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HUKUMAH. The modern Arabic term for “government,” hukumah (Tk., hukumat; Pers., hukumat) is commonly distinguished from dawlah (“state”). As in European usage, government is understood as the group of individuals who exercise the authority of the state. Hukumah in this sense is a nineteenth-century neologism, adopted as Muslims became increasingly aware of and interested in European forms of government.

In classical Arabic usage, the term hukumah had the broad sense of adjudication; along with other words derived from the root h-k-m, it referred to the dispensation of justice, whether by an arbitrator, judge, or the ruler himself. Government in the narrow sense was referred to as wilayah (from the primary meaning of closeness to something, hence administration or government), sultan (power), or imarah (from an Arabic root having to do with command). By the eleventh century, the word hukumah had begun to take on a stronger political connotation and was used to refer to the function of hdkim (provincial governor). Although the earlier judicial sense of the word was not lost, its special connection with governance became more pronounced in Ottoman times. By the late eighteenth century, it was used not only in the narrow sense of governorship, but with the more general meaning of administration, rule, and political authority. It was this general political sense of the term that allowed Turkish and Arabic writers in the nineteenth century to employ it in distinguishing between the various forms of government. For example, the encyclopedist Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883) refers to the democratic government (hukumah dimuqratiyah) that Cromwell failed to establish in England; other examples include hukumah aristuqratiyah, hukumat fyudal (used to describe government in prerevolutionary France), hukumah muqayyadah (limited, i.e., constitutional, government), and hukumat al-sha`b bi-al-sha`b (republic, i.e., government of the people by the people).

This sort of usage does not require a conceptual break with the older meanings of the term. However, the formal distinction between government and state, attested in an Ottoman political treatise of the early nineteenth century and generally maintained in Turkish and Arabic ever since, is something quite new. In traditional Islamic juristic writings, the state does not itself exist as a corporate institution with legal personality; governmental institutions are shown to be legitimate because they are authorized by God and divine law, not by a state possessed of its own legal authority. (This does not mean that shad `ah [the divine law] was systematically enforced or even carefully observed by most Muslim rulers; it simply means that Muslims legitimized their political institutions with reference to God rather than to a manmade state.) By contrast, the hardened distinction between state and government in the political discourse of the past century and a half reflects the process of political and legal secularization undergone by the Muslim world. It is consistent with the appearance of secular constitutions, law codes, and other features of Western-type territorial states.

The nature of government, and its relationship to Islam, is one of the central problems in modern Islamic thought. We owe the earliest theoretical exploration of the issue in a modern context to the Young Ottoman thinker Mehmet Namik Kemal (1840-1888). To a degree unequalled by his contemporaries, Namik Kemal attempted to blend elements of traditional Islamic and modern European political thought in considering the origins of government, the notions of popular sovereignty and majority rule, the idea of separation of powers, and the benefits of constitutional rule. Since then, the nature of government has been discussed by secularists, Muslim reformists, and neorevivalists, few of whom have so systematically integrated European political theory into their own work. [See the biography of Kemal.]

One of the chief contributors to this discussion on the secularist side was the Egyptian religious scholar `All `Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966). His controversial treatise, Al-Islam wa-usul al-hukm (Islam and the Fundamentals of Government), was written in the aftermath of the Turkish abolition of the caliphate in 1924. `Abd alRaziq’s principal concern was to demonstrate, against those agitating for the reestablishment of the caliphate, that there is no such thing as an Islamic system of government. Islam properly understood mandates no particular form of government and no specific political institutions. The historical caliphate, according to `Abd al-Raziq, has no basis in scripture or tradition. Its apparent religious legitimacy has always been based on a misreading of the Prophet’s own mission (properly understood as purely spiritual), and a mistaken tendency from earlier times to associate religion and government and to ascribe religious significance to the community’s political leader. By contrast, `Abd al-Raziq wants to distinguish between the religious mission of the Prophet and his political activities and thereby cut the link between the political office of the caliph and Muhammad’s prophetic career. The caliphate has never been integral to Islam; it was invented for practical reasons, then given specious religious significance by the legal scholars. Muslims are free to construct any kind of government they choose, based on the customs and necessities of the time. [See the biography of `Abd al-Raziq.]

Among the many objections lodged against `Abd alRaziq’s treatise by traditionalist legal scholars was that it leaves Muslims without a law standing above the government. There can be no theoretical check on arbitrary rule without a touchstone of legitimacy beyond the government itself. This was also an issue which exercised a reformist contemporary of `Abd al-Raziq, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935). Rida is sometimes credited with having originated the modern concept of the Islamic state. He does indeed use terms such as al-dawlah or al-hukumah al-islamiyah (Islamic state or government), al-khilafah al-islamiyah (Islamic caliphate), and hukumat al-khilafah (caliphal government). This is new terminology and reflects an attempt to establish the basis for Islamic rule within a twentieth-century political environment. Although his interest in the caliphate seems a throwback to earlier times, his understanding of the institution sets him quite apart from the classical tradition of political thought. Unlike the classical thinkers, Rashid Rida appears to have seen the caliphate as a largely spiritual or pontifical institution. Through his law-making authority as mujtahid (chief religious scholar), the caliph can offer the various governments of the Muslim world divine legitimacy. The caliph keeps alive the process of ishtira` (divine lawmaking) and thus guarantees that hukumah madaniyah (civic government) continues to have an Islamic basis, as well as a flexible corpus of law. But he himself has no direct governmental responsibilities and serves mainly as the touchstone of legal authority for each local government. [See the biography of Rashid Ridd.]

Rashid Rida’s emphasis on the caliphate sets him apart from most neorevivalist thinkers of the late twentieth century, who are in other respects rightly considered his intellectual descendants. The only major thinker to speak of a caliphate was the founder of the Jama’at-i Islami in the Indian subcontinent, Abu al-A’la Mawdfidi (1903-1979). However, Mawdfidi’s use of the term caliph is nothing like Rashid Rida’s, nor does it mark a return to the classical conception. For Mawdfidi, the fact that sovereignty properly rests with God alone means that any temporal government with Islamic legitimacy must be called a caliphate: government is entrusted to men as God’s vicegerents, or caliphs. But since all men can lay claim to this caliphal status (given the Qur’anic usage of the term), the head of government is presented as operating with authority delegated most immediately from his fellow caliphs. By Mawdfidi’s own evaluation, this system does not amount to popular sovereignty or democracy, both of which are secular Western concepts in which the authority underpinning government is human centered rather than divine. While reaffirming the old principle of shurd (mutual consultation) in government, Mawdfidi does not insist on its identity with Western democracy, and in general does not see Islam as prescribing the particular institutions in which consultation takes place. He is in fact often vague on the specifics of government; he discusses in detail only the head of state and the majhs-i shurd (legislature), largely ignoring subsidiary institutions as well as the judiciary. This avoidance of specifics (coupled with an insistence on the essentially political nature of Islam) is characteristic of much neorevivalist thought.

One thing that Mawdfidi does make clear is the activist and totalitarian nature of the state. The institutions of government must be employed in all their power to give God’s sovereignty over people practical expression. No sphere of human activity is to be outside of this allembracing, ideological state. There is no essential difference between state, government, and society: all are part of the larger Islamic order anchored in shari`ah. As such, constitutional issues, such as the relationship between the executive, legislative, and judicial organs of government, are of little interest to Mawdfidi. [See the biography of Mawdudi]

This totalitarian emphasis is not echoed by the head ofSudan’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Turabi (b. 1932), perhaps the leading neorevivalist figure of the 1990s. It is not always easy to assess Turabi’s ideas on government, since his thinking has evolved along with his changing political role inSudan. In general, however, he seems to favor a limited, minimal role for Islamic government. Turabi’s state is in theory noninterventionist; it leaves civil society alone as much as possible. He equates this approach explicitly with the Western liberal tradition, but finds ample precedent in Islamic history, both in the limited social role traditionally played by Muslim governments and in the practical separation that has almost always obtained between shad `ah and government. Divine law has always existed apart from governmental institutions, and has ideally served as a constitutional check on them. For Turabi, the proper Islamic government must act in accordance with the law, but not as an agent of it. Government should not seek actively to shape society, but should allow an Islamic society to evolve naturally through the activities of individuals who live their lives in accordance with God’s law. This autonomy of the individual is perfectly consistent with the values of shad `ah, which focuses on the social relations of individuals rather than on the institutions constructed to regulate them. The fact that shad `ah does not recognize the state as a repository of legal authority is proof that the true Islamic government is a limited one.

Much of Turabi’s thinking is shaped, of course, by the particular circumstances ofSudan, even though it is often put in broad, theoretical language. Like other thinkers, he is not simply speculating about what true Islamic government should be, but is attempting to construct the theoretical basis for that government in response to specific political constraints. What Turabi says about limited and decentralized government, the status of non-Muslim minorities, and political parties (no legal bar, but factionalism would not arise in a truly Islamic society) is best seen in this fight. At times he has equated the institutions of Islamic government with representative democracy; at other times he has stressed the differences between them. But one constant feature of his thought is a willingness to adopt political institutions from the West, as long as they are not specifically excluded by shad `ah and can be put to appropriate use in the service of Islam. Just as the earliest Muslims adopted Roman and Persian institutions, Muslims in the twentieth century must be willing to look beyond their own borders for the best tools to organize public life. [See the biography of Turdbi.]

The modern notion of Islamic government has faced its most visible test in postrevolutionaryIran, where the clerical leadership has had to go beyond general theorizing about religion and government and actually attempt to institutionalize an Islamic state. The theory of government that underpins the state, and that is embodied in the revised constitutions of 1979 and 1989, is known as vildyat-i fagih (Ar., wildyat al fagih; the guardianship of the jurisconsult). It is this legal doctrine that lies at the heart of the claim that the fugaha’ (religious scholars) have a responsibility to exercise political leadership and that one fagih (religious scholar) in particular must be recognized as the supreme authority in the country.

The credit for developing this doctrine into a powerful ideological tool is given to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989). In a series of lectures delivered in Najaf in 1970 (generally known under the title Islamic Government, or Hukumat-i Islami), Khomeini argued that Islam requires the establishment of political institutions which can give systematic, practical effect to shari `ah and that the fugaha’ must play a leading role in the establishment and functioning of such a government. Khomeini is not at all specific about the institutional structure of this Islamic government, and is content merely to distinguish it both from a republic based on popular sovereignty and from a constitutional monarchy. Unlike these other forms of rule, the Islamic government recognizes the ultimate sovereignty of God and works to implement God’s law in the world. Here, Khomeini’s use of the term hukumah is informed both by its modern sense (i.e., the official institutions of the state and the individuals who run them) and by the more traditional understandings of it as adjudication, and the process whereby authority is translated into effective power. This double meaning runs throughout the Najaf lectures; Khomeini puts it to especially good effect in playing on the ambiguity of the term hakim, which one famous Shi’i tradition (the so-called maqbu-lah) applies to the religious scholars: hakim can mean both judge and ruler, and it is the latter sense that has particular resonance to modern ears, accustomed to the political connotation of hukumah. Whatever the maqbu-lah tradition would have meant to ShNs of earlier centuries, the political echoes are inescapable within Khomeini’s text.

The revised Iranian Constitution of 1979 includes some elements typical of a nineteenth-century European liberal constitution and others linked to the Islamic ideology of the state. There is, on the one hand, an emphasis on the separation of powers between the executive, judiciary, and legislature (terms that Khomeini had in fact employed vaguely in his Najaf lectures with reference to the responsibilities of the clerics). This might have reflected the belief of some in the need to provide for a system of checks and balances in order to avoid future dictatorships like that of the shah. On the other hand, provisions were made for close clerical supervision of governmental activities, and the office of fagih was institutionalized, with Khomeini its first occupant. The broad scope of authority granted the faqih (anticipated in the Najaf lectures) was of course inconsistent with the notion of a balance of powers, but it helped to lock in clerical domination of the revolution. The move met with a small amount of opposition from religious scholars, some of whom remained unconvinced of vilayat-i faqih’s doctrinal legitimacy within the Shi’i tradition. There might also have been a fear among some that too close a clerical involvement in the government could lead to a dangerous popular backlash if things should go wrong. This might explain why Khomeini himself was willing at first to accept a largely secular constitution with no special provisions for clerical control. [See Wilayat al-Faqih and the biography of Khomeini. ]

The institutionalization of the faqih has not resolved once and for all the tension between religion and government inIran. Just before his death, Khomeini himself contradicted President Khamene’i’s seemingly routine assertion that in an Islamic state, the executive and legislative branches of government are subordinate to the superior divine law. Khomeini insisted that the government is empowered to revoke, in the interests of the country as a whole, any shari `ah agreements that it has concluded with the people. This is normally seen as part of an attack on the authority of the conservative Council of Guardians, the committee of clerics who examine the compatibility of parliamentary legislation with Islam. But the problem is a long-term one forIran, and for any government with similar pretensions to legitimacy in Islamic terms. Whatever the utopian simplicity of Khomeini’s hukumat-i islami, the fact remains that the potential for conflict between the demands of government and the claims of God is not likely to disappear.

[See also Authority and Legitimation; Dawlah; Islamic State.]


Ayalon, Ami. Language and Change in the ArabMiddle East.Oxford, 1987.

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought.Austin, 1982. Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age.Cambridge, 1983. Lewis, Bernard, et al. “Hukuma.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 551-568.Leiden, 1960-.

Lewis, Bernard. “Hukumet and Devlet,” Belletin, 46 (1982): 415421.

Lewis, Bernard. The Political Language of Islam.Chicago, 1988. Mardin, Serif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought.Princeton, 1962.

Zubaida, Sami. Islam, the People, and the State.London, 1989.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/hukumah/

  • writerPosted On: June 23, 2013
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