Within a few decades after the death of Islam’s founding prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D., adherents of the new religion conquered lands ranging from India into Spain. Their faith was barely one hundred years old and already Muslims were confronted with how to create an Islamic form of government. Scripture provided little guidance. The issue of what makes an Islamic state remains contentious and unsettled to this day.

The “Golden Age” Islamic Political System

Painting depicting men prostrate in prayer

The original Islamic empire endured until 1,258 A.D. when internecine conflicts and foreign invasions crippled the empire. The six centuries before that came to be known as Islam’s Golden Age. In that era, Muslims developed a simple and flexible system of government, with a “caliph” or “successor” to the Prophet as its ruler. Though the caliph ruled for life and was nominally an autocrat, his authority depended on a system called “shura,” or “consultation.” Scholarly advisers consulted with the caliph and their interpretation of God’s law, called Sharia, guided his decisions. To contradict his advisers would be to oppose the law of God.

Pluralism, Sovereignty and the Law

However Sharia is based on interpretation. As long as Sharia is upheld, Islamic society could be highly pluralistic. Muhammad stated that each individual had a sphere of responsibility over which he or she was sovereign, while at the same time being accountable for its well-being. The caliph was responsible for the state, but an ordinary man was equally responsible for his own family, for example. In Golden Age Muslim society other religions were generally free to practice and individuals could conduct their affairs as they saw fit.

Sharia and the Islamic State

Islamic law allows for widely varying interpretations. In Saudi Arabia, Sharia is interpreted very restrictively and enforced by the government. Alternatively, some Muslim scholars hold that making Sharia the law of the land deprives people of the ability to follow God’s law freely. It puts the law of God on par with laws of men. Anyone to figure out the requirements of Islam should study the Quran for themselves.

The Islamic State and Democracy

With no set definition of Islamic government, there is room for many political systems, but Muslim political thinkers debate whether an Islamic state can be a democracy. One school holds that reason is the ideal method for interpreting Sharia; democracy with its open marketplace of ideas is the best system for promoting the exercise of reason. Others believe that shura itself is democratic, extending the principle of consultation to the general population. Finally, other scholars make the point that there can be no “Islamic democracy” any more than there can be “Christian democracy” or “Jewish democracy.” It is people who make democracy, not religions.