Why Islam and Democracy Go Well Together: Interview with Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari

Analysis, posted 07.09.2012, from Egypt, in:
Why Islam and Democracy Go Well Together: Interview with Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (Photo: AP/dapd)

You have stated that Islam is a religion and not a political programme. Many other Islamic scholars, however, say that it is not possible to separate religion and the state or, alternatively, religion and politics. Do you thing these spiritual leaders are mistaken?

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari: You cannot expect politics to adhere to the sort of ethical principles found in religion. And conversely, you cannot expect religion to follow a political programme with the aim of achieving certain social objectives. As I understand it, religion is the relationship between man and God, in which man speaks to his God, his God listens, resulting in inner emancipation. This is why I hold the view that religion, and also Islam in particular, cannot be equated with a political programme.

Do you therefore advocate a clear separation of religion and state? That is an unusual position among Muslim scholars.

Shabestari: My view is that religious and political institutions are very different sorts of institutions with different sorts of tasks and responsibilities. This is the reason for their separation. Yet, it doesn't mean that a person's religious inclinations cannot provide a moral or ethical impulse in politics. This is possible. For this reason, I do not call for a separation of politics and religion, but rather that political and religious institutions should be kept separate. Of course, there can and should be cooperation between them.

Muslim scholars base their pronouncements on the Koran and the Sunna, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Where do you find support in Islamic sources for your positions?

Shabestari: It is not something that can be derived from the Koran or the Sunna. This division is a necessary reality of our time, because these institutions have been separated from each other. And it was not prompted by anyone in particular. What we today refer to as political and religious institutions did not exist during the time of the Prophet. At the time, politics and religion were intricately linked almost the whole world over.

The way of life in Medina and Mecca was quite simple. But what took place then cannot be a model for today's world. Nowadays, Muslims live in intelligent social systems, in which there is a wide diversity of institutions. This requires us to develop a proper plan with the aid of reason. This is not something that can be derived from the Koran.

During its Golden Age, Islam was known for highly controversial and pluralistic debates. Today, the reality in many Muslim countries is quite different. There is little freedom of thought.. What can be done to promote more freedom of thought in Muslim countries?

Shabestari: This is a question of political development. It all depends on whether a people has politically developed to such an extent that it understands what freedom is. Then it will demand freedom of expression. Even now there is a great tendency towards freedom in Islamic countries. Yet, why it hasn't truly developed is another question. This has to do with political hurdles and the system of government in these countries. It is more of a cultural difficulty than a difficulty related to Islam or religion in general. Unfortunately, this is a retrograde cultural reality.

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Interview by Jan Kuhlmann

[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]