Scholar’s corner: on citizenship and Islam

There has been an increasing focus on what it means to be a citizen in society in recent years; the nature of responsibilities, rights and how different aspects of our identity contribute towards shaping our sense of belonging.[1] In this debate, the Islamic perspective becomes even more complex. Muslims in Britain often pose many questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? Where do my loyalties lie? Am I a British Muslim or a Muslim living in Britain? Am I part of an Islamic umma ‘Nations’? What are my responsibilities towards my umma?

All these questions are important and deserve thorough consideration; but “is there indeed a Muslim identity and, if so, is it of a religious or a cultural context?”[2] In essence, is it permitted for Muslims to be a citizen of a non-Muslim state?

From an Islamic point of view, citizenship is wholly religious, and this is based on the principles “enshrined in the revealed word of Allah in the Holy Qur’an and on the action, judgment and conduct of His Prophet [Muhammad]”.[3] The Qur’an tells us that God created Adam to be his vice-regent on Earth. The late Prof. Zaki Badawi, who worked tirelessly toward integrating Muslim communities in Britain, reminds us that “Adam’s descendants inherited his place in relation to this planet and also were made morally responsible for each other through the various revelations that came over the centuries to guide them to the right conduct”.[4] Furthermore, in another Qur’anic verse God states: “We have honoured the children of Adam”.[5] Therefore, according this Qur’anic verse, Islam considers that all humans belong to a single nation.

To this, one can safely claim that the starting point in Islam’s concept of citizenship is its regard for the human race in its entirety, overlooking racial and creedal divides.

As long as Muslims are able to practise their faith without fear of persecution, they are able to call any place home. History can substantiate this notion: for instance, the Prophet Muhammad sent his companions to Ethiopia on two separate occasions. In fact some of the companions such as Abdullah Ibn Ja’far were born in Ethiopia and considered it to be their home.

The Prophet himself lived in Mecca and was surrounded by polytheists. He considered the city as his: “dearest spot on earth – had your people not driven me out, I would not be departing from you now”.[6] After he migrated to Medina, Muhammad considered himself as a citizen of a country populated for the most part with Arab pagans, Jews, and few Christians. Not only did the Prophet and his followers take strides to contribute towards Medinan society, they were also ready to defend their new abode with their lives.

Badawi commented that:

 Once he [Prophet Muhammad] settled down in the city he drew a series of treaties with the Arab and Jewish tribes in Medina setting out the system of government and the rules that transformed a primitive tribal justice system based on collective responsibility into a legal system making every individual responsible for his/her action. The duties regarding the defence of the city were outlined. The religious diversity of the population was celebrated and the common framework for the system was defined. These documents are collectively called the Constitution of Medina. Its recognition of pluralism is an example of humanity and justice.[7]

In the constitution the right of all citizens were respected including that of Jews, Christians, Arab pagans and Muslims. The newly established states requested that all citizens work for the common good and defend it against threats. [8]

Over the centuries, Muslims travelled as far as China, Africa and many obscure parts of the world. They conducted themselves with the moral virtue that Islam demanded from them. And they made concerted efforts to contribute to the life of the indigenous countries they found themselves in, adjusting themselves without losing their Islamic values and transforming the newly found domicile into their home.

Dar al-Islam and Dar al-harb ‘House of Islam’ and ‘House of War’

There are periods in history where Muslims scholars instructed their community not to live outside the land of Islam for fear that their religion might be corrupted by intermingling with non-Muslims. Hence the concept of Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-harb came into being. Dar al-Islam are those lands in which a Muslim government rules. Non-Muslims may live there but should pay a Jizya, ‘poll-tax’. Muslims who hold to such views deem the outside world, the world yet to be conquered by them, as Dar al-harb, ‘The House of War’ also known as Dar al-Kufr ‘The House of Disbelievers’.[9]

This classification might appeal to Muslims attracted to ‘black and white’ views. In essence, they should avoid living in a country not ruled by Islam, and wage wars against non-Islamic countries.

I do not wish to suggest that these views contradict Islam, as such divisions had served Islam’s purpose when Muslims were in constant conflict with non-Muslim nations during its early period. In our modern age, however, where Muslims are able to live and bring up their children in non-Muslim societies, such divisions serve no purpose and are invalid. It should also be reiterated that the concept of Dar al-harb ‘The House of War’ also known as Dar al-Kufr ‘The House of Disbelievers’ is neither in the Qur’an nor in the Prophetic Tradition. So abandoning this concept should not prove difficult.

Five Qur’anic verses that they believe enables them to reject non-Islamic government

Today, there are some Muslims who hold on to these classifications with determination. They vehemently believe that they are not true citizens of a state that does not govern without Sharia Law. These individuals substantiate their view with the following Qur’anic verses: “Whosoever does not judge by what God has revealed, such people are disbelievers”;[10] “Whosoever does not judge by that which God has revealed such people are polytheists and wrongdoers”;[11] “Whosoever does not judge by what God has revealed such people are disobedient”.[12]

In light of these verses, some young Muslims feel obligated to reject all that emanates from the West; they seek to disassociate from its culture or civilisation. For these young people, the democratic process remains a joke, and they feel no obligations towards the country of their birth.

Citizens who do not hold to such views, be they Muslims or non-Muslims, are deemed as committing Shirk or ‘Joining others in worship against God’. Shirk is defined in the Qur’an as the only sin that God would not forgive under any circumstance.[13] This is one of a multitude of reasons why many of them today are joining groups like ISIS – because they believe that God is calling them through ISIS and that they have a religious obligation to join.

This minority base their argument on a pin-hole reading of the Qur’an, believing that citizenship in Islam is largely centred on its citizen’s loyalty to the Islamic State.[14] Consequently, this narrow interpretation has had a devastating effect on Muslims who are not well versed in the teaching of Islam. So they are made to believe that it is un-Islamic to associate with Western society. And it is their Islamic duty to kill and cause havoc in non-Muslim lands. The events of 7/7 and the murder of Lee Rigby, are in part, a product of this narrow and warped reading of the Qur’an.

With hindsight, the notion of Dar al-harb and Dar al-Islam cannot be applied in the West today, particularly in the United Kingdom. Tariq Ramadan reminds us that each country:

 Has its own legal framework which refers mostly to a national constitution- the fundamental law- body of laws and a specific jurisprudence. The constitution and the laws work as both a frame of reference and structure which are backbone of the nation and state. This legal framework determines the specific status of citizens, residents, foreigners or tourists.

In the UK, Muslims do not feel coerced to abandon their faith, nor are they prevented from practising their faith. Though there are many ethical and religious obstacles to overcome, Muslims are able to entertain their fundamental rights and practise Islam. It would be against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the European Convention of Human Rights to prevent people from practising their faith (though in France it is a different matter). Muslims can therefore remain loyal to their faith and uphold their ethical and moral obligation towards their faith without compromising universal values.

Here in Britain, just as other faith communities are able to build their place of worship, Muslims are able to build mosques, Islamic centres, schools and religious monuments that meet their requirements. Under no circumstances should Muslims feel they are second-class citizens in the UK; though there is still some work to be done, they have all the liberties and rights that their non-Muslim compatriots also enjoy.

Muslims remain an intrinsic part of the UK’s multicultural and multi-faith society. Faith belongs to the person who upholds their belief. This individual experience is not owned or controlled by external forces in the East or West. Muslims need to understand that Britain is their home and much like Muhammad in Medina, they should protect their homes with their very lives and fully respect the laws of this country.

Failure to uphold the law of the land violates the teachings of Islam. Tariq Ramadan reminds us the story of Joseph in the Qur’an. He tells us “[Joseph] not only stayed in Egypt but also worked for non-Muslims and himself proposed his services to the polytheist kings.[15]


In an attempt to summarise, I propose the following alternatives for Muslims living in the United Kingdom; a proposal that extends beyond the framework put forward by those with a narrow interpretation of Islam.

First of all, there is a need for Muslims in the West, particularly in Britain, to abandon their old traditions, believing that the only way to learn ‘true Islam’ is through scholars from Muslim countries. They need to develop a ‘British Islam’ or what I would call Fish and Chips Islam’. I should stress that I am not questioning the authenticity or authority of the Qur’an; I am simply proposing that the practices of earlier scholars whose interpretation reflected the society in which they had lived. So their works should be looked at in a more balanced and critical manner. Such a stance will enable Muslims to develop a ‘new’ Islam with new approaches to our faith, taking due consideration to the environment and milieu we live in.

Muslims should come to terms with the idea that they may have been considered foreigners or second-class citizens in this country; but that they need to be confident enough to believe this is their country and that they have the same rights as others. With this attitude and conviction, Muslims can redefine an Islam that reflects universal values, such as the value of giving not only charity but also voluntary work. Of incorporating the concepts of freedom, equality, tolerance and rule of law – concepts missing in many so-called Islamic countries.

Critics may say that this just an impractical exercise in wishful thinking. Yet the historiography of Islam gives us the evidence to make it a reality. For instance, to survive for almost eight hundred years, Muslims had to adjust and embrace many norms within Spanish culture. The same is true of Muslims in India, Africa and other parts of the world.

Secondly, we need to ensure that our schools, mosques and prisons are free from preachers and Imams who do not understand or are unwilling to appreciate such values. It is important that our religious leaders in Britain have a good command of the English language. According to Islamic tradition, mosques were not only places of worship; they were places where the humanitarian aspects of Islam were evident to all. Muslims felt their faith was revived upon entering the mosques, while non-Muslims were astonished and marvelled at the practices and fraternity Muslims exhibited in their places of worship, as was a frequent occurrence in Muslim Spain. Unfortunately, many mosques in Britain are either controlled by elders loyal to their parochial readings of Islam, or are ransacked by callous preachers imbibing younger generations with extremist notions. Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, was reported to have been brainwashed in such a mosque. Preachers and ‘token Imams’, designated as religious leaders by the media, who have no formal training in traditional Islamic scholarship, need to be ostracised not only from our mosques but also from our society.

My third point is related to Islamic education in Britain. Though I am unable to elaborate in the present on this issue, it is nevertheless important that some consideration is given in this direction. I am in complete agreement with Tariq Ramadan that Islamic education should  not run parallel to our western educational system. State schools offer the basic subjects and “it is for Muslims to find complementary alternative, and original ways of providing the knowledge they judge to be essential to comply with the requirement of the message whose followers they are”.[16]

My final suggestion is directed towards my non-Muslim British compatriots. Do not erroneously place “all Muslims into one basket”[17]. Just as I have decried the problematic elements among some British Muslims who deem all as their sworn enemy, it would be just as distressing and unconstructive if non-Muslims viewed all Muslims as potential terrorists.

For a mutual understanding and respect to develop within our society, our government must reconsider alternative voices when on matters of foreign policy – which many Muslims and non-Muslims alike see as having double standards. And our government ought to consider the proposal set out by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, that Islamic norms and teachings should be better appreciated. And there is room for Islamic Law (Shariah) to operate more effectively. Sadly Dr. Williams was attacked and vilified in the most vicious fashion by sections of the media and some civil right activists, who jumped onto the bandwagon with little knowledge, if any at all, about what Dr. Williams had suggested.

The Jewish Law (Halakhah) is already recognised in the UK and it is already a fact that British Jews, particularly in Orthodox circles, often turn to their own religious courts, the Beth Din, to resolve civil disputes, covering issues as diverse as business and divorce; this lends more credibility to the former Archbishop’ suggestion.

The behaviour of some Shariah tribunals, however, combined with Baroness Cox’s efforts to discredit and possibly outlaw those, makes the chance of recognition a slim possibility. [18] Critics, however, would argue that giving Shariah such status would set a precedent and open the doors to other religious communities to make similar demands. To this we say, that this is exactly how it should be. After all, this is the backbone of multiculturalism and the latter cannot be properly achieved in the absence of equality and impartiality.


[1] The Inter Faith Network for the UK, 2006-2007 Annual Review, p. 22.

[2] Ramadan, ‘To Be a European’, op. cit., p. 153.

[3] Zaki Badawi, Citizenship in Islam (London: The Muslim College, 2000), p. 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Qur’an, 2: 30.

[6] Badawi, op. cit., p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ramadan, ‘To Be a European’ op. cit., p. 165.

[10] Qur’an, 5: 45.

[11] Qur’an, 5:46.

[12] Qur’an, 5:47.

[13] Qur’an, 4 :48; 31: 13.

[14] Badawi, op. cit., p. 7.

[15] Ramadan, ‘To be a European’, op. cit., p. 166.

[16] Ramadan, ‘Western Muslims’ op. cit., p. 137.

[17] Silvestri, op. cit., p. 4.

[18] Baroness Cox introduced a bill that in effect seeks to ban the Shariah Councils operating the UK. Baroness Cox believes that the bill is for the benefit of Muslim women who she believes are victim of Shariah Courts. It should be noted that the same Baroness Cox is the person who invited the Dutch far-right, Geert Wilders, who has described the Qur’an as a ‘fascist book’.