The mantra, there is no separation between religion and politics in Islam: ‘Islam din wa dawla’ (Islam is religion and state) is of recent vintage in the Arab Middle East going back to the end of the nineteenth century. However, secularization in the sense of the separation of state and religion has been a fact of social life in the Middle East for some considerable time. This is most evident in the generally accepted and widespread encroachment of the state on the jurisdiction of Islamic (Shari'a) law. During the time of the Ottoman Empire and the Qajar dynasty in Iran, imperial rule was most evidently secular. However, this occurred in a way that did not consciously secularize the population. As a consequence, while governments pursued policies reflecting ‘reasons of state’, Islam has remained an important part of the culture and identity of the masses in Middle Eastern societies. Western penetration of the Islamic world from the nineteenth century onward resulted in a conflict between secular and religious conceptions of politics because education and the legal system were being Westernized. Colonialism led to an emerging new public sphere. Islamists set about to reconstruct the political discourse through utilizing the formula, ‘Islam din wa dawla’, to reconquer in the public arena, where din symbolizes people, and where the call for the implementation of the Shari'a critiques the lack of constitutional guarantees that would legitimize the political community.
With the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978–9, the profile of Islamism intensified and with it the question of whether secularism can be reconciled with Islam: Does Islam prescribe for all matters including daily affairs? Should it be enforced? Are Muslims allowed any area which they can determine for themselves? On the other hand, among those who reject secularism, the debate among Islamists moved more sharply onto the terrain of pluralistic politics and human rights.
In this debate, distinctions are made between those matters that are absolute requirements of the Muslim for the maintenance of his or her relationship with God, for example, the five pillars of Islam (the Shahada—the profession of the faith, Salah—prayer, Ramadan—fasting, Zakat—almsgiving and the Haj—pilgrimage), and those matters about which adjustments are allowed by the religion given the requirements and conditions of the time as long as these adjustments do not contradict the public good. These matters concern economic, political, and family affairs about which there is no explicit scriptural text in the sacred sources. Given these ambiguities, different positions are held among Islamists. There is general agreement that what is done must remain within the meaning of the Shari'a, and the role of the state is to maintain the conditions for the implementation of the Shari'a. This places the focus on two questions—what kind of state and what kind of Shari'a. What is clearer is that the state must be founded on certain principles based on the Qur'an and Sunna of the Prophet, in particular, the principles of justice, equality, and consultation (shura). What is important is that the principles are maintained, the type of government under which this is to occur is of less concern. As to the kind of Shari'a, there has been a debate between secularists and Islamists and amongst Islamists themselves as to what should constitute the Shari'a. The secularists have conceded that the Shari'a is based on God's Word in the Qur'an and also the Sunna. But they argue that its historical development and implementation has been the creation of men and, therefore, subject to question. There is a general consensus among Islamists that the Shari'a is both all‐embracing and facilitating as long as any independent interpretation of the sacred sources (ijtihad) follows the established methodological rules in Islamic jurisprudence. The conceptualization of the Shari'a has come to encapsulate abstractly a social normative system expressing social justice. If the Shari'a is not implemented, there is not the possibility of social justice.