Is the Quran a ‘constitution’?
When Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, was declared the new president of Egypt last week, I felt relieved. This was the first free and fair presidential election Egypt had ever had, and fraud by the SCAF (Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) in favor of its preferred candidate, Ahmet Shafiq would have been a disaster. It would have shattered the Egyptian Revolution. Moreover, it could have pushed Egypt’s Islamists to a more militant path.
In other words, I welcome Mr. Morsi as the new president of Egypt. I very much hope that he will be a successful leader for his nation, and be able to “unite all Egyptians” as he promised in his inaugural speech.
However, for this to happen, both Mr. Morsi and his allies need to revise some of their longtime dreams and slogans. And one of them is a motto that Mr. Morsi repeated in one of his pre-election speeches: “The Quran is our constitution.”
This is a very popular motto among not just Muslim Brotherhood members but also all Islamist movements around the world. It implies an unbreakable commitment to the Muslim scripture, which is, of course, a virtue for all true believers.
However, Muslim believers should not only praise the Quran, but also be aware of what it says. And when we look at the Quran, we can see that it says nothing about being “the constitution” of any party or nation. In fact, on its very second page, in the second and third verses of Chapter Baqara, the Quran clearly says what it is:
“This Book, in which there is no doubt, is a guide to those who guard [against evil]. Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them.”
In other words, the Quran defines itself not as a constitution for a state, but “a guide” for individual believers. In fact, neither the word “constitution” nor “state” exists in the Quran, as the Muslim scripture contains no clear guidelines for any political structure.
When we look at the life of Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, we do see a constitution: the so-called “Medina Constitution.” But this text was neither identical to the Quran, nor included any reference to it. It rather was a pact that the Prophet of Islam signed with the Jewish tribes in Medina, and it built the city on not Islam, but pluralism. “The Jews have their religion,” the text declared, “and the Muslims have theirs.”
In modern times, the Islamic Ottoman Empire proclaimed a constitution in 1876, and, again, it was neither identical to the Quran nor included any reference to it. It only stated, “Islam is the state religion,” and included many liberal clauses like these:
“All subjects of the empire are called Ottomans, without distinction whatever faith they profess… Every Ottoman enjoys personal liberty on condition of non-interference with the liberty of others. Personal liberty is wholly inviolable.”
In fact, the simplistic motto, “The Quran is our constitution,” was a post-Ottoman anomaly. Pious Muslims such as Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, felt the need to assert their faith in the face imperialist and secularist attacks on Islam. But their understandable passion led to confusion about religion and politics, and blurred the lines between the two.
Yet now is the time for the Muslim Brotherhood to rethink these matters and take a more democratic path. The Quran can certainly be a guide for every member of the Brotherhood. But the constitution of Egypt should be pluralist one that honors all citizens from all sorts of persuasions.