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Islam and Politics ( 29 Dec 2019, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Abolishment of the Caliphate Triggered the Debate: Is Democracy Compatible with the Traditional Islamic Political Norms?

By Rehan Khan

December 23, 2019

The Grand National Assembly of modern Turkey abolished the sultanate in 1923 and the institution of the caliphate in 1924. Allama Muhammad Iqbal in his classic “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” endorsed the move and declared the Parliamentary form of government entirely in harmony with the spirit of Islam. Iqbal contended that the traditional thought of Islam required a radical overhaul. In the following years, a number of scholars came out with books that dealt with modern governance. A proverbial Lebanese scholar, Rashid Rida in one of his political treatises held that the institution of caliphate constituted a part of the Islamic faith. He insisted that the revival of the caliphate was amongst the basic tenets of Islam. In disagreement with him, Abd-ar-Razik contended that the institution of the caliphate was only a political institution. It was not obligated by religion. The Traditional Islamic Political Thought was questioned for the first time in Islamic scholasticism.

The abolishment of the caliphate also triggered an important debate: Is democracy compatible with the traditional Islamic political norms? Islamic Political Thought came into being in the latter part of the 10th century. Rooted firmly in Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic theology, Islamic political thought aimed at defining the contours of politics both in theory and in practice. Right from the onset, Islamic political thought relied heavily on the scriptural text of the Quran, the revelatory experience and the normative practice of the Prophet, the pronouncements of the early companions, and the precedents of successive caliphs. Declaring the institution of the caliphate an integral part of the Islamic belief system, Muslim Political theorists always maintained that politics should be defined by the dictates of religion. Religion reigned supreme over all the spheres of life, including politics.

Muslim scholars have dilated at length on the constitution, modalities, and the formation of the caliphate. How should a caliph be elected? The great Muslim jurist al-Mawardi held that there were two ways to elect a caliph: nomination by the former caliph or by the Electoral College. The nomination could take place either directly by appointing the new caliph or by the testament. Mawardi further proceeded that the Electoral College may include civil servants, Ulama, or even the military officials. Taking a cue from Mawardi, Juwayni also insisted that the caliph must be elected. On the question of the Electoral College, he held that the electors might also include those who are well-respected in the society like the tribal chiefs and leaders. Agreeing with Mawardi, Juwayni also emphasized that a single elector was sufficient for the election of the caliph.

On the question of election, Ghazali also opined that the election of a caliph could not take place prior to the constitution of the Electoral College. For Ghazali, the most important electors were the ones who wielded “power” or “Shawka”. It is important to note that all these scholars from Mawardi to Ghazali considered the electors to amongst the ranks of ulama, civil servants and military cadres. Contrary to it, in democracy, it is the people who are vested with the right to elect the rulers. The people, in general, participate in the electoral process in order to elect a government. In classical Islamic political thought, the ulama have a constitutional role in the formation of the government. The ulama are not only the electors, but are also the constitutional advisors, Ghazali affirmed. But the ulama have no role to play in liberal democracies. Any political order that is run by or administered by the ulama or the religious scholarly class is actually and technically a theocracy.

The caliphate also insists that the ruler must be from the tribe of Quresh. Mawardi insisted that it was the undeniable tenet of Islamic political system to have a ruler of Qureshi decent. Ghazali, Ibn-e-Khaldun, and Shah Wali-Ullah also agreed that the ruler must be from the tribe of Quresh. But does democracy give preference to any particular tribe? Of course, not. Democracy does not discriminate against any tribe, colour, religion, or creed. Moving on, almost all of the great Muslims scholars maintained that the caliph is elected for a lifetime. There is no procedural mechanism for the disposition of an elected caliph. On the contrary, democracy sets a bar on the term of a ruler. An elected government can rule for a specified period of time. In addition, the chief executive of political order can be impeached constitutionally, whereas, there is no such provision in the Classic Islamic Political Thought.

What is the role of armed forces in the formation of a political system in classic Islamic Political Thought? Muslim scholars historically legitimized the involvement of military establishment in the make-up of political order. As mentioned earlier, scholars as eminent as Mawardi, Juwayni, and Ghazali maintained that the military officers could also be amongst the electors. On the question of usurpation of political power by the military forces, Ghazali held that it was not only legal but was also necessary for political expediency. The proverbial jurist of the Mamluk dynasty Ibn Jamaah went a step further and contended that a military chief could even pose as a legitimatize chief executive of the caliphate. His legitimacy rests on his ability to wield his “power” and function as an administrator. Even Shah Wali-Ullah as late as in 18th century allowed for the interference of the military in the political sphere. He stated in his books “Izalat tul Khifa” and “ Qurat-ul-Aeyneen” that the military take-over was undesirable, but fell within the ambit of Islamic legal framework.

Even interesting is the case of Non-Muslims in an Islamic caliphate. Fakhar-Uddin Razi, Ibn-e-Taymiyah, and Shah Ismail Shaheed held that Non-Muslims were to be considered “Dhimmis” or “second-class citizens”. The Islamic legal system provided them with safeguards, but they were under the protection of Muslims by virtue of a contract. In other words, Non-Muslims could not be entitled to the rights that Muslims could enjoy in an Islamic caliphate. In contrast, democratic political order does not discriminate against any religious minority. Religious minorities are entitled to all the legal and political rights in a democratic set-up.

As mentioned earlier, the Classic Islamic Political Thought was challenged soon after the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924. Two responses came to the forefront after the caliphate. The first held that the traditional form of governance as exemplified in the institution of the caliphate should be revived. This response matured and took the garb of Pan-Islamism, Islamism, and Islamic revivalism in the later years. The second response maintained that innovative forms of governance should be sought out in order to grapple with the challenges of modernity. This response resulted in democracies in different Muslim polities. Is this modern phenomenon of democracy compatible with the traditional Islamic Political Thought? The answer to this question is simple: both are mutually exclusive.

Original Headline: Democracy and traditional Islamic political thought

Source: The Nation, Pakistan