• Category Category: A
  • View View: 1867
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

AUTHORITY AND LEGITIMATION. Most Muslim rulers try to legitimize their authority through Islam; however, there are today only two regimes in Sunni Islamic countries in which the king claims a religious title associated with his political authority-Morocco and Saudi Arabia (Tibi 1985). The title of the Moroccan king is amir al-mu’minin (“commander of the faithful”), and the Saudi king is khddim al-haramayn alsharifayn (“custodian of the holy shrines” of Mecca and Medina). In Saudi Arabia the Qur’an is considered the constitution, in contrast to Morocco, which has a modern constitution.

In August 1992 the Moroccan king showed willingness to amend the constitution to enhance the power of his prime minister, who is constitutionally fully subservient to royal authority. The amendment also refers to human rights mentioned in the constitution. When the constitutional change was submitted to a referendum on 4 September 1992, the king responded to opposition criticism by emphasizing the authority of an Islamic ruler. He said, “Islam does not permit a constitutional monarchy like the one that exists in western Europe. As a Muslim ruler, I am entitled to temporarily delegate some of my authority to others, but I have no right to give up on my own power privileges.” This poses the question whether the king’s view represents an authentic perspective on authority and legitimacy in Islam. The al-Azhar scholar `Ali `Abd al-Raziq, in Islam and the Principles of Government (1925), held that Islam does not entail a system of government. `Abd al-Raziq argued further that Islam historically has been abused to legitimize unjust rule.

Islam is characterized by a holistic view of the world in which politics, law, and all other spheres of life are intimately and organically merged into one unity (Tibi 1990, chapter 3). The governing principle of this totality is tawhid (the oneness of God). Tawhid means that the world and consequently the lives of Muslims are wholly governed by the oneness of God, the supreme authority. It follows that Muslims in principle see no separation between political and religious authority. The corollary of this is that political authority has to be religiously grounded; that is, its legitimation has to be related to the principle of tawhid. No Muslim ruler can therefore claim to have sovereign authority, because that is God’s alone. The ruler has to base his authority on the precept that he executes the divine will of God as fixed in Islamic revelation. It is this provision to which the Moroccan king’s statement refers.

The medieval Islamic theologian Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) coined the term ta’til for claims by humans to govern the world. In his authoritative pamphlet Ma’a-lim ft al-tariq (Milestones), the spiritual father of Islamic fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb (19o6-1966), reactivated this precept in his challenge to democratic legitimacy and the idea of popular sovereignty. [See the biographies of Ibn Taymiyah and Qutb]

Although this characterization of the basic concept of authority and legitimacy is shared by most Muslims, Islamic history reveals a multiplicity of competing patterns of authority and legitimacy related to sectarian developments. Historians of Islam have described this civilization in terms of a conflict over identifying the true imam or authority for Muslims (Hartmann 1944). The wide range of political rulers who have been Islamically legitimized shows that Muslims have disagreed about legitimacy. In classical Islam, Sunni and Shi-i rulers as well as their opponents have legitimized their authority based on their specific understanding of Islam. The lack of a tradition of a consensually accepted pluralism has contributed to the growth of religious controversies regarding Islamic authority and legitimacy, as Watt (1968) has shown. All Muslim rulers refer to the Qur’anic commandment, “Oh ye who believe, obey Allah, obey the Prophet and those in authority [al-amr] among you” (4.59); it is open to interpretation whether authority here means power.

In modern times, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent abolition of the caliphate in 1924 smoothed the way for the introduction of the European concept of popular sovereignty among Muslims (Enayat, 1982, pp. 1 i 1f.). In the Arab lands the concept of an Islamic ummah (community) has been superficially secularized to refer to an Arab ummah that unites Muslims and Christians in a modern nation-state based on popular sovereignty (Tibi, 1 99 1 ). The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has greatly challenged this new secular concept of the ummah (Choueiri, 1990, pp. 63ff.) and has contested the assumption that in the modern state legitimacy is secularly grounded. [See Ummah.]

In his general monograph The Legitimation of Power (1991), David Beetham devotes a chapter to Islam, in which he points out that the politicization of Islam presents a challenge to Western notions of the exclusively secular basis of political legitimacy. The core of this challenge is the idea of the Islamic state. Fundamentalists argue that the Islamic state (see Kurdi, 1984) can only be based on a specific pattern of authority and legitimacy. Given that Islamic fundamentalists are not traditionalists-they themselves are both a product of modernity and a reaction to the process of modernization the question is whether the concept of an Islamic state is based on a new rather than a traditional type of legitimacy.

Departing from the tawhid principle and thus from the belief that God governs the entire world, all spheres of life in the Islamic state are expected to be organized in consonance with Islamic revelation. In other words, political authority in Islam has to be constantly grounded in divine legitimacy. In classical Islam, the caliph’s authority was based on his submission to the shari’ah. Although he is the absolute political chief of the Islamic community, he has no right to legislate. His authority is restricted to administrating shad `ah. In practice, however, Islamic rulers have deviated from this principle by introducing the autonomous realm of siydsah (administration), in which the caliph retained some sovereignty. As Joseph Schacht writes in his introduction to Islamic law, “This siyasa is the expression of the full juridical power which the sovereign . . . can exercise whenever he thinks fit . . . a double administration of justice, one religious and exercised by the Kadi [qadi] on the basis of the shari’a, the other secular and exercised by the political authorities” (1964, p. 54). This system of authority was practiced by the caliphs from the Umayyad period onward.

Contemporary Islamic rulers who base their political authority on Islamic legitimacy draw on a tradition embedded in the political history of Sunni Islam. Classical and contemporary Islamic societies share a low degree of institutionalization in their political systems. According to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), one of the consequences of this lack of highly institutionalized structures and processes is the personalization of political power. Thus the authority of the political ruler in Islam, classical and contemporary alike, has been highly personal, not institutional, and has been legitimized in an arbitrary manner by the `ulama’ and jurists submissive to the ruler. This fact explains the lack of continuing institutional power in Islamic history.

Among the sectarian religious divisions with regard to authority and legitimacy, the most pertinent one is that differentiating the doctrines of the caliphate in Sunni Islam and the imamate in Shi’i Islam. For Sunni Muslims the caliph is equally an imam in the double meaning of being both the symbolic leader of congregational prayers and the political leader, but the Shi’i imam does not. embody temporal political leadership. Whereas Sunnis believe that prophecy ended with the death of the Prophet, Sh-is believe in the continuation of prophecy through the imams; however, they conceive the imamate not as temporal leadership but as religious guidance “for preserving and explaining the Divine Law” (Momen, 1985, p. 147). Thus the legitimacy of the Shi’i imam is not only based on the interpretation of Divine Law, “the Imam’s knowledge is co-extensive with that of the prophets. . . . Thus the Imam as a result of his knowledge is perfectly able to give judgement on all matters of religious law” (p. 156). Some Shi`i scholars interpret the authority of the imam as political insofar as he is “a person who takes the lead in a community in a particular social movement or political ideology” (Tabataba’i, 1975, p. 173). However, until the advent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, this was not a common view among Shi’is. Khomeini’s revisionist interpretation of vildyat-i fagih (wildyat al fagih) “obliterates some of the most important differences between Sunnis and ShNs. He minimizes the extent of the rift by . . . his appeal to the Shi’is to . . . install an Islamic state [that] indicates his denunciation of . . . Shi’i practices that have become staple themes of Sunni polemics against Shi’ism” (Enayat, 1983, pp. 174-175). [See Wilayat al-Faqih.] It is not surprising that current treatises by Sunni fundamentalists have recourse to Khomeini’s ideas of authority and legitimacy, which endorse harmony and reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi-`is. The Sunni writer Muhammad Salim al-`Awwa, in his book Fi al-nizam al-siyasi lil-dawlah al-Islamiyah (The Political System of the Islamic State, 1983), published seven times in Arabic, presents such a case.

In the period between the abolition of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the early 1970s, the idea of the nation-state and its secular legitimacy seemed to have superseded the idea of an Islamic order. In the nineteenth century `Abd alRahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1903) was the most significant Muslim Arab author seeking to revive the caliphate under Arab rule against the Sunni Turks. Muhammad Rashid Rida’s (d. 1935) book The Caliphate or the Supreme Imamate (1922/1923) was the last significant Islamic work to defend the caliphate. The scholar Shaykh `All `Abd al-Raziq held that those who have legitimated political authority by recourse to Islam have abused Islam for political ends. `Abd al-Raziq’s argument, which provoked his dismissal from al-Azhar, was that Islam is a religion and ethical system, but not a system legitimizing political authority. Despite his dismissal, `Abd alRaziq’s argument had already come to represent the spirit of the times. [See the biographies of Kawakibi and Rashid Rida].

The two Arab Muslim monarchies, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, are legitimized by Islam, and although they differ considerably, both do in some measure reflect Islamic political culture. In his book on legitimacy in Arab politics, Michael Hudson writes:

The ideal Arab monarchy, perfectly legitimized, entirely congruent with the values of the traditional political culture, would be an Islamic theocracy governed by the ablest leader of a tribe tracing its lineage to the prophet. The ruler would be guided by the substantive ethic of Islam and by the patriarchal consultative procedures of tribal decision-making. The ruler’s authority would rest not only on his coercive power but in the respect of his people for a leader on the right path (the Sunna). . . . By this legitimate behavior alone, he would earn the deference of his people and thus acquire authority (1977, p. 167).

Morocco and Saudi Arabia, however, ran counter to the dominant pattern of secularization throughout the period of early decolonization until 1967. Between the 1930s and early 1970s, the secular nation-state was the most accepted form of legitimacy in the Arab world, even though the processes of secularization and structural differentiation needed as underpinnings for the nation-state had not taken place in the Islamic world (Tibi, 198o). In the world of Islam secularization has been normative rather than structural in nature and thus has failed to take root.

The turning point for the resurgence of political and its views on authority and legitimacy was the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967. The Arab hub of the Muslim world was the center of the recent Islamic revival long before the Islamic revolution in Iran drew the attention of the West to this process. One of the main features of this revival has been the renewed focus on authority and legitimacy in Islam and their relevance for the crisis of the secular Muslim state (Khoury, 1983, pp. 213ff.). The redefinition of these ideas is meant to establish a religious order in place of the existing secular ones. This is the content of the new concept of the Islamic state. As exemplified in the case of `Ali `Abd alRaziq, debates on these issues have never ceased in modern Islam, even in the period when secular ideologies prevailed (Tibi, 1986). During the 1950s and 1960s, some important publications revived these debates and reopened the arguments against `Abd al-Raziq’s views; significant among them were the works of al-Rayyis (1953) Mfisa (1962), and Mutawalli (1964).

In terms of dissemination and popularity, however, these books could not compete with prevailing secular positions, such as that of Khalid Muhammad Khalid’s Min hung nabda’ (From Here We Start). Khalid’s book was reprinted ten times between 195o and 1963 and distributed far beyond Egypt. Khalid’s strong argument against what he called kahanah Islamayah (Islamic theocracy) culminates in a clear commitment against the use of Islam as a legitimation of political authority:

We should keep in mind that religion ought to be as God wanted it to be: prophecy not kingdom, guidance not government and preaching, not political rule. The best we can do to keep religion clean and pure is to separate it from politics and to place it above it. The separation between religion and the state contributes to keeping religion away from the shortcomings of the state and from its arbitrariness (1963 p. 184).

Such views have been superseded since the early 1970s. Even Khalid, having recanted, is now among those who support the idea of the Islamic state (see Khalid, 1988). [See the biography of Khalid.] The strongly articulated plea of Islamic fundamentalists for an Islamic solution began to replace the secular writings of the enlightened Arab Muslim authors. In 1953 Muhammad Diya’ al-Din al-Rayyis assured readers that Islam provides a pattern of legal rule because political authority is bound to the shari ah as a legal framework. Those who disagree with him, in particular those whom he calls Orientalists, are blamed for viewing Islamic governments as despotic: “The Orientalists, in their allegation that the government of Islam is despotic, are mistaken. . . . The source of their mistake is that they look at the Caliphate that really existed in history. . . . Thus they confuse Islam as a legal idea with what really happened in the Muslim world” (1953, pp. 225-226). Al-Rayyis thus sees Islam as a pure idea to be kept apart from the dirt of history; the implementation of the idea remains a pious call. This is also the case in the most authoritative book of `Abd al-Hamid Mutawalli, Mabadi’ nizam al-hukm fi al-Islam (1964), where he writes, “As far as the science of government is concerned, Islam provides general principles valid for every time and place.” These principles, he says, guarantee equally the practice of the “Islamic constitutional norms” justice, freedom, participation (shura), and equality (p. 548).

Another authority, Muhammad Yusuf Muisa, states that in Islam the relationship between the ruler and the ruled is based on a type of social contract called bay`ah. The author is thus reading into Islam the Rousseauian idea of social contract. Bay’ah means “oath of allegiance” as a source of legitimacy; however, it is not a social contract based on the unbreakable, institutionally controlled commitment of the ruler to the practice of Islamic law. [See Bay’ah.] The historical record shows that no Islamic ruler has ever been legally accountable, and norms not substantiated in history have no meaning. Musa insists that an Islamic ruler is democratic insofar as, by accepting the bay’ah, he commits himself “to rule and to cast his policy in accordance with Islamic law as fixed by the Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet.” To define Islamic rule, Musa writes:

Islam is not theocratic because it denies the ruler a divine character . . . nor is it a monarchy since Islam does not allow succession by        inheritance . . . nor is it despotic because an Islamic ruler is subject to the law, and thus it guarantees the citizens all kinds of freedom. . . . It cannot however be called democracy in the old Greek or modern Western sense since in Islam the will of the people counts only if it is in line with the shari’a. The shari’a has the highest sovereignty in Islam (1962, pp. 142-145).

Besides the fact that “citizenship” is a modern concept that did not exist in classical and medieval Islam, we are still confronted with the questions, what is the legitimate Islamic system, and what is Islamically unique in the authority it incorporates? Musa answers, “The system differs from all others known to mankind in classical, medieval, and modern history as well as in the present. . . . In recognizing the unique character of this system, we ought to say that it is an incomparable system. It is the Islamic system and that is sufficient” ppP. 146-147).

The truth is that all attributes denied to have characterized political rule in Islam have existed in actual Islamic history. Despite this, al-Rayyis, Musa, and Mutawalli, who published their fundamentalist views of political Islam in the 1950s and 1960s, and who have ignored the historical record, are extensively quoted in the contemporary writings of Islamic revivalism.

The political literature of Islamic revivalism during the 1970s and 1980s, with its focus on authority and legitimacy, does not go beyond the arguments highlighted above. This revival is related to the crisis of legitimacy in existing political regimes. The acid test of the legitimacy of rulers is acceptance by the ruled, but absence of any popular legitimizing basis is the reality in most current regimes in the Islamic world. The envisaged return to Islam is presented in the guise of an Islamic state as a solution to perceived moral decline. Even though the proponents of the Islamic state derive the legitimacy of their model from the distant past, the pattern of authority and legitimacy they propose is an artifact of the modernity they rhetorically reject.

The most sophisticated authors of current, broadly disseminated books on authority and legitimacy are Muhammad Salim al -`Awwa (1983) and Mustafa Abu Zayd Fahmi (1981). They emphasize the legal and participatory meanings of Islamic political norms and so provide an Islamic model of authority and legitimacy seemingly compatible with modernity; but even they fail to tell us why Islam has never achieved the specifically democratic, legal, and participatory Islamic values they present. From the early history of Islam (Mottahedeh, 198o; Dabashi, 1993) until the present, the political authority of imams and emirs has been based on personal rule, and Islam was used to justify the ruler’s status as an imam. The historical context of authority and legitimacy has changed, but not the principle of personal rule.


Ahmed, Ishtiaq. The Concept of an Islamic State. London, 1987. Presents the argument that Islamic authority and legitimacy are components of the idea of an Islamic state, focusing on Pakistan.

`Awwa, Muhammad Salim al-. Fi al-nizam al-siyasi lil-dawlah al-Islamiyah. Cairo, 1983.

Beetham, David. The Legitimation of Power. London, iggi. Excellent overall study of the legitimacy issue, with a chapter on Islam. Choueiri, Youssef M. Islamic Fundamentalism. Boston, 1990. Critical study of the claim that political Islam represents true Islamic legitimacy.

Dabashi, Hamid. Authority in Islam. New Brunswick, N.J., 1993. Social science-oriented inquiry into authority in Islam, from Muhammad to the Umayyad period.

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin, 1982. Excellent study by the late Iranian Oxford scholar in which tensions in Islam between classical and modern political concepts are reviewed. Enayat, Hamid. “Iran: Khomeini’s Concept of the Guardian of the Jurisconsult.” In Islam in the Political Process, edited by J. P. Piscatori, pp. 160-180. Cambridge, 1983. Excellent chapter on Khomeini’s revisionist interpretation of authority and legitimacy in Shi’i Islam.

Fahmi, Mustafa Abu Zayd. Fann al-hukm ft al-Islam. Cairo, 1981. Hartmann, Richard. Die Religion des Islam (1944). Reprint, Darmstadt, 1987. Concise and knowledgeable classic survey of Islamic history, with a discussion of Islamic debates on “who is the true imam.”

Hudson, Michael. Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy. New Haven, 1977. Overview of the legitimacy problem in the modern Middle East, with reference to Islamic history and case studies on all Arab states.

Khalid, Khalid Muhammad. Min hung nabda’ (1950). 6th ed. Cairo, 1963. Translated from the third edition by Isma’il R. al-Faruqi as From Here We Start. Washington, D.C., 1953.

Khalid, Khalid Muhammad. Al-dawlah ft al-Islam. Cairo, 1988. Khoury, Philip S. “Islamic Revival and the Crisis of the Secular State.” In Arab Resources, edited by Ibrahim Ibrahim, pp. 213236. London, 1983. Analysis of the legitimacy crisis of the secular state and its implications for the repoliticization of Islam.

Khuri, Fu’ad Ishaq. Imams and Emirs: State, Religion, and Sects in Islam. London, 1990. Study of sects in Islam as an opposition to prevailing authority.

Kurdi, Abdulrahman A. The Islamic State. London, 1984. Effort to trace the concept of the Islamic state to the Qur’an, laden with grand projections.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to ShN Islam. New Haven, 1985. Includes information on the Shill concept of authority and legitimacy.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society. Princeton, 1980. In-depth historical inquiry into acquired loyalties and loyalties of category in early Islam.

Musa, Yusuf Muhammad. Nizam al-hukm ft al-Islam. Cairo, 1962. Mutawalli, `Abd al-Hamid. Mabddi’ nizam al-hukm ft al-Islam. Alexandria, 1966.

Rayyis, Muhammad Diya’ al-Din al-. Al-nazariyah al-siyasiyah al-Islamiyah. Cairo, 1953.

Schacht, Joseph. An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford, 1964. Authoritative study on the juridical bases of authority and legitimacy in Islam.

Tabataba’i, Muhammad Husayn. Shiite Islam. London, 1975. Includes important information on Shi’i views on authority. Tamadonfar, Mehran. The Islamic Polity and Political Leadership. Boulder, 1989. Important social science study on the legitimacy of Islamic leadership, past and present.

Tibi, Bassam. “Islam and Secularization: Religion and the Functional Differentiation of the Social System.” Archives for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy 66.2 (198o): 207-222. Presents the idea that secularization of legitimacy and authority in Islam failed because it lacked a structural underpinning and was restricted to normative change.

Tibi, Bassam. “A Typology of Arab Political Systems: Arab Monarchies Legitimized by Islam.” In Arab Society, edited by Samih Farsoun, pp. 48-64. London, 1985. Analysis of Islamic legitimacy in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

Tibi, Bassam. “Islam and Modern European Ideologies.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 18.1 (1986): 15-29.

Tibi, Bassam. The Crisis of Modern Islam. Salt Lake City, 1988. Social and cultural roots of tension between Islam and modernity.

Tibi, Bassam. Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change. Boulder, 1990. Analysis of the gap between normative and actual levels of legitimacy and authority in Muslim societies.

Tibi, Bassam. Arab Nationalism. New York, 1991. Critical inquiry into the rise, development, and decline of secular Arab nationalism. Tibi, Bassam. “The World View of Sunni Arab Fundamentalists.” In Fundamentalisms and Society, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 73-102. Chicago, 1993. Analysis of the holistic view of the Islamic world, as revived by contemporary Islamic fundamentalists. Their views merge with politics and religion and thus move authority and legitimacy issues to center stage.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Political Thought: The Basic Concepts. Edinburgh, 1968. Overview of the basic political concepts in Islam, including those on authority and legitimacy.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/authority-and-legitimation/

  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
  • livePublished articles: 768

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Translate »