Relationships Between Young Nation-States and Established Religious Institutions


During time from the end of WWI to the present day, many predominantly Muslim societies have had to face a similar set of challenges and questions surrounding their governing systems. Following the fall of the Ottoman empire after WWI, the communities previously under Ottoman jurisdiction had to assert their independence and build up institutions to replace those that had been lost. In almost all cases, this was done by writing a set of founding documents to become in independent state, to the extent that was possible. However, while most of their political systems had to be rebuilt from the ground up, some Islamic religious and legal institutions remained largely intact. The traditional religious systems then had to find their place within the new institutional frameworks of their fledgling nation states, which were often taking inspiration from European systems not constructed within the context of their cultures. Despite having similar challenges and starting points, the paths and conclusions for these nations varied greatly due to factors both internal and external. Each found a balance between old and new systems, one that seldom wholly reflected the explicit structures enshrined in legal and religious founding documents.

The initial results of the Ottoman’s fall were varied. Turkey fell on the more Western end of the spectrum, importing their new legal code from Germany. Many smaller Muslim countries used systems from the aggressively secular France. Egypt and Iraq formed new state court systems that superseded their religious processors, while Pakistan formed a hybrid between new English and their preexisting Islamic courts.[1] However, despite being curtailed on almost every front, even in countries aspiring toward a supposedly secular ideal of modernity we do not see Islamic law completely discarded.  To the contrary, in almost all cases this redefining of the jurisdiction of religious courts was accompanied by their codification into new power systems and in some cases an expansion of their influence within the boundaries they were given. As Cesari notes, “… Despite this secularization, or rather because of it … most states retained Islam in the constitution as a symbolic reference within the new legal and political order.”[2] The traditional roots of religious courts provided the fledgling nation states with much needed institutional legitimacy in the eyes of the public. And while Cesari characterizes their place in many constitutions as “symbolic,”[3] she is also careful to emphasize that in implementation the power of the religious courts was actually gaining depth. The most common domains that Islamic courts were restricted to were those of family law. But within that framework their influence spread. Family court oversaw many of the most common and essential government services, such as marriage and divorce. Despite initially appearing to have their power curtailed by new national oversight, in many places what religious courts lost in breadth they made up for in new depth.

During this period of political upheaval, large shifts were also simultaneously happening within the thinking of intellectuals and legal experts within Muslim communities. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a unique mix of political, military, and ideological rebalances resulted in a period of unparalleled potential for redefinition of Muslim thought and self-perception. The Ottomans caliphate was no more, and the desecration of Mecca at the hands of Saudi Arabia hammered that point home to Muslim communities. As Cemil Aydin puts it in The Idea of the Muslim World, “Saudi control of Mecca and Medina was traumatic for many South Asian and African Muslims, threatening the many Sufi orders charities, and madrasas in Mecca and Medina funded from afar … All shrines and tombs of early Muslims, except Muhammad’s, were torn down.”[4] The combined political and ideological instability created opportunities for new ideas to take center stage in Islamic political discourse.

Without the Ottoman caliphate to define what ‘proper’ Muslim political structure looked like, a great debate over the political meanings of the Quran divided intellectual circles. Many scholars found new support for democratic systems inside the language of the Quran, such as the Omani journalist and ambassador Sadek Sulaiman. He professed the belief that, “As concept and principle, shura in Islam does not differ from democracy … the more any system constitutionally, institutionally, and practically fulfills the principle of shura – or, for that matter, the democratic principle – the more Islamic that system becomes.”[5] He also pointed toward the United States as a valuable model on which to build a democratic society. While his opinions fall towards the pro-democracy and pro-western ends of the spectrum, few scholars disagreed completely with his overall sentiment. Some viewed it as simply a practical necessity to adapt to modern trends, such as Muslim scholar Shabbir Akhtar, who said “Muslims have clearly failed to interpret and appropriate Islam properly for the modern age. … Within the house of Islam, there is today a great need for self-criticism and introspection … Muslims need to develop, deepen the life of faith.”[6] Akhtar was Pakistani-born Englishman who worked in a variety of Muslim communities within Western nations in the post-Ottoman years, one of many points of contact between Western intellectual thought and the mainstream Muslim discourse. There is a tendency in the West to misinterpret statements like these, especially when made by people with multicultural backgrounds such as Akhtar. In Apologetic Modernity, Faisal Devji says, “Most [scholars of modern Islam] dismiss [statements advocating change] as being a sign merely of Islam’s incomplete modernity or of the West’s overwhelming might.”[7] But Akhtar and his contemporaries did not blindly seek whatever change might make Islam more amenable to Western sensibilities. Rather, they believed that, “To come to terms with modernity is one thing; changing a revealed Islam to suit human whim shaped by passing fashion is another.”[8] Instead of a choice between ‘Islam’ and ‘modernity’ as though they were two sides of a spectrum, most Muslim scholars sought to reconcile modern ideals with their existing Islamic practices.

In addition to questions about the proper form of Islamic political institutions, there were also efforts to change the definition of Muslim identity itself in the eyes of its practitioners. The late 1800s Turkish writer and modernist Abdullah Cevdet believed that “Every learned and virtuous person is a Muslim. An ignorant, immoral person is not a Muslim even if he stems from the lineage of the prophet.”[9] As always, there were efforts to pull in the other direction as well. Iran notably moved back toward traditional systems and values after the Iranian Revolution, with those in power explicitly disavowing liberalizing influences, which they associated with a politically and culturally encroaching West. But in general, the intellectual and social conversation moved toward adaptation to and adoption of new ideals and systems.

Islamic courts also found themselves being pulled in different directions by changing societal currents. Despite being enshrined in founding documents, expanded power within family courts, and movements to reconcile and integrate with the new institutionalized nation-states, Islamic courts have seen a decline in explicit power within the sphere of politics in the years since the founding of these new states. In Egypt, the constitution establishes Islam as the official state religion, and the government is instructed to abide by Islamic rulings. But the law distinguishes between definite religious rules and indefinite religious rules, the latter of which is open to interpretation by the state’s representatives. A substantial majority of religious guidelines have been ruled as indefinite by the courts, handing regulation in their area over to the political apparatus.[10]  Simultaneously, the Egyptian government began using heresy provisions to persecute political opposition leaders within the Shia community.[11] The Sunni majority could see this as using the government to dispatch their political and religious rivals, but it sets a dangerous precedent.[12] Egyptian politicians are bound not by the social clout of religious leaders, but by public opinion and their own hazy boundaries. Egypt’s legal tradition also contains contradictory rulings as to whether the government can or cannot break with Islamic law, allowing judges to do as they see fit in any given case. As always, what constitutes Islamic Law is a question with a diversity of answers. Which of those answers are legitimate in the eyes of the government is decided not by any religious authority but by the state judiciary itself.

A couple thousand kilometers to the East, Iraq went going through a similar political power shift away from religious institutions. Saddam Hussein came to power a couple decades after Egypt drafted their first constitution. During his regime in Iraq, provisions mandating state compliance with Islamic law were removed from the constitution, and religious leaders from both the Sunni and Shia schools were removed from positions of authority within the courts. Eventually, family courts were abolished altogether and folded into the normal legal system. [13] Although after his fall some of the power shifted back, for the most part his institutional changes have been maintained.

Not all political areas followed these broader trends. Even in countries such as Iraq and Egypt, where there was a clear transfer of power away from religious authorities, certain provisions went against the grain. Charges of blasphemy and apostasy, somewhat rare in the period preceding the fall of the Ottoman empire, experienced a resurgence within the realm of family courts across the entire Middle East.[14] Iran seemed to be following the same pattern as Egypt and Iraq until their their revolution, which instituted a much more conservative interpretation of Islamic law under their new regime. Turkey’s discourse has also shifted recently in a direction more tolerant of religious expression, veering away from the extreme secularism espoused by the Young Turks toward a more centrist route that acknowledges their Islamic heritage and seeks a unique identity rather than transplanting a political system from another country.

Possible outcomes for new courts systems are more diverse than a simple government versus church spectrum. In Pakistan, newly established government courts took some time to gain popularity with a public used to alternative institutions for conflict resolution. As the English professor Matthew J. Nelson discovered, even after the courts had been established for a while and statistics showed a substantial increase in use, locals were simply using them as ancillary systems while still relying on more established methods. “Litigants simply used the courts to [delay] their opponents … until, slowly but surely, a more acceptable razeenama or ‘compromise’ could be reached outside of the courts themselves.”[15] These kinds of discrepancies between how things appear to an outsider looking at numbers half a world away and the actual situation on the ground are very common, and make judging the end effects of a given piece of legislation or legal ruling much more difficult than simply recording the intent. Nelson notes that “By and large, the work of modern Muslim politicians (as ‘politicians’) has not been examined with reference to the practice of contemporary Islamic law.”[16]

As a whole, the countries finding their way after the Ottoman collapse resist easy categorization and broad statements. Today more than ever, situations remain in flux as political climates continue to change. Turkey seems to be putting religious questions on a back burner as they struggle with a growing authoritarian government. Conflict continues to threaten the entire Middle East, as countries collapse and remake themselves. Iran recently experienced open protests against their religious government.  In the end, the only broad, concrete takeaway is this: the balance of power in politics relies on more than what’s written down on paper. Growing political institutions finding their way with a living, active religion results in constantly shifting and changing circumstances. In the past, the nations in question have variably enshrined Islam in their constitutions and codified laws against its display, but in both cases those laws were enforced and interpreted according to the needs of the time. Nations and religions are not themselves personal actors. They are made up of people, who will find practices that work for them regardless of what holy books or legal codices say.


Works Cited

Akhtar, Shabbir. “Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World.” Compiled by Charles Kurzman. In Liberal Islam, 319-26. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “[The conference of Arab representatives convened in London under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Chamberlain. Arabs and Jews negotiate separately.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 20, 2018.

Aydin, Cemil. The idea of the Muslim world: a global intellectual history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Cesari, Jocelyne. “The Awakening of Muslim Democracy.” Religion, Modernity, and the State, November 30, 2013, 60-84. doi:10.1017/cbo9781107359871.019.

Cevdet, Abdullah. “Preface by the Translator.” Compiled by Charles Kurzman. In Modernist Islam 1840-1940, 172-74. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Devji, Faisal. “Apologetic Modernity.” An Intellectual History for India, January 4, 2007, 52-67. doi:10.1017/upo9788175968721.005.

Nelson, Matthew J. In the Shadow of Shariah: Islam, Islamic Law, and Democracy in Pakistan. London: C Hurst, 2011.

Sulaiman, Sadek J. “Democracy and Shura.” Compiled by Charles Kurzman. In Liberal Islam, 96-98. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

End Notes

[1] Cesari, 60-61

[2] Cesari, 60-61

[3] Cesari, 62

[4] Aydin, 139

[5] Sulaiman, 98

[6] Akhtar, 326

[7] Devji, 62

[8] Akhtar, 326

[9] Cevdet, 137

[10] Cesari, 63

[11] Cesari, 81

[12] Cesari, 62

[13] Cesari, 68

[14] Cesari, 73, 77, 80

[15] Nelson, 185

[16] Nelson, 265

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