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Islamic State

For most of the history of Islam, the “state” did not exist as an institution with legal authority. Nonetheless, since the days of Muhammad, Muslim scholars have theorized about the relationship between religion and government. During the 1900s, the modern Islamic state emerged. Although Islamic states may follow similar practices with regard to moral and social issues, their political features vary greatly.

The Art of Improvisation.

The Qur'an and hadith offer little guidance on matters of government and the state. The Muslim community faced its first political crisis when the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 . His followers disagreed about the proper way to select his successor, which eventually led to the division of Islam into various sects. A majority, however, chose to follow Abu Bakr, who became the first caliph after Muhammad. Several Arab tribes rejected Abu Bakr's leadership, arguing that religion and politics are separate and that the death of Muhammad signified the end of their allegiance to the Muslim community. Abu Bakr countered the opposition to his rule, asserting that religion provides legitimacy to a political system.

Specific information on the subject of politics is also notably absent from the Constitution of Medina, one of Islam's earliest political documents. Written in the 620s, it calls for Muslims and their allies (in this case, several Jewish tribes) to form one community (ummah) that unites to ensure social order, security, and defense. As Islamic sovereignty spread, Muslims combined various sources to create their political systems. These sources included shari'ah, Arabian tribal traditions, and the political customs of conquered peoples, especially the Persians and Byzantines.

The concept of the state in traditional Islamic political theory was closely tied to the concepts of community, justice, and leadership. Muslim jurists insisted that the primary task of any ruler is to ensure that Islamic law is implemented. Beyond that, they focused mainly on types of statesmanship, the problems associated with government, and the conduct of the ruler.

Of particular importance was the issue of legitimacy. Religion largely shaped the institutions in the governments of the first four caliphs, who ruled from 632 to 661 . They based their right to rule on the principles of shura (inner consultation), aqd (a contract between the ruler and his subjects), and bay'ah (oath of allegiance). During the Umayyad ( 661 – 750 ) and Abbasid ( 750 – 1258 ) dynasties, the question of legitimacy took on greater relevance, as caliphs came to power through heredity. At that time, Muslim scholars emphasized the authority of the ruler and the unity of the ummah as the basis for government.

By the 1100s, Muslim loyalties were divided among several leaders, and Muslim lands faced increased threats from invaders. In the absence of political and societal unity, jurists maintained that authority derived from shari'ah. A government established legitimacy through its ability to defend its domain from foreign powers.

Sunni jurists described the ideal Islamic state as a community governed by God's law, rather than a theocracy or an autocracy. The state should provide security and order so that Muslims can attend to their religious duties—doing good and preventing evil. In the ideal state, the caliph serves as the guardian of the community and the faith; the religious scholars offer religious and legal advice; and the judges settle disputes according to Islamic law. The government's primary function is to promote Islam. In the 1400s, jurist and historian Ibn Khaldun said that all citizens are entitled to life, religion, education, family, and property. Over time, Muslims came to believe that this utopian community had actually existed. Contemporary militant movements have evoked the vision of the ideal state as a model for Muslim countries.

From Iranian culture, Islamic political theorists adopted the idea that the universe is arranged in a certain order. Each person has a place in this order. A caliph or king is at the top of the social pyramid, and he is the representative of God on earth. Opposing him and thereby dividing the community would be considered a sin. Muslim political theory thus came to emphasize obeying the ruler and avoiding civil strife.

Back to Basics.

Prior to the 1800s, Muslims thought of politics in terms of the ummah and the caliph or sultan. Islam had served as the foundation for several great empires, and religion informed legal, political, educational, and social institutions. Colonial occupation by European countries during the 1800s brought new political realities. Many Muslims blamed Western influences and the subsequent straying from Islamic practices for the decline of their societies. They believed that a return to Islam as the basis for government would ensure political and spiritual revival.

The concept of the modern Islamic state emerged as a reaction to the abolition of the Muslim caliphate in Turkey in 1924 . Alarmed by this event and the break up of Muslim communities by European colonial governments, some Muslims began to promote the idea that Islam is both a religion and a state. Noted jurist Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri even called for a new caliphate to govern all Muslim countries and communities.

During the 1930s, Indian-Pakistani writer Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi advocated an Islamic state governed by true believers who use the Qur'an and sunnah as the basis for their rule. God alone would have total sovereignty in this state. Moreover, the government would enforce Islamic moral order in the state's legal, political, and economic affairs. Hasan al-Banna ( 1906 – 1949 ), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, held similar views. To him, Islam was everything—a fatherland and a nationality, a religion and a state, spirituality and action. Fundamentalist leader Sayyid Qutb ( 1906 – 1966 ) added that the Muslim community must be free from polluting influences, including non-Islamic ideas such as patriotism and nationalism. He believed that the first priority for Muslims is to establish a pure Islamic order. Afterward, they can determine its laws and system of government. Several militant Islamic groups have embraced Qutb's antisecular position.

During the 1970s, Iranian Shi'i leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini advanced new ideas about the modern Islamic state. He argued that the essence of such a state was the special quality of its leaders, not its compliance with religious law. An expert in Islamic law should be the guardian of the government, and any act that he deemed appropriate could be defined as Islamic. Khomeini thus shifted final religious authority from the shari'ah to the state's leadership.

Different Interpretations.

Today Muslims continue to disagree about the precise relationship between religion and the state. The few political organizations that identify themselves as Islamic states may follow similar practices, such as applying mandatory punishment for certain crimes (hudud) or trying to enforce the Qur'an's ban on riba (interest). Nevertheless, they differ with regard to their political institutions and constitutional arrangements.

Saudi Arabia created the first Islamic state in the modern era (early 1930s). Its government is a monarchy, although the king exchanged the title of “his royal majesty” for the more Islamic “servant of the two sanctuaries” of Mecca and Medina. Using the Qur'an as its legal code, Saudi Arabia does not have a constitution, a parliament, or political parties. The state does, however, include a modern cabinet and a bureaucracy. The ulama exert a powerful influence on the country's political and legal affairs.

Iran, by contrast, is a republic with a constitution, a president, a parliament, and political parties. Islamic clerics and jurists, however, dominate all levels of the government.

Historically, the majority of Pakistanis have differed from their political leaders with regard to the concept of an Islamic state. The authorities viewed Islam as a way to identify the community and the nation, but most of the people and religious leaders believed that Islamic law should inform all political institutions. Military regimes have dominated the state since the late 1970s, and their leaders have used Islam as a way to legitimize their rule. See also Caliph; Caliphate; Government; Mawdudi, Sayyid Abu al-Ala; Iran; Pakistan; Saudi Arabia.

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