What makes a state Islamic?

What is it for someone to a Muslim? What is it for a society, or indeed a state, to be Islamic?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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What is it for someone to be a Muslim? What is it for a society, or indeed a state, to be Islamic? These are questions that have been fermenting in the background of Islam since the first Caliphs, at least since the Kharijite schism, the first time Islam split, and different sections of Islam started applying takfir (or excommunication) to each other.

But it seems that we are living in an age in which these questions once again will come to dominate the agenda in the Muslim world, to a level it has done only a handful of times before. The rise of radical Islamism, and the jihadist world view of Us vs Them, “true Muslims” vs “Crusaders, Jews and Apostates” (i.e. anyone you might call a moderate Muslim), has seen to that. And I have said many times before that if these people seek to appropriate Islam for their demented political goals, then Muslims have no choice but to take up this question ourselves. Who is a true Muslim? I do not claim to have an ultimate, exclusive answer, but I do know that ISIS are not it. Nor is their state anything you might call Islamic.

In the late C19th, the Egyptian Islamic jurist and later Grand Mufti of Egypt Mohammad Abduh travelled to the West. Upon his return he noted: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

How do I know? I urge you to look up the Constitution of Madinah, the treaty by which the Prophet Mohammad established the first Islamic State – the actual Islamic state, which ISIS supposedly “harkens back” to. If you can find one state in the world at the moment that is less like Prophet Mohammad’s state in Madinah than ISIS, please get in touch with me immediately. But in the meantime, I, like many other Muslims, am left reflecting now, at the start of the month of Ramadan, how we ever allowed this gang of criminals and psychopathic murderers appropriate the name of “peace” (i.e. Islam). How it ever came to be that misguided mothers could voluntarily take their children into ISIS territory, simply because it calls itself “Islamic,” even as millions of refugees are driven out by the barbarism and brutality of this gang.

So what makes a society, a country Islamic? The name? The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, or the Islamic Republic of Iran? Many Shiites or Ahmadis in Pakistan would disagree, as the state routinely and systematically fails to protect them against sectarian violence from Sunni extremist groups. Or is a country Islamic if they have majority Muslim population, like Turkey, even when the constitution of that country claims that the state is Secular? Or is it if they enact some variant of Sharia law, even if Sharia law has more schools of jurisprudence that are conceptually further apart than the Anglo-Saxon Common Law?

Measures of justice

There is a Prophetic tradition that says, roughly: “Wherever you will find justice, that is the Sharia of Allah.” In other words, the Sharia, the law of God, is simply justice. And a state is Islamic to the extent to which it is just. Specifically, to the extent to which it treats all people equally, grants equal rights and freedom of conscience, and protects the weak and vulnerable against abuses by the strong, wealthy and powerful.

So what countries would we say are Islamic then? Clearly not ISIS, where the rape and murder of the weak and vulnerable is de rigueur. As it happens, all so called Muslim countries in the world today are doing really rather badly by measures of Islamic Justice. According to a survey by a U.S. academic on which countries best promote the fundamental Islamic values which must be the bedrock of any Islamic society as defined by the Sharia, values such fairness, equal opportunity, care for the weak, vulnerable and minorities, equality of justice, freedom of religion, preservation of family and wealth etc, the best ranked Muslim country in the world, Malaysia, comes in at number 33. The only other country in the top 50, Kuwait comes in at number 48. Most other counties, especially those who are very keen to call themselves “Islamic,” are doing very, very poorly indeed.

The most Islamic country in the world then? Ireland. Yes, Ireland which epitomises all the Islamic values as defined by the Sharia. Where you can be a Muslim, of any sect or confession, or indeed any other religion, where you can practice your creed freely regardless of your doctrinaire preferences, unlike in most so called Muslim countries today, and very much in keeping with the Qur’anic rules of a just society, and where you have to opportunity to live and prosper in mainstream society whatever your background – or at least certainly more than you would if you were from an unfortunate minority in any Muslim-majority country today. The other countries in the top 10 are Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway, and Belgium.

In the late C19th, the Egyptian Islamic jurist and later Grand Mufti of Egypt Mohammad Abduh travelled to the West. Upon his return he noted: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” And today, this observation stands truer than ever. Islamic justice, the Sharia of Allah, is not something one can find in any Muslim-majority country today. You may find the suggestion that Ireland is the most Islamic country in the world peculiar. If you are of a specific inclination, you may even find it offensive. Fine. But no matter what your persuasion, no matter how you’ve been affected by identity politics lately, you cannot argue that ISIS is in any way, shape, or form “Islamic.” It is the very antithesis of the word.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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