Islamic State (Dar al-Islam)

What is an Islamic State?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

The term Islamic State may be variously translated as ‘dar al-Islam’, ‘bilad al-islam’ or ‘dawla islamiyyah’ in Arabic or juristic (fiqhi) terminology.

Many Muslims today believe that in order for a territory to be counted as an Islamic State, one of its essential features is that it must necessarily feature the Islamic penal code (hudud) as part and parcel of its legal system. This view corresponds to Mawdudi’s:

“The Qur’an not only lays down principles of morality and ethics, but also gives guidance in the political, social and economic fields. It prescribes punishment for certain crimes and enunciates principles of monetary and fiscal policy. These cannot be translated into practice unless there is a State to enforce them. And herein lies the necessity of an Islamic State.” [1]

Many Muslims today, especially those among the youth that have been taken by the above view, feel that they need to strive for Muslim sovereignty that sees to the implementation of Islamic legal precepts and rulings in toto. They feel that this is the only correct Islamic view in existence and that no state can be regarded as Islamic or ‘dar al-Islam’ insofar that it does not feature an “Islamic Legal System” with the ‘hudud’ in place.

Even though the above sentiment may seem rather popular today, it is not the only view that exists in Islamic political thought. Imam Abu Hanifah r.a. for example, was of the view that any territory that has a Muslim majority and its Muslim population enjoys peace and can practise their faith freely without imposition is rightly an Islamic State. This is also the view of the luminary Imam Abu Zahra r.a. and it is retained by the faqih Sheikh Wahbah Zuhayli, the former grand mufti of Egypt Sheikh Ali Jum’a and many other prominent Islamic jurists. They are of the view that even if there is laxity in the implementation or enforcement of the full breadth of the Shari’ah that includes the penal code or ‘hudud’, the territory that is occupied by a Muslim majority that has peace as the rule of the day is by definition ‘Dar al-Islam’ or an Islamic State. This has been the long standing view of Al-Azhar al-Sharif (University of al-Azhar), the bastion of traditional Islamic learning and scholarship. We may also include the late mujtahid, the martyr, Imam al-‘Asr, Sheikh Prof. Ramadan al-Bouti r.a. in this category. We should also note that he is an alumnus of al-Azhar. In his book ‘al-Jihad fil Islam’, as per the view of the great four imams, an Islamic State is that state which is under the rule of a Muslim, Muslims are free to openly practise their faith and the sovereignty of the territory is readily defended and protected by Muslims.

I dare say that the latter view (and not Mawdudi’s) is the standard view that most traditional Islamic scholars today hold. The prominent Malaysian Shafi’i scholar and jurist, Fellow in Islamic Studies at Oxford University, Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti writes:

“The definition of a Muslim state is: “any place at which a resident Muslim is capable of defending himself against hostile forces (harbiyyun) for a period of time is a Muslim state where his judgments can be applied at that time and those times following it.” (Ba’lawi, Bughyat, p. 254). A non-Muslim who resides in a Muslim state is in our terminology: kafir dhimmi or al-kafir bi-dhimmati l-muslim (a non-Muslim in the care of a Muslim state).

By definition, an area is a Muslim state as long as Muslims continue to live there and the political and executive authority is Muslim. (Think about this, for the Muslim lands are many, varied, wide and extensive; and how poor and of limited insight are those who have tried to limit the definition of what a Muslim state must be, whether realizing it or not thus tries to shrink the Muslim world!)” [2]


A question may arise, “What if the ruler of an Islamic State is not fulfilling his duties well and how can we follow him if does not implement the full scope of the Shari’ah including the Islamic penal code?”

Hudhayfah bin Yamamah r.a. narrates that the Prophet s.a.w. said:

يكون بعدى لايهتدون بهداى ولا يستنون بسنتى، وسيقوم فيهم رجال قلوبهم قلوب الشياطين في جثمان إنس قال: قلت: كيف أصنع؟ يا رسول الله إن أدركت ذلك؟ قال: تسمع وتطيع للأمير وإن ضرب ظهرك وأخذ مالك فاسمع وأطع.

“There will be rulers after me that will not follow or abide by my teachings and will not adhere to my Sunnah, and there will appear among them men whose hearts will be those of devils in the body of man.” Hudhayfah said, “I asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I reach such a time?” The Prophet s.a.w. said: “Continue listening to and obeying the ruler, even though your back is beaten/flogged and your wealth is snatched, then too listen and obey (him).” [3]

In the above hadith is proof positive that even if a ruler is extremely oppressive and does not follow the precepts of Islam including implementing certain parts of the Shariah (e.g., hudud) that ruler still deserves obedience from his subjects. From this we may infer that just as such a ruler is not disqualified from his position for not implementing the full scope of the Shari’ah, a territory is not disqualified as ‘dar al-Islam’ for not having or featuring the full scope of the Shari’ah.

But how does one go about rectifying the situation or reforming the ruler and his government?

Abu Sa’id Khudri r.a. narrates that the Prophet s.a.w. said:

إن من أعظم الجهاد كلمة عدل عند سلطان جائر

“From the greatest forms of Jihad is that a just word be spoken before a tyrannical ruler.” [4]

How do we give such advice to a tyrannical ruler? Should we disparage him publicly as what is done today?

‘Iyadh bin Ghanm r.a. narrates that the Prophet s.a.w. said:

من أرد أن ينصح لذى سلطان بأمر فلا يبد له علانية ولكن ليأخذ بيده فيخلو به ، فإن قبل منه فذاك وإلا كان قد أدى الذي عليه

“Whoever wishes to advise a person in authority should not disgrace him publicly. Rather he should take him by the hand in privacy. If he accepts, well and good; if not, he has fulfilled the right that was due upon him.” [5]

Unfortunately, many Muslims today prefer the western way of protests, loud shouting, yelling, throwing accusations, spewing all kinds of insults and jibes at their leaders that they do not approve or like and many a time, they even opt for violence through physical conflict and rebellion. And the Muslims scratch their heads and wonder why there is so much strife in their lands. May Allah protect us.

And Allah knows best!



[1] Abul A’la Mawdudi (1967). The Islamic Law and Constitution (Khurshid Ahmad, trans.). Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications. p. 175

[2] Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti (2005). Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians: Mudafi’ al-Mazlum bi-Radd al-Muhamil ‘ala Qital Man La Yuqatil. United KIngdom: AQSA Press. p. 39

[3] Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Imarah, Hadith 4748

[4] Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Fitan, Hadith 2174; In another variant the hadith begins as أفضل الجهاد كلمة حق (The best Jihad is a word of truth…). Though the ‘matn’ or text may differ, the meaning is precisely the same. Along with other variants, it is variously transmitted by Ibn al-Ja’ad, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Ibn Humayd, Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud, Al-Nasa’i, Abu Ya’la, al-Tabarani, al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqi

[5] Majma’ Zawa’id, Kitab al-Khilafah, bab al-nasihah wa kaifiyatuha, hadith 9161, 9162

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