In his engaging and perceptive book The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation, the former Iraqi minister Ali Allawi tells a story that goes to the heart of the problematic relationship between the idea of Islam, as manifested historically, and the modern state. In the early 1980s a group of modestly affluent British Muslims – most of them converts – determined they should exercise their right as Muslims to migrate to a place of their choosing in Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam. After considering a number of Muslim majority countries they chose the United Arab Emirates and headed for Abu Dhabi. Here they arranged to meet the chief qadi – a venerable and erudite ‘alim – to whom they presented their petition to settle in the UAE. Their aim, they explained was to perfect their religion: Did not Islam enjoin the believers to leave dar al-kufr – the land of unbelief – and migrate to dar al-Islam? The chief judge was sympathetic, and asked them to wait while he consulted the authorities. A week later, he met the group again. With tears in his eyes, he informed them their request had been denied. They returned to Britain, disappointed. ‘The country to which they had wanted to emigrate, the UAE, had turned them down’, comments Allawi, ‘citing impossibly restrictive and discriminatory immigration policies. The whole notion of an Islamdom (Dar-al-Islam) where a Muslim can travel and settle freely had been thrown out of the window.’
The concept of Dar al-Islam sits uneasily with the reality of the modern state, with its right to restrict the movement of people across its frontiers (unless, of course, it has agreed to suspend those rights under treaty, as in the currently contested and contentious case of the European Union.) The days are long past when the fourteenth century traveller Ibn Battuta could ride in caravans or dhows from Tangier to China and back, calling in on the Maldives to serve as a judge, because of his prestige as a Muslim learned in Arabic. Yet the legacy of a millennium or more when territorial boundaries were not yet fixed, and political power was calibrated through human filters disposing of varying degrees of force and legitimacy, is not so easily erased from the collective memory, from what the late Mohamed Arkoun called the ‘social imaginary’. The modern national state with its fortresses of walls and fences, its armies of border guards, its currency of passports and visas, and its claimed monopoly over the use of lethal force, is a recent invention. Moreover, as Wael Hallaq, a leading scholar of Islamic law argues, its provenance is European.