Ideas & Philosophy — 26 April 2012
An open letter to Rashid al Ghannouchi

Idries de Vries

Sheikh Rashid,

On the 23rd of October 2011, during the first “free”[1] elections in Tunisia following the departure of the tyrant dictator Ben Ali, the 60% of Tunisians eligible to vote that actually turned up at the polling stations across the country handed your party Hizb an Nahdha a clear victory[2].

It is generally accepted that the primary reason for your party’s success was its campaign-platform of “revival based on Islam”. So when I learned of the election result I wondered how your party would work to achieve this, since I knew from an interview you gave on France’s state-funded news channel France24 that you considered transforming Tunisia into an Islamic State out of the question[3].

It was with great interest, therefore, that I read the transcript of your recent speech at the “Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy”, with the title “Secularism and Relation between Religion and the State from the Perspective of the Nahdha Party”[4]. I was hoping to find in it an explanation of your views around the methodology to achieve “revival based on Islam”. But unfortunately, while it did indeed clarify for me some aspects of your thinking, in the end it raised only more questions.

You said in your speech:

“(…) It is not the duty of religion to teach us agricultural, industrial or even governing techniques, because reason is qualified to reach these truths through the accumulation of experiences.”

“The role of religion (…) is to answer the big question for us, those relating to our existence, origins, destiny, and the purpose for which we were created, and to provide us with a system of values and principles that would guide our thinking, behaviour, and the regulations of the state to which we aspire.”

“When we need to legislate (…) we are in need of a mechanism, and the best mechanism that mankind has come up with is the electoral and democratic one which produces representatives of the nation and makes these interpretations a collective as opposed to an individual effort.”

The meaning of these statements is clear. According to you Islam should define the goals, while the human mind should define the laws and systems that lead to achieving these goals. And you feel it should be mandated representatives of the people who apply their minds to define the laws and systems that lead to achieving these goals set by Islam, rather than a single individual or a group of individuals acting without a power-of-attorney from the people.

Things became less clear to me when you presented your arguments for your vision. You said:

“Islam, since its inception, has always combined religion with politics, religion and state. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was the founder of the religion as well as the state. The first pledge of allegiance made by the group of Madina who came to Mecca was a religious pledge to believe in Allah and his Messenger. But the second pledge was to protect the Muslims, even by sword, should al-Madina be attacked.”

“The Prophet (pbuh) was an imam in the religious sense as he lead prayers in mosques, and at the same time a political imam that arbitrated people’s disputes, lead armies, and signed various accords and treaties. Of relevance to us is the fact that upon his arrival to Medina he established a mosque and put in place a constitution that was called Al-Sahifah.”

“The distinction between that which is political and that which is religious is clear in the Sahifah in that Muslims are a religious nation (ummah) and the Jews another, but the combination of the two plus other polytheists made up a nation in the political sense. (…) Whereas the religious is the sphere of observance and obligation, the political is the sphere of reason and Ijtihad. At times when the ambiguity confused the companions, they would ask the Prophet (pbuh) whether this is divine revelation (wahy) or a mere opinion. In the case of the former they would obey, and when it is the latter they may differ and offer alternatives. On more than one occasion did the companions differ with the Prophet (pbuh) in his capacity as the head of state (…). One day the Prophet (pbuh) passed by a group in Medina cross-pollinating palm trees and said: ‘I do not see the benefit of doing so’. The Medinan people thought that that was divine revelation and stopped treating their trees which made their harvest of that year of a lesser quality. They asked him why he ordered them to do so, and he replied: ‘You are best placed to know what is beneficial for you in your worldly affaires’.”

Clearly this is a religious argument, for you say that the human mind should define the laws and systems of a state because this is what the Prophet (saw) taught. Hence also your referencing of Islamic scholars from the past, who – according to you – understood the Islamic law regarding the state in the same manner:

“It is mentioned that al-Mansour had become concerned with the multitude of religious views and interpretations emanating from the same religion and feared their divisive effect on the state. So he sent for Imam Malik and asked him to amalgamate all these in one to unify people’s outlooks. Imam Malik produced his famous book al-Muwatta’, with which al-Mansour was greatly pleased and wanted it to become a law that binds all Muslims. This horrified Imam Malik and asked for it not to be made so.”

“When al-Ma’moun (Abbassid Caliph) wanted to impose one interpretation of the Quran and one particular understanding of Islamic creed (that of the Mu’tazili school), Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal revolted and refused the state’s attempt to dominate religion.”

To me, this could not be more confusing. Because when you say that your vision regarding the state is what Islam prescribes, you effectively say that you want the Islamic State – how else could one define “Islamic State” but “the state prescribed by Islam”? But as mentioned earlier, we have you on the record also as saying you are against an Islamic State!

Through this letter I wish to bring this to your attention, sheikh Rashid, since I suspect other people share my confusion.

I wish to remind you also of the required intellectual premise that lies at the heart of this confusion, which is that if you are really against the Islamic State, you can not use religious arguments; but if you insist on using Islamic religious arguments when debating the state, then you can not be against the Islamic State as then the topic of the discussion is the characteristics of the Islamic State.

And I wish to urge you to remove this confusion and make your fundamental position on this issue clear. If you want the state as defined by Islam, then say you want the Islamic State. And then we as an Ummah can have a debate about the characteristics this state should have, based on religious evidences. (I am, by the way, pretty certain there will be quite a few people with quite a lot to say about the daleels you presented in your speech. For instance, how can you say the al-Sahifah is an indication that “the political is the sphere of reason” when one of its articles says “When you differ on anything the matter shall be referred to Allah and Muhammad (pbuh)”? Or how can you say the hadith on cross-pollination, whose topic is science and technology, has implications also for the completely different topic of governance, laws and systems? Or how can you say the Khilafah is not the correct form of the Islamic State, when the best of the companions of the Prophet, Abu Bakr (ra), ‘Umar bin al Khattab (ra), ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan and ‘Ali bin Abu Taalib (ra), all filled the post of Khalifah with complete consent of all the other companions?). Or, if you do not want the state as defined by Islam, then say so also – but which Muslim could say he does not want what Islam has prescribed for him?

To bring this clarity to the debate would not only be good for Islam and the Ummah, by laying a clear foundation for the most of urgent of discussions, the discussion about the path forward for the Muslim who wish to live according to Islam. It would also be good for yourself, sheikh Rashid. For as long as you continue to hover in between the two possible positions in this matter, you leave the door open for the cursed Shaytaan to whisper in the ears of the people: “Sheikh Rashid is just a hypocrite. He is against the state prescribed by Islam, the Islamic State, and only tries to hide that fact through religious reasonings”


Idries de Vries is an economist who writes on economics and geopolitics for various publications. As a management professional he has lived and worked in Europe, America and Asia.

[1] I have written “free” on purpose, since Ben Ali’s law regarding political party continued to be used to bar some political views from organizing themselves in political parties:


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