British Muslims: The politics of Islamic governance

Freedom of choice

The next 10 years does not seem to bode well for the British electorate. At the European elections this year, only 22% of eligible British voters bothered to cast a ballot. Parliamentary expense scandals have generated widespread disillusionment. The European Commission predicts that in just two years, Britain’s national debt will increase to 88.2 percent of GDP, and that by 2020 could rise to 140 percent. Meanwhile, the politics of the far-right are becoming increasingly mainstream, even prompting the governing Labour Party and opposition Conservative Party spokespeople to co-opt their concerns on immigration, multiculturalism, and so on.

In such potentially dire circumstances, the temptation to deflect problems onto the ‘Other’ – namely, black and ethnic minority groups, and particularly Muslims – will be greater. In this regard, British Muslims will have a particularly significant responsibility to engage fully in the British political system to promote social justice, public welfare, and government accountability. British Muslims will need to put in renewed efforts to show that Islamic and British values are mutually co-extensive, and that they are truly at home in British civil society.

Unfortunately, it is tempting to react in either of two ways: either accept the goal of a global Islamic state while rejecting the use of violence to create it; or reject entirely any connection between Islam and politics. Ironically, both reactions lead us up the garden path.

Firstly, we should be very careful to remember that the sovereign nation-state is a modern invention, only coming into existence within approximately the last two hundred years. Before that, states did not exist, borders were in flux, and empires based on aristocratic and dynastic rivalries used force to extract tribute from subject populations and monopolise trade. This was even more the case fourteen hundred years ago. As the Sudanese scholar Abdullahi an-Naim argues, the idea of the ‘Islamic state’ is an innovation that draws on European post-colonial discourse.

But just as it is a grave mistake to superimpose the modern nation-state onto Islam, it is an equally grave mistake to interpret this as implying that Islam is not political. As noted by Robert D Crane of the International Institute for Islamic Thought (PDF):

“In the Covenant of Madina the various autonomous tribes were incorporated in a single confederation with mutual rights and responsibilities. The Prophet called this confederation an umma or single community composed of different ethnic and religious ummas as sub-groups.

There was also a common law based on the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and the traditional laws of each religious group. The Islamic shari’a as a body of law and jurisprudence, like all the other Islamic disciplines, developed over the course of the centuries.

At the time of the Madina Covenant there was no state machinery to enforce the law, no police and no regular military, and not even an established judicial system. All social life was voluntary.

This changed when the Prophet died and especially when peoples in distant places embraced Islam, which led to the growth of power centers that eventually evolved into independent empires based on principles that were un-Islamic from the perspective of the original community of the Madina Covenant.”

Islam therefore advocates a progressive politics rooted in community governance and based fundamentally on grassroots empowerment and the voluntary collective practice of community members. The Qur’an never makes reference to the idea of a ‘state’ as understood in modern conventional terms, even when discussing legal recourse, but instead addresses this voluntary community. Thus, we see a broad metaphysical conception of khalafa, where God tells the angels about the creation of the first man: “I am putting a khalifa on Earth.” (2:30)

Khalifa is often translated as ‘vicegerent’, denoting a representative of a higher authority. But a better term in English is ‘trustee’, conveying the idea of human beings carrying the amana or trust to be ‘caretakers’ of the Earth. Everyone of us is a ‘khalifa’ of God, the objective of which is the establishment of social justice: “We sent aforetime Our Messengers with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong), that men may stand forth in justice.” (57:25)

In addition, the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions are replete with clearly delineated principles of just community governance, such as mutual consultation between elected leaders and communities; freedom of speech and association, including the right to dissent against a ruling authority; freedom of religious belief; equality of access to means of economic production; equitable distribution and investment of public resources for sustainable development; responsibility to the most deprived classes through various social welfare policies; policymaking based on knowledge and research; compassion and flexibility in implementation of penal injunctions.

In summary, we are collectively responsible for working together as custodians of the Earth in God’s Name. This trust extends into the social sphere as a collective duty of the community. Islamic politics entails that communities should govern themselves, and that we are all responsible to cooperate with our fellow citizens (our “brothers in faith, or in humanity”, in the words of the fourth Caliph, Hazrat Ali) in creating and maintaining just, compassionate and accountable social institutions from the ground-up.

(Photomontage: Mark Longman)

Dr Nafeez Ahmed MA DPhil (Sussex) is a bestselling author and political analyst. He is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and has taught international relations theory, contemporary history, empire, and globalization at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex and Brunel University’s Politics & History Unit. He is Strategy Director for Creative Education at Arts Versa Consultants, where he has consulted for projects funded by the Department of Communities & Local Government and the US Embassy in London. His books include The London Bombings (2006); The War on Truth (2005); Behind the War on Terror (2003); and The War on Freedom (2002). He has been an expert commentator for the BBC, Britain’s Channel 4, Sky News, C-SPAN, CNN, FOX News, Bloomberg, PBS Foreign Exchange, and Al-Jazeera English, among others. Dr Ahmed’s terrorism research was used by the 9/11 Commission, and he testified in US Congress in summer 2005. He has also advised the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst; and the UK Parliamentary Select Committee for Communities on its Inquiry into ‘Prevent’.


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