Citizenship and the Social Contract

For a great many who become Muslim, an internal conflict about being a British citizen is the furthest thing from their mind… “well, I always have been, so of course I am.” For others however, this can be troublesome, and then there are conflicting messages on the internet and sometimes ‘doing the rounds’ which say: because Muslims obey God only, it follows Muslims cannot obey British “manmade” law. These kinds of discussions are not supported by the vast majority of Islamic scholars, academics or mosques. But, that doesn’t mean the voices do have an impact. International politics, strong feelings of anger, and victimhood, combined with the way modern communication works can mean that, suddenly, a recent convert can find themself questioning loyalty to a country, or whether one can participate in democracy.

The Qur’an emphasises the common heritage of people, diversity amongst people (including religious diversity), freedom of religion, and value of neighbours, social action for the common good, helping society’s needy, and social justice. The Prophet Muhammad’s life is full of many incidences reflecting these teachings. So, Islam wants people to be an integral, social and positive part of their communities they share life with.

So where do these ideas of tension with one’s citizenship come from? They stem from history, from a time gone by when the world was governed in a very different to our time. Then, there were empires with large areas of land under their command. Muslims lived under the protection of a Muslim Empire where their lives and property could be protected, and, in return for this protection, Muslims offered their allegiance to the Ruler and would obey the laws. From a Muslim view, this created a broader world geography of two halves, the Islam and Non-Islam realms, or territories or “Dar”.

The world has since changed dramatically of course, especially after World War II when the United Nations and with it, nation states, were created. Today, the lives and property of Muslims are protected by the state they are citizens of. Islamic scholars have explained that the old rules are now redundant and that by entering into a contract with the state as citizens, Muslims are obliged to obey the laws of the state.

Some voices also point to a conflict between national law and Islamic law, but these happen very rarely in Western democracies and, in Britain’s case, probably not at all. The civil freedom to practice religion is protected by law. Most of these conflicts are really about applying teachings in personal matters. They arise when one is trying to be authentic and true to an example from the Prophet’s life, and yet at the same, one is trying to understand and adapt those teachings to context, culture and life. This is not always easy, and can be distressing. There is often much greater room (found within Islamic teachings) for holding true to those teachings than one may realise.

Living in our countries or regions and making a full contribution to it, choosing to partake in its democracy, and viewing neighbours and citizens one’s fellows, are all in harmony with Islam.