The highest executive post in the Caliphate is that of the Caliph (Khalifa), who appoints assistants (muwaineen) with general powers to assist in ruling, governors for various regions and administrative assistants.
The Caliphate system is characterised by an independent judiciary, representative consultation, the rule of law and citizenship regardless of ethnicity, gender or creed.
Authority, sovereignty & representative government
The subject of representation has historically featured considerably in the evolution of western political discourse.
In justifying government and the right for some to rule over others, the social contract theorists argued individuals could not assume a position over others in a ruling capacity without prior voluntary consent from those they govern, although exactly how consent is determined practically is an area of extensive disagreement.
The proponents and originators of this approach in western political theory, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, derived their theories principally from perspectives on the State of Nature, a theoretical state used to understand man before the advent of government and law.
These theorists disagreed over the reality of life in the State of Nature and subsequently over the principle aims of government, whether it should be the protection of property (Locke), the resolution of civil disputes (Hobbes) or the provision of liberty (Rousseau) or a combination. All agree, however, that government cannot claim legitimacy unless it can demonstrate that it has the voluntary consent of the people. The works of these theorists provide the most prevalent justification for the state and the right for some to rule over others in western political discourse.
The Islamic approach to governance does not rest on a theoretical analysis of man in a state without government and his subsequent relationships with power following the onset of a body politic.
The Caliphate, and the legitimacy of the Caliph at its head is based on representation; the principle, “the authority lies with the Ummah”, is a cornerstone of the Islamic ruling system.
The Shariah places the original authority of managing the affairs of the people in the hands of the people themselves, but requires them to appoint a head of state to do so on their behalf and so the head of state is legitimate only through popular consent. The process of direct elections or an election by a representative assembly consisting of individuals elected to their respective positions can be utilised to evaluate popular consent. Men and women over the age of fifteen are granted the right to vote and the process can be supported with the use of any complimentary technologies, whether internet, mobile or postal voting, provided their merit in improving efficiency is proven. Once elected, the head of state is bound to an agreement with the people through the bayah contract. It stipulates a number of conditions for his leadership of the state, including the condition that he manages the affairs of the people on their behalf, to do so exclusively according to the Islamic sources of legislation, and the non-violation of the criterion of leadership.
Authority is at no point transferred to the head of state through the bayah contract and remains permanently with the people. Thus, if the head of state violates any of the terms of the bayah contract, the people can demand, through the independent judiciary, he vacate his post, a point expanded on later.
However, the discussion on representation in western political theory rests on a secular framework and its logic consequently extends to the function of lawmaking. That is to say, it regards the function of lawmaking the right of the people, whether exercised through representative or direct democracy, or on an approach structured around one of these. In
Islamic political thought, however, there is a distinction between authority and sovereignty, between sources of law and the reality of the state as a representative body. Authority permanently rests with the people who exercise it through electing a head of state, but law originates exclusively from the sources of Shariah.
Therefore, while the Caliphate is a representative body, it is not rule by the demos. Accountability and the rule of law Following closely from the discussion of authority in Islamic political discourse, is the ability to ensure the head of state will not violate the terms of the bayah to which he is contracted by the people; in short, architecture for effective accountability (muhasabah).
The Islamic political system enshrines mechanisms for binding the Caliph to his agreement and protecting citizens from state violations and oppression (dhulm), and provides direct and transparent channels for accounting the executive, any state official, policy, conduct, administration and all other facets of governance.
The issue of accountability features very prominently in the Shariah; ruling is regarded as a form of guardianship (riayah) and a trust (amanah), and the causing of oppression (dhulm) by the head of state a grave crime – the corpus of Islamic texts refers to each of these in an unequivocally serious manner.
- firstly in the general right – and sometimes obligation when the excess is flagrant – of every citizen to take the state to task,
- secondly in institutions that guarantee the process of accountability continuously takes place, and
- thirdly in a general requirement for political parties.
The principle institution dedicated to the task of accounting the state is a special component of the state’s independent judiciary: the ‘Court of Unjust Acts’ (Makhamat al-Mudhalim). It is presided over by only the most eminent and qualified judges in the state and granted extensive powers by the Shariah. It has the power to remove any official of state regardless of their role or rank, including, most importantly, the head of state if he persists in pursuing a path that lies outside of the terms of the bayah.
Citizens who have a complaint against the state register it with the Court, which has wide-ranging powers of investigation that extend to all organs of the state’s machinery. Importantly however, the Court does not rely on a plaintiff to register a complaint before problems are investigated because it is tasked with the permanent and continuous responsibility of scrutinising state conduct.
In addition to the Court of the Unjust Acts, the ‘People’s Assembly’ (Majlis/Council al-Ummah) is another important institution that forms part of the Caliphate’s accountability architecture. It is a representative assembly whose members are elected directly by citizens and can be from any ethnicity, creed or gender. The assembly provides extensive consultation (shura) on issues of state and public policy but, importantly, it has the power to scrutinise practically all matters related to the state; it can oblige the Caliph in key areas such as in the removal of state officials, regional budgetary control and matters of public interest through consultation; and can scrutinise every cannon issued by the Caliph and, in some cases, reject them once again binding the Caliph.
The Caliphate, however, does not rely on institutions alone to provide inherent checks and balances but depends upon the politicisation of its citizenry as its fundamental layer. Holding the rulers to account is a duty – an obligation – upon every Muslim, and citizens are encouraged to do so in a direct and open manner.
Examples from the Caliphs that immediately followed the Prophet Muhammad – whose consensus (ijma) is a source of Islamic law – demonstrate that they proactively encouraged forthright accountability. This obligation is not restricted to the individual, but stipulates a requirement for the permanent existence of political parties tasked with ‘enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong’, a political activity designed to challenge error and incompetence. These civil bodies undertake activities without interference from the state and, as the Islamic political system has no concept of a ‘ruling party’, neither do they have any association with the state; their purpose is principally to highlight inadequacies in state conduct and in the condition of society. While various schools within western political theory have long struggled with the question of justifying ‘political obligation’ – whether the utilitarians or social contract theorists or others – Islamic obligations such as ‘enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong’ take on a unique dimension for the Muslim citizen: they are considered good in their own right and an act of worship, not measured by their expediency or purely by the effect they yield.
From institutions, through to political parties to individuals, the mechanisms for accountability in the Caliphate provide the backbone to what is a considerably rule-based society. The Caliph is not beyond the law nor protected by special exemption that provides him immunity from prosecution; if he commits a crime he will be punished, if he transgresses the terms of the bayah he will be eligible for removal.
Unlike monarchies and authoritarian governments who place monarch or premier beyond the constitution with the sole right to interpret or alter it, no individual in the Islamic state’s apparatus, from clerk to Caliph, is above the law and an independent judiciary monitors the Caliph’s legal adoptions with the power to demand revocation.
From ‘total’ to ‘totalitarian’?
For some commentators, the comprehensiveness of Islam in articulating both a spiritual and a political system renders a government founded upon its law, totalitarian. The ‘total’ nature of Islam is thought to suffocate progress through seeking to ‘control’ every element of a citizen’s life and denying an autonomous space for science and cultural pursuits. This logic bears little relevance outside Europe’s experience with the excesses of the Church, for the history of the Islamic state demonstrates that being founded on the Shariah did not impede scientific or technological progress, or excellence in legal, intellectual and cultural pursuits, but rather acted to propel them.
Whilst Islam is a comprehensive system, the Shariah confines the Islamic state’s remit to managing only temporal matters. The state can only adopt law in matters that relate to its responsibility: managing the affairs of society and achieving the goals of the Islamic state. The head of state therefore is not allowed to enter the privacy of the home, adopt law that stipulates matters of personal life or interfere in the private affairs of the citizen, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. If it does, it is considered to have transgressed its jurisdiction, for which the judiciary may take action if it finds the state to have committed an act of oppression (dhulm).
This principle arises from numerous Islamic texts that deal with the subject of remit and responsibility that do not permit the assumption of a responsibility one is not originally charged with, whether spouse, parent, child, relative, head of state and so on.
The Caliphate bears no resemblance to a totalitarian state therefore, but to understand the error in believing Islam’s comprehensive nature impedes progress, there is a broader point to appreciate. Islam does not, nor came to, define reality or to dictate sensory perception. That is to say, whether the earth orbits the sun or vice versa, whether water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, whether HIV leads to AIDS and other such judgements on reality are for the human mind, and for scientific and intellectual inquiry to decipher human sensory perception.
The role of the Shariah is to provide solutions, guidance and a legal framework in which to conduct human activity whether personal, social, economic or political, and is in this sense comprehensive.
Thus, the universe, life within in it and the material world is analysed purely through human observation and rational tools, whilst mapping appropriate human activity is determined through principles and rules extracted from the Shariah. The Shariah therefore does not interfere with nor inhibit progress through insisting people believe, say, the world is flat or that the earth is the centre of the universe but articulates a system through which individual and society can best structure their environment and tackle common human problems, dilemmas and challenges.
If not rule by the ‘demos’, then rule of ‘theos’? Does the place of the Shariah – a divine law – in the Islamic political system render the Caliphate a theocracy? The role of a divine text in ruling marks, for the western mindset, a return to medieval Europe when the excesses and abuses by kings and princes were justified by references to sacred Christian texts. As interpretation was the preserve of the literate Christian clergy and those in power frequently justified their status as acts of divine will, there were no means of challenging official interpretations of sacred law or accounting abuses of power for they would represent a challenge to God’s will, no less an act of blasphemy. It is for this reason that some consider the Islamic ruling system to be concerned principally with the piety of the ruler: if there are no workable mechanisms of checking power in a ‘religious’ state then citizens of a Caliphate, similarly, can rely only on the piety of the Caliph to ensure he does not abuse his position.
Applying this western matrix on the Islamic political system however fails to acknowledge a number of key points: the Caliphate is neither a theocracy nor its practice similar to medieval Europe. There are some very important differences:
- Firstly, the head of state in a Caliphate system is not divinely appointed nor can lay claim to divine merit: the people appoint the head of state. The post of Caliph is open to anyone who meets the criteria for a ruler without reference to divine privilege.
- Secondly, a corollary of the first point, while the head in a theocracy is beyond reproach because of claims to divine right, the Caliph is monitored by numerous institutions, the independent judiciary of which has not just the right but the duty to remove him if he violates the terms of the bayah contract, force him to repeal the adoption of a particular law, demand compensation, declare policy invalid amongst other powers. He is thus not beyond the law, but subject to it as any other citizen. The Islamic political system does not rely on the piety of its head alone as the principal mechanism of accountability as it is a system designed for human beings understanding the potential for human error and malevolence.
- Thirdly, the Caliphate is not rule by clergy, or by a religious elite that claims to have a monopoly on interpreting Islamic law. The head of state may be a jurist or a legal advocate by training, but that is not a condition for assuming the role. And the origin of law being from a series of divine sources, principally the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah), does not mean there is a limited, or no, role for questioning, debate, disagreement and challenge. The Qur’an is not the constitution of the state as such – it is a source of the constitution. Law has to be derived for new problems; to tackle new issues which have not previously been judged requires the extraction of law from Islamic sources through the mechanism of ijtihad, a process open to all those qualified and is not the preserve of a privileged elite. Ijtihad undertaken by different jurists may result in differences of opinion, disagreement and debate, and in Islam, there is no concept of a Pope to make a declaration of divine preference.
The Caliph, as head of state with the responsibility for adopting law, will adopt one opinion to bind society to a set of common standards within a declared legal framework, but that does not prevent further debate and amendment.
In all, the Caliphate is a system run by fallible human beings who implement law derived from the divine sources of the Shariah over society, removable from office if they violate the terms of their agreement – not rule by ‘theos’.
Amongst the fanfare that surrounds democratisation in this post 9/11 climate, it is often easy to forget that a number of western political philosophers had their own reservations about its workability. Rousseau thought democracy would only work if one could guarantee that the public would always vote in the interest of the collective – the ‘general will’- not selfish, individual interests and went on to articulate a rather stringent, almost unworkable, set of social conditions he believed would achieve that. Despite his elaborate works on a theory of direct democracy, he nonetheless says: “If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for many to govern and the few to be governed.”
John Stuart Mill believed a democracy should afford the intelligent and educated greater voting power to protect society from the tyranny of the ignorant majority for that would be the result of simple majority rule, and his proposed representative – over Rousseau’s direct democracy – is for its critics no less a move away from the essence of democracy itself.
But while Rousseau, Mill and others tried to fill the gaps, one of the biggest critics of democracy per se was Plato.
His guardianship by philosopher-rulers – or ‘benevolent dictatorship’ more crudely put – was he believed better at delivering good governance and justice than a democracy because in classical Greek, the word ‘demos’ is the ‘mob’ as much as it is the ‘people’, and so democracy is no less the rule of the mob than it is the rule of the people.
Of relevance to our discussion, such theories represent nodes on the spectrum of western political theory, with democracy at one end and – because of his wholesale rejection of democracy and thus thought to represent the alternative – Plato’s dictatorship at the other: if not democracy, rule by the people, then the alternatives are considered either rule by theos, the few, or one.
The Islamic political system’s rejection of democracy does not render it a form of dictatorial government, as one may conclude if confining its study strictly to the above spectrum. The Caliphate is not a dictatorship for authority lies with the people not the head of state; nor is it premised on the belief that the office of the Caliph is a privileged position beyond the law, the occupant of which can be trusted to manage the affairs of the society without being accounted for how he does so.
The Caliph, like every other citizen, is a subject of the law, not beyond it, and an independent judiciary can act to curtail his activities and even remove him. Sovereignty belongs to divine law, but humans understand it and apply it; this human exercise, though entrusted to the Caliph to make final legal adoption, is subject to considerable human accountability and herein lies the distinction between the Caliphate and the totalitarian dictators that were the scourge of the last century.
The Caliphate system does not resemble any of the world’s current political structures. It is nether similar to western liberal models – which few may contest – and represents a sharp contradiction to the dictatorships, monarchies and totalitarian governments that litter the Muslim world. The Islamic political system does not grant authority to a divinely appointed individual or to a clergy, nor does it lie in the hands of one individual and thus the Caliphate is neither a theocracy nor a dictatorship; it is a representative system of governance albeit quite different in the sources of law to the western state, and so neither is it a democracy: it is a distinct model of governance.
We are, possibly, in need of a new set of terms to describe the Islamic system in rhetoric familiar to a western audience for it is characterised by a distinct set of political ideas and political relationships unfamiliar to western political theory. That alone is a big undertaking, but will only be of use if it is first recognised that the Islamic system has of its own a political tradition, extensive corpus of political literature and, indeed, a considerable precedent through the Caliphate’s thirteen hundred year history. Talk of future political models for the Muslim world must acknowledge not only this, but the Caliphate is with indigenous precedent, founded on a value system consistent with, not alien to, those of Muslim populations.
The prospect of the Caliphate emerging in the near future would mark an end to the repressive political architectures that plague the Muslim and represent a departure from the ailing dynasties, dictators and monarchs who now come under pressure from both their own populations and the west. Such an event could either be hailed as a significant move forward or condemned as step into the past; but it would be unfortunate if, even after increasing awareness, such opinions lie on a western-Muslim fault line.