An Interview on Freedom & Citizenship in Islam .

An Interview on Freedom & Citizenship in Islam .

In a special interview with, the Islamic thinker Rashid Al-Ghannoshi, Head of the Tunisian Renaissance Movement, said that it is important to review many widespread concepts that are considered unchangeable in the structure of Islamic thought.

Sheikh Al-Ghannoshi said that “due to certain historical circumstances”, rigorous interpretations and exegesis have in the past controlled the path of Islamic thought. He emphasized the importance of advocating giving contemporary human values, such as “citizenship” and “freedom”, their suitable weight, as it is a necessity for Islamic jurisprudence to deal with contemporary issues and reality in a positive way.

It is obvious that “The New World for Islam” in Europe, compared to what Sheikh Al-Ghannoshi calls “The Old World”, is what enabled him to find in Islamic heritage new authentications of the values of coexistence with others. Sheikh Al-Ghannoshi mentions the fiqh of Al Mazery, a scholar from Tunisia, who urged the Muslims of Sicily to remain in their homes in spite of the downfall of the Muslim kingdom in the island, in comparison with another scholar, Al Wansherecy from Morocco, who urged the Muslims of Andalusia to migrate to “the land of Islam”. Ghannoshi commented by saying that history sustained Al Wansherecy because of the prevailing fanaticism at the time (in Europe) that caused a long age of darkness.


The Interview:

OnIslam (OI): In one of your latest writings, you present Islamic foundations for the concept of “citizenship” in the West, and you criticize some historic concepts that originate from Islamic thought, such as the notion of “allegiance and disavowal” (al-wala’ wal baraa’). You also criticize the statement made by Sayyed Qutb that “the nationality of a believer is his faith”. Are we heading toward rephrasing Islamic fiqh opinions in light of new contemporary realities, such as the growing Muslim presence in the West?  

Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannoshi: Praise be to Allah and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger. Let me first congratulate Muslims everywhere on the birth of, imploring Almighty Allah to make it a source of truth and guidance for all.

The issue is not related to reconsidering some fundamental concepts that are counted among the unchangeable principles of Islam, but reviewing some aspects of the political culture that prevailed in the past. Such culture was not an essential part of Islam but a reflection of predominant conditions under some political regimes that created such notions and cultures that suited them at the time. An example is the concept of “the abode of war and the abode of peace” (dar al-harb wa dar al-islam) that formed an expression of the pattern of international relations at the time, which were governed by war, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. All lands outside the Muslim state were therefore deemed abodes of war, and the same was true for non-Muslims with regard to their relationship with Muslims.

However, war is not something to be sought or desired in Islam. War should only be resorted to when it is necessary and unavoidable, and it is not the default rule in dealing with non-Muslims who choose peace and forsake aggression. In the Qur’an, Allah says: (And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in Allah; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing.) (Al-Anfal 8:61) And He also says: (Fighting is enjoined on you, though it is an object of dislike to you.) (Al-Baqarah 2:216)

When these concepts dominate international relations, human rights disappear, including the right to choose one’s faith and live by it without any compulsion or threat. Under such situation, a Muslim would not be able to practice his faith in a country not ruled by Islam. This was the case for long periods when religious fanaticism took root, in Christianity and other religions. Consequently, the Muslim presence was falling and getting weaker and unable to defend itself. What happened in Al-Andalus and Southern Italy is a very clear example. It was within this context that Muslim scholars at the time, like the Moroccan scholar Al-Wansharisi, issued fatwas for Muslims remaining there after the collapse of the ruling Muslim emirates one after the other, that they were obligated to leave their homes and immigrate to Muslim lands; otherwise they would be sinful.

Other scholars, on the other hand, such as the Tunisian Imam Al-Mazri, gave fatwas to the Muslims living in Southern Italy following the collapse of Muslim rule that they had to remain there and call others to Islam in the hope of restoring Muslim presence in this land. However, history attested to the fatwa of Al-Wansharisi due to the predominant environment of fanaticism that darkened Europe for a long period of time. Would Al-Wansharisi and other like-minded scholars hold onto their fatwas if they saw millions of Muslims living in the same country of our forefathers, Spain, along with their mosques, schools and shops, having their full rights under non-Muslim, yet democratic, rule that recognizes the freedom of belief and religious practice? Indeed, such is the case of millions, even hundreds of millions of Muslims around the globe.

Many of those living in the new abodes of Islam enjoy rights and freedoms not enjoyed in the old abodes of Islam

Is it of benefit to Islam to call on one third of contemporary Muslims around the world who live as minorities in non-Muslim countries to leave their homelands and immigrate to “the abode of Islam”, regardless of the changing times and circumstances? I wonder if this would benefit Islam in any way. In fact, this would be a nice present offered by some ignorant Muslims to far-right fascist leaders who are greatly disturbed by the rapid Muslim growth that is taking place without any war or battle. Yet, this growth is made possible under contemporary human and democratic values that have now been known in the West for the first time in its history, enabling millions of Muslims to establish a blossoming Muslim life there. Such climate has always existed in Muslim lands where adherents of different faiths lived freely under the tolerance and pluralism of this great religion.

Moreover, it is not practically possible to deport all these hundreds of millions of people and uproot them from their homes. In fact, many of those living in the new abodes of Islam enjoy rights and freedoms not enjoyed in the old abodes of Islam, many parts of which are suffocating under corrupt, authoritarian regimes.     

OI: Do you mean to say that “the abode of war” is no longer a concept that can offer an accurate perception of the fiqh of reality in Western countries today, and therefore inapplicable and in need of renewal?

Al-Ghannoshi: Yes, I do. Let me clarify my point by an example. I performed the dawn Prayer today in the nearby mosque where I live in west London, after which I sat for a short lecture. And I waited until the sun rose to perform the duha Prayer. Thereafter, I looked up some references in the mosque’s library before leaving, and then went back home without any harm. The mosque’s guard waited for the departure of the last worshipper to lock the doors of the main hall, leaving a small room open for any latecomer or passing-by worshipper. When the time for the noon Prayer arrives, the doors reopen for worship, recital of the Qur’an and learning, all day till the last evening Prayer.

The case is otherwise in many mosques in the old “abodes of Islam”, where the state holds sway over everything including these sacred places (i.e. mosques). Some of those regimes ban learning in the mosque unless authorized by the concerned minister, as is the case in Tunisia. Those who do not observe this ban would be detained. Also, the mosques’ doors are closed once Prayer is finished and they only reopen minutes before the next Prayer. There is no talk in these countries about political freedoms, freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary, or power-sharing.

So, I find no reasonable ground to regard the countries where Muslims and others enjoy the freedom to choose their religion, practice it and call others to it and even the freedom to participate in governance, as abodes of war. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is a case in point. When his hometown, Makkah, tightened the restrictions on him, and its arrogant leaders refused to embrace Islam or let anyone do so, the Prophet searched diligently for a free land where he would be able to call to his religion. Hence, the migration (hijrah) to Abyssinia took place, then to Yathrib – a hijrah from despotism to freedom.

That is why the connection which formed between a Muslim and his nationality is merely a historic incident imposed by an environment dominated by fanaticism, and not an essential part of Islam. The noble Qur’an mentions the case of some Muslims who were not living in the abode of Islam, as they remained in Makkah and did not immigrate to Madinah to dwell under the sovereignty of the newly-established Muslim state. This is related in a Qur’anic verse that reads: (And those who believed but did not leave their homes, ye have no duty to protect them till they leave their homes) (Al-Anfal 8:72)

The fact that they accepted to live under a non-Muslim sovereignty did not drive them out of the fold of Islam, but this stripped them of the right to protection enjoyed only by the citizens of the Muslim state, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This emphasizes that the land of the state constitutes a pillar of its conception. Those who do not dwell in the land of the Muslim state can have the rights of brotherhood in Islam, which is still surpassed by the brotherhood of citizenship. They enjoy protection by the Muslim state, yet within the limits allowed by its interests and treaties, as revealed in the Qur’an: (And if they seek aid from you in the matter of religion, aid is incumbent on you except against a people between whom and you there is a treaty; and Allah sees what you do.) (Al-Anfal 8:72)

This broadens the concept of the abode of Islam to include every country where a Muslim enjoys the right to openly and safely practice his religious rituals, as illustrated by the verifying scholars (muhaqqiqun), such as the scholar of Hadith Yusuf Al-Jadee` in his book “the Abode of War and the Abode of Peace”. This right is guaranteed today in all democratic nations, many of which, unfortunately, do not belong to the traditional abode of Islam.

OI: Can I understand from what you said that the concept of citizenship needs a renovated call for authenticating its principles within contemporary Islamic thought?

Al-Ghannoshi: Given today’s reality, we should reconsider a number of concepts, including that of citizenship, a concept upon which the contemporary state is built. Under this concept, citizens living in a particular country share the ownership of its land regardless of whether they share the same faith. Thus, all citizens have equal rights. This concept has roots in Islam, as it was stressed in the constitution of Madinah (Sahifat Al-Madinah). This constitution was established by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and Al-Sahifa was intended to organize coexistence in the multi-faith society of Madinah.

That said, let me stress the fact that Islam is not merely a personal religion, as it also serves as a legal and moral reference for its followers through the institution of Shura (collective consultation), according to which contemporary democratic mechanisms should be defined. In this way, the institution of Shura will change from being a mere source of moral values and lessons proclaimed powerfully by a brave sheikh in the face of a tyrant, to an institution by means of which the entire Ummah can exercise its authority and supervision over its rulers. To this end, we should have elected bodies that truly represent the different trends of public opinion. In fact, this guarantees that people’s representatives will not introduce policies or legislations that are inconsistent with what they agree upon and believe in, and what they consider being in the interests of the nation.

Should the barriers between this religion and people be erased, they would embrace it in droves. That is why freedom is a blessing for Islam

It befits the callers to Islam in such a case, when there is no longer repression or authoritarianism, to dispel any fear they may have from the effect of freedom on Islam. Islam in itself is a revolution of liberty, and it is the natural disposition upon which human beings were created. As such, Islam is not alien to the human soul. Should the barriers between this religion and people be erased, they would embrace it in droves. That is why freedom is a blessing for Islam. In a free market, the commodity of Islam will not go unnoticed. Here lies the wisdom behind the challenge that is repeatedly put before the enemies of Islam in the Qur’an, the everlasting Book of the Ummah:                     

(Say: Bring your proof if you are truthful.) (Al-Baqarah 2:111)

(Lo! we or you assuredly are rightly guided or in error manifest.) (Saba’ 34:24)

(Say: Then bring some (other) book from Allah which is a better guide than both of them, (that) I may follow it, if you are truthful.) (Al-Qasas 28:49)

Indeed, this challenge would become meaningless in the absence of mutual competition and struggle, and it would only express a feeling of fear and lack of confidence in this noble message and the man to whom it was sent.

OI: In line with your approach for eliminating the concept of “the abode of war and the abode of peace”, and your view that the West has transformed into an abode of Islam following the shifts it witnessed over the last centuries, and given its respect for the value of freedom, does this approach aim at forming a new Islamic perspective that establishes the value of freedom as a main pillar of a new Islamic fiqh?    

Al-Ghannoshi: As emphasized by great contemporary reformers, such as Gamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani, `Abdur-Rahman Al-Kawakbi, Muhammad `Abduh, Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyed Qutb, and Abu Al-A`la Al-Maududi, Islam is a comprehensive revolution of freedom, and it strips the worship of any meaning if the performer lacks freedom. Any contract or promise a person makes has no meaning unless he is free, nor does his very humanity. Liberty is a value with which human beings were honored by Almighty Allah, to the point that the angels were commanded to prostrate themselves before our father, Adam (peace be upon him), though they are creatures who (Glorify (Him) night and day; they flag not.) (Al-Anbiyaa’ 21:20) And (They do not disobey Allah in what He commands them, and do as they are commanded.) (At-Tahrim 66:6) Although man was described in the Qur’an as ingrate, hasty, and mostly argumentative, he still has a mind and enjoys freedom that makes it possible for him to reconsider his state, rectify himself, ask Almighty Allah for forgiveness, and return to the path of guidance.

The bottom line is that Islam was not subject to damage or disease as that inflicted by authoritarian and unjust rulers who brought down the rightly-guided rule of Shura and freedom. The most prominent aspects of conflicts in the history of Islam were the conflict between the rule by Shura under the rightly-guided Caliphate and the other patterns of rule that rose against it, being tainted by the impurities of ignorant tribalism and influenced by the two dominant models of Roman and Persian rule. It may come as surprise to say that even Islamic conquests aimed for establishing freedom and justice. This was plainly and succinctly expressed by Rib`i ibn `Amir (may Allah be pleased with him) when he was asked by the chief of staff of the Persian Empire, “What brought you here?”, and he replied, “We have come here to drive you out of the injustice of different religions to the justice of Islam.”

The revolutions that emerged throughout Islamic history were inspired by the model of freedom born with the very beginning of this history. Yet with the succession of ages and the prevalence of temptations, the Muslim culture witnessed a radical shift toward laying the foundations and paving the way for tyrannical and unjust regimes, similar to what monks and rabbis had previously done. Scientific and political revolutions were therefore coupled with rebellion against religions. And there emerged a conflict between freedom and faith, between science and religion, and between the rule of Allah and the rule of man. Such conflict has no room in Islam and its civilization.

It was the revolution of Islam that laid the foundation of this Ummah and established therein the pillars of civilization and liberty. The more the meaning of liberty in Islam declines in favor of coercion in belief, imitation in fiqh, rigid approach in upbringing, authoritarian rule in politics, the more the lights of the Muslim civilization fade away and the Ummah falls into a state of decadence. No wonder then when reform is associated with the call for liberty in the mentioned areas that are satanically united in defense of the ruling tyrants.

It is because of waves of fanaticism joined by a legacy of despotism, seclusion, takfir (declaring others unbelievers), sectarianism, and rejection of freedom that the call for liberty appeared alien, suspicious, and disapproved of. In fact, the call for liberty lied at the roots of every movement of reform in the history of the Ummah, restoring it to the pure sources of revelation and interacting with the new developments, discoveries, experiences, or problems. Then, attempts were made to introduce new solutions to these newly experienced problems.

To achieve the above, we must deepen, expand, and lay a firm foundation for liberty, without which no creativity, civilization, or advance is possible. Even more, the laws of Islam may not be properly applied in the absence of freedom. We cannot establish a healthy Islamic life, revive the Islamic civilization, or develop a sound Islamic fiqh without minds and souls that are free from all kinds of repression and tyranny. It comes as no surprise then that the heart of the Ummah, the Arab world, represents the black hole in the sphere of liberty on the global level due to intensifying international subjugation intended to paralyze its ability to move and act, lest the whole Ummah will follow it, causing a great shift in the world’s balance of power. Yet, a time will surely come when the giant will become restless and get ready for an eruption of great change.