The political universe of Islam has never been a fixed entity. It has been continuously changing depending on locale and time. Also, it is difficult to trace any fixed notion of Islamic state either in the Qur'an, in hadith literature or in any political theory propounded by any Muslim theologian. Popularly it is believed that in Islam, state and religion cannot be separated. It is more of a theological and historical construct rather than a scriptural injunction. It is true in the sense of Islamic values, which must be associated with the state.

It is a well-known fact that there was no state structure in pre-Islamic Arabia. The tribal chiefs in Mecca led by the tribe of Quraysh made all important decisions. These tribal chiefs constituted a council of their own called mala' (senate) and all decisions had to be unanimous, else they could not be implemented by dissenting tribal chiefs. Also, there were no institutions like the police or the army for law enforcement as only the tribal customs prevailed. In pre-Islamic Arabia all the wars were inter-tribal and all adult male members of the tribe participated in it. There were no wars with other countries outside Jaziarat al-Arab i.e. Arabian peninsula.

The outside rulers had to deal with tribal chiefs as there was no head of the state. Also, for outside rulers no need arose for invasion of this area and hence no army was needed. Thus both the institution of army as well as that of police (shurta) came nto existence only in the post-Islamic period when a primitive state structure came into existence. The state structure which, came into existence after the death of the Holy Prophet could be described as proto-democratic. As long as the Prophet was alive all decisions were made by him be they political or civil in nature. He of course consulted his companions when the need arose. The Qur'an also exhorts him to consult his companions (see 3:159)

On the death of the Holy prophet of Islam, Muslims differed on the issue of succession, Sunnis maintaining he left no successor or any will to that effect. The Shi'ahs, on the other hand, maintained that he did appoint his successor and that both in spiritual and political sense the successor ship will continue in the progeny of Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and Fatima, his daughter.

Thus it would be seen there were no agreed views about the successor, much less on its mode. There was no pre-Islamic model to follow. The Sunnis followed the pre-Islamic tribal tradition and elected the chief of the state as tribals used to elect a successor to the deceased chief. But that election was also not smooth there being many claimants and each claimant laying claim on some or the other merit. The Quraysh laid their claim on the basis that theirs was the most experienced tribe in diplomatic sense and that the Prophet was from amongst them. The Ansar, on the other hand maintained that they were the first to help the Prophet and thus had greater claim to being his successor. Some even suggested that let there be one co-ruler from the Quraysh and one from the Ansar.

Since there was no institution of monarchy in pre-Islamic Arabia and all decisions were taken with mutual consultation, and there being no authority like the Prophet any more, all decisions were taken by the succeeding caliphs through mutual consultations with the senior companions of the Prophet. There was no clarity about the powers of the caliph and also about duration of his regime. However, one thing was clear that the caliphs had to rule according to the Qur'an and Sunnah and prophet's companions had to assist him in discharging these duties.

Both the Qur'an and Sunnah were the most progressive and liberative sources of legislation at the time. Islam came as a liberating religion for the weaker sections of society including women. No doubt the people embraced in large numbers. Not only this history tells us that the poor and unprivileged people of Roman and Sassanid empires even welcomed Muslims as conquerors. They opened the doors of the forts and even guided them through secret routes to enter into the city. Thus the Islamic State of the time was a revolutionary state.

Even the first Caliph Abu Bakr is reported to have said while assuming the charge of caliphate, "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 mistake, correct 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 weak are alike; and to both I wish to render justice. As I obey God and His Prophet obey me; and if I neglect the law of God and the Prophet, I have no more right to your obedience." (Syed Athar Husain, The Glorious Caliphate, Lucknow, 1947, p-19)

This was an excellent doctrine of governance for a revolutionary state. To dispense justice to the weak and powerful alike and to ask the governed to speak truth to the ruler and to treat it as a true allegiance. The Qur'an laid maximum emphasis on justice to the weak, to bring about redistribution of wealth in favour of the poor and the needy and to create the institution of bait al-mal (state treasury) to achieve such redistribution. And these caliphs tried to follow the spirit of the Qur'an as rigorously as they could.

However, it was possible within smaller area and more or less homogenous population of Mecca and Medina (though it was not as homogenous as one would like to believe). But as the Islamic empire spread to Egypt, Syria, Palestine and other parts of Roman Empire on one hand, and Iran and Central Asia, on the other, diversity increased tremendously and size of population too. Also, there were diverse customs and traditions and liberative aspects of Islamic teachings were not acceptable to all, particularly to the former ruling classes.

Thus it was no longer possible to enforce the Islamic doctrine of justice and redistribution of wealth in favour of the weak as rigorously as it was possible within a small area with a more homogenous population. The fissures began to develop with the increase in size of the Islamic Empire. Here before we proceed, we would like to deal with an important issue for a, Islamic state.

Those ideologues of Islamic state who fervently advocate its establishment has to seriously reflect on the question whether it is possible to establish an Islamic state like the one which was established immediately after the death of the Holy Prophet? Firstly, there was no unanimity among the Muslims as to the question of succession as pointed out above. The Muslims were vertically divided on the question of succession. Secondly, within less than thirty years of establishment of caliphate, civil war broke out among the Muslims leading to great deal of bloodshed.

The first Caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr had clearly stated the principles of transparent governance which could be applied for a very limited area and limited period. Also, all the present rulers who claim to establish an Islamic state never refer to the principles laid down by the first Caliph for governance. They only apply certain parts of Shari'ah law that too as it was developed during medieval ages without re-thinking it. Such mechanical application of the law creates anomalies difficult to resolve. No rulers of the present day Islamic state follows the Qur'anic values of 'adl, ihsan, rahmah and hikmah (justice, benevolence, compassion and wisdom) besides those of equality, human dignity and brotherhood. It is these values which are more fundamental to the Islamic state than any thing else. No Islamic State in contemporary period has established a welfare state, let alone brought about distribution of wealth among the poor and the needy. (59:7)

An Islamic state cannot be merely based on some selected aspects of Shari'ah law like dress code for women and other restrictions on them, hudud laws (laws of punishments), blasphemy law, personal law and so on. These laws were based on the interpretation of the Qur'anic verses in the then prevailing cultural ethos and hence need to be rethought to accommodate modern problems.

Also, in the medieval political theory there was no concept of citizenship, let alone citizens' rights. The values of governance as developed by the first Caliph on the basis of the Qur'an and Sunnah were soon abandoned by the Muslim rulers. The third Caliph was murdered apparently because he did not apply the principles of justice very rigorously and the fourth caliph because he applied them too rigorously. The character of the Muslim ummah had drastically changed due to conquests of large areas of Roman and Sassanid empires and it was very difficult in these circumstances to apply any coherent political theory, let alone the fundamental principles and values.

Here we would also like to deal with the concept of ummah. This concept of Muslim ummah has also undergone change from its early usage in the Islamic history. According to Imam Raghib any community whether based on religion or geography and contemporaneity, be it optional or non-optional, it is not even limited to human community, even the birds belonging to same group can constitute ummah (6:38). The Qur'an describes entire humanity as one ummah wahidah (2:213) (i.e. one human community). (See Mufradat al-Qur'an, Lahore, 1971, under ummah)

The Qur'an also expresses in the verse 5:48 that if Allah so desired He could have created all human beings as one community and the Qur'an also says that from amongst you, should be a group (ummah) who should become role model for goodness to others (3:104). Thus we see that the Qur'anic usage for ummah is not only for Muslims but much wider in its scope.

Ummah in the sense of Muslim community alone became current much later. The Prophet of Islam drew up Mithaq-i-Madina which included various Jewish and pagan tribes besides Muslim tribes and this conglomeration was also referred to as Ummah wahiday i.e. one community. It is important to note that Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani of Jami'at al-Ulama-i-Hind opposed two nation theory on the basis of this Medinese covenant saying when the Prophet of Islam called the composite community as Ummah Wahidah, how can Jinnah describe Hindus and Muslims as two separate nations.

Thus it is only in spiritual and religious sense that Muslims can be described as one ummah, not in political sense. In political sense Muslims constitute ummah separately in every country along with others, may they be Hindus or Christians or Buddhists. Today majority of Muslims lives as minorities in various Asian, African and western countries including Europe and North America. How can these desperate groups of Muslims living in these countries constitute one ummah in political sense? Culturally, linguistically and ethnically they are much closer to those non-Muslim groups with whom they live in those countries.

In medieval ages, countries were not divided into nations. Today's political realities are very different from those of medieval period. And even during medieval period all Muslims were not under one caliph. Earlier political theory of Islam had proposed only one caliph but this state of affairs did not last more than a century. Gradually number of rulers came into existence in the Muslim world and that reality had to be accepted by the Islamic theorists.

Also, there was no single method by which even the first four caliphs - called khulafa-i-rashidun could be elected. And after the fourth caliph Mu'awiyah, belonging to the Umayyad clan, seized power even without popular sanction and he nominated his son Yazid to succeed him thus introducing the monarchical institution in the world of Islam. Many prominent companions of the Prophet (PBUH) refused to acknowledge Yazid as a legitimate successor and the Prophet's grand son Imam Husain gave his life but not his hand into the hand of Yazid. He became the great martyr in the cause of Islam.

Thus we see that no single political theory worked in the world of Islam. Drastic changes have taken place in political institutions from caliphate to monarchy to army dictatorship to democratically elected governments. Of all these, one can say that democratically elected governments can be said to be closest to the spirit of Islam.


The contemporary scenario in the world of Islam has no uniformity either. There are all forms of governments in the Islamic world today from monarchy to military dictatorship to controlled democracy. No Muslim country has free democracy. It is also true that in these countries traditional and orthodox 'ulama, wield tremendous influence. They strongly resist any attempt at modern legislation. They represent orthodoxy and dogmatism. The noted Urdu poet Iqbal describes Islamic shari'ah as dynamic and names one of the chapter of his book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam as "The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam".

However, we hardly see this in practice in Islamic countries. What we see in these countries is stagnation and opposition to meaningful change. The women continue to suffer sexual discrimination. Any progressive legislation giving even Islamic rights to women is fiercely opposed by the conservative 'ulama. The latest example can be given from Egypt. When the Hasni Mubarak Government in Egypt introduced a legislation for giving women right to divorce (which is sanctioned by the Qur'an) the Islamic clergy opposed it on the grounds that women are hasty in decision making and any such right given to them would destabilise the family life.

Thus the shari'ah law has become totally stagnant in the hands of these conservative sections of 'ulama and its dynamic spirit has been totally lost. What is needed today is progressive changes in the shari'ah law in keeping with the spirit and fundamental values embodied in the Qur'an. The Qur'an lays so much emphasis on justice and equality but these values are not reflected in the shari'ah law in the sense in which these values are understood today. In all Muslim countries (with the exception of Pakistan and Bangla Desh) on the other hand, there is great emphasis on hijab for women. Wearing hijab has been made compulsory in almost all Muslims countries.

What is very interesting to note in this respect is that there is no uniform application of shari'ah law in these Muslim countries. There is great deal of differences in interpretation of these laws. As for example in Kuwait women are not allowed to vote as it is considered against Islamic law. The Kuwaiti women have been struggling for right to vote for a long time. But no luck so far. On the other hand, in Pakistan and Bangla Desh they are not only allowed to vote they became even prime ministers of the two countries. And in Bangla Desh women hold both positions that of prime minister ship and that of leader of opposition.

In Saudi Arabia women cannot drive cars whereas in other Islamic countries they are free to do so. The Taliban in Afghanistan when they were in power, did not allow women to come out of their houses and go for education. In some Islamic countries women are not allowed to go to market or any other public place without being accompanied by a male relative, even in the case of emergency. And all this is done in the name of Islam.

There is no possibility of change unless there is democratisation of these regimes. The colonial legacy is still going strong in these Muslim countries. The colonial powers had propped up some monarch or sheikh or even military strongman in power to serve their political hegemony. They are still propped up by these western powers. These rulers frustrate any attempt at democratisation of their regimes and seek Islamic legitimation through the conservative 'ulama. It is these 'ulama who provide support to these rulers and these rulers in turn wield tremendous political clout and resist any change in the Shari'ah law.

Thus conservative ethos rule the roost in most of the Islamic countries. Secularism and democracy are considered anti-Islam in such atmosphere. The earlier military regime in Pakistan is a good example of this politically created religious conservatism in an otherwise a modern state. Thus there is great need for thorough democratisation in all these Muslim countries.

It is only through democratisation that peoples of these countries will enjoy democratic freedoms and only through democratisation that these countries will get rid of pro-western regimes. These regimes cause so much anger among the people who are even unable to express their opinions freely and the pent up feelings lead to acts of terrorism as in the case of Usama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida group. One can usher in modern secular polity with the concept of citizenship and respect for human rights only through democratisation of these regimes.

And when the rulers do not depend on the support of 'ulama they will be able to, with the help of popular support, bring about modern legislation making the shari'ah law really dynamic that it was in its earlier days. Shari'ah law can respond to the needs of modern times only in a democratic regime. Islam permits ijtihad (dynamic and creative interpretation of Islamic law) and it is conservative 'ulama who do not permit carrying out of ijtihad. In a democratic regime popularly elected parliament can appoint expert committees to examine the orthodox law and the much needed changes to make it respond to present times. And on recommendations of these committees the parliament can enact necessary legislation.

Not only that the Islamic teachings do not come in the way of democratisation it is in fact very much in keeping with the spirit of Islam to bring about democratisation in the Islamic world. In fact all the modern changes depend on that. Also, the institution of caliphate represented, as pointed out earlier, proto-democracy. If Mu'awiyah had not interrupted the process and introduced the institution of monarchy full-fledged democracy could have flowered in the Islamic world much earlier.

Now the time has come that what was interrupted should be re-introduced and thus democracy can fructify in Islamic world. It is feudalism and colonialism, which robbed Islam of its dynamism. Unfortunately Islamic world is still labouring under feudalism and semi-colonialism. There was time when Islam had come as a liberating religion. However, it lost its liberating thrust altogether in the last one thousand years and much more so during the colonial period. It is high time that Islam re-appropriates its liberative role.

With democratisation the political universe of Islam will undergo a through change and whereas it is stagnating today, it will acquire much needed spirit of dynamism and change.

Make a donation to support us


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *