The idea that nation should have a philosophical premise upon which to present their ideals, and structure their governments is not new to Muslims. Before the great Western political philosophers and thinkers advanced ideas on social contracts and constitutions, Islam had addressed these ideas and formulated a system of governance designed to protect and promote the inalienable rights of individuals, along with the common good.
The first among these concepts, which might be viewed as an Islamic political theory, is the concept of ummat, or community in Islam. It is through the idea of community that Islam viewed the organization of societies, the rights of individuals, and the need for, and the basic duties of an authority to oversee the affairs of state. Islam does not dictate the specific aspects of nation building and government structuring that we have come to see as key to a government’s ability to protect individual liberties, guide economic prosperity and afford its members a reasonable expectation of security. Yet, neither does Islam prohibit Muslim governments from the adaptation of such systems, even if they didn’t take their final shape from the doctrine of Islam.
Limited government, separation of powers, the rights of citizens to self-govern rather than to be subjected to tyranny and other types of oppression, free market economics, are all available to the Muslim society for legitimate adaptation. In any review of the original Islamic community established in Medina, one will find traces of these ideals. Perhaps if the Islamic project had been allowed to proceed, undisturbed by attempts, and successes that reinstalled the repressive dynastic traditions of ancient pre-Islamic cultures in the Muslim world, today we would see in the Muslim world, governments evolved far beyond what we see today.
Self-governing republics, that employ democracy by which to achieve representation, is arguably the best system of governance available today to those who see liberty and freedom as catalysts for human ingenuity and political, economic, and social development. To those who see these systems as threats to their personal power and financial enrichment, or those who are interested in the continuance of the traditional forms of government that have led the Muslim world to near ruin, neither republicanism and its emphasis on rule of law, nor democracy which implies representation, and the limited sovereignty of majorities, would be suited. Nor would any amount of Islamic idealism be acceptable, which is why most governments in the Muslim world vehemently reject all of the above.
The Islamic concept of ummat, suggests as did the traditionalist political theorist and statesman Edmund Burke, that societies have personalities that are derived from history and tradition, including religion, which should be articulated within a people’s constitution. A constitution serves as the social contract between the people and their government, and it is through the constitution that a people’s rights are recognized and guarded by the state. George Sabine, in a critique of Burke’s theory of social contract said Burke believed, “the tradition of the constitution and society at large ought to be the object of reverence in a society akin to religion, because it forms the repository of a collective intelligence and civilization.”
The Qur’an introduces the idea of social organization, identity and constitution or social contract in Chapter 2, where the prophet Abraham, the patriarch of monotheism first began to converse with God. God promised Abraham that his search for God, and rejection of idolatry would result in his being honored as a leader of a universal community of believers that would be governed by prophets, their righteous descendants, and those who would follow their teachings, living according to a divinely inspired law. The distinguishing characteristic of the ummat, or society promised to Abraham, was not along sectarian lines, since at that time there was nothing called a Jew, or Christian, or even Muslim, as we understand that term today, describing an adherent to the religion of Islam. Neither the prophet Muhammad, nor the revelation that was later revealed to him, completing and perfecting monotheism, yet existed. God later designated the faith Islam, which means the perfect and complete return to God, who is al-Haqq, or truth, the sole reality. It means freedom from false ideas that causes mankind to believe that we could assume the posture, power, authority, or rights of God. In this respect it is symbolized as a submission in popular culture and language, but is actually a return. Submission implies that mankind had, or could actually possess a will that would compete with God’s will, that must be subdued, or submitted, which is not a reality, but is rather an idea or illusion that is created by false doctrines. The return to God, on the other hand, is a realization of man’s propinquity to God, and an acknowledgement that we have no competitive will, right, or power, or authority that rivals God’s. Mankind’s realization of these truth results from purifying the mind and heart of falsehoods, a process recognized in Islam as taskiyyah, and in other faiths by various descriptions.
It is generally believed that mankind’s return to truth, or Al-Haqq, which is the epitome of Onesness, or Tauhid, a God without rivals, associates, or partners is accomplished gradually. This model of human transformation is based upon the fact that revelation was sent down gradually, creating a need for many prophets, sent to various regions of the earth, yet preaching the same basic message. Since there is no way for a group, or any individual to recognize or interpret the actual will of God through any amount of common sense, intellect, knowledge etc. His (God’s) laws were revealed to prophets who taught us laws and principles which reflect God’s intention, will, and something of God’s identity, which is revealed through His names, which are attributes, i.e., Al-Rahman (the merciful), Al-Raheim (the compassionate).
There was only monotheism at the time of the prophet Abraham, as opposed to idolatry. The distinguishing characteristics of the ummat, of Abraham were those prophets, the righteous descendants of prophets, and those who follow the teachings of the prophets who lead these communities. God told Abraham that so far as the people of these communities, and their governments adhered to the teachings of the Holy Books, the communities would prosper, and if they deviated and returned to idolatry, they would fail. Idolatry in this respect, is not only the worship of statues or images, but includes the worship of ones own self, which is mankind’s most revered idol.
“And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled. He (God) said: “I will make thee an Imam (leader) to the nations. He (Abraham) pleaded “and also of my offspring?” He (God) answered, “But my promise is not within the reach of evil doers,” (The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 2, verse 124).
Following this verse of Qur’an, establishing the legitimacy of the righteous servants of God as leaders of ummat, the concept of community is introduced, using the symbolism of the Sacred House, identified materially as the Kaba in Mecca. Yet, the term “sacred house” is also understood by many scholars to represent any place where God dwells. In an abstract sense this can include the hearts of people, as in remembrance of God, and by extension the societies that they form, or nations they establish, when His laws are implemented, and people live in reverence of Him. Verse 125 says: ” Remember we made the house a place of assembly for men and a place of safety. Take you the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and we covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves therein.” In verse 126 we read: ” And remember Abraham said, ” My Lord, make this a city of peace, and feed its people with fruits-such of them as believe in God, and the Last Day. “
“He (God) said: ” Yes, and such as reject faith, for a while will I grant them pleasure, but will soon drive them to the fire, an evil destination indeed.”
Later in verses 127-131, we witness the evolution of the idea of a single scripture, or law that defines monotheism, into the idea of various peoples, prophets, and nations united under the banner of monotheism. The “Sacred House” in this respect now represents a center of worship, the unity of diverse groups, all monotheists. Keep in mind that at that time, there were no separate forms, or separate descriptions of monotheism, such as Jew, Christian, or Muslim as in adherent to Islam. Abraham prays, perhaps knowing at this juncture that he would have sons who would become the fathers of separate groups of people, or nations, and he asks God to send each people prophets, all taught by God as to their specific rituals, and places of worship, etc. This aspect of the prayer of Abraham might also ultimately come to represent the establishment of distinct civilizations that would co-exist, and find themselves competing, not for material resources or power, but rather for God’s pleasure. “To each is a goal to which God turns him, then strive together towards all that is good. Wherever you are, God will bring you together, for God has power over all things ” (2: 148).
“And remember Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations (emphasis added) of the House with this prayer “Our Lord, accept this service from us, for thou art the All hearing and the All knowing. Our Lord make of us Muslims, (Servants of God) bowing to thy will, and of our progeny a people Muslim, (Servants of God) bowing to thy will. And show us our places for the celebration of rites, and turn unto us (in Mercy) for thou art the One, Oft returning, Most Merciful. Our Lord, send among them a messenger of their own, who shall rehearse thy signs to them, and instruct them in scripture and wisdom. And sanctify them; for thou art the exalted in might, the wise. And who turns away from the religion of Abraham but such as debase their souls with folly? Him we chose, and rendered pure in this world, and he will be in the rank of the righteous. Behold his Lord said to him, “Bow thy will to me” he, (Abraham) said; ” I bow my will to the Lord and Cherisher of the Universe.”
Abraham was in fact the father of monotheism, and is called “ummat.” He represents the foundation of what became a diverse community of believers, each enjoying distinct rites of worship, rituals and places of worship. To understand this point better we continue to verses 133, 134, 135, and 136, where it says: ” Were you witnesses when death approached Jacob? Behold he said to his sons: “What will you worship after me? They said:” We shall worship thy God and the God of thy fathers, of Abraham, of Ishmael, and Isaac, the One true God; to Him we bow in submission.” That was a people that have passed away. They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and you of what you do. Of their merits there is no question in your case. They say, ” Become Jews, or Christians if you would be guided,” Say thou (Muhammad) “Nay, I would rather the religion of Abraham, the true, and he joined not gods with God. Say you (Muhammad): “We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and that given to Moses, and Jesus, and that given to all prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between one and another of them, and we bow to God in submission.”
The distinction established here between the most recent group of people to receive a prophet, and a Book of revelation, and the previous groups, is not based upon geography, or even race, but upon a peoples worship of One God, or belief in monotheism. In the Hebrew Scriptures of the Holy Bible in the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 9, verse 13, we read, ” And Jehovah proceeded to say: ” On account of their leaving my law that I gave to be before them, and because they have not walked in it, but they kept on walking after the stubbornness of their heart and after the Ba’al images about which their fathers had taught themé” The Ten Commandments, which has come to represent the Mosaic Law, since it was revealed to Moses, begins “I (God) am the Lord thy God, thou shall put no god before Me.” Then in the New Testament, in Mark, Chapter 12, verses 29-32 we read: ” Jesus answered, “Oh Israel, Jehovah our God is One Jehovah, and you must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul and with your whole mind, with your whole strength.” In this respect, those Christians who adopted the belief that Jesus is in fact the son of God, also fell outside this doctrine of pure, or absolute monotheism taught by the prophets. The Qur’an says on this topic in Chapter 2, verse 116, ” They say: God has begotten a son, Glory be to Him (God). Nay, to Him (God) belongs all that is in the heavens and on the earth; everything renders worship to Him.”
This has become a point of contention between Christians and Muslims since Christians believe that Muslims raise this issue to suggest that all Christians are living outside the doctrine of monotheism. This would imply then, that all those who call themselves Muslims are monotheist, and therefore, at least spiritually, that the Muslim is superior to the Christian. If this is the intended implication, Christians are right to reject the idea that everyone who calls himself or herself Muslim is in fact a monotheist, or follower of the prophets. The Qur’an itself refutes the idea that all those who call themselves Muslims are monotheist, and suggests that even among Muslims, there are those who are in fact polytheists, and they will be judged according to their belief and actions as will all others. Chapter 15, Al-Hijr, verses 90-92 says: ” Of just such wrath as we sent down upon those who divided scripture into arbitrary parts, (Jews and Christians), and so also on such as have made the Qur’an into shreds (as they please). Therefore, by thy Lord, We will, of a surety call them all to account for their deeds.”
The ummat, or community of monotheists who followed the prophet Muhammad were not only Arabs, nor were they all from Arabia. Among them were the people of the previous Books who had refused to succumb to the teachings of multiple deities sharing dominion with God, a remnant of Babylonian paganism, which mostly resulted from the intermixing of religious ideas and pagan traditions in Babylon. These men and women recognized in Mohammed’s teaching, the original teaching of the previous prophets, and followed him. The Qur’an says about these people, in Chapter 2, verses 51- 53, ” Those to whom we sent the Book before this, they do believe in the revelation. And when it is recited to them, they say, “We believe therein, for it is the truth from our Lord, indeed we have been Muslims (servants of God), from before this.” Twice will they be given their reward, for that they have persevered, that they avert evil with good, and that they spend in charity out of what we have given them. And when they hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom, and say: “To us our deeds and to you yours. Peace: we seek not the ignorant.”
That justly balanced ummat that adhered to God’s command to the prophet Muhammad, to turn away from the Qibla of the ancient Jews, and Christians, and to distinguish itself as a new ummat, was a justly balanced community of monotheists. It was a community of believers who were from various nations, from various faith traditions, and of varied races, and tribes. Their common attribute or distinction was their worship of One God, without partners, rivals, associates, consorts or offspring. They are called Muslims since they serve the One God by obeying His laws, wherein we find the principles of governance that guides people of faith, and their communities to what is known in Arabic as falah or success and prosperity, which is what God promised to Abraham.
Edmund Burke described political communities as “an organized group that has a history, institutions, customary ways of acting, habitual pieties, and loyalties and authority, and possessing a political personality.” President Bush called upon the people of Palestine to embrace these principles of government. The Muslim community or ummat has all of these things. Whereas, Islam it is not distinguished by geography, or race, or nationality, it can, once it is attached to a land, take on the trappings of nation/states. The organization of Muslim communities into modern nations is acceptable, so far as its nationalism does not become a form of religion that rivals the belief in One God. Muslim communities or nations should not exchange God’s criteria for legitimacy. Anything that suggests the superiority of an individual, or that measures an individual’s capacity to lead based upon skin color, or blood lineage, in opposition to virtues is anathema to Islam. The Qur’an, and indeed all of the monotheistic Holy Books teach us that virtues such as wisdom, courage, intellect, faith, morality, honesty, and integrity, along with popular support, are the required attributes of great leaders. When we minimize the importance of this basic principle of the monotheist doctrine of ummat, the result is corruption, despotism, oppression, injustice and other crimes against the people and the state.
When seeking to reform those communities or societies predominately Muslim, the model of ummat set forth in the Qur’an should at least be considered, since its first priority is to call the people back to monotheism, the worship of One God, and to forsaken the worship of false gods. God promised Abraham, that if his community would worship God, and God alone, they would find the way to prosperity, through God’s guidance, and His blessings bestowed upon the righteous men given the duty to lead people to success. This guidance includes a very in-depth discussion on freedom, liberty, economy, and law, rights of individuals, rights of societies, and rights of the state, that sets the stage for progress, and peace, found in the Holy Books, and the writings of the great men who proceeded the prophets in leadership.
Even George Washington, the first President of the United States recognized this central role that religion plays in a successful society of freemen, referring to religion, not as a specific doctrine, but as a “national morality.” Washington said in his farewell address, September 17, 1796, the following: ” Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
In the Holy Qur’an, the prophet Luqman, counseled his son on the mundane affairs of life in chapter 31, Luqman, verses 17- 22, saying:
“Oh my son, establish regular prayer, enjoin what is just, and forbid what is wrong; and bear with patient constancy what ever betide thee; for this is firmness of purpose in the conduct of affairs.”
“And swell not thy cheek for pride at men, nor walk with insolence in the earth, for God loves not any arrogant boaster.’
“And be moderate in thy pace, and lower thy voice, for the harshest of sounds without doubt is the braying of the ass.”
“Do you not see that God has subjected to your use all things in the heavens and earth, and has made His bounties flow to you in exceeding measure, both in the seen and the unseen? Yet, there are among men those who dispute about God, without knowledge, and without a book to enlighten them.”
“When they are told to follow the revelation that God sent down, they say ” Nay, we shall follow the ways we found our fathers (following). What! Even if it is Satan beckoning them to the penalty of the blazing fire?”
“Whoever submits his whole self to God, and is a doer of good, has grasped indeed the most trustworthy handhold, and with God rests the end and decision of all affairs.”
And in Chapter 25, al-Furqan, (the Criterian) the Holy Qur’an says in verses 58 and 59:
“And put thy trust in Him (God) who lives and dies not, and celebrate His praise, and enough is God to be acquainted with His servants, He who created the heavens and the earth and all between in six days, and is firmly established upon the throne.”
The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women.