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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 16   01-15 January 2016

State in Islamic Legal and Political Discourse

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Islam stipulates a set of normative principles and ideals to regulate individual and collective behavior as well as political, social and economic institutions and processes. Muslim thinkers such as Al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Al-Shatibi (d. 1194), Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328), Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1350), Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), Al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030), Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), Abu Ya’la (d. 1066), Ibn Hazm (d.1063) and Shah Wali-Allah Dehlavi (d. 1763) are of the unanimous opinion that the establishment of state is a necessity for the fulfillment of the collective needs of human beings and for the maintenance of the social order. One can draw a distinction between certain ideational and normative principles that have a close bearing on the state, on the one hand, and the structure and form of the state, on the other. While Islam lays down a set of general principles and guidelines to regulate the state, it does not prescribe a specific or definitive form or structure of state or government. However, the blueprint or prototype of the Islamic state can be gleaned from the Quran, the Prophet’s Sunnah, the structure of the city-state of Madinah established by the Prophet, and the precepts of the Rashidun caliphs. The quintessential features of the Islamic state – described as khilafah in the classical sources – are as follows.

(1) The Islamic state (al-dawlah al-Islamiyah) represents an institutional form of man’s vicegerency of God on earth. It is not an absolute or sovereign entity because absolute sovereignty belongs to God alone.

(2) In Islamic view, the state is an extension of society. Hence, state and society are inseparably intertwined.

(3) The Islamic state is essentially a welfare state, whose basic function and responsibility is to ensure the security and wellbeing of its citizens and the protection of their legitimate rights, including the rights to life, physical, economic and social security, honour, justice, equality, freedom of conscience and participation in government, enforcement of law and order, defence and administration. The constitution of the city-state of Madinah, which was committed to writing at the instance of the Prophet between 622 and 24 AH, contained 52 clauses, which dealt with a wide range of subjects, including the rights and obligations of the head of the state, justice, social order, war and defence, and matters relating to administration.

(4) The constitutional cornerstone of the Islamic state rests on the Islamic Shariah, which is derived from the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and the precepts and precedents of the Four Caliphs and the Companions. The Islamic state is founded on the fundamental principles of equality, justice and the rule of law. The principles of equality and justice are taken to their logical conclusion in the stipulation that the head of the state has no immunity from criminal prosecution.

(5) The judiciary is independent of the government and enjoys autonomy. It is expected to act as the custodian of the Shariah and to keep a vigilant eye on the conduct of the ruling dispensation. Muslim judges are required to implement the provisions of Islamic law (Shariah) without fear or favour, and in the discharge of his obligations they are accountable, not to the powers that be, but only to God. An independent judiciary played a crucial role in ensuring compliance with Islamic law on the part of the ruling establishment as well as the general public.

(6) The head of the state is to be elected by popular mandate and not through hereditary succession. Once elected, the head of the state becomes accountable to God and the people. Al-Mawardi, in his well-known book Al-Ahkam al-sultaniyah, says that the appointment of a caliph is obligatory on the Muslim community. The caliph, he argues, must be appointed by election or a popular mandate, and this principle should never be dispensed with or compromised. Al-Mawardi held that the caliph is duty-bound to safeguard the rights of people without any discrimination.

(7) The head of the Islamic state (khalifah or amir al-muminin) is to be elected on the basis of certain qualities, including piety and righteousness, commitment to Islamic values and principles and fair-mindedness. Muslim scholars and jurists draw a distinction between the caliphate, which is modeled after the precepts of the Prophet and which was represented by the first four (Rashidun) caliphs, and kingship, which is often hereditary and at variance with the example set by the Prophet and the Rashidun caliphs. The Rashidun caliphs set the highest standards of piety, probity in public life and personal accountability. Caliph Umar once said that if a camel died of hunger and thirst by the river Tigris, he was afraid that God would take him to task on this count.

After Ali, the last of the Rashidun caliphs, the caliphate passed into kingship and dynastic rule. However, in view of the sanctity and legitimacy attached to the caliphate, the term caliph continued to be in use until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongol hordes in 1258. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate in Ottoman Turkey in 1923.

(8) Wide-ranging consultation (shura) is a cardinal principle of the Islamic system of governance. The election of the head of the state and important matters relating to governance and administration are to be regulated through consultation.

(9) A Hadith, reported by Bukhari, states: “It is incumbent upon a Muslim to obey the state or government, whether he likes its rulings and legal provisions or not. However, he is bound by this allegiance only insofar as he is not ordered to defy or violate the principles and provisions of Islamic Shariah. If a ruler issues an order that is in contravention of the Shariah, Muslims are not obliged to obey him.” When Abu Bakr was elected caliph, he said in his public speech, “Until I issue an order that contravenes the principles and precepts (stipulated by God and the Prophet), you are obliged to obey me. If I issue orders that go against the Shariah, you are not bound to obey me.” Muslim jurists draw a distinction between a government that is founded on justice and other principles of Shariah (al-imarat al-adila), and one that is rooted in oppression and injustice (al-imarat al-qahira). Muslims are obliged to obey a government that upholds justice, but not the one that perpetrates injustice.

(10) An Islamic state may be plural and multiethnic in character, and the citizens of the state who belong to different religious and ethnic backgrounds may constitute a political community. When the Prophet established a city-state at Madinah, he drew up its constitution, which stated, among other things, that Muslims and Jews would together constitute a community and that this political community would act unitedly and collectively to enforce social order and security and to deal with enemies in times of war and peace. This covenant extended, at a later date, to the Christians of Najran and the pagan Arabs. Ismail Faruqi has perceptively observed, “The Islamic state was a pluralistic and multi-religious order which brought together, under the order of peace and legitimacy, Muslims, Jews and Christians. This pluralism was enshrined in the constitution of the state. The pluralism of the Islamic state was a pluralism of laws, an innovation unheard of elsewhere in the history of mankind.”

(11) Islamic law grants non-Muslims living in the Islamic state unfettered freedom to profess their religion, without any let or hindrance and without any interference or compulsion from the state authorities. They enjoy the freedom to perform their religious rituals, to take out their religious processions, to have their own endowments and educational systems, to have their disputes adjudicated through their own legal institutions, and to construct their places of worship. The Islamic state takes upon itself the responsibility of protecting its non-Muslim subjects from external aggression and safeguarding their places of worship as well as the endowments attached to them. Islamic law also prevents the state from interfering in the functioning of their religious institutions and in the appointment of priests and custodians of temples.

Further Reading

Muhammad Hamidullah (1996) Muslim Conduct of State. Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf.

Majid Khadduri (1966) The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Ismail R. Faruqi and L. L. Faruqi (1986) The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: Macmillan.

Nazih N. Ayubi (1995) ‘Islamic state’ In John L. Esposito, ed. The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, Vol. 2, p. 318-25.

Rosenthal, Franz (1960) Political Thought in Medieval Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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