The words Deen and Madhab are entirely different from each other with regard to their underlying concepts. Although in our part of the world we generally refer to Islam as Madhab (religion), yet what is interesting indeed is the fact that the word Madhab has never once been used in the entire treasury of the Quranic text and Ahadeeth literature! Instead, the word that has almost always been used for Islam in the original sources is Deen.
The fundamental difference between the two terms must be understood. Madhab, or religion, is a term used for a set of beliefs and rituals of worship. On the other hand, Deen refers to an entire way of life that pervades all aspects of life. In other words, as compared to Madhab, Deen is a far more comprehensive, all-encompassing reality. With this backdrop, it will perhaps not be entirely correct to say that Islam is not a Madhab (religion), because all of the elements of a Madhab are certainly part and parcel of Islam – it includes the articles of belief, spirituality, and the etiquettes of worship (Salah, Saum, Zakah and Hajj). Hence, it would be more accurate to say that Islam is not merely a Madhab, but an entire code of life (Deen). It not only offers whatever constitutes religion, but is endowed with the elements of a complete way of life. Hence, Islam is, essentially, Deen.
In this context, it must also be understood that while several religions can co-exist at a time in a particular region of the world, there can only be a single Deen (way of life). It is not possible, for instance, for capitalism and communism to coexist in a country at the same time. Only one will be dominant and prevail over others. Similarly, monarchy and democracy cannot simultaneously be established in a country. A system can either be based on the law of Allah (swt), or it will be against the law of Allah (swt). There cannot be two parallel systems, although there can be several religions co-existing at a time in a certain place. The only exception can be made in the case of a single dominant system ascendant above all, subservient to which, all shrunken up and sidelined, may exist other systems. Allama Iqbal said: “In a state of enslavement, it is reduced to a single, small droplet / The very same life which, when freed, becomes a ceaseless, shoreless torrent!”
When Deen is subjugated, it is reduced to mere religion. At the high point of Islamic history, Islam was the single dominant system, under which existed Christianity, Judaism, Magianism and other creeds as religions. They were given this allowance on the clearly laid out condition to pay a nominal tax (Jizya) and accept their subservience to the ascendant system, as said in Surah At-Taubah: “Fight… until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (At-Taubah 9:29)
The law of the land shall be Allah’s (swt), and the dominant system will be Islam, but as far as personal law and private life was concerned, they were free to live according to their own beliefs and practices. However, during the period of the decline and downfall of the Islamic state, the situation was entirely reversed. It will not be wrong to say that in the Indian subcontinent, the dominant system of life belonged to the British. Hence, Islam in the subcontinent was reduced to mere religion – Muslims could pray as they wished, and the British never objected to that; they could declare the call for prayer from the mosques, and they could marry and inherit according to their religious laws, but the state law had to be none other than British, according to the dictates of the British Crown, without interference from the local people. This is exactly what Iqbal expressed in his verse: “Since the Mullah (cleric) in India is allowed to prostrate in prayer / He foolishly thinks it implies his freedom.”
In other words, Islam was not free, but had shrivelled up and been reduced to the level of a mere religion among many.
Deen is essentially that which dominates and pervades. If it is subjugated, it will no longer remain Deen, but will be reduced to Madhab. Its true character will be distorted. If studied from this angle, it becomes clear that no matter how great a system, if it is presented merely as a vision and idea, or presented in the form of a written treatise, it can at best be an idealistic utopia, but can never truly be a criterion, a standard, or a benchmark. It can become a decisive criterion for the whole of mankind to judge and live by only when it is brought into practice, established and fully implemented.
Translated and transcribed for “Hiba” by Maryam Sakeenah