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Written by Louay Safi   
Mar 06, 1991 at 08:01 AM
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The Islamic State: A Conceptual Framework
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The purpose of this paper is to delineate the basic elements involved in the concept of the Islamic state and to clarify the basis and scope of political power. More specifically, discussions will focus on the purpose of the Islamic state, the source of political legitimacy, and the scope of state power. I will contend that a clear distinction should be made between the role and purpose of the state and those of the ummah, for only through the separation of the responsibilities and objectives of the two can the injunctions of the Shari‘ah and the principles of revelation be properly observed.

Historical Background

Although the word “state” (dawlah) was first used in the Qur’an, almost six centuries had to elapse before the word was given its first technical definition by Muslim scholars. The word dawlah was mentioned once in the Qur’an (in 59:7)[1] in connection with the distribution of   fay’ (the property Muslims appropriated from the Banu al Najjar upon the latter’s expulsion from Madinah. The Qur’an justified this departure from the usual practice of dividing the spoils among the fighters by referring to the divine intention of preventing the circulation of wealth among a small group within the society.

Up until the late fifth century, one could hardly find any reference to the state in Muslim literature, or in Western literature for that matter. Other terms such as al amsar or dar al Islam were employed whenever a reference was made to the territories under Muslim control. Alternatively, the state as a political body was identified by its political organs, i.e., al khilafah, al imamah, or al wilayah.[2] In the sixth and seventh centuries of the Muslim era, the term dawlah began to acquire a political connotation. Muslim scholars at this time, mainly historians, began to employ the word in reference to the various Muslim dynasties which emerged when the institution of khilafah lost its executive power and was reduced to a nominal office symbolizing Muslim unity, while the real political and military power fell into the hands of strong clans and families. Ibn Manzur (630-711 AH), in his voluminous dictionary Lisan al Arab, distinguished between two variations: dawlah and dulah, the former denoting the domination of one group by another through military power and the latter referring to economic domination.

Ibn Khaldun presented, in the eighth century AH / fourteenth century AD, the first empirical study of the state. He associated the concept of state with that of social solidarity (‘asabiyah) and contended that human beings were naturally inclined toward social organization. Such organization could be maintained only with the existence of an authority or a leadership that facilitated coordination and provided guidance. Ibn Khaldun distinguished between two types of authority: coercive and participatory. The former resembled the authority of a king who extracts obedience through coercive capacity, the latter that of a chieftain whose influence is ensured by the homogeneity of his interests and those of his followers.

Ibn Khaldun associated the state with the dominance of a powerful group whose power emanates from the solidarity or community spirit (asabiyah) enjoyed by the group as well as the coercive capacity (qahr) it can bring to bear upon other groups. He therefore conceived of the state as a cyclical and recurring phenomenon it comes into existence with the emergence of a social group enjoying a superiority of group spirit and coercive capacity and disappears when these two elements are lost after two generations.[3] Central to Ibn Khaldun’s conception of the state is the emphasis on the heterogeneous nature of civil society and the domination of the political community by the most cohesive and organized social group, an emphasis that makes him a forerunner of modern theorists who stress the conflict-driven aspects of the state.

Defining the State

There is a tendency on the part of modern political theorists, including some Islamists, to define the state in terms of the major components of the nation-state, the basic political unit in the contemporary international system. It is argued that the state is distinguished from other political systems by three elements: population, authority, and sovereignty.[4] The problem with this approach is that it fails to provide any meaningful explanation of the basis for political divisions in the international political system without relying extensively, and even exclusively, on the concept of power. Furthermore, defining the state in terms of the three components cited above is of little help in identifying the essential elements which distinguish the Islamic state from other types of states. An alternative and probably more fruitful approach is to identify the Islamic state with the order it purports to realize and which, in turn, determines its goals and actions. In other words, the Islamic state should be identified with the system of rules that determines the quality of life in the political community as well as the political organs necessary for the realization of the Islamic ideals.

Defining the Islamic state in terms of a system of rules and the organization responsible for their realization is crucial for avoiding confusion between the concept of state and that of ummah. The two may, and often do, differ in their moral significance as well as in their territorial boundaries. Morally, the state and the ummah, as will be shown later, operate on two different moral planes. Territorially, the geographical boundaries of the Islamic state need not coincide with those of the ummah. This means that although the territorial component of the state is important for determining the jurisdictional boundaries of a specific state, it is not an intrinsic element of the state, since territorial divisions mainly reflect the balance among the relevant powers in any historical epoch.

A given state’s population, in any society that has developed beyond tribalism, consists of a multiplicity of collectivities. Although social groups in any society could be divided along different lines (i.e., linguistic, ethnic, or racial), the Islamically significant and politically relevant element of social differentiation is the ultimate purpose that brings the community members together and unites them with one another. The organization of purposes attains its highest expression in the state, the central organization of any society. The cohesion of collectivities is maintained by a system of norms (normative system) that determines the socially acceptable behavior of individual members. Likewise, the cohesiveness of the state is guaranteed by a political consensus (ijma‘) on a set of principles and values which constitute the fundamental law of society.

The Nature of State Power

The state is not the only organization of purposes in society, and state law is not the only system of rules. What distinguishes the state and its laws from other social associations and norms is, however, the supremacy it enjoys over all other social organizations and the overriding power of its rules. As the bearer of political power in a specific society, the state is endowed with the authority to regulate all forms of association and determine the general social and economic conditions which have a direct bearing on the quality of life in that particular society. The authority of the state, the central organization of the society, signifies the recognition by individuals as well as social groups of its right to regulate (and later to enforce its regulations) social behavior, and hence of the citizens’ obligations to comply with state regulations. The state’s ability to enforce its decisions, and hence ensure conformity, is crucial for the integrity of the political community and the functioning of society. The state’s failure to enforce law or implement public policy is a signal that the political community is on the verge of disintegration or that the social order is about to collapse.


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