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Political Thought of Islam

By: Professor Maqsood Jafri


The political system advocated by Islam needs to be clarified.  The modern Muslim scholars say that Islam is a democratic religion, yet many Muslim clerics today do not believe in democracy.  I would like to discuss briefly what I feel is meant by Islamic democracy. 

A few verses of the Holy Quran are presented here which give us the basics for Islamic political thought.  In Sura Baqara (The Heifer) the Quran says: “And remember when your Lord said to the angels, I am going to place a successor (Khalifa) on Earth” (2:30).  This verse is about the vice-regency of Adam.  Then again in the chapter The Heifer about Abraham the Quran says: “And remember when the Lord of Abraham tried him with certain commands which he fulfilled.  Allah said to him, verily, I am going to make you a leader (Imam) of mankind.  Abraham said, ‘And my offspring? Allah said, ‘my providence includes not the wrong-doers (oppressors)’”(2:124).  This verse shows that divine leadership is not for transgressors and tyrants.  It is for righteous and just people.

In Sura Saad the Quran says: “O, David! Verily we have placed you as a successor (Khalifa) on the earth, so judge between men with truth and justice.” (38:26). David was not only a leader or caliph or prophet but he was ruler as well.  Hence according to the Quran a ruler must be truthful and just.  It is the religious obligation of a ruler to provide justice to everyone irrespective of color, cult, class, country and creed.  In Sura The Adoration while talking about the children of Israel the Quran says: “And we appointed from among them, leaders (Imams), giving guidance under our command, so long as they preserved with patience and continue to have faith in our signs” (32:24).  Hence we see that patience and faith are the basic requirements for divine leadership. 

In Sura Al-Qasas the Quran says: “And we wished to be gracious to those who were being depressed in the land, to make them (Imams) leaders and make them heirs. (28:5).  This verse shows that Allah condemns transgressors and oppressors and divinely helps the oppressed ones making them leaders and heirs on the basis of justice and piety.  Then at another place the Quran alludes about divine rulers as a man of physical fitness and of knowledge.  According to Sura The Heifer in verse 247 the Quran tells us about Jalut appointed as king because of his knowledge and physical prowess.  The Shias consider Imam Ali fit for these merits. 

In Sura Al-Nisa (The Women) The Quran says: “O you who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you” (4:59).  The above cited verses give us the basics of Islamic political morality.  These verses tell us that a leader or a ruler in Islamic state must be a man of certain qualities.  Muslim political thinkers like Al-Mawardi and Ibu Katiba also write that a Muslim ruler must be a pious, knowledgeable and just man with administrative qualities.  There are numerous sayings of the Holy Prophet that instruct us to obey the men of piety and virtuosity.  The tyrants and evil-doers must not be accepted as leaders or rulers. 

These passages leave unanswered the question of how a ruler is to be chosen. Is it through nomination or through elections?  On this point we find Muslims divided.  The Sunni sect believes that the Holy Prophet did not appoint his successor.  He totally left it up to the Ummah (community).  The Sunnis believe in “Ijmah”(consensus), which, of course bears some similarity to democracy.  They say that when the Holy Prophet was on deathbed, he asked Hazrat Abu Bakr to lead the prayers.  To their way of thinking this request indicates the superiority of Hazrat Abu Bakr. 

After the Holy Prophet of Islam died, the Helpers of Medina and the Immigrants of Mecca had a heated discussion on the right of caliphate.  Both the groups exchanged hot words.  According to Tabari ultimately Hazrat Omar presented the name of Hazrat Abu Bakr and he was elected in Saqifa Bani Saada.  Then Hazrat Abu Bakr, on his deathbed, nominated Hazrat Omar as his heir, who in turn nominated six people and asked for elections amongst them. They were Abdur Rehman, Uthman, Ali, Talah, Zubair and Saad bin Waqas.  Hazrat Uthman was elected.  Ali did not participate in the competition.  When Hazrat Uthman was assassinated the majority of people openly elected Hazrat Ali as their Caliph.  The Sunnis maintain that, after these four guided caliphs, the Mawiyya turned the caliphate into a monarchy.

The book of Abu Aula Mududi, entitled “Caliphate And Monarchy” sheds ample light on this issue.  Now, the Sunni clerics say that Mushawart (consensus and counseling) must be adopted for Islamic concept of Caliphate.  By Islamic democracy they mean the election of pious, honest and just people. 

By contrast, Western democracy can change the basic moral and divine laws and regulations. The Western parliaments have passed rules favoring and allowing homosexuality, which is not permitted in divine scriptures.  In an Islamic democratic state, the basic rules are the divine rules and cannot be changed by the decision of majority.  Sovereignty lies with God.  We can make laws and rules that deal with day-to- day matters of life, but these laws should not be contrary to the basics of Islam.  Hence we see that the Sunni modern thinkers support parliaments and democratic system. 

On the other hand, the Shias say that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) had nominated Hazrat Ali as his successor.  They believe in the concept of Immah, which means that the door of Prophethood was closed after the Holy Prophet Muhammad, and divine leadership (Immah) was prescribed by the Quran and the Prophet.  They mostly quote from the Sura The Israelites the following verse: “On the Day when we will summon every people with their Imam (leader).” (17:71) By this verse the Shias mean that Hazrat Ali is their Imam and under his banner they will resurrect on the Day of Judgment.  They say that when the Holy Prophet invited his near relatives to dinner and asked them to support Islam, none declared support except Hazrat Ali.  On that occasion, the Prophet said; “O, Ali you are my brother, my minister and my successor.”  The famous Western historian, Gibbon, in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” also mentions this event.  They also say that in Hadith-e-Thaqalan, quoted by Muslims, Tirmidli, Ahmed ibn Hanbal, Tibrani and Mustadrak Al-Hakim, the vicegerency of Hazrat Ali is proved.  The Prophet’s pronouncement at Ghadeer-e-Khum, “whoever’s Master I am, then this Ali is his master” shows that Hazrat Ali was nominated as the heir by the Prophet of Islam. 

The Shias also cite from the Sura the Consultation:” “No reward do I ask of you for this except the love of those near to (my) kin.” (42:23) By this verse they infer that the Household of the Holy Prophet on divine merits had the right of Caliphate (Khalafah) and leadership (Imamah).  According to the Shia sect, it was Hazrat Ali who was the legal and divine heir of the Prophet. 

But let us draw a conclusion out of this controversy.  In my opinion, both the sects, the Sunnis and the Shias, believe in the divine merits of the status of caliphate and leadership.  The Sunnis also believe in the Immah and Velayah of Hazrat Ali.  Practically speaking, we have no other way but to go for elections and select pious and just people as our caliphs and leaders.  Iran is a Shia state.  They have a parliament, and they have a system of checks on the programs and policies created by the parliament. They have a council of guides.  In Pakistan they have Islamic ideological council which deals with the laws.  If there is any doubt about a law, it is referred to Islamic council for approval.  This means that we have to adopt democracy to run the state.  The Shia concept of Imamah also implies that the character of the leadership must be noble, just and righteous. If we regard these practices neutrally and impartially, we see that there is little basic difference in political thought between the Sunnis and the Shias.  Both believe in the vicegerency of righteous individuals. The only way to see to it that such righteous people do indeed become leaders is Islamic democracy based in justice, peace and piety.

Finally, it is essential to mention that the Shias are known as “The Twelvers” because they believe in the spiritual and worldly leadership of the twelve Imamss from Imam Ali to Imam Mehdi.  Some Shia clerics believe that as they were the pious and just personalities and also belonged to the Household of the Prophet.  Hence, on merits, they had the right to be our caliphs (Khalifa) as well.  However, after the disappearance from view of Imam Mehdi, we find some jurists (Faqaha) claiming to be his heirs, assistants, or the lieutenants. They are simply religious people. The majority of them refused to participate in politics. 

Imam Khomeini, in his book entitled “Islamic Statem” has given the idea of the government of clerics.  Another great Shia cleric, Ayatollah Shariat Madari, who was Imam Khomeini’s contemporary, did not agree with his political ideas and deeds.  Even Imam Khomeini did not reject the modern method of democratic elections.  This shows that practically we have to reject nomination and go for elections.  In Sura Shura we find that even the Prophet is asked to council with people in day-to-day social and political matters.  The concept of Imamah in the Ismailis and Bohras is a spiritual monarchy having no Islamic sanction.  Hence it can be said that the Sunnis and the Shias have no other way but to act upon the Islamic democracy, which is based on freedom, equality, peace, progress, justice and piety and is enacted through general elections.  Here we all unite and reject monarchy, militarism and fascism.



(The writer is an eminent speaker and scholar on comparative religions and a political activist. He can be reached at    

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