Separation of Church and State in Islamic History and Freedom

No people on Earth ever had a more successful separation of Church and state than Muslims did. From a very early time, religious scholars became endowed and separated from the state, and critical of it. The state needed them for legitimacy and they did not need the state. Therefore, they always had the ability to be independent. And this is why in the colonial period and the postcolonial period, as Muslims were charmed by this beast of the modern nation-state which devastated the Muslim world, one of the first goals of the political tyrants was to destroy the independence of the scholarly class.

Richard Bulliet writes about this very well in “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.” He says that they knew that by removing from the scholarly class its economic and social independence that the doors to tyranny would be wide open, and they didn’t disappoint. So we have a huge problem in the Muslim world with tyranny, more than we’ve ever had before, and a lot of it has to do with the demise of these groups who were traditionally independent.

The Shari’a is mostly general with regards to siyasah (governance and customary law), with a few specific prescriptions, but Muslims have always seen politics, as with every other domain, as something bound by Islamic morality and ethics (akhlaq). A person’s moral responsibility before God extends into all domains of public and private life.


Freedom for us is also a great value. Freedom is to be totally God’s servant, and then He will set you free. For the saint of God is described in the hadith qudsi in Bukhari: “And the most beloved thing with which My slave comes nearer to Me is what I have enjoined upon him; and My slave keeps on coming closer to Me through performing Nawafil (prayer or doing extra deeds besides what is obligatory) till I love him. When I love him I become his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his leg with which he walks; and if he asks (something) from Me, I give him, and if he asks My Protection (refuge), I protect him.”

This is freedom. And freedom in Arabic is always associated with nobility and absolute commitment to principle. Muhammad al-Arabi al-Darqawi (رحمه الله) said, “if you want freedom to show you her face, let him show her the face of servitude to God. And that means having upright intentions, truthful love, good opinions of thers, noble character, and careful adherence to what the Law commands and prohibits (without any alteration or change). Then freedom will show you her beautiful face. Peace.”


Freedom in Islamic Civilization

If you were to study Ottoman history, Seljuk history, Islamic Spain & Portugal, central Asia, etc., we created an amazing civilization that was free and liberating, and that’s not an exaggeration. Jews and Christians were respected. Many of the Jews of Muslim Spain and Portugal were pure Hebrews, they’re a very special people, and they attained a level there that they never attained before or after that. They had great freedom and honor and all Christians did as well. Every Muslim city had a Catholic bishop who was honored and respected who could go to Rome whenever he wanted to. Muslims had no problem with that–you’re free.

In this civilization as well, it undercut the feudal system and freed the peasants. And it did that almost without knowing it was doing it. This land was rich and when you study about it you see that the great sufis, the people who wanted God, who lived in mountains and caves and journey from one place to another, they could live here very freely. The people respected, loved, and benefited from them. There was a harmony between them and others. When you read sheikh al-Akbar you find many stories like that, of great awliya’ he meant in Grenada and Murcia etc. And this is the way it was in the Muslim world.


What’s beautiful as well is the story of ibn Battuta. He was free to travel the world. He traveled more than any other explorer in history by a huge margin. He could travel through north, east, and West Africa, Anatolia, central Asia, the Maldives, China, and southeast Asia. Everywhere he went he was never a stranger or foreigner. Whever he goes he’s always at home with his Muslim brothers.

Source: Dr Umar Faruq Abdullah


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