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Political Pluralism from an Islamic Perspective

By:
Salim Al-Awa Muhammad
Document type:
Articles and Essays

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Political Pluralism from an Islamic Perspective

Salim Al-Awa Muhammad

Commentary

Born in Cairo, he studied law at Alexandria University and earned his Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University in 1972. He is a prominent lawyer, specializing in comparative law and Islamic law, and an activist in Egypt and the Arab world; his publications include On the Political System of the Islamic State, The Crisis of the Religious Establishment, and the award-winning Islamic Jurisprudence on the Path of Renewal, for which he was named Arab thinker of the year. Chair of the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue, he has been a leading public intellectual and a founder and leader of the Wasatiya movement in Egypt since the 1980s.

‘Awwa’s purpose here is to show that pluralism, which he defines as “diversity,” is the natural order of the world—both the physical world and the world of human societies. It is something embraced by the Qurān, as in verses 35:27-28, 30:22, and 49:13. That certain Muslims doubt that Islam sanctions pluralism ‘Awwa attributes to one of three factors: the tendency to defer to ancient writings, which either avoided the issue or gave the impression that Islam was monistic; the tendency of contemporary writers to focus on the early period of Islam; the tendency to ignore issues of organization and administration by contemporary writers. ‘Awwa cites the Hanbali jurist ibn ‘Aqil (d. 1119) in rejecting the assertion of many Islamists today who invoke Hanbali jurisprudence, that the Qurān alone establishes the pattern of behavior and policy in Muslim society. ‘Awwa feels this is a double error, because no warrant for this position can be found in the Qurān itself and because it delegitimizes the actions of the Prophet’s companions. (‘Awwa could have mentioned in this connection the action of Caliph ‘Umar, who, at a time of famine, suspended exemplary punishments mandated by the Qurān against thieves.) ‘Awwa lists six principles of the Islamic state, whose content strikes the observer as liberal in tone and invites comparisons with ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq but contrasts with Abu al-‘Al‘ Mawdudi. He concludes that political pluralism is the best guarantee for putting these six principles into operation. ‘Awwa has little patience with the Islamist argument that pluralism contravenes Islam’s doctrine of the oneness of God (tawhid) and invites dissension (fitnah). Instead, he holds that tawhid relates to the religious realm. Outside that realm, the interests of the Muslims being a paramount value in Islam, the establishment of pluralist institutions to advance such interests is certainly in conformity with the principles of the faith.

In essence, pluralism means the recognition of diversity. Not only is it a reality which no sensible person can deny, but is a legitimate right for those with whom we may disagree or differ; a right that no person or authority can deny or take away. Pluralism usually takes an adjective derived from the topic of concern, and thus can be political, economic, religious, racial, or linguistic.

Pluralism already exists in nature among creatures and among their various species. In this sense, it is an expression of the marvellous divine achievement.

Allah says in the Holy Qur'an:

It is He Who has produced you from a single soul: then there is a resting place and a repository. We detail Our signs for people who understand. It is He Who sends down rain from the skies, with it We produce vegetation of all kinds. From some We produce green crops, out of which We produce close-compounded grain. Out of the date-palm and its sheaths come clusters of dates hanging low and near. Then there are gardens of grapes, of olives and of pomegranates, each similar (in kind) yet different in variety. When they begin to bear fruit, feast your eyes upon the fruit and the ripeness thereof. Behold in these things there are signs for people who believe. (6:98–99)

Allah also says:

Have you not seen that Allah sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colours. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of colour, and black intense in hue. And amongst humans and beasts and cattle they are also of various colours. Among His servants those who have knowledge truly fear Allah: for Allah is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving. (35:27–28)

There is obvious and significant pluralism among humans—in their races, affiliations, responsibilities, performances, talents, faculties and powers.

Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are signs for those who know. (30:22)

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things. (49:13)

In this verse the Qur'anic expressions of “honoured” and “righteous” are used to indicate the existence of these who are honoured and those who are righteous, pointing to the fact that diversity is a reality, and that pluralism in the Divine scheme of evaluation does not necessarily mean accepting the members of a certain category while rejecting the members of other categor-ies. By categories I mean the grades of “righteousness” and “honour,” which are based on sincerity of belief and clarity of conviction.

If one recognises the pluralistic nature of humans, and recognises their rights to disagree and differ, one must inevitably, and without much effort, recognise pluralism in the political sphere. Why should this matter require clarification? And why does it seem to many observers of Islamic political thought that it rejects political pluralism and adopts monism, or the unitary vision, which in most cases leads to an unjust despotic rule or a permanent tyrannical government.

Islamic political thought appears to be distorted and misunderstood over this as well as over many other issues. There are usually three reasons for this distortion. The first is that writings on Islam and Islamic thought continue to be constrained by the unquestioning adoption of ancient writings (taqlid), copying them, building on them and considering them fundamentals and references for analogy (qiyas). These ancient writings describe the situation that existed during the times of those who wrote them, based on the writers’ understanding and assessment. The judgement given therein is that of ancient writers based on their or their predecessors’ interpretation or comprehension of the fundamentals of Islam.

The second reason is that writings on Islam and Islamic thought still revolve around the ancient occurrences in the history of Muslims. Researchers who tackle these occurrences in Muslim history usually pursue one of two ways. They either take an interest only in the best and most enlightened times, deriving lessons from them as if they were the entire history of the Muslims; or alternatively take an interest only in the worst events and gloomiest stages and then ascribe such gloominess to the entire history.

The third reason is that the advocates of an Islam-based reform for the deteriorating political, social and economic situations in the Muslim world do not bother to explain to the people the Islamic position with regard to the organisation of society. They avoid tackling essential problems and are usually content with the fact that they invite to the faith of the majority; the faith which they themselves believe in. They usually uphold true slogans but fall short of making the required effort to translate these slogans into reality. Many seek to justify this attitude by saying they suffer security restrictions and are denied the right to form political parties. Some of the groups which pursue moderate policies function without governmental approval and therefore cannot be protected from arbitrary measures. These occur without prior notice and without obvious reasons. On the other hand, members of extremist (radical) groups are on the run and can be shot dead wherever they are ambushed. If caught alive, they are usually indicted and sentenced without proper trial or defence.

The three aforementioned reasons require some consideration. If taqlid (the unquestioning adoption of ancient writings) is generally bad, it is worst when applied to political thinking. Ancient writings that are copied and imitated by contemporary writers are “relative.” They should not be referred to in order to restrict or hinder the progress of the Islamic political movements. These movements to revive Islam have been in motion throughout history and should continue to be so.

Islamic history, or the history of the Muslims, with all its ups and downs, is certainly a good source of lessons and admonitions. However, it should not be used to create restrictive precedents, which should be followed to the finest detail if deemed to be good, or which would cause Islam itself to be rejected and its followers denounced if they were precedents of tyranny and oppression.

The excuses made by those who call for an Islam-based reform are in essence valid excuses but do not justify their abstention from explaining to the people what they call them to. Nor do such excuses legitimise the adoption of obscure and inexplicable concepts which oftenly reflect negatively on Islam itself. Hence, the stand of Islamic thought toward pluralism requires renewed clarification. It is necessary to prevent any of the aforementioned reasons from causing the people to think that those who call for an Islam-based reform stand against political pluralism or support tyranny or that they are preparing for a new era of despotism cloaked in religion and protected by it!

It is important that those who call for Islam-based political reform do not miss the fact that the most extreme forms of oppression and the worst types of tyranny in history were those resulting from the interpretation of religion so as to satisfy the ambitions or desires of oppressors. Many tyrannical practices resulted from the distortion of religions, introducing into them things that did not belong to them. The history of humanity, irrespective of religion, stands witness. Hence, it is important to underline the truth about Islam's position toward political pluralism. Islam considers “differing” to be a genuine human right and an essential requirement of diversification.

The appropriate approach to Islamic political thought in contemporary times is—now as it has always been—to thoroughly examine Islamic fundamentals. The purpose would be to determine what the fundamentals obligate, and to suggest the means and methods believed to accomplish the fulfilment of such obligations. The means and methods that prove to be sound and reliable are endorsed, and those that prove to the contrary should be replaced. By doing so, we would be pursuing a sound jurisprudential rule, namely: “any course of action which fails to accomplish its targeted goal is invalid.”

The examination of Islamic fundamentals in this manner is termed ijtihad, which is governed in fiqh (jurisprudence) by scholastic aptitude, and in politics by the ability to serve the interests of the people. After all, securing the rights and liberties of the public is the essential foundation of obtaining good and averting evil.

Exercising political ijtihad for the purpose of organising and administering the state has never stopped throughout the history of Islam. However, whenever Islamic shari’ah was excluded from government, creative efforts to develop Islamic jurisprudence were frozen and jurists ceased to practise juristical explanation. Consequently, governors—as Ibn Qayim Al-Jawziyah put it—invented and introduced bad practices, thinking that shari’ah was inadequate or incapable of serving the interests of the people. Hence, Ibn Qayim Al-Jawziyah suggested that “wherever there is justice, that is the law and religion of Allah.”

Others such as Ibn ‘Aqil Al-Hanbali suggested that the Islamic policy is that which does not contradict the verdict of the Revelation. He stressed that those who claim that Islamic policy approves only that which is stated in the Revelation commit two mistakes: the first is that their claim is not supported in any way by evidence from the Qur'an or the Sunnah (tra-ditions of the Prophet), and the second is that by claiming this they put the Prophet's companions and their successors in the wrong. The companions and their successors did exercise whatever they deemed to serve the interests of the people so long as it did not contradict the Revelation. But they did not restrict themselves to the revealed texts alone.

The question which we need to ask ourselves is: what do revealed texts or Islamic fundamentals obligate the people to do in the running of their daily affairs, and what do they forbid them from doing? Has a specific method been outlined in order for the people to fulfil such obligations and avoid such prohibitions? Before answering this question, one must testify that what shari’ah obligates must be observed. All such obligations must strictly be obeyed and failing to do so constitutes a major sin that persists so long as the obligations continue to be neglected or ignored.

To answer the above question, it is necessary to begin with emphasising that Islamic references do not outline a specific path for mankind to pursue in order to attain the political objectives stated in the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

The fundamental principles of the Islamic state can be summarised in the following points:

1. In neither the Qur'an nor the Sunnah does Islam prescribe a specific system of government. Nevertheless, it clearly defines the values and guidelines the ummah (community) should adhere to and rulers should abide by. In addition to other nomenclature, these values may be referred to as “general rules” or “comprehensive issues”. In the political field, this is compatible with the nature of Islamic legislations which are characterised by complete flexibility. This in itself is an important prerequisite of applicability through extrapolation and deduction.

2. Choosing the ruler was the cornerstone in the organisation of the Islamic state when it was first established. Nevertheless, Islam at that time had only prescribed shura (consultation) as a method for making the choice. What matters is that the ummah (community) should be able to exercise its free will in choosing and appointing the ruler. This is exactly how the four guided Caliphs were chosen. The actual procedure is left for the community to determine, and may therefore differ from time to time and from one place to another.

Perhaps the best procedure in our time is the election of the head of state and of the people's representatives through direct free elections. All citizens should have the right to participate, and appointment to the office should be for a limited period. No group or individual should be excluded from the process or deprived of the right to nominate themselves or elect others.

3. Freedom is an indispensable Islamic value, guaranteed and considered to be instinctive. Political freedom, in Islam, is a branch of a general fundamental right: the freedom to choose. The Prophet said: “Let not any of you be a characterless person, saying: I do what the people do—if they do good I do good, and if they do bad I do bad.” Voicing one's opinion is not just permissible but is an Islamic duty. Scholars of usul (fundamentals) define a wajib (duty) as being “the action that is impera-tively demanded” and consider a person who fails to execute such an action to be a sinner.

4. Equality before the law and equity in the treatment of citizens and in the assessment of their rights and liberties are essential Islamic values. Such values should under no circumstances be abandoned.

5. Enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong are Islamic duties applicable to all fields of life. They are obligatory upon individuals and groups. Allah says in the Qur'an: “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.” (3:104) He also says in the same chapter: “You are the best of peoples evolved for mankind. Enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah.” (3:110)

6. Rulers are accountable to the community and are responsible for looking after its affairs. This responsibility was endorsed, in action, by the Prophet himself. No ruler succeeding the Prophet has the right to claim an immunity that the Prophet himself did not enjoy.

In order for these political values to be accomplished in today's society, they require a guarantee of protection, and that is nothing else but political pluralism. This conclusion stems from the fact that Islamic fundamentals (sources) provide universal or general values which leave the ummah (community) unrestricted and capable of creative thinking and unlimited search for the best means of organisation and re-organisation. These include the means necessary for preserving the ummah's right to live under the banner of Islamic values and for preventing rulers from becoming tyrants and oppressors.

It is only common sense that these means should vary from time to time and from one location to the other. For instance, a community that is under colonial control may have to resort to methods inapplicable to other places, or to means that were never employed by previous generations or other communities. Under certain circumstances, it may be feasible to borrow from the experiences and methods of other cultures if these are thought to guarantee and protect rights and freedoms.

In one of the best remarks ever made by a prominent scholar of Islam, Ibn Qayim Al-Jawziyah said: “Some scholars categorise government into shari’ah (law) and siyasah (politics) in the same manner as they categorise deen (religion) into shari’ah and haqiqah (reality), or as some may categorise deen (religion) into ‘aql (reasoning) and naql (tradition); but all these categorisations are wrong. Politics, reality, methodology and reasoning are all categorised into two classes: right and wrong. Shari’ah accepts and supports all that which is right and opposes and rejects that which is bad or corrupt. This is one of the most important and useful fundamentals.”

Islamic political thinkers are confronted with two arguments used by some Islamists when they talk about political pluralism or multi-party politics. Both arguments are easily refutable and do not in any way undermine the credibility of the above discussion.

The first argument is the claim by some researchers that Islam does not know party politics. This, indeed, is a meaningless argument. If Islam does not “mention” something, this indicates one of two things: either that it is not stated anywhere in the traditional sources or that Muslims have never practised it throughout their history.

In the first case, the non-mentioning of something implies that it is permitted. The only exception to this rule is the subject of worship which is not realisable or comprehensible by man, and in whose case non-mentioning implies prohibition. It is self-evident that political pluralism does not fall into the category of subjects that are beyond the comprehensibility of man; it is neither an act of worship nor a ritual of any kind. Actually, it falls into the category of changing circumstances in which interests are determined by logic and reasoning.

In the second case, the fact that earlier Muslims did not practise it is not a valid argument against pluralism. Even the very early generation of Muslims, the Prophet's companions, introduced new measures, means and methods that were not known during the time of the Prophet himself. It is only natural that Muslims should respond to changes and developments at all times and in all circumstances.

Furthermore, the history of Islam witnessed the birth of several political groups such as the Khawarij, the Shi’ah, and the Mu’tazilah, each of which then gave rise to various other sub-divisions. Such partisanship or factionalism became a common political feature of the Muslim society. Scores of different jurisprudential and ideological schools have emerged since the early days of the Islamic civilisation. They tolerated each other and coexisted. Therefore, there is no reason why political diversification or pluralism cannot be recognised and tolerated.

The second argument stems from the claim that the Qur'an has condemned factionalism, division and disagreement. Qur'anic verses are usually quoted to substantiate this claim. They include the following:

They have cut off their affair (of unity) between them into sects: each party rejoices in that which it has. (23:53)

As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, you have no part in them in the least. (6:159)

Actually, this argument is nothing but a manipulation and a distortion of the Qur'anic text. As the Qur'an condemns “parties” in these instances, it commends them in others. One can quote several examples including the following:

As for those who turn to Allah, His Messenger, and the believers, it is the Party of Allah that must certainly triumph. (5:56) [T]hey are the Party of Allah. Truly it is the Party of Allah that will achieve success. (58:22)

Then We roused them, in order to test which of the two parties was best at calculating the term of years they had tarried! (18:12)

It is clearly unacceptable to quote only the verses in which “parties” are condemned, as this is bound to make one arrive at the wrong conclusion.

The other side of this argument is the claim some contemporary Islamists make, quoting Qur'anic verses which describe the ummah as a single community, to show that Islam does not permit the formation of political parties. They quote verses such as “Verily, this ummah of yours is a single ummah.” (21:92)

In fact what this verse, and all other verses that are similar to it, implies is the oneness in religion, which is sincere worship of and submission to the Creator alone without assigning partners with Him or below Him. Hence, applying this concept so as to imply political oneness, as opposed to politi-cal pluralism, clearly involves a distortion of the meaning.

Contemporary ijtihad must inevitably arrive at supporting the concept of political pluralism, even if for the sake of argument, such a concept was not known before. Parties which call for that which is right and good, and which serve the interests of the public are included in the Qur'anic description of the believers. “[T]hey are the Party of Allah. Truly it is the Party of Allah that will achieve success.” (58:22) Parties which oppose the commands of Allah and His Messenger and which harm the interests of the public come under the Qur'anic description. “[T]hey are the party of Satan. Truly, it is the party of Satan that will lose.” (58:19)

An Islamic state incurs no reproach today by licensing political parties and permitting political pluralism. However, it may—and probably it should—stipulate that these parties must abide by the values of Islam and respect its provisions. Apart from that, political parties are free to call for the political, social or economic programmes they deem feasible. Islam does not object to this state of affairs.

Rather, I believe that the existence of political parties in the present circumstances will promote the progress and development of Muslim societies, and will bolster the freedom of expression in them. This will also serve as a safety valve to prevent despotism or check despotic tendencies. After all, most—if not all—of these societies have been suffering from some form of despotic rule.

The jurisprudence of Islamic fundamental principles is based on a grand rule, namely that “what a duty is essentially dependent upon is itself a duty.” Is it possible for any political system to be set up at the present time while denying the people the right to differ or disagree, or denying them the right to the freedom of expression or the right to congregate and organise public meetings?

The only correct answer to this question is “no.” The principles of Islamic jurisprudence, the logic of political interests and history stand witness to the fact that as far as Islam is concerned political pluralism is a necessity.

This conclusion should receive special attention by thinkers within the contemporary Islamic Movement and by those involved in political activities. On the one hand, it is our responsibility to explain the true position of Islam on these matters, but at the same time we should seek to gain the confidence of the public in order to promote the Islamic civilizational political project.

Bibliography references:

From Power Sharing Islam, ed. Azzam Tamimi (London: Liberty for Muslim World Publications, 1993), pp. 67–76. Translated from the Arabic by Azzam Tamimi.

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