Gems from Islamic Political Theory

Adapted from the insightful series of lectures by Dr Uwaymir AnjumIMAG0609

Ask yourself these questions. . . Is Islam an individual matter? Does it have anything to do with the public sphere, with matters of governance? Does Islam have any vision for governing societies?

Muslims would generally agree that governing according to Islam, aka Khilāfah, aka Islamic state, is something necessary or at least something commendable. But ask yourself this— when was the last time you heard a lecture about the Khilāfah, or about the fiqh of the Islamic state? In contrast, when was the last time you heard about the fiqh of prayer, or fasting, or about dhikr? Have we reduced Islam to personal fiqh? What has happened to the domain of Islamic political thought?

It is a matter of faith for us that Islamic teachings remain as relevant today as they ever were. Politics is in essence managing our resources for a greater, collective good, about working together as communities, and as an ummah. In Arabic the term is siyāsah, which is found in the following Prophetic ḥadīth:

كَانَتْ بَنُو إسْرَائِيلَ تَسُوسُهُمُ الأَنْبِيَاءُ، كُلَّمَا هَلَكَ نَبِيٌّ خَلَفَهُ نَبِيٌّ، وَإنَّهُ لاَ نَبِيَّ بَعْدِي. وَسَتَكُونُ خُلَفَاءُ فَتَكْثُرُ

The Israelites used to be governed/managed (politically) by the prophets. Whenever one of them died, another took his place. But there will be no prophet after me, but only khulafā’ (caliphs). [al-Bukhārī, Muslim and others]

The terms also finds itself from a report from ‘Umar:

خطبنا عمر بن الخطاب فقال قد علمت ورب الكعبة متى تهلك العرب، فقام إليه رجل من المسلمين فقال: متى يهلكون يا أمير المؤمنين؟ قال: حين يسوس أمرهم من لم يعالج أمر الجاهلية ولم يصحب الرسول صلى الله عليه وسلّم

Once ‘Umar addressed us and said, I indeed know, by the Lord of the Ka‘bah, when the Arabs will be destroyed. A man stood up and asked, When will they be destroyed O Commander of the Faithful? He replied, When they entrust their affairs (siyāsah) to those who have not eradicated the matters of jāhiliyyah and those who will not be from the Companions. [Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah, al-Bayhaqī]

So politics (siyāsah) is an essential part of human collective life and hence an integral part of the religion of truth.

But our collective lives are a mess. We have many great individuals among us who are quite diligent in their prayers and even cry when reading the Qurʼān, but when they sit in committees to run a masjid or a school or an event, chaos breaks loose. Tensions rise, accusations are leveled, backbiting occurs!

The Judgment of Akhirah is about individuals, but the Prophet of Islam established communities, social environments and, yes, states. They didn’t focus on knocking on doors and reaching every individual person but they had a broader mission. The majority and bulk of Arabia did not embrace Islam when each person was convinced of its truth, but when the writing on the horizon changed after the conquest of Makkah. The early Muslims conquered lands but did not force Islam on individuals. Why did the masses embrace Islam, then? The Muslims established order and institutions and a new way of organizing things, the writing on the horizons changes, and that brought the masses of people to them.

The Prophet and early Muslims had a profound sense of mission. We owe it to them to try to understand what that was and what happened to us. . . .

4 thoughts on “Gems from Islamic Political Theory

  1. Interesting points.

    “…but when the writing on the horizon changed after the conquest of Makkah.”

    What exactly does this mean? Is there some further explanation? Jazakallakhyr

    • What the good professor was alluding to was something called “soft power.” In other words, those in positions of power generally exert more influence in a passive way rather than by direct coercion or force. Those who govern and rule over a society automatically and necessarily frame the discourse and set the standards of conduct, the rules, the limits, ethics and boundaries and cultural parameters, etc. All of this is done often without force or formal policies. A good example in the US- after Sept 11, those in power (Bush, Cheney and company) set the tone for the next several years, which resulted in the entire nation embarking on a path of xenophobia, isolationalism, war, torture, etc. The whole country, including Congress and most media outlets, were on board! Now, with the coming of Obama, there has been a major ideological shift in the opposite direction, and the result is that these same leaders and media heads are as opposed to these Bush-era policies as they were in favor of them earlier. The explanation? Soft power, or the writing on the wall.

      In our example, the early Muslims set up a new way of doing things. Their vision was focused on the next world, and their conduct manifested strict justice. In such a world, there was no room for worldly materialism, racism or corruption. When the Muslims conquered Makkah, the entire peninsula recognized that the parameters had changed and the Muslims were here for good. Droves of people embraced Islam as a result, all without any coercion or formal proclamations.

      This is the very power that made Saeed bin Aamir al-Juhani come to sincerely advise the Caliph ‘Umar, reminding him that he possessed a position which had the potential to save or corrupt multitudes of people, just by virtue of his conduct and example, and brought the Caliph to tears.

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