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The late Ayatollah Khomeini immortalized on a mural in Qom, Iran.

Patrick Brown / PANOS

Picture this scene. Prophet Muhammad has just died.

A crowd gathers outside his house in Medina. His closest companion, Abu Bakr, comes galloping on his horse. He goes inside to confirm the news. After consoling himself, he comes out to address the swelling crowd. ‘O believers,’ Abu Bakr announces. ‘If you worshipped Muhammad, know that Muhammad is dead. But whosoever worshipped God, know that God is alive, for He cannot die.’ Then Abu Bakr recites a verse from the Qur’an: ‘Muhammad is only a messenger before whom many messengers have been and gone.’ (3:144).

What happens next is a defining moment in Islamic history. Those attending the funeral in Medina ask a natural question: who should succeed the Prophet as the ruler of Muslims? The Prophet himself left the question open for his followers to decide.

A public meeting is organized to discuss the succession. A number of different viewpoints are presented. Some suggest that the Caliph, the successor to the Prophet, should come from the people of Medina who provided him with refuge in his time of need. Others argue that he should be chosen from the people of Mecca, who migrated with the Prophet Muhammad to Medina. There is even a third suggestion: there should be two rulers, one each from Mecca and Medina. Eventually, a consensus emerges, confirmed by a simple show of hands: Abu Bakr should succeed the Prophet as the first Caliph of Islam.

Government by discussion

Many scholars consider this meeting as constituting the basic relationship between Islam and politics. The Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, does not provide a theory of the State. But it does insist, repeatedly and clearly, that community issues should be decided on the basis of shura, or consultation and discussion. The assembly in Medina established the shura as the general principle of political activity. It also enacted another central tenet of Islam: decisions should reflect an ijma, consensus or the view of the majority.

If democracy is ‘government by discussion’, as John Stuart Mill once said, then both these principles are inherently democratic.

Just before Abu Bakr died, he nominated Umar, another close companion of the Prophet. But he did not impose his nomination. First, he sought approval of all the companions of the Prophet. Then, he introduced a consultative process, involving public discussions and participation of the whole community. Umar’s nomination was confirmed only when everyone agreed.

In his inauguration speech, Umar introduced another key standard of Muslim politics: a ruler can be removed, by force of public opinion, if he fails to perform his duties adequately or ignores the concerns and opinions of the citizens. Obey me, he declared, only as long as I perform my duties. He believed that rulers and the ruled were totally equal. When he heard that one of his governors had built a pulpit for himself in the mosque, he sent a short sharp letter. Remove the pulpit, he wrote, for it is not proper for one man to sit above all others.

Umar ruled for 20 years, a period in which the Muslim empire expanded as far as Syria, Egypt, Anatolia, Persia and Azerbaijan. It was no longer possible to gather the entire Muslim community in a large mosque and consult them directly. So Umar established an Electoral Council of seven administrators to choose his successor. The Council faced considerable problems; it was not easy for them to consult people who lived in distant places. And Umar died before the councillors could reach a decision.

So its charismatic chair, Abd al-Rahman, declared that as he was not a candidate he would travel to consult people. After many public meetings and discussions, he discovered that the consensus focused on two people: Othman, another companion of the Prophet, and Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. To decide between the two, Abd al-Rahman called a public meeting where candidates were questioned and cross-examined. On the basis of their answers, Abd al-Rahman chose Othman; and the congregation approved his decision.

Islam is uncompromisingly universal; state is unquestionably parochial

But after Othman, dissent within the Muslim community led to subversion of the principles of consultation and consensus. As Islamic monarchies emerged, the democratic spirit was drained from these doctrines. Both shura and ijma were reduced to mean consultation with, and consensus of, political and religious élite rather than the whole Muslim community.

Classical Muslim scholars and thinkers colluded in this process. The influential 10th century scholar al-Mawardi argued that only those living in the capital city should be involved in the election of a ruler. Moreover, it was not necessary to consult everyone. Indeed, a ruler could also be nominated by a widely respected religious scholar – even if the nominee had little qualification or experience of governance! Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century political thinker and guru of modern Muslim fundamentalists, held that rulers were obliged to consult religious scholars whom they must obey. He described kings as ‘the Shadow of God’, who must be obeyed even if they are unjust. Both of these thinkers insisted that the sharia (Islamic law) should reign supreme in any form of Islamic polity.

Sharia has also been the dominant theme of contemporary Muslim politics. Proponents of ‘political Islam’, who see Islam and politics as one and the same thing, have championed the notion of the ‘Islamic state’. That is a state where Islam is both the sole religion and dominant political ideology; and where the sharia is strictly enforced – on everyone.

The modern idea of the ‘Islamic state’ first emerged in the writings of the Egyptian scholar Rashid Rida. In his 1930 book, The Caliphate and the Great Immamate, Rida argued that the creation of a modern Islamic state was the nearest alternative to the restoration of the classical Caliphate. Rida’s terms for ‘Islamic state’ – ad-dawlah (simply ‘the state’) or al-hukumat al-Islamiyyah (‘Islamic government’) – exist neither in the Qur’an nor in classical Arabic. They are a new creation: Rida was reacting to the Western idea of the secular nation-state. What turned this secular state into an Islamic one, he argued, was the supreme rule of the sharia.

The notion of the Islamic state really took off during the 1950s when many Muslim countries obtained their independence. It became the major objective of the global Islamic movements such as the Jama’t e-Islami of Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. The Brotherhood collaborated with the military regime in the Sudan. Jama’t e-Islami worked with General Zia ul-Haq to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state during the 1980s. But while Rida believed that the sharia had to be revived and adapted to meet the needs and requirements of modern society, contemporary Islamic movements adhere strictly to an immutable and ossified idea of the sharia. Regimes in such places as Saudi Arabia and Iran have ruthlessly imposed the sharia both to give an Islamic connotation to their respective states and to justify their authoritarianism.

The Iranian ‘Islamic state’ was established after the 1979 Revolution. In his book, Islamic Government,1 Ayatollah Khomeini declares that ‘the Islamic state is neither autocratic nor does it make its head the repository of all powers’; rather it is ‘a constitutional state’ ruled by the sharia.

But when he acquired power, Khomeini turned Iran into a theocracy where the head does indeed have ‘all the powers’ – religious, political and legal. Khomeini introduced the innovative concept of Vilayat-e-Faqih, the Supreme Leader. He has the power to: declare war; appoint the Chief Justice and Prosecutor General; approve and reject presidential elections; and appoint the six jurists of Shura-e-Nigahban, the Guardianship Council that approves all legislation passed by Parliament. It’s a prescription, as has become all too evident, for totalitarianism.

Patrick Brown / PANOS

Shura not sharia

The idea of an ‘Islamic state’ is totally un-lslamic and has no precedence in Islamic history. Indeed, the term itself is self-contradictory: Islam is uncompromisingly universal; state is unquestionably parochial. An Islamic state with fixed boundaries and allegiance to a single, particular interpretation of Islam undermines both the universality of Islam and the diversity of Islam and Muslims. Moreover, by turning religion, politics, law and morality into a single, monolithic entity, the very idea of an Islamic state becomes intrinsically authoritarian. Not surprisingly, wherever an Islamic state has been established, and sharia has been imposed, authoritarianism rules and medieval punishments and social conditions have been the major product.

This is why it is now increasingly rejected by Muslim scholars throughout the world. One of Iran’s most senior clerics, Shi’a scholar Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, regards the Islamic state and Supreme Leader as blasphemous notions. Sunni scholars from Morocco to Indonesia have denounced the whole concoction as totally against the spirit of Islam.

Instead, reform-oriented Muslims are now shaping a new relationship between Islam and politics that returns us to the practice of Abu Bakr and Umar. The Qur’an speaks about community and not state. Therefore all politics in Islam should be about creating a diverse, civic community that is politically alive. This is the stand, for example, of Indonesia’s Liberal Islam Network, which has millions of young followers. The main thrust of forging a political community in the time of Abu Bakr and Umar was voluntary association based on consultation and co-operation. And shura, the network argues, can now simply be interpreted as elections.

Anwar Ibrahim, the reformist opposition leader in Malaysia, points out that the Prophet Muhammad endeavoured to establish a society of free men and women voluntarily holding values like justice, equality, brotherhood and peace. The constitution that he established in Medina acknowledged the religious diversity of the city and was intrinsically pluralistic. Thus, Muslim politics should be about establishing open and accountable democracy and promoting diversity and social justice.

  • Translated by Hamid Algar, Mizan Press, 1982.
  • Ziauddin Sardar is a prolific writer and broadcaster based in London. His latest book is Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim (Granta).

    New Internationalist issue 426 magazine cover This article is from the October 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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