Shaykh Dr Usama Hasan’s excellent, comprehensive and much needed report From Dhimmitude to Democracy showed that, historically, Muslim thought and practice clearly have the capacity to re-interpret Muslim theological sources and to modify Muslim laws and systems of rule accordingly.

As Dr Hasan noted, some modern/contemporary Muslim theologians and jurists are engaged in doing just that. For instance, in the maqāșid project which prioritises the positive intentions of sharia injunctions and promotes the concept of mașlaḥah i.e. that which is for communal and societal benefit. Students of politics are also doing similar work with regard to governance.

Building on what Dr Hasan presented, and speaking from a theological perspective, I would put forward a point or two on governance and law; points which, prima facie, seem counter-intuitive. The intention is to stimulate further discussion and exploration as part of the ongoing Muslim reformative endeavour. My words are most relevant to a Muslim audience. [1]

First, let me say upfront that personally I am in favour of the secular model of government whereby all religions/beliefs/non-belief and all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law; and all people have equal human rights; and the state is separate from religion. At the same time, as a theist, it seems clear to me that the values which are at the very heart of good government stem from theocentric qualities.

Theocracy has gained a poor reputation because it is conflated with political rule dominated by or entirely based upon an interpretation of one religion by certain of its clerics or adherents. But such rule is more accurately to be called religiocracy. It is rule according to one interpretation of one religion, over and above all other laws/religions.

And religion does not equal God. While there is something of God in religion, (the divine impetus), there is also a huge amount of human input. Religion and religious laws are in very large part the result of human interpretation, human implementation, human jurisprudence, human society, culture and politics. For instance, Islamic legal rulings are the work of individual jurists who followed their own schools of thought and who took into consideration their specific historical contexts.

It is vital not to equate God and religion; it is crucial to see that God’s nature and religious laws do not always coincide and indeed are too often opposed to each other, sometimes most brutally so.

If theocracy is indeed a system of rule where God is foremost, then I argue that this happens through a qualitative alignment with God’s nature: in other words there needs to be a qualitative theocentricity.

In Muslim terms this would mean an alignment with the attributes of God as designated by the core divine names which describe His qualities and characteristics. These divine names provide a set of values.

Here are some of the core divine names: al-Raḥmān = the Gracious; al-Raḥīm = the Merciful; al-Salām = Peace; al-ʿAdl = Justice/Equality; al-Ḥaqq = Truth; al-Hayy = the Living; al-Quddūs = the Holy; al-Ḥafīẓ = the Protector; al-Ḥakīm = the Wise; al-Razzāq = the Provider; al-Wasi`u = the Vast All-Inclusive; al-Muḥīṭ = the All-Embracing; al-Ḥalīm = the Forbearing; al-Raʾūf = the Compassionate; al-Laṭīf = the Gentle / the Subtle; al-ʿAfū = the Effacer of sins; al-Ghaffār = the Oft-Pardoning; al-Karīm = the Magnanimous; al-Nūr = Light; al-Ḥakam = the Governor/the Arbitrator.

Based on these names the following theocentric characteristics should be foundational to theocracies:

Sanctity of all life – because all life belongs to God who is the Living and all life is sacred and to be protected (al-Ḥayy, al-Ḥafīẓ). Objective justice and equality – the divine name al-ᶜAdl denotes not only justice but also indiscriminateness and equality. Protection and promotion of peace (al-Salām). Indiscriminate provision and care for all (rizq/luṭf: al-Razzāq, al-Laṭīf,). Compassion (raḥma: al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, al-Raᵓūf); equitable law and order (ḥukm: al-Ḥakam).

From historical and global evidence, it is seen that too often religiocracies are not the most theocentric systems of governance. Whereas democracies which uphold human rights, freedoms and dignity, and which treat all their citizens equally, not discriminating between them, which provide for the good of all the people, which seek to uphold justice, truth and to maintain peace and equitable law and order – it is these systems that are more theocentric than religiocracies.[2]

I said earlier that there is something of God in religion. The other half of that equation is that there is also something, and indeed rather a lot, of God outside of religion too – because wherever His qualities are, there He is, whether or not He is named.

Humane values are, from a theistic point of view, extensions of the divine qualities.

Theologically, this is not surprising: for man is made in the image of God. And it is man in the existential/ontological image of God who is regent of God. Not the man or the system that claims to be divinely mandated. But the man or system that is actually ontologically in harmony with God’s nature whether or not they call themselves representatives of God.

If on the one hand, theocracy is too often conflated with religocracies, then on the other hand, too many people still conflate the secular with the profane; but secular values do not equal profanity. The idea here is to go beyond labels and look at the actual substance with honesty. As theists we Muslims should be able to truthfully acknowledge God’s qualitative presence wherever we find it, including in secular conventions and laws which uphold human rights and freedoms.[3] Similarly we should be able to truthfully say when what people purport to be sacred is far from being aligned with God’s nature.

One of the propositions being put forward here is that God’s nature, as designated by the core divine names in Muslim tradition, should be the paramount hermeneutical principle in the interpretation and implementation of the Qur’an and the sharia – whether the sharia is/impacts state law in Muslim majority countries or whether it affects mainly the private lives of Muslims living in countries where Muslims are a minority – and that those verses/hadiths/rulings which are in harmony with the core divine qualities take precedence over those verses/hadiths/rulings which are opposed to the core divine names.

This is an invitation to Muslim religiocracies to review their laws and practices in the light of the core divine names.[4]

The other proposition is that Muslims should not feel conflicted about harmonising the sharia with human rights conventions such as the UNDHR because such conventions are in harmony with God’s qualities.

There is a verse in the Qur’an (Q.4.1) that states all mankind was made from a single soul; this may be interpreted as indicating an existential equality of all human beings. It is my hope that all practitioners of the Muslim religion, and especially those in authority in countries where the sharia impacts state law, will seek to uphold and extend this God-given equality to all people.

The religion of Islam is facing a Lincoln moment (as in Abraham Lincoln). If the law sanctions abuses or validates inequalities then the abused and the deprived have nowhere to go for justice under such laws. But the thing about a Lincoln moment is that we have the chance to rectify the wrong in law. May we successfully seize this Lincoln moment of ours.


[1] The points made in this piece will be more fully developed in my forthcoming publications.

[2] Needless to say, democratic societies/systems are also all works in progress with some further along the road than others. No society/system is perfect but, objectively, some are more humane and more just than others.

[3] The invitation to relevant Muslims living in democratic countries which uphold human rights and freedoms is to recognise God’s qualitative presence in the laws of their countries and in international conventions / declarations such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I say “relevant Muslims” because many Muslims already understand this point even if they do not articulate it this way. And many others appreciate the values of their equitable democratic societies without wanting references to God. But for yet many other Muslims, the relationship of humane values to God through His Islamic names is an unrealised factor.

[4] The Qur’an refers to nature as revelatory signs (āyāt). With regard to the point I am making in the text above, I am reminded of a pertinent natural phenomenon of alignment that takes place in the cells of leaves. In a single cell of a leaf there exist numerous chloroplast organelles which absorb sunlight in order for the vital process of photosynthesis to take place. These organelles are constantly adjusting to the play of sunlight and shade on the leaf, positioning themselves such that they have optimal absorption of sunlight. Thus they are constantly seeking to align themselves as directly as possible with the rays of sunlight. Think ‘humane values’ aka ‘divine attributes’ for ‘rays of sunlight’, and you see the analogy. Verily God is not shy of coining similitudes of even a mosquito or what is beyond that [in smallness] … (Q.2.26).

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