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FOCUS June 1999 Volume 16

The Concept of Islamic State

Asghar Ali Engineer

The idea of an Islamic state is a most discussed subject among supporters and opponents. Is there any such concept? Can we call any state an Islamic state? There are many claimants of course. Interestingly among the claimants are military dictators as well as monarchs. Can we legitimately call a state an Islamic state? Is there any criterion to judge the claim? If so, what is that criterion? Generally some ritualistic aspects of Islam like prayer, fasting, zakat etc. are imposed in addition to the Islamic punishments to lay claim to the status as an Islamic state. Is this enough?

First of all we should know whether or not there is any concept of Islamic state in the Qur'an or Hadith literature. A thorough examination of the scripture and Hadith literature shows that there is no such concept of Islamic state. In fact after the death of the Holy Prophet the Muslims were not agreed even on the issue of his successor. The Muslims split on the question - a section maintaining that the Prophet never appointed any successor and another section maintaining that he did.

As far as the Qur'an is concerned there is, at best, a concept of a society rather than a state. The Qur'an lays emphasis on adl and ihsan (justice and benevolence). A Qur'anic society must be based on these values. Also, the Qur'an strongly opposes zulm and 'udwan (oppression and injustice). No society thus based on zulm and 'udwan can qualify as an Islamic society. The Qur'anic values are most fundamental. It is thus debatable whether a state, declaring itself to be an Islamic state, can be legitimately accepted as such without basing the civil society on these values. We will throw more light on this later.

The pre-Islamic Arab society had not known any state structure. It was a predominantly tribal society, which did not know any distinction between a state and a civil society. There was no written law, much less a constitution. There was no governing authority either hereditary or elected. There was a senate called mala'. It consisted of tribal chiefs of the tribes in the area. Any decision taken had to be unanimous and the tribal chiefs enforced the decision in their respective tribes. If a tribal chief dissented, the decision could not be implemented.

There was no taxation system nor any police or army. There was no concept of territorial governance or defense or policing. Each tribe followed its own customs and traditions. There were of course inter-tribal wars and all adult tribals took part in defending one's tribal interests. The only law prevalent was that of qisas (retaliation). The Qur'an put it succinctly as "And there is life for you in retaliation, O men of understanding. " (2:179) The whole tribal law and ethic in pre-Islamic Arabia was based on the law of retaliation.

The Islamic movement in Mecca inherited this situation. When the Prophet and his companions faced severe persecution in Mecca they migrated to Madina also known as Yathrib. Madina was also basically a tribal city governed by tribal laws. Like Mecca, there was no state in Madina and only tribal customs and traditions prevailed. In fact Madina was worse in a way than Mecca. In Mecca, inter-tribal wars were not much in evidence as it was turning into a commercial society and inter-tribal corporations for trade were coming into existence. However, Madina, being an oasis, was a semi- agricultural society and various tribes were at daggers drawn. To get rid of the inter-tribal warfare, the people of Madina invited the Holy Prophet as an arbitrator.

The Prophet, a great spiritual and religious personality, commanded great respect and set out to establish a just society in Madina. First of all he drew up a pact between various tribal and religious groups known as Mithaq-i-Madina (i.e. the Medinese treaty) which guaranteed full autonomy to all tribes and religious groups like the Jews, the Muslims and other pagan tribes. All religious groups were free to follow their own laws and traditions. Coercion was not used to force people to follow other laws and traditions. The Holy Qur'an also declared that "there is no compulsion in the matter of religion" (2:256). The Mithaq-i-Madina was a sort of preliminary constitution of the "state" of Madina, which went beyond a tribal structure and transcended the tribal boundaries in matters of common governance. It also laid down the principle that if an outside force attacks Madina all will defend it together. Thus for the first time a concept of common territory, so necessary for a state to operate, was evolved. Before this, as pointed out earlier, there was the concept of tribal but not of territorial boundaries.

The Prophet, in a way, took a revolutionary step, in dissolving tribal bonds and laying more emphasis on ideological boundaries on one hand, and territorial boundaries on the other. However, the Prophet's aim was not to build a political community. He wanted to build a religious community instead. If Muslims evolved into a political community it was accidental rather than essential. Hence the Qur'an lays more emphasis on values, ethic and morality than on any political doctrines. It is Din (religion) which matters most than governance. Allah says in the Qur'an that al-yauma akmaltu lakum dinakum (I have perfected your Din today, 5:3). Thus what the Qur'an gives us is a perfect Din, not a perfect political system. The political system had to evolve over a period of time and in keeping with the needs and requirements.

One of the basic duties of the Muslims is to "enforce what is good and combat what is evil." This clearly gives a moral and spiritual direction to an Islamic society. The later emphasis on integral association between religion and politics is, to the best of my knowledge, totally absent in the Holy Qur'an. The Prophet was an enforcer of good par excellence and he devoted his life to eradicating evil from society. But he never aspired for political power. He was one of the great spiritual persons born on this earth. He strove to inculcate spiritual power among his companions. The following verse of the Qur'an enunciates the basic philosophy of the Muslim community. "You are the best ummah (nation, community) raised up for people: you enjoin good and forbid evil and you believe in Allah." (3:109)

Thus it will be seen that the basic task of the Muslim ummah is to build a moral society based on good and negation of evil. The unity of Muslims is possible only if they remain basically a religious community engaged in building a just society, which has no elements of zulm (oppression and injustice), though there may be different ways of approaching the truth. The Holy Prophet is reported to have said that a society can persist with kufr (unbelief) but not with zulm (injustice). The Qur'an also describes Allah as Ahkam al-Hakimin (best of the Judges, 95:8). These are all value-giving injunctions and hence give a direction to the society.

Islam never required Muslims to evolve into a political community. Politics leads people basically to power-seeking projects, and aspirations for power brings about division rather than unity. The Qur'an required Muslims to remain united and not entertain disputes weakening themselves. "And obey Allah and His Messenger", the Qur'an says, "and dispute not one with another, lest you get weak-hearted and your power depart, and be steadfast. Surely Allah is with the steadfast." (8:46)

When someone aspires for political power they dispute with each other and thus become weak which is what Muslims have been warned against. And in the history of Islam the dispute between Muslims arose on the question of political power. Who should wield political power and rule was the main question after the death of the Holy prophet. Thus Muslims began to divide on the question of power.

Various disputes arose between different groups of Muslims even leading to bloodshed during the thirty years of what is known in Islamic history as khilafat-i-Rashidah (period of the rightly guided rule). This thirty-year period is full of conflict and bloodshed. Three rightly guided Caliphs out of four were assassinated. Why was the spirit of unity lost? Why did wars break out between different groups and parties? It was mainly on account of fights between different aspirants for power and pelf. The first signs of these aspirations appeared immediately after the death of the Holy Prophet.

The people of Mecca belonging to the tribe of Quraysh claimed their superiority over others and said that an Imam can only be from the tribe of Quraysh as they first embraced Islam and they were most cultured and cultivated with adequate experience. The supporters of the Prophet from Madina the Ansars, on the other, claimed that it is they who helped the Prophet when he was driven out of Mecca due to severe persecution by the people of Quraysh and hence they better deserve the succession to the prophet. The Imam or Caliph, they claimed should be from amongst the Ansars. The members of the family of the Prophet felt that 'Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet and leader of the Hashimites, was better qualified to succeed the prophet.

Thus these fissures appeared as different groups aspired for leadership and consequently for power associated with the 'nascent' Muslim state. It is also necessary to stress here that a preliminary state structure came into existence because it was an historical and not religious need. We would like to elaborate on this a bit.

As every Muslim knows the religious duties of Muslims are to pray, fast, donate to the poor (zakat), perform Haj and believe in tawheed (unity of Allah) and not associate aught with Him. This is necessary for spiritual control over oneself. A Muslim can perform these obligations wherever he/she lives. There is no need for an Islamic state for this. A Muslim living in a non-Muslim society can perform these obligations without let or hindrance. And even when there is Muslim rule no ruler can forcibly enforce these obligations on Muslims. Matters of 'ibadat (acts of worship and spiritual exercises) cannot be coercively enforced by any authority. It is a matter between human beings and Allah.

However, it is different matter as far as mu'amalat (relations between human beings) are concerned. A state has to govern these mu'amalat and the ultimate aim of the state is to set up a society based on justice and benevolence ('adl and ihsan in the Qur'anic terms). 'Adl and 'ihsan are most fundamental human values and any state worth its salt has to strive to establish a society based on these values. But for this, no particular form of state is needed. Even an honest monarch can do it. It is for this reason that the holy Qur'an praises prophet-rulers like Hazrat Da'ud and Hazrat Sulayman who were kings but Allah's Prophets too. Even Queen Bilquis is praised for her just governance in the Qur'an though she was not a prophet herself.

But the Qur'an is also aware that such just rulers are normally far and few in between. The governance has to be as democratic as possible so that all adults could participate in it. If governance is left to an individual, or a monarch, the power may corrupt him or her as everyone knows absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is for this reason that the Qur'an refers to democratic governance when it says: "And those who respond to their Lord and keep up prayer, and whose affairs are (decided) by mutual consultation, and who spend out of what We have given them" (42:38). Thus the mutual affairs (those pertaining to governance) should be conducted only by mutual consultation which in contemporary political parlance will be construed as democratic governance. Since in those days there was no well-defined practice of political democracy, the Qur'an refers to it as `amruhum shura' baynahum (affairs to be conducted through mutual consultation) which is very meaningful way of hinting at democracy. The Qur'an is thus against totalitarian or monarchical rule.

Verse 3:158 of the Qur'an is a very important verse in laying down the guidance for governance. It is a divine statement against dictatorship or authoritarianism. The verse reads: "Thus it is by Allah's mercy that thou art gentle on them. And hadst thou been rough, hard-hearted, they would certainly would have dispersed from around thee. So pardon them and ask protection for them, and consult them in (important matters)..." Thus a ruler has to be gentle not hard-hearted and rough, and has to act in consultation with the representatives of the people. This verse has been addressed to the Prophet and no imam from his family can deviate from this divine injunction.

Thus even an imam from the Prophet's family cannot be absolutist and has to base his rule on democratic principles. Thus also even the Shi'ah theory of imamah cannot lead to absolutist or purely personal rule. Also, an imam can be infallible in religious matters, in laying down religious rulings. But in all secular and worldly matters he will be bound by democratic structures of governance.

Secondly, the theory of imamah was much more relevant to the close relatives of the Prophet who lived either during his time or very close to his period. Today, more than fourteen hundred years after the death of the holy Prophet, no one can claim such physical closeness to the Prophet and its resultant benefits. And even within the first century of the Prophet's death there were many claimants for the office of Imam. The Shi'ahs were divided into a number of sects and sub-sects. Fourteen hundred years after the death of the Prophet who can determine the authenticity of the claimant to the office of the imamah? The twelve Shi'ahs and also the Isma'ili-Mustalian Shi'ahs believe in seclusion of their respective imams. No wonder then that Iran adopted the elective principle of governance, which is the ultimate aim of the Islamic scripture.

Also, once Islam spread to vast areas of the world outside the confines of Arabia new ethnic and racial groups were added to its fold. This proved both the strength as well as weakness of the Islamic society. Strength as far as rich diversity was concerned and weakness as far as complex problem and group conflicts it gave rise to. The group conflicts became greatly intensified even within the limited period of Khilafat-i-Rashidah which lasted for slightly less than thirty years.

During this period, a number of groups came into existence. The most powerful group was of the tribe of Quraysh who were muhajirs (immigrants) to Madina to which they migrated along with, or after the Prophet, to avoid persecution in Mecca. They claimed to be the sabiqun al-awwalun (those who responded to the call of Islam earlier than others and also belonged to the tribe of the Prophet). After the death of the Prophet they also came out with the doctrine that the Khilafat be confined to the tribe of Quraysh. However, the Quraysh was divided into several clans of which the clans of Hashim (to which the Prophet himself belonged) and of Banu Umayyah were at loggerheads. Among the Qurayshites the Hashimites and the Umayyads fought against each other for the leadership of the nascent Muslim state. Ali and his sons (particularly Hasan and Husain) who were claimants to the leadership all belonged to the clan of Banu Hashim.

Then there were Ansars (those who belonged to the tribes of Aws and Khazraj of Madina and who had helped the Prophet by swearing allegiance to the Prophet and helping him (hence Ansars i.e. helpers) migrate to Madina and supporting him vis-a-vis his powerful opponents. The Ansars also claimed leadership of the state after the death of the Prophet on the basis that they had helped the Prophet and that without their help his mission would not have survived. But the Qurayshites strongly resisted their claim to the Khilafat. Then the leaders of the Ansars proposed a compromise and said let one from the Quraysh and one from the Ansars share the leadership but this was also turned down by the Qurayshites that it would lead to more conflict and confusion.

Islam had tried to usher in a just society based on compassion, sensitivity towards other fellow human beings, equality and human dignity. However, the well entrenched vested interests, though paying lip service to these values, in practice sabotage them in various ways and continue to impose their own hegemony. The weaker sections and the downtrodden attracted by the revolutionary thrust of Islam and its sensitivity towards them felt disillusioned and revolted. This revolt brought about near anarchy in society and resulted in civil war in which thousands were killed.

Ultimately the Umayyads captured power and Khilafat was converted into monarchy. Maulana Abul A'ala Maududi has thrown detailed light on it in his book Khilafat aur Mulukiyyat. Thus we see that the Islamic society went through great deal of turmoil and bloodshed and could not evolve a universally acceptable form of state. When the Abbasids overthrew Umayyads in the first half of the second century of Islam, there again was great deal of bloodshed. When the Abbasids captured power, some Umayyads fled to Spain and established their own rule there. Two Caliphs simultaneously existed.

Thus we see that the political theory of Islam had to undergo frequent changes to accommodate the empirical reality. It is, therefore, not possible to talk of an 'Islamic State' with a sense of finality. It is extremely difficult task to evolve any ijma (consensus of Muslims) on the issue. Today also there are several Muslim countries with as varied forms of state as monarchical to dictatorial or semi-dictatorial to democratic. All these states, however, call themselves as 'Islamic State'.

The forms and structures of state are bound to vary from place to place and time to time. It would be very difficult, for example, to create a democratic state in a feudal society. Thus the Qur'an does not give much importance to the form of state but greatly emphasizes the nature of society. While the state is contingent the society based on values like justice, equality, compassion and human dignity is a necessity in Islam. And needless to say in our time it is only a democratic state with widest possible power-sharing arrangement, which can guarantee such a society. Also, as per the Qur'anic teachings, the Islamic state should guarantee equal rights to all ethnic, racial, cultural, tribal and religious groups. The Qur'an considers racial, nationality, tribal and linguistic differences as signs of Allah and indicative of identity (see 30:22). It also accepts the right of other religious communities to follow their own religion and it also accords equal status to men and women (see 33:35 and 2:228). The Qur'an accepts plurality in society as the will of Allah (5:48).

Thus in view of all this an Islamic state should have following characteristics:

1) It should be absolutely non-discriminatory on the basis of race, color, language and nationality;

2) It should guarantee gender equality;

3) It should guarantee equal rights to all religious groups and accept plurality of religion as legitimate and

4) Lastly it should be democratic in nature whose basic premise will be human dignity (17:70).

Only those states which fulfill these criteria can be construed to be Islamic in nature. Thus an Islamic state is the very epitome of modern democratic pluralistic state.


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