Question: Assalamu alaykum Dr. Blankinship. I was watching a lecture by you titled “The Life of the Prophet Muhammad,” and towards the end of it there was a discussion on the concept of a Muslim state. Just as a clarification on your stance on the topic, do you negate the idea of a state that governs according to the dictates of sharia’ or a state that becomes affiliated with the religion (as per Iran, for example)? You have stated that historically Muslims opposed the concept, viewing the institution of a state as “profane” and that you think that what is happening today is a form of Muslim Zionism. I feel like I may have misunderstood your statements, and a clarification would be much appreciated. Thank you.
Al-salamu `alaykum. This is a historical question that can only be addressed with reference to actual history. The answer does not preclude the possibility of an acceptable or even an ideal state, but one does need to attend to the details.
The state established by the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) in al-Madinah was extremely rudimentary and lacked any of the institutionalization connected with the modern state. That is, while the Prophet (SAAS) was clearly and absolutely in charge, because of his direct connection with Allah through revelation and because of his good example, as amply proven in the Qur’an through frequent direct commands to obey him, no other offices seem to have existed until quite late in the Prophet’s career, and these were few.
Thus, there is no evidence of any subordinate officials at al-Madinah. The first real office created seems to have been with the appointment of `Attab ibn Asid as governor of Makkah at the surrender of Makkah in 8/630. Before that, a temporary official called the kharras was sent out to Khaybar, which had surrendered in 7/629, to collect the tax, but he did not even reside there. That is, the Prophet’s polity was hardly an institutional, territorial state in the sense that we think of states today. The Qur’an, interestingly, never refers to the Muslim polity as a state, and the only complimentary reference to khalifah, the later title of caliph, is in one verse referring to the Prophet Dawud (AS). While the believers are urged to obey ulu al-amr minkum=those of authority among you (Q 4:59), this text is not further explained. In the tafsir, the most plausible explanation is that it refers to those in command of expeditions sent out by the Prophet (SAAS), as is attested by a sahih hadith. The other explanation offered by the scholars was that it meant to obey the scholars. No word is ever said linking this verse’s possessors of authority to the later rulers, because, apart from the four Rashidun khalifahs and, for some, the Umayyad khalifah `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Aziz, all later rulers were regarded as having only a very limited legitimacy that required only acquiescence, not active support.
The institutionalization of the state did not go far under the early khalifahs, either, although of course there had to be some arrangements for administering what had become a kind of empire. Most of these arrangements remained informal for a long time. Thus, the governors of al-amsar, the military cities in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere, were in charge of worship, warfare, and judicial decisions at the same time, while they always appointed literate local non-Muslims to be in charge of finance. While `Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (ruled 66-86/685-705) adopted a more ideological program, the elaboration of institutions was still not very developed at the time of Hisham ibn `Abd al-Malik (ruled 105-125/724-743), who was the subject of my book that you can read, The End of the Jihad State: The Reign of Hisham ibn `Abd al-Malik and the Collapse of the Umayyads, at nearly the end of the Umayyad caliphate. Thus, the treasury, despite an earlier effort by `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Aziz, was still not separated from the khalifah’s private purse, the khalifah had only a very few personal secretaries instead of a cabinet (although he had one friend, al-Abrash, who advised him), the khalifah even occasionally resorted to writing his own correspondence, and he lived in one of several very small and isolated desert castles whose extensive ruins may still be seen.
When, after the Umayyad collapse, the `Abbasids tried to establish a more articulated and bureaucratic regime, it was a failure, and the Abbasids spent their time, while they still had any power, trying to suppress rebellions and drum up support, but they were deserted by all, and had to rely on the Khurasani army which had put them in power in the first place. Even so, their real state lasted only briefly, being practically ended by the upheaval in the 860s. There is much more to this history, which you can pick up in my article
on the caliphate.
Even the Ottoman sultanate, although the most highly-articulated, developed, stable, and long-lived of all the premodern Muslim polities, did not until its modernization very late in its life have anything approaching the degree of institutionalization of a modern state. So, confronted with and being overrun by modern institutional states from Europe, the Muslims naturally accepted this type of state as normative, and then began looking for classical authorizing precedents for such a state, and what was found was certainly often developed out of context, sometimes in misleading ways. In particular, the Muslims could argue, the situation is so desperate that we need to fight fire with fire, to adopt all of the colonizers’ ways, in order to preserve independence.
Now, opposing colonial impositions certainly appears to be a noble purpose, but one does not want on the other hand to be deceived into giving up one’s own principles as the price of such resistance. And most religious Muslims would agree, surely, that for example the extreme rejection of the Muslim past by Mustafa Kemal in Turkey was going too far. So that establishes that there have to be some kind of limits.
But is it sufficient merely to declare that we will have a state based on the Shari`ah and everything will be perfect? Remember, the Shari`ah of classical times was almost entirely something sought out and voluntarily conformed to, not something imposed and enforced, because, although there was some enforcement through the muhtasib, eventually, the resources and means for the kind of intrusive enforcement used by modern states did not exist. Indeed, the Shari`ah-based state as usually envisioned by its modern supporters never really existed before, and especially not as an institutional state. The problem lies in the exercise of power: Who is qualified to do it, and what means of enforcing limitation and accountability on absolute power are there? The Umayyad reform program of 126/744 announced by the short-lived Yazid ibn al-Walid might suggest an answer, but it is not at all the answer that modern statists want to hear, usually.
See, modern statism is always connected with nationalism, in the sense that the nation becomes identical with the state. This is the case here in the US where the right-wing bleating sheep express outrage if the presidency or the American state is criticized, even sometimes explicitly identifying “patriotism” as support of the state. Ditto for Israel, which has become a litmus test for Jews. The apparently material success of Israel, belied by a total moral failure, indeed, a destruction of Judaism as a religion, has dazzled a lot of the Muslims, so it would not be surprising if some of them adopted these ideas too, and they have. Thus, some want an authoritative, authoritarian, institutional state. Being out of power, they are innocent and do not yet perceive the moral consequences, the worst of which is that the state itself becomes an idol which sits on Allah’s throne, a`udhu billah, and expects to be, or rather demands to be, worshiped, as we see with nationalist regimes around the world, and especially the American and Israeli ones. Such a project is not improved by being dressed up in “Islamic” window dressing. So may Allah make us all far from that outcome.
However, the problem of rule remains, and it cannot be all or nothing. While the Prophet (SAAS) urged us to stay away from those in power in the sahih hadith “man ya’ti abwab al-sultan yuftatan”=”whoever frequents the gates of the ruler suffers fitnah,” Muslims still must remain engaged with the world. Therefore, I wish the Turkish AKP, the Tunisian al-Nahdah Party, and the youth wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood well in their stated attempt to re-inject ethics into political systems that had been lacking them, even though I fear that the world of politics, being the ground of compromise rather than sincerity, tends always to corrupt. But I am willing to entertain and will support any good example that might arise.
Khalid Yahya Blankinship