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Posted: August 16, 2002

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Organization, authority and the distribution and separation of power in the Muslim nation/state

by Anisa Abd el Fattah

"Those who faithfully observe their trusts and covenants and who strictly guard their prayers these will be the heirs…"

The Holy Qur’an, 23:8-10

Muslims should consider organizing Muslim societies in such a way that the power of the various authorities are separate and recognizable, with the power of authority varying depending upon rank, the highest ranking authority in this human chain of command being the individual, represented by independent political groups, or parties. The Qur’an teaches us that the leader, or ruler of a Muslim society is a facilitator, a guardian, and a caretaker of the people. He is a servant of God, and therefore a servant of the people. His duty is to administer the affairs of the society, first by ascertaining the needs and desires of the people, identifying resources, and then formulating policies aimed towards the realization of the people’s aspirations, and the fulfillment of their desires, then seeing that the policies are carried out with integrity. He does this while adhering to an already established law and covenants accepted by a society of Muslims between God an! d man, yet is contracted between the state and its citizens through a constitution. He accomplishes his duty through a process of mutual consultation with learned and experienced representatives of the people, which can be organized political parties, interest groups, etc. These participants, along with the citizenry at large, have a corresponding duty to obey, respect, pray for, and sincerely and honestly advise, and protect their leader so far as it pleases God. God tests both the ruled and the ruler by making one an authority, and the other subject to his authority, and demanding that all be just. A wise man, and a righteous descendant of the prophet Muhammad, wrote of the relationship between the ruled and the ruler in al-Islam, that we, the ruled, should not expose ourselves to the ruler’s displeasure. When we do, he says, we cast ourselves into his hands for destruction, and become his partner in his sin when he brings down evil upon us. He also said that since God is ! testing him through the authority he has given to him over us, we should aid him and not seek to ruin him through provocation.

The rights of the individual, who is collectively "the people," according to this same esteemed man, are derived from the knowledge that God has placed a man in a position of authority due to his knowledge and strength over those who are less knowledgeable, and weaker. Therefore it is incumbent upon the authority to act justly, and to be like a loving father over them, serving as their caretaker, and guardian. He says that rulers should forgive the ignorance of their subjects, and not act quickly to punish them, always showing gratitude to God for God having granted him authority over His (God’s) people. He closes his treatise on rights saying that if a ruler acts harshly and is unjust, and ruins his people, God will deprive him knowledge, and dignity and will make him fall from the hearts of the people.

In al-Islam, the relationship between the people and the state is a relationship that is based upon the idea of rights and responsibilities. It suggests that both the authorities in a society and the individuals, or people are joined through rights and duties, in an exercise called life, through which the people should advance in all areas of human endeavor in pursuit of happiness. One of the best illustrations of this relationship might be found in the Qur’an, Chapter 2, verses 247 and 249-251, where it says: " Their prophet said to them, God has appointed Saul as king over you." They said:" How can he exercise authority over us when we are better fitted than he to exercise authority, and he is not even gifted with wealth in abundance? He (the prophet) said:" God has chosen him above you, and has gifted him with knowledge and bodily prowess; God grants His authority to which He chooses. God is all embracing, and He knows all things. When Saul set forth with! the armies, he said:" God will test you at the stream. If any drinks of its water, he goes not with my army. Only those who taste not of it go with me, a mere sip out of the hand is excused." But they all drank of it accept a few. When they crossed the river, Saul and the faithful ones with him, they said, "we cannot cope with Goliath and his forces." But those who were convinced that they must meet God said, "How often, by God’s Will, has a small force vanquished a big one? God is with those who persevere." When they advanced to meet Goliath and his forces, they prayed, " Our Lord, pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm. Help us against those that reject faith. By God’s will, they routed them, and David slew Goliath, and God gave him (David) power and wisdom and taught him whatever else He willed."

The story of David and Goliath is perhaps one of the most commonly told stories by people of all faiths. It is a testament, not only to the power of God to fulfill His will, but also to the power of the human being when we act upon faith in pursuit of godly objectives. In David’s case, the objective was to overthrow evil, symbolized by Goliath and his forces, representing brute force, the primary tool of tyrants. Goliath could also represent any type of evil that threatens a society, poverty, illiteracy, tyranny, etc. He could also represent anything that threatens the individual, and the well being, and development of the individual soul. Whatever evil he represents we know that it operates in opposition to the faith and poise under fire of the righteous, due to their firm trust in God, which David represents, as well as their purpose. One aspect of this story that is equally as important as the more commonly shared observation, that good always triumphs ag! ainst all odds over evil, is found in the fact that it was not the authority, Saul, who overthrew Goliath. It was David, representing the individual, or the common man, who accomplished this great feat. The Qur’an says the army, under the watchful eye, or guardianship of the authority, advanced, prayed, and then routed Goliath’s army while David, the individual, slew Goliath, and was individually rewarded by God with increased knowledge, wisdom, and power, while the community also benefited. The relationship between Saul and David and the army in this respect, might be a representative model of successful cooperation between the authority, (the state) the army (society) and the individual (David). If this is the case, another moral of the story of David and Goliath might be that organization and cooperation are the key to mankind’s societal and individual successes. This story might also teach us that the greatest evil standing between mankind, and the knowledge, wisdom, and! power required to achieve happiness, is fear. It might also indicate to us that the individual soul is the primary subject of God’s love, and promise. It is possible that human authority and society are both constructs that were designed, rather than to eliminate individualism, or to subdue it, to protect it and lead it to completion and fulfillment. The reward granted to the individual for cooperation is salvation. To the society is granted prosperity, and to the authority is granted all of the rewards enjoyed by successful individuals and their society, as well as the special rewards that God bestows upon those who sacrifice their personal desires to serve this grand and divine scheme as leaders.

The Qur’an speaks repeatedly to the idea of individualism. It directs most of its arguments to the individual saying: "Oh you who believe" rather than, "Oh you believers." It says, "the man" or "the woman," and seldom says "the men" or "the women" accept when it refers to a group of people, representing a collective belief, or a culture. It also says that each individual is in pledge for his or her deeds. There is no reference in the Qur’an to people, or individuals distinguished by anything other than beliefs, accept in the cases of the Ad and the Thamud, and Madyan people who are mentioned as examples of nations that were destroyed for their sins. Even in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, where the people were destroyed for practicing homosexuality, and other crimes, the Qur’an refers to these people as the people of Lot, who was their prophet. The people of Noah’s city or region are likewise referred to as the people of Noah. This might mean t! hat the Qur’an is concerned primarily with societies as centers of activity that operate or function according to certain beliefs, and that God is judging them in respect to whether or not its beliefs are either conducive to happiness, and success for its citizens, or detrimental. This may or may not be a reference to civilizations, and cultures.

Dr. Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations theory sought to make the case that it represents civilizations, referring to what he calls an "Islamic civilization." Huntington either ignores, or didn’t recognize that there is little more than a remnant of an "Islamic civilization" observable today in what was once the Muslim world, since few of the nations that he includes in his "Islamic civilization" are governed by Islamic law, or predominated by Islamic culture. The presence of pre-Islamic customs and beliefs is far more prevalent in many of these societies, particularly the post-colonial societies of North Africa, and parts of the Middle East, than is Islam, if we mean by "Islamic" strict adherence to Islamic law and doctrines. Professor of Economics at Northeastern University in Boston, M. Shahid Alam, argued in his paper, " A Critique of Huntington" that Huntington’s "correlation between civilizations and religion is quite weak." Alam asks why H! untington, who identified three different Christian civilizations "did not split Islam along sectarian lines, as in Sunni and Shia, or along racial lines, as in Arab, Iranian, Turkish, African, and Malay?" The answer might be that the acceptance of Huntington’s theory is dependent upon there being clear, though perhaps manufactured, religious, or cultural cleavages between the West and those cultures, civilizations or religions that were the obvious targets of the theory.

Conflicts between the prophet Muhammad, and the ruling Quraish tribe of Arabia was primarily due to Mohammed’s teaching that beliefs which support cultural traditions, or norms in societies that are evil, or rooted in evil, as well as oppressive authorities, are hindrances to a society. The Qur’an teaches that the tyrant, and the oppressor, the wicked and the corrupt leaders are illegitimate in the eyes of God, who according to the Qur’an, confers authority only upon the just and righteous. The authority of the corrupt and wicked leader is considered a hindrance, since it cannot result in, or sustain the necessary respect, trust, cooperation, unity and stability required between the state, the individual and the society, that is needed for success. They are also considered a hindrance since they neither accept nor promote virtue, and in fact through their corrupt and immoral practices, encourage corruption, immorality and rebellion, setting a bad example, an! d demanding fealty based on a people’s acquiescence to materially and spiritually detrimental practices and beliefs.

When we look at the first Muslim polity established in Medina, it is quite clear that the prophet Mohammed enjoyed overwhelming affection and support from the majority Arab population who had accepted al-Islam, and who invited him to relocate from Mecca to Medina to establish a community. Never the less, he worked to garner the affection and support of everyone who resided in Medina, including Christian and Jewish residents, crafting the first Islamic constitution, known as the Covenant of Medina, wherein was spelled out the rights and duties of the state, and its citizens. The Covenant of Medina spelled out a set of rights and responsibilities that provided for the economic, social, religious and political happiness and prosperity of the new state, and contrary to what many might believe, their was no rule or law that favored the Muslim over the non-Muslim, or vice versa. The objective of the covenant by any analysis was to create an environment that was co! nducive to the progress of its citizens, which included Christian and Jewish people. Freedom, security, and commerce created this environment.

Francis Fukuyama, in "American Foreign Policy: The New Realism," states that "peace and prosperity encourage preoccupation with one’s own petty affairs and allow people to forget that they are part of larger communities." He argues that " the long economic boom of the Clinton years and America’s easy dominance of world politics have allowed Americans to wallow in such self indulgent behavior as political scandal, identity politics, and partisanship that has grown more strident as the underlying issues have narrowed." Fukuyama perhaps didn’t observe some less prosperous societies as closely as he did the United States. Perhaps he didn’t consider that for there to be scandal there had to be a standard of ethics or morality that caused the very behaviors that he is citing to be considered scandalous, and undesirable. Lack of political strife, or scandal doesn’t mean that there are not scandalous things happening, or that people are satisfied with what is happen! ing in their societies politically, or economically. It might mean that people do not have the freedom to complain in some countries, and that there is no free press to report, and no national conscience or morality to judge, or by which to judge. He also absolves completely the authority of any responsibility or accountability for the self-indulgent behavior that he observed as a national preoccupation. In arguing that hardship somehow compels members of a society to advance, and progress, more so than good leadership, and standards of honor and morality that promote honesty, trust and public decency, etc., Fukuyama suggests that mankind responds more favorably to hardship, than we do to prosperity, while also arguing that the United State’s observed weaknesses are signs of its decline.

The Qur’an teaches us that peace and freedom are the catalysts for human progress and development, even though the process of development is itself sometimes stressful, wrought with trial and error, periods of confusion, and frustration. It is also true that progress often results from debate and conflicts between people who hold disparate ideas, each idea seeking dominance. Yet, Islam does not consider the individual’s affairs to be petty, but rather of the utmost importance and guides us as individuals, groups and societies to assist one another, protect one another, and encourage one another towards righteousness in the conduct of all affairs. This is where religion or faith in God, an always-positive power that is greater than the sometimes-negative power of the human being, serves a community. Societies that are structured in observance of a set of moral and ethical rules and principles that guide us through stressful processes of development enter and ! exit periods of transition and transformation successfully, without massacres, oppression, the obliteration and abuse of human and civil rights, etc. They buffer the pain, or hardship of transition and transformation with reason and understanding, patience and self-confidence and most importantly with purpose. Leadership, or authority, is the primary player in this scenario. This is why the Qur’an says that God has conferred legitimacy on the just, or righteous authority that can guide individuals, who are collectively the society, to prosperity without periods of stress that break the human spirit, and result in distress, and trauma, and ultimately failure.

Another example of social organization and distribution of power that can be observed in al-Islam is found in the model presented by the prophets in relationship to authority and the societies in which they lived. Here again we have individuals, surrounded by both followers, and detractors, but in this model they are addressing an authority that is being challenged to reform, rather than following a legitimate authority to victory, as we observed in David following Saul. The first such example is of course the example of Abraham in conflict with his father who was a maker of idols, and also with the religious hierarchy of his society who were idol worshippers. Other examples are the prophet Noah, and the prophets that came after him (May God’s peace and blessings be upon all of them). In all of these models or examples we observe that there was an initial period of discussion or debate, or challenge, not to the authority, per se, but rather to the beliefs an! d practices of that authority, and the acquiescence of the people to those beliefs. The prophets taught, and encouraged reform, directing their appeals mostly to the leaders of their societies. In the case of Jonah, and the people of Ninevah, the admonition was accepted, and God says in the Qur’an about these people, " When they believed, we removed from them the penalty of ignominy in the life of the present, and permitted them to enjoy their life for awhile" (10:98). This in contrast to the failed societies about whom the Qur’an says: " If the people of the towns had but believed and feared God, we should indeed have opened out to them (all kinds) of blessings from heaven and earth; but they rejected (the truth) and we brought them to book for their misdeeds" (7:96).

The prophets in these examples represent an authority that originates in the power of the truth that is revealed to them and available to every man or woman, for the purpose of adapting, teaching and assisting one another and our societies towards prosperity. At the same time, they represent the individual duty to learn, and to adapt a right way of living, even if others don’t, and by teaching and example, demonstrate the power of belief to improve human life both materially and spiritually. In their stories we also observe how societies, when they are benefactors of the good examples of such individuals, and their teachings, are more inclined towards them, even though they may either accept or reject the message. On this issue the Qur’an says: " And if there is a party among you who believes in the message, with which I (the prophet Shu’ayb in this case), have been sent, and a party which does not believe, hold yourselves in patience until God decides betwe! en us, for He (God) is the best to decide" (7:87). The predicted consequence of continuing upon the path of unawareness, is described in the Qur’an as lives of suffering and adversity. Finally, we also observe in this example, that God eventually separates those who choose the way of prosperity from those who along with the illegitimate authority chooses to continue on the path of unawareness. The outcome for the latter is destruction, not at the hands of the prophets or their followers, but as the Qur’an says: "either by the wrath of God (as in natural disasters) or the doing of their own hands." The righteous are then rewarded the Qur’an saying: " How many of the prophets struggled (in God’s way) and with them struggled large bands of godly men. They never lost heart, even if they met with disaster in God’s way, nor did they weaken, nor give in. And God loves those who are steadfast. All that they said was: "Our Lord forgive us our sins and anything we may have done that t! ransgressed our duty. Establish our feet firmly, and help us against those who resist faith. And God gave them a reward in this world, and the excellent reward of the hereafter. For God loves those who do good." (3:147 and 48).

Bernard Lewis asks in his article "What Went Wrong?" what caused the overall decline we are currently witnessing in the Muslim world. The answer is very clear to many of us, and to others it is becoming clearer each day. And just for the record, it wasn’t Lewis who first raised this question. It was Muslims, many of whom gave their lives for daring to ask this question. Today, the challenge before Muslims throughout the world is to reverse this decline, and to struggle to advance Muslim societies politically, economically, and socially. The people of the Muslim world, along with their leaders will determine whether this will happen as in the case of David and Goliath, Jonah and Nineveh, or Ad and Thamud. In either case, it seems almost inevitable that there will be change.

"But when our clear signs are rehearsed unto them, those who rest not their hope on the meeting with us say: "Bring us a reading other than this, or change this." Say (Mohammed) "It is not for me of my own accord to change it: I follow naught but what is revealed to me. If I (Mohammed) were to disobey my Lord, I should myself fear the penalty of the great day (to come). Say (Mohammed), "If God had so willed, I should not have rehearsed it to you, nor would He have made it known to you."

The Holy Qur’an, "Yunus," (Jonah) Chapter 10,
verses 13-16.

The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women.


by courtesy & © 2002 Anisa Abd el Fattah

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