Government in Islam

Relationship between Politics and Morality in Islam

The Islamic Guardian (UK), April to June 1980 Issue (Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 5–10)

In the light of recent trends and events in a number of Muslim countries, there has been extensive press discussion regarding the form of the political and governmental system proposed by the religion of Islam. In any such discussion, it cannot be over-stressed that Islam is not a political ideology, nor does it preach that a mere formal adoption of its guidance in relation to the political sphere of life should be the main or ultimate aim of Muslims. Spiritual purification and elevation, and a sincere and humble service of humanity, are what Islam aims at. By giving the fundamental principles of conducting national affairs, Islam shows how the above-mentioned qualities can be exercised in political life.

Indeed, it is a unique achievement of this religion that it binds politics and politicians and statesmen to a moral code. But in order that political leaders truly abide by this code devised by Islam, there must first have taken place within them a thorough moral and spiritual change (as was the case in early Islam), so that their adherence to the code is based on a deep conviction in its truth. Hence, all those desirous of establishing an Islamic system of government must first establish the rule of Islam over their own hearts.

To reiterate, Islam does not seek or stand in need of any political power for its success. However, it does teach that if its followers find themselves running the government, they should display the same high morals in exercising that power as they are required to show in personal dealings. Aside from the teachings of the Holy Quran itself, the Holy Prophet Muhammad and his first four successors (‘Caliphs’) are recognised by the majority of Muslims as having illustrated the principles of Islamic government by their personal example.

Basis of Islamic Government:

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡۤا اَطِیۡعُوا اللّٰہَ وَ اَطِیۡعُوا الرَّسُوۡلَ وَ اُولِی الۡاَمۡرِ مِنۡکُمۡ ۚ

“O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority from among you” (The Holy Quran, 4:59).

The Islamic government derives its authority from this verse. The law is based upon the word of God (i.e., the Quran), the recognised example (Sunnah or Hadith) of the Holy Prophet, and the decisions of those in authority. But obedience to the authorities is conditional upon one not being required to disobey God, as the Holy Prophet has made clear in a saying.

Blind following and Blind Obedience Condemned:

It may be added here that rendering blind and unquestioning obedience, particularly to religious leaders, is strictly forbidden by the Quran.

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡۤا اِنَّ کَثِیۡرًا مِّنَ الۡاَحۡبَارِ وَ الرُّہۡبَانِ لَیَاۡکُلُوۡنَ اَمۡوَالَ النَّاسِ بِالۡبَاطِلِ وَ یَصُدُّوۡنَ عَنۡ سَبِیۡلِ اللّٰہِ ؕ

“They take their doctors of law and their monks for lords besides Allah” (The Holy Quran, 9:31)

is the Quran’s description of nations which blindly followed (or “took for lords besides Allah”) their leaders. The Muslims are also warned about self-seeking religious leaders:

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡۤا اِنَّ کَثِیۡرًا مِّنَ الۡاَحۡبَارِ وَ الرُّہۡبَانِ لَیَاۡکُلُوۡنَ اَمۡوَالَ النَّاسِ بِالۡبَاطِلِ وَ یَصُدُّوۡنَ عَنۡ سَبِیۡلِ اللّٰہِ ؕ

“O you who believe, surely many of the doctors of law and the monks eat away the property of men falsely and hinder them from Allah’s way” (The Holy Quran, 9:34).

Imam Abu Hanifah, founder of the most widely-followed school of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh), said:

“Give up my word for the Word of Allah; give up my word for the word of the Messenger of Allah.”

An Islamic government, therefore, derives its authority from the Quran and the Sunnah, and its decisions are to be obeyed as long as they do not conflict with these basic sources of Islam.

Formation of Government:

The basic principle with regard to who should be placed in authority is:

اِنَّ اللّٰہَ یَاۡمُرُکُمۡ اَنۡ تُؤَدُّوا الۡاَمٰنٰتِ اِلٰۤی اَہۡلِہَا ۙ

“Surely Allah commands you to make over trusts to those worthy of them” (The Holy Quran, 4:58).

Worthiness includes both capability and competence to govern and a high moral character to discharge state duties, or the trust with which the people have entrusted them, honestly and scrupulously.

According to the above verse, the Muslims choose their government by mutual consent (the word you referring to the Muslim public), and they must exercise this right with great care and responsibility.

“When the trust is wasted, wait for the hour of doom,”

said the Holy Prophet. On being asked how the trust will be wasted, he replied:

“When government is entrusted to those unworthy of it, then wait for the doom” (Sahih Bukhari).

Thus, Islam lays great stress on choosing for state persons who are worthy of them, with no consideration given to their race, colour, wealth, family, or “party”; and, of course, women as well as men may be chosen. It should be added that the private life of such a state official is as relevant a factor in his choice as his public life and attainments, for one must be certain of his worthiness to bear the high trust.

It should also be noted that Islam does not allow the kind of election canvassing, campaigning, and “commercial packaging” prevalent in modern democracies where each candidate projects himself as being more suited for the job than the others. Islam favours a system where the people themselves propose the “candidates” for an elected office, and then choose their man from among them.

Non-Muslim Minorities:

Apart from having full religious freedom, the rights of non-Muslim minorities are fully protected by granting them separate representation in the government so that the views of these communities may be expressed. This is much fairer than the “dictatorship of the majority” that arises in the standard Western electoral systems where minority communities are not fairly represented according to their size (owing to the prejudice of the majority community preventing election of candidates belonging to minorities), and even if they were, their representatives could easily be outvoted. In an Islamic state, non-Muslim minorities are treated as communities, and any laws affecting them take full account of their views and feelings.

Operation of Government:

The Holy Quran describes true believers as those

وَ الَّذِیۡنَ اسۡتَجَابُوۡا لِرَبِّہِمۡ وَ اَقَامُوا الصَّلٰوۃَ ۪ وَ اَمۡرُہُمۡ شُوۡرٰی بَیۡنَہُمۡ ۪

“who respond to their Lord and keep up prayer, and whose affairs are decided by counsel among themselves” (The Holy Quran, 42:38).

This chapter (42) is a very early revelation, belonging to a period when the Holy Prophet and his followers were suffering intense persecution. At that time there were no affairs of state which may have needed counsel, yet between the injunctions to pray and to give in charity — two fundamental duties of Muslims — is the command to resort to counsel “among themselves.” This shows not only the importance that Islam attaches to the principle of decision by mutual consent, but also that it requires Muslims to be trained on spiritual lines to be able to conduct affairs of state.

Holy Prophet’s own Example:

The Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and the blessings of God be upon him, illustrated this principle by his own conduct as head of state. Once when the Muslims at Madinah learnt of an imminent attack by an army of their enemies advancing from Makkah, the Holy Prophet sought counsel of the Muslim community as to whether to defend the city from within or to march out and fight in open battle. The majority view, with which the Holy Prophet himself disagreed, favoured the latter course, so that was the course he decided to adopt. But during the battle (of Uhud) which resulted, things went wrong at one stage, so much so that a part of the Muslim army fled from the field. After the battle, which was inconclusive for either side, the Holy Prophet received the following revelation:

فَاعۡفُ عَنۡہُمۡ وَ اسۡتَغۡفِرۡ لَہُمۡ وَ شَاوِرۡہُمۡ فِی الۡاَمۡرِ ۚ فَاِذَا عَزَمۡتَ فَتَوَکَّلۡ عَلَی اللّٰہِ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ یُحِبُّ الۡمُتَوَکِّلِیۡنَ ﴿۱۵۹﴾

“So pardon them and ask forgiveness (of God) for them, and consult them in (important) matters. But when thou hast determined, put thy trust in God” (The Holy Quran, 3:159).

Here the principle of consultation is reiterated despite the fact that here was a case where the majority opinion was wrong. Incidentally, there are two other points arising out of this verse. Firstly, even those who disobeyed the Holy Prophet’s orders on the field of battle and fled were not punished or court-martialled: the Prophet is told to pardon them. How worldly leaders, even of the most civilised nations in today’s liberal age, punish any such shortcomings on the part of their sub-ordinates, is too well-known. But Islam does not share this concept of “military discipline,” concentrating instead on inner spiritual discipline. The second point is that once a decision has been taken there must be no delay or dithering in its execution.

Basic Example of Government:

The passage about entrusting government to worthy persons continues:

وَ اِذَا حَکَمۡتُمۡ بَیۡنَ النَّاسِ اَنۡ تَحۡکُمُوۡا بِالۡعَدۡلِ ؕ

“And when you judge between people, judge with justice” (The Holy Quran, 4:58).

Thus, in allowing various persons and sections of the community to exercise their rights, as well as in the particular case of making legal judgments, justice must be observed. Distinctions of race, class, rank, religion, or nation are to carry no weight, nor are considerations of “national interest” to be allowed to have any influence over the principle of observing justice. So scrupulously are Muslims to do justice that they are commanded:

وَ لَا یَجۡرِمَنَّکُمۡ شَنَاٰنُ قَوۡمٍ عَلٰۤی اَلَّا تَعۡدِلُوۡا ؕ

“Let not hatred of a people incite you not to act equitably. Be just; that is nearer to observance of duty” (The Holy Quran, 5:8).

In judging a dispute between a Muslim supported by his tribe and a non-Muslim hostile to Islam, the Holy Prophet gave the verdict against the Muslim despite the danger of alienating an entire tribe at a critical time for the Muslim community.

In the light of these injunctions and the early Muslims’ adherence to them, it is obvious that Islam has no place for “show trials” with their pre-determined verdicts, or for political assassinations where a person not having committed any crime, or at least not having been tried and found guilty of some murderous offence, is killed on the orders of some so-called “judge.”

Resolving Disagreements between Government and People:

The earlier-quoted verse about obedience to constituted authority continues:

فَاِنۡ تَنَازَعۡتُمۡ فِیۡ شَیۡءٍ فَرُدُّوۡہُ اِلَی اللّٰہِ وَ الرَّسُوۡلِ

“And if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger” (The Holy Quran, 4:59).

Hence, in case of a dispute between the government and the people, the judiciary would decide the matter with reference to the Quran and the Hadith, these two sources being the supreme authority in all matters.

There is a well-known instance, a “precedent,” in Muslim history, that once when Umar, the second caliph, announced in public his intention of introducing a certain measure, an old woman in the audience stood up and recited a verse of the Quran opposed to the Caliph’s proposed ruling. At this, Umar immediately withdrew his proposal, saying:

“The women of this city have more sense than Umar.”

The power of the Islamic state is thus limited by the eternal values enshrined in the Quran and Hadith, in contrast to the dictatorial powers that secular governments, even in Western democracies, can and often do assume.

Prohibition of Blind Patriotism:

An important rule to be observed by all citizens is laid down as:

وَ تَعَاوَنُوۡا عَلَی الۡبِرِّ وَ التَّقۡوٰی ۪ وَ لَا تَعَاوَنُوۡا عَلَی الۡاِثۡمِ وَ الۡعُدۡوَانِ ۪

 “Help one another in righteousness and piety, and help not one another in sin and aggression” (The Holy Quran, 5:2).

Thus, it is only in good matters that a Muslim is patriotic; if his community or nation resolves upon some sinful course, the Muslim who realises this is duty-bound to refrain from helping them out of patriotism. We have here the great principle of preferring conscience to what secular governments term “patriotic duty.” When a renowned general in early Muslim history once ordered his troops to kill some prisoners of war, his officers refused to obey the order as it was clearly opposed to the teachings of the Quran.

It is surprising that G. H. Jansen, writing in the Guardian’s supplement on Islam (3 December 1979), should assert that

“unless Islamic rethinkers can produce a modern, relevant version of Islamic patriotism, Islam could well lose the battle against Westernised nationalism.”

Was European nationalism, with its parochial concept of patriotism and blind loyalty to country (or “God and country” as it was in pre-atheistic times earlier this century), not responsible for two destructive world wars? This philosophy should be amended, not preached to the rest of the world as well.

Strict adherence to Pacts and Treaties:

The Quran lays the greatest stress on the strict observance of all pacts made and agreements entered into:

وَ اَوۡفُوۡا بِالۡعَہۡدِ ۚ اِنَّ الۡعَہۡدَ کَانَ مَسۡـُٔوۡلًا ﴿۳۴﴾

“And fulfil the promise; surely the (keeping of the) promise will be enquired into (by God)” (The Holy Quran, 17:34).

The believers are described as

وَ الَّذِیۡنَ ہُمۡ لِاَمٰنٰتِہِمۡ وَ عَہۡدِہِمۡ رٰعُوۡنَ ۙ﴿۸﴾

“those who are keepers of their trusts and covenants” (The Holy Quran, 23:8).

The Holy Prophet Muhammad and his companions always kept any agreements they had made, with whomever they had made them, even when such adherence was to their disadvantage.

The modern world can indeed learn a great lesson from this, for the repeated violations of treaties by any nation when it suits its purpose has thoroughly discredited all modern pacts and agreements which are signed only for opportunist convenience.

Islam provides Basics Guidance, not Details:

Islam is a religion meant for all nations and all ages. Therefore, it does not provide the full details of the political and administrative structure to prevail in a true Muslim community. It lays down only the fundamental principles as noted above, leaving the details to be worked out according to the needs of the time and the people concerned. The basic principles which must always be observed, include: supremacy of the Quran and Hadith in making new laws; election or appointment of government to be made by the people on the basis of worthiness to hold office; decisions to be made by taking counsel, not arbitrarily or dictatorially; full religious freedom and civil rights for non-Muslim minorities; accountability of government to people; freedom of thought, belief, expression, and speech for each and every citizen; government to do justice among all groups and factions; and, state to observe the Islamic moral code with its stress on honesty, fair-dealing, and a sincere adherence to all commitments and treaties, whether made with friends or with foes.