HOW ISLAM WANTS US TO ORGANIZE OURSELVESby
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (1984)
The way of Islam wants us to organize ourselves and take care of our religious, social and other affairs is clearly outlined in the following verses of the Holy Qur'an:
If we read these verses casually, they do not seem to contain much guidance, but if we ponder over them with devotion due to the words of God and take into account related ahadith, we find that they contain a complete outline of the way Muslim affairs are to be organized and run. And if, furthermore, we put them into practice in our communities and societies, they will provide a solution for many of our existing problems and take us out of our present miserable state of affairs.
These verses give us five principles, which may be called the five pillars of the Islamic organizational structure.
First Pillar: Muslims should run their affairs through a decision-making body (ul al-amr). The above Qur'anic verses assume the existence of such a body; Hadith states it more explicitly, teaching that wherever there are three or more Muslims they must choose one of them as their amir (leader):
"It is not permitted for three men to be in a desert place without putting one of their number in leadership." (Ahmad on the authority of 'Abd Allah bin 'Umar)
"When three persons go on a journey, let them put one of their number in command." (Abu Da'ud on the authority of Abu Sa'id)
The idea of these ahadith is not that only when there are three Muslims and only when they are on a journey that they should have an amir but rather that even if there are three of them and even if they are on a journey they should appoint one of them as their amir. So choosing an amir is all the more necessary for communities of Muslims consisting of hundreds or thousands of individuals and leading a settled life in a city or country.
It is also interesting to note that while Hadith sometimes talks of amir, the Qur'an only talks of the plural ul al-amr, which should be interpreted to mean that while there should be a single person as the head of a group of Muslims, the decision-making power should be exercised rather by a body or bodies consisting of more than one person; in other words, power should not get concentrated in the hands of a single person (except in the case of very small groups).
The obligation to choose a decision-making body is often respected within religious Muslim groups like Ikhwan, Jama'at Islami, Tablighi Jama'at and smaller groups all of which have hierarchies of amirs. But these groups make no effort to unite with larger Muslim communities found around them, who also choose decision-making bodies. Yet this is precisely the intention behind the words of God and His Messenger. These words do not tell us that Muslims in a city should be split into various groups and then each of these groups should choose an amir of its own. Rather, they clearly teach us that Muslim communities in various cities, countries, etc. should as a whole also have decision-making bodies.
The reason that various jama'ats (organizations, parties) and organized religious groups among us do not try to unite with the Muslim community as a whole is that they know that their support among Muslims at large is rather small and as a result their influence in the community-wide decision-making bodies will be limited, which is something they hate. Each one of these jama'ats and organized groups wishes that it is its members who should be among the ul al-amr and not anyone else and with this desire for power they live with the vain hope that one day a sufficiently large number of Muslims will join them and then they will form the decision-making bodies in various communities.
As various jama'ats and organized groups thus live in their unrealizable dreams of power, fighting and discrediting each other, the affairs of the larger Muslim communities around them remain in a mess and subject to influence from destructive elements from within and hostile powers from without.
Muslim communities in North American cities, for example, are at present like ships without any recognized captains, moving aimlessly in the turbulent social sea around them, ready to sink any time, while those on board fight and argue with each other and each group among them hoping to be able to hijack the ship.
In Muslim countries there of necessity exists governing powers, but in view of the failure of Muslim elements to try to choose decision-making authority in accordance with Islam, this governing power becomes available for grab to repressive dictators and open to CIA and KGB interference.
Second Pillar: The first pillar of the Islamic organizational structure, then, is the principle that no community of Muslims, large or small, should be without ul al-amr or a decision-making body.
The second pillar is that this body must be chosen by the community. One of the Qur'anic passages quoted earlier says that the believers' affairs are run by consultation among them. Since the choice of the decision-makers is the first and important step in the running of the affairs of a community, this choice is also subject to the principle of consultation and must therefore be made by a process of election involving the whole community.
After their election the decision-makers still remain bound by the principle of consultation. They cannot decide whatever they desire or whatever suits them, but rather must reach their decisions after duly consulting ahl alra'y(1) (people having an opinion on the matter concerned). This is clear from 3:159, where the Prophet, may he be blessed evermore, is commanded by God Most High to "consult with them (i.e. the Muslims) in matters (of public concern)".
In view of the fact that Muslim decision-makers must make their decisions, at least in important matters, after due consultation with the community, the function of the decision-makers really reduces to collecting views found in the community, giving them a coherent form (if these views conflict with one another) and then execute the decisions so reached.
Third Pillar: If a decision-making body comes into being by election and functions by a process of continuous consultation with people of opinion, then (and only then) the decisions reached by such a body are binding on every member of the community provided those decisions do not conflict with the clear teachings of Islam. This is the meaning of the words of God:
Fourth pillar: This consists of the principle that if differences arise among some sections of the community, including the decision-making body, they must be referred to God and His Messenger. Verse 4:59 continues:
Note that in this part of verse 4:59 ul al-amr and the decision-makers are not mentioned. This has two implications:
a) Differences can arise not only between ordinary members of the community but also between ul al-amr and other members of the community.
b) When differences do occur, whether among ordinary members of the community or between such members and ul al-amr, they are not referred to ul al-amr but to God and His Messenger. In other words, ul al-amr are a body of persons whose job is to decide matters on the basis of opinions found in the community (including the opinions they themselves hold) and then execute these decisions. They are not meant to act as judges to settle differences when such differences become serious. The role of judges belongs to two authorities that are higher than everybody in the community including the ul al-amr. These two authorities are God and His Messenger.
How can disputing parties take their differences to God and His Messenger? In the time of the Messenger, this was simple: the disputing could go to the Prophet and he could settle the matter either through a direct revelation from God or through the use of nur or light that he possessed. In our time, differences can sometimes be settled by referring to the Qur'an and Hadith. However, differences among Muslims often concern the Qur'an and Hadith themselves, which are interpreted differently by different parties. To deal with such situations there clearly arises the need for a body of persons, knowledgeable in Islam, to which questions of interpretation may be referred, when settling such questions is essential for the health and harmony of the community. This body must be as independent as possible and must not be under any kind of influence of the ul al-amr or any other section of the community.
If differences do not affect the health and harmony of the community, then the parties concerned may simply agree to disagree, co-existing like brothers and leaving it to God to decide, on the day of judgment, the truth of the matter in which they differed. This approach would be yet another way of "referring differences to God..."
It is the obligation of the disputing parties to refer their differences, when they cannot co-exist with those differences as a united community, to independent Islamic judges as mentioned above. However, if the parties fail to thus seek resolution of their differences or fail to accept the decision of the independent judges and as a result engage in a fight which threatens to disrupt the life of the community, then it becomes the obligation of the entire community to first try to make peace between the disputing parties on a just basis through arbitration and if this fails, to fight or pressure in some way the party which refuses to accept the just solution proposed by the community or by the independent judges acceptable to the community. The Holy Qur'an says:
In regards to the above verse it is important to note that keeping order and harmony in the Muslim community is ultimately the responsibility of the community, for, it is to the community of the believers that the above verse addresses and gives instructions about how to deal with conflicts that threaten its harmony. Under most circumstances, though not in North American cities, a Muslim community will have to delegate its function of maintaining order and harmony to a police force, but this police force must under all circumstances remain answerable to the community who is its source of authority. It can in no case assume an authority independent of the people. In other words, there is no police state in Islam.
Fifth Pillar: The last important principle around which Muslims are expected to organize their collective life is a process of continuous correction, reform and improvement through education, public criticism, etc. Just as a human body comes under continuous attacks from various injurious germs, viruses, etc. and must continuously fight them to stay alive and healthy, so also a body of people is threatened continuously by wrong ideas, attitudes and deeds originating from its members and must constantly counter these destructive and disintegrating tendencies for its collective health and life. The way to this is:
- enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong
The work of exhorting one another to truth, invitation to khayr (good), etc. is a collective obligation on the entire community. It is not limited to men of great learning or imams. Everyone should do it to his or her capacity. The only conditions are that one should know what one is talking about, that one should be sincere and that one should try to practice what one preaches.
In the last analysis, the work of correction, reform and improvement through exhortation to truth, invitation to khayr, etc. reduces to upholding in the community all the Qur'anic principles and commandments. No wrong can establish itself in a community where all the principles and commandments are upheld. A wrong can establish itself only when some part of the Qur'an is suppressed. In other words, every established zulm (injustice) in the society is directly linked to a zulm on a part of the Book of God. It is for this reason that suppression in any way of any part of the Qur'an is severely condemned by God:
The curse mentioned in the above verse falls both on those rulers or governments who in one way or the other hinder men from declaring any part of the message of the Qur'an as well as on those who let themselves be so hindered. It is fear of men that usually prevents people from upholding certain parts of the Qur'an and so Allah ordains that at least men who control mosques where the Qur'an is learned and taught should be chosen among those who "fear none but Allah" (9:18)
In a sense the last pillar of the Islamic organizational structure, namely, mutual exhortation to truth, mutual enjoining of right and forbidding of wrong and upholding of all the Qur'anic principles and commandments is the most important of all the five pillars outlined above. For if this principle is practiced, that is, if in a community there are sufficiently many knowledgeable persons who raise responsible voices when a wrong begins to establish or when a right thing does not get established, then not only all the four other principles will be put into practice but also the organizational structure thus established will function satisfactorily. On the other hand, if the last principle is not practiced by a sufficient number of persons in a community, then either the first four principles will not be applied at all or else the organizational structure resulting from their application will function unsatisfactorily and sooner or later collapse.
(1) Ahl al-ra'y is some elite class of intellectuals or businessmen or Islamic scholars, as some interpretations would have us believe, but, as the obvious meaning of the Arabic term implies, all those who happen to have an opinion on the matter at hand.
First published in Al-Ummah, Montreal, Canada in 1984. Copyright © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. The article may be reproduced for Da'wah purpose with proper references.