Who rightly owns coercive power in an Islamic nation / state?


Islamic government is unique in many ways, yet in some of the most important ways it is very similar to non religious government. It is unique perhaps in its insistence upon avoiding even the slightest inference that man is similar to God, clearly demarcating in every way noticeable, God from man, and the attributes of the Creator from those of the created. Other than this, the challenges that face Islamic governments are the same as those that face any government that is seeking to administer societies of free, men and women. Among these challenges is the distribution, or balance of power between the ruled and rulers that prevents either from owning exclusively the type of coercive power that supports tyranny.

In the distant past, in both East and West, a ruler was only as powerful as the men who followed him. There was actually no such thing as a standing army, and each military campaign had to be sold to the people who would then demonstrate or withhold their support for war by either swearing their sword to the cause, or refusing to take up arms. Leaders of tribes consulted with one another and with the men of the tribes about war. Before a war would take place, each tribal leader would give an oath of fealty upon which the tribe staked its honor in defense of the leader and his idea. Even though many different tribes might all come together to fight against a common foe, they would often ride out under their own banners, and coat of arms, tribal markings, etc., distinguishing their particular tribe, even on the battlefield.

Much has been written about the prophet Muhammad, ( May the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his descendants) as a statesman, and also as a commander in chief. Yet it does not seem that sufficient attention has been paid to the fact that the prophet, even though he was honored and respected as the ideological leader of a movement, by his followers, did not have an army per se. In every military campaign where he fought, he fought for the freedom of converts to choose and practice religion freely, and he was prevented from fighting even for this noble purpose, until he had mustered enough military support from various tribes, that his entry onto the battlefield represented a real possibility for victory, considering the odds against him. There are Muslim scholars who have written that the first Muslim migration from Mecca to Ethiopia was a tactical, or strategic move employed by the prophet under divine guidance. The objective was to save the lives ! of converts who were being killed and persecuted by the ruling Quraish in Mecca. Following his advice, the group of converts left Mecca and went to Ethiopia were they came under the protection of a Christian King known as Negus, while the prophet, who did not accompany them, left Mecca and continued to teach the message of One God throughout the villages of Arabia.

It seems obvious that God did not, at that time, give the prophet permission, or order

him to take up arms against the Quriash, or to submit to martyrdom at the hands of the Quraish, or to call upon the small group of converts to do so, since at that time, their was little chance for victory, and the revelation to the prophet had not been sufficiently completed. Also, it might not have been reasonable to tax this band of converts with the duty of a jihad, since the principles of such had not yet been completely revealed, and the spiritual maturity required to act strictly according to divine guidance and instruction under such stress had perhaps not been attained. Perhaps we can also assume that a clear enough distinction between right and wrong, by which observers, and history, would fairly, or accurately judge the actions of either side in the conflict, had not yet been achieved, making any altercation at that time unwise The Qur’an seems to support these observations saying; “Call to mind when you were a small band despised throu! ghout the land and afraid that men might despoil and kidnap you, but He (God) provided a safe asylum for you, strengthened you with His aid, and gave you sustenance that you might be grateful” (Holy Qur’an 8: 26). In 8:66, it reads; ” For the present God has lightened your task for He knows that there is a weak spot in you.” Muslim commentators, appear for the most part, to believe that this “weak spot” as it is mentioned here, is not only meant to represent weakness in numbers, but also weakness in faith and understanding of the difference between war, (harb) and jihad, which is struggle in the cause of God, to please God, and carried out according to the laws of God. Noted Qur’anic scholar Abdullah Yusef Ali wrote in his commentary on the above verses the following: ” An ordinary war may be for territory or trade, revenge or military glory, all “temporal goods of this world.” Such a war is condemned. But a jihad is fought under strict conditions and only under a pious Imam, and purely for the defense of faith and God’s law.”

The circumstances by which the prophet found himself invited to Medina are also very telling. He was invited by the people, many of whom had converted to Islam, and many who had not. Among them were some Jewish tribes, and even some pagans remained in Medina after the prophet’s entry. According to historic accounts, the people lined the pathway with palm branches, and sang songs welcoming him and his only companion, Abu Bakr Saddiq, a wealthy merchant from Mecca who had been among the first to accept the new religion, to their new home. There was no accompanying army, no conquest. The prophet had assumed leadership through consensus, or agreement among the Medina tribesmen to accept his leadership over them, and even though most of the Jews of the Jewish tribes did not convert to Islam, they also accepted that this Arab prophet would lead, perhaps because he was an Arab, and a member of the ruling Quriash tribe. To formalize the relationship between the new ! leader and his followers, the prophet dictated the Covenant of Medina, which for all intent and purpose was a social contract that spelled out the rights and duties of the Medinan people under the prophet’s leadership. There were possibly three primary aspects of the Covenant that suggests an Islamic perspective on the proper distribution of power in an Islamic society. 1. Rather than attempt to raise an army under a single flag, the prophet sought by agreement with each tribe to arrange the community’s defense, and to tax the people equally to cover the costs associated with communal services. 2. Each tribe was given an opportunity to sign, or not sign the covenant without threat of penalty. 3. Muslims and non-Muslims were given equal rights, same duties, and charged the same amount of tax. Under this arrangement, all coercive power remained with the people, who organized their mutual cooperation through a social contract, between themselves as citizens, and also between themselves and their new leader. They maintained control over t! he bulk of the communities wealth through private ownership, and control of military power and law enforcement through tribal militias.

Without much effort one can perhaps easily see that the arrangement adopted by the founders of the United States, and the colonists, where sovereign states are united to become one nation, each having its own flag, governor, legislature etc. is perhaps a similar arrangement. The exception is that where the United States has a standing army, the Islamic state traditionally had no army, and this remained the case pretty much until the 20th century. The Islamic state was dependent upon the fealty of tribesmen, or the armies of its territories to undertake the defense of the central authority. An example of the shift from the historic Islamic model, to the modern nationalist military configuration is mentioned by HRH Prince Faisal bin Mishal Al- Saud Ph.D., in his book Islamic Political Development in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He explains how this type of transition from a tribal owned, to an institutionalized, and state controlled military shifted power in modern Muslim societies to the state. He writes, ” The balance of power between the central authority and the tribe is now tilted toward the state, and this did not occur by accident. The Gulf governments absorbed all of the institutions of Islam and tribalism into the state and the people of these states are permitted to organize socially and participate only through these institutions.” Al-Saud links the relationship between religious tradition, tribal sovereignty, and the institutionalization of a national or secular army for the purpose of solidifying political power on behalf of the state, saying, ” King Abdul Aziz relied heavily on those trained in religion for advice and administrative support. His potent Saudi military force originally recruited for religious purposes only, became a powerful political force in the Kingdom in the 1920s, spearheading the Saudi conquest of western Saudi Arabia, and the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina.”

The Qur’an has its own perspective on this issue, and its perspective might be seen as an authoritative commentary on the topic, outlining what might be viewed as a divinely inspired model of military power distribution in an Islamic society. It highlights the fact that the prophet Muhammad had no army, that his military power resulted from the fealty of sovereign tribes, who swore loyalty to the prophet based upon their love for him, and their belief in his campaign to secure the rights of mankind to be free, to choose their own faith, to express their faith freely and openly, and to participate as religious people, equally in government and economy . The Qur’an says: ” Verily those who plight their fealty to thee do no less than plight their fealty to God. The hand of God is over their hands. Then any one who violates his oath, does so to the harm of his own soul. Any one who fulfills what he has covenanted with God-God will soon grant him a great rewar! d” (Holy Qur’an 48:10). In 48:18, the Qur’an reiterates this promise to bless those who took up arms on behalf of the prophet and his cause, saying: ” God’s good pleasure was on the believers when they swore fealty to thee under the tree. He knew what was in their hearts, and He sent down tranquility to them, and He rewarded them with a speedy victory.”

It is perhaps important to note at this juncture that those who came out to fight with the prophet Muhammad were not only Arabs, nor were they all converts in the sense that we explain conversion today. They were mostly monotheists, since they had come together as a brotherhood joined under the banner of One God, and the freedom to worship Him without fear. Yet, there were also many hypocrites amongst his followers, who fought simply for booty, or spoils of war. The Qur’an says on this issue,

“Muhammad is the prophet of God, and those who are with him are strong against unbelievers, but compassionate amongst each other. Thou wilt see them bow and prostrate themselves in prayer, seeking grace from God and God’s good pleasure. On their faces are their marks, the traces of their prostration. Their similitude in the Torah, and their similitude in the Gospels is: ” Like a seed which sends forth its blade, then makes it strong, it then becomes thick, and it stands on its own stem, (filing) the sowers with wonder and delight. As a result, it fills the unbelievers with rage at them. God has promised those among them who believe and do righteous deeds forgiveness and a great reward” (48:29). ” And behold! The Hypocrites and those in whose heart is a disease even say “God and his Apostle promised us nothing but delusions. Behold a party of them said, “Oh men of Yathrib (Medina), you cannot stand the attack therefore go back! And a band of them ask for leave of the prophet…” (33:12-13).

It might be possible, even now, that modern Islamic governments could return to this Qur’anic pattern of power distribution. Deriving its legitimacy of authority from the mutual love, trust and respect shared between the people and their selected leaders, as the prophet Muhammad did. If the various villages, or municipalities of any Muslim nation, are allowed to organize first, before there is a central authority established, this might make it easier for the people to later organize and participate in a national election where each municipality can nominate candidates for all of the prospective branches of government, i.e., legislative, judicial, and executive. If these municipalities are allowed to retain some semblance of sovereignty, and identity, along with rights to dissent and succession, having also their own local constabulary and citizen militias, with all citizens sharing limited gun ownership rights, government tyranny can be avoided. The power of the authority would be found mostly in its administrative capability, leadership, and its capacity to serve the people to the extent that citizens remain united and feel satisfied that the leadership performs according to a ratified constitution, that represents their independent interests equally and fairly.

The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women and host a weekly internet radio program at IBN.Net, named “A Civilizational Dialogue.” (1-2 PM each Wednesday). The author is also head of the International Assoc. for Muslim Women and Children, an accredited NGO with the UN Division on the Rights of the Palestinians.


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