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Islamic Ideology ( 6 Jun 2022, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islam and Statehood across Time and Space

By Aidyn Allsop, New Age Islam

7 June 2022

Islam Is the World’s Fastest Growing Religion and It’s Second Largest, Set to Become the Largest By 2070

Main Points:

1.    Could we apply the notion of Westphalian sovereignty to the followers of Muhammad?

2.    Understanding the link between Islam and statehood requires defining both.

3.    Relationship between statehood and Islam has grown over the course of history.


Examining the link between the religion of Islam and the concept of statehood is a difficult and often muddy task. For one, statehood is not a clearly defined concept; our modern understanding and definitions are not necessarily compatible with early examples. Could we apply the notion of Westphalian sovereignty to the followers of Muhammad for instance? Regardless, it is an important link to examine. Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion and it’s second largest, set to become the largest by 2070. All these followers live under nations and pseudo-states, with some proclaiming themselves Islamic States and Islamic theocracies. Therefore, it would be prudent to see how the religion of Islam and the concept of statehood interact, from the early years of Muhammad to the modern Islamic nations of today.

Firstly, understanding the link between Islam and statehood requires defining both, so we can draw comparisons. Regarding Islam, this is a relatively straightforward task. It is the monotheistic religion established by Muhammad, revolving around the Qur’an, which is the book of God; the direct word of God as it was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Time and space may impact what is means to be a follower of Islam through changing contexts or differing legal thought. Nevertheless, this definition will be sufficient for our purposes. As for statehood, we must take a more simplified view. As discussed, our modern notions and understanding of a state has changed over time, and one narrow view could not be appropriately applied to different contexts over time and regions. For simplicity, let us use Weber’s definition; a community that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Though understand it is a disputed topic. Overall, it is clear that the relationship between statehood and Islam has grown over the course of history, no doubt a result of assimilation into the Western international order of state sovereignty.

The Time of the Prophet

During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, it is a near impossible task to equate the functions of the Believers Movement to statehood. On the one hand, the Prophet did act as a sort of mediator to resolve conflicts, and on the other most functions of a state are difficult to see at the time of Muhammad. We could look to the Constitution of Medina, the foundational legal text for political power in Islam. It does dictate the Prophet’s powers of mediation over all in the Ummah but is not exactly clear on who is included in the Ummah. It of course involves the believers and Muslims, but the designation of Jews is unclear. If the Jews are included in the Ummah, as some scholars suggest, then it follows that we cannot consider the Ummah to be a solely religious community, as the Jews are allowed their own religion (Denny, 1977, p. 44). Rather, it is a political entity with power and responsibilities over those within it. Additionally, the Constitution declares that none within the Ummah may seek war, without the permission of Muhammad. This does fit Weber’s distinction of monopoly over legitimate violence, but marginally, as the text does permit taking personal vengeance.

We have established the Prophet did take judicial action over his community, but there is some evidence that he went further and delegated judicial responsibilities to others as well. Ali Abdel Razek notes that ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib was appointed to Yemen with judicial duties by the Prophet, though other sources say this was to collect alms (Raziq, 2012, pp. 60-61). Regardless of the purpose though, raising taxes and judicial action can be attributed to the actions of some type of government or state, this is two of their main functions. Another compelling argument lies in the Prophet’s expansion into other kingdoms. Jihad was assumed under the pretence of conversion, to spread the word of God. But even to the Prophet’s admission, religious conversion cannot be done through force, but rather persuasion. Even for a fledgling state, violence must be available, if even as a last resort. Expansions done under the Prophet can be attributed as an attempt to establish a viable state (Raziq, 2012, p. 72). Again, the Prophet had a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence, all within could not make war. This is not to discredit the Prophet of course, on the contrary, it allowed for the spread of the rule of law to the previous lawless region of Arabia (Rane, 2010, p. 3). His successors would have a template to build upon, the Prophet already having established the legitimacy of an Islamic state and civilisation.

The Caliphates

After the death of the Prophet, there emerged several conflicting methods to nominate an heir. There are debatable arguments from Shia and Sunni sources on the rightfulness of certain Caliphs, like Ali, whom Shiites consider to be the first rightful one (Triana, 2017). Regardless, we should examine them as a whole. The Caliphates effectively took the foundation laid down by Muhammad and expanded every aspect of the state; political, economic, military et cetera. Here is where we see the formation of the traditional state as it relates to Islam. It should be noted though, the Caliphates may seem at a glance to mirror the traditional nation-state, this is not entirely the case. First and foremost, the Caliphs were successors to the Prophet, the name even meaning successor (Kadi & Shahin, 2013, p. 81). This was a religious role first, and political one second. In practice though, the functions of the Caliphate are indistinguishable from those of a ‘state’. Joffé declares that they only differ in one area, the state will “determine the limits to its expression of sovereignty” while the caliphate will “establish beyond which territorial limits lies the ‘dar al-harb’ – the land of war” (Joffé, 2018, p. 508). This land of war is where Jihad will be permissible, to allow the spread of Islam but also the spread of the Caliphate.

This area of difference is notable for the next concept of Caliphates, nationality is largely absent. This is matching with Muhammad’s era, in that Islam is not solely for the Arab people. The important exception to this rule, however, is that the Arabs were the ruling class of the Islamic world (Laine, 2015, p. 123). Important strides were taken to ensure the Islamic world would not fracture and remained a unified political entity, resembling God’s kingdom on Earth. This includes proclaiming Muhammad to be the final Prophet sent by God (Laine, 2015, p. 112). In this regard, the Caliphates indeed differ from states, but more closely resemble the Western empires. This is a very broad examination however. To greater understand exactly what reforms took place under the Caliphates we should examine some of the policies they enacted.

For economic growth we can examine Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik (685 705), who revolutionised the tax system of the Middle East, and the entire economy of the region. Berg (2017) notes that the Caliph implemented standardized fiscal policy, organized surveys of properties and the usage of tokens to show tax obligations. This encapsulates the new role of the Caliphs as political overseers, not just engaging with the Islamic world on the basis of religion, but now taking to see their polity advance politically and economically. Moreover, these sweeping economic measures distance the Caliphates from the individual-level clientelism of the past, to a robust imperial program of taxation and tribute. Another interesting development of statehood that occurred under the reign of the Caliphs was the judicial system.

Initially, much like the time of the Prophet, judicial matters were largely left almost decentralised, with cases being considered irrespective of previous rulings (Berg, 2017). Under the Abbasids though, the judicial system was overhauled into a formal institution. Additionally, the concept of the rule of law was developed through many conflicts between the Qadi judges and Caliphs. The conflict appears as Caliphs, particularly Umayyad Caliphs saw themselves as the ultimate judge of law on Earth, owing to their inheritance of Muhammad’s position. This was in many cases in direct conflict with the rulings and decision-making of the Qadis, whom at the time were ultimately subordinate to the Caliph and his will. Tillier (2014) notes that many scholarly writings appeared because of these conflicts and helped give the Qadis a framework through which their authority solidified versus the Caliph’s (p. 131). We can see in this example an early notion of the separation of Church and State, a staple of most modern democracies.

All things considered, the Caliphates advanced and organised economically, politically, culturally, and socially the concept of statehood.

Contemporary Statehood

The contemporary period as it relates to Islam and statehood is one of much upheaval and change. We can see in this period the abolition of the Caliphate in Turkey, the claims by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for a new one and the fledgling states like Palestine. Let us begin by looking at the abolition of the Caliphate. There are several key features worth examining here. The first is the decline of pan-Islamism within Turkey at the time. No doubt the events of the First World War had an effect in this regard. There were calls from Arabs for independence from the Caliphate, and as Guida reports, the response to the Caliph’s call for Jihad against the Triple Entente was less than enthusiastic (2008, p. 279). It is evident in this example the rising force of nationalism, which was once notably absent during the early years of the Caliphates now contributed to its downfall. Additionally, scholars like Sayyid Bey declared the Caliphate as absent in Islamic doctrine, given the concept is not mentioned in the Qur’an or Sunnah (p. 279).

The Muslim world has taken strongly to the Western notion of sovereignty and nationalism. Ahram points to the Middle East and Africa, and the sheer number of aspiring states that have emerged in the modern period. He notes that interaction between these states and established, sovereign states includes both conflict and communication (2017, p. 346). The contemporary period is one of challenge to the existing states, marked by conflict and perhaps understanding. We can look to the example of Hamas and Palestine for illumination on this point. Vastly underequipped and politically isolated, Hamas understands it needs sponsorship from established sovereign states. Most notably, established Arab states. This is a regime that is focussed on political Islam, with the goal of creating a sovereign state in Gaza, therefore it looks to the largely Islamic Arab states in the region. Of course, with the increasingly globalised world, any recognition of Hamas and Palestine could have disastrous effects for any state which chooses to recognise it (Kear, 2018, p. 241). It is evident here that the pan-Islamism of Muhammad and the Caliphate eras has been firmly replaced by nationalism and state sovereignty. Even for Islam-dominant states, they are wary in disrupting their membership of the international order, even for sympathetic causes.

That said, it would be remiss not to mention the proposed goals of the Islamic State group. As some like Delahunty note, the idea of a Caliphate is one many Muslims around the world are sympathetic to, it is a restoration from the side-lining of the Western system of state sovereignty (Delahunty, 2018). IS’s goal of creating a Caliphate signals a threat to the prevailing Westphalian order. It is this order that many Islamic states have assimilated into, and Delahunty notes, just as with other threats like the USSR, assimilation or destruction may be the only outcome.

Both the concept of statehood and religion of Islam have undergone many changes and developments over time and space. From the time of the Prophet to today, the relationship between Islam and statehood has evolved and grown. Muhammad’s lifetime saw rudimentary state-level actions like taxation, justice, and warfare. Though these may be explained purely through theocratic lenses, it was a solid foundation for growth regardless. These grew and multiplied under the reign of the Caliphs, until finally many Islamic countries assimilated into the Westphalian order of state sovereignty, guided both by Islam but also by a new sense of nationalism.


Ahram, A. I., 2017. Territory, Sovereignty, and New Statehood in the Middle East and North Africa. The Middle East Journal, 71(3), pp. 345-362.

Berg, H., 2017. Routledge Handbook on Early Islam. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Delahunty, R. J., 2018. An Epitaph For Isis? The Idea Of A Caliphate And The Westphalian Order. Arizona Journal Of International And Comparative Law, 35(1), pp. 1-70.

Denny, F. M., 1977. Ummah in the Constitution of Medina. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 36(1), pp. 39-47.

Guida, M., 2008. Seyyid Bey and the Abolition of the Caliphate. Middle Eastern Studies, 44(2), pp. 275-289.

Joffé, G., 2018. States and Caliphates. Geopolitics, 23(3), pp. 505-524.

Kadi, W. & Shahin, A. A., 2013. Caliph, caliphate. In: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Princeton University Press: Princeton, pp. 81-86.

Kear, M., 2018. Hamas and Palestine : The Contested Road to Statehood. 1st ed. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.

Laine, J. W., 2015. Meta-Religion : Religion and Power in World History. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rane, H., 2010. 2 Expansions, developments and movements. In: Islam and Contemporary Civilisation: Evolving Ideas, Transforming Relations. 1st ed. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, pp. 1-14.

Raziq, A. A., 2012. Islam and the Foundations of Political Power. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Tillier, M., 2014. Judicial Authority and Qāīs' Autonomy under the ʿAbbāsids. Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean, 26(2), pp. 119-131.

Triana, M., 2017. Religion. In: Managing Diversity in Organizations. Abingdon: Routledge.


Aidyn Allsop is studying a Bachelor of Government and International Relations, I am particularly interested in the role of government and how this translates across societies, cultures and jurisdictions.


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