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The ‘Ulamā’ and Political Rulers

Inside the field of Islamic law (fiqh) there is a sub-field that deals with Islamic governance (al-siyāsa al-shar’iyya). Sunni Islam is known for a type of quietism in the face of partisan politics, largely structured to ensure the ‘ulamā’s role in high politics and to warn them from becoming entangled in low politics. This is a subfield that rarely gets attention, but whose issues have come more and more to the forefront in recent years. While not the most comprehensive treatment, I find the excerpt below to very interesting and infused with great wisdom if understood properly.

The selection below is taken from the book, al-Manār al-Hādī fī Khaṣā’is Shaykhuna al-Qāḍī, a hagiography of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ al-Qāḍī (d. 1964) written by his khalifa Shaykh ‘Abd al-Jalīl Qāsīm (d.1998).

‘Abd al-Fattāḥ al-Qāḍī

‘Abd al-Jalīl Qāsim


Our Shaykh and Political Rulers

Our shaykh (God be pleased with him) saw that political rulers are the shade of God on earth. They are His vicegerents and it is therefore obligatory for people to obey their instructions, “listen and obey….even if a slave from Ethiopia becomes the ruler (Bukhārī).” Our shaykh saw that it is God who fundamentally places the ruler and that his affairs are in the hands of God, “God creates you and what you do (Quran 37:96).”

Our shaykh was of the opinion that respecting the ruler and following his directives is part of our religion and our legal code, “Obey God, the Prophet, and those in authority over you (Quran 4:59).” This is the greatest protection from division and a loss of respect for the ruler. Through this, security is established. Were we to open the path to criticize the ruler and to investigate his deficiencies and negative traits, there would be no unity or social cohesion. There would only be treachery, loss, corruption, and chaos.

Our shaykh was of the opinion that the ruler, like all other Muslims, deserves to be counseled by enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong (al-amr bi’l m‘arūf wa’l nahy ‘an al-munkar) in those matters that openly violate the Sharī‘a in his personal practice of Islam. As for those matters that relate to the general population and are an extension of his governing, our shaykh held that these rulings are compliant with what is in the knowledge of God and that all that appears in the universe are but the manifestations of the traits (ṣifāt) of God. Therefore, one should not violate these rulings and rather comply and accept them. Those matters that have come from the ruler that are harsh towards the general population are a reflection of the condition of the people themselves. What they receive from the ruler is a reflection of their own actions, good and bad, and the conditions of their souls and the states of their hearts vis-à-vis their compliance or lack of compliance towards the Sharī‘a. This is a manifestation of the statement, “as you are, so you will be governed (al-Daylami in Musnad al-Firdaws)” and “God does not change the condition of a people before they change their condition first (Quran13:11).” People should therefore not blame the ruler or his actions; rather they should turn towards themselves first and improve their own conditions and their relationship with God by observing His Sharī‘a and improving their relationships with people by increasing their love and respect for one another. People need to leave jealousy, rancor, and selfishness. For if people actually do this, they will see a change in the actions and rulings of the ruler, and that God will guide him to righteousness, and that he will be more compassionate towards the people he governs. This is a testament to the hadith, “do not curse the kings as their fate is in My hands. If you improve, I will make their hearts lean towards you, but if you err, I will make their heart against you (Malik bin Dinār in Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’).”

Let the rational person work on themselves first and fix their soul by adhering to the Sharī‘a of God, and by following the etiquette of the religion so that God will guide the hearts towards Him with mercy, tranquility, and love. Likewise the entire nation, if it wants to improve the ruler, let it first rectify its own condition by correct actions towards its Lord as has been outlined by the bringer of the message (God bless him and give him peace). Let the nation cast away its bad traits and purify itself with good traits so that God will be pleased with it and that God will rain upon it from His infinite blessings and goodness. God will cast His security on it, tranquil the hearts, reassure the souls, and prosper livelihoods. He will strengthen the nation against enemies and raise its overall state, and give it continual victory and eternal protection, “If you give victory to Allah, He will give you victory (Quran 47:7).”