Political Vision of Islam from Historical Perspective


The articulate political thought developed by the Muslim philosophers argued for a political society (madīna) that evoked the Greek ideal city (polis), whence derived the name of madīnat al-salām (City of Peace) that the Abbasids adopted for Baghdad, their capital. Farabi (870–950) and Ibn Sina (980–1037), both hailing from Transoxiana, focused on the center of the empire and supported the ideal of the philosopher-king, an ethically perfect individual, as head of a virtuous polity. Farabi’s ideal of “the virtuous city” (al-madīna al-fād≥ila) offered a systematic thesis on the state as the perfect society, in which rational integrity and right conduct are the means for achieving supreme felicity (SA‘āda). Just as the human body has different parts doing different work in a harmonious manner, so too does the body politic require an efficient division of labor. Just as the body has a head to rule it, so too society has a chief to rule it, guiding society toward becoming an ideal community of the virtuous. Ibn Sina’s chapter on governance (siyāsa) in his encyclopedic work, The Healing of the Soul (al-Shifa’), stressed the principle of human interdependence and promoted the ideal of the lawgiver who is both philosopher and prophet. Responding to the need for human government in a religious polity and reminding believers of God and the afterlife, the ruler guarantees the observance of the civil (nāmūs) and religious (sharia) law. Anchored in reason (‘aql) as its ultimate principle and worked out across boundaries of religious affiliations between Muslims and Christians, the political theory of the Islamic philosophers charted an intellectual trajectory that the majority of the Sunni population was unprepared or unwilling to follow. Unlike the philosophical elite, the Sunni masses needed a political thought system established on the platform of tradition, not abstract reason. Islamic philosophy lacked the institutional basis that an academy would have provided and did not manage to attract the popularly important scholars of law and religion with their deep roots in the literature of the traditions of the Prophet and his Companions (hadith) and their codices of jurisprudence detailing the stipulations of sharia’s and amassing a myriad of opinions on legal points (fatwa).

The political vision of Sunni Islam can be traced in two classical works on public law: the Arabic treatise on The Principles of Power (al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya) by Mawardi (974–1058), the honorary chief judge of the Abbasid caliphs, who defined the standard theory of the Sunni caliphate and its institutions from the perspective of the ‘ulama’; and the Siyasatnama, the famous Persian work on statecraft by Nizam al-Mulk (1018–92), chief vizier of the Seljuqs, that gives expression to the views of the clerical class. Nizam al-Mulk also created the foundations of a network of educational institutions (madrasas) that offered scholars of law and religion lecterns and listeners for the dissemination of their works for many centuries. The Siyasatnama, together with the Qabusnama, written in 1082 by Kay Ka’us, represents the apogee of the literary genre of nasīhat al-mulūk (Advice for Rulers), that is, Mirrors for Princes literature that counseled political leaders on statecraft and diplomacy. Thriving for more than a millennium, the genre continued with treatises of Sufis and courtiers on ethical conduct in political life, and reached its final flourishing during the Mughal and Ottoman empires. The impact of medieval Islamic political thought is best exemplified by the classical work of Ghazali (1058–1111), presented with great didactic clarity in his encyclopedic Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din), which relied on the legal tradition of the Shafi‘i school of law and the theological tradition of Baqillani (d. 1013) and Juwayni (1028–85). The major achievement of Ghazali’s magisterial work, however, was the theological and ethical platform he laid for Islamic political institutions, a platform that enabled the moral and religious renewal of Islamic society. Offering a Sunni theological interpretation of political thought, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149–1209) tried to combine dialectical theology with a modified version of Ibn Sina’s philosophy in order to support the doctrine that the existence of the king-emperor, namely, the caliph, is necessary to maintain the order of the world. On the far western periphery of the Islamic world in the Iberian Peninsula, Ghazali’s books were burned in public by order of the ruling dynasty, bowing to the agitation of Maliki legal scholars. Significant contributions to Islamic political thought, however, were made in Spain through the insightful analysis of state and society by Ibn Rushd (1126–98), one of the most original minds in all of Islam. According to Ibn Rushd, philosophers were best qualified to interpret scripture, tradition, and law because they possessed the highest form of knowledge. Following Aristotle, he held that right and wrong were determined by nature rather than by divine command and that effective legislation required both theoretical and empirical knowledge. In the last century of Abbasid rule in Baghdad, Sufism emerged as an organized movement of fraternities, building up the infrastructure of Muslim society and shaping the Islamic identity of the polity for centuries to come; in fact, Sufism made a powerful impact on the fabric of Islamic polity, which contemporary scholarship has widely overlooked. Sufism began in the eighth and ninth centuries in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, with groups of men of piety leading an ascetic life and seeking mystic experience of union with God. Led by teaching masters called shaykhs (or pīrs in Persian), it developed its ideal of poverty (faqr) and trust in God (tawakkul) and spread its practice of meditative recollection (dhikr). Its radical spiritual and social patterns provoked the scholars of law and theology, stirred up urban populations, and challenged public order. After being eclipsed by the Shi‘i renaissance of the tenth century, Sufism reframed its path to God as a branch of the Muslim sciences during the Sunni revival under the Seljuk Turks. Leading into the caliphate of the Abbasid Nasir (1180–1225), Sufism organized itself into a large number of fraternities (tarīqa) based on a strict order of master and disciples, and marked by initiation rites and common prayer ceremonies. Networks of Sufi centers, called “lodges” (Ar. Rabat), or Pers. khānaqāh), paralleled the educational institution of the madrasa and were favored by sultanate governments. The sultans sought sacred legitimization for the secular leadership they had acquired through usurpation by securing the endorsement of Sufi shaykhs, whom they often honored with the title of Shaikh al-Islam.

Sufism was profoundly undergirded by the monist philosophy of Ibn al-‘Arabi (1165–1240), who’s pivotal concept of the “Perfect Man” (al-insān al-kāmil) supplied both an ontological and ethical ideal. Yet Sufism engaged the emotions as well as the intellect, tolerating unruly wandering dervishes (qalandar) and growing widely popular through its provocative use of Persian love poetry, especially that of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207–73). Drawing upon an image familiar to steppe populations, the Sufis advocated a “tent” of spiritual rule (wilāya) over the entire society. The hierarchy of saints (awliyā’) would be anchored in a spiritual pole (qutub), who would in turn be supported by his substitutes, the “stakes” (abdāl) and “pegs” (awtād).

Two writers on Islamic political thought stand out in the late Middle Ages during the period of fragmentation and before the establishment of the three empires: Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) and Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406). Ibn Taymiyya, a Hanbali scholar of law and theology, who was active in Damascus and Cairo, engaged in bitter controversies with rationalism, Sufism, Shi‘ism, and Christianity. He championed the legal method of individual reasoning (ijtihād) to discern the consensus of the believers and chose the middle ground between reason and tradition, as well as between violence and piety. He proclaimed that religion and state need one another because perfect spiritual and temporal prosperity is achieved only when religion is put into practice by religious law that is enforced by a leader who accepts the duty of commanding good and forbidding evil. Ibn Taymiyya maintained that the principles of the state’s power ought to be applied rigorously through the use of the sharia’s enforced by the ruler—an ideal that the Wahhabi movement adopted in the 18th century. Ibn Khuldun was active in North Africa, Spain, and Egypt during periods of dynastic declines. Although he studied broadly in philosophy, law, and theology, he presented an empirical analysis gleaned from the history of the Berbers and Arabs in North Africa. His study of the history of civilization revealed a cyclical pattern: the rule of nomadic chieftains would gradually evolve into kingship in a civilized society that, in turn, would be overthrown by another nomadic group. In order to break the cycle, authority of leadership had to emerge from natural dominion, pass through the stage of government by men of intelligence and insight, and stabilize itself in a polity based on the principles of religion laid down by God, as exemplified ideally by the rule of the Prophet and his successors, the caliphs. Little research has been done on the considerable role women played in the medieval Islamic polity. According to the Qur’an, women are equal to men before God and have similar religious obligations. Though subordinate to men in the public sphere and unequal in many sectors of Islamic law, many women played significant roles in the transmission of hadith, beginning with Prophet Muhammad’s(SAAW) wives ‘Aisha (RA) and Umm Salma,(RA) and in the organization of court life, the education of scholars, and the welfare of Islamic families and children in medieval times. Muslim biographical works quote hundreds of women involved in teaching Islam and transmitting its tradition, while Sufi women had an impact on Islamic ethics and religious practice. There has been a tendency in secular feminist scholarship to depict pre-modern women in the Islamic world as utterly backward. Against this backdrop, however, Muslim women now writing on Islam in the contemporary world have begun their own active line of feminist inquiry, which promises to open new vistas on Islamic political thought from a previously neglected sector of Islamic culture. Since the end of Late Antiquity and through most of the millennium of the early and late middle Ages, the Islamic world was the leading culture on the globe. It excelled in philosophy and the natural sciences, logic and metaphysics, mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, geography, medicine, and architecture. Its transition from vellum to paper in the eighth century propelled it onto a great curve of literary production in both religious and nonreligious literature. This enormous cultural achievement was accomplished in medieval Islam because the Muslim scholars of medicine and science, the philosophers, and the historians avidly inquired into the roots of world cultures anteceding or surrounding them in India, ancient Iran, and the Hellenistic world. Islamic political thought drew on the classics of Greco-Roman and Iran-Indian antiquity. It also antedated and influenced the appearance of works of political thought in medieval Europe, building a bridge between antiquity and modernity. Islamic political thought developed in a cosmopolitan medieval environment of wide-ranging information about other cultures, with all their riches and restrictions. A significant disruption in this development, however, came about from the 15th to the 16th century, when the Western world of Europe entered upon a course of profound changes in its vision of the world, religion, society, and politics.

In contemporary times, secularism has remained a distant dream, Pan-Islamism severed the bonds with a long and venerable Islamic heritage. Islam has created a comprehensive system of political thought able to integrate the disparate elements informing its current stage of development. Emerging currents in political Islam are attempting to articulate ideologies and organize movements that aspire to inner purity, ethical strength, personal freedom, and collective dignity. Muslim world is going to create new avenues for a new paradigm of political thought that will enable it to construct its future as a peaceful order in a pluralistic world.

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