Islam and Sovereignty

The New Nation on 11 March 2006 published my article ‘Islam and Democracy: How far Compatible’. The article is the summary of a speech delivered at a seminar organized by the Asian University Bangladesh on 20 February 2006. Keeping in view the parameters of democracy in mind and the unfounded allegations of the western scholars, I discussed several issues in that article. The notable among them:

Whether the political system of Islam allows autocratic rule or it is based on peoples’ consent and essentially a consultative system; whether this consultation is optional and obligatory? Whether an Islamic state works for group interest or its objective is human welfare? Since the objective of the Islamic state is public welfare and the consultation by the head of the state and government is binding, I concluded in that article that Islamic political system is essentially democratic.

I also concluded in that article that the authority which shall have the final say in the interpretation of the Text of the Quran is sovereign in the modern sense of this political term, whether it is the Parliament or the Supreme Court or the Council of Elders or the people by referendum. 

I also discussed in that article the question of women’s participation as the head of an Islamic government or head of an Islamic state.

As a corollary of the women’s political participation and empowerment of the women, I also raised in that article the question whether it is obligatory on the part of the Muslim women to fully cover face or use nikab. 

I also discussed in that article whether Bangladesh is an Islamic state by its constitution and argued in favor of constituting “a committee in the Ministry of Law, Justice & Parliamentary Affairs consisting of eminent Islamic scholars, Ulama, jurists and Fuqaha, Islamic theologians having the essential ability for expounding Islamic law and being an authority thereon, just, virtuous, abreast of time, having political and social insight, judicious and who command and enjoy the trust and confidence of the people. The members of this committee shall examine and review all drafts acts to be passed by Parliament (also all Presidential Ordinances) and give its views on such act(s) to the Government so that parliamentary enactments are not contrary to the tenets and precepts of Islam. The inclusion of such members in the committee will ensure that the Government is being judiciously advised at the drafting stage so that no law repugnant to the Quran and Sunnah comes before the Cabinet or Parliament for consideration”. 

Mr. Mohammad Sakhi under the heading ‘Islam and Democracy’ responded to my article that has been  published in The New Nation on 17 April 2006 and raised many issues which are new and not connected to what I have discussed in my article. I had no intention to raise a debate afresh on what Mr. Mohammad Sakhi has said in response to my article but for Mr. Mohammad Sakhi’s request that he likes to ‘hear’ from me as mentioned at the concluding paragraph of his article.

I would like to use the column of The New Nation to thank Mr. Mohammad Sakhi for his valuable comments. In any intellectual discourse there can always be difference of opinion and such differences are not necessarily “error” which Mr. Mohammad Sakhi mentioned in the very first paragraph of his article while commenting on my article. Our earlier scholars differed but then they never said that some one is wrong. Mr. Mohammad Sakhi commented that I have “left out” points in my article. But not covering a certain point in a speech or in a newspaper article or even in a book is not uncommon and there is nothing wrong in it if no suppression of fact has been made. In fact it is not possible for any person to cover all points of an issue in any article.

Mr. Mohammad Sakhi wanted me that I should “expound the authority that shall have the final say in the interpretation of the Text of Quran by ijtihad”. I think I have addressed the issue sufficiently in my article. What I want to add is that there is no meaning of saying that Allah is Sovereign without fully analyzing this concept in its modern connotations. Sovereignty is a new word and it has no exact parallel or equivalent in Arabic or Islamic terminology. Sovereignty is totally a western concept. We can only infer how far Islam is nearer to this concept or to what extent Islam differs with the modern day concept of sovereignty. What I want to say is that Bangladeshi ummah shall have the final say, last word to decide who shall have final authority in the interpretation of the Text of the Quran in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi ummah through its constitution can exercise it by referendum, or confer it either to the Parliament or the Supreme Court or the duly constituted Council of Elders.

The preamble of the 1956 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan states: “And Whereas the Constituent Assembly, represented by the people of Pakistan, have resolved to frame for the sovereign independent State of Pakistan a constitution”. Look, even the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan, which was accepted by the then all Ulama and Islamic political parties of Pakistan, states that Pakistan is a sovereign state. The preamble at another place states: “Whereas the integrity of the territories of the Federation, its independence and all its rights, including its sovereign rights over land, sea and air should be safeguarded”. That means Pakistan is a sovereign country and it must exercise its sovereign rights over all territories including sea and air.

In this connection what Moulana Motiur Rahman Nizami, Chief of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh said in his inaugural address at Rukan Conference 2006 on 3 June 2006 is significant. He said: “Jamaat is respectful to the independence and sovereignty of all countries in the light of UN Charter” [Booklet- Inaugural Speech, JIB, Publication Department, Bara Moghbazar, Dhaka, 2006, p 22]. Look, Moulana Motiur Rahman Nizami even departed here from the traditional concept of the Sovereignty of God and making a statement that Jamaat believes in the sovereignty ‘of all other countries’.

In fact the modern concept of sovereignty is highly complex and technical in nature. According to Austin sovereign power possesses unlimited power, indivisible and a determinate authority. In real practice however there is nothing that can be called unlimited sovereignty in the sense that states actions are externally limited by the other states actions and rights, and internally state’s power is divided between different organs of the state and government namely legislature, executive and judiciary. Powers are even sometimes subject to customs and public opinion. The bureaucracy and the media do exercise powers. Authority is divided and it is not possible to say that one controls the whole because each controls only a part. Each is supreme in its own sphere. Neither can be said to be supreme over the other. Taken all these factors into consideration we can say that state’s powers are internally divided. The state only exists externally, in relation to other states.

Allah is Hakim, Command is only for Allah should not therefore be equated with Austin’s concept of sovereignty.  Austin did not refer to the Authority of Allah, he was referring to the authority of the ruler. Even in Kholafa-e-Rashadeen, Caliphs issued laws both in written and unwritten form and this did not constitute violation of Hakimat of Allah.

Mr. Mohammad Sakhi has raised a question: ‘Can a Muslim country be called Islamic if it is not run by the divine laws?’ In my previous article I pointed out that our laws, namely the Law of Inheritance, the Law of Endowments and Marriage and Divorce Law are by and large based on Shariah. What I want to add in response to Mr. Mohammad Sakhi is that most of our laws are administrative laws and Allah has given us freedom to legislate in case of Tazir, where the Quran and Sunnah are silent. Punishment under Tazir is called Siyasah al Shariyyah in Islamic Fiqh. Our laws are not against Islam in the sense that these laws contain almost nothing that contradicts the Text of the Quran and the objective of these laws are  human welfare and these laws also mostly fall within the category of amr bil maruf wa nahi al munkar- realizing interests and removing evils. Only a few sections have to be amended in some laws, not even all sections of these laws. The constitution of Bangladesh reiterated its absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah and the state religion is Islam. The two major political parties namely, BNP and Awami League are committed not to frame un-Islamic laws. Everybody in Bangladesh can perform religious rituals. Women can observe Hijab and there is no bar to establish mosque and madrasa. In theory we have Islamic laws in the country although we find lapses in some cases. We observe such lapses during the Umayyad and the Abbasid Caliphates. We can however enact law of blasphemy so that none can dare to criticize Prophets and leaders of other religious faiths. Such a law should contain provision of harsh penalty for the violation. We can also frame law banning the production, storage, carrying, sale, import and drinking of wine and use of other narcotics and the law should have provision for severe punishment for the violation. However we have to keep in mind that as individual Muslim continue to remain a Muslim even after not observing certain principle of Islam, it is not proper and justified to think that a Muslim state loses its Islamic character just for not observing certain provisions of the Shariah. It remains Dar al-Islam, Islamic state in the technical sense despite some deficiencies.

I want to conclude with the observation that what has been discussed here is not the last word and Allah knows the best. Allah hu alam.

Article prepared on 1 July 2006