Islamic perspective

The concept of Islamic state


Islamic state is a most discussed subject both among supporters as well as among its 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 it an Islamic state? Is there any such 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 Islamic state. Will it be enough of a criterion?

First of all we should know whether 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 (PBUH) 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 i.e. justice and benevolence. A Qur'anic society must be based on these values. Also, the Qur'an strongly opposes zulm and 'udwan i.e. oppression and injustice. No society thus based on zulm and 'udwan can qualify for 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.

First of all it is important to note that the pre-Islamic Arab society had not known any state structure. It was a predominantly a 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 ones tribal interests. The only law prevalent was that of qisas i.e. 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 in Madina too, there was no state 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. It was to get rid of the inter-tribal warfare that 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. Thus all religious groups were free to follow their own law and tradition and there was no coercion in such matters. 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 that if Madina is attacked by an outside force 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 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 but 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 which matters most than governance. Allah says in the Qur'an that al-yauma akmaltu lakum dinakum (i.e. 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 "enforcing what is good and combating 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 (i.e. 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 some one 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 who should 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 the spirit of unity was lost? Why wars broke 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 to succeed the prophet. the Imam or Caliph, they claimed should be from amongst the Ansars. The members of the family of the Prophet (PBUH) 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 historical and not religious need. We would like to elaborate this a bit.

As every Muslim knows the religious duties of Muslims are to pray, fast, pay the poor due (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 (i.e. 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 (i.e. relations between human beings) are concerned. A state has to govern these mu'amalat and 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 Prophet's 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 i.e. 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.

Here a problem may arise as far as the Shi'ah sects are concerned. They believe in the theory of imamah i.e. only an Imam from the progeny of the Prophet's son-in-law and his daughter Fatima can inherit the Prophet (PBUH). The Shi'ahs, in other words, reject the concept of khilafah i.e. succession to the Prophet through election by the people. The right to succession is confined only to the members of the Prophet's family and it is available to no one else. It is no doubt the very basis of the Shi'ah tradition and faith.

But this hardly changes the ethos of governance. The state in Iran is today a democratically elected one. The President of Iran and the Majlis (parliament) are elective in nature. In todays world there is no question of a ruler coming from the Prophet's family. It was a different matter when the controversy arose immediately after the death of the holy Prophet. A group of people then did feel that Hazrat Ali, the son-in law of the Prophet who was rigorously just, who had fought and won many an Islamic battle, who was one of the bravest and most honest person should have succeeded the Prophet. He was qualified for good governance in ways more than one. Apart from being just, honest and brave, he was most learned as well. The holy Prophet had described him as gateway to the city of knowledge, Prophet being the city of knowledge himself. He was also greatly confident of his knowledge. He often used to say saluni qabla tafquduni i.e. ask me before you loose me.

In such circumstances it is not surprising that many people felt that Ali was much more qualified to succeed the Prophet than any one else. His two sons Hasan and Husain were also eminently qualified as they too were inheritors of the virtues and qualities of the Prophet, they having been trained and brought up by the Prophet and Ali. No one else has such an excellent opportunity to have been so intimately connected to the Prophet and the whole Islamic atmosphere around him.

In fact the theory of Imamah was based on this certainty of correct religious guidance on one hand, and, a guarantee for good and just governance, on the other. It is this inner certitude which gave rise to the belief that the members of the Prophet's family are most suited to guide and govern. The Shi'ahs moreover believe that the imams were infallible and can do no wrong. But two things are again important to note here. The governance by imam also could not be absolute in personal terms, much less dictatorial or authoritarian. The Imam will also have to consult the representative of the people as per the Qur'anic injunction in 3:158 in which even the Prophet (PBUH) is required to consult them.

This verse i.e. 3:158 is 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 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 as far as the close relatives of the Prophet who lived either with him or very close to his period, was concerned. 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 and the Shi'ahs were divided into nu