Chapter 6: What is Islam by Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry



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What is Islam

By Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry


Political System

I- Distinctive Features

II- State and Government

III- Ruler or Head of State

IV- Counsel (Shura)

I- Distinctive Features

Islamic political system, like any other political system of the world, has got some features which distinguish it from others. Some of these distinctive features of Islamic political order are briefly underlined below:

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Sovereignty belongs to God

This is the first feature of Islam’s political system which distinguishes it from a secular political system.

The word Sovereignty is derived from the Latin word ‘Supernus’ which means supreme. Although the political scientists do not agree on one definition of sovereignty yet they recognize it as the supreme political power in a state which is absolute, permanent, exclusive, indivisible, all-comprehensive and subject to none. Despite its importance, there is also no unanimity of opinion about the locus of sovereignty. According to some Roman Jurists of old, the emperor was sovereign; according to British jurists, Parliament is sovereign being representative of people; according to socialists, sovereignty lies in proletariat class; but many modern political scientists place sovereignty in the whole people.

Islam has solved this controversial issue of sovereignty very amicably. Islam does not place sovereignty in a king or parliament, in an individual or people, in bourgeois class or proletariat, but in God who is Absolute Sovereign being Lord of the whole universe. According to Islam, Allah alone is Sovereign and Absolute Ruler of the whole universe. He is the Creator, the Sustainer, the Cherisher, the Nourisher,  the Regulator, the Perfector, the Law-Giver, the Supreme Judge, the Supreme Lord and the Most powerful. Sovereignty in all its dimensions is for Allah only. Power of command and rule in the heavens and the earth, in state or society, indeed in the whole of universe belongs to Him and Him alone. The totality of power and authority in all aspects is God’s right and none is His partner in this right.

The Islamic concept of sovereignty, as propounded by the Qur’an is a fundamental principle of Islamic political system. From sovereignty of God, the Qur’an means that Allah must be recognized as the sovereign, the Ruler, the Judge and the Law-Giver in the moral, social, cultural, economical and political life. In other words, the Divine Law or the Qur’anic Law is supreme.

Some of the verses of the Qur’an which highlight Islamic concept of sovereignty of God are:

  • Knowest thou not that it is Allah unto Whom belongeth the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth; and ye have not, beside Allah, any friend or helper? (2:Al-Baqarh:107)

  •  Say: O Allah! Owner of sovereignty! Thou givest sovereignty unto whom Thou wilt, and Thou withdrawest sovereignty from whom Thou wilt. Thou exaltest whom Thou wilt and Thou abasest whom Thou wilt. In Thy hand is the good. Lo! Thou art to do all things.   (3:Al-Imran:26)

  • Unto Allah belongeth the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. Allah is Able to do all things.  (3:Al-Imran:189)

  • Blessed is He in Whose hand is the Sovereignty, and He is Able to do all things.  (67:Al-Mulk:1)

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Man viceroy on earth

The Holy Qur’an says: “And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth, they said: Wilt Thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not.” (2:30)

From this verse of the Holy Qur’an it is abundantly clear that the position of man on earth is not that of a sovereign but it is that of a Caliph. Allah has appointed man as caliph on earth. Caliph generally means one who succeeds after the other. In this sense man cannot be called as caliph of Allah because God is ever-living and man cannot succeed Him. Caliph also means a deputy, a delegate, a viceroy or a vicegerent. Since man is the holder of delegated powers, he is caliph in this sense.

Allah appointed Adam a caliph or vicegerent on earth. Adam being the caliph, the notion of vicegerency is applicable to every human being of whom Adam is the father. The descendants of Adam as a whole are therefore caliphs or vicegerents on earth. Thus the vicegerency or viceroyalty is not vested in one individual or family or tribe or race, but in the whole Muslim community in an Islamic state. It means Islamic concept of vicegerency is that of ‘collective’ or ‘popular’ vicegerency.

Islamic concept of ‘popular vicegerency’ has led to the establishment of perfect equality of all citizens in an Islamic state. A society in which every member of community is a caliph of Allah and equal participant in caliphal responsibilities, can hardly afford any discriminations based or race, colour, wealth, place of birth, language, class or social status. No individual in an Islamic state feels any disability on account of any prejudice based on birth or social position. He is equal to any other member of the community and enjoys equal opportunities for progress. The criterion of superiority in the Islamic social order is personal merit and pious conduct. The revealed book of Islam says: “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female. And have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower Aware”. (Al-Qur’an 49:13). The Prophet of Islam repeatedly and explicitly asserted this point on every occasion and especially on the occasion of his Farewell pilgrimage when he declared: “No one is superior to another except on the basis of pious conduct. All human beings descended from Adam and Adam was made of clay.” Therefore, in an Islamic state, all the members of Muslim Ummah (community) have equal socio-political rights. They can equally participate in governmental matters because everyone is caliph of God having equal constitutional rights. Everyone has the right to vote, the right to contest elections, right to seek for public or representative office and right to become even head of state. No inherent privilege or vested right on the basis of any discrimination or prejudice is available to anyone under an Islamic constitution. All the citizens are granted basic human rights including the right of freedom of expression.

This concept of popular sovereignty and political equality of all cuts at the roots of discriminations based on race, tribe, colour, caste, blood place of birth, language, etc. on one hand, while on the other hand it rejects the claims of usurpers to legitimacy who come to power through unlawful means like military coup and assume dictatorial and despotic powers and thus deprive the people of their caliphal status which was bestowed on them by Almighty God.

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Supremacy of the Qur’an and the Sunnah

The Holy Qur’an enjoins upon the believers to obey God and His messenger. It says:

  1. And obey Allah and the messenger, that ye may find mercy (3:Al-Imran:132)

  2. These are the limits (imposed by) Allah. Who so obeyeth Allah and His messenger, He will make him enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow, where such will dwell for ever. That will be the great success. And whoso disobeyeth Allah and His messenger and transgresseth His limits, He will make him enter fire, where such will dwell for ever; his will be a shameful doom. (4:An-Nisa:13-14)

  3. And obey Allah and his messenger, and dispute not one with another lest ye falter and your strength depart from you; but be steadfast Lo! Allah is with the steadfast. (8:Al-Anfal:46)

  4. O ye who believe! Obey Allah and obey the messenger, and render not your actions vain. (47:Muhammad:33)

 The Holy Qur’an also enjoins upon the Muslims to refer their disputes regarding any matter for decision to God and His messenger i.e. to the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It says: O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if ye have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the messenger if ye are (in truth) believers in Allah and the Last Day. That is better and more seemly in the end. (4:An-Nisa:59)

The Qur’an further commands the believers to accept decision of Allah and His apostle as final and binding. It pronounces:

  1. But nay, by the Lord, they will not believe (in truth) until they make thee judge of what is in dispute between them and find within themselves no dislike of that which thou decidest, and submit with full submission. (4:An-Nisa:65)

  2. And when they appeal unto Allah and His messenger to judge between them, lo! a faction of them are averse; But if right had been with them they would have come unto him willingly. Is there in their hearts a disease, or have they doubts, or fear they lest Allah and His messenger should wrong them in judgement? Nay, but such are evil-doers. The saying of (all true) believers when they appeal unto Allah and His messenger to judge between them is only that they say: We hear and we obey. And such are the successful. He who obeyeth Allah and His messenger, and feareth Allah and keepeth duty (unto Him): such indeed are the victorious.  (24:An-Nur:48-52)

  3. And it becometh not a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His messenger have decided an affair (for them), that they should (after that) claim any say in their affair; and whoso is rebellious to Allah and His messenger, he verily goeth astray in error manifest. (33:Al-Ahzab:36)

The above mentioned injunctions of the Qur’an establish beyond any doubt that in an Islamic system supremacy of the Law of Allah and of the Prophet is ensured. This means that the legislature has no right to make laws, the executive has no right to issue orders and the law courts have no right to decide cases in contravention of the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Where a matter has been decided by the Holy Qur’an or Sunnah of the Prophet, that decision must be complied with. The Muslims have no authority to differ with that judgement. That is final for them and they have no right of appeal against it. In case of their disputes and differences, the Muslims are required to refer them to God and His apostle (Qur’an and Hadith) and if they find decision in Qur’an or in Hadith, they are bound to accept it.

The Qur’an is the written constitution of the Islamic State. It is the word of God and is the fundamental law for all believers. It is a source of law in all fields of human life and provides the essential guidance about religion, morality and mundane affairs. In an Islamic State no constitution, manifesto, law, ordinance, rule, regulation or decree can be issued by any authority which is in contradiction to any express provision of Quranic law. The executive, legislature and judiciary of an Islamic State are obliged to enforce the provisions of Quranic law and thus establish the kingdom of God on earth.

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Power for the righteous

According to Islamic conception, power or authority is a great trust or responsibility. It is a great trial for those who are entrusted with it. The Qur’an says: “He it is who hath placed you as viceroys of the earth and hath exalted some of you in rank above others, that He may try you by the (test of) that which He hath given you……” (6:165).

Now the question arises as to who is eligible for exercising power and authority to rule. As power is a trust, it should be given to the trust-worthy. It is the pious and righteous people, and not the wicked and arrogant, who can be entrusted with power. Thus power and authority in an Islamic dispensation belongs to the righteous, God-fearing and competent people.

According to the Qur’an, only pious, righteous and believing slaves of Allah have been entrusted to govern as deputies or viceroys of God. Wherever the wicked are ruling it is against this fundamental principle and hence their rule would be only de facto and not de jure, according to Islam. Such wicked persons are actually the usurpers and not legitimate rulers.

The Qur’an in the following verses clearly establishes this principle that only the pious have the right to rule:

  1. And verily We have written in the Scripture, after the Reminder My righteous slaves will inherit the earth.    (Al-Anbiya 21:105)

  2. Allah hath promised such of you as believe and do good works that He will surely make them to succeed (the present rulers) in the earth even as He caused those who were before them to succeed (others); and that He will surely establish for them their religion which He hath approved for them, and will give them in exchange safety after their fear. They serve Me. They ascribe nothing as partner unto Me. Those who disbelieve henceforth, they are the miscreants.    (An-Nur 24:55).

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Concept of a nation

Concept of nation-hood or nationality in Islam is based upon religion. A common religion is the basis of nationality among the Muslims and Islam is that religion. The Qur’an says: “Thus, We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witness against mankind. And that the messenger may be a witness against you ………” (2:143). At another place, the revealed book of Islam calls the Muslims the best community of the world that has been raised for the guidance of mankind. It says: “ye are the best community that has been raised up for mankind. Ye enjoin right conduct and forbid wrong; and ye believe in Allah ………” (3:110).

Among the other people, basis of nationality is blood or race, language, colour, or place of birth. These notions provide a very weak basis as they make the problem of assimilation of foreigners very difficult rather impossible. For example if society were to group itself solely on the basis of blood relationship, naturalization would be out of question for ever. The same would be true if the basis were the colour of the skin which cannot be concealed. Language as a factor of social unity requires long years for a veritable assimilation. Place of birth is even less perceptible in a stranger; and ever since man has crossed the horizon of city-states, not much importance is attached to this factor. However, one would remark that in all these various conceptions of social unity, the basis is a mere accident of nature, and belongs mere to the animal instinct than to the rationality of man. Thus, if nationality is based on the identity of language, race, colour or place of birth, it will make the problem of aliens or strangers exist perpetually and such a nationality will be too narrow, ever to be able to embrace the inhabitants of the entire world; and if the aliens are not assimilated there will always be risk of conflicts and war. It is common knowledge that Islam has rejected all these notions of nationality, and selected only the identity of ideas — a thing which depends upon the choice of man and not upon the accidents and hazards of birth — as the basic tie of society and the factor of union. Naturalization and assimilation in such a society is not only easy and accessible to all human races in their entirety, but is also closer to reason and more practical, showing how to live one’s life in peace and tranquility.[1]

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II – State and Government

Concept of State

Although the political thinkers do not agree on a unanimous definition of state, yet the state is generally considered to possess four elements, namely; population, territory, government and sovereignty.

The Qur’an and the Sunnah, the two primary sources of Islamic law and constitution do not define state. But the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) did practically establish the first Islamic state at Madinah in the year 1 A.H. (622 A.D.) under his leadership. The state of Madinah possessed all the elements of state as defined today such as population, territory, government and sovereignty from external control. However, this simple statement of fact may not satisfy the curiosity of a reader unless we explain the Islamic concept of state in a bit detail.

According to Islamic concept, a state inhabited predominantly or even entirely by Muslims may not necessarily conform to the definition of an Islamic state. It may, no doubt, be a Muslim state but it would not be an Islamic state unless it is based on the ideology of Islam. Islam conceives state as an instrument to enforce the law of Islam and, thus, to establish kingdom of God on earth. Sovereignty in the Islamic State belongs to Allah, the Supreme Lord of the universe, besides Whom there is no god and Who Alone is to be worshipped. Consequently, Divine Law is supreme law in this state while no other law can be made or practiced in violation of the injunctions of the Qur’an (the revealed book of God) and the Sunnah (the sayings and the traditions of the Prophet of Islam). This state is to be run and administered, predominantly, by the Muslims who testify that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad (PBUH) is the messenger of Allah and who also believe in and practice the tenets of Islam. The Muslim citizens of this state lead their lives in accordance with the teachings of Islam, while the non-Muslim minorities living in this state are allowed all the human rights and civil liberties, like their Muslim compatriots, including full freedom of religion. Religious and moral code of Islam is implemented in this state while socio-economic and political system of Islam provides the basis of state economy and state constitution.

    Islamic state, in its true perspective, is a Qur’anic state. It is not like communist or totalitarian states which restrict or suppress individual liberties and have established the worst type of totalitarian rules. It is neither like a capitalist state which believes in total freedom for the individual to do anything or commit any exploitation at the cost of public interest. The Islamic state believes in moderation and occupies rather moderate or middle position between the two extremes. It combines the best of every system while avoiding their evils.

The political system of Islamic state is based on justice, fairness, equality and the Islamic ideal of democracy. The concept of sovereignty of Allah and vicegerency of man forms the core of this system. In an Islamic state, all the people, collectively, are responsible to conduct their governmental affairs under Divine law. The head of an Islamic state is neither a despot nor an absolute ruler but a servant of the people who conducts public affairs in consultation with the people or the representatives of the people. Thus, an Islamic state is distinguishable from the secular democratic states of the modern world who divorce religion from politics and place sovereignty in the people. Islamic state is also not a theocracy wherein a priestly class exercises unbridled power and rules in the name of Deity. Islam does not create any priestly class neither it encourages sacerdotalism in any form. Islamic state is not, thus, ruled by any particular religious class but by the whole Muslim community.

The aims and objectives of the Islamic State include: to create an ideal Islamic society, as conceived in the Qur’an and Sunnah, based on brotherhood, equality and tolerance; to enforce Islamic Shariah as the fundamental law of land; to establish Islamic consultative democracy as from of its government and to achieve the goal of social justice through equitable distribution of wealth.

The Holy Qur’an sums up the aims of an Islamic state in one of its verses. It says:

Those who, if We give them power in this land, establish worship and pay the poor-due and enjoin kindness and forbid inequity…. (22:41)

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Concept of welfare state

The idea of welfare state has become very popular in recent times so much so that every state now likes to call itself welfare state. Although welfare as a purpose of government is not an invention of this century, yet the term ‘welfare state’ came into wide spread use only after the Second World War.

The term ‘welfare state’ has not been clearly and exactly defined with the result that welfare programmes almost differ from country to country and place to place. However, generally understood meanings of this term are that it is state in which the government assumes responsibility for minimum standards of living for every citizen. But the welfare state based on the materialistic philosophy of the West gives emphasis on the material welfare of the people to the neglect of spiritual and moral one.

Islam, as universal religion for humanity, believes in the well-being of mankind in this world as well as in the next world. The Qur’an, in one of its very popular prayers, teaches its believers to ask God: “Our Lord! Give unto us in the world that which is good and in the Hereafter that which is good…….” (2:201). The primary objective of an Islamic state is, therefore, to establish an ideal society wherein the welfare of the individual in this world (which is material and economic prosperity) and the welfare of he individual in the Hereafter (which is spiritual and religious betterment) is ensured by the state. So the Islamic state not only establishes the system of Allah’s worship (i.e., Salat or Prayer) but also establishes system of Zakat which is collected from the rich and distributed among the poor. Thus, both the spiritual and material well-being of the individuals is aimed at by the Islamic state. In other words, the Islamic state is a welfare state which performs a number of functions, in addition to the traditional functions of a state, for the socio-economic welfare of its citizens in this world and for their religio-spiritual welfare in the Hereafter. Its functions aimed at material welfare of its people include provision of basic necessities of life for all, ensuring of a comprehensive social security system and establishment of social justice, whereas its functions for the spiritual well-being of its people include establishment of Islamic system of life for the Muslims and full religious freedom for the non-Muslims.

In the light of the teachings of Islam, the right-guided caliphs established welfare state of Islam at Madinah. During the caliphate of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) an ideal welfare state of Islam existed wherein the basic needs of the poor and the destitute were properly looked after and stipends and pensions were given to orphans, widows and needy persons.

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Democratic Form of Government ensured

The doctrines of sovereignty of God and vicegerency of man coupled with the principle of consultation give to the Islamic political system a form of perfect democracy. The doctrine of sovereignty of Allah ensures the supremacy of divine law in an Islamic state. No ruler or legislature can issue an order or ordinance or can frame a law which is repugnant to any injunction of the Qur’an and Sunnah. The ruler is required to obey Islamic law as much as an ordinary citizen of the Islamic state. He is neither, in his official capacity, above law, nor he can violate the religious and moral code of Islam in his personal and private life. Therefore, the possibility of a ruler becoming a despot, a tyrant or a power-hungry man indulging in unlawful acts, is ruled out.

The doctrine of vicegerency of man is another strong blow to a ruler who tries to harbor any dictatorial tendencies. The doctrine of vicegerency of man makes every human being vicegerent or deputy of Allah. According to it, vicegerency or caliphate is not vested in any individual, family, tribe, class or race. Rather everyone is caliph and an equal participant in the caliphal functions as a deputy or representative of God. In an Islamic society where the idea of popular vicegerency prevails, there is no room for the dictatorship of any person or group of persons. The position of a person who is selected or elected to conduct the affairs of the government is no more than this: That all the citizens of the Islamic State who are, technically speaking, caliphs of Allah, have delegated their caliphate to him, as a matter of administrative convenience, to act and administer Divine law for the common benefit of all. He is answerable to Allah for his acts on the one hand and on the other hand he is responsible to his fellow citizens who have trusted him by delegating their rights of Caliphate in his favour. Thus, in no way, he can assume the position of an absolute ruler. If he does so, then he would be a usurper and the citizens of the Islamic State would be within their right to depose him.[2]

The principle of consultation helps the smooth running of democracy as envisaged by Islam. According to this principle, the citizens of an Islamic state are required to conduct their mutual and collective affairs by consultation. Al-Qur’an, the revealed book of Islam,  while discussing the good qualities of the believers, especially mentions their attribute of mutual consultation. The Holy Qur’an says: “…They conduct their affairs by mutual consultation….” (42:38).This description of the Qur’an is not merely a statement of fact, but has been regarded by many jurists as an obligatory injunction. The command regarding mutual counsel embraces in its fold all collective affairs from family matters to socio-economic and political issues. It also applies to the appointment of the head of state or the ruler and to the conduct of the government affairs by the ruler. Thus, the ruler of an Islamic State is appointed by mutual consultation and he conducts the affairs of the State in consultation with people or the representatives of the people. The principle of government by consent and counsel is so important in Islamic political system that even the Prophet of Islam, who was not likely to make any mistake being directly guided by revelation, was required as head of Islamic state, to consult his followers in the conduct of mutual affairs. The Quran addresses the Prophet on this issue and says: “……. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when thou art resolved, then put thy trust in Allah…… (3:159).This ordinance of the Qur’an, although addressed in the first instance to the Prophet, is binding on all Muslims and for all times.

The Prophet did not leave any instructions regarding the selection of his successor. The silence of the Prophet on this issue was not without wisdom. The principle of mutual consultation helped the companions after the death of the Prophet in selection of the most pious and the most capable person (Abu Bakr) as successor of Muhammad, (PBUH). His selection or election, though originally made by few leading persons was ratified by all the Muslim Ummah through Bai’at (oath of allegiance) of the caliph.

Thus, the system of government established by the successors of the Prophet in the Islamic State of Madinah was not that of monarchy or despotic kingship. It was a republic and is known in the history of Islam as a pious or righteous caliphate. The system of the election of the caliph followed by oath of affirmation (Bai’at) of the whole Muslim community continued during reign of the four right guided caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Usman and Ali). The caliph was not an autocrat or dictator as he was bound to decide and conduct the affairs of the state in consultation with the Consultative Council (Shura) and was accountable for his actions to the people. Full freedom of criticizing the government and opposing the caliph in various policies of his government was available. Since the social justice of Islam formed the basis of economic system and effective measures were taken for fair and equitable distribution of wealth, the foundations of Islamic welfare state were properly laid down. Therefore, the right-guided caliphate can be considered rightfully, without any fear of contradiction, as a republic with consultative democracy as its form of government and welfare of the people as its policy. No doubt, this republic still remains a model for the followers of Islam even today.

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Dictatorship and despotic system rejected 

Dictatorship is a form of government in which a person or group possesses absolute power without any effective constitutional checks. The term ‘dictatorship’ is derived from the Latin title dictator, designating a magistrate who is given extra-ordinary powers for a limited period to steer the state in an emergency. But in modern times the meaning of the term has changed. In modern usage, dictator is an absolute ruler possessing extra-constitutional powers without any limitation of period, while a national emergency may or may not exist. A dictator behaves in an authoritarian manner and uses his powers most oppressively. Absolutism, despotism, authoritarianism, autocracy, tyranny, totalitarianism, etc. are some of the terms which are either used as synonymous with dictatorship or used to describe various features of dictatorship.

Islam not only rejects dictatorial, despotic and totalitarian system of rule but also severely condemns those who establish such rule outrightly and reduce the human beings from their dignified status of caliphs of God to the hapless condition of serfs and slaves. The rule of Pharaoh of Egypt who was tyrant and despot has been severely condemned by the Holy Qur’an in its following verses:

  1. But none trusted Moses, save some scions of his people, (and they were) in fear of Pharaoh and their chiefs, that they would persecute them. Lo! Pharaoh was verily a tyrant in the land, and lo! he verily was of the wanton. (Yunus 10:83)

  2. Lo! Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth and made its people castes. A tribe among them he oppressed, killing their sons and sparing their women. Lo! he was of those who work corruption.  (Al-Qasas 28:4)

It is because the rule of the Pharaohs and despots is based on cruelty, oppression, autocracy and injustice. Such despotic and arrogant rulers have no place in an Islamic system and, according to a saying of the Prophet, to utter a word of truth in the presence of such rulers is a great jihad. Thus those who struggle against such rulers to save the people from their oppression would be great warriors (Mujahideen) in the path of God who would be blessed with immense rewards.

As mentioned earlier, the teachings of Islam regarding sovereignty of Allah, vicegerency of man and mutual consultation in conduct of collective affairs establish a true representative and democratic form of government. Hence tyrannical and absolute rule is implicitly excluded by these teachings.

In a true Islamic society, there is no room for tyrannical rule, dictatorship or despotism. Since the ruler or the head of state is one of the caliphs of Allah (i.e. one of the members of Muslim community) and is the representative of other caliphs (other members of the Ummah), he is one of them. He therefore, cannot be a dictator or despot because he has no power to deprive the other citizens (who have surrendered their right to caliphate in favour of him) of their politico-legal rights. In the words of Maulana Abul’Ala Maududi: “The position of a man who is selected to conduct the affairs of the state is no more than this: That all Muslims (or technically speaking, all caliphs of God) delegate their caliphate to him for administrative purposes.” It is perhaps on account of this fact that a Muslim ruler is required to conduct governmental affairs in consultation with the people. The Qur’an addresses the Prophet of Islam and says: “…… And consult with them upon the conduct of affairs ….” (3:159). No doubt the citizens of an Islamic state have been directed by the Qur’an and Sunnah to obey their ruler, but this obedience is available to him only if he behaves in accordance with the Islamic injunctions.

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III- Ruler or Head of State

His qualifications

For the head of Islamic state or government, who has been traditionally called caliph, Ameer-ul-Mumineen (commander of the faithful) or Sultan, the jurists of Islam have prescribed some qualifications in the light of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and in the light of the conventions set by the pious caliphs. These qualifications should be possessed by a candidate for this prestigious post. The candidate should not only be a Muslim but he should also be a practicing Muslim not indulging in any major sin like fornication, drinking, gambling, usury, shirk (polytheism), and disobedience to parents. He should be pious with excellent moral character and should be known for integrity, honesty, justice, kindness, forgiveness, humility, chivalry, diligence, trust-worthiness and sense of responsibility. He should be an adult and sane citizen of the Islamic state and should not be greedy for the post. Al-Mawardi, a great Muslim political philosopher of Middle Ages, lays down the following qualifications for the post of Imam: (1) Justice, (2) Learning, (3) Mental soundness, (4) Physical fitness, (5) Wisdom, (6) Bravery, (7) Quraishite descent. However, regarding the qualification of Quraishite descent, many other jurists differ with Al-Mawardi and reject his views. Of course, relying on verse 13 of Chapter 49 of the Holy Qur’an we can turn down the view of Al-Mawardi as the criterion of nobility in Islam is piety and not noble descent, race, colour or place of birth.

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His Appointment

The appointment of the head of state (called Imam or Amir or Caliph in Islamic terminology) is a very important question. Islam favours election instead of designation through nomination or hereditary principle. To understand the Islamic point of view, let us have a look at the early history of Islam.

Prophet of Islam, like any other messenger of Allah, was commissioned by the Almighty Allah Himself as Prophet. After his migration from Makkah to Madinah, he established a small Islamic state at Madinah and became its first head. Despite strong and perpetual opposition from the non-believers and the Jews, this state grew into a mighty one before the death of Prophet in 632 A.D.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did not nominate his successor nor left any explicit instructions on the question of selection or appointment of his successor. In the absence of any nomination by the Prophet, the companions of Muhammad (PBUH) rightly inferred that the selection of head of state has been left at the discretion of the Muslim Ummah, which was to be exercised in accordance with the spirit of the Qur’anic injunction: “They decide their affairs with mutual consultation” (42:38).

As soon as the news of the demise of the Prophet became known, the helpers (ansars), particularly the chiefs of Banu Khazraj, proceeded to hold a conference at a place called ‘Saqifa Bani Saadah’ to elect successor. Hearing this, Abu Bakr, Umar and Abu Obaidah hurried to the place of meeting. After some discussion in conference of Saqifa, Abu Bakr was chosen as the first caliph of Islam. Umar proposed his name, Abu Obaidah seconded it and the people present in the conference endorsed and accepted. On the following morning, when Abu Bakr took his seat on the pulpit in the mosque where the Holy Prophet had been accustomed to address his followers, Umar called upon the Faithful to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr and those who had been present at the meeting the night before, renewed the oath of allegiance they had then made and the rest of assembly followed their example. The people were guided in their choice by factors like seniority, merit, nobility of birth and his Quraishite origin[3]. The first caliph Abu Bakr was thus elected publicly with the general consent of the Muslim community.

Umar was subsequently made caliph. When he felt that death was approaching him, Abu Bakr consulted his companions for nomination of his successor. Though he was personally convinced that Umar was the fittest person to be the caliph yet he did not, forthwith, announce his nomination. He called certain companions and consulted them about nomination of Umar. People like Abdul Rahman-bin-Auf told Abu Bakr that Umar was of hot temper and was not suitable. To this, Abu Bakr replied that his hot temper will cool down when he is entrusted with public responsibilities. Then the caliph consulted Usman and some other companions who gave their opinion in favour of Umar. Abu Bakr then gathered the people in the Mosque of the Prophet and announced the nomination of Umar, addressing the people thus:

“Are you willing to accept him your Amir whom I nominate as my successor? God is my Judge, I have left no stone unturned in coming to (the best) conclusion in this matter. I am not nominating anybody related to me. I nominate ‘Umar son of Khattab as my successor. Therefore, listen you all to him and obey him.” From the crowd the people cried: “We have heard and we accept.” Here we find that Abu Bakr only suggested and recommended the name of Umar after consultations with those in whom the people had confidence, and then it was put to the vote of the Muslim masses who accepted him.

Caliph Usman was chosen yet in another way. When Umar was seriously wounded and he was nearing his death, he set up a regency or council of elders consisting of six most notables of the Muslim Ummah, namely, Abdul Rahman-bin-Auf, Saad-bin-Abi Waqqas, Usman-bin-Affan, Ali-bin-Abi Talib, Zubair-bin-Awwam and Talha. The caliph strictly forbade the nomination of his son Abdullah and instructed the members of the council to select his successor within three days of his death. He also declared that whosoever tried to become Amir without the approval of Muslim masses was to be beheaded. The council appointed Abdul Rahman-bin-Auf, one of its members who had expressed his intention not to be interested in the post, to decide the issue. Abdul Rahman conducted a survey and went around Madinah to ascertain the public opinion. He even met the visitors and pilgrims to know their views. From his enquiries, he came to the conclusion that either Ali or Usman can be the caliph as they commanded the people’s approval. He, thereafter, gathered the people in the Mosque of the Prophet after morning prayers, to nominate the caliph from among Ali and Usman. Addressing Ali and Usman he said. “You have to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah and practice of Abu Bakr and Umar”. To this, Usman agreed but Ali replied that he would, no doubt, follow the Qur’an and Sunnah, however he would follow the previous two caliphs only to the extent to which his knowledge and power allowed him. Thus Usman was nominated by Abdul Rahman and other members of the council and soon afterwards he was elected by the Ummah.

Usman’s tragic assassination created a serious situation for the Muslim Ummah. So some companions gathered in the house of Ali and persuaded him to accept the responsibility of caliphate, but Ali declined. When the companions insisted that there was no more suitable person than him and that the Muslim Ummah needed him in her critical moments, Ali agreed on the condition that he should be accepted as Amir openly by the community in the Mosque of the Prophet. Therefore, the people assembled in the Mosque of the Prophet at Madinah and unanimously elected Ali as caliph of the Islamic state.

From the foregoing discussion, it is crystal clear that different modes of election for the head of state were adopted by the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) during the pious caliphate. Since, the law does not specify any particular method of appointment of the head of state, therefore, the companions regarded this issue as something which can be rightly varied in accordance with the best interests of the Muslim Ummah. However, the legal consequences which flow from the conduct of the companions of the Prophet and right-guided caliphs are: that the head of state should be elected with the popular will and not imposed forcibly from above; that no particular class has monopoly of this post and that elections should be fair and free. Different methods can be adopted to assess the public opinion about the candidates in different circumstances at different places. In the contemporary Islamic state, the modern system of elections can be adopted. The head or President may be elected directly through general elections in which every adult citizen is entitled to vote. He may be elected indirectly by an electoral college comprising the representatives of the people.

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His Bai’at or allegiance      

As soon as an Ameer or Caliph of the Islamic state is elected, all the citizens offer Bai’at or allegiance to him. The Bai’at or oath of allegiance is not only a sort of ratification or confirmation of his election but is also a pact, a covenant or a contract whereby the people express their resolve that they would obey him and stand with him through thick and thin. The prophet also used to secure the oath of allegiance or Bai’at from the believers, male and female, on their conversion to Islam and on very important issues faced by the Muslim community, e.g. on the occasion of Treaty of Hudaibyia he took Bai'at from the companions Verse 12 of Chapter 60 of al-Qur’an mentions oath of allegiance of the women. According to Marmaduke Pickthall, “this is called the women’s oath of allegiance. It was the oath exacted from men also until the second pact of al-Aqabah when the duty of defence was added to the men’s oath.”

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Obedience due to him

The Qur’an gives paramount importance to the Ulul-amr (the rulers) of the Islamic state and the obedience to them has been made second only to the obedience which is due to God and His messenger. Thus the followers of Islam are obliged to obey their rulers and stand united with them through thick and thin. However, there are limits to this obedience: Firstly that the rulers should be from among the Muslims and secondly that they should not be transgressors and disobedient to God and God’s messenger. If the rulers transgress the limits of God and openly disobey rather ridicule the injunctions of Islam, they need not be obeyed.

Abu Bakr, when he was made the first caliph of the Islamic state, explained this point. He said; “If I am right, help me. If I am wrong, correct me. Obey me so long as I follow the commandments of Allah and the Prophet (PBUH), but turn away from me when I deviate.”

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His functions and duties

The main duties and functions of the Ameer or the ruler of Islamic state, as briefly stated, are: dispensation of justice; establishment of law and order; establishment of Islamic system specially system of Salat and Zakat and enjoining good and forbidding wrong; protection of state and its citizens against the aggression of enemies, internal or external; enforcement of Islamic laws and Hudood; looking after the welfare of the people particularly the poor, the sick, the orphans, the widows. Al-Mawardi has beautifully summarized the functions and duties of the Imam as follows:

  1. To safeguard and defend the Faith of Islam against heresies and innovations.

  2. (The dispensation of justice according to principles of Islamic shariah.

  3. The maintenance of law and order in the country.

  4. The enforcement of Hudood i.e./ the criminal code of the Qur’an.

  5. The defence of frontiers against foreign invasion.

  6. The organization and execution of Jihad against non-believers in order to establish the supremacy of Islam over all other religions.

  7. The imposition and collection of Zakat and Kharaj.

  8. The sanction of stipends and allowances from Bait-al-Mal (state treasury) to the needy, poor and disabled.

  9. The appointment of efficient and honest persons to the important public offices.

  10. The Imam should personally look into the government affairs and should have his strong hold on the government protecting the interest of his subject, and carefully look into the foreign policy issues.

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IV- Counsel (Shura)

Institution of consultation

            Foundation of Islamic political system is governance by consultation. The institution of consultation is so important in the body-politics of Islam that one of the Chapters of the Holy Book of Islam, al-Qur’an, has been named “Shura”. Following verses of the Qur’an and traditions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) provide sanction for this institution:

  • It was by the mercy of Allah that thou wast lenient with them (O Muhammad), for if thou hadst been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from round about thee. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when thou art resolved, then put thy trust in Allah. Lo! Allah loveth those who put their trust (in Him). (3:Al-Imran:159)

  • And those who answer the call of their Lord and establish worshp, and whose affairs are a matter of counsel and who spend of what We have bestowed on them. (42:Ash-Shura:38)

  • Ali asked the messenger of Allah: O Messenger of Allah! What should we do if, after your demise, we are confronted with a problem about which we neither find anything in the Qur’an, nor have anything from you? He said, “Get together the obedient people (to Allah and His law) from amongst my followers and place the matter before them for consultation. Do not take decisions on the basis of any single person.” (Alusi quoted in ‘Concept of the Islamic State by Encyclopedia of Seerah’)

  • Ali reported that the messenger of Allah said: “The man who gives counsel to his brother knowing well that it is not right does most surely betray his trust.”  (Abu Daud quoted in ‘Concept of the Islamic State by Encyclopedia of Seerah’)

  • It is reported on the authority of Ali-bin-Abu Talib that when the Messenger of Allah was asked to explain the implications of the word ‘azm’ which occurs in verse 159 of al-Imran referred to above, he said: It means taking counsel with knowledgeable people and, thereupon, following them therein.”  (Ibn Kathir quoted by Muhammad Asad)

  • Umar-bin-al-Khattab declared: There can be no khilafat except by consultation.

  • The Prophet is reported to have said to his two illustrious companions, Abu Bakr and Umar: “If you two agree on a point, I shall not differ with you.”  (Ahamd, Ibn Kathir)

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Practice of the Prophet and the righteous caliphs

            Acting upon the command of Allah contained in verse 159 of Chapter 3 of the Holy Qur’an, the Prophet of Islam always consulted his companions on all important issues regarding which he did not receive any guidance through revelation. For example on the occasion of the Battle of Badr, the Prophet  (PBUH) selected a certain place for his army which was not suitable in the view of his companions. When he was asked whether his decision was according to revelation or according to his own opinion, the Prophet replied that it was his won opinion. Then, he was advised by the experienced persons like Al-Hubab Ibn Mundhir to change his decision in favour of a more suitable place which the Prophet readily did. On the occasion of Battle of Uhud, the Prophet wanted to defend the attack of Quraish while staying in Madinah, but majority of his companions, particularly the youth among them wanted to come in the open and fight against the enemy. He accepted the opinion of majority and came out of Madinah for the battle which was fought at Uhud. In the Battle of the Allies (Ahzab), the Prophet accepted the advice of Salman the Persian and defended Madinah with the help of a trench which was dug around the city. These are few examples of the consultation of the Prophet with his companions. He used to hold such consultative deliberations with his companions and tribal chiefs or representatives not only on the issues of war and peace but also on other socio-economic issues of importance arising before the government.

The Prophet did not nominate his successor. After his demise in 632 A.D., the companions elected their senior and most pious colleague, Abu Bakr, as Caliph. Election took place in an open place with mutual consultation and was confirmed with general Bai’at (allegiance) of the Muslim community. Three other righteous caliphs, Umar, Usman and Ali were also elected by the people with mutual consultation although each time the election was held in a different way.

During the reign of the pious caliphs, the institution of consultation was gradually formalized and the concept of standing advisory council emerged. The caliph used to consult his advisory council on every important issue confronting the Islamic state.

It is unfortunate that after the death of Ali, the fourth and the last righteous caliph, the republic was transformed into absolute monarchy and institution of consultation also lost its importance.

[1] Dr. Hameedullah: Introduction to Islam.

[2] Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi.

[3] Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi

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