Is There an Islamic Government Model or Mode?

November 4, 2010 by  


By Roze S. Alex-Kadri

Islam is considered by its adherents to be a complete religion because Islam addresses issues related to man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with others, and man’s relationship to his surrounding society and environment.  There are many who regard Islam as having a governmental or political feature because Islam speaks to so many societal issues.  There are many who unabashedly proclaim that political Islam is failure.  I believe that they err in their assessment. 

There has been a legacy of a number of ostensibly “Islamic states” throughout history -  Umayyads, Abbasids, Safavids, Buyids, Seljurks, Fatimids, Mamluks, Ottomans, Saudi’s, and the Iranians – to name some of the most prominent.  These states were “Islamic” in the sense that their state’s leaders and populace self identified as Muslims and they mostly promulgated laws and rules and regulations that were ostensibly and referentially Islamic.  However, they were only ostensibly Islamic because the states and many of their leaders engaged in activities that were patently un-Islamic in theory and practice (misappropriation of property, frequent assassinations, murder, alcohol consumption, opportunism, adultery, inappropriate polygyny, etc.).  Nevertheless,  references are made to a de jure Islamic governmental state and Sharia law enforcement on the one hand by Western groups and self proclaimed pundits who promote dissention by trafficking in hate and fear and on the other hand by Eastern governments and groups seeking to “rally the masses” for or against a particular self-serving agenda.  I think Muslims would have a healthier and more stable personal and social disposition if they understood that complying with their religion does not necessitate the establishment or existence of an “Islamic government”.   Living under the auspices of such is not what makes them Muslim.  There is no imperative to establish one governmental form or political state over another. 

Discussions relating to the subject of Islamic government require a brief introduction to Islam.  The Islamic religion was established in 610 C.E. by Mohammad (s) from the Quaraysh clan of the Qusayy tribe.  He will henceforth be referred to as the Prophet or the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).  Worshipping “Allah” means worshipping “God”.*  Using the Arabic word for “God” is no different than using “Dieu” or “Dios” which are the French and Spanish words, respectively, to refer to God.  The message of Islam is based upon that which was revealed to the previous Judeo-Christian prophets and holy men.  (Quran;  2:133-136, 2:256, 2:139, 3:3, 16:101, etc.)  That is not to say that Muslims consider Islam to be equal to other religions.  Muslims consider Islam to be superior to other religions due to its being the culmination and perfection of previously revealed Abrahamic religious revelations:  “I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you and Have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”  (Quran, 5:3)  The Quran is considered sacred because it is the holy book of Islam and is believed to be God’s exact words.  The stated purpose of the Quran is to serve as a “guide and a mercy” to all mankind.  (Quran; 6:154/157, 7:52, 12:111, 17:82, 27:77, etc.) 

I write this article not as a religious or political scholar.  I merely offer this as someone who knows a little about both disciplines in hopes of facilitating productive discourse between and among Muslims and non-Muslims and to counteract the vile commentaries of the uninformed.    Frequently lost in discussions about Muslims and Islam is the fact that neither Islam nor Muslims have sought to impose themselves on others – be it in this country or elsewhere.  There is the authoritative position that there is no compulsion in Islam (Quran; 2:256):  to each his own (“To you be your way and to me mine”).  (Quran; 109:6)  It is also said in the Quran that, “To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way.” (Quran; 5:48); “God is our Lord and your Lord: For us (is the responsibility for) our deeds, and for you your deeds.  There is no contention between us and you.” (Quran; 42:15); and, “The believers are but a single Brotherhood:  so make peace and reconciliation between your two (contending) brothers; and fear Allah, that ye may receive Mercy”. (Quran; 49:10) 

Comments regarding instituting Islamic law (“Sharia”) by Muslims on non-Muslims disregard historical and religious injunctions to the contrary and are not only false and self-serving but also incite hate (as well as being anti-Semitic).  Even in Muslim dominated countries, Christians and Jews are judged on their wrongdoings by their own jurists using their own texts just as they have been from Islam’s inception.  Moreover, Muslims have lived in many non-Muslim led and non-Muslim populated countries for over a millennium since Islam’s introduction without ever attempting to institute Islamic law or engage in any kind of religiously based sedition.  Presently, Muslims are in the minority in about one third of the countries that they live in. (Roy, pg 18)   The contemporary Muslim minority statuses are mostly a “consequence of voluntary displacement”.  (Roy, pg 109)  

Government as a body politic has two dimensions:  political institutions (executive administration and leaders) and the citizenry.  Citizenry includes the qualities of allegiance and participation and compliance.  Although there are requirements and good practice mandates and recommendations, my contention is that the Prophet (s) did not envision a universal, absolute, and eternal Islamic governmental or political model or paradigm.   I also contend that, notwithstanding Islam’s professed comprehensive, inclusive nature, the Prophet’s message was an esoterically and exoterically personally targeted spiritual one.  It was apolitical not because it eschewed or denied the importance of a government but because it did not specifically explicate how that institution(s) should be structured or configured.  Furthermore, instead of weakening Islam’s applicability, this orientation is one reason for its resilience and transcendence.  Finally, although there is no specified governmental paradigm, Islam does oblige Muslims to conduct themselves in a particular mode as citizens – which is the second part of government.

Before the advent of Islam, an Arabian kinship based tribal system served as the rudimentary governing body of the people. (Kennedy, pg. 18)   This system was immediately supplanted by one of the Prophet’s (s) first governmental act with the enactment of the Medina Charter/Constitution/ in ~624 C.E.  The Medina Charter was epochal and revolutionary because the document and the thinking behind it provided for the facilitation of political and religious activities, respected and acknowledged group differences, and shifted allegiances from the tribe to the state. (Khan)  Moreover, the Charter granted protection, respect, and equitable treatment for all religious believers; established rules of conduct for all; and set out rights, responsibilities, and obligations for all. (Medina Charter)  Such a contract among the different groups exhibited true respect for religious and ethnic pluralism. 

The Charter conferred executive powers to the Prophet (s) rather than absolute powers. (Kennedy, pg. 31)   The Prophet (s) was even warned against acting as the holder of absolute authority over Muslims.   The Prophet’s “sole function was to communicate the divine message through wise words, sermons, and dialectics.” (Kabir, pg 64)  Of interest is that there were no provisions for public institutions, judicial system or courts of redress, or legislative bodies effectuating Islamic rules, etc.  Although the Medina Charter served as a strong initial political model it had limited applicability primarily because the Charter’s basis was a “religion” that was inchoate. 

Succeeding the Medina Charter and the Prophet’s rule was the Caliphate system.  “Caliph” means deputy of God.  The system conferred religious and political authority and legitimated the right of force to the leader, or Caliph.   This is the historically familiar Islamic political model that the Islamic nation took following the Prophet’s (s) passing.  The Caliphate system was more akin to the monarchical theocratic style government system. 

The Caliphate system was implemented from the 7th to the 20th century with the seat having shifted to different nations.  The first four Islamic leaders following the Prophet (s) are called the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”:  AbuBakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali.  That Caliphate group was actually an age based companion (“sahaba”) or gerontocracy system in which the leader directed the community in terms of legislature, judicial, and executive decisions. 

The Caliphate personalities and dispositions led to differences in doctrinal and theoretical beliefs.  This in turn led to differing political paradigmatic manifestations.  (Enayat, pg. 4)    Resident cultures and differing religious interpretations also greatly impacted the governing style:  Arab vs. Persian vs. Turkish, Quraysh vs. Alid vs. differing schools of thought (“mathahib”), etc.  That differences in government styles and institutions existed should not be surprising or concerning given that the specific institution of government did not have a strictly religious basis.  The changes occurred because of historical exigencies and societal issues that caused the leadership to adjust to the plurality of religious expressions and understanding and ethnic traditions so as to become “contextualized in order to maintain hegemony”. (Khan)  These different political manifestations and interpretations are ipso facto acknowledgement of the existence and legitimacy of the acceptability of and respect for pluralism.    

The Caliph was expected to lead by the principles of consultation (shura):  the activity was referred to with the phrase, “people who loose and bind”. (Enayat, pg. 74)   The often made claim is that these consultative deliberations are consonant with many forms of representative democracy.  Although there are no explicit standards or set political formulae for Muslim governments to follow, consultation is one principle that has been mandated and is an important salient Islamic political feature of historically Islamic governments.  The other noticeably historical feature has been heredity (patriarchy). 

Having a state religion (as do many present day countries) is not a determinative feature of being a theocracy.  Islamic rule should more appropriately be referred to as a nomocracy as opposed to it being pre-supposed as a theocracy. (Enayat, pg 129)  Nomocracy government is based on a legal system, or the rule of law:  it is the necessity of government as affirmed “on the basis of norms, [what should and should not be], and well defined guidelines, rather than personal preferences” and inflexible absolutisms. (Enayat, pg 129)  Such a rule of law is a prerequisite of democracy.  Combining the disposition of rule of law with the principle of consultation (“shura”) and consensus (“ijma”) and analogy (“ijtihad”) and allegiance (“ba’ya”) consigns Islam to being consistent with democratic forms of government.  Every “conceivable democratic right and liberty” can be deduced from the Quran and prophetic tradition. (Enayat, pg 132) 

Having presented the contextual and historical situations involving Islamic forms of government, I now offer some more substantive reasons for claiming that Islam does not have a specified doctrinal framework of government.

•    The Prophet Muhammad (s) left no biological male heir (similar to many of the prophets who preceded him).  There is a well known hadith that states that the Prophet’s (s) heirs are scholars, or learned men, who are more highly regarded than devout worshippers.

•    Islamic mores consider heredity subservient to virtue, which is consistent with the above aforementioned statements about heirs. A heredity based ruling elite is disconsonant with Islam’s mores.  (Sahih and Bukari Hadith)

•    The Prophet (s) did not clearly identify a leader to succeed him.  The only references made to there being such a leader were that Abu Bakr was chosen to lead the prayers in the Prophet’s (s) absence and that Ali should be the next mullah (which is a highly contested claim).  

•    In the Quran, it states that Islam was sent to all of mankind not just to some people.  Moreover, it was not “sent down to” leaders (Quran; 43:31) but rather it was sent to an “unlettered” man to rehearse God’s signs, sanctify, and instruct the people in “scripture and wisdom”. (Quran; 52:2)   Had the primary function of Islam been to establish a political or governmental entity, the Islamic concept would have been different and perhaps been sent to leaders to rule the land in a specific way.

•    There are no specifications on how to establish a government in the Quran or Islamic prophetic tradition other than the general admonition to engage in “mutual consultations” in affairs involving domestic, business, national, and administrative deliberations. (Quran; 42:38) 

•    Even though the societal injunctions, suppositions, and requirements of Islam are considerable, performing these duties is not pre-conditioned on the existence of any one political framework or another.

Not having specified a governmental system may seem surprising given the detail that Islam provides in other social dealings involving, for example, charity, inheritance, and divorce.  The belief that in Islam, “religion and politics form a unified, inseparable whole is wrong”.  (Enayat, pg. 64)   Government is not a fundamental principle of religion. (Enayat, pg 64)  Politics and government belong to man; and religion, even though Man practices it, belongs to Allah (swt).   The Islamic religion “can be adapted to any society precisely because it has “severed its links with any given culture and instead allows people to live in a sort of virtual de-territorialized community that includes any believer.”  (Roy, pg 270)

Islam considers “government”, per se, to be an important Islamic societal attribute; however, its form was not specified or explicated.  (Enayat, pg. 74)  This does not reflect a deficiency of Islam.  On the contrary, it is one of its many strengths.  We can only engage in conjecture as to why there is no Islamically prescribed government.  As a universal religion valid for all time and unbounded by time and space, the benefits of not establishing an Islamic government system may be as follows:

•    Allowing indigenous areas to govern themselves fostered more peaceful relations and resulted in increased political diversity that in turn nurtured greater intellectual and cultural achievements throughout the Muslim world.  When a system of political uniformity was instituted and political variety was suppressed (as had occurred by the Seljuk Turks), cultural achievements declined. (Kennedy, pg 209) 

•    “Any system of thought which is wedded to the state is, thereby, constantly exposed to the danger of becoming an ideological tool of vested interests.”  (Enayat, pg. 13)  Allowing political flexibility thwarts dictatorship, tyranny, and despotism.  Political injustice is often perpetuated by the religious enforcers who cloak themselves with the aura of divine providence, which relates to “any political system shielded by an ideology.” (Enayat, pg. 73)

•    Were Islam to restrict or define a political governmental system, it may have: caused the rest of the Islamic religious message to be rejected summarily (rejecting what was unfamiliar with the unacceptable); led to anarchy (due to citizen non-comprehension); or have been too constraining and thwart social growth and/or have the other dictates of Islam co-opted by the religious authorities.

An Islamic governmental system is almost rendered inconsequential as long as there is no infringement on the ability of individual Muslims to carry out their Islamic duties.  This is not to say that Islam did not recognize the legitimate necessity of government.  Islam recognizes the importance of some type of government construct to administer the affairs of the people and protect their interests and rights.  That “government” is important is borne out by the Prophet having performed the following governmentally political acts in tandem and concordance with the delivering of his spiritual message:  established public goods (land and water),  endorsed treaties, provided social welfare, engaged in wars, appointed administrators, collected taxes, distributed spoils of war, held “courts” of redress, and adjudicated between disputants.  The important point is that these activities were incidental and not central to the mission of promulgating the Islamic message. 

Consider that Islam was given to all of mankind and because mankind adheres to many differing lifestyle orientations that are manifested by differing cultures and traditions, it follows that Islam should be amenable and malleable enough to its being applied and followed by differing political and governmental systems.   Islam established itself more as a social revolution instead of a theological imperative that I believe is the reason for its resiliency and transcendence. (Khan)   The growth of the Muslim commonwealth was characterized by allowing diverse indigenous “groups to reach their own political solutions which were more attuned to their needs” without imposing either religious imperatives or state instituted government forms.   (Kennedy, pg 209)  Not being bound by any one particular system allowed for the development of different “custom-made” governmental systems that catered to the needs and characteristics of any society in question. 

Present day Muslim activists can be grouped into four ideological camps: those that ignore the importance of respecting governmental/political institutions; those that insist on re-establishing a previous Islamic order; those that explain ways in which Islam is consistent with Monarchy, Socialism, or Democracy (their being many types of democratic forms), to name a few; and those that develop new types of government forms that amalgamates Islamic precepts with present day societies.

Regarding the first group, by ignoring the importance of any such governmental implementing authority risks society disintegrates into fascism, anarchy, and/or tyranny.  Consider how this fits in with the orientation and operations of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other radicals who may be indeed by our present day Khawarijites who have a nihilistic view of this world, ignoring and neglecting important Islamic precepts in favor of temporal, superficial justifications.   With respect to the second group, those who seek to re-establish previous Islamic political constructs, I say that, although well-intentioned, they will be frustrated and their efforts will be futile and fruitless due to anachronistic limitations because such historical constructs were implemented by and for a people in a time that no longer exists.  Additionally, those previously styled paradigms were not Islamically dictated. Rather, because they were only culturally based, there are no set existing principles that can be analogously applied in the present era. 

The groups that hold the most appropriate, tenable, and robust positions are the third and fourth groups who seek to reconcile and explain the consistencies of Islam with extant systems of government and others who seek to develop new types of government forms and engage in research and present ideas on how to develop a new and better, more appropriate governmental paradigm that incorporates and espouses Islamic themes.  Such activities respect Islam’s mandates and account for variations in nations and allow for Man’s social and personal growth.  Although care must be taken not to be apologetic of Islamic and Muslim history in this regard, I believe that efforts spent in such undertakings are worthy and commendable and in great need.

The Quran is a “living source of prescriptive guidance for the community by allowing, “evolving interpretations of the divine purpose”. (Ayoob, pg 17)   Sharia law stems from divine revelation, which is different from dictates stemming from “Fiqh” law, which is the man-made interpretation of the rules, and laws of Sharia.  Even when considering Islamic jurisprudence one finds an abundance of flexibility within “Sharia” law.  Sharia is a “boundless resource for legal innovation” in which there is an “infinite diversity” in the political manifestations that can be easily adapted to the modern world. (Enayat, pg 14, 129)  Politics is considered a secondary matter in religion and, as such, a legitimate diversity of opinion is allowed and protected and nurtured. (Enayat, pg 14)  Contrary to what some scholars purport, there is no “failure of political Islam”.  (Roy, pg 40)   There is no such thing as a political Islamic entity.  The phrase should more appropriately be re-stated as referring to the failure of political Muslims.

Islam is not about politics; its principle purpose was about Man’s relationship to God as his salvation.  Coupling politics to Islam diminishes Islam’s worth and renders it subservient and subordinate to Man.  Therefore, since there is no sanctified Islamic political model, Muslims are “free to choose [and/or live under] whatever form of government they find suitable to ensure their welfare.”  This declaration is the reason why Muslims are free to live and prosper in any society – including living in many different societies as long as they are able to practice their faith without restriction.

This leads to my conclusion that while Islam, per se, is relatively silent on the type of government Muslims should establish or live in, the mode of socialized behavior that Muslims should adhere to is specified and clear.   Good citizenship is an important Islamic virtue.   I presently perceive the greatest Muslim weakness concern issues of citizenship.  Islam mentions some important characteristics Muslim citizens should exhibit.  They and others are more than ideal goals; they serve as practical guides for living compatibly and piously in any society.   The following are some and only some dictates that Islam makes of its citizens:

•    Believe and do good deeds.  (Quran; 2:277, 3:179, 5:9, 22:50, 42:23/26, etc.)
•    Do not murder.  (Quran; 2:178-179, 4:92-93, 25:68, Sahih Muslim and Bukhari Hadith)
•    Scandal mongering (spying and rumor spreading) is denounced. (Quran; 24:23, 49:12, 104:1)
•    Usury is strictly prohibited. (Quran; 2:275/276, 3:130, Farewell sermon)
•    Repel evil with good, which is best. (Quran; 23:96, 28:54, 41:34)
•    Be just in all of your dealings in order to be blessed (Quran; 2:239/258/272; 3:18/86, 4:3/5/8/138, 5:51, 9:71, 26:181, etc.) and be not a hypocrite (Quran: 3:148/140/145, 9:67-68/101, 33:48/73, 66:9, etc.). 
•    Be good to “neighbors who are near” (locally) and “neighbors who are strangers” (nationally) and companions and strangers.  (Quran; 4:36, Bukhari Hadith)
•    Establish regular prayers.  (Quran; 21:73, 11:114, etc.)
•    Do not revile that which others worship (gods).  (Quran; 6:108)
•    There is no place in society for prejudice or discrimination (due to religion, racism or ethnicity).  (Quran; 5-48, Farwell Sermon)
•    Follow the prescriptions governing divorce (Quran; 2:228-241), trusteeship (Quran; 4:58, 8:27, Sahih Muslim and Bukhari Hadiths, Farwell sermon), and contracts – both written and spoken (Quran; 2:282-283, 4:58, 5:1, 7:34).
•    Practice regular charity.  (Quran; 2:43/110/277, 4:77/162, 5:12/55, 6:72, 8:3, 13:12, 20:14, etc.)
•    Extend great kindness and obedience to parents.  (Quran; 27:23, 29:8, 31:14, 46:15-18, )
•    Show great kindness to kith (especially orphans) and kin (especially your wives). (Quran; 2:83/ 177, 8:41, 16:90, Sahih Muslim and Bukhari Hadiths, Farwell sermon)
•    Respect other people’s property.  (Sahih Muslim and Bukhari Hadiths, Farewell sermon)
•    Obey your leaders (“those in authority over you”) and the rules of society.  (Quran; 4:59, 36:21, Sahih Muslim Hadith)   Support your leaders as long as they obey the commands of Allah and his messenger.  (AbuBakr;’s ascension speech)
•    It is better to be patient and forgive, but there is no blame for defending oneself against oppressive wrong from men who insolently transgress against right and justice.  (Quran;  42:41-43)
•    The best people are those who hate the responsibility of ruling until they are chosen to be the rulers.” (Bukhari Hadith)
•    “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong.” (Quran; 3:104, 9:112)
•    Leaders and followers should have patience and faith.  (Quran; 32:24, 109:6) “You will see rulers not giving you your right (but you should give them their right) and be patient till you meet me.” (Bukhari Hadith)
•    Leaders are guardians of the people and will be held responsible for the authority they have over their people.  (Sahih Muslim and Bukhari Hadiths)
•    “Pay [leaders] their right to them … and ask your right from Allah.” (Bukhari Hadith)
•    “Betray not the trust of God and the apostle, nor misappropriate knowingly things entrusted to you.” (Quran; 8:27)

My intent was to present information about the separation that exists between Islam and any specific style of government in order to help Muslims living as a minority and as a majority in any and all societies to self-actualize as individuals and as a group without experiencing debilitating cynicism or rancor or remorse.   I leave the expatiation and development of new political forms of government to the more learned and qualified in such matters.  

Note:  Forgive me if I have misstated or misrepresented anything. 

Endnotes – Bibliography

Quran, Translation by A. Yusef Ali.  Lahore:  Pakistan, 1938.
Ayoob, M. The Many Faces of Political Islam.  Ann Arbor, MI:  The University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Enayat, H. Modern Islamic Political Thought.  Austin, TX:  University of Texas Press, 1982.
Hadith,  Bukhari.
Hadith, Sahih Muslim.
Kabir, H. Science, Democracy, and Islam.  London, 1955.
Kennedy, H.  The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphate, 2nd Ed., Harlow, England:  Pearson, Longman, 2004.
Khan, S. Wayne State University, PS 5760.  “History and Development of Islamic Political Thought”.  Class notes, Winter 2009.
Mohammad, Prophet.  Medina Charter.  Medina, Arabia, 624.
Roy, O. Globilized Islam.  NY:  Columbia University Press, 2004.
Sachedina, A. The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism.  NY:   Oxford University Press, 2001.

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