By Nadia Cassim
According to Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, “the primary sources of Islamic law are the words and commandments of Allah (God) as laid out in the Quran, the sayings and traditions of the prophet (SAW) (ahadith), and the rulings of political and religious leaders (Islamic jurisprudence)¹. This approach to Islamic law is based on the following verse in the Holy Quran:
O believers, obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. If you should quarrel on anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day; that is better, and fairer in the issue (4:59)
The above verse however, should be dealt with in greater detail to ascertain its true meaning, for instance, what is meant by the phrase, “obey Allah and the Messenger” and then by the phrase “and those in authority among you”. At first glance these two terms may seem quite straight-forward. A deeper understanding of the Quran’s teachings and more holistic approach to the Holy Book’s message however, may shed greater light and understanding on such a subject.
Before exploring these two crucial terms, it is important to explore the concept of democracy in Islam- the fundamental bases of all law-making in the religion. According to Kabbani, the Rule of Islam is based on the concept of “Shura”. Shura is defined as a democratic method of electing a ruler. It is “a referendum on which the majority agree”¹. Thus, by electing a ruler you are approving the decisions made by him. The ruler, understandably, is tied to the law which is made up of ‘immutable’ commandments set out in Quranic revelation, as well as the practical application of the commandments, the latter which has been set out by the early jurists (around the mid-8th Century) in Islam. The law is also to be adapted to the evolving needs of society¹. Alongside the ruler, there should be a group of elected experts tasked to oversee his actions. These experts would form the advisory board.
Historically the process of Shura encouraged the Muslim community to sit together and consult one another over the possible candidacy available to them. Then by majority rule, the ruler was elected. One such example was the democratic election of Abu Bakr-as-Saddiq as the next Caliph in Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Despite the fact that there were many who disagreed with this election, the process of democracy and majority rule was enforced ¹. Important to note, is that Islam encourages freedom of speech and religion and by no means should one view be enforced on an individual and the latter be persecuted for their choices. This is reinforced by the following verses in the Quran:
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah (God) hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah (God) heareth and knoweth all things (2:256)
If Allah (God) so willed, He could make you all one people: But He leaves straying whom He pleases, and He guides whom He pleases: but ye shall certainly be called to account for all your actions. (16:93)
Here, one may pause and reflect for a moment. If democracy is a cornerstone for electing leadership in a Muslim community, then in our current local environments we should be asking the following questions: Have we, by democratic standards, elected “those in authority amongst us?” Have we been given the right to vote these individuals into a role of leadership and has this right been extended to Muslim women? After all, women have been afforded equal rights to that of men in Islam, in particular, with regards to Shura². Equal gender rights in Islam are reiterated by the following verses in the Quran which does not distinguish between men and women:
And their Lord answers them: ‘I waste not the labour of any that labours among you, be you male or female — the one of you is as the other… (3:195)
The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity, and obey Allah (God) and His Messenger. On them will Allah (God) pour His mercy: for Allah (God) is Exalted in power, Wise. (9:71).
“Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger”
When determining the term, “Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger”, it is important to bear in mind that at the time of revelation Allah used to issue the instructions and teachings and the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) used to communicate His teachings. Therefore, the prophet and Allah were regarded as a “single entity to be headed”³. Furthermore, we see this dual function reiterated in the following verse of the Quran:
He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah: But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over their (evil deeds) (4:80)
The prophet’s (SAW) purpose is reinforced by the following verse:
Say: “I am no bringer of new-fangled doctrine among the messengers, nor do I know what will be done with me or with you. I follow but that which is revealed to me by inspiration; I am but a Warner open and clear.” (46:9)
Therefore, one can safely say that in no way would the prophet (PBUH) say anything in contradiction to the Quran. Thus, oftentimes, people are cautioned to believe all that they read in the ahadith³.
“Obey Those in Authority among You”
When applying the term obey “those in authority amongst you”- presumably those selected by Shura – we should be asking ourselves the following question: Are we following the true Islamic teachings as expressed in the Quran and by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), or that contrived by an individual to satisfy his own needs?⁴ Furthermore, the term “those in authority among you”, is often expressed along with the idea that these individuals are people “with knowledge”. The following Quranic verse is often used to express a distinct difference between the common man and one who is deemed more learned⁵.
O you who have believed, when you are told, “Space yourselves” in assemblies, then make space; Allah will make space for you. And when you are told, “Arise,” then arise; Allah will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees. And Allah is Acquainted with what you do (58:11)
However, does it necessarily mean that those in authority are those with knowledge? When referring to various verses in the Quran, such as 22:54⁵ and 4:162⁶ it is substantiated that those with knowledge refers to those “given the insight and understanding of a believer-knowing the existence of Allah, the Final Hour, the true nature of the life of this world”⁷ Thus, the term those with knowledge is not referring exclusively to those in authority, but also to the common man, the believer in Allah and the Last Day. This reinforces the idea that each person should educate themselves regarding the Quran’s teachings and not rely solely on the words of men in authority who may or may not be misrepresenting the teachings of the Almighty and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Furthermore, how can we rely on such men in “authority” if we have not been given our basic right to vote for who we would like to represent our community’s evolving needs? Thus, when all’s said and done, the big question remains: Are we respecting a self-proclaimed dictatorship, or genuinely following a democratically elected system of law and authority in Islam.
⁵And that those on whom knowledge has been bestowed may learn that the (Qur’an) is the Truth from thy Lord, and that they may believe therein, and their hearts may be made humbly (open) to it: for verily Allah is the Guide of those who believe, to the Straight Way.
⁶But those of them that are firmly rooted in knowledge, and the believers believing in what has been sent down to thee, and what was sent down before thee, that perform the prayer and pay the alms, and those who believe in God and the Last Day – them We shall surely give a mighty wage.