjures up images of harsh rule and oppression. But Wael Hallaq, a professor and eminent scholar on Islamic law at McGill University in Montreal, says that is a mistake. Here is an edited conversation with Hallaq about the concepts of an Islamic state.
Q: First, would you explain what actually constitutes an Islamic state?
A: The principal idea is the application of Islamic law, the Shariah. The Shariah is basically not only law in the civil and criminal sense, but also it is constitutional law. It dictates the form of government, at least in general terms, and it dictates, as well, a set of constitutional and legal values that should be followed and abided by.
Q: What are the primary differences between an Islamic state and a Western democracy or another form of government?
A: First, let me just throw in a cautionary remark. Muslims do recognize a form of democracy and that’s what democracy for them should be. But it is definitely different than Western notions of democracy.
There is a certain amount of flexibility in the form of government. In other words, you have sets of values that are dictated by the Shariah. But how to implement these values and how to bring them out into a social, political and other realities within a state structure is a matter also of interpretation. If Islamic law is famous for one thing, it is the staggering amount of interpretation and the wide range of interpretation in it.
As long as you interpret within what Muslims deem to be reasonable boundaries of what Islamic values are, you are free to establish a state that conforms to one or another interpretation of Islamic law. Therefore, you could have an autocracy, you could have a dictatorial regime. But you also could have some sort of a parliamentary system, a ruler with a council of quote-unquote jurists, or learned men, who would represent the social interests. But the electoral system, the suffrage system, is not particularly recognized.
Q: Is it possible to have a secular government based on Islamic law?
A: No. This is a contradiction in terms.
Islamic law is, by definition, religious and, therefore, secularism is not permitted. However, religious systems do not have always to be in complete contradiction of secularism. Quite often, you had the religion as a window dressing, and the reality of it could be very close to a functioning secular society.
But the emblems and the symbols and the personal matters, they have to be, in that system, religious. This is, again, one interpretation. Another interpretation would be anti-secularist to the core. It depends on which one you choose.
Q: What would the role of women be, politically, in an Islamic state?
A: One of the most important challenges that is facing Muslim intellectuals today is how to accommodate the Muslim woman in the modern reality.
This new reality of interpretation is trying to cope with how to place women in society in this modern world, such as, for example, all the basic freedoms that women are now entitled to and, in fact, they get as a matter of practice in the Muslim world. I don’t think any Islamic state which is real and realistic about its own Islam can live with the traditional values today.
Reasonable cooperation between the state, its jurists and its population could yield a certain social consensus which would basically accept as one of the Islamic values women — while abiding by the fundamental values of the religion as being decent women and wives and mothers — being still allowed to work and have rights and to travel.
We always, when we think of Islamic law, we think of chopping off the hands and such brutal punishments. We forget that there are many things in Islamic law that are very, very reasonable and, in fact, advanced, even by our own standards today.
Q: It sounds like you’re saying it’s a fundamental misunderstanding to think of an Islamic state as some sort of carved-in-stone concept.
A: That is absolutely right. It’s an erroneous idea because of the simple fact that if you open any book on Islamic law, you will get somewhere between two and 15 opinions on the same piece.
Q: Is it possible to have an Islamic state that could coexist and be accepted by Western democracies as a fair and equitable country?
A: People, societies, must have a certain latitude to believe in what they believe and not what others tell them to believe.
Of course, there are certain obvious things that should be changed according to the lives we are living today, what we call 21st-century modernity. But there are many other things that are a matter of taste. You like red, I like blue. And I am entitled to like blue as much as you like red.
If the Western nations exercise the very principles they believe in, namely democracy, they should be able to live with an Islamic state, which also has to take into consideration not only its own Islamic system and values, but also the changing conditions of humanity without compromising the fundamental principles of its identity.