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Framing the Issues

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Medieval Commentaries on Sovereignty and Government

The following passages are excerpts from treatises composed by three eminent medieval polymaths, Abū al-Hasan ‘Ali al-Mawardī (d. 1058), Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), and Taqī ad-Dīn Ahmad Ibn Taymīyyah (d. 1328), who all lived and wrote in the middle period of Islamic civilization when ascendant sacral sultanates eclipsed the declining Abbasid caliphate.

Taken from his famous work entitled The Ordinances of Government, we present first Mawardī’s opinions on the conferral of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate: its worldly purpose, the seven qualifications of the caliph-imām, and his ten incumbent duties.

1. The purpose of the caliphate is to succeed in the prophethood of Muhammad in protecting the Faith and administering worldly affairs…

4. There are seven qualifications required of the prospective caliph:

1) Complete respectability;
2) Intelligence enabling him to make independent decisions in legal action and to render judgments;
3) Sight, hearing and speech free from impairment that he may perceive and communicate effectively;
4) Limbs and bodily parts free from impairment that would impede his physical activity;

5) Judgment required to govern subjects and manage public affairs;
6) Courage and fortitude essential to protect the territory of Islam and combat the enemy; and
7) Descent from the Quraysh tribe as stipulated by text and unanimous agreement.

45. There are ten duties incumbent upon the caliph in the interest of the Community:

1) To preserve Islam in accordance with the principles laid down by the forefathers of the Community––if a false innovator or a religious deviator should appear voicing suspicious lies, the caliph must make clear to him the Truth and the correct way and enforce upon him duties and punishments to protect the Faith from disorder and to keep the Community from backsliding;
2) To enforce judgments and to settle suits between litigants so that justice will prevail and the oppressor not oppress nor the weak be oppressed;
3) To protect the lands and possessions of Islam that people may go about their livelihood unhindered, and travel free of danger to self or possessions;
4) To apply penalties keeping God’s prohibitions from violation and preserving from damage and harm the rights of His servants;
5) To fortify the frontiers, ready resistance, and strengthen defenses, so that the enemy cannot appear by surprise and ravish that which must be protected or shed the blood of a Muslim or an ally;
6) To carry out the Holy War against those who opposed Islam’s call until they convert or become subject people in order to establish God’s Truth among religions;
7) To collect the Community’s portion of war booty, tribute, and the alms tax without injustice or abuse as required by text and interpretation of the religious law;
8) To assess gifts and what is due the treasury without lavishness or laxity and to make disbursements on time;
9) To seek out trustworthy men and choose competent advisors for appointments and the handling of financial matters, so that these will be in capable hands and money secure and safe; and
10) To carry out for himself the supervision of affairs and the examination of matters, in order to govern the Community best and to protect the Faith.

* Abū al-Hasan ‘Ali al-Mawardī, from The Ordinances of Government

The following selections are Ghazālī’s commentaries on government, excerpted from three separate works. In the first passage, Ghazālī explains the indispensability of earthly power and governance.

Temporal power (sultān) is necessary for the order of the world (nizām al-dunyā); the order of the world is necessary for the order of religion; the order of religion is necessary for success in the Hereafter. This is the real objective of the prophets. Thus the necessity of the imām is a [divinely ordained] necessity that cannot be abandoned in any way…

*Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazālī, from Moderation of Belief

In the second passage, recognizing the prevailing political hierarchy of his time, when the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate was subordinate to the rule of sultān’s possessing military power, Ghazālī reasons that a tyrannical ruler must be tolerated if deposing that ruler would present an extraordinary hardship for the community.

As long as an evildoing and barbarous sultan is supported by military force so that he can only be deposed with difficulty causing unendurable civil strife, he must be left in his place and rendered obedience…We consider then that the caliphate is contractually assumed by that member of the Abbasid house who is charged with its functions and that the office of government in the various lands is validly executed by the sultan, who professes allegiance to the caliph…In short, we have regard to the qualifications and stipulations regarding sultans for the sake of the interest of public welfare. For if we were to decide that all governmental offices were null and void, all institutions of public welfare would also be absolutely null and void…indeed, government in these days is a consequence solely of military power: the caliph is that person who is recognized as caliph by the holder of military power; the sultan is that person who, while exercising independent authority, shows allegiance to the caliph by observing the caliphal prerogatives of the Friday sermon and the coinage. His commands and judgments are valid in the several parts of the earth.

*Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazālī, from
Revitalization of the Religious Sciences

In this final passage Ghazālī maintains that the welfare of God’s servants (Muslims) is the responsibility of the person upon whom God has conferred charisma and royal fortune, the sultān, and that Muslims are in return obligated to love and obey him.

God sent prophets to His servants to guide them and to restrain them from one another and He chose kings to whose wisdom He relegated the welfare of His servants, giving them a high rank—as is stated in the Traditions ‘The governmental authority (sultān) is the shadow of God on the earth.’ That person to whom kingship and sacral charisma has been given must be loved and kings must be obeyed.

*Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazālī, from Counsel for Kings

Jumping ahead a few hundred years, the early fourteenth-century Damascene scholar Ibn Taymīyyah perhaps goes the furthest in resolving the problem posed by the political disintegration of the Sunni-Jama‘i Imamate. Ibn Taymīyyah flatly observes, “The imām to be obeyed is the one who has political power, be he just or unjust.” Writing in the decades following the Mongol invasions, the sacking of Baghdad, and the termination of the Abbasid dynasty, Ibn Taymīyyah dismisses as irrelevant traditions delineating the necessary qualities of the caliph-imām and any formal accessional process (e.g., traditions established in the time of the Umayyads or the conditions outlined above by Mawardī). The caliph-imāmcan be anyone possessing the power to claim the title, and the coexistence of multiple caliph-imāms, if not ideal, is a tolerable practicality.

From the commentary of these three scholars, we are confronted with compelling evidence that, far from being frozen in time, Muslim societies have constantly adapted to changing historical circumstances. As sociopolitical conditions evolved, so did opinions on the ideal form of government and the legitimization of sovereignty.

A cursory assessment of the political landscape of the modern Middle East indicates that authoritarian rule is the region’s overriding leitmotif. When exactly the late medieval period of Islamic civilization gives way to the modern is open to debate. Some historians reason that the modern Middle East begins to emerge in 1798 with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and subsequent European encroachment, whereas others argue that the modern era begins with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth-century and the coalescence of national communities. Whatever the date, an extended nineteenth-century, from Napoleon’s arrival to the end of World War I, constitutes a period of remarkable social and political reformation. Following World War II, newly emergent Middle Eastern nation-states succeeded in attaining their independence from European powers, and with independence came local sovereignty and self-determination. However, the lingering tradition of late medieval authoritarianism, which was followed by the heavy-handed imposition of European colonial rule, have left Middle Easterners with precious few instructive, indigenous political models for successfully integrating into their societies new ideas about popular democracy, civilian governance, smooth power transition, a free and independent press, and inalienable human rights.

Supporting Links:

“Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi” The Window: Philosophy on the Internet.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 20, 2010).

“al-Ghazālī.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 20, 2010).

“Ibn Taymiyyah.” Wikipedia. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 20, 2010).

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