Hot Topics Islamic Law

Thoughts on Islam’s Political System

by Dr. Ahmed Al-Raissouni | Translated, with slight modifications, by Suha Abu Shakra

buildingMany evidences show a clear distinction between two categories of rulings in the shari`ah (the Islamic system of law based on the Qur’an and Sunnah). The first deals with beliefs, worship, and morals, and it is characterized by detailed and fixed rulings. The second deals with customs, worldly matters, and changing conditions, and it has fewer detailed rulings. It also relies more heavily on general values and principles in comparison to the first category. Issues in both categories can be similar and may also overlap in their rulings.

In short, we can say that one category has numerous, fixed rulings, and the other has fewer rulings that are more flexible in their wording and means of execution.  The issues pertaining to the state, governance, and politics fall under the second category.

It is important to note that flexibility in the second category does not entail leniency in the obligation or application of these rulings. On the contrary, the general principles should always be strictly emphasized and adhered to. After all, they form the supporting foundations; if these are compromised, the entire building that rests on them could collapse. Conversely, if minor or particular rulings are compromised or taken lightly, the resulting damage is relatively minor and more localized.  Also, because universal principles are flexible in nature, they leave room for interpretation, expansion and restriction. This, in itself, is a kind of facilitation and ease. So, if any of these principles are compromised, reduced, or eliminated, all of them would eventually diminish. As such, the universal principles should always be emphasized and protected.

The field of politics, state governance, and general administration is governed by universal maxims and not by detailed rulings found in textual sources.  In Islam, we do not have a specific political system—neither by name, nor by any constitutional framework, nor by any legal arrangement.  I realize that this angers some noble people who are protective over the religion; they might think this detracts from the completeness of Islam and its shari`ah, which is suitable for all times and places.

However, I would note that if Islam did have a specific, definite and established political system, it would not have been suitable for all places and times.  A sign of Islam’s greatness and continuous suitability is that it provided detailed and fixed rulings in essential matters that are constant in people’s lives. Meanwhile, it sufficed with a set of maxims, objectives and general principles for matters that are inherently variable, diverse, or accepting of different approaches or interpretations.

There is no mention in Islam’s revealed texts (the Qur’an and authentic Sunnah) of what is termed the “Islamic Caliphate.” In reality, the “caliphate” is merely a historical experience and a human endeavor. Even as a historical experience, the “caliphate” does not represent monolithic or homogenous rule that provides us with any similar, set characteristics; instead, it represents various patterns of rule that differed based on the countries, regions, and individuals involved.

Even during the rightly-guided caliphate, there were well-known political and organizational differences between the four ruling caliphs. This is despite the fact that they ruled for a very short period of time, which in aggregate would be much less than the term of some of our rulers today. There was nothing in common between their political and administrative systems, decision-making processes, political relations and resolutions, and political institutions except their enduring principles and general directives. This is why the era was termed the rightly-guided caliphate, and the four, or five, caliphs were described as being rightly-guided.

Even the titles of “caliphate” and “caliph” are just linguistic terms that appear in texts to name rulers and presidents who succeeded one another after the Messenger of Allah ﷺ.  There is no binding obligation in the shari`ah to name the head of state “the Caliph,” nor is there a binding obligation to name the ruling state “the Caliphate.” These terms are just some of the many linguistic and historical options that have been and can still be adopted.

There is a weak hadith (saying or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) on the subject narrated by Imam Ahmed and others, which some later scholars deemed authentic:

Prophethood will remain with you for as long as Allah wills it to remain. Then Allah will remove it whenever He wills to remove it. Then there will be a caliphate following the Prophetic methodology, and it will last for as long as Allah wills it to last. Then Allah will remove it whenever He wills to remove it. Then there will be a reign of violently oppressive rule, and it will remain for as long as Allah wills it to remain. Then Allah will remove it whenever He wills to remove it. Then there will be tyrannical rule, and it will remain for as long as Allah wills it to remain. Then He will remove it whenever He wills to remove it. Then there will be a caliphate following the Prophetic methodology.”

Even if we accept this as an authentic hadith, it does not describe a specific governance system, nor does it require that we call it “caliphate.” Rather, it gives a general description of a rightly-guided caliphate that follows the Prophetic way (of compassion, mercy, and steadfastness). Again, this is if we assume that the hadith is authentic.

Anyhow, there is no virtue or blessing in the term “caliph” in itself, nor does it earn its owners any legitimacy or added advantage.  Instead, virtue, blessing, legitimacy and advantage lie in the commitment to universal principles and legal maxims, in attaining benefits and achieving the shari`ah’s objectives, and in removing harm and corruption. The most important principles and maxims to abide by are:

1. Shura (consultation) firstly and lastly.  In describing the Muslim community, Allah (the Exalted) says in Surat ash-Shura: “And those who have responded to their Lord, and established prayer, and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves, and who spend from what We have provided them” (Qur’an, 42:38). This verse entails that shura should be used in every matter that concerns the Muslim community (provided that an established ruling does not already exist in the Qur’an and Sunnah). As such, decisions and arrangements should be made through consultation amongst those directly involved or their proxies.

In matters of governance and politics, consultation should first and foremost be practiced when selecting, removing or replacing the ruler (whenever necessary).  It should also be used in formulating or modifying the process of appointing the ruler, determining the bounds of his authority and duties, as well as the authority of others working with him. Consultation should also be practiced when determining how the leader is to administer his rule, and this includes how consultation should be practiced within the administration itself.  In addition, consultation should be used when determining the term of office for the head of state or for any of his deputies, governors, or ministers.

2. Shari’ah as the ultimate reference. It is impossible to imagine a system of governance that attributes itself to Islam and the Islamic shari`ah but fails to make the shari`ah and its established rulings the ultimate source of its legislation and executive orders. The verses that enjoin governing by what Allah has revealed and admonish violating His commands are many and well-known. One of these verses is found in Surat al-Ma’idah: “And judge [O Muhammad ] between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations; and beware of them, lest they tempt you away from some of what Allah has revealed to you” (Qur’an, 5:49). Allah also says in Surat al-Ahzab, It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair.  And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error” (Qur’an, 33:36).

The minimum commitment to this principle is affirming the shari’ah as the ultimate reference, and not violating its definitive and non-negotiable rulings. As for issues with legitimate difference of opinion about them or emerging issues, they are open to ijtihād and tarjīh.1

3. Establishing justice amongst people. This is so intuitive that it cannot be rejected, and no administration or leader would fail to announce their commitment to it. It was for the purpose of establishing justice on earth that Allah sent His messengers and prophets and sent down His Books and legislation. Allah (the Exalted) says in Surat al-Hadid, “We have sent Our messengers with clear evidences, and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance so that people may maintain [their affairs] with justice” (Qur’an, 57:25). Justice is required of all people and in all affairs, but it is specially required of those who rule and govern people, and judge between them. Allah (the Exalted) says in Surat an-Nisa’, “Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due, and when you judge between people to judge with justice” (Qur’an, 4:58).

Justice is established first by implementing legislative rulings from the sacred texts. However, issues that call for justice but have no corresponding textual rulings are more abundant than issues that do.  Unfortunately, there are some rulers who implement whatever is stated in the sacred texts but spread injustice and corruption in matters they believe have no corresponding scriptural rulings. That is why justice must remain a binding principle that governs every statement and decision issued by the ruler as well as everything else (behind the scenes).

4. The ruler’s management of his subjects’ affairs must serve the public interest.2 This is one of the all-inclusive legal maxims that delineates what is required from states and Islamic politics.  It implies that rulers are not free to administer and manage their subjects’ affairs however they please; their decisions are limited and restricted by what is in the best interest of the people. Hence, if a ruler has the option of choosing between something good and something better, he is not permitted to choose what is good; he is obligated to choose what is better. Otherwise, his action would be void.

To further ground and explain the meaning of this legal maxim, Imam Shihāb Al-Dīn al-Qarāfi states:

Know that every individual who holds the position of office in the caliphate or any lower position (even [the writer of] a bequest) cannot act except in a manner that yields benefit and repels harm; Allah (the Exalted) says in Surat al-An`am, “And do not approach the orphan’s property except in a way that is best,” (Qur’an, 6:152). The Prophet ﷺ says, “Whoever has been charged with running the affairs of my Ummah, but did not exert effort [constructively] for them, or did not advise [in accordance with the shari`ah], then Paradise is forbidden to him.” Thus, imams (leaders) and rulers are prevented from [carrying out a matter] that does not involve exerting any effort and what is less beneficial (al-marjūh) is never the best; the best is actually the opposite. Choosing what is less beneficial does not involve exerting any effort; it actually opposes it.

Allah (the Exalted) forbade the guardians [of orphans] from handling [the orphans’ financial] affairs in a way that undermines their best interest. Since the loss of benefit [for the orphans] is negligible compared to the lost benefit when rulers and judges [do the same with their people], it is more of a priority to place constraints on rulers and judges in this matter.

The [aforementioned] textual evidences entail that all rulers and judges should be prevented from incurring 1) greater harm, 2) less benefit, 3) equal benefit and harm, or 4) neither harm nor benefit. This is because those four [outcomes] are not in the best interest of the people. Governance should produce pure benefit, or greater benefit, and avoid pure harm, or greater harm. So, there are four acceptable [ways to run public affairs], and four that are rejected.

It is because of this universal maxim that Imam al-Shafi’ī, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “The guardian should not sell one sā’ (five pounds) [of a certain good] for one sā’ [of the same good] because there is no benefit [in doing so].  The caliph should also avoid doing the same with the wealth of the Muslims and he should remove an officer suspected [of foul play] to repel the corrupting effect of suspicion amongst the Muslims.  One should avoid the marjūh (less preferred) in the presence of the rājih (more preferred) to bring forth greater benefit for the Muslims.”3

  1. Tarjīh is giving preference to one juristic opinion or ruling over another based on the strongest evidence available from the Islamic sources of legislation.
  2. In Arabic, the legal maxim is: تصرف الإمام على الرعية منوط بالمصلحة
  3. Qur’an, 4:95-96

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  • This is a very good article. I always believed Islam was flexible enough in Mu’amalat to accommodate different political arraignments. Islam does not fix political organization i.e. should the local civil legislature have one, two, or three houses? how many seats? how are they appointed or elected? what is their jurisdiction? how should the executive power be succeeded? what about Muslim/non-Muslim power sharing? etc. The Sahaba disagreed on these issues, i.e. the way Umar was succeeded was different from Uthman. So I think political organization questions have to be answered on a local level but in the spirit of the Maqasid Ash-Sharia.

    What I don’t like are misguided Muslims who make takfir over legitimate political disagreements. They use the religion as a political weapon, to seize power or to smear an opponent. That is politicization of religion and it is wrong. I hope that makes sense.

    • In other words, a candidate should say “vote for me because I will bring benefit to the country with XYZ policy” instead of “vote for me because Allah said so.”

  • I am concerned as to what the authors ultimate point is in this artilce. While he has affirmed the supperiority and apparent requirement that the Sharia’ah be the law of the land he seems to have left open the possibility that Islam is compatable with other systems of ruline i.e. that an Islamic democracy would be ok as long as the law of the land is Shariah. I think it is a bit dangerous and a potential slippery slope. First I don’t agree that the Caliphate is an option in Islam, despite what the author says about the soundness of the hadith he mentions the fact that the word “caliph” may not be required doesn’t change the fact that Islam calls for rule of one leader based upon his ruling the people by Islam. We must remember that the prophet (saw) said even when there are three on a journey one should be choosen to be the Imam. Additionally I don’t agree that the rules governing islamic governance are few. The prophet was clear that the successful group among the Muslims would be those who were on what he and his Sahab are on. The Sahab are an example for us and a guidance after the prophet. In fact the Ijma of the Sahab is a source of Legislation in Fiqh. Therefore how the Sahaba organized the Islamic government and administrated it is an evidence and source of law for us. True the Sahab dissagred on certain rulings (for example Abu Bakr and Umar disagreed on the issue of under what circumstances a wife would be considered divorced three times) there was no dissagreement on the idea that the Ummah must be ruled by one person to whom the Baya will be given. This leader had to be choosen based upon the opinions of the masses. Of course after the rightly guided Claiphs the manner of picking leaders became one of family inheritance – which of course is totally against Islam, this doesn’t alter the fact that there should be one ruler. I think when we talk as if Shura is our political mechanism we open the door for those who want to say Shura is democracy and democracy is Shura. We must be clear that Islam has its own unique political system which is not compatible with any other system. the source of our worship and political rules must be ISLAM and ONLY ISLAM. Once we mix Islam with some other system it is no longer Islam. This is my fear. The problem among the Ummah today (ruled as we are by oppressors everywhere in the Muslim world) is that we don’t know and have not taken the time to understand what Islam requires of us when it comes to ruling. There is no way of life acceptable to Allah other than Islam, it has come to bring Justice and Justice is not what “we” in our limited understanding believe to be just, Justice is what Allah brought through his Prophet (saw). This must be clear. Therefore ruling by any thing, using any method which is Not from Islam is in justice.

    • Salaam,

      Tarik Said:

      “We must be clear that Islam has its own unique political system which is not compatible with any other system. the source of our worship and political rules must be ISLAM and ONLY ISLAM.”

      Can you please specify what that political system is, how leaders and their successors are chosen, and how you are interpreting Islam (which does have flexible methodology thus making it applicable for all times).

  • asalaamu ‘alaykum

    I agree with brother Tarik. I dont see the benefit of this piece, especially in the situation that the Ummah is in today with the fitna of the modernists who completly deny politics and the Islamic State. And as there are no Islamic States today (Muslim States yes, but Islamic none) i believe we should be stressing the importance of ruling according to shariah, establishing an Islamic State & a Darul Islam. Thats one of greatest needs of our time but instead we get articles like which seem to undermine those who are calling for that.

    Also i heard that hadith of the return of Khilafah on the Prophets minhaj was classed authentic by Sh. Albani- who has classified it as weak?
    And what does the author have to say about all the hadiths that stress the importance of giving the pledge of allegiance to 1 Caliph/Imam?

  • […] just some of the many linguistic and historical options that have been and can still be adopted… Source __________________ "And verily for everything that a slave loses there is a substitute, but […]

  • JazakAllah for the translation. Can the editors please leave a short bio of who exactly the author is somewhere, even one line?

  • salaam,

    Sh. Suhaib, by posting this article, are you I’m agreement with it?

    Do you believe that having a single imam under Islamic rule is not a long term goal for the ummah?


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