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Why should the ‘definition of sovereignty’ be revised in Islamic thought?

State is a structure formed by the people living in a bordered land, based on sovereignty and independence, together with the rules which ensures the people to live together in peace. According to this description, we can say that the people, the country, and the sovereignty are the three pillars of a state. Components such as freedom, equality, responsibility, justice, absence of discrimination within the rules applied for the assurance of justice are the external indicators of the regime of a state.

In this article, I would like to lay emphasize on the concept of sovereignty from the point of early-period Islamic history. Let’s start with the question; what is sovereignty? In terms of lexical meaning, sovereignty is a concept which means supremacy, and as a technical term, it represents the governing and performing the governing by using violence when necessary. Within this context, sovereignty displays the sanction power of the state, and this power is the “supreme” power in law. And in international law, sovereignty means “independent power”.

And there is the “national sovereignty” concept. Intrastate, this means the people to elect their administrators, who will be governing them, with their free will and without being under any kind of pressure, and interstate, it means the independent adjudication of the state officials, to whom the people give the administrative power, on every matter concerning the country. To put it in a stereotype way, we can say that the national sovereignty means the people to elect the administration of the state inside the country, and to “determine their own destiny” through the hands of the elected administrators outside the country. You can give a clear meaning to Ataturk’s apothegm “Sovereignty rests unconditionally with the nation” together with these explanations.

Beyond any doubt, the first sovereignty arguments started with the Kharijites in the history of Islam. Kharijites, who fought side by side with Ali against Muawiyah bin Abu Sufyan, asserted the verse in Quran which reads “Legislation is not but for Allah” (Surah Yusuf [12:40]), and abandoned the army after predicating “Humans cannot appoint arbitrators, legislation is only for Allah” when Ali decided to accept the appointment of an arbitrator to end the Battle of Siffin. In fact, this verse in Quran, which mentions Yusuf’s speech when he called for the people to accept the oneness of Allah and explains the ontological dominance of Allah over every single living and lifeless creatures aboveground, was decontextualized and transferred into the political arena by the Kharijites.

To put it in a different way, the Kharijites interpreted the verse “Legislation is not but for Allah” without understanding what Allah really meant, and used it to legitimate their own ideas regarding what the verse wanted to explain. Together with the phrase we have been repeating, we can say that they made Allah (we can also say Quran) speak the way they wished.

This approach of the Kharijites led the political power to quote Allah. Despite 15 centuries had passed, we still witness the traces of the results of this approach in both the action and discourse plans, and also in the political conception of the Muslims. At the cost of repeating myself, let me make it more clear; during The Battle of Siffin between Ali and Muawiyah , Kharijites assertion “Legislation is not but for Allah, humans cannot appoint arbitrators” made the political power taking its source from Allah. Naturally, the caliph/head of the state happened to be the deputy of Allah.

It would be good to approach the discourses of predestination and fate this way, which are asserted by Jabariyyah, used by the Umayyads, and propagandized by the state. In fact, the predestination and fate played a separative and determinant role towards designating the supporters or the opposers of the power, rather than being a component for belief. The same conception continued with The Abbasids, who staged a coup against the government of 93-year-old Umayyads and continued to reign for the following five centuries. Even the names and the titles of the caliphs after the first seven caliphs are evidences which singlehandedly support the opinion that the power was taking its source from Allah.

Let’s read the names quickly: “al-Muʿtaṣim bi-’llāh, al-Wāthiq bi-‘llāh, al-Mutawakkil ʿalā ‘llāh, al-Muntaṣir bi-‘llāh, al-Mustaʿīn bi-ʾllāh, al-Muʿtazz bi-ʾllāh, al-Muhtadī bi-‘llāh, al-Muʿtamid ʿalā ’llāh, al-Muʿtaḍid bi-‘llāh, al-Muktafī bi-‘llāh, al-Muqtadir bi-‘llāh, al-Qāhir bi-‘llāh, ar-Rāḍī bi-‘llāh, al-Muttaqī li-‘llāh, al-Mustakfī bi-ʾllāh, al-Muṭīʿ li-ʾllāh, aṭ-Ṭāʾiʿ li-amri ʿllāh, al-Qādir bi-‘llāh, al-Qāʾim bi-amri ‘llāh, al-Muqtadī bi-amri ’llāh, al-Mustaẓhir bi-‘llāh, al-Mustarshid bi-‘llāh, ar-Rāshid bi-‘llāh, al-Muqtafī li-ʾamri ’llāh, al-Mustanjid bi-‘llāh, al-Mustaḍīʾ bi-amri ʾllāh”

I would like to provide a few epitomes about the fact that the political power takes its source from Allah. Muawiyah states the following to his army before the Battle of Siffin: “As a result of Allah’s will, fate brought us in this part of the earth. It made us face the Iraqis. We consent to the fate sealed by Allah. Indeed, Allah orders; “”And if Allah had willed, they would not have fought each other, but Allah does what He intends.”” (Surah Al-Baqarah 2/253)

Again, Muawiyah stated the following when he was alive and asking the people to pay homage to his son Yazid to come to power as the caliph: “The things Yazid will do are predestination and fate. There is no other option for human beings.”

Another example from Ziyad ibn Abih, the famous governor of Basra, when he addressed the people:

“Oh people! We became the rulers and protectors for you. We will rule you with the sultanate bestowed upon us by Allah, and we will protect you with the shadow granted by Allah.”

So, what was the result? During the total reign of the Umayyads and Abbasids lasted for 6 centuries, this mentality become established with the governing structure, and as a result, with al-Jabri’s words: “The state and the religion are merged/integrated, and the obedience to caliph is identified with obedience to Allah.”

There is another important detail, which looks unessential but very important, must be known about the source of the sovereignty: Osman stated the following to the insurgents, who requested him to abandon the caliphate, during the siege where he was martyred in, which bears the trace of the power taking its source from Allah: “I will not abandon the caliphate duty bestowed upon me by Allah. I prefer to die instead.”

This important subject which is open to different comments is aside, the first discussions towards the context of the source of the political power came to light not during the Kharijites but during the caliph election of Abu Bakr. As widely known by many, Abu Bakr showed three reasons to the Muslims, who are from Avs and Hazrach tribes of Madinah, which could be summarized as: “We became Muslims before you. We were closer to The Prophet (PBUH) than you. Arabs will not accept a leadership of any tribe other than the Quraysh tribe.”, and was elected as the caliph by the community, except a few people who did not pay homage to him. Without considering the present day democratic values, in other words, when we have a look at the matter without an anachronic approach, and compare the conception of the caliphate by the Kharijites and the Shi’a, we could easily say that the people gathered under the date palms of Bani Saidah interpreted the Quranic and Nabawi principles around the axis of the source of the power way better.

In fact, the head of state qualification of The Prophet (PBUH) is not related with the nubuwwat qualification of him, but his imamate (we could also say secular/earthly) qualification. Since the people gathered in Bani Saidah had this opinion, they had made long discussions about who to elect to be the head of state and they had taken a vote, and just like some of them accepted the results, some of them had rejected. However, the sloganized rising of the Kharijites, who are the main subject of this article, with the Quran verse “Legislation is not but for Allah”, attributed the source of the power to Allah, and they reversed the course of events which was going to be built on authentic basics for the political theory, which started to appear in the existence scene together with the election of the head of the state in Bani Saidah.

Right at this point, it is important to mention that this approach, which is mentioned by many component authors, indicates that there is no difference between the ‘imamate theory’ of the followers of sunnah and the Shia. The Shia attributes the imamate, meaning the head of state, to the nubuwwat qualification of the Prophet (PBUH) and evaluates the matter through the perspective of inheritance or appointment with ‘nass’ (definitive judgement), and then dictates only the people who descends from The Prophet (PBUH) are worthy of being the head of the state after him. Starting from the Kharijites, the followers of the sunnah attribute the source of the power to Allah, and persuade the masses to accept this opinion with the belief towards fate. Moreover, if you approach Abu Bakr’s words “Arabs will not accept a leadership of any tribe other than the Quraysh tribe” as it is, you could say that it is not any different from the Shia. However, many academic studies support that this rising of Abu Bakr is a cyclical statement which suits the sociology of the community, and I agree with it.

One of the most significant results for the source of the caliphate to be attributed to Allah was the accountability before the people. The caliph, who was chosen by Allah, only answers to Allah, not to the people. Because he represents the will of Allah on earth. Therefore, rising against the caliph means rising against Allah, and obedience to the caliph means obedience to Allah. The false narrative “The Sultan is the shadow of Allah on earth” explains the same idea. You may consider it the exploitation of religion, religious values, the verses of Quran, and eventually Allah for the sake of power.

When we look into older and recent history, including the present day, we need to search the roots why the people was not able to consciously question the leaders, who occupy the ruling positions, for their human-induced errors, and the leaders were not taking responsibility for such human-induced errors, not resigning, and were trying to get away with commonplaces such as “It is the will of Allah, it is very natural”.

In fact, the ruling staff would fight for the consent of all of the people or the majority, which at least would be enough to keep them in power, if they would accept the fact that the political sovereignty belongs to the people/community. This would mean the rulers to answer to the people about every occupation, and systemizing this mentality might occur in different forms depending on the general acceptance of the period.

I could continue to write more, but I stop here feeling that the insight is provided. I would like to finish my article by answering a potential question: “Why did you write about this subject?” I wrote in different occasions in the past; the biggest problem of Islam is not faith, nor is morality. On the contrary, it is the mentality. As an individual, a community, or an ummah, the main component which determines our actions is the mentality. As long as this mentality is not changed, our faith, morals, and if would be evaluated on the systematical basis, our political, economic, and legal systems will never manage to reach the targets which are pointed by Quranic and prophetic values.

By the way, I must add that this mentality we have been trying to explain by putting the political sovereignty in the center, also had revealed itself in the religious communities and cults throughout the history of the Muslims. Accepting the obedience to the sheikh, imam, and the leaders as if it is obedience to Allah, and the way they would not answer to anyone, appoint their deputies and successors after them, and many other actions are the reflections of this mentality to the religious/Sufistic field.

Final say: in our world, which became a global village, many different approaches about the sovereignty matter raised by the existence of global companies which have more budgets than the states, international, military, legal, and economic agreements made by the states with their own will. From this point of view, the description of the sovereignty we have provided in the beginning of the article must be revised. I only wanted to provide insights about the roots of the sovereignty concept by giving examples from the early period of the Muslims.

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Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is a an author and scholar focusing on Islamic Studies and Law.


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