The quintessential features of the Islamic state – described as khilafah in the classical sources – are outlined in the following.
(1) The Islamic state represents an institutional form of man’s vicegerency of God on earth. The state 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. The Prophet (SAAW) is reported to have said, “Islam (as a faith) and state are conjoined phenomenon and as such complement each other. While Islam provides the foundation, the state secures and protects it. An edifice without a foundation is liable to collapse, and a thing which is not protected goes to waste.”
(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 and economic 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 written down 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 Rashidun 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. It is reported that Caliph Ali once lost his armour. After a few days he happened to see it with a Christian. He filed a complaint in the court of Qadi Shurayh, who summoned the Christian. The Christian claimed that the armour belonged to him. The qadi asked Ali if he had any proof or evidence in support of his claim, to which he replied in the negative. The qadi gave the verdict in favour of the Christian and dismissed the caliph’s petition. The Christian was so overwhelmed by this exemplary show of justice (on the basis of available evidence) that he announced his decision to embrace Islam and exclaimed, “This is like the justice of the prophets, that the caliph presents me before a city magistrate (who is subordinate to him), and the magistrate gives his verdict against the caliph!”
(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.
When Caliph Umar appointed Qadi Shurayh as a judge, he gave him a testimony, which epitomizes Islam’s legal and judicial philosophy. The testimony included the following principles.
(i) Rendering justice to those who seek it is both an Islamic duty and a necessity.
(ii) In the court of law all men are equal.
(iii) The burden of proof falls on the complainant; that of swearing on the defendant.
(iv) Any party’s request for time to produce the relevant evidence must be granted within reason. Failure to produce the evidence is evidence to the contrary.
(v) A judgement proven to be false by evidence ought to be revoked.
(vi) All adult Muslims are legal persons except those convicted of perjury or crime.
(vii) No human may be charged for his intentions. Only his actions may be so charged and under legal evidence.
(viii) Where you find the Quran and Sunnah silent on any matter, find the comparable cases or principles and deduce or extrapolate the law from it.
(ix) That which the Muslims have collectively found good and desirable is so in the sight of God.
(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. Following his election as caliph, Abu Bakr gave the following speech.
O people! I have been appointed to rule over you, though I am not the best amongst you. If I act rightly, help me, and if I do wrong, correct me. Truth is loyalty and falsehood is treachery; the weak among you is strong in my eyes until I get justice for him, please God, and the strong among you is weak in my eyes until I exact justice from him, please God…..Obey me as long as I obey God and His Prophet. And if I disobey God and His Prophet, you are not obliged to obey me.
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. He should desist from adopting repressive measures and from imposing high-handed officials on them.
(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. It is reported that when the governor of Kufah visited Umar, he was astonished to see him having a frugal meal of barley bread and olive oil. He asked Umar why he was having barley bread and olive oil when wheat was cultivated in abundance in Muslim territories. The caliph replied that unless wheat was available to every Muslim family of the Islamic state, it was not proper for the caliph to eat wheat bread.
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 and finally the abolition of the caliphate by Ataurk in 1023.
(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.
When Umar was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt and was asked to nominate his successor, he thought it wise to appoint a seven-member committee to deliberate and decide about the issue of succession. The committee included Ali, Uthman, Sa’ad ibn abi Waqqas, Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Awf, Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, Talha ibn Ubaydullah and Abdullah ibn Umar. Caliph Umar instructed the committee not to consider his son Abdullah, who was included in the committee, as his successor. Most of the committee members were inclined in favour of either Ali or Uthman. Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Awf, who was a member of the committee, spent several days and nights in trying to find out whether people generally favoured Ali or Uthman. Ibn Kathir reports that he even consulted veiled women in this matter. Finally, the committee recommended Uthman’s name as Umar’s successor, which was approved by him and the Companions.
(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.” Another well-known Hadith states: “The most sublime form of jihad is a (fearless) pronouncement of truth before a tyrannical ruler.” 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 Apostle), 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.
During the second century of the Islamic era, the rulers of the Umayyad dynasty unleashed a reign of terror and oppression, causing immense hardships to people. Faced with this situation, the ulama and jurists pondered over the question whether people should patiently bear with injustice and oppression while making peaceful efforts, at the same time, to bring about a change in the situation, or whether they should launch an armed rebellion against the oppressive ruling dispensation. Imam Malik and Imam Awzai held that an armed uprising would not be advisable or legitimate because it would lead to strife and bloodshed. On the other hand, Imam Zayd ibn Ali and Imam Abu Hanifah argued that, when all peaceful efforts for setting things right turn out to be futile, an armed uprising would be justified. They based their reasoning on a Hadith which states, “If one of you happens to witness a wrongful action, he should try to change it (for the better) with his hands. If he is unable to do so, he should raise his voice against it. If he is unable to do even this much, he should harbour feelings of dislike and resentment against it in his heart, and this would be the weakest part of faith.”
Imam Zayd ibn Ali launched an armed insurrection against the Umayyad rulers. Imam Abu Hanifah justified his action and supported his move. Unfortunately Imam Zayd ibn Ali was betrayed and forsaken by his own people and was executed in 120 AH. In 145 AH, Muhammad ibn Abdullah alias Nafs Zakiyyah and his brother Ibrahim waged an armed revolt against the Abbasid rulers. Imam Abu Hanifah extended his open support to the rebellion and urged people to support them.
(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.
Muhammad Hamidullah: Muslim Conduct of State. Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, 1979.
Franz Rosenthal: Political Thought in Medieval Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.
Majid Khadduri. The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.