Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU.
The original article was written in Malay entitled “Kepelbagaian Sistem Pemerintahan Dalam Sejarah Islam” and was published by Berita Harian on 10 September 2018.
Diversity is a natural part of life. No two people are alike due to our unique identities. This is also true for communities, countries, as well as government systems and politics. These differences occur due to the different historical experiences in plural societies.
For instance, some countries function under a monarchical system, some others subscribe to communist ideologies, while others, like Singapore, adopt a secular government system.
Diversity in forms of governance was not spared in Islamic history. There has never been a particular system of government in Islamic history. This is because Muslim communities have gone through different experiences from one place to another over time.
The same can be said for secular systems, as no two countries practice the exact same model of secularism. For instance, the secular model used in Singapore is different from the one used in France.. This is a result of the unique contexts and situations of the two different countries.
Thus, it is inaccurate to assume that in Islam’s history, there has only been a single system of governance used for every situation and context. It is also erroneous to criticise the systems of other countries because they are not based on Islamic principles.
The Relationship Between Religious and Political Leaders
Both the religious and political leaders shape political systems. According to Professor Abdullah An-Naim in his book Islam and the Secular State, in Islamic history, the relationship between the two resulted in a system of governance that is unique from one place to another.
It is important to note that both religious and political leaders carry different responsibilities; however, they are crucial to ensure a society is able to function well.
Political leaders are responsible for providing protection to the community and meeting to their needs, whether they are political, economic, welfare, educational or healthcare. As such, they require full authority to carry out these responsibilities for the people under their care.
The responsibilities of the religious leaders, however, are different. Religious leaders are responsible for moral-related issues and to guide the community along the right path based on their respective faiths. They have to also ensure that the religious rights of the community are not neglected. As such, both political and religious leaders require the freedom to carry out their responsibilities.
Professor An-Naim is of the opinion that if religious leaders were given absolute authority, they would have the power to overthrow the appointed leaders of the country based on religious justifications.
This would be unfair scenario in a democratic system where the political leaders are fairly elected by its citizens.
On the other hand, if absolute authority were given to political leaders, they would have the power to curb religious practices as they wish. This would create an undesirable situation, as it would infringe individual rights.
It might be possible for an individual take on the role of both religious and political leader. However, this may give rise to the abuse of power.
As such, Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim’s view is that the jurisdiction of religious and political groups will result in different systems of governance. This is because the roles of each group differ according to different situations and contexts, and from one community to another.
Rasulullah's System of Leadership Cannot be Replicated
Although it is impossible for one person to bear the role of both political and religious leader at the same time, this does not mean that it was never a reality.
Looking back in the history of Islam, Rasulullah s.a.w. held both political and religious responsibilities while he was in Madinah.
Nevertheless, he was able to carry out his responsibilities smoothly because the people of Madinah at the time agreed to appoint him as both their political and religious leader.
Not only as a political and religious leader, Prophet Muhammad was also widely accepted as a judge and military leader.
Even though this leadership model is ideal, it cannot be replicated in current times. According to Professor An-Naim, there is no one person today who has the capabilities to follow Rasulullah’s leadership style.
Thus, religious and political leaders can either combine their efforts and work together to shape public policies or separate their jurisdictions and work independently.
With that, diversity in leadership systems exist in the history of Islam, due to the differences in jurisdiction in which these two powers are given – the differing permutations of combination or separation of their authority.
Lessons from the Ridda War
As early as during the era of Caliph Abu Bakar r.a., discussions regarding jurisdiction emerged between the religious and political leaders. After Rasulullah s.a.w.’s passing, the Muslim community doubted that any other individual who was able to follow his model of leadership.
This was proven by the Ridda war). Caliph Abu Bakar had made the decision to wage war against Arab tribes that refused to pay zakat. This decision was unpopular as the Prophet’s other companions, including Caliph Umar r.a., had a different opinion.
Despite the opposition, the war went on, as the other companions considered Caliph Abu Bakar’s order from his role as a political leader, and not an order based on the religious principles.
Advices given by fellow companions who felt conflicted by the decision to go to war were in turn, based on religious grounds, not political arguments.
Clearly, as early as the era of Abu Bakar’s caliphate, the separation of jurisdictions between political and religious leaders had already begun to occur in Islam.
In conclusion, no singular system of government can be used by every Islamic society in the world due to the different experiences faced by each society. Additionally, the extent to which the jurisdictions of the religious and political spheres are separated differ according to the society’s context.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect our editorial stance.