Islam is a fundamentally political religion. It was born as a political religion, as opposed to Christianity, which was secular in its inception. This is because the prophet ʿĪsā peace be upon him never held political office; whereas the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was both a governor, a general, and even wrote a constitution. The head of state and heir to the prophet’s office, the Khalifa, was in most instances both the political ruler and the religious figurehead. Before the spread of Islam, the Arabs were divided into various tribes and decentralized sultanates The same tribal social and local political structures continued to exist after the arrival of Islam, however, Islam provided the basis for a centralized political, intellectual, and a legal structure that superseded previous ones. The primary identity which the Arabs defaulted to was their various tribal affiliations, rather than be united by a sense of Arab national identity.
Indeed, the revelation of the Qur’an, and it’s privileging of the Arabic language above all languages, as well as early Islam in general, is the basis of modern Arab political, theological, and philosophical thought. This is even the case of non-Muslim Arabs, as even non-Muslim Arabs had to work within the philosophical groundings of an Islamic society.It also true that Greek philosophy played a role in Arab philosophy, but it should still be understood that this Greek philosophy was first and foremost viewed through the lens of Islam. The root of all Arabic intellectual discourse and philosophy in general is still Islamic in origin, despite outside influences coming in from non-Islamic roots and sources. However, this aforementioned Arab thought is not compatible with the existence of the contemporary Arabian states apparatuses, albeit at least nominally Sharia-compliant and Islamic in nature, are fundamentally un-Islamic and antithetical to Islamic principles. It will be demonstrated that contemporary Arabian state apparatuses are based on secular European philosophy, rather than the Islamism they profess.
Understanding European enlightenment philosophy is key to understanding secular thought in current Arabian society. As the contemporary Arabian nation-states gained independence from European powers, most notably the British empire, the ruling upper-class carried with them their secular understanding, political philosophy, and theological framework of their former colonial overlords. Indeed, it will be demonstrated in this narrative that despite the outspoken Islamic fundamentalism of the Arabian Gulf states in particular, contemporary Arab states are fundamentally secular in their making and are contradictory to the Arab national ethos. Even in the case of the state apparatus of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, traditionally seen as Islamic fundamentalists,are extremely secular, insofar as this narrative understands secularism. This will not take into account traditionalist criticisms of prominent members of the royal family, or other Saudi Arabian elites, engaging in hedonist un-Islamic activities.Rather, it will rely on how Saudi Arabia, as well as the other Arabian and Arab states, are structurally secular in that the existence of their state apparatus’ are fundamentally opposed to Islamic principles.
However, in order to do that, we must first have an agreed upon definition of what “secularism” exactly is in the context of this narrative. Then, this definition of secularism must be shown to have some connection with secularism as it is understood in the modern Arab states. It must therefore be understood that the conclusions of this narrative are based on specific and narrow definitions of secularism which are not necessarily shared by the current academic literary body, in which there is no unanimous consensus. Furthermore, what constitutes a “national ethos” must also be defined. The purpose of this narrative, ultimately, is to highlight the various implications of applying European philosophy to an Islamic society.
Secularism, in the context of philosophers from Enlightenment Europe, can be understood as the separation of the Church and the State.The Church is no longer necessary for the legitimization of the state apparatus, as the state no longer derived legitimacy from the divine. Strauss phrases secularism as the “theo-political problem… [the question of whether] political authority [is to be] grounded in claims of revelation or reason, Jerusalem or Athens?”. This “reason” for a state to exist had to come from somewhere, and in the case of Europe, it came from nationalism, as the weakening of the Church’s authority meant that political authority could no longer be derived from the Church. The imagined community of the Germans, for instance, provides a clear example of this very process. The Germans shared an imagined community, an imagined shared history.They had the same language, had similar cultural and religious practices, and had lived under similar forms of political authority. That was essentially the Germans’ “reason” for being under one state, and organizing themselves as such. The French, the Spanish, and the British are similar in this regard, in that they too use a sense of “imagined community” to justify the state apparatus. This not to say these nation-states are a cultural monolith, there does exist a significant amount of diversity within these European countries. However, that does not change the point that is being made. The Arab state apparatuses use the same secular justification that the Europeans do for their existence, basing their existence on an imagined shared history.
There are twenty-two Arab countries, all of which share the same language, the same religion, and the same imagined shared heritage and history. This language, the religion, and shared history, all have Islamic origins. The reason for the proliferation of the Arabic language, is Islam’s adherence to preserving the Arabic language as was originally during the time of revelation. Consequently, as the language has stayed very much the same, the Arab intellectuals have followed a philosophical thread that goes back to the advent of Islam. In other words, there is no “theo-political problem” in the Arab world. There is no difference between “reason and revelation” in the Arab conception of political philosophy. The tradition of Arabic “reason” as it were began with revelation.There is no Islamic equivalent to the Catholic or even Protestant Church, as there exists no Islamic version of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.As a consequence of this, Arab theo-political thought developed in a very different way than Europe’s theo-political thought has. However, as a consequence of European imperialism and colonialism, Arab society has had to fit in within the confines of secularism, a product of European culture.
Discussion of this contentious issue does not take into account the personal religiosity of any individual ruler, nor does it take into account the various differences and nuances within the diverse thought of Islamic theology and philosophy in general. Instead, the narrative seeks to examine how the structure of the modern Arab nation-states are inherently un-Islamic in their very conception. Indeed, the very concept of modern notions of national identity is incompatible with Islamic identity. For example, in the Constitution of Medina, as created by the prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him, it is outlined that faith relations took precedence over blood or tribal affiliations.However, in the citizenship processes of the modern Arabian nations, this is clearly not the case. While it is true that the overwhelming majority of citizens of Arab nations are Muslim, this does not mean that the state treats all Muslims as being equal. Instead, citizenship is given out on the basis of an imagined shared community, and a shared imagined common history. Being part of this “imagined shared community” takes precedence over faith, or the religion one subscribes to. The Arab states taking into consideration blood relations, or an shared history, whether imagined or real, take precedence over faith relations is antithetical to the very constitution that the prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him created himself.
An issue that arises from this line of reasoning, then, is whether or not any contemporary Muslim state has the capacity to be Islamic. It is unreasonable to posit, for instance, that Qatar, a state with a citizenship count of approximately three-hundred thousand, to award citizenship to over the two billion Muslims living worldwide. However, it is also fundamentally un-Islamic for a state apparatus to make their citizenship be exclusionary not on whether or not someone is Muslim, but whether or not someone is part of the imagined shared history of the nation. This establishes that the issue is structural, rather than due to the personal religiosity of whoever occupies the state apparatus. Contemporary Arab state borders were created by secular, non-Muslim states, such as the British and French empires. The way in which the Arabs organize themselves within these borders, therefore, is based upon a manufactured identity made by these aforementioned empires, instead of an organic social organization that stems from within the Arabic and Islamic consciousness itself. The contemporary Arab states apparatus, then, do not possess the capacity to be Islamic.
This is also reflected in the basis for the contemporary Arab states’ laws. Firstly, it must be understood that there exists no such thing as one kind of Sharia law, much the same way there exists no such thing as one kind of secular law. Thus, the states are not un-Islamic or secular in that the legal law they practice is different from a certain kind of Sharia law, is that it is in its entirety based on either the French Civil Code or the British Common Law. Instead, the Arab states use Islamic language while applying this secular law in order to appear Islamic. Objectors to this view posit that it is very clear that the state apparatus of Saudi Arabia, for example, is more Islamic than the state apparatus of France. It is counterproductive, to categorize them as both in the same category of “secular”, even if one were to concede that the state apparatus in and of itself is not conducive to Islamic principles. However, the secularization of the Arab nation, or the Arab peoples, is not being discussed. It is only the state apparatuses in and of itself that is being discussed, the administrative bodies which govern the Arab world. Just because Muslim individuals occupy the administrative bodies which permeate the Arab world, does not mean that the systems are inherently Islamic. Similar to how a bank might have all-Muslim employees, but due to the use of usury and other haram commercial and financial practices, could be described as secular or at the very least non-Islamic on a systematic level.
Moreover, it is a geopolitical reality that the administrative bodies which currently govern the Arab world, and the Islamic world in general, are structurally incentivized to be against the concept of a unified Islam. If all Arabs were under a single Islamic administrative body, and all Muslims were treated equally and justly under this administrative body, then the local elites spread throughout the Arab world would lose their power. Indeed, if we were to accept that Islamic principles would dictate that all Muslims, as well as all people in general, should be treated equitably, then it should be understood who occupy the state apparatus’ would lose out as the concept of statehood and the current privileging of the citizenry over non-citizens contradicts this very Islamic principle of equity. While there may be devout Muslims, and personally religious individuals who occupy this apparatus, the apparatus as a whole attempts to survive by its very design and nature. The Arab states, therefore, are undoubtedly secular, in accordance with the definition and understanding used in this narrative. There is nothing Islamic about being a Qatari, or being a Saudi, or being an Iraqi, or another of the citizenships given out by whichever Arab state apparatus. Indeed, as Allah proclaims to the Muslims in the Qur’an: “This is your ummah, it is one ummah”. “Ummah” roughly translates to civilization or nation. Without a unified Islamic administrative body that is inclusive of all Muslims, with no individual privileged based on their perceived blood ties, there can never be a fundamentally Islamic government. Islam is fundamentally an inclusionary and not an exclusionary religion, and the current Arab state apparatuses contradict Islam’s inclusionary nature.