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Islamic Political Thought

  Like all the major world religions Islam has inspired reflections on politics. The Qur\'an, as ‘revealed’ to the prophet Muhammad, is not, however, a treatise on political philosophy, so Islamic political thought derives from creative interpretations of the Qur\'an, sometimes synthesized with other traditions such as Greek philosophy in medieval times, and Western philosophy in modern times.

With some exceptions most modes of Islamic political thought have embraced authoritarianism, and are inconsistent with democratic philosophy. The earliest Muslim jurists had to grapple with two immediate legacies of their charismatically founded religion: the belief that all law is present in the Qur\'an as the sacred and revealed word of God; and the existence of the office of the imam-caliph; that is, the divinely sanctioned ruler who was or who claimed to be the successor of the prophet Muhammad. The Sunnis maintain that the political and religious authority of the imam-caliph is held by a person belonging to the Quaraish (Muhammad\'s tribe), while the Shi\'ites assert it belongs to descendants of Ali (Muhammad\'s cousin).

The Sunnis have been dominant in most parts of the Islamic world, and not surprisingly Sunnism is associated with conservative doctrines of government. The Sunnis accepted early in the history of Islam that the caliphate could be held by somebody who was not religiously virtuous. In most of the Islamic world the imam-caliph was soon stripped of military and political authority, although the separation of religion and politics, the spiritual and the temporal, was never clarified in the manner of Christian political thought. Most Sunni jurists\' answer to the problem of political obligation was simple, authoritarian and absolutist: absolute obedience to the existing ruler was imperative if anarchy was to be avoided even if the ruler was impious or tyrannical. However, this thesis sat uneasily with another theme, the competing authority of Islamic law, the shari\'a: that is, the divine legislation explicit or implicit in the Qur\'an, capable of clarification and codification only by the ulama (the religious scholars and legal jurists). In the hands of a minority of Islamic writers the insistence that the ruler be religiously virtuous became the basis for a right of rebellion. Multiple medieval Muslim scholars produced books advising princes, sultans and sovereigns on the art of statecraft—sometimes known as the ‘mirrors-for-princes’ literature. The ruler\'s obligations were both religious and practical—to respect and enforce the Holy Law, defend or expand the frontiers, wage war against unbelievers, dispense justice, and provide order. In return the ruler was entitled to expect the obedience of the subject in all things except sinful conduct.

The Shi\'ites, by contrast with the Sunnis, never accepted that a true Imam could be impious. The world, in their view, can only be maintained in order if there is a true Imam present in the world, to whom all obedience is owed. This belief is one of the origins of Mahdism, the belief that the twelfth Imam who disappeared in a cave in the 9th century will return one day to create a virtuous order before the end of the world.

The classic text of Islamic political thought was produced by the 14th-century scholar, judge, warrior and diplomat, Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqadimma still provides the best means of understanding the cyclical pattern in the rise and fall of régimes in the classical Arab world.

In more recent times efforts have been made to modernize Islamic political thought—including attempts to legitimize a conception of popular sovereignty through extending the traditional requirement that rulers engage in consultation with the community of believers; and to elaborate the idea that every individual shaped by a just Islamic state can behave as if they are a pious jurist. Such democratizing trends in Islamic political thought are made somewhat plausible by the fact that Islam is formally a religion which embraces the equality of the community of believers and formally is hostile to caste hierarchies and to racism (all can be converted to Islam). However, on the other hand, Islam historically accepted and codified three stark inequalities: between masters and slaves, between men and women, and between Muslims and non-Muslims—although the extent to which slaves, women and unbelievers were excluded from political influence has varied dramatically across Islamic régimes. Democratizing trends in Islamic political thought compete directly with those contained in certain versions of Shi\'ite doctrines such as that articulated by Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers in contemporary Iran who declare that sovereignty is possessed by God alone, although, for the time being Earthly authority is possessed by his vice-regents, the Shi\'ite religious officialdom. BO\'L

See also democracy; Catholic political thought.Further reading E. Gellner, Muslim Society; , B. Lewis, The Political Language of Islam.



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