Faithful Life in an Urfi State

Translation by Mojtaba Mahdavi and Siavash Saffari برگردان مقاله زيست مؤمنانه در دولت عرفى توسط مجتبى مهدوى و سياوش صفارى

Translation by Mojtaba Mahdavi and Siavash Saffari

I present my case in two parts. In the first, I briefly discuss the question of the urfi (secular) system versus the religious system, and in the second, I comment about faithful life in a modern, urfi – relied world (1).



For the purpose of this essay, I use the phrase urfism rather than secularism. The latter concept and its derivatives have been the subject of much debate and disagreement even within secular circles. The same may be said about laïcité and its derivatives. More recently, divergent and conflicting interpretations of these concepts have emerged. Classifications such as philosophical, social, and political secularism, or subjective and objective secularism, have contributed to ambiguities and confusions. There is also the additional and serious challenge of identifying accurate and meaningful Farsi and Arabic translations for these European concepts and phrases. This is because the historical, social, and religious contexts in which these concepts emerged are not fully compatible with the history of religious and social evolution in Islamic societies.

In light of these initial observations, phrases such as urf, urfi, and, urfism may be more fitting and accurate in making secular claims that concern political power, state, and governance. Today much attention is paid to the relationship between religion — Islam and Shiism in particular — and the form, content, and nature of government and the state. It seems appropriate,then, to pursue the argument from this perspective.

From a purely Islamic perspective one may argue that “authority,” and subsequently “political power,” are urfi and worldly questions and not matters of Sharia and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Here I use urfi not in its popular sense, which refers to the predominant traditions and customs of a society and a people, but as the opposite of Sharia. Urf, in this sense, is the collective wisdom and reason of the time. Islamic jurists also refer to this as the “rationalist tradition” (sirat al- ’uqala). In theological sciences (ilm al- usul ) and jurisprudential ijtihad (independent reasoning, interpretation), urf is recognized as a form of juridical reasoning in the absence of explicit and credible primary sources (nass) and tradition (Sunna). This is also the way the Koran uses urf and its derivatives such as ma’roof (known, prevailing social norms). In numerous cases, the Koran refers people to the prevailing ma’roofs for answers to their questions and dilemmas.


Two Defining Features of a Shia-Based System

 If we identify a Sharia- based system as one defined by “divine legitimacy of power” and “full implementation of Sharia,” as a political platform sanctioned by revelation and prophecy, then we may argue that such a system has neither been defined in the Koran nor is it consistent with the foundation, the content, and the nature of Prophet Muhammad’s ten- year rule over Medina. The claim by Muslim jurists that the Prophet’s authority was sanctioned by divinity is contested and has a weak basis in revelation, the Koran, and credible religious accounts (rewayat). The Koranic verses that refer to the two key phrases hokm (rule) and velayat (guardianship( and their derivatives are not to be understood as Muhammad’s rule on behalf of God. Nor did Muslims in the early age of Islam have such a perception about the Prophet’s authority.

According to historical accounts, the Prophet’s rule in Medina was the result of a natural and inevitable process that followed the second pledge at Aqaba with representatives from the two main Yathribi tribes of Banu Khazraj and Banu Aus. Moreover, at the time, the Arabs had no experience with state building, and the Prophet himself did not establish a state. It might be said that state building occurred after Muslims conquered Iran and adopted the bureaucratic structure of the Sassanid Empire.

The belief in divinely sanctioned rule was an alien concept in the first half century of Islam. Based on historical evidence, the assumption about the divine nature of the caliphate (khalifa) and the conditions for bringing together political power and divine authority only began to emerge under the rule of Abd al- Malik ibn Marwan (AD 646 – 705). During his twenty year reign in the eastern parts of the Muslim world, al- Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (AD 661 – 714), the vicious and violent governor of Iraq under the Umayyad caliphate, also played a central role in establishing and promoting this anti- Islamic and non- Arabic doctrine. I refer to it as non- Arabic because the idea of divinely sanctioned political rule had not formed in Hejaz and Arabia.

Nevertheless, historically, at least from the beginning of the Abbasid caliphate when a clerical institution and a judicial institution were established, until the end of the caliphate system in AD 1924, the institution of caliphate monarchy was separate from the institution of religion. In other words, with regard to the division of work and responsibilities, the latter and the two institutions were never one and the same. It should also be noted that the clerical class and jurists, who were in charge of the two major tasks of judicial decision making (qada) and issuing fatwa (ifta), always operated under the authority and jurisdiction of the state. This has remained the common practice today and was the common practice in Shi’i Iran, beginning with the major occultation of the twelfth imam (al- ghaybatu ‘l- kubra) in AD 941, until the establishment of the Islamic Republic in1979. Interestingly enough, in Christian Europe, until relatively recently, the urfi government was under the jurisdiction and even full authority of the Catholic Church. Hence if we understand secularism to mean the separation of religion and state, at least since the death of the Prophet this separation has always existed in Islam.

As for the full implementation of Sharia law, it must be said that if governance is not defined and sanctioned by divine authority, then Sharia too, which is in part social regulations (or mua’melat in the language of fiqh) and laws within the jurisdiction of the state, cannot be divine. Furthermore, if we understand laws and the legal system as the codified form of existing realities and common interests, and a means through which to achieve justice and security, then no law is eternal. What is inevitable and eternal, instead, is the changeability of laws.

We have ample rational (aqli) and oral (naqli( evidence to support the claim that religious laws in place at the time of the Prophet and his tenyear rule over Medina were not timeless and unyielding.(2) That is, the laws implemented by the Prophet were necessarily particular to that time or to similar contexts and were not for eternally implementable.

In light of these points, one may argue that authority and governance are worldly and profane matters to be decided by human beings and, as such, outside the realm of religion and Sharia. Within the Islamic world, this argument has been made for more than 150 years by reformist and progressive Muslims. Nevertheless, this idea still seems awfully strange. On the one hand, religious traditionalists, and dogmatic fundamentalists in particular, see this claim on par with a total rejection of religion and Sharia. On the other hand (and somewhat surprisingly),dogmatic antireligion fundamentalists see it as constructed and made up by Muslim reformers out of necessity and for the purpose of saving Islam.

Faithful Life in an Urfi World

I turn now to the second part of the argument: faithful life in an urfi world. First of all, it must be noted that contrary to the prevalent perception of the faithful, to live faithfully in an urfi or nonreligious political system is not only possible, but it is indeed preferable. This is simply because faith, as the essence of religiosity, is founded on freedom (of will, conscience, and choice). Based on principles of rationality, experience, and common sense, it is only in a free political, social, and cultural setting that one can have uninhibited and free faith, or what is referred to in the Koran as “uncoerced religion, not under an authoritarian and dictatorial system.”(3) It is worth noting that because of the inevitable ideological and juridical monopoly of the state under seemingly religious and Sharia-centered systems, to have free faith is much more difficult than under nonreligious dictatorships.

Often in the former system a single interpretation of the religion and a single juridical school are made into the official ideology in a top- down and coerced fashion, and any alternative interpretation is seen as an intrusion and heresy, a denial of or a danger to the religion.

As such, dissent is ostracized and ultimately suppressed, and the religious state is effectively turned into the state- religion. The followers of that religion or sect might be allowed to fully exercise their religious freedom. But there still remains a serious concern about the followers of other religions and nonreligious citizens (the religious and nonreligious other). The Koran advises and the two principles of free faith and freedom to choose one’s religion (affirmation of independent inquiry and rejection of imitation) require that the religious and nonreligious other must live free of coercion and compulsion in their belief systems.

While many religious teachings refer to free citizens as “the free subjects of God,” ideological religious states (regardless of their religion) deny freedom to the faithful and prevent nonbelievers from living as free citizens. It is here that religious tyranny reveals its true character. This was precisely why Ayatollah Mirza Mohammad Hossein Naeini, one of the greatest religious authorities during Iran’s constitutional revolution (1905 – 11), considered religious coercion the most dangerous and incurable form of tyranny. Referring to Naeini’s contention, Mehdi Bazargan in his trial in 1965 before the Military Court of Justice said, “In religious dictatorships God is not worshipped.(4) Along the same lines, Muhammad Iqbal states that Islam “demands loyalty to God, not loyalty to thrones.”(5) If we take this principle as the foundation and measure of religiosity and free faith, then we can make a strong case that faithful life is impossible in any doctorial and despotic system. Faith in a religious tyranny is “inherently impossible” (emtena’e zaati). It then follows that to live with faith and pursue ethical and religious values is not only possible but also preferable in an urfi free system. The experiences of theocratic systems repeatedly support this claim.

Nonetheless, historical and existing experiences also reveal that the faithful can have something constructive to offer in civil society and in the public sphere. While ethics precedes religion, transcendent religious values can strengthen and reinforce ethical norms and actions that concern the good (kheir). Historically, humanity’s ideals and objectives have included, among other things, rejection of war in favor of peace, rejection of discrimination in favor of equality, and rejection of injustice in favor of justice. Religion can help to achieve these ideals at a domestic as well as a global level. Similarly, within the civil society religious individuals can help expand social services, provide support for the poor and the underprivileged, reinforce national identity, strengthen social cohesion, promote tolerance, and establish justice. Indeed, in achieving these objectives, religion is the most efficient means. The point is that within an urfi, democratic, and free society religion can serve a much more effective role than it can under a theocracy. To support this claim we do not need to resort to sophisticated philosophical and theoretical debates. An examination of the historical and existing experiences would suffice.

In practice, however, religion is not and cannot be fully separable from politics as a social matter (the social). While we can normatively separate the institution of religion and the institution of state, we need to acknowledge the role that religion plays in politics. This role is intimately linked to the rights of individuals as citizens, and thus here we are speaking not of religion itself but of followers of religions. The former is a general and abstract notion that is constantly interpreted and reinterpreted by the faithful. Therefore if groups of the faithful wish to engage in politics within the public sphere, they have this right as citizens; they can even form institutions, organizations, and political parties to pursue their particular religious views through legislation and the execution of laws. This can be achieved within the framework of democratic principles and law, without violating other people’s rights, demanding any “special privileges,” or presenting one’s ideas and political platform as something sanctioned by God.

Admittedly, it is much easier to speak at an analytical level about separation of religion and the state and the establishment of an urfi system or of lawmaking based on collective wisdom. The reality, however, is much more complex, particularly in stagnant religious and Sharia-centered societies. The experience of the West and 150 years of reform in Iran and the Islamic world reveal the difficulty of taking this path.

1 – In Arabic and Islamic literature urf is often a reference to “knowledge” as well as to “customs” of a society. In cases where a ruling cannot be made with direct reference to the Koran and the Sunna, urf is regarded as a credible source.

2 – Here, naqli refers to hadith abd traditional accounts passed down by Prophet Muhammad and Shia imams.

3 – The reference is to the Koran 2:256: “La ikrha fi al-din” (There is no compulsion in religion).

4 – Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, in Search of Freedom: A Review of the Life, Works and Thoughts of Mehdi Bazargan, vol 1 (Tehran: Ghalam 1997) 55.

5 – Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thoughts in Islam (Lahore: Islamic Book Center, 1996), 116-17.


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اشاره: این مطلب در صفحات 356-357 کتاب «گرد آمدو سوار نیامد – یادمانده های پیش از انقلاب ایران» (چاپ 2020 در آلمان) آمده که اکنون

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