What is the view of the Gülen Movement about the concept of an “Islamic state”? Could there be such a state?

Fethullah Gülen

This question can be asked in three different forms: What is the concept of state in Islam? What is the place of state in the Qur’an? Can a state be established based on Shariah?

By negating all these three questions, Fethullah Gülen says in summary:

Those who study and put forward opinions concerning the Islamic perspective of state and politics usually confuse Islam, established by the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, with the Islam as constructed through the historical experiences of Muslims and of course based on Shari’ah [legal] principles, and also the superficially observed Islam of the modern times. They come up with various shapes and forms in the name of Islam; sometimes using Qur’anic citations, a few selected sayings of the Prophet, or sometimes ideas and suggestions of one of our contemporary thinkers and they vow to make their interpretation reign if they have the opportunity.

… Islam does not allow any person to put his or her own thoughts or ideas, or nowadays’ possibly fantasies or desires, at the level of guidance for people, and does not allow them to say “This is the religion,” but rather considers such attempts as misguided.

First of all, the thoughts that are proposed in the name of religion, if not originating from the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, will result in as many projects and proposals as there are opinions, and this will result in a crisis of legitimacy. Any proposal that does not take its reference from the historical experience of Muslims upon which there is a consensus of the majority of Muslims absolutely cannot be enduring. The needs of today’s people, if not responded to through a reference to the main sources of religion, which are accepted and revered by the majority, will not be realistic and will not satisfy people.

In Islam, rule and sovereignty belong to God. The Qur’an emphasizes this point in several verses and declares that ruling and command belong to God: “Female and male believers, when God and His Messenger made a decision, they have no other choice anymore” (33:36). Through this, the Qur’an declares that rule does not belong to holy and infallible spiritual leaders, as in theocracies, nor to any religious institutions under their supervision, nor to any other religious institution organized in any other way. Islam says, “the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous.” By this, it does not allow any privilege based on family, class, race, color, wealth, or power. Instead, Islam established righteousness and merit and honesty and the sentiment of justice as a principle. In Islam, which is based on the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet, there is neither absolute monarchy nor classical democracy as known in the West; neither dictatorship, nor totalitarianism. In Islam, ruling means a mutual contract between the ruler and the subject and it takes its legitimacy from the rule of law, and from the principle of the superiority of the law. Accordingly, the law is above the ruler and the subject. It belongs to God. It cannot be changed and cannot be usurped. The law is to be applied according to the Creator’s command, and the way in which the Prophet expressed and applied it. For Islam, an administration based on tyranny is illegitimate. Islam does not approve any kind of dictatorship. In an Islamic administration, those who are at the top have to obey the law like ordinary people: They cannot violate these principles and cannot act in their practice against these principles.[1]

More questions immediately arise: “In this system, where is human will?” Who is going to promulgate the laws? Who will decide whether these are in conformity with the rulings in the Qur’an and the Sunnah? Who will decide that the laws are divinely inspired or not? Is this process itself this-worldly? Where are we going to locate the human factor in this process? Fethullah Gülen responds,

In Islam, the legislative and executive institutions have always been allowed to make laws. These are based on the needs and betterment of society and within the frame of general norms of law. On domestic issues in the Islamic community and its relationship with other nations, including economic, political, and cultural relations, Muslims have always developed laws. The community members are required to obey the laws that one can identify as “higher principles” as well as laws made by humans. Islam has no objection to undertaking ijtihad [independent reasoning], istinbat [deductive reasoning], and istikhraj [derivation] in the interpretation of Shari’ah principles.

In fact, in a democratic society the source of law is colorblind and free from ethnic prejudice. It promotes the creation of an environment for the development of human rights, political participation, protection of minority rights, and the participation of individuals and society in decision-making institutions which are supposed to be the characteristics of our modern world. Everybody should be allowed to express themselves with the condition that no pressure should be made on others through variety of means. Also, members of minority communities should be allowed to live according to their beliefs. If these sorts of legislations are made within the norms of international law and international agreements, Islam will have no objection to any of these. No one can ignore the universal values that the Qur’an and the Sunnah have presented with regard to the rights mentioned above. Therefore, it is impossible to prove in any way that Islam opposes democracy. If a state, within the framework mentioned above, gives the opportunity to its citizens to practice their religion and supports them in their thinking, learning, and practice, this system is not considered to be against the teaching of the Qur’an. In the presence of such a state there is no need to seek an alternative state. The system should be reviewed by the lawmakers and executive institutions if human rights and freedoms are not protected enough, as in the case of many developing democracies around the world. In order to make such ideal laws, lawmakers should reform, renew, and organize the system according to the universal norms of law. Even if such a renewal is not considered tashri’ [based on Shari’ah], it is not conceived of as being against it. Significantly, there are some who think that Shari’ah rule would necessitate a state system based on religious rules. Without looking at the meaning and implication of the word Shari’ah, they display an attitude opposing it. Whereas the word Shari’ah is, in a certain way, a synonym of religion [din], it indicates a religious life supported by God’s commands, the Prophet’s sayings and practices, and the consensus of the Muslim community. In such a religious life, the principles that are related to the state administration are only 5%. The remaining 95% is related to the articles of faith, the pillars of Islam, and the moral principles of religion.[2]

What is understood from this answer is the following: The religion of Islam does not regulate politics nor does it require a specific form of governance. These decisions are left to the believers themselves, to be arranged according to the circumstances of a particular given time. But the Qur’an and the Sunnah fixed the basic rules and framed a general moral picture.

If people live their lives according to these principles and this spiritual framework articulated by Fethullah Gülen, they also would meet their religious obligations by trying to practice their faith. Furthermore, these principles and spiritual framework do not contradict the modern understanding of law and freedom. Resistance to the change comes from the conservatism of the societies and the rigidity of the prevailing political system and the administrators.

Until recently, in the preamble of Turkey’s constitution, the “state” was characterized as “sacred.” But, can the state be sacred?

In various periods in history, the state was sanctified, it was accepted as sacred. For instance, the “Sacred Roman Empire.” This empire was established by the clerical class and became a prototype for the theocratic systems proper. That is to say, the administrative system of the sacred Roman Empire was not a divine system based on the sacred texts and divine sources. It was rather a system based on the principles developed and interpreted by the church authorities depending on the conditions, and the set of laws derived through ijtihad, at the convenience of the conjuncture of given periods. In other words, it was not a divine administration; but one, under the church fathers. In this system, the state is related to the political domination of the clerical class and is based on the superiority of the church authorities. For that, these characteristics are reminiscent of a “theocratic regime.” It is true that in the ensuing periods, the state was still sanctified. Even in various localities and in the countries where Muslims make up the majority, as a reaction to the attacks on the state, the state was almost considered as sacred by some circles.

... Since it does not allow “monkery” [priesthood], Islam advices a form of state supported and strengthened by the direct participation of the public at the highest level, a state in which, there is no pressure of the conservatism of spiritual assemblies. The state is not a goal. it is a helpful vehicle and its task is to prepare a setting in which people can have a life in order to obtain the peace and bliss in this world as well as the next. Without falling into the error of sanctifying it, being respectful to the state is a duty of citizenship.

The state might not be able to perform what is required of it or it might be at fault in its work … but we have to look at the matter from the perspective of general principles and holistically.

Islam has a general viewpoint about the matters like sin and fault. One, although faithful, might commit sins, might be at fault. In the matters regarding the state, the same view should be retained. Namely, even if the state does not abide by the commandments of God, and loyal to the principles and advices of Islam completely, it still deserves the respect and support which is due to it. Because the people who make it up are us, the individuals. Then why should we be in opposition to it? When we are opposed to the state, this would be tantamount to being against ourselves. We have established it. You might say we have not established this state in this form; we never wanted it to turn out this way. Somehow it is thrown at us! But, I would beg your pardon, where have you been until it has come to this point which is annoying to you? Until it has become what it is, aren’t there any negligence on our part?[3]

[1] Sarıtoprak and Ünal 2005, 449–450.
[2] Ibid., 450–451.
[3] Fethullah Gülen 2005b, 51–53.