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Ibn Taymiyyah – State, Governance and Justice

Ibn Taymiyyah (1263 – 1328) was an Islamic legal scholar. Some people trace the roots of extremism to him but his image as a reformist is contains more truth. He lived through a time when Muslims were under direct invasion of Mongols and Crusaders. Baghdad had already been plundered and caliphate had been disintegrated in 1258. It was an era of socio-political chaos. Demise of caliphate had raised a number of doubts not only about the leadership but also about the Muslim identity itself. According to mainstream Sunnis: Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama’a, it was the responsibility of community to continue to preserve Islam, even in case the Caliphate had disappeared. Ibn Taymiyyah’s systematic and thorough work, in which he tried to provide solutions to contemporary problems, emerged as a need of hour.

State or governance, according to him, was there for the welfare of people. It can only exempted in case of extreme necessity. Ummah, he says, was created to establish justice (adl) and the governance, with its main goal being ordinance of justice, is a generic human need. Governance minimizes the negative effects of human passions and maximizes the positive inclination among the people. To justify politics, he used the hadith, “If three of you go out on a journey, appoint a leader from among you and obey him.” Obedience of the ruler, according to him, was obligatory for all – Muslims and non- Muslims equally – to maintain social order. The ruler holds coercive power (quwwa) and authority (amara) to run state affairs, enforce laws and avoid anarchy. He justifies coercive power as per 57:25 verse of Quran where iron is mentioned as a material of punishment. However, he argues that humans were created as stewards (khulafa) to safeguard equality with which they were created. So, one might infer that governance starts at grass root level.

According to him, Quran makes the obedience to the political authority in 4:58 (Allah doth command you to render back your Trusts to those to whom they are due). He suggests rulers and ruled are partners in governance (wilaya) and that there is a contract (sharaka) between them which comes with reciprocal responsibilities. Society entrusts their affairs to rulers in return of obedience. There must be a reciprocal respect of rights and sense of satisfaction about assigned duties, between the both parties. It is the right of government to expect good governance and the government has the right to expect obedience and loyalty. Among people, establishment of governance is collective responsibility (fard kifaya) and not everybody is obliged to satisfy it when some people are already fulfilling it. However, when it comes to al-amr bi ‘l-maʿruf wa ‘n-nahy ʿani ‘l-munkar or promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, it is not only the responsibility of officials or government but it is equally a duty of everyone. It is a must for people to offer advice for the promotion of a righteous environment; as they are also partners in governance.

Role of scholars becomes prominent when it comes to the advice. Ibn Taymiyyah, himself suggests that his book al-Siyasa al-Shar’iyya was an advice for the people in authority (wulat al-umur) for proper Islamic governance. He, as a matter of fact, dedicated a whole chapter on consultation (mushwara) in this book. Though everyone can advise the rulers but when it comes to matters on which Shariah is silent, rulers must consult the scholars (ulama). He refers to the example of Prophet (PBUH) consulting his companions. Ibn Taymiyyah puts scholars in the same category as rulers: people in authority (wulat al-umur). Rulers and scholars have reciprocal obligations: the former must seek advice and the later must provide it in accordance with Quran and Sunnah. These opinion are not just advisory (mu’lima) but enforceable (mulzima).

The welfare of society is dependent on the effectiveness of wulat al-umur. He argues that if rulers and scholars are righteous, people will also be righteous. He derives his definition of righteousness from Quran 2:177: “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah-fearing.” He argues that a righteous society, having the above mentioned qualities (plus some additional ones). Justice are the good deeds and fulfilling the obligations while injustice happens when people go astray and commit bad deeds. Governance is necessary for the welfare of society and it is not individual but a collective responsibility.

Ibn Taymiyyah considers state as an agent or an instrument of the religion in which law serves as the base of legitimacy. He argues that sovereignty lies with Allah and his authority is delegated to the rulers as a contracted labor / employment (ijara). He finds a need for a system of governance to establish Shariah and this principle serves as a criterion of legitimacy for the Islamic governance. The task of government is to implement Shariah. It is not definitely theocracy as the authority is not limited to an individual or institution but distributed among the society. He does not specify a particular type of government. He uses caliphate (khilafa) as a generic term in his work and also uses Imamate (imama) and governance (wilaya).  He uses the word wali in a general sense for people at responsible position while his notion of wulat al-umur include people from head of state, viziers, judges, officials, teachers, people calling for prayers and so on; everyone fulfilling a public function is a wali according to him. He also clarifies – in this context – that sometimes positions are not defined legally but they emerge as a result of custom. Wilaya, he says, is a trusteeship and trust (amana) is a liability. Rulers will be held responsible for their appointees. Public office (al-imara) can turn into disgrace on the Day of Judgment, if not fulfilled trustworthy. Wlat al-umur are the vicegerents (nuwwab) of God, to rule over the community (ummah) and they are trustees(wukala) of the people to protect their interests.

What happens when governments are oppressive and unjust? Ibn Taymiyyah says that a just state will be protected by God, even if it is not Muslim but an unjust state – even a Muslims state – will not survive at all. In case of injustice, asked people to remain patient and bear the injustice of ruler instead of a rebellion – for the sake of social order. However, a civil disobedience is permissible in some cases. He claims that – if a ruler is ruling in accordance with Shariah – the obedience of the ruler is the obedience of God and the Prophet; disobedience is the disobedience of God and the Prophets. In case, the ruler is violating the rulers of God, both the rulers and his followers are sinning against the God. People, in this scenario, must try to current him through advice. He quotes Ahmed ibn Hambal that one must neither obey nor rebel if rulers go against God and must not support fitna – for the sake of social order. Any punishments – inflicted as a result of disobedience – will be rewarded highly by God in the afterworld.

Rebellion is permissible in only one case; when Muslims are unable to live according to Shariah under an unjust government. Even in that case, he proposes a cost and benefit analysis; if the good in the outcome overweighs the evil that the rebellion will create, then it is allowed. Otherwise, it is not only discouraged (makruh) but strongly forbidden (haram). He argues that Prophet had also tolerated evil in his time for the sake of social order. He also adds that it seldom happens that deposing a ruler beings more good to the society than the harm. According to Ibn Taymiyyah, as Mongols have made the life of Muslims extremely hard and became a threat for the ummah by their invasion and attempt to substitute Mongol law with Muslimm law, it is obligatory to fight them; those who don’t fight against Mongols were apostates.

He opposed the legal formalism in Islamic law. In the time of Ibn Taymiyyah, Shariah has been formalized under different schools of thoughts in both Sunnis and Shia. Though this system was able to facilitate the legal process by providing concrete framework for judgment, yet it excluded the possibility of considering the circumstantial evidence by the judge. Ibn Taymiyyah criticizes this system and emphasized on epistemological optimism which is in turn reflected in his political theory as well. He stressed on commonsense justice, not only to increase judicial efficiency but also the efficiency of the officials. He also criticized taqlid arguing that it had created injustice and undermined the normative base on community.

Due to his upholding to military Jihad against non-Muslim rulers like Mongols and Christians, most of the modern day scholars like Robet Baer – the author of Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude – and others, consider him as the patron of modern Jihad. They accuse him of undermining the Hadith that makes inner strife for good, noble over militant Jihad. Contrary to this belief, Ibn Taymiyyah was one of the modernists of his age and his stance of violence and rebellion was influenced by the circumstances of his time. He always had commended fighting as it brings more evil than good.

On the political side, he clarified the rules and responsibilities of people who have authority. He defines two branches of government: political officials who enforce the law and religious scholars who articulate the laws. He argues that these branches must cooperate with each other. According to him, Islamic politics is unique in nature as everyone has the responsibility or it is a collective duty to enforce al-amr bi ‘l-maʿruf wa ‘n-nahy ʿani ‘l-munkar or promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. This concept of shared responsibility is closet to modern democratic governance. He suggests that in case of disagreements among scholars, ruler must choose the way that is closet to Quran and Sunnah after consulting everyone; including the scholars from different schools of thought as well as experts in different fields of life. He says that rulers must seek advice from everyone who can provide objective opinion as experts in economics, war, agriculture, engineering etc. He invokes a hadith in his favor that community cannot agree on a wrong. In his understanding, community figures out the mistakes itself in a historical and continuous process of mutual correction, again with consensus. So, the community was somehow protected from agreeing on a wrong – rather than being totally infallible. His arguments can be summarized as: Legitimacy depends on the legal system that is implemented, not the government. Political responsibility is not only limited to the ruler but shared by the whole community. Scholars play an important role in advising the government. Anyone – with particular expertise – can and must advise the government for public welfare.

*** Not a scholarly article; must not be used as a primary source.

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