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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Muslim World and the contemporary Ijma' on rules of governance - i
By Syed Shahabuddin

History is the manifestation of Allah's will and history is not just the story of invasions and conquests, of kings and dynasties. Above all, history of man is the story of evolution of ideas. Today the world has shrunk into a global village and human societies have instant communication with each other. Ideas which have been universally accepted become part of the common heritage of mankind, whatever be their place of origin. This applies to the ideas of Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights. Like all ideas, they may be susceptible of being exploited and yet they do not lose their formal relevance. They form part of the IJMAA of mankind today.

Unfortunately, the Muslim world, having long been shut out from the progress of the world, particularly in the realm of science and technology tends to regard these basic ideas, coming like fresh coins from the mints of the West, as foreign products. It has forgotten that the Holy Prophet exhorted Muslims even to go to China to seek knowledge. In another Tradition, he described knowledge as the lost heritage of Muslims which he should pick up whenever he finds it. Does it not make it incumbent on the Muslim world and the Muslim individually, to examine every idea whatever its origin on the touchstone of Islamic principles and reject those which are found to be repugnant to Islam and accept those which do not, under the well-accepted dictum that what is not specifically declared to be 'Haram' (prohibited) is Halal (acceptable). The Muslim should be flexible and broad-minded, selective but tolerant of what appear to be innovations.

It is indeed astonishing and unfortunate that at the turn of the 21st Century, the Muslim world, or at least a section thereof, is still engaged in a fierce controversy over the religious legitimacy of Democracy and Election, of the secular State and Equality before Law. This reflects, to some extent, their deeply entrenched distrust and suspicion of any idea of western origin and to their memories of having been oppressed, divided, exploited and short-changed by Western colonialism in conjunction with local collaborators representing the feudal or the tribal order or local warlords, though some of whom have donned the mantle of modern governments with all their ceremonial paraphernalia.

The Holy Quran was not revealed as a treatise in Constitution or Politics. It does not elaborate any political system or any form of governance. It enunciates some general principles particularly JUSTICE and CONSULTATION and leaves it to the human society to work out constitutions and laws and regulations. The Quran, however, emphasizes that Allah is the true sovereign of the Universe, that His will, which has created and regulates the universe, operates in human society through the vice-regency of Man, that Man has been endowed with the freedom to devise the organization and management of human society, that power and authority are His hands and he dispenses them as He pleases. Indeed the ups and downs of history, the rise and fall of nations, the dominance and subjugation of human groups are not explicable by human logic. Empires rise and fall; nations and groups fight for dominance, gain or lose and states form and break up or change in political status. What Islam addresses is the moral conduct of the individual. Whatever be his station in life, whatever his profession or occupation, he shall be rewarded on the Day of Judgement according to his balance sheet.

But contemporary controversies relating to political concepts are sought to be settled by reference to the Holy Quran, the Traditions of the Holy Prophet, the acts of the Enlightened Caliphs, the rulings of the medieval schools of jurisprudence associated with Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafei and Hambal of the Sunnis as well as Imam Jafar Sadiq of the Shias. They do provide principles of guidance but many a time give partial and sometimes contradictory answers to the new questions which have arisen with the passage of time and change of circumstances, local and global.

Man, Freedom and Society
The Quran emphasizes the uniqueness of man as Allah's vice-regent on earth who has been authorized and empowered to exploit all the resources of the earth and endowed with intelligence and knowledge in order to transform them to meet his needs. Man is born free and enjoys free will. He is responsible for his acts and indeed Islam's basic moral concept is his accountability for his earthly deeds before Allah on the Day of Judgement. Individually and collectively he has to find his way through the maze of life by the application of his mental faculties and will-power. The Islamic debate hinges on whether his Freedom is total and absolute or whether he enjoys the Freedom to opt out of the Quranic paradigm. If born a non-Muslim, can he refuse to embrace Islam? If born a Muslim, can be renounce Islam and embrace another religion and even become an atheist? The modern answer even from the Islamic angle is that he can, because he is free and responsible for his belief and deeds. Yet the orthodox will not accept this simple answer because through centuries they have been accustomed to look not for the rights of the individual but for the possible social impact of individual freedom on the Islamic collectivity.
But what is the Islamic collectivity? The orthodox will refer to the model of the proto-Islamic state of Medina which the Holy Prophet organized and administered in all its details during the last 13 years of his life. They would refer to the period of the Enlightened Caliphs, the immediate successors to the Holy Prophet, who were 'elected' by consensus. No doubt these 50 odd years have always illumined the path of humanity in its onward march in many ways, set great examples of moral integrity, public accountability, justice and equality. But in the next 1400 years, the Muslim world passed through many cycles. The Caliphate became a monarchy, first absolute, then nominal, controlled by oligarchies, feudal lords, warlords, tribal chiefs and regional chieftains. The unity of the Muslim world was shattered by the emergence of Sultanates and Emirates, by invasions and finally by colonial inroads. The Muslim world as seen today is shaped by the States which emerged out of the colonial era though once they formed part of much bigger regional formations, call them empires if you wish.

On the religious plane, as on the political, Islam stands divided into sects and denominations, sometimes fierce in their contention against each other. The rift widened between the Sunnis and the Shias and among the Sunnis between Hanafis and Hanbalis (who were later organized as Wahabis or Salafis). Sunni Islam has no structural unity. It has no central authority, no Pope, no Imam and even the formal equality of the 4 schools in the Holy Mosque at Mecca stands superceded by the full Wahabi control, following the political control of Hejaz under the House of Saud.

Expanding Islam
In the meantime, Islam has continued to expand beyond its traditional confines. It has been expanding in Europe, Black Africa and the Americas by conversion as well as by migration. Islam has come into its own in Central Asia and South-East Asia and South Asia. In China, it is trying against all odds to have an autonomous existence. Apart from Albania, Europe today has Bosnia-Herzegovina in which the Bosnian Muslims form the biggest ethnic group. Kosovo is likely to emerge as another Muslim State. Chechenya has been fighting for freedom from Russia for the last 200 years. And there are nearly 15 million émigré Muslims largely from North Africa and Turkey and South Asia in Europe. So in Americas, the Muslims have grown, between Black Muslims and émigré Muslims, into a 6 million strong community which is becoming increasingly a social, economic and even political factor. Black Africa has a large Muslim population divided between Muslim majority states like Nigeria and Senegal and many states with sizeable Muslim minorities.

Muslim World: Muslim-Majority and Muslim-Minority States
In the 21st Century the essential division of the Muslim world will remain between Muslim-majority states and Muslim-minority states in the ratio of 60:40. In Muslim minority states, the Muslim community may share power but is not politically dominant. It adjusts itself to the political realities. It enjoys constitutional rights and struggles democratically and peacefully to fill the gap between precept and practice and for achieving equality of status and for sharing power through progress in education and participation and development. But what is important is to realize that but for a handful of extremists here and there, no responsible Muslim organization raises the banner of establishing an 'Islamic state'. In the age of Democracy, a minority group cannot impose its will on the majority of the people. So while one hears of Islamic Radicalism or Extremism or Fundamentalism, flogging its imaginary horses towards the mirage of 'Khilafat', the vast majority of Muslims in non-Muslim countries are living peacefully, concerned, largely with preserving their Islamic identity, transmitting Islamic values to their next generation, immunizing themselves against cultural submergence or religious assimilation and struggling against religious discrimination.

Islamic State, Muslim State or Secular State
But the position is different in Muslim majority states - each of them has turned into a political arena for a war of supremacy among political ideologies covering a wide spectrum. Essentially and objectively the battle is joined by those who want a secular state and those who desire an Islamic and even a pan-Islamic state. Even in the states which are monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Arab Emirates and the distant Malaysia, no one is for monarchy. Indeed in all the monarchies there are pressures for transforming them into constitutional monarchies as indeed Malaysia has already done by adopting a unique system of rotating the post of the Head of State among the reigning Sultans of the federating units and vesting real power in a democratically elected Head of Government.

Islam and Democracy
The democratic option is naturally conditioned in every state by its historical experience, its constitutional experiments, its ethnic demography, its religious and denominational divides, its regional disparities, its class structure. It goes without saying that each of them has to evolve its own model to the satisfaction of its special needs and circumstances. Democracy has become a universal goal but it is not a pre-packaged product ready for export by one or import by another state. Nor does USA or any other country own a patent on the brand name. Far less can it be imposed by any state over others even by invasion or unilateral use of force for conquest or change of regime. Evolution may take time but the people have a right not only to write their own constitution but to amend it in accordance with their changing perception of their political and socio-economic requirements. In fact the conceptual contents of democracy are universally changing with decentralization of power, with demands for autonomy, by assertion of sub-national languages and cultures, by the claims of non-Muslim minorities. But the essence of democracy remains the centrality of the individual, the equality of citizenship and the rule of law as crystallized in the Constitution and specially his Human Rights including those which pertain to him as a member of a distinct social group.

Islam and Freedom
There is no incompatibility between Islam and Freedom. Islam addresses itself to the individual; it is the individual who is a co-sharer in the resources placed by Allah at Man's disposal under a Allah-regulated Cosmic System, it is the individual who has been endowed with free will and, therefore with Freedom of Choice, it is the individual who is immune to any coercion in matters of faith, it is the individual who is accountable before Allah on the Day of Reckoning for his acts. So the individual occupies the center of the stage. Islamic politics is, thus, ethno-centric and, therefore, democratic in a much more universal sense than the original Greek Version which distinguished between free men and slaves or the European model of the yesteryear which provided for gender, property and educational qualifications. There is no contradiction between universal suffrage and Islam. (Continued in the next issue) «

Part 2: Muslim World and the contemporary Ijma' on rules of governance - ii
Part 3: Muslim World and the contemporary Ijma' on rules of governance - iii 

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