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Semantic World of Politics in Flux 

As we have pointed out in our previous article, politics has started to be viewed as a bad occupation that honest people must abstain from in modern times. Because it parted ways with supreme ideals and moral principles. Therefore, it has transformed into a corrupting nature and a benefit and power-seeking resource. For this very reason, the thing that is “bad” and the people “must abstain from” is not the politics itself but its interpretation and practice in modern times. Let’s try to take a closer look at the semantic restriction of politics throughout its journey to the present day.  

Politics, which is an Arabic word (siyāsa), literally means grooming and taming animals; especially the horses. Indeed, the word “groom” (sāʼis), which conjugates from the same root, means horse-sitter. From this point of view, we can state that politics means observing something and making an effort for its wellness and improvement. Later on, politics started to be used in the meanings such as administering, regulating, and taking measures.

We can see that politics had a very broad meaning if we take a closer look at the works written about morals and literature of politics in classical literature. Politics exists wherever there are rulers and ruled. In this respect, politics was used for the purposes of organizing the affairs in favor of the people who were to be ruled; resolving disputes and controversies between them; improving conditions for them, and it was always paired with justice and morals. Ethical values always acted as a compass ahead of politics.

And when state rulers are on the carpet, politics meant performing necessary actions in order to maintain public order; protecting the interests of the people and actualize their affairs; organizing interstate relations; governing the country. From one aspect, it underlined the way and method in order to find what was mutually good and for the people to live a peaceful life.

Although state governance constitutes a very important part of politics; it is not the only feature of it. Aside from state governance, Islamic moralists and philosophers treated managing families and nafs (personality) as important extents of politics and often pointed out the relevances between them. For example, Al-Raghib al-Isfahani stated that there are two forms of politics; “managing the self” and “managing the others”, and added that it is not right for the people who cannot manage themselves to try to manage others. According to him, people must discipline and manage themselves first in order to manage others. (Al-Raghib al-Isfahani, ez-Zeria ila Mekraimi’s-seira, p. 33)

Politics has started to be perceived and defined in a very different way in modern times. It will be seen that it is a very difficult concept to be defined, understood and set into boundaries if we focus on the differences between the descriptions of politics and the abundance of the discussions around the matter today. Many researchers state that there is still no common definition that exists for the term of politics that is accepted by everybody. The fact that the supported religion, ideology, and philosophy had a serious influence on the perceptions and opinions about politics made a contribution to this fact.

It will be seen that politics is closely correlated with power and state governance if we focus on the definitions of politics today. Therefore, politics turns around the state apparatus and takes place within the political organization. Some prominent definitions of politics are as follows: “struggling for power and achieving the desired outcome by any means”, “struggle on scarce resources”, “oppression and subjugation”, “set general rules that organize people’s lives”, “resolution of the conflicts between different way of lives through discussion and reconciliation”, “sharing of values via authority”, “influencing the opinions of the people with a unique rhetoric and making them supporters by forming their opinions”, “coming into power and struggle in order remain there for a long time”.

While rather the interests and affairs of the people shined out throughout the approaches about politics in classical literature, it has started to be associated closely with authority, strength, and power in the modern era. The main objective throughout the classical era was to establish a harmonious, peaceful, stable, and virtuous structure of society by maintaining justice and keeping the righteousness upright. But in the modern era, the objective has been switched to gaining power, keeping the posts, eliminating the dissidents, and making the most out of state facilities.

Not only the purpose of politics has changed, but also a new understanding has emerged about the means to achieve the objectives in the modern era. The Islamic ulama stated that legitimate objectives can only be achieved with legitimate objectives and they predicated the measure of legitimacy on the rules of religion and morals. Therefore, all actions and practices of a person who is a ruler must be in accordance with the moral principles according to them. Politics has distinctive rational principles and rules also in the modern era. However, it is ignored whether these rules are permitted or not by religion and morals. The important thing is whether these are reasonable and useful in order to achieve the objective.

Semantic World of Morals in Flux

One of the important concepts which has gone through a semantic and characteristic change in the modern era is morals. One of the most significant reasons for the politics-morals relationship not being established correctly is the change in the perceptions and opinions about morals. We will first focus on today’s meaning of morals and what is understood from it, and then Islamic ulama’s approaches in order to see this change in the meaning of morals.  

Morals have started to be expressed with the concept of “ethics” today and have gained a totally different meaning compared to the traditional definition. When it is about morals today, the first definition perceived by many people today is “the common body of rules that must be obeyed by the individuals in the society”. In other words, they are the patterns of behaviors and attitudes expected and requested from the individuals inside the borders of society. Therefore, morals organize the behaviors of the people inside society and their relationships with each other; they underline how people should act when they are with the others; they put measures about the qualities of the statuses and behaviors of the people in social life. Such an approach to morals adopts communitarianism; meaning society is in the center, not the individuals.

On the other hand, the people, who support liberal philosophy and prioritize individual freedom, defined morals in a different way. They put the interests of the individuals and pragmatism in the center of their morals definition; not social concerns. According to this approach, the individual should decide what is good for him/her; not an outside authority. Therefore, the objectivity of ethical judgment is out of the question here. An action that is beneficial for somebody might be harmful to another. According to this approach, morals per se are not an objective that must be achieved. On the contrary, they are to be used as a means of achieving the objectives which are found to be useful by the individuals. For this reason, some named this kind of morals “instrumental morality”. There is no doubt for the idea of relativism, which emerged during the post-modern times, will support such a perception of morals. Ultimately, when both approaches adopt a secular characteristic, regardless of society or individual wise, there is no doubt that they both contribute to pragmatist objectives.

The approach of Islamic ulama is rather different than all. First of all, good morals are one of the most important principles that Islamic provisions aim to realize. The Prophet (PBUH), who is honored by Allah (SWT) with the verse “And indeed, you are of a great moral character.” (Surah Al-Qalam 68/4), stated “I was sent to complete the best of morals.” (Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Musnad, 2/381) and pointed out that it was his main duty to have mankind to reach out to this privilege. As narrated by Abu Hurairah, “Verily, the most complete of believers in faith are those with the best morals.” (Sunan Abu Dawood, 16; Jami’ at-Tirmidhi, Rada 11), this hadith directly points out to the relationship between faith and morals.

Scholars, who prioritized the approaches of the Quran and Sunnah, stated how morals play a vital role in both the maturation of the individual and the order of the society with the following verses: “Maturity of the person is with morals, the order of the world is with morals.”  

It is essential to mention that Islam not only called the believers to be moral but also showed the way to them with hundreds of verses and hadiths about the matter in order for them to understand how to be moral. An individual, who approaches the Quran and Sunnah from the viewpoint of morals, will be able to see that they inculcate good morals from the beginning up to the end. Therefore, the most distinctive quality of a believer should be morals.

Islamic moralists stated that the greatest obstacle for having good morals is the nafs (the spiritual mechanism which gathers all desires, wishes, and lusts in itself), and added that the morals fundamentally are all about disciplining the nafs. Because the foundation of good morals is constituted by qualification such as thinking others; doing favors; acting altruistic; being modest; stick to righteousness and honesty; not hurting anybody with words or action; being chaste; acting loyal. However, these often require people to compromise their own pleasures and interests. It is very difficult for an individual who cannot take his/her feelings of anger and lust under control, restrain his/her wishes and desires, and cannot change his/her bad feelings such as ambition and envy for the better to decorate himself/herself with good morals.

The Arabic word “halk” which means creation, “ahlak” (morals), and “huluk” (nature) conjugate from the same word stem. First one is about the appearance and physical structure of the person, the other one is about the esoteric aspects such as heart, spirit, and nafs. It is possible to make the following comment from these facts: Allah (SWT) created human perfectly with regards to semblance and appearance and left the job of perfecting the inner world to the human. The duty of the human here is to try to gain a new nature inside the disciplines of religion with a serious effort and struggle.  

The fact that the Islamic moralists named morals as “spiritual medicine” is a piece of good evidence for this. Because according to them, while the purpose of medical science is to protect the health of the body against the material diseases, the purpose of moral science is to cure the diseases related to heart, nafs, and spirit by means of disciplining, purifying and decorating then. In other words, its purpose is to continue the virtues and merits innate from creation, and dispose of any improper and evil temperaments. (Kinalizade, Ahak-i Alai, p 36)

As can be understood from the aforesaid explanations, the moral understanding envisaged by Islam is quite different than the conceptualized morals today supported with words such as “moral values” and “ethics”. The bottom line in Islam is “happening”, not “appearing”. That is why continuity is essential. A person who adopts good morals maintains this attitude both inside the society and while alone; s/he does not compromise being moral both while angry and calm. Harassments, incitements, and the pressure of lustful emotions cannot lead him/her to immoral behavior. Otherwise, it means that good morals are not adopted by his/her nature.

The most important motivation for the transformation of morals into nature is religion; in other words, it is devotion, the concern of being accountable, inspection, and benevolence consciousness. While degrading morals to the social etiquette means narrowing down its meaning, describing it with pragmatism is the expression of not understanding what it actually means.

Relationship Between Politics and Morals

Maybe we dwelled on the subject in order to make sure that the relationship between politics and morals is understood properly in a contemporary world where all concepts have coalesced into each other, secularized, and distanced from religion’s enlightening atmosphere. However, it is not possible to analyze the relationship between these two without pointing out what is and should be understood when it comes to politics and morals. As long as this relationship is not properly understood, it will be difficult to understand where Islam stands about state governance.  

As we have persistently pointed out in our previous articles, Islam does not propound any specific models when it comes to political technique, regime form, or state governance. The Quran and Sunnah contented with revealing some general mottos and principles such as justice, council, rule of law, and giving the duties to competent people about this matter. However, if we are to look at the subject from a moral point of view, we will see that hundreds of mottos and principles imposed by Islam about morals is also related to state governance.

A Muslim is expected to represent and practice all of the moral values imposed by Islam since s/he cannot leave his/her Muslim identity after s/he enters politics or becomes a ruler. These values and judgments about morals draw red lines that cannot be crossed by the politicians and rulers, determines their elbow room, and limits the use of strength and power they possess. It is very imaginary and utopic to expect the rulers, who do not possess a superior moral, to use their posts, opportunities, and authorities properly.

The main purpose of the Nasihatname (advice letters) and Siyasatnameh (politics letters) works written by the Islamic ulama directly for the state rulers is to remind the rulers of moral fundamentals, urge them for rights and justice, and thus prevent possible oppression and injustices. When we look at the Siyasatnameh works written by scholars such as Al-Ghazali, Al-Mawardi, Nizam al-Mulk, Al-Tartushi, and Asik Celebi, we can see that the advice targeted to the heads of state and rulers focus on the following subjects:

Not to abandon justice and mercy; to be easily accessible by the people; to listen to the problems of the people and be aware of their general conditions; to value science and competent people; to take the rights of the oppressed from the oppressors; to help the poor and needy; to appoint competent and capable people for public duties; to work with honest and moral people and ward off toady ones; not to abandon righteousness; not to give false promises; be aware of the value of the blessings allowed by Allah (SWT) and use them properly; not to be proud or become arrogant because of the possessed power and opportunities; to deliver the necessary punishment the rebellious ones and perpetrators; to be compassionate and merciful towards the people; not to succumb to anger; not to desire the world and show greed; to avoid wastage; not to plunge into luxury and gaudiness; not to have an eye to the properties of the people and not to seize them unfairly; not to use the treasury on his/her behalf; to constantly supervise the civil servants in order to prevent them oppressing and wrongdoing people; to be fair with taxes; to make the earth a prosperous place; to ensure the security of the country.

The Siyasatnameh authors stated that a person who obeys the matters above will be able to receive the love, respect, and prayers of the people. Because the people, who would see that their rulers are honest, fair, and moral, will love, trust, and obey them. They pointed out the following about this matter: “If the head of state was a person other than you, you should treat your people the way you would have wanted that other person to treat yourself”. According to them, it eventually comes to justice and good morals which must be adopted by a ruler who wishes to leave this world with a pleasant echo all around the dome and people to mention his/her name with compliments.

None of the Siyasatnameh books contain Machiavellian ideas. They never focus on morals by instrumentalizing it and with pragmatic considerations. They never aimed to legitimatize oppression or any kind of immoral behavior under any circumstances. They constantly prompted the sense of responsibility for the rulers by reminding them of the heavy burden of their position, the day of reckoning, and the presence of the great Allah. They tried to keep them away from sins, atrocities, and immoralities. They stated that the heads of state, who resort to bullying and persecution, would betray the trust they assumed and would be miserable as a result.

Islamic scholars attached particular importance for the rulers to be moral. They often said, “The people are all about the religion of the head of state”, and pointed out that a country that harbors cruel and immoral rulers will have the same type of citizens since they would be obeying their rulers.  The following hadith strengthens this meaning: “There are two groups among people, if they are decent, other people will also be decent, if they fail, others will also fail; these are rulers and scholars” (Kenz Al-Ummal, 10/191) The famous proverb “A fish rots from the head down” explains this fact.

Although it is difficult to say that a satisfactory political theory that can be a model for the present-day is developed and practiced in the tradition of Islamic thought, it is a fact that the idea and the fundamental understanding which are produced around morals and politics has great potential to pave the way for today’s dirty politics.

The modern world could not demonstrate the same success for morals as it did in fields such as science, technology, development, prosperity, democracy, freedoms, and human rights. Politics, which weltered around some idiosyncratic rational and pragmatist rules after gaining independence from morality, started to degenerate and transformed into a mechanism that creates problems white it was providing solutions. Because politics, strength, power, and position are cankerous in nature. The only way to stay safe from this is to perform politics in accordance with justice, fairness, and morals.

Aside from politics becoming independent from morals, some have raised it above religion and morality, and transformed it into an activity that influences and even determines them, and decorated it with an absolutism. As a result of this, some politicians began to interiorize immoral behavior and committing sins as a privilege granted to them. However, the politics that emerge from such an understanding will only be cruel, evil, and dirty.


Today, a considerable amount of people believe that they need to seek refuge in Allah in order to avoid politics. However, Aristotle accepts politics as the supreme and most meaningful human activity since he considers politics as an art of actualizing both human happiness and peace of society. The main reason for these two completely different and opposing approaches to politics is related to the objectives it aims at and which resources it uses in order to be successful.

The most effective means of putting humanitarian goals in front of politics and achieving these goals in humanitarian ways will be to make moral principles dominant in politics. And at this point, the approaches of Islamic scholars are of paramount importance which underline that moral principles should be respected at all times, everywhere and for all; does not foresee any exceptions for the ruler to justify abandoning justice and morals; point out that the heads of state should primarily have the moral attributes such as justice, fairness, honesty, and compassion.

The way to restore the weakened political morals is to limit them to rights, justice, public interest, affairs, and good morals. In other words, the most powerful dynamic that will lead today’s dirty politics, which spins around strength, power, and interests, to a path of prosperity and righteousness is moral values.

Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religious Studies.

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.

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