During the premodern period, Islamic political thought found expression in a diverse group of writings such as legal compendia, theological treatises, philosophical writings, literary works on the subject of statecraft, wisdom literature, historiography, and even poetry. In the modern period, political thought may be found in some of these branches of literature, but also in separate works directly concerned with political topics, such as the nation state, government, constitutionalism, law, human rights, and the Islamic state.
The diffusion that characterizes the wide range of premodern political thinking results from many factors, two of which deserve particular mention. First, writers in the premodern period often treated aspects of politics and government not in isolation from other topics but in the context of larger subjects and a variety of intellectual disciplines. Second, the early Muslim community rapidly found itself dispersed among a culturally diverse set of peoples, and Muslims became heirs to the variegated political cultures of the larger Middle East; these cultures contributed to the shaping and expression of the range of Islamic political ideas. In the wake of the conquests, and with the formation of an Islamic imperial order, Muslim polities had at their disposal, as Aziz al-Azmeh has put it, a "floating repertoire of immensely ancient and awesomely persistent institutions, metaphors, iconographies, and propositions concerning power, and most particularly concerning power in relation to the sacred, which they welded into distinctive forms." (al-Azmeh
1997, p. 10)
The close association between religion and politics in much of the Islamic tradition, and the diversity of ways in which this association has been interpreted in Islamic history are also worthy of note. Much political thinking in the Islamic tradition takes as its point of departure the view that all sovereignty belongs to God, who alone governs the universe. (His is the "sovereignty over the heavens and the earth," as the Qur’an states repeatedly.) Many Muslim thinkers came to agree that the role of human government was to ensure that God’s will, as expressed in the divine law, was enacted on earth. The ideal earthly ruler, called an imam, was a leader who ruled according to God’s laws and who was consequently entitled to the loyalty and obedience of his community. While these ideals have been widely expressed, Muslims have naturally differed in their understandings of the implications of the relationship between the religious and political realms. In fact, the historical experience of Muslim societies has generated a large repertoire of political ideas, many of which assume or accommodate themselves to certain premises or coalesce around certain themes, but which collectively constitute a wide-ranging body of thought.
While the Qur’an, like other scriptures, does not treat political topics in a comprehensive way, it refers in several places to power and those who exercise it. The Qur’an presents sovereignty as a divine prerogative, and all forms of earthly authority (prophetic or political) are wholly dependent on God’s dispensation (see, for example, 3:26). This emphasis on the relativity of human forms of authority in relation to the divine reality is one that has left an imprint on many areas of the
Islamic tradition, into the modern period. The most frequently invoked Qur’anic passage, in discussions of political matters, is 4:59: "Obey God, obey the Prophet, and those in authority among you." This verse has been interpreted in some quarters as an injunction to obey rulers even if they are unjust, while other commentators have regarded the phrase "those in authority among you" as a reference only to holders of religious or religio-political authority. For a number of Sunni scholars, the Qur’anic phrase refers to religious scholars or ulema; in Shi’ite tradition, it refers to the imams. On the earthly plane, kingship is depicted as a great but sometimes treacherous boon that human beings are often predisposed to covet. Satan seeks to tempt Adam with the prospect of imperishable sovereignty (20:120); the Children of Israel were sometimes favored with both prophethood and kingship (for example, 5:20; 38:20); and Solomon prays for kingship (38:35). For those whom God leads astray, however, kingship is associated with overweening pride; Nimrod argues with Abraham over it (2:258), and Pharaoh boasts of his claim to the kingdom of Egypt (43:51).
Early Political Developments
Islamic political thought, as expressed in Qur’anic exegesis and elsewhere, evolved in conjunction with Muslims’ historical experiences. The history of the early Muslim community is one of extraordinary political success. After facing initial adversity, the prophet Muhammad went on to unify Arabia and to create a state based largely on ties of common religious allegiance. Muhammad was the leader of this early community (the umma), and hence his role as God’s messenger was integrally linked with his role as political head of state. The early Islamic polity, moreover, continued to grow in the decades following the Prophet’s death in 632. It rapidly expanded to comprise the regions of the northern Middle East (Syria-Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran), and from there it spread across North Africa and into Spain, and eastwards into northern India. Although the pace of the expansion did not remain constant, Islamic political thought, like other branches of the Islamic tradition, was inevitably shaped by the experience of a success which seemed to validate the new dispensation and to attest divine favor towards the Muslim community. The construction on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem of the Dome of the Rock, completed under the Umayyad caliph cAbd al-Malik in 691, suggests a striking confidence on the part of the city’s rulers in the stability and endurance of the Islamic polity.
In the period immediately following the death of the Prophet in 632, issues such as the nature of political leadership and the identity of the rightful holder of political authority were much disputed. The leaders who succeeded the Prophet were addressed as Commander of the Faithful (amir al-mu’minin) and bore the title of caliph (khalifa), a term which came to be understood as meaning deputy of, or successor to, the Prophet of God. The Prophet himself had exercised both religious and political authority, the continuing conjoining of which formed the basis of the religio-political ideals of the Shi’ites. The early debates and struggles over leadership eventually crystalized in the emergence of distinct sectarian communities (generally grouped as Kharijites, Shi’ites, and, eventually, Sunnis).
The Role of the Ulema
The institution that emerged most successfully from, or in the face of, these disagreements was that of the caliphate, exercised first by a series of respected individuals who had surrounded the Prophet, and, following the conclusion of the first civil war in 661, by dynastic families: the Umayyads (661-750) and, after a revolution, the ‘Abbasids (750-1258). It has been suggested that the early caliphs, including the Umayyads and early ‘Abbasids, may have expected to wield not only political authority but also some degree of religious authority as part of their office. The caliphs’ claims to religious authority encountered resistance, however, with the emergence of numbers of religious specialists, who came to be known collectively as the ulema (scholars) or "those possessed of religious learning" (eilm). As the Islamic polity grew in extent and in the diversity of its population, the claim of this new intellectual elite to religious leadership and authority among the Muslims of the empire was itself contested by some individuals who held that such authority should be centralized and held by the ruler, rather than by a number of loosely associated specialists over whom the ruler had little control. An argument for limiting the power of the ulema in favor of the caliph was advanced by the Persian convert Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (d. c. 756), whose apparently unsolicited warnings to the caliph al-Mansur (754-775) went unheeded and were rarely repeated so plainly in later periods. One last attempt to wrest religious authority from the ulema was made under successive caliphs in the first half of the ninth century, in the course of the mihna, an inquisition during which prominent religious scholars were interrogated in order to establish their adherence or lack thereof to a particular theological doctrine; this attempt too failed, and its failure marked the voluntary or involuntary ceding of religious authority to the ulema.
The scholars formulated the religious law, the shari’a, with only incidental reference to the state, and it was chiefly when the political power located in the institution of the caliphate could no longer be taken for granted that jurists began to address larger political questions concerning the state and government. The collectivity of the Muslim community was invested with certain duties and responsibilities that could, under certain conditions or in times of political crisis, operate regardless of, or even in opposition to, the workings of the state. One such collective (and occasionally, individual) duty is that of "commanding right and forbidding wrong" (al-amr bil-maeruf wal-nahy ean al-munkar), a duty that in the view of many Muslims fell, ideally, to the imam, but which could also require or justify rebellion against a ruler, as well as action taken by one Muslim against another without any involvement on the part of the state.
A related area of ambivalence towards the role of the state concerns the extent of the duty of obedience. Many medieval Sunni thinkers held that obedience was incumbent on Muslims, regardless of whether the ruler was just or tyrannical, pious or irreligious, as long as such obedience did not involve the subject in transgression of the shari’a. In this connection, it is important to note that many scholars held themselves aloof from political power. While some of the most influential political thinkers served the state as judges and in other capacities (for example, Abu Yusuf, Ibn al-Murtada, al-Mawardi), the refusal to serve the holders of political power retained prestige and was widely regarded as morally preferable, as numerous historical incidents, anecdotes and folk tales demonstrate.
The Formation of Shi’ite, Kharijite, and Sunni Views of Political Leadership
The mainstream Shi’ite view of political leadership, subsumed in the doctrine of the imamate, regards certain Qur’anic texts and acts of the Prophet recorded in hadiths as proofs that the Prophet, contrary to most Sunni opinions, nominated as his successor his cousin and son-in-law, ‘Ali. ‘Ali, however, had, according to Shi’ites, been wrongfully deprived of the position that was his due, with the result that the community had fallen into error. Following ‘Ali’s death in 661, Shi’ites held that only descendants of ‘Ali could claim the imamate. (Partly in order to distinguish between the rightful holders of authority and the actual ruling powers, Shi’ites refer to the persons whom they regard as their leaders as imams rather than as caliphs.) During the first two centuries of Islamic history, many Shi’ite groups attempted to seize power for their imams. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful (as was the case, most famously, with the challenge to Umayyad rule mounted by Husayn, a grandson of the Prophet, who was killed in 680), and Shi’ites were often ruthlessly suppressed.
In the course of the eighth century, most Shi’ites adopted a politically quietist stance, and they abandoned the attempt to establish general leadership for their imams, whom they continued to follow as leaders within their own communities. Shi’ites gradually developed a distinctive body of political ideas based on the concept of the imamate, which they came to regard as comprising both religious and political authority. Most Shi’ites belong to the Imami community, and believe that the last of their imams is now hidden, and therefore inaccessible to the vast majority of his followers. Even during the period of the presence of the imams, however, there appears to have been some dispute among Imami Shi’ites as to the extent of the imams’ authority. As the work of Hossein Modarressi suggests, the power of the imams was limited not only by the adverse conditions that confronted them and their followers, but also by the view held by some of their prominent supporters that the scope of their powers should be limited in theory as well as in practice.
Gradually, however, Imami Shi’ites reached a consensus, agreeing that the role of the imamate was to provide comprehensive leadership over religious and worldly matters. Thus, under the leadership of the imam, the realms of religion and state were indistinguishable. The imam was not only the rightful political leader of the community, but he also possessed immunity from sin and error (‘isma). Accordingly, he was the rightful collector and distributor of religious taxes and the only legitimate leader of jihad, and, as heir to the knowledge of the Prophet, he possessed a complete and perfect knowledge of the religious law. After the onset of the occultation in the late ninth century (when the imam became hidden), however, Imami Shi’ites could no longer turn to their imam directly, and they, like Sunnis, turned increasingly to their religious scholars for guidance in religious matters.
The Kharijites were hostile to both the Umayyad (and, later, to the ‘Abbasid) and the Shi’ite positions, and held that leadership belonged to the most excellent member of the community, regardless of his genealogy or background. A few believed that the office of the imamate could be held by a woman. Most Kharijites held that the imamate was obligatory, although some, most notably the Najdiyya, did not consider an imam necessary if the community were able to function in accordance with justice without one. (Some Mu’tazilis and other thinkers similarly denied the obligatory nature of the imamate.) If the imam violated the divine law, most Kharijites held that he forfeited his legitimacy and had even lapsed into unbelief. The Kharijites continued to challenge the power of the Umayyads and the ‘Abbasids for at least two centuries before those groups that survived retreated to remote areas and lived as separate, but generally quietist, communities.
The mainstream Sunni conception of the caliphate, consensus on which emerged gradually over the first four centuries of Islamic history, held that the Qur’an provided no specific injunctions regarding the leadership of the community after the Prophet’s death, and (although some prominent Sunni thinkers dissented from this position) that the Prophet had left no precise instructions on the matter. According to the mainstream view, the first Muslims responded to the Prophet’s death by recognizing one of their own members, Abu Bakr (d. 634), as the first caliph. He was to assume the functions of leading the Muslim community, but he was in no sense an heir to the Prophet’s religious authority; he was acclaimed by the bay’a, an act by which his fellow Muslims acknowledged his leadership and pledged their allegiance. Abu Bakr was followed by three further individuals who had enjoyed close personal ties to the Prophet, after the last of whom, ‘Ali, a dynastic principle was adopted with the establishment of the Umayyad caliphate.
Sunni thinkers distinguished between the caliphate of these first four "rightly guided" caliphs and later holders of the office, many of whom degraded it to kingship (mulk) and were sometimes oppressive. Yet while later Islamic leadership may not have been perfect, it remained legitimate, and the community, as a result, remained within the confines of the law. In the gradual emergence of this consensus, Sunni thinkers adopted the principles of certain earlier groups, whose first priority had been the preservation of the unity of the community; accordingly, it was preferable to accept shortcomings in the political life of the community than to risk further schism and discord.
The Political Thought of the Classical Sunni and Shi’i Jurists
Most famously among Sunni jurists, al-Mawardi (d. 1058) formulated what came to be regarded as the classical Sunni position on the caliphate. By the eleventh century, the caliphate had been weakened by its subservience to a succession of military leaders who had taken over some of its territories and established polities of their own. When al-Mawardi came to write his treatise, al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya (The ordinances of government), however, the caliphate was for the moment enjoying a certain reascendancy, which the jurist sought to enhance through his exposition of the legal status of the office. Al-Mawardi asserted that the imamate is obligatory by revelation, not by reason, and he listed seven necessary qualities for the imam: descent from Quraysh; possession of religious knowledge; probity; soundness and maturity of body and mind; and the capacity to execute the political and military duties of the office.
Of al-Mawardi’s stipulated qualities, descent from Quraysh may be the most significant, since it allows for the legitimacy of all the Sunni caliphs, while it does not limit legitimacy to descent from the Prophet himself; but the same criterion excludes most other rulers, such as the Buyids, who controlled Baghdad during al-Mawardi’s lifetime. At the same time, al-Mawardi argued that rule by military emirs was legitimate as long as such rulers acknowledged the authority of the caliphs and implemented Islamic law. The caliph himself was responsible for the performance of specific duties, such as the protection of religion against heterodoxy, enforcing the law and dispensing justice, executing the statutory penalties (hudud), ensuring peace in the territory of Islam and defending the realm against external enemies, the prosecution of jihad, receipt of the legal alms, and a fifth of all booty gained in combat on behalf of the community, distribution of revenue according to the law, and the appointment of reliable and trustworthy men in delegating authority.
Al-Mawardi’s book, together with the identically titled work of his contemporary, Abu Ya’la b. al-Farra’ (d. 1066), contributed to a gradual change in the perception of the caliphate. From the early ninth century onwards, the caliph’s authority had coexisted with the reality of political fragmentation, and the office ceased to connote supreme political power. Instead, it came to assume a more symbolic role, whereby the caliphate came to represent the unity of the Muslim community regardless of the division of political power.
Almost three centuries later, following the execution in 1258 by the Mongol conqueror Hulegu of the Abbasid caliph and the establishment of the Mongol empire over much of the eastern Islamic world, the Syrian Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) asserted with vigor the supremacy of the sharfa as the means to ensure the exercise of divine sovereignty on Earth. By extension, Ibn Taymiyya declared the illegitimacy of any ruler who failed to uphold the law. In the context of the demise of the ‘Abbasid caliphate and against the loss of even the symbolism of political unity, Ibn Taymiyya emphasized the ideological unity that he believed could be achieved through proper observance of the sharfa. His political perspective, often referred to after the title of one of his books as al-siyasa al-shareiyya (government according to the religious law), has been influential among some modern thinkers.
Ibn Taymiyya sought to elevate the condition of both the state and society through upholding the law, and held that a leader who promoted increased observance of the law was owed obedience by his subjects. Ibn Taymiyya and his contemporary, Ibn Jama’a (d. 1333), who likewise spent his life in Syria and Egypt, emphasized the role of the religious scholars as counselors to the holders of political power. Furthermore, Ibn Jama’a recognized two kinds of imamate, arrived at through election and force respectively. He noted that the latter form of imamate, based on the exercise of might, was the only form that existed in his own time.
After the beginning of the imam’s occultation in the late ninth century, Shi’ite jurists gradually developed a political theory in which Shi’ite scholars might assume some of the imam’s responsibilities. In all likelihood, the historical imams themselves allowed some of their followers to participate in the performance of certain functions, or delegated certain tasks to individuals. The idea of deputyship to the imam was developed further in the writings of leading Imami thinkers, such as al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1022), who indicated that throughout his occultation the imam remained God’s proof (hujja) on earth, but that, during his absence, the imam could appoint a deputy or deputies.
Like many Imami jurists, al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli (d. 1277) noted that, in the imam’s absence, Shi’ites should fulfill their religious obligation of charity (zakat) by delivering it to a reliable jurist (faqih), since the latter was in possession of the necessary knowledge to ensure its proper disbursement. The same jurist, and still more notably his pupil Ibn al-Mutahhar al-Hilli (d. 1325), adopted the principle of ijtihad, according to which each Shi’ite jurist was obliged to undertake an investigation of the legal sources in order to reach his own conclusions in legal matters. As this practice of ijtihad became accepted among Shi’ites, it contributed to an increase in the authority of the Shi’ite ulema. Despite this gradual enhancement in the stature of the Imami scholars, most of them continued to emphasize the qualitative difference between the authority enjoyed by imams and prophets, to whom, on account of their immunity from sin and error, unconditional obedience was due, and that of any other leader to whom certain functions may have been delegated.
Some Imami scholars of the Usuli school, which developed in the mid-eighteenth century and became dominant by the middle of the nineteenth century, claimed that the Shi’ite scholars had in fact assumed the position of general vice-regent (na’ib eamm) of the absent imam. In the Usuli view, the right to interpret Islamic law rested solely with mujtahids, scholars who were recognized as qualified to exercise their independent judgment, or ijtihad. Ordinary Muslims were obliged to follow one eminent mujtahid as a model of emulation (marjae al-taqlid). Some scholars asserted further that the office of marja’ represented the imam’s authority not only in matters of religion, but also in worldly affairs. This idea was developed most notably by Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Sultans and Kings
While the classical juristic literature deals with political thought within the context of the topics of imamate and caliphate, and refers to the sultanate primarily in connection with these institutions, other branches of literary expression treat the institution of the sultanate, or kingship, in its own right. Sultans and other dynastic rulers whose power was sometimes local but sometimes very far-reaching were often the recipients of literary gifts, such as works offering advice (nasiha[t]) on the art of government, or "mirrors for princes," in which the ruler’s duties and his subjects’ needs were discussed, and the monarch’s own justice was invariably praised. Occasionally, such books were commissioned by a ruler, as seems to have been the case with the famous Siyasat-nameh (Book of government) composed by the wazir Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092) and presented to the Seljuq monarch, Malik-Shah (1073-1092).
In such books of advice for Muslim rulers, as indeed in many other cultural contexts, the king (or caliph) is often likened to a physician healing a body, or a shepherd guarding his flock. He is also, as in ancient Middle Eastern traditions, described as "the Shadow of God on earth." Some authors adopt the old Iranian concept offarr, the aura or nimbus that signifies the charisma of kingship. Most directly, these ideas and many others reached Islamic culture through the translation into Arabic of literary works composed in Middle Persian (Pahlavi) under the Sassanians (226-651). In Islamic times, authors adapted and developed many of these ancient Middle Eastern notions according to the regions and conditions in which they lived.
The understanding of kingship articulated in most works of nasiha rests on the premise of royal absolutism, which is closely associated with the concept of justice (‘adl), the maintenance of which is presented as the ruler’s foremost responsibility. This set of concepts is expressed clearly in the widely recorded "circle of justice," according to which the king’s rule is dependent on the army, which in turn depends on wealth, which is generated through agriculture (and sometimes trade), which in turn flourishes under the king’s effective exercise of his royal authority. The ruler is thus depicted as central to the preservation of the natural and social orders. The fertility and productivity of the land, and the well-being of the peasants who worked it, depended directly on the king’s justice. Furthermore, royal justice was necessary to prevent the various groups within society from coalescing in such a way that any particular set of interests outweighed others. If such a process were allowed to occur, it would cause a social imbalance that was considered contrary to justice and tantamount to injustice (zulm).
In order to prevent such disequilibrium, it was the ruler’s task, by virtue of his own position above and outside any of the social categories, to ensure that each individual remained in the place appropriate to his station. Among writers belonging to this intellectual tradition, society was often visualized in terms of a quadripartite hierarchy consisting of men of the pen, men of the sword, men of transactions, and men of agriculture, as described, for example, in the famous formulation of Nasir al-Din Tusi, 1201-1274. This model was adopted by numerous later writers, and was especially important to many Ottoman thinkers.
Such traditions of kingship came to be widely disseminated and formed a base for many kinds of courtly literature across the linguistic and cultural range of the medieval Islamic world. As this dissemination occurred, the view of royal justice expressed in this courtly literature was often linked to the upholding of the shari’a, and, with the establishment of Turkish and Turko-Mongol dynasties in much of the Islamic world, many of these Perso-Islamic concepts of government also became fused with Central Asian concepts.
Another important branch of premodern political thought is found in the works of the Muslim philosophers, among whom the most influential was al-Farabi (d. 950). Al-Farabi’s thought was based on the common premise that it was natural for human beings to live in association with others, since on the one hand they were incapable of supplying all of their own needs and were therefore obliged to co-operate with one another, and, on the other hand, humankind was, in Aristotle’s phrase, a political animal, disposed by nature to communal living. The goal of human existence, moreover, was happiness (sa’ada), which could only be achieved through living in a community. Communities differed in size and in type, some being "perfect" or complete, and others being imperfect and incomplete. Happiness was best attained by living in a "virtuous polity" (al-madina al-fadila), which al-Farabi defined as one led by learned and excellent men, and one in which the inhabitants co-operated in striving for ultimate happiness. Human beings were connected by a chain of authority, which was based on their degree of knowledge and understanding. In this chain, each individual was in a position of both learning from and governance by those above him, and of instructing and exercising authority over those below him, down to the level of those who were fit only for service. The man who had nothing to learn from anyone was the person best suited to perform the duties of the supreme leader (al-ra’is al-awwal), whose purpose, according to al-Farabi, was to promote the attainment of happiness by his community.
Several of the political ideas of al-Farabi were shared and further developed by Ibn Sina (d. 1037), who himself had extensive experience in the practical workings of government and had served on several occasions as a wazir. Ibn Sina emphasized the roles of law and justice, and the need for their enforcement by a legislator and preserver of justice, as the basis for the necessary social transactions among people. In al-Andalus, Ibn Bajja (d. 1138) held that it was the ruler’s responsibility to assign tasks to the inhabitants of the city, and to ensure that each man undertook the most excellent task of which he was capable. He argued furthermore that, if no virtuous polity to which a philosopher might immigrate existed, the philosopher should seclude himself from society as far as possible.
Nasir al-Din Tusi, who adopted many of the political views of al-Farabi, held that although it was the diversity among people that rendered co-operation among them possible, this co-operation could only be achieved through firm administration, without the restraining force of which, men might destroy one another. Government was necessary to ensure that each man was content with the station appropriate to him, that he received his due, and that others did not violate his rights. One of the main purposes of government, then, was to maintain order in society and to ensure the harmonious functioning of its component groups.
One of the most remarkable political theoreticians of the medieval Islamic world was Ibn Khaldun (d. 1332), who spent most of his life in North Africa and Egypt, and whose writings describe his perceptions of the historical workings of power. Ibn Khaldun shares many of the premises of earlier philosophers, and reaches the conclusion that kingship (mulk) is a natural and necessary human phenomenon for the regulation and restraint of human conduct. As part of his analysis of societies, Ibn Khaldun argues that ruling families whose ties of solidarity (‘asabiyya) are strongest are best situated to impose their dominion over others in a process that gives rise to conquest and expansion. In order to create stable polities, however, it is necessary for such strength of communal ties to be conjoined with religious law, which provides a more lasting focus of communal solidarity than kinship and affiliation alone. Ibn Khaldun goes on to describe the stages through which a polity comes into existence, consolidates its power, reaches maturity, and eventually declines.
Reconsiderations of the nature and responsibilities of the state have a continuous history in the Islamic world. The historical context for such reconsiderations has evolved particularly rapidly, however, over the course of the past two centuries. The vast transformations of the modern period have seen the creation in the Islamic world, as elsewhere, of modern states, in which the relationships between individuals and governments have changed dramatically from those characteristic of premodern times, and the integration of much of the Islamic world into a global economic system. Like much of the rest of the world, Muslim countries have, over the past two centuries or longer, been forced to accommodate themselves to the disproportionate power (economic, military, political, cultural) enjoyed by Western countries: the European colonial powers, the former Soviet Union, and, beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, the United States of America.
Modern Islamic political thought thus represents the continuation of a long-standing discourse, but in circumstances that compel reckoning with the actual and theoretical aspects of Western politics. Among the many responses manifested in modern political thought, we may refer to the ideas of certain thinkers whose vision included both preservation of a redefined Muslim identity and the adoption of certain foreign institutions, such as the nation-state, democratic representation, constitutionalism, and so on; and to the ideas of thinkers who assert an Islamic form of politics that, in theory at least, is independent of Western models. The spectrum between these two poles, and the variety within them, are naturally extensive.
In the modern era, the word dawla, which in premodern times tended to denote a period of dynastic rule, has come to signify a state, in the sense that this concept had acquired in Europe between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries. The term, and its referent, have come to play a central role in modern political discourse. Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) employed the term watan (corresponding to the French patrie) to denote the territorial aspect of the concept of the state; but he did not reject the concept of the pan-Islamic umma. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), a highly influential commentator on political matters throughout much of the Islamic world during the nineteenth century, insisted that the Islamic religion was compatible with the exercise of human reason, and was thus compatible with the kind of scientific inquiry and technological development that had flourished in modern Europe. At the same time, al-Afghani absolutely rejected Muslim rulers’ subservience to Western political power. Al-Afghani, for whom the period of the Rashidun was the period of perfected Muslim government, seems to have regarded regional nationalisms as possible steps towards the reconstitution of the Islamic umma. Many of the political ideas of al-Afghani were further developed in the Arab world by Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905).
Among the thinkers whose ideas have been most influential in the twentieth-century Arab world are Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), who regarded al-Mawardi’s work as formative to the Islamic tradition, and ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (d. 1966). The twentieth-century concept of the Islamic state emerged in the context of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the abandonment of the Ottoman caliphate, which followed the formation of the modern Turkish nation-state. The final abolition of the Ottoman caliphate was briefly preceded by an interim period during which the Turkish authorities reduced the office to a purely spiritual one. Rashid Rida opposed this reduction in the role of the caliphate, and argued instead for a caliphate that combined religious and political authority and that was "a caliphate of necessity," to be situated in the Arab world. In the same era, some Indian Muslims formed the Khilafat Movement, and, along with other groups, the Khilafats took up the assertion that Islam is both a religion and a state (al-Islam din wa dawla). This idea shapes much of the discourse of contemporary Islamists. ‘Abd al-Raziq, on the other hand, faced strong opposition to his explicit rejection of the view that Islam necessarily combined the realms of religion and state, and argued that the institution of the caliphate was not required by religion.
The separation of state and religion, while supported by ‘Abd al-Raziq and other secularists, is rejected by Islamists, for whom Muslims’ primary allegiance should be to the religious community (the umma) and for whom an Islamic order necessarily embraces the political as well as the personal religious realms. Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), founder in 1928 of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, emphasized the all-encompassing nature of Islam in human affairs. His intellectual successors, such as Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), Abu l-A’la’ Maududi (1903-1979) and Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989), have argued that the prophet Muhammad himself combined religion and state, and that this combination established a lasting model. Sayyid Qutb, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, composed many of his most influential works while imprisoned under Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. Central to Sayyid Qutb’s thought was the concept of neo-Jahiliyya, according to which contemporary societies, including those that were nominally Muslim, had fallen into pagan ignorance, a lapse that could only be rectified by struggle (jihad) to overturn the secular state and install in its place an Islamic order, in which human laws would give way to God-given laws. In practice, as the case of postrevolutionary Iran demonstrates, such ideas need not preclude the adoption of such principles as constitutionalism, the separation of powers, and popular sovereignty.
As India struggled for its independence from Great Britain, Maududi, founder in 1941 of the Jama’at-e Islami, opposed the forms of nationalism represented by the Indian National Congress on the one hand and by the Muslim League on the other. Instead, he argued in favor of the restoration of an Islamic order in India. Despite his opposition to the Muslim League, however, Maududi moved to the new state of Pakistan following its creation in 1947. Maududi asserted strongly the idea that Pakistan should be not merely a state for Muslims but an Islamic state. For Maududi, an Islamic state was one in which all areas of public and private life were regulated in accordance with the unchanging sharfa. His idea of the Islamic state was based on neither nationalism nor democracy. Although highly controversial in Pakistan, Maududi’s books and pamphlets have been translated into many languages and are widely read throughout the Islamic world.
In the Shi’ite world, Khomeini contributed significantly to the increased emphasis on political activism in modern times through his reinterpretations of several important features of earlier Imami Shi’ite thought. For example, Shi’ites had traditionally looked to the hidden imam to establish justice on earth at the time of his eventual return; this belief had long been conducive to political quietism. Khomeini, however, took the view that Muslims need wait no longer. Instead, they could hasten the return of the imam by acting themselves to resist injustice and to establish an Islamic political order in the here and now. Furthermore, Khomeini expressed the view that the mujtahids were responsible for the execution of all the religious and worldly duties that the Prophet himself had performed. These responsibilities should be exercised not through the collective body of qualified scholars but through a single jurist. This doctrine, known as "the guardianship of the jurist" (velayat-e faqih), remains a subject of debate among Imami scholars. In the decades since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, as a result of which Iran successfully extricated itself from Western intervention and rejected a politics conditioned by the interests of the West, a number of Iranian thinkers, such as ‘Abd al-Karim Sorush, have been among the most notable contributors to a contemporary renewal and broadening of Islamic political thought along lines that emphasize individual rights and freedoms, and democracy.
See also Caliphate; Imamate; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Law; Modernization, Political: Constitutionalism; Monarchy; Pakistan, Islamic Republic of; Political Islam; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa; Reform: Iran; Shica: Imami (Twelver); Shari’a; Succession; Ulema.
Arjomand, Said. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Azmeh, Aziz al-. Muslim Kingship. Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian, and Pagan Polities. London and New
York: I. B. Tauris, 1997.
Cook, Michael. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University
Crone, Patricia, and Hinds, Martin. God’s Caliph. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Lambton, A. K. S. State and Government in Medieval Islam. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Lewis, Bernard. The Political Language of Islam. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muhammad. A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Modarressi, Hossein. Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shi’ite Islam. Princeton, N.J.: The Darwin
Mottahedeh, Roy P. Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Sivan, Emmanuel. Radical Islam. Medieval Theology and Modern Politics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980.
Soroush, ‘Abdolkarim. Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. Translated by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.