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Political Thought in Islam




This paper by Allama Iqbal was published in The Sociological Review (London) in July 1908. His name appeared as “S. M. Iqbal”.

Pre-Islamic Arabia was divided into various tribes, continually at war with one another. Each tribe had its own chief, its own god and its own poet, whose tribal patriotism manifested itself chiefly in the glorification of the virtues of his own tribe. Though these primitive social groups recognized, to a certain extent, their kinship with one another, yet it was mainly the authority of Muhammad and the cosmopolitan character of his teaching which shattered the aristocratic ideals of individual tribes, and welded the dwellers of tents into one common ever-expanding nationality. For our purposes, however, it is necessary to notice, at the outset, the features of the Arabian system of tribal succession, and the procedure followed by the members of the tribe on the death of their chief.

When the Chief or Shaikh of an Arab tribe died all the elders of the tribe met together and sitting in a circle discussed the matter of succession. Any member of the tribe could hold the chieftainship if he were unanimously elected by the elders and heads of great families. The idea of hereditary monarchy, as Von Kremer has pointed out, was quite foreign to the Arab mind, though the principle of seniority which, since Ahmad I, has received legal recognition in the constitution of modern Turkey, did certainly influence the election. When the tribe was equally divided between two leaders, the rival sections separated from each other until one of the candidates relinquished his claim; otherwise the sword was appealed to. The Chief thus elected could be deposed by the tribe if his conduct necessitated deposition. With the expansion of the Arab conquest, and the consequent enlargement of mental outlook, this primitive custom gradually developed into a Political Theory carefully constructed, as we shall see, by the constitutional lawyers of Islam through reflective criticism on the revelations of political experience.
True to this custom, the Prophet of Arabia left no instruction with regard to the matter of his succession. There is a tradition that the old Amir, son of Tufail, came to the Prophet and said, “If I embrace Islam what would my rank be? Wilt thou give me the command after thee?” “It does not belong to me,” said the Prophet, “to dispose of the command after me.” Abu Bakr—the Prophet’s father-in-law and one of his chief companions—therefore, in consequence of the danger of internal disruption, was rather hurriedly and irregularly elected. He then rose and addressed the people thus:

O people! Now I am ruler over you, albeit not the best amongst you. If I do well, support me; if ill, then set me right. Follow the true wherein is faithfulness, eschew the false wherein is treachery. The weaker amongst you shall be as the stronger with me, until that I shall have redressed his wrong; and the stronger shall be as the weaker until, if the Lord will, I shall have taken from him that which he hath wrested. Leave not off to fight in the ways of the Lord; whosoever leaveth off, him verily shall the Lord abase. Obey me as I obey the Lord and his Prophet, wherein I disobey, obey me not.

Omar, however, afterwards held that the hurried election of Abu Bakr, though very happy in its consequences and justified by the need of the time, should not form precedent in Islam; for as he is reported to have said (Dozy, I, p. 121) an election which is only a partial expression of the people’s  will is null and void. It was, therefore, early understood that Political Sovereignty de facto resides in the people;  and that the electorate by their free act of unanimous choice embody it in a determinate personality in which the collective will is, so to speak, individualized, without investing this concrete seat of power with any privilege in the eye of the law except legal control over the individual wills of which it is an expression. The idea of universal agreement is in fact the fundamental principle of Muslim constitutional theory. “What the Muslim community considers good,” says the Prophet, “God also considers good.” It is probably on the authority of this saying of the Prophet that al-Ash’ari developed his political dogma—“That error is impossible in the united deliberations of the whole community.” After the death of Abu Bakr, Omar, who acted as Chief Judge during his predecessor’s Caliphate, was universally elected by the people. In 644 A.D. he was mortally wounded by a Persian slave, and committed his trust, before he died, to seven electors—one of them being his own son—to nominate his successor, with the condition that their choice must be unanimous, and that none of them must stand as a candidate for the Caliphate. It will be seen from Omar’s exclusion of his own son from the candidature, how remote was the idea of hereditary monarchy from the Arabian political consciousness. The choice of this council, however, fell upon one of the councillors, Uthman, who was consequently nominated, and the nomination afterwards confirmed by the people. The Caliphate of Uthman is really the source of the three great religio-political parties with their respective political theories which each party, finding itself in power, attempted to realize in one or other of the provinces of the Arab Empire. Before, however, I proceed to describe these theories, I want to draw attention to the following two points:

1. That the Muslim Commonwealth is based on the absolute equality of all Muslims in the eye of the law. There is no privileged class, no priesthood, no caste system. In his later days the Prophet once ascended the pulpit and said to the people: “Muslims! If I have struck any one of you, here is my hack that he may strike me. If anyone has been wrongedby me, let him return injury of injury. If I have taken anybody’s goods, all that I have is at his disposal.” A man arose and claimed a debt of three dirhams (about three shillings). “I would much rather,” said the Prophet, “have the shame in this world than in the next.” And he paid him on the spot.

The law of Islam does not recognize the apparently natural differences of race, nor the historical differences of nationality. The political ideal of Islam consists in the creation of a people born of a free fusion of all races and nationalities. Nationality with Islam is not the highest limit of political development; for the general principles of the law of Islam rest on human nature, not on the peculiarities of a particular people. The inner cohesion of such a nation would consist not in ethnic or geographic unity, not in the unity of language or social tradition, but in the unity of the religious and political ideal; or, in the psychological fact of “like-mindedness” as St. Paul would say. The membership of this nation, consequently, would not be determined by birth, marriage, domicile, or naturalization. It would he determined by a public declaration of “like-mindedness” and would terminate when the individual has ceased to be like-minded with others. The ideal territory of such a nation would be the whole earth.  The Arabs, like the Greeks and the Romans, endeavoured to create such a nation or the world-state by conquest, but failed to actualize their ideal.  The realization of this ideal, however, is not impossible; for the ideal nation does already exist in germ. The life of modern political communities finds expression, to a great extent, in common institutions, Law and Government; and the various sociological circles, so to speak, are continually expanding to touch one another. Further, it is not incompatible with the sovereignty of individual States, since its structure will be determined not by physical force, but by the spiritual force of a common ideal.

2.That according to the law of Islam there is no distinction between the Church and the State. The State with us is not a combination of religious and secular authority, but it is a unity in which no such distinction exists. The Caliph is not necessarily the high-priest of Islam; he is not the representative of God on earth. He is fallible like other men and is subject like every Muslim to the impersonal authority of the same law. The Prophet himself is not regarded as absolutely infallible by many Muhammadan theologians (e.g. Abu Ishaq, Tabari). In fact, the idea of personal authority is quite contrary to the spirit of Islam. The Prophet of Arabia succeeded in commanding the absolute submission of an entire people; yet no man has depreciated his own authority more than he. “I am,” he says, “a man like you; like you my forgiveness also depends on the mercy of God.” Once in a moment of spiritual exaltation, he is reported to have said to one of his companions, “Go and tell the people: ‘he who says, there is only one God, will enter the paradise’,” studiously omitting the second half of the Muslim creed—“and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The ethical importance of this attitude is great. The whole system of Islamic ethics is based on the ideal of individuality; anything which tends to repress the healthy development of individuality is quite inconsistent with the spirit of Islamic law and ethics. A Muslim is free to do anything he likes, provided he does not violate the law. The general principles of this law are believed to have been revealed; the details, in order to cover the relatively secular cases, are left to the interpretation of professional lawyers. It is, therefore, true to say that the entire fabric of Islamic law, actually administered, is really judge-made law, so that the lawyer performs the legislative function in the Muslim constitution. If, however, an absolutely new case arises which is not provided for in the law of Islam, the will of the whole Muslim community becomes a further source of law.  But I do not know whether a general council of the whole Muslim community was ever held for this purpose.

I shall now describe the three great political theories to which I have alluded above. I shall first take up the Sunni view.
I. Elective monarchy
A. The Caliph and the People
During the days of the early Caliphate things were extremely simple. The Caliphs were like private individuals, sometimes doing the work of an ordinary constable. In obedience to the Quranic verse—“and consult them in all matters” —they always consulted the more influential companions of the Prophet in judicial and executive matters, but no formal ministers existed to assist the Caliph in his administrative work. It was not until the time of the House of ‘Abbas that the Caliphate became the subject of scientific treatment. In my description of the Sunni view I shall mainly follow al-Mawardy—the earliest Muslim constitutional lawyer who flourished during the reign of the Ahbasi Caliph al-Qadir. Al-Mawardy divides the whole Muslim community into two classes: (1) the electors, (2) the candidates for election. The qualifications absolutely necessary for a candidate are thus enumerated by him:
  1. Spotless character.
  2. Freedom from physical and mental infirmity. The predecessor of the present Sultan of Turkey was deposed under this condition.
  3. Necessary legal and theological knowledge in order to be able to decide various cases. This is true in theory; in practice the power of the Caliph, especially in later times, was divided.
  4. Insight necessary for a ruler.
  5. Relationship with the family of Quraish. This qualification is not regarded as indispensable by modern Sunni lawyers on the ground that the Prophet never nominated any person as his successor.
  6. Full Age (al-Ghazali). It was on this ground that the chief judge refused to elect al-Muqtadir.
  7. Male sex (al-Baidawi). This is denied by the Khawarij who hold that a woman can be elected as Caliph.
If the candidate satisfies these conditions, the representatives of all influential families, doctors of law, high officials of the State, and commanders of the Army meet together and nominate him to the Caliphate. The whole assembly then proceeds to the mosque where the nomination is duly confirmed by the people. In distant places representatives of the elected Caliph are permitted to receive homage on behalf of the Caliph. In the matter of election the people of the capital, however, have no precedence over other people—though, in practice, they have a certain amount of precedence, since they are naturally the first to hear of the Caliph’s death. After the election, the Caliph usually makes a speech, promising to rule according to the law of Islam. Most of these speeches are preserved. It will be seen that the principle of representation is, to a certain extent, permitted in practical politics; in the law of property, however, it is expressly denied. For instance, if B dies in the lifetime of his father A and his brother C, leaving issues, the whole property of A goes to C. The children of B have no claim; they cannot represent their father, or “stand in his shoes”.
From a legal standpoint, the Caliph does not occupy any privileged position. In theory, he is like other members of the Commonwealth. He can be directly sued in any ordinary law court. The second Caliph was once accused of appropriating a large share in the spoils of war, and he had to clear his conduct before the people, by production of evidence according to the law of Islam. In his judicial capacity he is open to the criticism of every Muslim. Omar I was severely reprimanded by an old woman who pointed out to him that his interpretation of a certain Quranic verse was absolutely wrong. The Caliph listened to her argument, and decided the case according to her views.
The Caliph may indicate his successor who may be his son; but the nomination is invalid until confirmed by the people. Out of the fourteen Caliphs of the House of Umayya only four succeeded in securing their sons as successors. The Caliph cannot secure the election of his successor during his own lifetime. Ibn Athir tells us that Abdul Malik—the Umayya Caliph—endeavoured to do so but Ibn Musayyib, the great Mekkan lawyer, strongly protested against the Caliph’s behaviour. The Abbasi Caliph Hadi, however, succeeded in securing the election of his son Ja’far but after his death the majority declared for Harun. In such a case, when the people declare for another Caliph, the one previously elected must, on penalty of death, immediately renounce his right in public.
If the Caliph does not rule according to the law of Islam, or suffers from physical or mental infirmity, the Caliphate is forfeited. Usually one influential Muhammadan stands up in the mosque after the prayer and speaks to the congregation giving reasons for the proposed deposition. He declares deposition to be in the interest of Islam and ends his speech by throwing away his finger-ring with the remarks: “I reject the caliph as I throw away this ring.” The people then signify their assent in various ways and the deposition is complete.
The question whether two or more rival Caliphates can exist simultaneously is discussed by Muslim lawyers. Ibn Jama holds that only one Caliphate is possible. Ibn Khaldun holds that there is nothing illegal in the co-existence of two or more Caliphates, provided they are in different countries. Ibn Khaldun’s view is certainly contrary to the old Arabian idea, yet in so far as the Muslim Commonwealth is governed by an impersonal authority, i.e. law, his position seems to me to be quite a tenable one. Moreover, as a matter of fact, two rival Caliphates have existed in Islam for a long time and still exist.
Just as a candidate for the Caliphate must have certain qualifications, so, according to al-Mawardy, the elector also must be qualified. He must possess: (1) Good reputation as an honest man. (2) Necessary knowledge of State affairs. (3) Necessary insight and judgment.
In theory all Muslims, men and women, possess the right of election. There is no property qualification. In practice, however, women and slaves did not exercise this right. Some of the early lawyers seem to have recognized the danger of mass-elections as they endeavour to show that the right of election resides only in the tribe of the Prophet. Whether the seclusion of women grew up in order to make women incapable of exercising a right which in theory could not be denied to them, I cannot say.
The elector has the right to demand the deposition of the Caliph, or the dismissal of his officials if he can show that their conduct is not in accordance with the law of Islam. He can, on the subject, address the Muslim congregation in the mosque after the prayer. The mosque, it must be remembered, is the Muslim Forum, and the institution of daily prayer is closely connected with the political life of Muslim communities. Apart from its spiritual and social functions, the institution is meant to serve as a ready means of constant criticism of the State. If, however, the elector does not intend to address the congregation, he can issue a judicial inquiry concerning the conduct of any State official, or any other matter which affects the community as a whole. The judicial inquiry as a rule does not mention the name of any individual. I quote an illustration in order to give an idea of this procedure:

In the name of God, most merciful and clement. What is the opinion of the doctors of law, the guides of the people, on the encouragement of the Zimmis, and on the assistance we can demand from them, whether as clerks to the Amirs entrusted with the administration of the country, or as collectors of taxes?… Explain the above by solid proofs, establish the orthodox belief by sound arguments, and give your reasons. God will reward you.

Such judicial inquiries are issued by the State as well, and when the lawyers give conflicting decisions, the majority prevails. Forced election is quite illegal. Ibn Jama, an Egyptian lawyer, however, holds that forced election is legal in times of political unrest. This opportunist view has no support in the law of Islam; though undoubtedly it is based on historical facts. Tartushi, a Spanish lawyer, would probably hold the same view, for he says: “Forty years of tyranny are better than one hour of anarchy.”
Let us now consider the relation between the elected and the elector. Al-Mawardy defines this relation as “Aqd” binding together, contract. The State, therefore, is a contractual organism, and implies rights and duties. He does not mean, like Rousseau, to explain the origin of society by an original social contract; he holds that the actual fact of election is contract in consequence of which the Caliph has to do certain duties, e.g. to define the religion, to enforce the law of Islam, to levy customs and taxes according to the law of Islam, to pay annual salaries and properly to direct the State treasury. If he fulfils these conditions, the people have mainly two duties in relation to him, viz, to obey him and to assist him in his work. Apart from this contract, however, Muslim lawyers have also enumerated certain cases in which obedience to the Caliph is not necessary.
The origin of the State then, according to al-Mawardy, is not forced but free consent of individuals who unite to form a brotherhood, based upon legal equality, in order that each member of the brotherhood may work out the potentialities of his individuality under the law of Islam. Government with him is an artificial arrangement, and is divine only in the sense that the law of Islam—believed to have been revealed—demands peace and security.
B. Ministers and Other Officials
The Caliph, after his election, appoints the principal officials of the State, or confirms those previously in office. The following are the principal State officials with their duties defined by the law:

1. The Wazir—The Prime Minister—either with limited or unlimited powers. The Wazir with unlimited powers must possess the same qualifications as the Caliph, except that, according to al-Mawardy, he need not necessarily belong to the Quraish tribe. He must be thoroughly educated, especially in Mathematics, History and the Art of Speaking. He can, without previous sanction of the Caliph, appoint officers of the various departments of the State. The Wazir with limited powers cannot do so. The dismissal of the Wazir with unlimited powers means the dismissal of all officials appointed by him; while the dismissal of the Wazir with limited powers does not lead to dismissal of the officials appointed by him. More than one Wazir with unlimited powers cannot be appointed. The Governors of various provinces can appoint their own Wazirs. A non-Muhammadan may be appointed Wazir with limited powers. The Shi’a dynasty of the Obaidias appointed a Jew to this position. An Egyptian poet expresses their sentiments as follows: “The Jews of our time have reached the goal of their ambition. Theirs is all honour, theirs is all gold. O people of Egypt, I advise you to become Jews; God himself has become a Jew.”

2. Next to the Wazir the most important executive officers of the State were governors of various provinces. They were appointed by the Caliph with limited or unlimited powers. The governor with unlimited powers could appoint sub-governors to adjoining smaller provinces. For instance, the sub-governor of Sicily was appointed by the Governor of Spain and that of Sind by the Governor of Basra. This was really an attempt to create self¬governing Muslim colonies. The officer in charge was, so to speak, a miniature caliph of his province; he appointed his own Wazir, Chief Judge and other State officers. Where special commander of the provincial army was not appointed, the Governor, ex-officio, acted as the commander. This, however, was an error, since the governors became gradually powerful and frequently asserted their independence. But in his capacity of the commander the governor had no right to raise the salaries of his soldiers except in very special circumstances. It was his duty to send all the money to the central treasury after defraying the necessary State expenses. If the provincial income fell short of the expenses, he could claim a contribution from the central treasury. If he is appointed by the Caliph, the death of the latter is not followed by his dismissal; but if he is appointed by the Wazir, the death of the Wazir means the dismissal of all governors appointed by him, provided they are not newly confirmed in their respective posts.

The governor with limited powers was a purely executive officer. He had nothing to do with judicial matters and in criminal matters too his authority was very much limited.

Muslim lawyers, however, recognize a third kind of governorship, i.e. by usurpation. But the usurper must fulfil certain conditions before his claim is legally justified.

3. Commander of Armies. Here too the distinction of limited and unlimited powers is made, and the duties of commanders, subordinate officers, and soldiers are clearly defined.

4. The Chief Judge. The Chief Judge could be appointed by the Caliph or the Wazir. According to Abu Hanifa, in some cases, and according to Ibn Jarir Tabary, a non-Muslim can be appointed to administer the law of his co-religionists. The Chief Judge, as representative of the law of Islam, can depose the Caliph—he can kill his own creator. His death means the dismissal of his staff; tut the death of the sovereign is not followed by the dismissal of the judges appointed by him. During an interregnum a judge can be elected by the people of a town, but not during the sovereign’s lifetime.

5. President of the Highest Court of Appeal and General Control: The object of this institution was to hear appeals and to exercise a general supervision over all the departments of the State. Abdul Malik—the Ummaya Caliph and the founder of this court—personally acted as the president, though more difficult cases he transferred to Qazi Abu Idris. In later times the president was appointed by the Caliph. During the reign of the ‘Abbasi Caliph al-Muqtadar, his mother was appointed President, and she used to hear appeals on Fridays, surrounded by Judges, priests and other notables. In one respect, the President of this Court differed from the Chief Judge. He was not bound by the letter of law like the Qazi; his decisions were based on general principles of natural justice, so that the President was something like the keeper of the Caliph’s conscience. He was assisted by a council of judges and lawyers whose duty was to discuss every aspect of the case before the President announced his decision. The importance of this institution may be judged from the fact that it was among the few Muslim institutions which the Normans retained after their conquest of Sicily in the eleventh century.


II. The Shi’ah view
According to the Shi‘ah view the State is of divine origin, and the Caliph, or as they call, Imam, governs by divine right. The view arose among an obscure Arabian sect known as Saba’ites, whose founder Abdullah ibn Saba was a Jew of Sana in Yemen. In the time of Uthman he became a convert to Islam, and finally settled in Egypt where he preached his doctrine. This doctrine harmonized with the pre-Islamic habits of political thought in Persia, and soon found a permanent home in that country. The Imam, according to the Persians, is not elected (the Shi’ahs of Oman, however, adopted the elective principle and held that the Imam might be deposed) but appointed by God. He is the reincarnation of Universal Reason, he is endowed with all perfections, his wisdom is superhuman and his decisions are absolute and final. The first Imam, Ali, was appointed by Muhammad; Ali’s direct descendants are his divinely ordained successors. The world is never without a living Imam whether visible or invisible. The twelfth Imam, according to the Shi’ahs, suddenly disappeared near Kufa, but he will come again and fill the world with peace and prosperity. In the meantime, he communicates his will, from time to time, through certain favoured individuals—called Gates—who hold mysterious intercourse with him. Now this doctrine of the absence of the Imam has a very important political aspect which few students of Islam have fully appreciated. Whether the Imam really disappeared or not, I do not know; but it is obvious that the dogma is a clever way of separating the Church and the State. The absent Imam, as I have pointed out above, is absolute authority in all matters; the present executive authorities are, therefore, only guardians of the estate which really belongs to the Imam who, as such, inherits the property of deceased intestates in case they leave no heirs. It will, therefore, be seen that the authority of the Shah of Persia is limited by the authority of the Mullas—the representatives of the absent Imam. As a mere guardian of the estate he is subject to the religious authority of the Mullas though as the chief executive authority he is free to adopt any measure for the good of the estate. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Mullas took an active part in the recent constitutional reforms in Persia.
III. The Khawarij republicanism
I shall be very brief in my account of the Khawarij, since the history of their opinions is yet to be worked out. The first Muslims who were so called were the notorious 12,000 who revolted against ‘Ali after they had fought under him at the battle of Siffin. They were offended at his submitting the decision of the right to the Caliphate to the arbitration of men when, in their opinion, it ought to have been submitted to the law of God—the Quran. “The nation,” they said to ‘Ali, “calls us to the book of God; you call us to the sword.” Shahristani divides them into twenty-four sects, differing slightly from one another in legal and constitutional opinion, e.g. that the ignorance of the law is a valid excuse; that the adulterer should not be stoned, for the Quran nowhere mentions this punishment; that the hiding of one’s religious opinions is illegal; that the Caliph should not be called the commander of the faithful; that there is nothing illegal in having two or more Caliphs in one and the same time. In East Africa and Mazab—South Algeria—they still maintain the simplicity of their republican ideal. Broadly speaking, the Khawarij can be divided into three classes:
  1. Those who hold that there must be an elected Caliph, but it is not necessary that he should belong to a particular family or tribe. A woman or even a slave could be elected as Caliph provided he or she is a good Muslim ruler. Whenever they found themselves in power, they purposely elected their Caliph from among the socially lowest members of their community.
  2. Those who hold that there is no need of a Caliph, the Muslim congregation can govern themselves.
  3. Those who do not believe in Government at all—the anarchists of Islam. To them Caliph Ali is reported to have said; “You do not believe in my Government, but there must be some Government, good or bad.”
Such are, briefly, the main lines of Political Thought in Islam. It is clear that the fundamental principle laid down in the Quran is the principle of election; the details or rather the translation of this principle into a workable scheme of Government is left to be determined by other considerations. Unfortunately, however, the idea of election did not develop on strictly democratic lines, and the Muslim conquerors consequently failed to do anything for the political improvement of Asia. The form of election was certainly maintained in Baghdad and Spain, but no regular political institutions could grow to vitalize the people at large. It seems to me that there were principally two reasons for this want of political activity in Muslim countries.
  1. In the first place the idea of election was not at all suited to the genius of the Persians and the Mongols—the two principal races which accepted Islam as their religion. Dozy tells us that the Persians were even determined to worship the Caliph as a divinity, and on being told that worship belonged to God alone, they attempted to rebel against the Caliph who would not be the centre of religious emotion.
  2. The life of early Muslims was a life of conquest. Their whole energy was devoted to political expansion which tends to concentrate political power in fewer hands; and thus serves as an unconscious handmaid of despotism. Democracy does not seem to be quite willing to get on with Empire—a lesson which the modern English Imperialist might well take to heart.
In modern times—thanks to the influence of Western political ideas—Muslim countries have exhibited signs of political life. England has vitalized Egypt; Persia has received a constitution from the Shah, and the Young Turkish Party too have been struggling, scheming, and plotting to achieve their object. But it is absolutely necessary for these political reformers to make a thorough study of Islamic constitutional principles, and not to shock the naturally suspicious conservatism of their people by appearing as prophets of a new culture. They would certainly impress them more if they could show that their seemingly borrowed ideal of political freedom is really the ideal of Islam, and is, as such, the rightful demand of free Muslim conscience.




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