With western democratic models in ruins the Muslim world must look to achieve accountability without democracy
The Caliphate is an accountable political system whose head is legitimised only through popular consent. That immediately separates it from the current regimes that litter the Muslim world, which are unrepresentative, unaccountable and inherently fragile and unstable as the recent uprisings demonstrate. With no means of recourse and no channels to express dissent or criticism, peoples’ concerns have progressed from threatening political undercurrents, to rebellion and overthrow. The Caliphate, in striking contrast, engages voices of dissent through the political system by providing extensive channels for accounting all organs of the state.
In spite of the removal of long-time dictators Mubarak of Egypt, Tunisia’s Ben Ali and the potentially imminent bloody downfall of Libya’s Gaddafi, the longest reigning of all modern-day dictators, the ghosts of the ‘authoritarian’ past still haunts the Muslim world.
Authoritarianism within a political system however cannot be levied only at the Muslim world. Robert Michels, a political theorist, has convincingly argued in ‘A sociological study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy,’ that all political systems, including democracies, are under the strong grip of what he termed the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Even so-called very ‘democratic’ and ‘liberal’ states are authoritarian, for example in areas of national security.
So, when discussions of an alternative Islamic political system or authority are raised, proponents of such alternatives face expressions of dismay.
The concept of authority and its position in Islam has to be discussed in the context of Islamic law (Shari’ah).
As far as Muslims are concerned Allah (swt) and the Prophet (saw) are the only authorities that count i.e. they are the authoritative in Islam. The directives of Allah (swt) for the Muslim are contained in the text of the Qur’an and hence to understand the Divine will, it is a matter of interpreting this text.
Despite having uncontested political authority, the Prophet’s decade of state administration was not an iron-fisted approach, but rather consultation (Shura) of a variety of people of Madinah. On technical matters, he would consult those with expertise; he would consult the general public on issues that affected the wider society in which there were no particular restrictions from the Shari’ah. This was in accordance with the instructions of Allah (swt) as mentioned in the Qur’an:
فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِنَ اللَّهِ لِنْتَ لَهُمْ ۖ وَلَوْ كُنْتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لَانْفَضُّوا مِنْ حَوْلِكَ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ ۖ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ
“And do consult them in the matter, and if you decide (on an action/ on an opinion) put your trust in Allah.” (TMQ 3:159)
This provides the basis for establishing a council of the Ummah to provide consultation and advice to the Caliph.
Before the battle of Uhud for instance, the Prophet (saw) demonstrated his commitment to consultation of the public by following the majority opinion and encamping outside Madinah, even though he thought it would better to mount a defence from inside Madinah.
The fact that most of the Companions were held in high esteem in the community at large did not absolve them of accountability to the Ummah. The Ummah understood political accountability as an integral part of the wider Islamic duty of ‘al-amr bil ma’ruf wal nahy an al-munkar’ (commanding the right and forbidding the wrong). Accountability was a part of the tenure of each of the Rashideen Caliphs and they responded to it positively.
This was demonstrated by Caliph Umar’s response to a man in the audience who took out his sword and told Umar that he would correct him with it if he (Umar) went astray in his office of power.
Umar responded by saying: “Praise be to Allah, there are men in the nation who would put me right if I go astray.” [Shibli Nu’mani, “Al-Farooq: the life of Omar the Great”,Translated by Zafar Ali Khan, New Delhi, Idara Isha’at-e-Diniyat Ltd, 1996, p 379]
Indeed, accounting the ruler is seen as one of the noblest activities a Muslim could be engaged in and it falls under the broad category of the duty of ‘Commanding the Right and Forbidding the Wrong’.
As is stated in the Qur’an:
وَلْتَكُنْ مِنْكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ ۚ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
“Let there arise a group amongst you that call to the Good, commanding the right and forbidding the wrong; those are the successful” (TMQ 3:104)
The Prophet (saw) has also stated in relation to accounting the ruler: “The best jihad is a word of truth in the presence of an unjust ruler” and also “The Master of Martyrs is Hamza, and a man who stood up to a tyrant ruler to advise him and was killed.”
The Qur’anic verse mentioned above indicates the formation of such political parties as an additional mechanism of accounting the ruler.
Furthermore the scholars of Islam understood that the obedience to any ruler commanded in the Qur’an is conditional upon those rulers being subservient to the sovereignty of the Shari’ah and any disputes with such rulers should be judged according to the Shari’ah. Hence, they made it their job to meticulously scrutinise and account the actions of the ruler in terms of congruity to the Shari’ah. Any complaint during the time of the Prophet’s ruling and subsequently by the Rashideen Caliphs with regards to ‘acts of injustice’ (Mazlema) perpetrated by the state against the people, which could include the ruler, was investigated. This subsequently developed into the post of Qadi Al-Mazaalim (Judge of the Unjust Acts) during the Abbasid period and he was responsible for looking into complaints of the people against the ruler. This restricts the ruler from abusing his power and prevents authoritarianism.
Despite experimenting with numerous models and indeed being the subject of recent experiments with liberalism, the autocracy, dictatorships, growing dissent and instability in the Muslim world appear no closer resolved. Problems are deep rooted; some even talk of a Middle Eastern ‘exceptionalism’ to describe the region’s apparent inability to move forward. Fresh ideas and approaches are needed if we are to overcome the status quo.
While some in the West suggest the Caliphate is a pre-modern system unable to deal with current political challenges it is clear from the evidences presented that the Caliphate will in fact be a stabilising force for the Muslim world.