Should religion be power centered? It is an important question in
view of what is happening in the world today when dangerous weapons are
in the hands of some nations on one hand, and religious fanatics, on
the other. In fact religion, by its very nature, cannot ever be in
pursuit of power and if at all it gets associated with power it is
either due to some historical factors or due to lust for power by its
Religion, primarily is spiritual and moral entity and comes
into existence due to social degeneration or neglect of moral and
spiritual values by the people among whom religion comes into
existence. Be it Buddha, Mahavira, Moses, Jesus or Mohammad (PBUH) they
were seriously perturbed by moral and spiritual decline around them and
gave to the world spiritual and moral system, never a political
However, with passage of time these religions came close to power
structures and their followers primacy became political power rather
than moral and spiritual uplift of its followers as intended by its
founders. Let alone primacy of moral and spiritual concern, due to
political power struggle among its followers, morality takes a sharp
dip and religion, at best becomes institutions of certain rituals.
Rituals too are then performed mechanically, loosing touch with
spirituality in which they were originally deeply rooted.
And to justify involvement with political power new doctrines
are invented and theologically justified. As long as religion remains
aloof from political power it remains an inspiration for moral and
spiritual transformation of individual as well as society. Only concern
of its followers remains with moral excellence. Nothing else matters
and worldly interests are subsumed by spiritual values.
Christianity, for example, remained religion of oppressed
people for three long centuries and until then Christians remained an
exemplar of spirituality. They were oppressed and faced persecution in
the Roman Empire. Wherever they went, went as harbingers of morality
and good news for the people of the area. However, once the Roman
Emperor adopted Christianity, its priority began to change and
ultimately Church itself became power centre and Papal authority became
political, rather than spiritual authority. Scheming, conspiracies and
wars found its new home in the Church. Its moral and spiritual
excellence was lost and at last its spiritual authority was challenged
and inevitable split took place.
Islam met this fate immediately after the death of Holy
Prophet. The Prophet was mainly concerned with moral and spiritual
values and he, through Qur'an declared Allah's and his sympathy with
the weaker sections of society. In fact the Qur'an talks of empowering
the weak and making it the inheritor of this earth (28:5). The Bible
also says the meek shall inherit the earth.
In Meccan period the main concern of the Qur'an was to fight
moral corruption in the society and sensitize the people to the
sufferings of weaker sections of society - the widows, orphans, the
needy and the poor as the rich in Mecca neglected them. The Prophet
himself had experienced the travails of an orphan and had experienced
poverty in the midst of riches. Justice was his top priority.
The rich of Mecca were arrogant and felt they will not ever be
accountable for their greed and insensitiveness towards the poor and
the weak. They ridiculed the very idea of world hereafter and
maintained there was no life after this life and hence for them their
power and wealth was everything. All the time they were engaged in
accumulation of riches, nothing else mattered.
The Qur'an tried, through Mohammed, the messenger of Allah, to
make them aware of higher realities and spiritual values and to pull
them out of crass materialism and their obsession with wealth and this-
worldly affairs. They were too arrogant to understand higher side of
spiritual except a few who favorably responded to the Prophet's call.
Majority of Meccans, instead of reflecting on what the Prophet (PBUH)
was calling them to, in the arrogance of wealth and power, began to
persecute him and his followers.
The Prophet of Islam and his followers migrated to Madina and
people there responded enthusiastically to the call and became his
helpers Ansar. The reason was obvious: there were no wealthy people
like the one in Mecca. Whereas in Mecca Islam was seen by the rich as
hostile to their worldly interests exhorting them to spend their wealth
in the way of Allah, the people of Madina had no such interests. They
saw Islam, on the other hand, as helpful, uniting them and ending their
long standing inter-tribal feuds. Islam came to them as peace maker and
bringing about social transformation.
However, there were other challenges to Muslims in Madina. The
Meccan tribal chiefs and the rich saw in Islam still a challenge to
their interest as it was a great spiritual and moral force. It
certainly threatened their interests and hence they began to conspire
to wipe it out so that they could pursue their material interests. Thus
the developments in Madina should be seen in the light of historical
situation and tension between clashing interests.
Whenever any attempt is made by any prophet, seer or visionary to bring
about social transformation for the better, all vested interests join
hands to throw the efforts off track and resort to war and violence.
This is precisely what happened to the Prophet of Islam and his
followers. He (the Prophet) could not rest in peace in Madina and carry
on his mission. The Meccans repeatedly attacked Muslims and the Jews in
Madina conspired with the Meccan Quresh as Jews of Madina felt
threatened by the emerging influence of Muslims dislodging them. Thus
they readily conspired with the Meccan unbelievers to dislodge Muslims
from Madina and re-establish their influence.
Because of all this the Prophet (PBUH) was forced to defend the
nascent Muslim community and had to organize Muslims for defense.
However, his priority was not to fight wars of defence but to bring
about spiritual transformation of his followers. He constantly was
socially engaged, giving them, through Allah's revelation laws for
their better social and personal lives. Thus bulk of the Qur'anic
revelation in Madinese period consists of these laws which became the
corpus of shari'ah laws subsequently.
Thus jihad in Qur'an primarily meant social struggle for
meaningful transformation of human society. It never meant war. All
usages of word jihad and its derivatives in Qur'an are in this sense.
However, after the death of the Prophet jihad underwent change of
meaning and it began to be used for war. It should also be noted that
the Prophet never created paid army during his life time as war was
never his priority. He was forced to fight for defence. Had it been his
priority he would have easily created such an army. It remained a
voluntary effort for him to meet exigency of the situation.
The Prophet (PBUH), even when engaged in social struggles or
while making efforts to defend the nascent community, never neglected
moral priorities. Thus Qur'an even in Madinese period is full of
exhortations for truth, justice, compassion, doing good to others and
other-worldly consciousness and accountability to Allah on the Day of
Spiritual and moral values were supreme for him. He did not
create power structures in his life as he knew very well power will sow
the seeds of discord between Muslims. The emphasis in Qur'an remained
social rather than political organization. Thus the Qur'an says, �You
are a best community raised up for people you enjoin good and forbid
evil and you believe in Allah. � (3:109)
The Prophet did not indulge in any war of aggression much less
that of conquest or did not create any state structure though a large
part of Arabs had embraced Islam during his life time. He remained
steadfast in this. He remained head of a community of Muslims and a
supreme authority. He was everything for the Muslims, legislative,
executive as well as judiciary. No one could have taken his position as
However, after his death power structure began to emerge and
Muslims got involved in power struggle and hence they split into two as
to who should succeed the Prophet (PBUH). Even those who gathered in
the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida to elect the successor to the Prophet (khalifa)
differed among themselves and claims and counter claims were made.
There were chaotic scenes. Power struggle always divides.
The institution of khilafat remained controversial and was
embroiled in power struggle between different tribes, clans and groups.
The moral and spiritual priorities were gradually lost until the
institution of khilafat also disappeared and was transformed into
hereditary institution, in other words monarchy. Also, conquests became
the rule and two great empires Roman as well as Sassanids were
Now a doctrine had to be formulated that in Islam religion and
political power cannot be separated and this belief became common among
Muslims and consequently other subsequent doctrines like dar al-Islam
and dar al-harb (i.e. abode of Islam and abode of war) emerged. These
doctrines have nothing to do with Qur'anic teachings and are result of
politicizing of Islam. Many eminent companions of the Prophet like Abu
Dharr Ghifari and others thus withdrew themselves from power struggle
and gave priority to what the Qur'an and Prophet had given priority.
We would like to deal with contemporary Muslim society in this
section. 1400 years of uninterrupted belief that power is a must if
Islam has to survive and revival of the concept of Islamic state in
post-colonial period has created its own consequences. All the shari'ah
formulations which were made while Muslims were in power also made them
more rigid. Muslim ulama and jurists are not ready to re-think them.
The criminal law in some Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia is harsh
and rejects all modern developments and advances in the science of
criminology and criminal punishments.
In Iran too, the clergy is all powerful after the Islamic
revolution and refuses to change a wee bit. It is the result of
arrogance of power. Religion looses its appeal if there is no place for
forgiveness and compassion in it. In Islam Allah's two names are
Merciful and Compassionate (al-Rahman and Rahim) and yet one finds
anything but mercy and compassion in practice of Islam in Muslim
countries. The Muslim rulers believe in harsh punishments, not only for
crimes but also for political opposition and often they seek Islamic
legitimacy in doing so. Various harsh punishments for crime also, in a
way sends a message to the ruled - submit or else face harsh
In contrast to behaviour of Muslim rulers in Islamic state, the
behaviour of Sufis reflect Islamic values and spirituality. Sufis were
much closer to the spirit of Islam than Muslim rulers. Sufis always
emphasized humility and compassion and believed in freedom of
conscience. Muslim rulers always tried to punish freedom of conscience
and discouraged tolerance of other religions.
I would like to refer to recent controversy of using name of
Allah by Christians in Malaysia. Apart from ulama, even Malaysian
Government prohibited use of name of Allah by Christians. It was
extremely ridiculous. Thus power always breeds arrogance and
intolerance. Power can never be tolerant of other's power; the very
logic of power is to exclude the other. Other's power creates
Religion, on the other hand, promotes both compassion and
tolerance. Sufis, who maintained their distance from power, practiced
both these virtues. Sufis like Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi and Maulana Rum
give central importance to love and even declare that their religion
and shari'ah is love. Love of power and power of love are exclusive of
each other. Rulers believe in love of power and Sufis in power of love.
Power divides and love unites and Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi and
Maulana Rum understood this very well. Despite theological assertion of
unity of all Muslims, history never witnessed unity of all Muslims
except during the period of Prophet. Since power became the issue after
his death, Muslims were divided till today. Muslim nations are divided
into more than 50 different nations today and no Muslim can enter any
other country without visa. The Saudis, who never tire of declaring the
Qur'an as their constitution, do not admit even fellow Arabs from other
countries to settle there, let alone non-Arab Muslims from other
Power has become so absolute in Muslim countries that in most
of the Muslim countries there is no democracy as the Muslim rulers
refuse to share power with their own people. Though the fundamental
principle of Islam is shura' (mutual consultation) which in modern day
politics translates as democratic rule in consultation with common
Muslims; yet it is monarchs, sheikhs and dictators who wield absolute
power in most of the Muslim countries. On one hand one finds well
enunciated principle of human rights in Qur'an, no one can utter this
word in many Muslim countries. There are instances of human rights
activists having been jailed in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc.
The latest weapon of power struggle today in some Muslim
countries is terror attacks. Hundreds of innocent Muslim lives are
being sacrificed daily by such attacks. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq,
among other countries have become battle grounds of terrorism. If it is
not power game what is it? The killing of shi'ahs in Iraq by al-Qaeda
supporters is nothing but bringing recent passing of power in the hands
of shiahs to end.
And in Pakistan the scenario is much more complex. The Taliban
there are being supported by ISI (Pakistan intelligence agency) and a
section of Pakistan army. The Pakistan army wants to retain supreme
power in its own hands and does not want civilian government to enjoy
power. The moment the army sees signs of elected government becoming
powerful it stages either direct coup or sends signals to the elected
government that we are the boss.
It is Ziaul Haq, a military ruler, who declared Pakistan to be
an �Islamic state'; and enforced various provisions of Islamic
punishments to create a fear and an awe to establish his absolute
power. He encouraged sectarian forces and reinforced religious
orthodoxy to legitimize his power and to win over orthodox ulama to his
side. All this did immense damage to democratic institutions which
Pakistan had inherited.
Zia also welcomed American intrusions into Pakistan's internal
affairs and even considered Afghan struggle against Soviet invasion on
Afghanistan as a boon. Thus with the help of CIA Taliban came into
existence and they have become the greatest menace for the very
existence of Pakistan. Taliban could not have carried out such terror
attacks without tacit support of a section of Army officers in
Pakistan as an Islamic state, has become a curse to its people
rather than a boon, if true Islamic values had been followed. But then
in power game there is no place for values. It is indeed a great iron
that those people who apparently fight for supremacy of shari'ah law,
kill mercilessly and without any justification. The Qur'an declared
�ilm (knowledge) as nur (light) and made acquisition of knowledge
obligatory attack and destroy schools and glorify ignorance which has
been described as darkness by Qur'an.
Afghanistan is also home to terror today thanks to power play
between different sections of ruling classes. And in order to buy guns
and other highly destructive weapons they smuggle and sell opium in
international market and destroying lives of thousands of young men and
women throughout the world. It is prohibited in Islam. Thus those
demand enforcement of shariah want to spread drug habit which is
forbidden in shariah. One can argue all this happens in other
non-Muslim countries also. Yes, quite true and perhaps much worse also
happens but then it does not happen in the name of religion. My
argument is that let sanctity of religion not be sullied in this
manner. The logic of power and that of religion are mutually exclusive.
Religion, if left to itself can be very valuable and asset
Religion is all about values of love, justice, compassion and humility.
It is religion which should make power obsessed rulers to behave rather
than politics dominating religion and distorting it and making religion
a handy tool in the hands of rulers. The Prophet of Islam has been
descry bed in the Qur'an as Rahmah lil Alamin (mercy of the world).
However, power obsessed rulers made life hell for their own people in
the name of religion.
In the modern day democratic polity there is very little scope
for mixing politics with religion and it is the doctrine of separation
of religion and politics which is followed. However, it does not mean
that politics would mean ceasing power and ruling according to the
whims of rulers. Democratic polity has its own principle and values
which are not very different from religious values of justice and equal
For many religion is all about the other world and that
theology should deal with other world issues i.e. of life after death.
It may or may not be so in case of some religions but governance should
not be on the basis of religion. In democracy all citizens are equal
irrespective of religion, language or culture. Thus if religion is
associated with politics it would be invariably of majority community
and those of minority community would be discriminated. It is not
acceptable in a democratic polity.
Thus most important thing in Muslim countries is to democratize
the polity and leave religion to people and their conscience. State
should not interfere in its domain. The state's primary duty is to
provide clean government and protecting law and order. Religion on the
other hand deals with theological and philosophical questions which is
not state's domain.
Religion gives us not only values but also meaning and
direction of life. One would be confused about purpose of ones life
without religion. Religion will become boon if left to people and their
conscience and individual and communities can enrich their lives and
cultures with its help. Politics, on the other hand, should deal with
the basic needs of existence. Thus religion would look after spiritual
side of life and politics material and physical side.
Modern day state has to provide variety of services to its
citizens which simply did not exist in earlier times and this is not
possible without a democratic state responsible to people, not to a few
theologians. If religion becomes supreme for state, the rulers will be
responsible only to ulama or priests, not to people. An elected
government is in no way responsible to a bunch of priests.
This is the tragedy of large number of Muslim countries. The common
people have no say in governance. Time has come when supremacy of
people should be recognized.