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Ulū al-Amr

Abdessamad Belhaj
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

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Ulū al-Amr

Originating as a phrase in the Qurʾān (4:59), ulū al-amr (lit. those vested with authority) was understood differently throughout Muslim political history. In the Sunnī world today the standard view posits ulū al-amr as the executive leadership of a state, viz., the heads of state, the monarchy, etc. Contemporary Sunnī thinkers and jurists often discuss the limits of obedience to the leadership (ṭāʿat ulī al-amr). However ulū al-amr was earlier accepted as both the executive and the religious leadership, al-umarāʾ wa-al-ʿulamāʾ. Muḥammad al-Ṭāhir ibn ʿĀshūr (d. 1973), a modern exegete, summarizes the inherited view of ulū al-amr as that, after the Prophet, all were leaders, from the caliph to the inspector of morals to the commanders of the army, the jurists, the Prophet's Companions, and the people of religious knowledge. In other words the term covered all legislative, executive, and judiciary authorities. For Ibn ʿĀshūr it was synonymous with the representative leaders of the community (ahl al-ḥall wa-al-ʿaqd). This conciliatory interpretation embodies the compromise between the later sultans, especially Mamlūk and Ottoman ones, and the religious scholars to share at least formally authority over the community.

The earliest Muslim accounts of ulū al-amr present a different picture from later Islam. Two contrasting views were held, pointing to opposing visions of the people of the pen and the people of the sword. The first view was represented by Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 687), al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728), and Mālik ibn Anas (d. 795), along with a large group of Companions and traditionists. For them, ulū al-amr were the jurists and the religious scholars (fuqahāʾ wa-ʿulamāʾ). Because the scholars were pious and virtuous teachers of the essence of religion—commanding good and forbidding wrong—they should lead the community, they argued. Mālik ibn Anas narrowed this group even further, to the Qurʾānic scholars as the leaders meant by the term in the Qurʾān. Others interpreted the term to mean only the Companions.

The opposing view claimed that ulū al-amr pointed exclusively to the executive leadership, particularly the military commanders. This interpretation was supported by a group of renowned exegetes in the seventh to eighth centuries, led by the Companion Abū Hurayrah (d. 681), a pro-Umayyad religious scholar. It was propounded by early and later exegetes such as Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 767), al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210). The Sunnī exegete al-Ṭabarī supports the view that the leaders were, above all, the sultans. Appointed officials (wulāt) could be considered ulū al-amr inasmuch as they held an office under the authority of the sultan in a matter of either religion or state. This included the judiciary, because it had also an official responsibility to assure peoples’ rights. Al-Ṭabarī's understanding presents a more complex state where the various levels of administration report to the sultan, its chief leader. Al-Rāzī included in his interpretation of ulū al-amr both military commanders (umarāʾ) and sultans (salāṭīn). This extension of the concept can be explained by the context of the period in which he lived, when the sultans had limited authority compared to military chiefs. Al-Rāzī argued against the interpretation of the phrase as denoting religious scholars, maintaining that leadership entails ruling people. Since the jurists have no authority over the people, leadership can be only executive. Al-Māwardī (d. 1058) allowed for both interpretations but seems to use ulū al-amr for the executive leaders, the princes. He avers twice in his treatise al-Aḥkām al-sulṭānīyah that leaders are those who rule the community. The Ḥanbalī jurist Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) also supports this interpretation. His comparison of executive leadership with the market is revealing: leaders are like the market, in that the quality of goods determines the quality of the generated profit. If one invests sincerity, goodness, justice, and honesty, one can expect a similar benefit.

Increasingly, a synthetic view emerged in the juristic and Ṣūfī circles from the tenth century onward. For example, al-Jaṣṣāṣ (d. 980), a Ḥanafī jurist, interpreted ulū al-amr to mean both the jurists and the executive leaders (umarāʾ). Anticipating objection, he justified the inclusion of the jurists because they were knowledgeable in the commands of God and His prohibitions. Thus, he understood “command” (amr) to be a divine command. Although the Ṣūfīs believed that the masters of Ṣūfī education were the true leaders, they contributed to this binary understanding of ulū al-amr. In this regard al-Qushayrī (d. 1074) states that, in the terminology of the jurists, the leader is the sultan, but, in the Ṣūfī way, he is the one who knows God (ʿārif), who has authority over the beginner. Furthermore he affirms that the Ṣūfī master or shaykh is the chief of the disciples and the head of any Ṣūfī community. Thus a de facto secularism dominated the later interpretations of ulū al-amr.

For the Shīʿī it is obvious that ulū al-amr are the imams, who are both religious leaders and rulers. For instance, an account attributed to Muḥammad al-Bāqir (d. 733) and Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765) clearly lays out this understanding. Their argument is that the Qurʾān requires absolute obedience to the leaders; nobody should be followed unless he is infallible. Neither military commanders nor scholars can be leaders, as they could be neglectful and erring, and the scholars have no real authority. Some accounts, such as al-Anwār al-bahiyya of ʿAbbās al-Qummī (d. 1941), even mention the names of the twelve imams as the ulū al-amr. Ismāʿīlī (Sevener Shīʿī) authors also rebut the notion that scholars or commanders could be the ulū al-amr. As al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān (d. 974) argues, scholars and commanders cannot be better than the imams who appointed them. And the scholars disagree among themselves; obeying some would imply disobedience to others. The ulū al-amr are, he concluded, the imams who have all the authority for they are the only infallible leaders—the belief in the infallibility of the leaders being the cornerstone of Shīʿī thought.

[See also AHL AL-ḤALL WA-AL-ʿAQD.]


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