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Peter Avery
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Islam's expansion forced the ummah (community) to confront the issue of mulk (royal authority). This term was already used, sometimes pejoratively, under the Umayyads (661–750), who were criticized for betraying an ideal. Qurʿān 2:247–249 cites the Hebrew prophet emphasizing that God alone made and unmade (3:26) kings, whom he endowed with knowledge and power, not wealth. Their āyāt (signs) were the Ark, a sakīnah (divine radiance), and Moses’ and Aaron's relics. Shīʿī traditions mention the imams’ sakīnah, legitimating hereditary charisma.

God's throne overspreads heaven and earth (2:256; 25:60). The Last Day will mark mulk's return to God (22:55). His law, sharīʿah, preexists any earthly law. Man's purpose is the exemplification and execution of sharīʿah, and the purpose of the dār al-Islām (Muslim lands) is the elimination of the dār al-ḥarb (non-Muslim lands). Except in Shīʿī doctrine, the Prophet died without nominating sucessors in his secular, leadership role. Those closest to him solved the dilemma by reference to Arab practice. By ijmāʿ (consensus) they selected the venerable among his companions, his first four deputies (khulafāʿ; the “rightly guided” Caliphs), because they were best versed in the law revealed to the Prophet. Qurʿān 4:59, however, while primarily enjoining obedience to God and the messenger, affords some scope for flexibility by adding, “and those in charge among you.”

The aim of such great jurists as al-Māturīdī (d. 944), Bāqillānī (d. 1013), Baghdādī (d. 1037), al-Māwardī (d. 1058), Juwaynī (d. 1085), al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), and Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) was threefold: adherence to revelation; maintaining Muslim piety; and, never more than in the paramount matter of leadership of the community, matching Muslim theory with practice. Muʿtazilī rationalizations needed refuting, but, beginning in the ninth century, the Sunnī jurists had first to combat two extremes: Shīʿī doctrine that only the descendants of the Prophet's son-in-law ʿAlī were rightful leaders of the community and, notably after the occultation of the Twelfth Imam in 873, that in effect secular rulers were only tolerable under the aegis of the fuqahāʿ (those qualified to interpret the law); and the Khārijī doctrine that, if sound of body and mind, any Muslim might be elected caliph. Given that opposition to God's law and the consensus of the Prophet's people, “who can never agree on error,” was heresy, the Sunnī jurists’ watchwords were maṣlaḥah (commonweal for Muslims to fulfil God's purpose), ittifāq al-ahwīʿ (unanimous agreement on what is desirable), and on the negative side, mafsadah (what causes corruption), and especially, fitnah (economic and social disruption).

In a situation lacking dichotomy between spiritual and temporal authority, the jurists’ problem was soon compounded by the rise of more than one caliphate; the ʿAbbāsid (749–1258) in Baghdad was rivaled by others in Spain and Egypt. Although for reasons in which theology and law were intertwined, the jurists sought the caliph's warrant, from 821 onward, provincial amirs assumed and made hereditary local sovereignty as malik or sulṭān, and in 945, the Shīʿī Būyids captured the caliph's capital, Baghdad. They demonstrated pre-Islamic Iranian kisrāwī (Khosruan, Khusrawan) influence by reviving Sassanian royal titles.

Such changes defied the Shīʿī theory of naṣṣ (imams by prophetic designation) as well as the Sunnī bayʿah (mutually agreed “bargain” between ruler and ruled). Al-Fārābī (d. 950), philosopher rather than jurist, anticipated developments by stipulating that a king should be skilled and powerful enough to be in fact philosopher-king, whether he was honored or not, rich or poor. Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) described the inqilāb (transformation) of the caliphate to mulk as “natural,” but decadent, implying Arab Muslims’ loss of ʿaṣabīyah (strong common feeling). Rūzbihān Khunjī (d. 1521) accepted kings as world managers provided that they protected sharīʿah and enabled the people to be dutiful Muslims.

The pre-Islamic Iranian dīn and dawlah (twinning of kingship and religion in mutual interdependence) as invoked, crystalized in the Seljuk compromise with the caliphate. Under the Būyids, the jurist al-Māwardī said a restrained caliphate might function provided the restraining force upheld sharīʿah. New rulers’ other primary duties related to taxes and defending Islamic territory. Al-Ghazālī was less concerned with the sultan-caliph relationship than with preservation of the religious life. Order, avoidance of fitnah, was vital.

When the Mongol Hülegü Khan ended the ʿAbbāsid caliphate, the symbol of authority from the Prophet's kinsmen and companions disappeared, though the Muẓaffarid Mubāriz al-Dīn Muḥammad (1313–1357) in Fars and certain North African aspirants to kingship sought legitimation from an ʿAbbāsid descendant in Cairo. The legal implications and Islam's exposure to unbelievers’ infiltrations consequent on this not being lost on religious teachers around him, Ilkhanid caliph Ghāzān's conversion to Islam in 1295 appears to have initiated an attempt to fill the void. He was assiduously apostrophized by his minister and apologist, Rashīd al-Dīn, as Pādshāh-i Islām, and proof of the intention seems evident in the adoption of the ʿAbbāsid black banner.

For the Shīʿah the dilemma might have seemed resolved when, challenged by Sunnī Ottoman and Mughal neighbors, the Ṣafavids (1501–1722) made Shiism the religion of Iran, though both the shah and his Ottoman enemy styled themselves to each other as sovereign of Islam. Because Twelver Shiism claimed Ṣafavid descent from the seventh imam, Mūsā al-Kīẓim (d. 799), it might seem to have combined imamate and mulk. In effect, it caused tension between the ʿulamāʿ and king.

An Afghan Sunnī leader's defeat of the Ṣafavids and their subsequent final removal by their erstwhile liberator, Nādir Shāh, left Iran still officially Shīʿī. By 1979 a monarch had allowed his version of kisrāwīyah seriously to distort the delicate balance between the divine and mundane which Islam requires to be kept, as nearly as possible, in equilibrium. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini replaced the shah in the Iranian Revolution. Enthusiastic followers called the ayatollah “imam,” but he instituted what he termed, and depersonalized as, vilāyat-i faqīh (guardianship of the jurisprudent): one sufficiently knowledgeable in sharīʿah to be viable as curator of maṣlaḥah until the awaited Hidden Imam's return. Kingship banished, a fresh experiment in application of the ideal began: according to pure Islamic theory, not so much a political-social experiment as an attempt to retrieve from mafsadah God's purpose for man.

In Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saʿūd took the title of king in 1927. He reigned until 1953. Foreign oil agreements, obviating dependence on local finance, consolidated his position. Morocco's old dynasty became a monarchy in 1961, when Hasan II assumed the title of King. Iraq was a monarchy, imposed by the British, from 1921 until 1958. Faced by modern Muslims’ repurification concerns, these monarchies’ survival, owing much to their first rulers’ abilities, largely depends on their heirs’ capacity. Represented as “Western” innovations, these monarchies may, whatever their credentials, look beholden to forces threatening Islam. Indeed, in the cases of Iraq and Egypt, which became a monarchy in 1922, they have already been replaced by Republics.



  • Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid al-. “Ghazali's Book of Counsel for Kings.” Translation of Nasīhat al-Mulūk by F. R. C. Bagely. Oxford, 1964. Maxims for “kings” on ideal government.
  • Gibb, H. A. R.Studies on the Civilization of Islam. Edited by Stanford J. Shaw and William R. Polk. London, 1962. Valuable discussion of Islamic legal and historical problems, based on extensive research.
  • Ibn Khaldūn. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal. New York, 1958. See especially chapter 3.
  • Lambton, Ann K. S.State and Government in Medieval Islam. Oxford, 1981. Useful, comprehensive introductory survey.
  • Levy, Reuben. The Social Structure of Islam. Cambridge, U.K., 1957. A picture of state and society under the ʿAbbāsid caliphs.
  • Niẓām al-Mulk. Siyāsatnāmah. Translated by Hubert Darke. London, 1960. Admonitions for secular rulers—the Seljuks—concerning how to rule according to both Islamic and what purport to be ancient Iranian principles, a key to practical as well as ideal statecraft.
  • Rosenthal, E. I. J.Islam in the Modern National State. Cambridge, U.K., 1965. Survey of Islamic political thought in the context of secularizing movements and ideas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Rosenthal, E. I. J.Political Thought in Medieval Islam. Cambridge, U.K., 1958. Essential and detailed study.
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