Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

Dhu'l Qadah 1424 H
January 2004
Volume 17-01 No : 205
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Islam and the Concept of Power

Islam and the Concept of Power

The entire notion of power should change and the Islamic fundamentals of emphasis on knowledge should occupy the centre stage in Islamic world today

It has been theorised by some scholars of Islam that Islam and power go together and that the two cannot be divorced. Some also maintain that while Sunni Islam goes with power the Shi’ah Islam gives significance to martyrdom. However, there is only partial truth in such assertion. Also, it is based more on historical developments than on religious teachings. It would thus be important to examine this in the light of teachings of Islam and historical developments.

There is no concrete evidence either in the Qur’an or in Sunnah that the Prophet (Pbuh) ever made conscious efforts to acquire political power. Political power was not the result of Islamic teachings or even any aspiration on the part of the Prophet. Many scholars have made distinction between Meccan and Medinese Islam and it is not without any significance either.

The nature of Islamic movement in Mecca was far from political. It had strong emphasis on oral reforms as the society in Mecca had abandoned social and moral connection and indulged in free licentious life on one hand, and in superstitious religious practices, including worshipping idols as God Himself. Islam in Mecca, as the Meccan chapters show not only right path as distinct from wrong one, but also exhorts Meccans to abandon superstitions and believe in one God - Allah who is Creator of all and use their reason and reflect upon on the universe and perform good deeds.

Since the poor, needy, orphans and widows were being neglected and the rich were drunk with the power of wealth and children tended to become arrogant and even immoral,. Islam wanted them to take care of the weaker sections of society and lead a good moral life. All Meccan surahs are quite short, brisk and forceful like Chapters from 75 to 114. These surahs talk generally of creation, day of judgement, good deeds, of destruction of universe and so on.

For example in surah No.75, it is stated: “Nay, man desires to go on doing evil in front of him. He asks: When is the day of Resurrection?” (5-6). And when the day of judgement arrives “Man will say on that day: Whither to flee? No there is no refuge. (10-11).

Or in surah No. 76 we find verses like: “Surely We have created man from sperm mixed (with ovum), to try him, so We have made him hearing, seeing. We have truly shown him the way; he may be thankful or unthankful.” (2-3: 76) Or we read in chapter 87, “Glorify the name of the Lord, the Most High! Who makes then makes complete, And Who measures, then guides, And Who brings forth herbage. Then makes it dried up, dust coloured..” (1-5)

Or we find highly socially concerned chapters like 107 or 105. The chapter 105 strongly denounces accumulation of wealth. Or we have chapters like 10 (Yunus i.e. Jonah). In this chapter we find more detailed references to Noah and Moses. This chapter, among other things, lays stress on merciful dealings of Divine Being with men. It also says He grants gifts, which is not in the power of anyone else to grant. Similarly the chapter 34 of Meccan origin talks of day of judgement, which is certain and it stresses that wealth does not ensure greatness and that truth will prosper.

Thus it will be seen that most of the Meccan surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an whether longer or shorter (more shorter than longer) are of the similar nature, exhortative and full of warnings for following wrong path and neglecting the poor and the needy. In other words, they are more moralistic than legalistic. This is the original intention of the Qur’anic revelation.

However, the rich and the powerful in Mecca were too arrogant to hearken to these warnings from Allah and instead of reforming themselves, ridiculed and persecuted the Prophet who would have proved their benefactor had they followed him. It was no surprise. The powerful vested interests behave no differently all over the world and throughout ages. The Meccan rich also behaved predictably.

This drove the Prophet to Madina where he got support from the tribes, who were tired of fighting among themselves. Unlike Meccan tribes, these tribes did not represent powerful vested interests and they saw a peacemaker in the person of the Prophet. Thus they welcomed him with open arms. The Prophet did not migrate to Madina with any intention to find any state or establish any power structure. He migrated to escape persecution of the Meccans and to spread word of Allah and to show His right path to people of Madina and to operate from there.

The developments in Madina after the migration are quite clear in this regard. Firstly, the Prophet draws up an agreement between different tribes, Jewish, Muslim and Pagan. This is often referred to as constitution of Madina, but the word constitution should not be taken here as indicative of any governmental document. It was an arrangement for mutual and harmonious existence. Every tribe enjoyed full autonomy in all its affairs. There was no tax structure and no institutions of governance. Every Islam and the Concept of Power

The entire notion of power should change and the Islamic fundamentals of emphasis on knowledge should occupy the centre stage in Islamic world today

By Asghar Ali Engineer

It has been theorised by some scholars of Islam that Islam and power go together and that the two cannot be divorced. Some also maintain that while Sunni Islam goes with power the Shi’ah Islam gives significance to martyrdom. However, there is only partial truth in such assertion. Also, it is based more on historical developments than on religious teachings. It would thus be important to examine this in the light of teachings of Islam and historical developments.

There is no concrete evidence either in the Qur’an or in Sunnah that the Prophet (Pbuh) ever made conscious efforts to acquire political power. Political power was not the result of Islamic teachings or even any aspiration on the part of the Prophet. Many scholars have made distinction between Meccan and Medinese Islam and it is not without any significance either.

The nature of Islamic movement in Mecca was far from political. It had strong emphasis on oral reforms as the society in Mecca had abandoned social and moral connection and indulged in free licentious life on one hand, and in superstitious religious practices, including worshipping idols as God Himself. Islam in Mecca, as the Meccan chapters show not only right path as distinct from wrong one, but also exhorts Meccans to abandon superstitions and believe in one God - Allah who is Creator of all and use their reason and reflect upon on the universe and perform good deeds.

Since the poor, needy, orphans and widows were being neglected and the rich were drunk with the power of wealth and children tended to become arrogant and even immoral,. Islam wanted them to take care of the weaker sections of society and lead a good moral life. All Meccan surahs are quite short, brisk and forceful like Chapters from 75 to 114. These surahs talk generally of creation, day of judgement, good deeds, of destruction of universe and so on.

For example in surah No.75, it is stated: “Nay, man desires to go on doing evil in front of him. He asks: When is the day of Resurrection?” (5-6). And when the day of judgement arrives “Man will say on that day: Whither to flee? No there is no refuge. (10-11).

Or in surah No. 76 we find verses like: “Surely We have created man from sperm mixed (with ovum), to try him, so We have made him hearing, seeing. We have truly shown him the way; he may be thankful or unthankful.” (2-3: 76) Or we read in chapter 87, “Glorify the name of the Lord, the Most High! Who makes then makes complete, And Who measures, then guides, And Who brings forth herbage. Then makes it dried up, dust coloured..” (1-5)

Or we find highly socially concerned chapters like 107 or 105. The chapter 105 strongly denounces accumulation of wealth. Or we have chapters like 10 (Yunus i.e. Jonah). In this chapter we find more detailed references to Noah and Moses. This chapter, among other things, lays stress on merciful dealings of Divine Being with men. It also says He grants gifts, which is not in the power of anyone else to grant. Similarly the chapter 34 of Meccan origin talks of day of judgement, which is certain and it stresses that wealth does not ensure greatness and that truth will prosper.

Thus it will be seen that most of the Meccan surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an whether longer or shorter (more shorter than longer) are of the similar nature, exhortative and full of warnings for following wrong path and neglecting the poor and the needy. In other words, they are more moralistic than legalistic. This is the original intention of the Qur’anic revelation.

However, the rich and the powerful in Mecca were too arrogant to hearken to these warnings from Allah and instead of reforming themselves, ridiculed and persecuted the Prophet who would have proved their benefactor had they followed him. It was no surprise. The powerful vested interests behave no differently all over the world and throughout ages. The Meccan rich also behaved predictably.

This drove the Prophet to Madina where he got support from the tribes, who were tired of fighting among themselves. Unlike Meccan tribes, these tribes did not represent powerful vested interests and they saw a peacemaker in the person of the Prophet. Thus they welcomed him with open arms. The Prophet did not migrate to Madina with any intention to find any state or establish any power structure. He migrated to escape persecution of the Meccans and to spread word of Allah and to show His right path to people of Madina and to operate from there.

The developments in Madina after the migration are quite clear in this regard. Firstly, the Prophet draws up an agreement between different tribes, Jewish, Muslim and Pagan. This is often referred to as constitution of Madina, but the word constitution should not be taken here as indicative of any governmental document. It was an arrangement for mutual and harmonious existence. Every tribe enjoyed full autonomy in all its affairs. There was no tax structure and no institutions of governance. Every thing was voluntary. Even when war- like situations arose, the Prophet had to appeal for donations and voluntary contributions from Muslims. Contributions were often in the form of camels, horses or weapons like swords.

If the Prophet had any intention to establish a state, he would have levied taxes on all, would have raised an army and would have recruited police force to control law and order situation. Instead he follows Jewish law for the Jews to punish them in case of crimes like theft, murders and rape or adultery. There are clear indications to this effect in the Qur’an. And he follows the revealed laws in case of Muslims.

The emphasis even in Madina clearly remains on moral aspect and it is required of Muslims to enforce good (ma’ruf) and forbid evil (munkar). And it is the individual duty of Muslims to do so and it is obligation from Allah, not any legal requirement. Had Allah or the Prophet intended to establish an Islamic state there would have been a Qur’anic injunction to establish shurtah (police) rather than making it a moral obligation. The Prophet moreover followed generally tribal traditions in distribution of war booty rather than establishing any state treasury. In the Holy Qur’an also there is no mention of any such institutions like bait al-mal (state treasury). This terminology we find in use in the Khilafat period.

In short, the Qur’an is principally the book of hidayah (moral guidance). Thus in the very beginning of the chapter 2 which is Medinese we find the statement “This Book (Qur’an), there is no doubt in it, is a guide (hudan lil muttaqin) to those who keep their duty.” (2:2) And it is guide to those “who believe in the Unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them.” (2:3)

Thus the Surah Baqarah, a Medinese Surah, sets moral tone for the believers. And this moral tone does not change throughout Medinese period. This surah also requires Muslims to undergo hard trials to establish the Truth, which will ultimately triumph. It also says that there are minor differences with the Jewish law and points out commonality of the important doctrine of Unity of Allah. This chapter also urges Muslims to fight to defend themselves and for that illustrations are given from Israelite history. It talks of mighty power of Allah to give life to the dead, and the Muslims are also told not to use compulsion in matters of religion as their opponents had done.

Thus it will be seen that even Medinese surahs retain their basic moral character although there are verses in chapters 2 and 4 on marriage, divorce, inheritance and so on. These verses were often revealed in response to either some questions from the Muslim men and women or in response to developing situations. These being injunctions from Allah naturally became binding on the faithful and later were codified in the form of Shari’ah laws which Muslims follow as obligatory whether there is Islamic state or not. Thus it is not necessary to have an Islamic state for enforcing shari’ah laws.

These laws, it is important to note, were revealed to create a just society rather than evolve any state structure. And it is also important to note that the Muslims have to follow these laws whether there is any Islamic state or not. And as far as ‘ibadat (spiritual exercises like prayers, fasting, hajj etc.) are concerned they have been instituted for inner spiritual growth and cannot be enforced by any state machinery. If it is enforced coercively it looses its spiritual value.

Above all it is important to note that the Prophet had come to show the right moral path to the whole world and for that reason he has been called Rahmatun lil ‘Alamin (the mercy for the worlds) and not rahmatun lil Muslimin i.e. mercy for Muslims. Who-so-ever wish can follow the path shown by him. Islam thus is basically spiritual force and not a political plan to be enforced. The whole question of Islamic state is historical rather than Qur’anic and we would like to throw more light on this aspect in the lines below.

It is to be clearly borne in mind that a moral or spiritual law can never be coercively enforced. And if Islam is a universal moral force, which indeed it is, there is no need for any state to sustain it. Islam has been sustained for centuries by inner will of Muslims and not by any state. Many states have come and gone and Islam has been there as ever. State is a political agenda and not religious one. Religion is essentially a spiritual force. It is also important to note that in all cases it is state which legislates and enforces those laws but no state has legislated as far as shari’ah laws are concerned. These laws have been revealed through the Prophet and not legislated by any Islamic state. In fact the state which came into existence in the Islamic world never enjoyed any power of legislation. When it did the ‘ulama and fuqaha (jurists) resisted it effectively. Thus in case of Islam legislation precedes the state. It is thought to be divine function. Basically Shari’ah laws, since they are divine are followed voluntarily and no state is required to enforce them.

Then what about the concept of Islamic state? In fact no such thing exists in the Qur’an or hadith literature. It is historical construct through gradual process. It certainly makes no sense to assert that Islam and political power goes together. Wherever political power is involved there is bound to be struggle for capturing it. Political power makes its own demands and often principles are compromised. We witness it during very early history of Islam and even eminent companions of the Holy Prophet got involved and ultimately it led to a state of civil war in which thousands of Muslims were killed. It would not have happened had there been no struggle for power.

Once Umayyads captured power no holds were barred. Honest and pious Muslims opposed to Umayyads usurping power were severely persecuted. Those who were pious Muslims kept their distance from the Umayyad State. Even eminent persons like Imam Husain who refused to pledge of loyalty (bay’ah) to Yazid who was appointed successor violating principle of Islam, was martyred along with his near and dear ones. It was the greatest tragedy of early Islam.

The Umayyads persecuted not only the members of the Prophet’s family but also many companion and companions of companions. Even a person like Imam Hasan Basri who considered Umayyads as having usurped power illegitimately also had to face great problems at the hands of the Umayyad rulers. The power struggle became intense and the then governor of Iraq Yusuf bin Hujjaj massacred thousands of Muslims most brutally.

Then power struggle ensued between the Umayyads and Abbasids and again thousands of them were massacred and the Abbasid shed so much blood that the Abbasid Caliph who captured power was described as saffah (i.e. one sheds blood). Even small children and infants belonging to Umayyad dynasty were not spared. Pious persons like Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq from the family of the holy Prophet, remained aloof from this power struggle. The Shi’ah Muslims who were followers and supporters of Family of the Prophet (Ahl al-bayt) also faced great hardships and persecution.

The sufis who believed in spiritual Islam always remained aloof from these power struggles and led simple life in their hospices. Even the ‘Ulama were divided in their political loyalties and most pious among them refused to accept any office in the government establishments. Over a period of time even the Abbasid Caliphs became nominal heads of state and the power came to be wielded by army chiefs from Turkey or other dynasties and they called themselves as ‘sultans’ and these sultans wielded actual power. Thus history of power struggle is a bloody history and only ambitious aspirants benefited at the cost of the community of Muslims. These rulers were generally quite unscrupulous and utterly corrupt and tyrant. Even an eminent scholar like Imam Ghazzali maintained that the pious Muslims should not look at these tyrant rulers and even if anyone has to talk to him should talk by turning his face away from the ruler.

Thus it would be wrong to think that if a Muslim ruler wielded power the entire ummah will be empowered. The ummah invariably suffered and felt utterly helpless in the face of these powerful rulers. Even if some principled person came to power, he could not last more than a few years and was removed through conspiracy. The example of Caliph Abdul Aziz from Umayyad dynasty is well known. These unscrupulous rulers violated every principle of Islam to survive in power. They paid only lip service to teachings of Islam and sunnah of the Prophet.

These rulers led life of super luxury as opposed to the life of Holy Prophet. The Prophet never compromised on matters of principles. As long as the Prophet was there it was Muslim community, which profited but these rulers empowered themselves by disempowering the community. The Prophet did not tolerate even a grain of injustice whereas the political power of these rulers was based on gross injustice and exploitation. Thus power of these rulers was in no way mean empowerment of the ummah.

In our own time some Muslim organisations insist upon, and work for, setting up Islamic state. They theorise about ‘Islamic State’ as if it is part of Islamic doctrine. Thus political Islam has been causing lot of problems in our age. Most of the Islamic countries are today ruled by authoritarian rulers who enjoy no popular support. They are hardly ever elected democratically. There is hardly anything Islamic in these so- called Islamic states. The people are oppressed and exploited.

The allurement for power proves to be quite costly for ordinary Muslims. The struggle for power in Algeria between secular dictatorship and Islamic extremists has cost so far thousands of innocent lives. Now violent extremist opposition has emerged in Saudi Arabia also. Even Holy City of Mecca is not being spared. The Saudi monarchy never allowed any popular participation to people of Saudi Arabia. Now the educated middle class is feeling increasingly frustrated and a section of it is resorting to violence. The monarchy is all-powerful but the people are totally helpless.

Thus those who argue that power is essential for Islam to triumph will have to reflect as to whose power are we talking about? Power of the people or of the monarchs and dictators? The great Urdu poet Iqbal was also greatly fascinated by power and even praised Mahmud of Ghazna in his Mathnavi Pas chi Bayad kard Aqwam-I-Sharq (What should be done people of the East). Iqbal of course was reacting to the situation of Muslims in nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as they were dominated by the colonial powers of the West.

But one has to empower the people. It is Muslim community in different countries, which need to be empowered within their nation-states. Even in the early period of Islam the Khilafah lasted hardly for thirty years. In modern world one cannot establish political ummah without national boundaries. One has to accept nation-state which is reality of our time. No Muslim from one country is allowed to enter boundaries of another Muslim nation-state without valid visa documents.

These nation-states should be governed democratically so as to empower people and not unscrupulous rulers though they may invoke Islam to legitimise their rule. A nation can be powerful only if its people are free and able to exercise their basic rights. In all Islamic set ups throughout history, common Muslims never enjoyed any freedom and thus the ummah cannot be said to be powerful. And it is power of the ummah we are concerned with, not power of the ruler. The Shah of Iran was very powerful but people of Iran were most powerless.

Islam had asserted right from beginning that real power flows from knowledge and hence the Prophet said that seek knowledge even if it is available in China, then the farthest place from the Arab peninsula. Most of the rulers denied power of knowledge to their own people. True knowledge is possible only when there is complete freedom. Freedom and knowledge cannot be divorced. However, in most of the Muslim countries there is no freedom and hence knowledge is politically controlled and that is why no progress is possible.

In today’s world, real progress flows from knowledge and it is progress, which can ensure real power. The Muslim world faces this dilemma today. The oil rich nations are controlled by authoritarian rulers who in turn control knowledge and hence these nations can never emerge as powerful nations. They can be rich consumerist societies but never powerful countries. The interest of their rulers is in remaining subservient to the Western powers and this breeds strong resentment among the people. It is for this reason that violence is sweeping through Islamic world today bringing bad name to religion of peace and compassion like Islam. This situation can be remedied only if there is free democratic rule and knowledge is not controlled. The oil wealth should be used for advancement of people, on one hand, and of science and technology, on the other. The Muslim countries are most backward in the field of knowledge today and thus remain dominated by scientifically advanced countries.

Thus the entire notion of power should change and the Islamic fundamental emphasis on knowledge (Qur’an emphasises knowledge of mysteries of universe and not only of universe) should occupy the centre stage in Islamic world today. Uncontrolled researches and search for knowledge will really empower people of the Muslim world.

The writer can be reached at csss@vsnl.com

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