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Understanding the Relationship between Religion and State

From time to time, discussions about the relationship between state and religion become increasingly important. The role of Muslims and their position on this issue usually needs clarification given that the interaction between state and religion often causes confusion and dissonance.

First, we must ensure that the definitions of the nomenclature related to this topic, terms such as religion, law, state, government, nation, and people,[1] are clear. These are terms that have specific meanings, used in social and political spheres, and mentioned in the holy books.

From the meanings of these terms, it appears that religion and state have some features in common and others that differ. Perhaps the most important commonality between religion and state is the goal of realizing the higher interest of the people. This stems from the need to organize human affairs to ward off chaos and establish and facilitate a system that ensures a respectable life, human dignity, progress, prosperity, and advancement in every area of life. Yet, what about the elements beyond this higher goal? A thorough examination of religious texts and the theories of intellectuals reveals that the most important differences involving human existence revolve around authority and government. As such, one may sometimes surmise that religion is more concerned with establishing the philosophy of a given system rather than the method or mechanism by which to implement it.

Examining the significance of religion and religious law in statehood

Let us revisit the difference between the terms religion and shariah in relation to the concept of state, particularly as a modern term that addresses the means and mechanisms that support a system of government. Even if we assume that religion is constant, which means that its fundamental moral pillars, such as charitableness, helping the weak and destitute, upholding justice, and the prohibition of murder, theft, betrayal, injustice, persecution, and oppression, never change and are fixed eternally, we still see that divine legislations have varied and changed through the millennia of prophetic missions. Therefore, we see that the successive legislation of the laws of Noah (p), Abraham (p), Moses (p), Jesus (p) and Muhammad (pbuh&hp) were subject to change according to time and place and the nature of humanity’s culture, civilization, and social laws. This indicates that a competent, righteous scholar can perform the derivation of laws that are appropriate for any given period.

Differences in legislative characterizations between religion and the state

Moreover, application of the law does not entirely agree about the identification of the individual. For example, characterization of the individual is broader and more comprehensive in the context of religion than it is for the purposes of the state. As we noted, religion addresses the human mind, spirit, and conscience, and it legislates for individuals across geographical borders, languages, races, and ethnicities. On the other hand, the characteristics of the state are determined exclusively by a defined geographic location belonging to a specific group of individuals. Upon further contemplation, we find another difference, reflected in the separation of power or the structure of authority (e.g., the branches of government). The state system often separates the legislative, executive, and judicial branches to ensure the balance of power and prevent unilateralism and domination of any one group within the state. In contrast, if a given ruling and the authority needed to carry it out meets the objective conditions in each time or place, then the standpoint of religion will vary according to whether the ruler possesses the complete mental, psychological, and moral characteristics needed to fulfill the responsibility of leadership. As such, if the ruler is divinely chosen “God has chosen him as your ruler,”[2] like an infallible prophet who is obliged by God to establish a theocratic government, then there is no room for separation of authority since we believe that God is all-knowing, just, and wise and He “creates and chooses (to grant mercy) to whomever He wants.”[3] His appointees, while people, “do not have the choice.”[4] On the contrary, if the ruler is only a religious person (not an infallible), then he will remain accountable regardless of his competence (knowledge and experience) and integrity (piety). Indeed, God Almighty refers to divine appointment, “When his Lord tested Abraham’s faith (by His words) and he satisfied the test, He said, ‘I am appointing you as the leader of mankind.’ Abraham asked, ‘Will this leadership also continue through my descendants?’ The Lord replied, ‘The unjust do not have the right to exercise My authority.’”[5] Thus, we must be careful not to compare the contemporary modern state system and the Islamic government ruled either by a qualified jurist or by the infallible.

A fourth major difference considering these definitions arises from religion’s goal of achieving goodness for humanity and the essence of its universal teaching for all of humankind. So, religion is not confined by time, place, or population, while the state is concerned only with the interests of its own people and the geographic area under its authority and not necessarily with the interest of others. Rather, national interests often prevail in international matters, and therefore, conflicts and wars continuously arise, even if opposing states have accepted and agreed to an established governing body like the United Nations to avert such incidents.

The role of Muslims in the state

If we accept these premises, let us go back and ask once again what the relationship between religion and state is. Moreover, what is the role of Muslims and their position towards the state today? The objective of this discussion is not to conclude or decide that religion must provide the ruling system or even that there should be a separation between religion and state. There should be no objection to the establishment of a state governed by religion if the people who are bound by a specific geography and united by one faith with common origins and goals want to live by such a system—this would be their choice. However, which system should apply if the people are not from one nation, which is the case when they have multiple origins, beliefs, and goals, as seen in most countries of the world? Furthermore, what does religion say about such circumstances? And, what is the position of a Muslim towards his or her fellow citizen or “equal in humanity”[6] as the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali (p) says. Additionally, what is the position of a Muslim towards his or her brother or sister in Islam, for example, with respect to following the rulings of a given jurist who rules for the implementation of religious guardianship over people during the occultation of the infallible, particularly when the Holy Quran says,  “No religion other than Islam (submission to the will of God) will be accepted from anyone. Whoever follows a religion other than Islam will be lost on the Day of Judgment”?[7],[8]

It is fair to say that there does not seem to be a problem if people choose a form of government in which there is a separation between religion and state. That is also their choice. It appears that the issue of the state, authority, and governance, when considered as a means and not a goal, was a choice, even in the times of the infallibles. This is despite their status as the legitimate vicegerents appointed by God and the divine administrators of the religion. Indeed, historical documents, both religious and non-religious, have cited several instances in which the infallibles or vicegerents of God had the opportunity and means by which they could establish a state but they did not. Why? Despite the divine authority vested to the infallibles to fully administer human society and the irrefutable signs of their wisdom and inerrancy, people acted contrary to God’s directives by choosing leaders based on their own whims and personal interests. Thus, it became clear that human-made positions of leadership, whether political or otherwise, were only a tool that the infallibles used to fulfill the divine plan when conditions permitted and not the end goal of God’s legislation.

Evidence from the Holy Quran and way of the Prophet

Let us return to the Holy Quran, which is an undisputed sacred text. Referring to the separation between religion and state, does the Holy Quran not say, “Their prophet said to them, ‘God has appointed Saul as king for you.’ They replied, ‘How can dominate us when we deserve more to be king than he. Besides, he was not given abundant wealth?’ Their Prophet said, ‘God has chosen him as your ruler and has given him physical power and knowledge. God grants his authority to anyone whom he wants. God is Provident and All-knowing’”?[9] It is clear and unambiguous in the text of these verses that the prophet, who was responsible for proclaiming divine commands and teachings, stated to his people that they needed to have a government to manage their affairs and that it did not need to be under the auspices of a prophet. However, Almighty God chose a king for them, one who met the qualifications according to divine standards of competence, integrity, and perfection, in contrast to the worldly standards that they chose, which were based on economic status and influence.

Is there a clearer text than this which indicates that the merging of religious tasks with political leadership is not always imperative? Is there a need to stigmatize someone, who does not believe that political leadership must be based on religious authority, by accusing them of polytheism? The prophets called all of humanity to the belief in the one and only God without distinction between geographic boundaries or other means. This is evident in the lives of both the noble Prophet (pbuh&hp) and in the life of Imam Ali (p). After three years of calling people to Islam secretly, the holy Prophet (pbuh&hp) called people in Mecca to the way of God publicly for a decade, and it does not seem that he [ever] alluded to or indicated an intention to form a state. In addition, it does not appear that he did this even after he immigrated to Yathrib (later Medina). Instead, the historical facts that highlight the biography of the honorable Prophet show that God facilitated the accumulation of a new group of followers from the tribes of Medina who quickly accepted his call. The Prophet and his few Meccan companions used to live in distress, and following his migration, the first thing he founded, constructed, and established was the mosque of Medina, not a royal court or government palace.

The Mohammed Covenant

Yet, when he saw the urgent demand from the people, not necessarily from a specific nation, but from a mixture of individuals that included pagans, agnostics, Jews, and some Christians as well as Muslims, from inside the city and its suburbs and neighboring villages, he answered the call and instituted a system to respect rights and preserve security and stability, as well as to preserve the gains he had already achieved.  Therefore, he gathered the dignitaries of various social strata and proposed The Charter of Medina, which today is the most important historical constitution that guaranteed the rights of the people under one authority. At that time, there was no problem if the majority constituted a system of government, if it was acceptable to the other members who were signatories of the code. At the head of this governmental system would be an infallible divinely-appointed prophet. It does not appear to be something previously planned, nor does it appear to be an urgent religious requirement. However, all the indications show that it arose because of legislation that acknowledges the appropriate variables for the environment, nature, and diversity of the citizens of Yathrib. The Islamic religion ruled with shariah in Medina according to the requirements of that region and according to the requirements of the various types of people then residing in it, taking into account the rights of every individual, including minorities, in an equitable manner.[10]

As we understand it, a Muslim’s position towards government, as a believer in God, His Messenger, and the Day of Resurrection, is that it must give the people the freedom to believe in the tenets of their religion without interference and without any exploitation of religion for political agendas. On the other hand, a religious individual in any country or time who believes in and practices the teachings of their religion and its noble and sublime values ​​automatically represents it in the best way. Moreover, such an individual is not concerned about the government except within the limits of their interest, and those of their family, society, and people who are bound together by a specific geography and state. This stems from the will, choice, and election of the people directly for the purposes of administration and providing services.

This would align with the requirements of considering the circumstances of the nation (i.e., those of similar religious identity) outside the country’s geographic boundaries, but under the banner of religion which unites a Muslim with all those who embrace Islam. Hence, a Muslim shares concerns, aspirations, and sufferings of others, and practices enjoining the good and forbidding the evil effectively, such that they can advocate for the benefit of their brothers and sisters in faith and others who observe their values. “Believers are each other’s brothers.”[11] The believers, both male and female, are each other’s protectors. They try to make others do good, prevent them from committing sins, perform their prayers, pay the religious tax, and obey God and His messenger.  God will have mercy on them; God is Majestic and All-wise.”[12] In conclusion, there seems to be no conflict; rather, religion and state can exist in harmony, which is what we desperately need now.



[1] Brief definitions of some important terms for the purpose of this article:

  •   Religion (deen – Arabic: دين):  a set of metaphysical divine teachings revealed by a wise Creator to bring happiness to humankind in this world and the hereafter. Those who believe in it and embrace it are religious. It is a comprehensive code of life for all people, and therefore not confined to a specific time or place. If the Creator is One, the religion must also be one. Almighty God says in the Holy Quran 3:19, “In the sight of God, Islam is the religion.”
  •   Divine code of practice (shariah – Arabic: شريعة): the law and legislation of religion that specifically suits the nature and practice of people in every time and place. Therefore, these laws continue to address the various changes experienced by humankind over time and foster the path of ascendance towards human perfection. Almighty God says in the Holy Quran 5:48, “We have given a law and a way of life to each of you. Had God wanted, he could have made you into one nation,” and thus, we may conclude, not necessarily a fixed code of law.
  •   State (dawlah – Arabic: دولة): a group of institutions linked together within a specific structure and system for governing people and internationally recognized by its sovereignty.
  •   Government (hukumah – Arabic: حكومة): the most prominent entity in the state and the body authorized to govern the country in accordance with the laws of the state. This coincides with the interest of the homeland and its citizens.
  •   The people (shab – Arabic: شَعَب): a group of people who live in a specific geographical area ruled by a well-defined state and legally identified as belonging to that state. This term may also generally identify people of a particular background, language, or ethnicity.
  •   Nation (ummah – Arabic: أُمّة) and denomination (millah – Arabic: مِلّة): A group of people who share a mutual origin and goals of religion, language, or history. This is not necessarily limited to a geographical region, ethnicity, or a specific time, because a nation includes previous, present, and future generations. God Almighty says in the Holy Quran 21:92, “People, you are one nation and I am your Lord. Worship Me,.” and in 4:125: “Whose religion is better than that in which one submits himself to God, behaves righteously, and follows the upright religion of Abraham;” therefore, in this context, the nation is identified by religion and a way of life that is available to all kinds of people at all times and places.

[2] The Quran 2:247. Quranic quotes in this article are from the Muhammad Sarwar translation.

[3] The Holy Quran 28:68.

[4] The Holy Quran 28:68.

[5] The Holy Quran 2:124.

[6] Al-Sharif al-Radi, Nahj al-Balagha, letter 53.

[7] For example, history reminds us of the humiliation visited upon the Umayyad Marwans, until some of their elders resorted to the house of Imam Ali al-Sajjad (p), and he (p) did not initiate anything against them. In another example, Imam Mohammed al-Baqir (p) had the opportunity to take away the power from the remains of the Umayyads, but he did not! When the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads they negotiated with Imam Jafar ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (p) publicly in the city of Abwa, and he did not accept, but rather saw his mandate to respond in another field—the field of science, education, and spiritual training, not the field of governance, administration, and politics.. Additionally, when al-Mamun forced Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Rida (p) to accept being crown prince[1] For example, history reminds us of the humiliation visited upon the Umayyad Marwans, until some of their elders resorted to the house of Imam Ali al-Sajjad (p), and he (p) did not initiate anything against them. In another example, Imam Mohammed al-Baqir (p) had the opportunity to take away the power from the remains of the Umayyads, but he did not! When the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads they negotiated with Imam Jafar ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (p) publicly in the city of Abwa, and he did not accept, but rather saw his mandate to respond in another field—the field of science, education, and spiritual training, not the field of governance, administration, and politics.. Additionally, when al-Mamun forced Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Rida (p) to accept being crown prince under the threat of death, the Imam (p) accepted, but with conditions, the most important of which was not to exercise leadership or issue of judgments and orders.

[8] The Holy Quran 3:85.

[9] The Holy Quran 2:247.

[10] The same applies to the situation of the Commander of the Faithful Imam Ali (p), who could have overturned the saqifah and its hasty tyrannical decisions and reclaim the power usurped from him unjustly as was his right according to divine law. However, he (p) did not do so; rather, he took a constructive position, one which sought to be corrective, and in which he would advise and patiently guide others, even those who were in opposition. When the people turned to him to be their caliph (leader) he only accepted for the sake of preserving and safeguarding Islam. He said, “if people had not come to me and supporters had not exhausted the argument” (Nahj al-balagha, sermon 3) to fulfill the people’s demand. Thus, there must be security, the door to chaos and discord closed, and there must be order, rule of law, and authority.

[11] The Holy Quran 49:10.

[12] The Holy Quran 9:71.

source: imam-us

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