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The Caliphate and the Bases of Power

‘Alī ‘Abd Al-Rāziq

Commentary

A disciple of ‘Abduh, he studied at al-Azhar and later at Oxford University. In the debate that followed the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, he offered a contribution entitled Islam and the Bases of Power, which led to his condemnation by a council of ulama of al-Azhar University. He was forbidden from holding any public office, so he devoted his efforts to the Academy of Arabic Language in Cairo.

This selection is taken from ‘Abd al-Raziq’s Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm: Bahth fi al-Khilafah wa al-Hukumah fi al-Islam (Islam and the Foundations of Rule: A Study of the Caliphate and Government in Islam), which first appeared in 1925, only a year after Kemal Atatürk abolished the Caliphate and caused a sensation. It is one of the most famous modernist presentations in Islamic political thought. The argument is that Islam is a faith and, as such, must be separated from politics and the state. The historical caliphate, created upon the departure of the Prophet, was a contingent institution, not a categorical necessity. Muslims in each succeeding generation can thus establish whatever political system they wish, as long as it does not violate the primary principles of the faith, such as fasting during Ramadan, prayer, or pilgrimage, or, in more general terms, as long as it does not permit what God has prohibited or proscribe what God has allowed.

Apostleship and Governance

We hope that the reader will not be alarmed by this study, which aims at discovering whether or not the Prophet was a king. One should not think that research like this is dangerous for religion or harmful to faith for those who undertake it. Reflection reveals that the matter is not so serious as to push a believer beyond the bounds of faith or to upset anyone's piety.

What makes the question seem grave is its connection with the dignity and rank of the Prophet. Nonetheless, it does not in any way touch the essence of religion or the foundations of Islam.

This research is probably new in Islam. Muslims have never faced the question frankly, and their ‘ulamā’ have no clear and well-formed doctrine on the matter. Consequently, if, after study, one concludes either that the Prophet was a king as well as an apostle or that he was an apostle only, it can hardly be branded heresy or heterodoxy with regard to the opinions professed by Muslims. The study falls outside the area of those beliefs which the ‘ulamā’ have treated and on which they profess well-established opinions. It belongs more to the area of scientific research than to that of religion. Let the reader follow us without fear and with a tranquil soul.

It is well known that prophecy is something other than royalty: there is no intrinsic connection between the two notions. Prophecy is one sort of dignity, royalty another. How many kings there are who were neither prophets nor apostles. How many prophets God raised up without making them kings. In fact, the majority of known prophets were prophets only.

Jesus, son of Mary, was the apostle of Christianity and head of the Christians, and yet he preached submission to Caesar and accepted his authority. It was Jesus who addressed those profound words to his fol-lowers: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God those that are God's.” . . .

In the history of the prophets we find only rare examples of persons whom God permitted to accumulate the dignity of prophet along with that of king. Was Muhammad one of these, or was he prophet only and not king?

To our knowledge, not one of the ‘ulamā’ has expressed a clear opinion on this question: in fact, none has spoken about it. But by way of induction we can affirm this: Muslims in general tend to believe that the Prophet was both prophet and king and that he established with Islam a political government of which he was king and head. This is the opinion that best corresponds to the dominant taste of Muslims and the position to which they most easily relate. No doubt this is also the opinion of the majority of the ‘ulamā’ in Islam. When it comes to treating certain points which touch on the question, these people are inclined to consider Islam as a political unity and as a government founded by the Prophet. . . .

Prophetic Primacy

Thus we have seen the almost insurmountable diffisculties facing those who wish to side with the opinion that the Prophet was both apostle of God, political sovereign and founder of a political government. . . .

There remains only one opinion for the reader to adopt. . . . This opinion holds that Muhammad was solely an apostle. He dedicated himself to purely religious propaganda without any tendency whatsoever towards temporal sovereignty, since he made no appeal in favor of a government. This same opinion maintains that the Prophet had neither temporal sovereignty nor government, that he established no kingdom in the political sense of the word nor anything synonomous with it, that he was a prophet only, like his brother prophets who preceded him, and that he was neither a king nor the founder of a state, nor did he make any appeal for a temporal empire.

This is not a very common opinion. In fact, it is so singular that it may clash with Muslim understanding. However, it is perfectly worthy of consideration and rests on solid reasons.

Before setting forth these reasons, we should put the reader on his guard against an error which anyone lacking sufficient wisdom and caution could easily commit. Actually, the prophetic mission itself demands that the Prophet have a sort of primacy in his nation, a form of authority over his people. But this has nothing in common with the primacy of temporal sovereigns, nor with their authority over their subjects. Therefore, we should not confuse prophetic primacy with that of temporal sovereignty. We must remember that major differences set them apart one from the other. . . .

An effective religious appeal implies that the one making it have a certain perfection which is first of all physical—he should not bear any physical defect, and his senses should be perfectly sound. There should be nothing about his physical person which would alienate and since he is chief, he should inspire in all a reverential fear and manifest a sympathy which attracts men and women. For the same reasons and because of his constant relations with the other world, he should also possess spiritual perfection.

The prophetic state demands that the prophet have a clearly privileged social rank in his nation. There is a hadīth which says: God never raises up a prophet who is not honored by his people and who is not powerful in his family.

The prophetic state demands, moreover, that the prophet possess a power which permits him to see that his injunctions are executed and his preaching followed, for God does not consider the prophetic mission a vain thing. He does not raise up a prophet as carrier of the truth without having decided that his preaching will be effective, that its fundamentals will be engraved on the tables of eternity and that it will be incorporated intimately into the truths of this life. “We sent no messenger save that he should be obeyed by God's leave.” (Qur'ān 4:64) . . .

The prophet may have a role similar to that of monarchs in the political direction of the nation. But he has a role which is proper to him and which he shares with no one, namely it is his role to touch the soul which inhabits the body and to pull back the veils covering hearts in order to know them. He has the right or rather the duty to open the hearts of his followers and touch the sources of love and hate, of good and evil, and to know the intimate thoughts, the folds wherein temptation hides, the sources of man's designs and the matrix within which their character is formed. He has an obvious role in governing the masses, but he also accomplishes a hidden work which regulates the relations among associates and allies, masters and slaves, parents and children. . . . He has the right to scrutinize the internal as well as the external aspects of life. It is his business to direct the affairs of the body and of the soul, our temporal and our spiritual re-lations: his is the governance of this world and all that is concerned with the next world. . . .

Muhammad's Authority

We wish also to draw the reader's attention to another point, for we come across words which are sometimes used as synonyms and at other times are given different meanings. Often this is a cause for debate, divergence and incoherent judgements. These words include “king,” “sultan,” “chief,” “prince,” “caliph,” “state,” “kingdom,” “government,” “caliphate,” etc.

By asking ourselves if the Prophet was or was not a king, we are trying to discover if he had a quality other than that of apostle which would lead us to believe that he effectively founded or at least initiated the foundation of a political unit. . . .

We do not doubt that Islam forms a religious unit; that Muslims as such form a unique community; that the Prophet preached unity and that he realized it before his death; that he was at the head of this religious unit as the unique guide, unrivaled director, and master whose orders were never contested and whose instructions were never transgressed. We know that to make Islamic unity triumph, the Prophet fought with word and sword, that he obtained divine aid and victory, that the angels and the power of God aided him so effectively that he brought his apostolate to term, ac-complished the task confided to him and exercised an authority over his nation such as no king before or since has ever wielded. . . .

If we want to call this religious unit a “state,” give that unlimited power which was the Prophet's the name of kingdom or the dignity of caliphate, and give the Prophet himself the title of king, caliph, sultan, etc., we are free to do so. These are only words, and we should not stop at words. The important thing, as we have said, is the meaning, and we have defined that meaning for the reader.

What is important for us to know is whether the preeminence of the Prophet in his nation was that of an apostle or that of a king: if the manifestations of authority which we notice at times in the life of the Prophet were the manifestations of a political government or those of religious primacy, and whether this unit of which the Prophet was head was a unity of government and a state or a purely religious unity which was not political. In sum, we want to know if the Prophet was prophet only, or both king and prophet.

The Qur'ān clearly confirms the opinion that the Prophet had no connection with political royalty. The verses of the Holy Book reinforce one another in affirming that the heavenly work of the Prophet did not surpass the limits of the message which was completely foreign to the notion of temporal power. “He who obeys the Prophet obeys God. As for those who turn away, we have not sent you to be their guardian.” (Qur'ān 4:80) “Your people have denied it, though it is the truth. Say, ‘I am not in charge of you.’ For every announcement there is a term, and you will come to know.” (Qur'ān 6:66–7). . . .

Thus it is seen that it is not the Qur'ān alone that forbids us to believe that the Prophet, besides his religious preaching, engaged in propaganda with a view to constituting a political government. Nor is it the Sunna alone which prohibits a similar belief. It is reason and the true signifance and nature of the prophetic mission which join with the Qur'ān and the Sunna to reject this opinion.

The authority of Muhammad over the believers was the authority of apostleship; it had nothing in common with temporal power.

No, there was neither government, nor state, nor any type of political aspiration, nor any of these ambitions proper to kings and princes.

Perhaps the reader has now succeeded in finnding the answer to the question he posed touching the absence of every manifestation of temporal authority and of established government in the time of the Prophet. No doubt he will have understood why there was no governmental organi-zation, no governors, no judges, no ministers. . . .

A Universal Religious Message, not an Arab State

Islam, as we have seen, is a sublime appeal enunciated by God for the good of the entire world, East and West, Arab and non-Arab, man and woman, rich and poor, learned and ignorant. It is a religious unity by which God wished to unite humanity and which he willed to extend to all the countries of the earth. . . .

Arabia, as is known, contained Arab groupings belonging to different tribes and peoples, speaking different dialects, living in different regions and tied to various political groupings. . . .

These nations, divided though they were, all rallied to the call of Islam in the time of the Prophet and gathered under his standard. These peoples, by God's grace, became brothers, joined together by the sole bond of re-ligious feeling, held in check by one factor only: the primacy of the Prophet and his goodness and mercy. They became one nation with but one chief: the Prophet.

This unity which existed from the time of the Prophet was in no respect a political unity. It had none of the aspects of a state or a government. It was never anything other than a religious unity free from any admixture of politics. It was based on a unity of faith and religious dogma, not on a unity of state or a system of temporal authority.

What proves this is the conduct of the Prophet. We have no knowledge indicating that he sought to interfere in the political direction of the various nations, or that he changed anything in their mode of government or in the administrative or judicial regime of their tribes. Nor did he try to change the social and economic relations existing among the peoples or be-tween them and other nations. We never hear that he deprived a governor of office, named a judge, organized a police force for these peoples, or regulated their commerce, agriculture or industry. On the contrary, the Prophet left to them concern for all these interests, saying: “You know better than anyone.” Thus, all these nations with the civil and political unity which they respectively enjoyed, with the anarchy or the order found among them were joined together only by the tie to which we referred, namely, the unity of Islam, its precepts and its morals.

The following objection, however, could be raised: these fundamental precepts, these moral rules, these laws which the Prophet brought to both Arab and non-Arab nations were very numerous and had considerable effect on most aspects of life in these nations. . . .

However, if we reflect attentively, we note that all the rules prescribed by Islam, all the obligations imposed by the Prophet on Muslims, all these rules, precepts and moral injunctions had nothing in common with the methods of political government or the civil organization of the state. All these taken together do not form even a feeble part of the political prin-ciples and legislation indispensible for a civil government. All that Islam brought in the areas of dogma, juridical relations, customs, and penal law belongs to the religious domain; its intention is God alone and the service of the religious interests of humanity, nothing more. . . .

The Arabs, though reunited by the law of Islam, remained divided both politically and in their civil, social, and economic life. That is to say, the Arabs were formed into many different states, if we may be allowed to call the manner of life of the Arabs at that time by terms such as “state” or “government.”

Such was the situation of the Arabs at the death of the Prophet. They formed a general religious unity embracing, with rare exceptions, completely different states. This is an indisputable truth. . . .

The Prophet went to his celestial repose without having named anyone to succeed him and without having indicated who might take his place in the nation.

There is no doubt about this. During all his life the Prophet made no allusion to anything which could be called an “Islamic State” or an “Arab state.” It would be blasphemy to think otherwise. The Prophet did not leave this earth until he had entirely accomplished the mission given him by God and had explained to his nation the precepts of religion in their entirety without leaving anything vague or equivocal. How, then, if his work comprised the creation of a state, could he have left the Muslims without any precise directions concerning that state, especially since it was fated that after his death they would slip back into their old contentions and start killing one another? How could he have failed to concern himself with the question of succession to power when this has always been the primary concern of those who have founded governments? How could he have left the Muslims with nothing to guide them in this domain, abandoning them to incertitude? How could he leave them to grope in the darkness and to massacre one another while the body of the Prophet was still in their midst and his funeral had scarcely been held? . . .

The Prophet went to his celestial repose only after the religion had been completed, when grace had reached its fullness and the preaching of Islam had become a solid reality. On that day only did he die. His mission was accomplished, and that sublime union which in his august person joined heaven and earth came to an end.

The Confusion between Prophetic Primacy and Caliphal rule

The primacy of the Prophet was, as we have said, a religious primacy attributable solely to his prophetic mission. The prophetic mission finished with the death of the Prophet and, at the same time, the primacy ceased. It was not given to any person to succeed him in that primacy nor in his prophetic mission.

If it was absolutely necessary that one of the followers of the Prophet take a position of preeminence after his death, then that preeminence would have to be entirely new and different from that which we recognized in the Prophet. . . .

The Muslims knew then that they were instituting a civil or temporal government and nothing more. This is why they allowed themselves the liberty to revolt against this government and oppose it. They knew full well that their lack of accord centered on a question of the temporal order only and that their disagreement touched a question of political interest which did not affect their religion nor upset their faith. . . .

We do not hesitate for an instant to affirm categorically that the major part of what is called the “war of apostasy” in the first days of the caliphate of Abū-Bakr was not a war of religion but a purely political war. The masses believed it was a religious struggle, but, in fact, its goals were not entirely religious. . . .

There were circumstances particular to Abū-Bakr which aided the masses to fall into the error of attributing a religious character to the leadership of Abū-Bakr. For instance, there was the fact that Abū-Bakr enjoyed an elevated and privileged rank alongside the Prophet. He had a reputation for religious proselytism and was highly esteemed by the Muslims. . . .

Thanks to these explanations, the reader can understand that this title of “Caliph of the Prophet of God” given to Abū-Bakr was one of the sources of the error which spread among the mass of Muslims, leading them to believe that the institution of the caliphate was a religious dignity and that he who was charged with the direction of Muslims’ affairs held the place occupied by the Prophet.

Thus it is that since the first days of Islam the opinion has been propa-gated that the institution of the caliphate is a religious office occupied by a successor to the Prophet, author of the law.

It was in the interest of monarchs to give credence to this error in public so that they could use religion as a shield protecting their thrones against the attacks of rebels. They maintained this policy in diverse ways, and anyone who looks into the matter will find how numerous were the means they employed. They let it be understood publicly that obedience to the imāms was part of obedience to God and a revolt against them was rebellion against God. That was not all. The caliphs were not the sort of men who would rest content with that nor would they be satisfied with what satisfied Abū-Bakr. That appellation which provoked his anger would not upset them; they went further and made the sovereign “the successor of God on earth and his shadow over his servants.” But the “glory of God is too high to be affected by that which they wanted to associate with Him.” (Qur'ān 9:31). . . .

And so the question of the office of caliph was added to religious studies and came to be integrated into the dogmas of theology. Muslims studied it along with the attributes of God and the prophets; the theory of the caliphate became as much a part of dogma as the profession of Muslim faith: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.”

Such was the crime that kings in their tyranny committed against Muslims. They concealed aspects of the truth from them and made them swerve from the right path. In the name of religion they barred their way from the paths of light, treated them arbitrarily, humiliated them and prohibited them from studying political science. Also, in the name of religion they betrayed them and snuffed out their intelligence in such a way that they could find no recourse other than religion even in questions of simple administration and pure politics. . . .

The final result of all this was the death of the spirit of scientific research and intellectual activity among Muslims. They were stricken with paralysis in the area of political thought, incapable of examining anything connected with the institution of the caliphate or the caliphs.

The truth is that the Muslim religion is innocent of this institution of the caliphate such as it is commonly understood by Muslims. It is innocent of all the apparel of seduction and intimidation, and the pomp of force and power with which they surrounded the institution of the caliphate. This institution has nothing in common with religious functions, no more than the judiciary and the other essential functions and machinery of power and state. All these functions are purely political; they have nothing to do with religion. Religion neither admits nor denies them. It neither orders nor forbids them. It simply leaves them to our free choice so that we will have recourse to rational judgement in their regard and base our judgement on the experience of the nations and the rules of politics. . . .

There is nothing in religion which prohibits Muslims from rivaling other nations in all the political and social sciences. Muslims are free to demolish this worn-out system (of the caliphate) before which they have debased and humiliated themselves. They are free to establish the bases of their kingdom and the organization of their state according to more recent conceptions of the human spirit and according to the principles of government whose excellence and firmness have been consecrated by the experience of the nations. . . .

Bibliography references:

From “L’Islam et Les Bases Du Pouvoir” [Islam and the bases of power], trans. from Arabic by L. Bercher in Revue Des Etudes Islamiques, VIII (1934), pp. 171–73, 185–87, 190–91, 200–208, 211–13, 218–22.

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