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
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
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. …