The Muslims of the world are often faced with a peculiar question: Can they have any other identity besides their religious one? The answer to that question is that Muslims certainly have multiple identities arising out of their nation, region, class, language, etc.

The Koran itself discusses the possibility of Muslims belonging to a different set of people (qaumin in 4:92) and group or party (taifatina in 49:9) at the same time. What one must also understand is that Koranic logic subordinates a community (ummatun) before a people (qawmi).

A verse of Surah Araf (7:159) is a testimony to the same, wherein it is stated, “Yet there is a group (ummatun) among the people (qawmi) of Moses who guide with truth and act justly in accordance with it.” In the following verse (7:160), it is narrated that Almighty God divided the people of Moses into 12 distinct tribes (asbatan), each forming a whole community (umaman).

Muslims and modern nation-states

There is a section of Muslim clerics and thinkers who argue that the concept of a nation-state is the antithesis of Islam. It is stressed that the only identity a Muslim carries and that matters is that of his or her religion.

However, if that were so, then why would Allah, the God of the Koran, talk about different tribes and communities within one people? The justification rendered by the Koran for spreading mankind (alnnasu) into different nations/races/people (shuʿūban) and tribes (waqaba-ila) after creating them from a male and female is that they might come to know each other (49:13).

The fact of the matter is that Koranic verses (4:92, 7:159, 7:160, 49:9, 49:13) recognize the plurality of the world in terms of separate people, tribes, communities and groups. Simultaneously, the Koran (49:10) declares believers (almu’minoona) in Islam as brothers (ikhwatun) and condemns establishing of sects (shiya‘an) (6:159, 30:32).

Right-wing skeptics try to test the patriotism of Muslims by asking them to elaborate on their position in the hypothetical possibility of a war between a non-Muslim majority country (where they are dwelling) and a Muslim-majority one. While this situation might not have been directly addressed by the Koran, it does provide an interesting lesson worth a read in Surah Anfal (8:72).

It is mentioned therein that those who have come to believe and migrated (wahajuru) and those who have given them refuge and offered help (wanasaru) are protectors (awliyau) of one another. As for those Muslims who decided not to migrate from Mecca to Medina, the Muslims of Medina “are in no way responsible for their protection (walayatihim)” until they migrate.

The quintessential part of the verse comes with the proclamation that it is incumbent upon the Muslims of Medina to help the Meccan Muslims “in the matter of religion” except against a people (qawmin) with whom they have a treaty (mithaqun).

This decisive verdict should conclusively end the debate around the patriotism of Muslims. They are under an obligation to uphold the allegiance toward their country even if it comes at the cost of fellow Muslims living somewhere else.

What is Darul Islam?

Another critical aspect of the relationship of Muslims with modern nation-states is the construct of Darul Islam. Some Muslim ideologues and critics of Islam have succeeded in popularizing this phrase. Generally, several Muslims and non-Muslims tend to think that this is some sort of a religious injunction whereby the Muslim community is bound to strive towards world domination by converting the whole planet into Darul Islam, or the House of Islam, through wars fought for the sake of expansionism.

In this regard, the Koran offers a completely separate take. The terms daru alssalami (6:127) and dari alssalami (10:25) are nothing but synonyms for paradise, that is, the Home of Peace. It does not mean a worldwide or global Islamic state, as extremists would like us to believe. On the other hand, the classification of Darul Islam as Muslim majority countries or Islamic states by jurists also runs contrary to its Koranic exposition, that is, of heaven, an important aspect of the Islamic faith’s belief in the hereafter.

Those who insist that the construct of a nation-state premised on territorial boundaries is un-Islamic and a kind of false God that should be replaced by a worldwide Islamic state need to learn from history. We should not forget that the multi-religious state formed by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina had a certain territory. Fighting between communities in Medina was prohibited, as the territory was considered sacred and the citizens were required to come together and defend the city in the case of an attack on it. If it would have been un-Islamic to form a state on the basis of a territorial boundary, then the Prophet Muhammad wouldn’t have acted otherwise. This proves that the proposition does not hold any water.

Even after Muslims began living with Jews in Medina under the Prophet Muhammad, a section of Muslims continued to dwell in Abyssinia, where they had sought refuge. The Kingdom of Aksum’s Christian emperor protected the Muslims despite intervention of the Meccans, who urged the king to hand over the migrant Muslims to them. The Muslims returned from Abyssinia to Medina only in 628 CE (Current Era), that is, six years after the Prophet’s migration. The state of Medina and the Kingdom of Aksum co-existed, with the latter in a way aiding the followers of the former’s leader.

The proponents of a global Islamic empire should explain how it was that the Prophet Muhammad allowed Muslims to live in Abyssinia instead of Medina (after the state had been formed) and did not declare the Kingdom of Aksum as unlawful since it was headed by a Christian, formed on a certain territory (present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea) and existed alongside the Prophet’s own state in Medina. In fact, it was the Prophet Muhammad himself who sent two delegations of Muslims one-by-one from Mecca to Abyssinia so that they could get security and live in peace under the kind Christian emperor.

The construct of Khilafah

The utopian idea of a Khilafah or Caliphate is a significant point of discussion. It is mostly understood in the form of a vicegerent or successor to the Prophet Muhammad. However, this understanding of the term is flawed, as the Koran describes the Prophet Adam (2:30) and Prophet David (38:26) as successors or khaleefatan. Both of these prophets of God came before the Prophet Muhammad.

In Surah Araf, the Koran mentions that the people of ‘Ad (7:69) were chosen as successors (khulafaa) to the people of the Prophet Noah and the people of Thamud (7:74) were successors (khulafaa) to the people of ‘Ad. These people also came before the Prophet Muhammad and later met with the fury of God because of their evil deeds (10:13).

At one point, even the Prophet Moses tells his people (7:129) that God might make them successors (wayastakhlifakum). Varying derivatives of the word with the same meaning like khala-ifa (6:165, 10:14) and khulafaa (27:62) have been applied to Muslims as well, whereas the entire mankind has also been referred to as khala-ifa (35:39) in the scripture. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume that the Koran recognizes a Caliph or Caliphate as a successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

The important thing to comprehend here is that the people referred to as successors in the Koran were chosen by God and sent a warner or prophet. This is a far more reliable interpretation of the term, as Muslims are referred to by God as having been made khala-ifa (6:165, 10:14), that is, successors in the land (al-ardi), in at least two Meccan suras (chapters) that were revealed before they migrated to Medina and the Prophet Muhammad laid the foundations of a multicultural city-state through the Constitution of Medina.

Hence it is not accurate automatically to link successors mentioned in the Koran to the formation of an Islamic state or kingdom. Whenever the Koran talks about a king or kingdom, it uses derivatives of the word malik. There are numerous references to the Kingdom of God, which comprises the heavens and the Earth (2:107, 3,189, 5:17-18, etc), in the scripture. Besides that, the Koran narrates stories of the Kingdom (mul’ki) of Solomon (2:102), King (malikan) Taul of the Children of Israel (2:247-248), King (almaliku) of Egypt during the time of the Prophet Joseph (12:43, 12:50, 12:54), Queen Sheba’s rule (27:23), Kingdom (mul’kahu) of David (38:20) and Pharaoh’s Kingdom (al-mul’ku, mul’ku) of Egypt (40:29, 43:51), which the Prophet Moses grappled with.

In one Koranic passage (5:20), the Prophet Moses reminds his people of the favors bestowed by God, which included raising prophets from among them and making them kings (mulūkan). However, there is no mention of the Prophet Muhammad as a king and an Islamic or Muslim kingdom through the Koranic usage of the word malik, which was a title carried by monarchs at that point in time.

It is far-fetched to extrapolate this verse to mean that Muslims are destined for world domination through a global Islamic empire. That’s reading too much into the scripture

Coming back to the issue of the Caliphate, apart from religious knowledge, people (described as successors in the Koran) were often given land (al-ardi) to dwell on, for instance the people of Thamud (7:74). Even the people of Moses were the recipients of a piece of land after having faced intense persecution at the hands of the Pharaoh. Referring to them, the Koran (7:137) says, “We made the people who were considered weak, inheritors of the eastern parts and western parts of the land (al-ardi) which we had blessed. Thus, your lord’s promise to the Children of Israel was fulfilled, because of their patience, and we destroyed all that Pharaoh and his people had built and all that they had raised high.”

God made a similar promise to Muslims regarding successorship (layastakhlifannahum) of land (al-ardi) and reminded them how land was “granted to those who were before them” (24:55).

In relation to the context of this verse, it is narrated that the Muslims used to be quite afraid in Medina (under the Prophet Muhammad) and carried arms regularly because of the threat from Meccans. Then this verse came and soon after the Muslims penned the 10-year peace pact with Meccan leaders, which the Koran described as victory (fath).

After that, the Muslims invaded Khaybar after it became evident to them that the inhabitants of the place could mount an attack on Medina. Eventually, the Prophet Muhammad succeeded in conquering Mecca peacefully after the violation of the treaty by Meccans.

It is far-fetched to extrapolate this verse to mean that Muslims are destined for world domination through a global Islamic empire. That’s reading too much into the scripture. In Islamic theology, at times when a prophet has arrived, God Almighty has helped him and his people to overcome all odds and provided them with authority over land (al-ardi) like the Prophet David (38:26).

As it is narrated in the Koran, God “can take you away and replace you by anyone he pleases” (6:133), and it was done so in the past by making a set of people succeed another.

To sum it up, it is fair to say that there is no categorical or unambiguous statement in the Koran that says only Muslims have a right to rule or govern the entire world.

Misquoting Surah Tawbah

Supporters of global Islamic domination doctrine tend to generalize and magnify the scope of Koranic commandments (9:5, 9:29) to say that non-Muslims must die, convert or remain subjugated under Islamic rule. Of course, such an interpretation is grossly inappropriate, since the two verses in question pertain to the Conquest of Mecca and Expedition to Tabouk respectively.

While the former military action followed only after the Pagan Meccans violated the Ten-Year No War Treaty of Hudaybiyaah by helping Banu Bakr undertake an attack on Banu Khuza’a (a tribe allied to Prophet Muhammad-led Medina), the Expedition to Tabouk was necessitated after the information spread that the Romans (Byzantine Empire) were preparing to crush the Muslims by raising an army. In both military operations, there was hardly any violence. The Romans did not show up, as a result of which no battle took place at Tabouk and the Prophet Muhammad developed treaties with the tribes in the region.

Among those with whom the Prophet Muhammad signed treaties at Tabouk were the Jewish tribes of Jarba and Azruh, who were assured the protection of their lives and property as they pledged their suzerainty to him. A similar deal was made with Yuhanna ibn Ruba, the Christian king of Ayla (present-day Aqaba, Jordan).

Upon his return from Tabouk, the Prophet Muhammad met with a delegation of Christians from Najran (631 CE) who stayed at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina and prayed therein as per their own custom. Moreover, the Prophet’s covenants with Christian monks from Mount Sinai and a delegation from Najran record that he strictly called for the protection of their lives, properties and places of worship, which the Christians were free to build and repair.

The bishops were not to be removed from their offices, or monks from their monasteries, and no pilgrim could be stopped from performing the pilgrimage. Ascetics, bishops, monks and people whose occupation was the worship of God were also exempt from any form of taxation. Christians weren’t to be taxed unless they willingly agreed to it, and the labor force involved in the cultivation of land was not to be exploited through excessive taxation. No compulsion was to be enforced on the Christians in matters of religion. Such decisions of the Prophet Muhammad were in sync with the principles laid down by the Koran (2:62, 2:256, 5:69, 22:40, 22:67, 50:45 & 109:6).

Prior to the Expedition to Tabouk, the Muslims completed a bloodless conquest in Mecca as they merely walked into the city and were faced with little resistance. The Prophet Muhammad declared a general amnesty for the citizens and also pardoned the Quraysh tribe (the chief aggressors), who were told that they are free to go their way.

Those who misquote the verse of the sword (9:5) often overlook the historical incidents connected with it and blatantly ignore the verses before and after. In the verse (9:4) before, it is clearly stated that Muslims are required to act righteously and fulfill their peace pact with Meccan polytheists who honored the treaty and did not aid any aggressors against them.

The verse (9:6) after ayat as-sayf made it incumbent upon Muslims to grant asylum to those Meccan polytheists who sought refuge, and they were to be further escorted to a place of safety. The following verse (9:7) asserted that there was to be no treaty with the Meccan polytheists but made an exception by unambiguously telling Muslims to act straight with the Pagans with whom they entered a treaty at the Holy Mosque as long as they acted straight with them.

Further, the Koran (9:12) commanded the Muslims to fight the Meccan polytheists in case they broke their oaths and reviled their religion so that the Meccans might restrain themselves from doing so and explained (9:13) next that these people had violated their oaths, conspired to banish Prophet Muhammad and were the first ones to attack the Muslims. Hence the Muslims shouldn’t be scared of combating them.

Therefore, it is apparent from a detailed breakdown of the verses from Surah Tawbah and a peek into history that Muslims weren’t directed to kill all the polytheists; rather they were merely acting out of self-defense and taking the necessary precautions to protect the non-aggressor polytheists and the ones choosing asylum instead of combat.

In conclusion, it is indeed the case that Muslims were promised (24:55) successorship (layastakhlifannahum) and authority over land (al-ardi), which was fulfilled when they conquered Mecca after having been made to leave the city earlier, just like the people of Moses got the Promised Land after the exodus.

It is best to leave it at that, since the scripture makes no explicit mention of the political dreams of certain people whose ambition is a global religious empire without territorial boundaries in which non-Muslims live in a perennial state of subordination.

Saif Ahmad Khan

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi with contributions in several news websites, newspapers and magazines.

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