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Political Science

By:
Abdul Rashid Moten
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

Political Science

For Muslim scholars, political science as a distinct discipline is of relatively recent origin. Traditionally, Muslim scholars studied matters pertaining to politics such as the nature and need of the state, qualifications and installations of the chief executive, functions of ministers, and responsibilities and rights of the rulers and the ruled as part of the Sharīʿah (the Islamic legal system) or as siyāsah sharʿīyah. This is due to the fact that in Islam religion and politics are intertwined, and as such ethics sets the tone for politics, and the rules of political activities are deduced from the ethical norms of Islam. Almost all Muslim scholars dealt with political problems but couched them in religious terms. Some thinkers, however, did directly confront the questions relating to political science and its essential features. For instance, Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (d. 950) wrote about the “attainment of happiness” through political life in Kitāb ārāʾ ahl al-madīnah al-fāḍilah (The Book of Opinions of the People of the Ideal City). Abū al-Ḥasan al-Māwardī (d. 1058) blended reasoning derived from the Qurʾān, sunnah, and other Islamic sources with political deductions from the period of the Prophet and the first four caliphs in his al-Aḥkam al-sulṭānīyah (Ordinances of Government), and Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) wrote about the necessity of a properly constituted authority in al-Iqtiṣād fī al-iʿtiqād (Moderation in Belief). Abū Yūsuf (d. 798) wrote on government and authority in his Kitāb al-kharāj (Book on Taxation). ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) explained the necessity of social organization and the rise and fall of civilization in his Muqaddimah (Prolegomenon).

Defining Political Science.

Political science, according to al-Fārābī, examines the various kinds of actions and behavior that lead to the appointment of virtuous leaders and the formation of virtuous societies. The purpose of politics is to lead man to true happiness (saʿādah) through right modes of conduct—virtue and good deeds. Such modes of conduct are instilled by virtuous leadership, which, in turn, brings about ultimate happiness. The true happiness is to be found in the hereafter. Fārābī's Fī al-ʿilm al-madanī wa ʿilm al-fiqh wa ʿilm al kalām (On Political Science, Science of Jurisprudence, and Science of Kalām) is in the arena of a manual on political science. To al-Ghazālī, political science deals with the proper order for administering the affairs of men. Such an order is derived from books revealed by God to His prophets. Politics is a science that aims at ensuring man's welfare in this world and bliss in the next. This “happiness” can be attained only if the government is based upon religious sciences and political sciences. Al-Māwardī conceives of political science rather narrowly as government that, to him, is instituted to maintain religion and to administer the world. This government is necessitated by divine will and not by reason. Variations and emphases notwithstanding, all the Muslim scholars based their formulations upon the assumptions that the state is ordained by God to administer the world, and its function is to apply the Islamic law (Sharīʿah) so as to create happiness in this world and in the hereafter (Rosenthal, 1968).

Methods Used to Study Politics.

Muslim scholars have used several approaches to study politics. The works of Muslim political thinkers can be grouped under three categories: philosophical works, works by jurists, and administrative handbooks and “Mirrors for Princes” (Rosenthal, 1968).

The philosophers considered politics as a craft and were very much influenced by Greek philosophy. They began their formulation by laying down the rationale for political association and by explaining the constituents of an ideal state. Their approach was normative and utopian. The foremost among the philosophers was al-Fārābī, who sought to reconcile Greek philosophy with Islam, or philosophy with revelation. Central to the work of philosophers is the law that is the foundation of the state and regulates it. Happiness to al-Fārābī can be found only in an ideal state led and administered by an imam who is likened to a philosopher-king. The ideal authority promotes true happiness; the corrupt authority promotes supposed happiness composed of wealth, honor, or pleasure. Al-Fārābī influenced many others, including Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna d. 037) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198).

The juristic formulations stressed the need to implement divine will as laid down in the two divine sources of Islam, the Qurʾān and the sunnah of the Prophet Muḥammad. They also relied upon the practices of the first four caliphs of Islam (Khulafāʾ al-Rāshidūn) since they ruled by following the guidance of the Prophet. They believed in the centrality of the ruler or the caliph, who had to fulfill certain conditions, the most important of which was justice (ʿadālah), which also require knowledge. The ideal state is defined as the one where Sharīʿah is implemented and where the legitimate authority carries out the duty of promoting virtue and prohibiting vice. The prominent thinkers who produced juristic works include al-Māwardī, al-Ghazālī, Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), and others.

The administrators and writers of manuals of conduct for rulers may be considered as political realists. They emphasized the divine right of kings and assumed a symbiotic relationship between “kingship and righteousness” on the one hand and “prosperity with right religion” on the other. They advocated obedience to the ruler but pointed out that the true ruler is the one who is strong, who practices justice, and who maintains the social order. Unlike the philosophical works that discussed the principles of government, the administrators dealt with the art of government. Siyāsat nāmah (Book of Government) by Niẓām al-Mulk (d. 1092), Naṣīḥat al-mulūk (Advice to the Kings) by al-Ghazālī, and Akhlaq-e-Muhsini (The Morals of the Beneficent) by Ḥusayn Vāʿiẓ Kāshifī (d. 1505) are prominent examples of the “mirrors for princes.”

Political Science in Modern Times.

As noted earlier, Muslim scholars wrote about politics and all other matters by subsuming these under their discussion of jurisprudence and Sharīʿah. The situation changed with the nineteenth-century European encroachment on the Muslim world, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, and the spread of Western ideas and influence throughout Muslim societies. These threats not only gave birth to various Islamic movements but also led scholars to embark upon writing separate works on sociological and particularly political topics. The early writers wrote using the language of the Islamic sciences. Over time, a group of intellectuals admiring Western culture and civilization replaced the traditional scholars and expressed their thought in Western languages and redefined political science in modern terms. The able representatives of this group include Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), Jamal al-Din Asadabadi (d. 1897), ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq (d. 1966), and others.

The new elites considered earlier definitions of politics to be too restrictive, since they tied it to state organizations. They replaced the classical or medieval preoccupation with the search for happiness with a search for the laws of behavior. They saw nothing wrong in Robert Dahl's definition of political science as a study of “any persistent pattern of human relationships that involves, to a significant extent, power, rule or authority” (Dahl, 1970, p. 6). They also agreed with David Easton that political acts are those that “authoritatively allocate values in a society” (Easton, 1953, p. 134). Easton's definition is similar to Dahl's in conceiving of politics as a set of human interactions. Easton, however, limits it by emphasizing “authoritative allocations” for an entire society and focuses attention on the distribution of scarce resources or values in a society as well as on the authority or power relationships involved in it. Muslim scholars took Easton's definition as a “conventional guide” for political analysis. Many, however, realized that no political theory or idea will ever be acceptable to the broader Muslim community unless their stress on the value allocation process, power, and conflict in the distribution process and policy outcomes are shown to be in conformity with the dictates of the Qurʾān and the sunnah. Consequently, defining politics as a struggle for power, they added that in Islam power is sought to serve the Lord Almighty and thus to serve humanity and to attain a blissful eternal life. Power is sought to repudiate all those who claim absolute right and power that are due only to Allāh and, therefore, to banish oppression and injustice from the face of the earth. Thus they made the ethical, normative content of power, which was made irrelevant and redundant by the triumphant march of materialism and behaviorism, relevant. Likewise, they stressed that the essence of politics is the striving for the “good life,” but this good life is given a social, economic, and material connotation along with a life lived in worship and in seeking the pleasure of the One and only Allāh. ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq, according to Rosenthal (1968, p. 100), was “obviously unaware of the political treatise of al-Fārābī ... and of others,” those who conceived of good life in both temporal and spiritual terms.

Along with the definition of political science, much has also been written on methods of research to produce pertinent political theories. Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979), Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966), and other twentieth-century scholars have advocated the universality of Islam. They do not object to the philosophical method, the historical method, or the juridical method. They appreciate, however, Ibn Khaldūn's approach of asking questions and of verifying the truth or falsity of statements through reliable records, observation, and experience. They stress the need to observe actual behavior through systematic research and statistical applications, if need be. They aim at providing explanations for political action as well as providing recommendations to help improve the conditions of the Muslim community (ummah) and humanity at large. Their research is rooted in divine revelation, but they see reason and revelation as complimentary to each other. They suggest obtaining knowledge through revelation or divinely ordained absolute knowledge (ḥaqq al-yaqīn), rationalism or inference based upon judgment and appraisal of evidence (ʿilm al-yaqīn), historical reports, description of life experiences, and the like (ʿayn al-yaqīn al-yaqin). Thus, they suggest studying politics by turning to experience and experiment and to rational and intellectual inquiry within the circumference of revealed knowledge.

Bibliography

  • Crone, Patricia. Medieval Islamic Political Thought. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Dahl, Robert A. Modern Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
  • Donohue, John J., and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Easton, David. The Political System. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.
  • Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought: The Response of the Shīʿī and Sunnī Muslims to the Twentieth Century. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Islamic Book Trust, 2001.
  • Esposito, John L., ed. Voices of Resurgent Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Lambton, A. K. S. Theory and Practice in Medieval Persian Government. London: Variorum, 1980.
  • Moten, Abdul Rashid. Political Science: An Islamic Perspective. Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan, 1996.
  • Rosenthal, Erwin I. J. Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
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