Asghar Ali Engineer

(Islam and Modern Age, August 2006)

Governance is an important part of modern states whether it is democratic or even an authoritarian form of state. Some people feel that even an authoritarian form of state, if it governs properly and delivers is better than the democratic state which is corrupt and inefficient and does not deliver. However, it does not mean that authoritarianism can be justified in any case. It is just to emphasise importance of governance.

Can religion, whether Islam or any other, play any role in matter of governance? If so what role? Some may argue religion is not only a matter of belief but also concerns itself more with the world to come than this world. Belief in God, doctrines and rituals, all relate themselves to the other world. Religion also has dogmas irrelevant to this world. However, the other viewpoint is that religion is a way of life and also a useful guidance for this worldly life. It intends to mould good moral character and relates to leading a successful life and to this extent it is inevitably connected with matters of good governance so that goodness if rewarded and evil is punished. One cannot lead successful moral life if there is no security of life and property and basic needs are not fulfilled. And therefore, good governance enhances quality of life and becomes a factor in enriching spiritual life.

If the governors are morally upright and truly religious people it will by far enhance quality of governance. Buddhism, for example, stresses compassion and eliminating suffering (dukkha). Thus an engaged Buddhist will govern in such a way as to reduce or even eliminate suffering of people she/he governs. A follower of Jainism, on the other hand, will be seriously concerned with eliminating violence from people's life. A bad governance results in intensifying violence in society. A good Christian will strive through governance to promote love in the society and thus people will live in perfect harmony, which will smoothen mutual relations.

Thus it will be seen that value-orientation of religion can be greatly helpful in improving quality of governance. But life is much more than mere ideals. There is constant tension between ideal and personal interests. If human behaviour had been determined by ideals alone this world would have been a paradise by itself. The kingdom of God would have descended on earth.

Human behaviour is by far the most complex. Various factors like social, cultural, historical, economic and political play their respective role in determining a person's role. No human being lives in vacuum. One faces pressures from all sides. Even when one intends to be honest and truthful, one finds it so difficult to be so. But most human beings easily give in to demands of flesh and cannot resist temptation of good things of life. The governors, who have powers to realise what they want, find it all the more tempting to yield to pressure of their desire.

Thus one finds so much corruption even in religious establishments, which have been primarily established to fight evil in life and control desire. To control desire is the greatest jihad in life and without this jihad no governor can deliver. It is true it is greatest challenge in life to resist pressures of ones desires and practice ideals of ones religion or political ideology, one has, nevertheless set ideals so that one can continuously measure ones behaviour vis-୶is these ideals. Laws are often broken yet we need these laws. Religious teachings are often disregarded and yet we need these teachings to continuously strive to improve our behaviour.

Thus these religious ideals can be helpful in improving our governance. We are not concerned here with various dogmas and doctrines in which one may differ from each other and even may not accept them. We are mainly concerned with values, and not dogmas. What is Islam's viewpoint about governance? Does it concern itself with governance at all?

Islam tries to strike balance between this and other worldly life and exhorts its followers to lead moral life on earth and also to prepare for the other world through 'ibadaat (various spiritual acts of worship). Qur'an, the main source of Islamic teachings, stresses cooperation on goodness (birr) and taqwa' (avoidance of evil) and prohibits them to cooperate with each other in sin and aggression. (see 5:2)

Thus it s obvious from above verse of the Qur'an that good governance is also dependent on people's cooperation in goodness and avoidance of evil and refrain from committing sin and aggression. Aggression and violence upset the balance of life. The Qur'an also makes it duty of every individual to enforce what is good (ma'ruf) and contain what is evil (munkar) (3:110). Thus people have to engage themselves continuously in promoting good and containing evil. This is duty of people.

Thus people are very much part of good governance. Good governance is not possible without full co-operation of the governed. Every believer (mu'min) has to enforce good and contain evil irrespective of her/his status in society. No one, according to the Qur'an enjoys higher status than the other except by good deeds. One closest to Allah is one who is most pious. (49:13).

However, this does not mean that governors have no responsibility. In fact they are charged with the grave responsibility in this respect. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) provided the best model of a good governor. He himself lived an exemplary life. He never misused his powers to favour even his closest relative. When some one came with recommendation not to punish a thief, the Prophet (PBUH) became angry and said even if my daughter Fatima had committed theft, he would not have spared her.

Thus it would be seen that the rot starts if one is not just and favours a few over others. No criminal, even if she/he be a close relative, should be spared. The Qur'an, therefore lays down very rigorous standard of justice. Justice ('adl) is the central value in Islam. No system can be stable without justice. One of Allah's name is 'Adil (just). Justice is most fundamental to good governance.

The Qur'an says, "O you who believe, be upright for Allah, bearers of witness with justice; and let the hatred of a people incite you not to act justly. Be just; that is nearer to observance of duty. And keep your duty to Allah. Surely Allah is aware of what you do." (5:8). This Qur'anic injunction is universal in application. Both governor and the governed should be equally just. For a governor even hatred of other people should not incite him to commit injustice to them. Thus even enmity should not be allowed to commit an act of injustice. This is so central for good governance.

One of the great obstacles against good governance is ones prejudice against people not belonging to ones community or caste. While they shower favour on people of their own community or caste they deprive not belonging to their community of their just right. Such acts are legitimised in various ways, sometimes in the name of merit and efficiency or sometimes in the name of nation. Whatever the justification injustices one day lead to turmoil in the society.

The Prophet was a highly just ruler. He followed Allah who is described by Qur'an as "Best of the Judges". The opposite of justice in Qur'an is zulm (wrong doing, oppression). In fact the root meaning of zulm is darkness. Injustices always lead to darkness of oppression and exploitation in society. The Qur'an says "Allah is Friend of believers and brings them out of darkness into light." (2:257) Thus we have to create an order that is full of light and liberates humanity from darkness of zulm. Thus it is the duty of a ruler to create a just order where there is no place for zulm at all.

Another of important value in Islam is equality of all human beings. It is called musawat. All human beings are equal as human beings. The Qur'an says that all children of Adam have equal honour. (17:70). No one can deprive human beings of this dignity given by Allah, their creator. Thus a ruler has to ensure equal dignity and honour to all in his regime. There should not be any distinction between white and black, speaker of this or that language, belonging to this or that nationality.

Allah describes differences between various nationalities and tribes thus: O humankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female and made you tribes and families that you may know each other. Surely the noblest of you with Allah is the most dutiful of you." (49:13) Thus for a good governors differences of tribes and families should not matter and only one who is most conscious of his duties should enjoy highest and noblest status. The bad governance begins by being partial to ones own tribe or family. This becomes root cause of injustices, partiality and favouritism and nepotism.

Similarly the Qur'an describes diversity of colours and languages as signs of Allah (30:22) and not cause of inferiority or superiority over others. Such feelings of superiority and inferiority often result in injustices and consequent turmoil in the society. Thus an Islamic governance will make no such discrimination at all. It was this un-Qur'anic discrimination of Umayyad rule that resulted in highly oppressive regimes in the post-Khilafat period. We will throw more light on it little later.

Also, for good governance there is great need for complete freedom of conscience and fearless criticism of rulers. The Prophet (PBUH) says that the best form of jihad (afza al-jihad) is telling truth on the face of a tyrant ruler. When people are deprived of their right to criticise rulers fearlessly the rulers tend to be more and more oppressive and exploitative. This right to criticise is available more easily in a democratic than in an authoritative society. Thus a democratic regime is more Islamic than an authoritative regime, if one goes by the Prophet's above hadith.

It is also obvious that right to fearless criticism can be available only in a democratic and not in an authoritative regime. Thus proper governance is possible only in a democratic government. After the Prophet (PBUH) the Khilafat period in which the four rightly guided Caliphs ruled reflected some of these Qur'anic values, though not all. The first Caliph Abu Bakr said, while assuming office, "O people! Behold me ? charged with the cares of Government. I am not the best among you; I need all your advice and all your help. If I do well, support me; if I commit mistake, counsel me. To tell the truth to a person commissioned to rule is faithful allegiance; to conceal it, is treason. In my sight, the powerful and the weak are alike; and to both I wish to render justice. As I obey God and His Prophet obey me; if I neglect the laws of God and the Prophet, I have no more right to your obedience." 1

In this brief statement above Abu Bakr, the first Caliph has summarised the Islamic philosophy of governance. The main elements of this are; 1) People should advise the ruler and help him discharge his/her duties; 2) If the ruler governs well, support him/her, and if he goes wrong, counsel him/her; 3) to tell the truth to the ruler is fulfilling ones duty and to keep silent when he/she goes wrong is treason; 4) the powerful and weak should be equal in the sight of the ruler and he should deliver justice to both, his/her aim and 5) if the ruler follows the God and the Prophet, one should follow him/her and if he/she goes against them, he/she will have no more right to people's obedience.

Abu Bakr says one thing very important: to keep silent when the ruler goes wrong amounts to treason, treason against the God and His Prophet and against the people who are governed. Thus without fearless criticism of unjust rulers, honest governance is not possible. However, subsequently, both rulers and the ruled violated this principle and result was tyrannical rule and widespread injustice in the society.

The Qur'an also commands the Prophet "And consult them (i.e. those around you) in (important) matters." (3:159). Dr. Taha Husain, an Egyptian scholar concludes from this verse that Muhammad (PBUH) did not found a theocratic state as the Prophet has been commanded to consult people around him in important matters. He writes that nothing can be more misleading than the concept that the state founded by the Prophet was a theocratic state.

According to Dr.Taha Islam after all, is a religion which lays emphasis on the unity of God, prophethood (of Muhammad) and then on righteous living. It also drew attention towards this and the other-worldly life but it did not deprive human beings of their freedom and it (Islam) did not become an absolute master of man nor did it suspend his initiative to act; it, on the other hand, made him the master within certain limits. It showed what was desirable and what was repulsive and, of course, it laid emphasis on reason and gave freedom (with the help of reason) to think what was good to the extent possible. The God commanded the Prophet (PBUH) to consul the faithfuls in (their) affairs. If everything had to be decided in the heavens, there was no need to consult anyone.2

Thus the Qur'an, according to Taha Husain, balances between God's limits and human reason and freedom according to their needs within these limits (hudud) fixed by Allah. Thus in matter of governance influence of these hudud is quite inevitable. Any governance, which ignores these limits is bound to lead to turmoil and chaos in the society.

According to the Qur'anic hudud governance implies great responsibility, as pointed out by Abu Bakr also, towards the weaker sections of society. The Qur'an is greatly concerned with fate of weaker sections of society. In the pre-Islamic society in Mecca, the poor, the orphans and widows were being totally neglected. Thus in chapter 107 we find condemnation of those who neglect these sections of society. Those who neglect these sections and even if they pray, it is mere for showing off.

Also, the Qur'an maintains that the struggle between the powerful and the weak is eternal and that Allah is on the side of the weak (mustad'ifin)3 Allah intends, according to the verse 28:5 to make the weak the leaders and inheritors of this earth. Thus any governance, which is based on favouring the powerful and arrogant sections of society is bound to attract Allah's wrath and would violate limits laid down by Allah.

In fact today governance in general, and in Islamic world in particular, flagrantly violates this cardinal principle of Qur'an and hadith. Over the centuries through the medieval ages, the people have become docile and submit to tyrannical rule and do not raise their voice. This is one reason why one finds lack of democracy in the Islamic world. Generally it is alleged that Islam finds democracy rather ill suited to its teachings. Nothing can be far from truth.

If democracy means participation of people in governance Islam is the first religion to emphasise that. Again and again it is emphasised in Islamic teachings to speak truth in the face of tyrant rulers. Imam Ghazzali even maintained that it is haram (prohibited) to see face of a tyrant ruler. The Qur'an strongly favours weaker sections of society and makes justice as inevitable part of believer's conduct.

Are these not the cardinal elements of democracy? Democracy means openness and transparency of governance, people's participation in decision- making and above all, justice. Also, there is emphasis in democratic governance on human rights, freedom and human dignity. No meaningful democracy can function without honouring human rights and freedom of _expression.

Qur'an not only accepts human dignity but emphasises it in the verse 17:70 referred to above and also guarantees freedom of conscience (2:256). It is true Muslim rulers did not practice these cardinal principles throughout history of Islamic rule and instead develop highly authoritarian rule which began from the Umayyad period itself.

It is for the Muslim 'ulama and intellectuals to attempt an honest critique of this authoritarian rule throughout Islamic history and develop a model which is in accordance with the Qur'an on one hand, and on the modern concept of human rights and human dignity and freedom. It is regrettable that Muslim intellectuals have also failed in their duty to attempt a systematic critique of governance in Muslim countries and have meekly submitted to tyrannical authorities. We often talk of Prophet's sunnah but have not taken seriously Prophet's assertion to speak truth in the face of a tyrant ruler.

Today's governance is not possible without the concept of gender justice and women's empowerment. One must admit that Islamic world is lagging far behind in this respect though some progress of late has been made although grudgingly. The Islamic world still tends to be highly patriarchal and has serious reservation in giving women their due. They are suppressing, and it is most ironical, Qur'anic rights of women in the name of Qur'an.

The Qur'an, empowered women by giving them, in the history of humankind, equal dignity. What is more important is that is that Qur'an has made obligatory on women what it has made obligatory for men including zakat, a poll tax. How can then anyone seriously maintain that women are secondary to men. Some verses are selectively projected to prove a partisan point rather than evolving an over all Qur'anic approach.

In order to develop just governance justice will have to be given priority over many age-old traditions. Justice is highly emphasised in the Qur'an. Unfortunately in many shari'ah laws given social traditions have assumed much greater importance over justice, which is so fundamental to Qur'anic teachings. Justice to weaker sections is a must according to the Qur'an and women also belong to weaker sections in our societies.


From what is discussed above is evident that religious values can have benevolent effect on matters of governance. What our traditional 'ulama do is to insist on traditions than these Qur'anic values. Traditions are time bound whereas values are transcendent. While traditions emphasise what is, values emphasise what should be. Thus values are more important than traditions. Unfortunately the Islamic world is still strongly tradition bound than values bound. And here modern Muslim intellectuals have to play a constructive role by critiquing these traditions.

Those traditions, which are in keeping with values could be retained but those which are opposed to these traditions must be rejected. Traditions are local and values are universal and hence local cannot over ride universal. Also, most of the Muslim regimes are authoritarian and justify this in the name of Islam and Qur'an. No authoritarian regime, which denies basic human rights and freedom to speak truth can have any place in modern world, particularly the one based on Qur'anic values. Earlier we change better it is. Islam can and must play an important role in evolving good governance in the Muslim world.

1 - See Sayed Akhtar Husain, The Glorious Caliphate, Academy of Islamic Research and Publications, Lucknow, 1974, P-9

2 - Dr. Taha Husain, Al-Fitnat al-Kubra Vol. I "Uthman, Urdu tr. by Abdul Hamid Nomani, Ajmal Press, Bombay (nd) pp-28-29

3- Qur'an 28:5

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