Can the Will of the People find a place in Islamic Political Discourse?

Malick Elias 

Can the will of God be ever expressed through the will of the people? Some may think that this question is new to Islamic political thought; but quite to the contrary. Evidence suggests that this question was relevant to the earliest companions of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon them) as it is important today. In the year 624 CE, the second year after Prophet Muhammad (saw) migration from Mecca to Medina and during the Holy month of Ramadan, the Prophet was facing his greatest challenge yet, when force of some 1000 warriors from the tribe of Quraish were on their day to attack Medina and purge it of the influence that Islam had over it. The holy prophet and his companions poorly equipped and ill prepared for their first real conflict with the Quraish, had to decide where best to face the enemy. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) had previously consulted the people of Medina, as they were all signatories to a constitution, which obliged all parties to protect Medina if the city was ever under attack. The results of the war consul was that they would meet the enemy at the watering holes of Badr, which was on route to the city and would have been an important watering place for the warring forces of Quraish of Medina. There were other strategic decisions which the Holy Prophet (pubh) had made himself, which were questioned by his companions as to their strategic value and which showed that his companions could distinguish between the prophet’s leadership role both as their leader in worldly matters, as a Human and his capacity as an agent of the Divine. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) had decided to fight his enemies taking up positions from the first set of wells he had encountered. Hubab Ibn al-Mundhir al-Ansaari al-Khazrajee asked the Prophet (pbuh): “O Messenger of Allah, is this the location that Allah ordered you to fight from, that we should not go beyond it? Or is this the opinion (you have taken) and the war strategy? The Holy Prophet replied: ‘The opinion and the war strategy.’ Hubab then added, that it was not the best place to fight from and explained what he saw was a better fighting position and strategy, to which the Holy Prophet accepted and refined his approach. What is indicative from the story of Hubab Ibn al-Mundhir’s questioning was that the prophet’s companions understood that the Holy Prophet acted within both human and divine agency. This meant that the Prophet (pbuh) exercised human judgement (Ijtihaad) on a range of worldly affairs, which he saw, without self interest or gain, that was in the interest of his followers. Hadith reporters tell us of an incident in which the Prophet (pbuh) suggested to some date farmers of Medina not to manually cross-pollinate their date palms, which was the custom of the local farmers, but to leave the dates to be naturally pollinated. This later resulted in the harvesting of a bad crop. They complained to the Prophet (pbuh) regarding his advice and he said to them: “… I only offered my opinion. Do not hold me account to what I think. However, when I speak to you about anything regarding Allah, then accept it, for indeed I never speak falsely about Allah the Almighty.” [Hadith Talha Ibn ‘Ubaydullah mentioned in Sahih Muslim]

Some have seen the line of thought presented in these narrations as a clear distinction between two types of agency, the human and divine and even as strong evidence for a secular divide within Islamic political thought. To what extent this argument is valid is highly questionable, because the Holy Quran and indeed the traditions of the Holy Prophet has laid down moral foundations and judicial precedents the likes of which governs over business practices, marriage and divorce, criminal law, war and peaceful relations and a wide range of daily Muslim rituals, that do not inspire in the political imagination of Muslims the presence of secular divide in Muslim society; that is, as is understood in political parlance today. Secularism, in all its offered definitions, the affairs of the state are rendered separate from those of religion. But aren’t these narrow value-laden definitions which seek to control the discourse of human history and development, I wonder? Who says that God and man, or Divine and human agency do not collide. Are we compelled to perceive God as far removed from His creation? Is it not possible that God is both external and introvert to His creation at the same time? Why is it not possible to build upon the philosophies of old which articulate the location of God’s divine presence between that of transcendence and immanence? Or are we doomed to reside within the dialectics and debates which bind us to a particular discourse.

On the one hand, it is true to say that as far as the discourse of secularism stands in the Muslim world the general position is that Islam is the antithesis of an ultra-secularist position, that purports the view of a God unrelated to the affairs of man. In numerous places in the Holy Quran it mentions that “Unto God belongs the dominion of the Heavens and the earth …” [57:5]  Reinforced by the Muslim perception, rightly or wrongly, that secularism is a specifically Western Christian concept derived from statements attributed to Prophet Jesus (pbuh): ‘Give unto Caesar what is for Caesar and render onto God what is for God,’ the tendency is to begin any discussion on its value to Muslim society from the premise of rejection. In the Islamic social and political imagination the idea of anyone sharing in God’s sovereignty is tantamount to ‘Shirk’ (the assigning of partners with Allah), this is considered by all Islamic theologians as the greatest sin, and therefore de jure secularist polices (polices and laws which do not reflect God’s will – Shari’ah) are refuted in Islamic societies.

On the other hand, it is also true to say that there has always existed a concept of the de facto secularism in Islamic societies. From as early as the first century after the death of the Holy Prophet, Muslim political rulers had maintained a degree of separation between the political powers of the Caliphs and moral and legal authority of the Imams of its day. The separation of the judiciary, legislature and political institutions is characteristic of forms of secularist organisation and administration, where the powers invested in each institution is scrutinised through a system of checks, balances and deliberations. One can also argue that given the often strained relationship between the political and legislative institutions of early Muslim Caliphates and at times bipartisan scholarship between the scholars who either did or did not support the rulers or those who kept silent that there arose strands of thought which sought to highlight the role of human reason and agency in the interpretation and understanding of the sources of law and theology. The Mu’tazila, a school of speculative rationalists during the 8th to the 10th century of Islam, argued that it was human reasoning which was the final arbitrator in determining right from wrong and not just the naked text of the Quran or the Sunnah. They grabbled with the theodicy of God’s presence, His attributes and the problems of good and evil, which later influenced hermeneutic debates surrounding the commensurability of Revelation and Reason and indirectly inspired the dialectical arguments of great scholars and theologians such as Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and later on that of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198). It was to the latter, known in the West as Averroes, to whom intellectual shifts in thinking about the relationship between spiritual faith and reason in the Western world can be attributed. Now some may argue that there was no relationship between these speculations of the jurists and theologians on the matters aforementioned, but to assume that, will be to continue to ignore a valid hermeneutical source and to assume that human thought and understanding emerges in a vacuum unrelated to the course of history.

Setting this speculation aside as food for thought and further research, in Muslim societies a shift in the human discourse which remains dominated by the voices of the rulers and the scholarly intellectual and theocratic classes which tend to each want to represent the voices of the ‘all in between’ (the masses) is in dire need for creating a space for this voiceless population. Lest the directive of the Holy Quran as it addresses human agents (believers and non-believers) will go amiss. Moreover, God created humankind as his vicegerent to administer His creation. [al-Quran, 2:30]  Therefore, the responsibility for everything good or bad that happens on earth, the sea and skies is to be burdened by all, Muslim and non-Muslim. It is not the sole responsibility of rulers or those in authority to administer all of the affairs of the world, they represent a final reference for policy decisions for which they are responsible before God and their citizenry.

“O Believers be obedient to God and his Messenger and those in authority amongst yourselves and should you disagree on a matter, refer to (the edits) God and His Messenger, if you are truly believers therein you will find the best resolution…”  [al-Quran, 4:59].

Following the recent events leading up to the inauguration of, Muhammad Morsi, the first civilian Islamist President of a Muslim country, Egypt, and the subsequent unfolding dramas of his struggle with the remnants of the previous regime of Hosni Mubarak. I was intrigued at his declaration at Liberation Square the day before his swearing into the post that the people were the first source of legislative power and legitimacy. These statements were herald by many writers and political commentators as a brave and significant step towards popular democracy in the Middle East. I could easily concur with those statements, but I spent a great deal of time afterwards thinking whether Egypt had a mature citizenry that understood that popular sovereignty, the people’s will, suggested that is was their primarily responsibility to change what was wrong in their lives and that this meant their voluntary participation to clean their streets, look after their environment, help their poor and destitute neighbours in the first instance and with the support of the state in the second instance. In other words, could he successfully roll back the responsibility of state institutions – which maintained an upper class prosperity for decades – and build a strong citizenry, without which it is remains highly debatable that real peoples power can be obtained. Asabiyaah and Arab Nationalist ideology has breathed de-facto secular trends in the Middle East and Muslim societies resulting in apathy for collectivism and the bonds between the state and Islamism now called religion. The good news, in the case of Egypt, is that because of the overwhelming growth in a poor underclass, the ordinary people have not given up in God. People in the Muslim world are aware of their responsibilities towards others and know that the are treated individuals before God. [al-Quran, 6:164] However, they have been disenfranchised for too long and until recently are beginning to shake off the yokes of blind following (Taqleed) and demand that their voices be heard. In the following hadith al-Qudsi: On the authority of Abu Hurairah (ra) who said: The Messenger of Allaah (pbuh) said that God has said: “ Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him. And My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved to Me than the duties (faraa’id) I have obligated upon him. And My servant continues to draw near to me with voluntary deeds (nawaafil) until I Love him. When I Love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, and his sight with which he sees, and his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him; and were he to seek refuge with Me, I would surely grant him refuge. [Mentioned in al-Bukhari]

Duties (al-Faraa’id) are those actions which we owe to God, but He does not need our goodness. Whatever, we do we do to save our own souls. [al-Quran, 29:6] By choosing to live by those five basic pillars of faith it defines our loyalty to God and will be rewarded accordingly in the afterlife. These are not mere meaningless rituals, but have resounding social, political and economical ramifications upon society. Voluntary actions (an-Nawaafil) are those actions which we do out of our love for God to strengthen our faith in Him and are not limited to extra prayers or fasting, but extend to making physical and economical sacrifices for others. The concept of Nawafil (voluntary action) in both its spiritual and social meanings provides the opportunity for Muslim leaders to build to build anew a strong meaning of Islamic Citizenship. It is also an opportunity for Muslim thinkers and scholars to construct a revised ontological meaning for the relationship of God with His creation; so for those seeking the meaning of God in their lives will indeed find him closer to themselves than their jugular veins [al-Quran, 50:60]. In another hadith al-Qudsi on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (ra), he said that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said that on the Day of Resurrection Allah (swt) will say: “O son of Adam, I fell ill and you did not visit Me.’ He will reply: ‘O Lord, and how should I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds?’ He will say: ‘Did you not know that My servant So-and-so had fallen ill and you visited him not? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not.’ He will say: ‘O Lord, and how should I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds?’ He will say: ‘Did you not know that My servant So-and-so asked you for food and you fed him not? Did you not know that had you fed him you would surely have found that (the reward for doing so) with Me? O son of Adam, I asked you to give Me to drink and you gave Me not to drink.’ He will say: ‘O Lord, how should I give You to drink when You are the Lord of the worlds?’ He will say: ‘My servant So-and-so asked you to give him to drink and you gave him not to drink. Had you given him to drink you would have surely found that with Me.’” [Mentioned in Muslim] It this enough a locator for the presence of God?

Islam has many of the concepts which defines for itself a merger between both Human and Divine agencies, yet at the same time demarcating between the two. What is lacking in the Muslim polity today is a renewed intellectual thinking a type of socio-spiritual rationale which provides the Muslim populace with a vehicle for social participation and engagement in the political process. Can it be done? Yes, through critical examination of out past, present and the remoulding of a vision for the sustainable future. Allah knows better.

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Malick Elias

The vision of 'Vivaislam' is to provide a space for Muslim and non-Muslim activists to air their voices on how best to organise and manage their world. The aim is to focus upon recommending solutions to issues of social injustices, freedoms and citizenship facing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies, rather than offering descriptions of problems. It is our hope that these voices will reach the echelons of power and influence.

2 thoughts on “Can the Will of the People find a place in Islamic Political Discourse?”

  1. Salaamun aleikum.

    An interesting article. Here is my response as a ‘stream of consciousness’…

    IMHO, a necessary step forward in this process is to rethink the issue of power (qudrat) and sovereignty (mulukiyyah) vis-a-vis the God-Human relation.

    Unfortunately, Muslim thinking is trapped in the quagmire of a romanticised ‘classical’ legacy with respect to debates about dogma (‘aqeeda) and theology (kalaam), both of which are post-/extra-Qur’anic developments. I refer, in particular, to the ping-pong that continues to take place between the extremes of Jabri ‘Asharism and Qadari Mu’tazilism, both of which are incapable of transcending the Hellenistic framing of issues to do with God’s Omniscience and Omnipotence.

    Until such time as Muslims are prepared to engage critically with the tradition / classical legacy and return to pre-theological understandings of The Qur’an with a view to “drinking afresh from the spring” (ala Syed Qutb’s call in Milestones), they will not be able to generate viable solutions. To paraphrase Thoreau, for every thousand hacking at the branches (furu’) there needs to be at least one striking at the root (‘asl).

    In this connection, I invite readers to check out the following:

    Fi amaan illah

    1. Assalamu ‘Alayum,
      Fully agree. But gently onward Muslim soldier. Changing the minefields of concepts and baggage of the past will be a lifelong struggle, because of the range of monopolies on knowledge held by others. But as you cited we have to keep chopping away at the roots.
      Many thanks on you always valuable input.
      I wrote this in haste to meet my monthly deadlines and made many typo errors. I have since edited what I found.
      Wassalamu ‘Alaykum

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