The State According to Muhammad Islamic Scholars Agree the Prophet Is the Guide, but Not on How to Enact His Political Principles

By Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1993 | Go to article overview
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The State According to Muhammad Islamic Scholars Agree the Prophet Is the Guide, but Not on How to Enact His Political Principles


Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


MORE than one Arab ruler besieged by Islamist opposition might be tempted to sympathize with the pagan rulers of Mecca in 622, who persecuted the Prophet Muhammad for subversion and forced him to flee with his followers to Medina.

But that flight, which begins the Muslim calendar, is at the root of many of the problems Arab leaders face today. For in Medina, Muhammad became the temporal, political ruler of the Muslim community. From the dawn of Islamic civilization, religion and politics have been inextricably linked. "Political Islam," the bane of governments from Algeria to Saudi Arabia, is as old as Islam itself.

Nearly 14 centuries later, Islamists of all stripes, when asked how they would replace the political systems they so disparage, still look back to the life of the Prophet, and to the word of God as revealed to him in the Koran, for answers.

"The acid test," says Ghazi Salah al-Din, a key adviser to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in his drive to model the country on Islamic principles, "is how the Prophet organized society."

How exactly did the Prophet organize society? And how can the wisdom enshrined in 6,000 often elliptical, and sometimes contradictory, verses of the Koran be distilled for application in societies far removed from the nomadic tribes of 7th century Arabia? These questions, clouded as much as clarified by centuries of Koranic exegesis and apocryphal embroidery of Muhammad's life, have thrown up almost as many visions of an Islamic political system as there are Islamic thinkers.

Hassan al-Turabi, for example, whose writings and influence over the Sudanese government have made him one of the leading theorists of the Islamic revival, looks to the time of the Prophet "not for a formal model, but for a model of substance. Muhammad said that you have to renew Islam constantly," he argues. "You keep the same values, the same principles, but you choose the form that expresses them most substantively."

The principles of Islam, sharing much in common with the two other great monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Judaism, on which Muhammad drew, "are not controversial," says Ismael al-Shatti, leader of Kuwait's Islamic Constitutional Movement. "But how to understand them is."

Islamic scholars readily agree that shura, or consultation, and baya, or loosely translated as allegiance, constitute fundamental Islamic principles that should govern relations between leaders and their communities. The Koranic message also prescribes struggle against oppression, advocates charity and brotherly love, and condemns dishonesty and exploitation of the weak. That message is enshrined in the sharia, or Islamic law.

In the political arena, the central and most disputed principle is shura, which the Koran recommends as the best way of arranging both personal affairs and matters of state.

Many Islamists, citing the way Muhammad consulted his companions as he built his community, say shura is what the West calls democracy. But in practice it has rarely looked that way.

The rulers of the historic Muslim empires - the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Ottomans - consulted only their court advisers. Today debate is fierce among Islamic scholars as to what should be the modern expression of shura.

In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, state-supported scholars can be relied upon to rule that Islamic consultative councils, whether nominated or elected, have no more than advisory status and can offer only opinions to the Caliph.

To Dr. Salah al-Din, minister of the presidency in Sudan, such an approach to shura "is inconceivable, against the Islamic way of thinking." Defending Sudan as an authentic Islamic experiment, and scorning Saudi Arabia as "the worst model you can take for Islam because they are just using the Koran as a facade," he can match Gulf scholars text for text to support his argument in favor of shura's binding nature.

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