Friday, December 18, 2009

Debates Among Muslims About the Nature of Prophetic Authority –Implications for the Role Of Islam in the World Today

    Friday, December 18, 2009   No comments

By : Adis Duderija

The contemporary inter-muslim disputes on the nature, character and scope of Prophetic authority centre around the central notion in Islamic thought that of nature of Sunnah and by extension the nature of the Revelation revealed to Prophet Muhammad, namely the Qur'an. These questions in turn are so fundamental that an enormous body of literature has been/ and is still being written in the fields of "Islamic" law, theology, mysticism, politics, philosophy and ethics. It is outside the scope of this written discourse to offer even a brief account of any of these. As such the essay will be selective in nature and try to address issues that are more "pragmatically oriented" or in other words which are more directly relevant to the global political dynamics and the role Muslim societies play in them.

Concept of Sunnah ,or what has been commonly coined as Prophet's example , existed in pre-Qur'anic Arabia . Over time the concept itself underwent several semantical changes during the development of Muslim creed, as Ansari pointed out lucidly. Sunnah's initial vagueness and generality in terms of its semantics was increasingly linked to its usage in Islamic Jurisprudence. However it always contained and carried , according to Ansari, a meaning of normativeness in itself. This inherent normativeness of Sunnah as applied to the Prophet confirmed by the Qur'an was to give rise to, inter alia, a multitude of views as to what the actual function of Prophetic figure was along with debates on the sphere of influence prophet was to exert on the believer . Was Prophet a lawgiver,a politician and a statesman or a mere spiritual reformer and an ethico-moral guide ( by the way the same questions can be asked with regards to the nature and aims of Qur'anic revelation) ? In other words to what extent did the concrete socio-historical situation on ground faced by the Prophet dictate /influence his universalist message and vice-versa? The mainstream view of the Muslim creed downplayed the importance of socially contingent elements of Prophetic activity/authority in the development of subsequent "catholic" version of the dogma and elaborated an extensive , largely literalist doctrine of Prophetic authority not restricted to ethico-moral guidance only. The epistemological sources and methodological tools applied to the process of derivation of normative values based on this concept of Sunnah (and thus to the nature of Prophetic authority) saw the Prophetic authority as being all comprehensive, thus not just exerting influence over the fields of ethics and morality ( which one might add has been largely neglected in terms of its systematic elaboration and definition as Prof. F. Rahman argued) but also in the socio-political sense , especially in the area of law.
What are the implications of such a view on nature and scope of Prophetic authority for the role of Islam in the arena of contemporary international politics? Questions such as whether Islam is compatible with democracy, human rights and gender equality ,(post)- modernity and values underlying its worldview ;its views on the nature of the relationship between predominantly Muslim societies and western liberal societies; issues pertaining to non-Muslim minorities in Muslim societies and Muslim minorities in Non-Muslim societies ; institutions of secular nation/state-hood , validity and viability of global governance and other international bodies are some of the most important questions in the international political realm concerning Islam and Muslims today.
Let us briefly explore some of them.


The mainstream Muslim political governance model throughout its history, as embodied by the early Muslim community just after the Prophet's death, was based on the notion of caliphate ( a qur'anic term pertaining to the role of human beings on earth as viceroys /representatives of God ) which from the very beginning translated itself into a hereditary and dynastical rule of the caliph belonging to a particular tribe or family related to the Prophet in one way or another . There was , in theory, no separation between the religious and the non-religious spheres of governance. The caliph was not only a ruler but also "a shadow of God"( as the tradition puts it) on earth, custodian of revealed knowledge and ensurer of its implementation . In reality, however,the caliph largely assumed a political and military position while the 'ulama, being under the discretion and the mercy of the caliph, were entrusted the extrapolation and application of what was seen to be as The Divine Law( Shari'ah). The masses, did not take any significant part in the matters of governance and running of the Empire and were not consulted on political or societal issues. The literalist exclusivist interpretation of Prophetic authority as taking place in a spatio-temporal vacuum and it being completely divorced from the reality/historical context in which it unfolded,( during the time of the prophet and the first four "rightly guided" caliphs) , sees the re-establishment of pan-Islamic caliphate as the only form of "Islamic " government that is in accordance with the concept of Sunnah.

The evidence of caliphate as a the only legitimate form of Muslim government , cannot not be found neither in the Qur'an nor in Sunnah as the Prophet himself , according to the majority view( excluding the Shi'a) did not leave any explicit instructions on what form of government/governance the post-Prophetic Muslim community is to adopt. If anything, the Qur'anic principles of shura ( consultation) and its partial adaptation in early Muslim community ( restricted to a particular tribe or family) in the election of caliphs along with the socio-historical context of its development (e.g. low literacy rates, socially and culturally accepted gender norms) can be seen as valid historical antecedents for the viability of parliamentary democracy , under the aegis of Shari'ah- in a sense of a Divine Law inherently subject to human interpretation-, as a legitimate model of governance in Muslim societies. This view of Islam being essentially compatible with democratic institutions and democratic form of government is of course of immense importance in today's society if we consider the current debates in Muslim countries , especially in Iraq and Afghanistan where efforts to democratise societies , internally and externally, are currently taking place. The democratising tendencies and the idea of democratisation of a society are slowly gaining ground in other Muslim countries such as S. Arabia but due to the socio-political realities of the world today are they are often forced to take a back-seat given the immediate appeal and simplicity of Salafo-jihadi politics. Additionally, another main obstacle democracy is facing in Muslim societies is that the democracy is largely seen as foreign , western concept that is being imposed on and is at odds with traditional Islamic values. This view is further consolidated by at times direct and explicit involvement of Western countries, such as the USA and Britain, in stipulating and guiding Muslim societies towards democratic -like models of government (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) without taking the will and readiness of the native population into consideration.


During the time of the Prophet apart from the Arab pagans Muslims in Medina were in contact with its large Jewish and smaller Christian communities. Prophet's attitude towards mom Muslims was largely context dependent . The Qur'an itself bears witness to this in many places. The signing of the peace treaty between various faith communities in Medina soon after the Prophet's arrival indicated his willingness and readiness for peaceful co-existence. A number of incidents that happened during Prophet's time in Medina , such as his order to execute the male members of a particular Jewish tribe in Medina after their repeated breaking of an agreement, along with Qur'anic injunctions which often , if taken literal and decontextually, could be seen as ambivalent , even contradictory towards ahl-Kitab ( recipients of previous revelations) resulted in a certain uncertainty and lack of definition as to how the subsequent generations are to approach people belonging to non-Muslim faiths.
It is only after the Prophet's demise the expanding Muslim Empire was confronted and exposed to the realities beyond the Arab peninsula. The concept of Ahl-Kitab was largely applied to majority of people who, over time, were brought under the rule of the caliph. They did not have same rights and responsibilities as Muslim citizens ( this distinction was also applied to Muslim men and women not just as citizens but also as spouses ) and they enjoyed (limited) religious freedom and protection by the Muslim government as al-dhimmi .
The traditional doctrine developed, among others, specific terminology such as dar-ul-harb ( realm of war) and dar-ul-islam (realm of Islam) designated to particular geographical areas in its relation to the Muslim empire and Muslim populace . These , binary concepts of the world developed a millennium ago, are being coined by certain contemporary Muslim movements in Muslim societies as well as those living in western-democracies as being eternally valid and part of the Prophet's Sunnah. Thus the west is the dar-ul- harb and inherently antagonistic to Islam as embodied by the Prophet. Muslims duty, according to this dialectic, is either to "convert" the dar-ul harb into dar-ul-islam through missionary ( da'wa) activity or to isolate and distance itself form it (with the exception of in some cases of the sphere of economics) or even engage in military conflict until it itself becomes dar-ul Islam( a rather rare opinion ).

Theories, concepts , policies and views elaborated and accumulated during medieval times pertaining to the Muslim non -Muslim dynamics are largely socio-historically contingent and cannot be applied in the current context and the state of affairs in which the humanity is in. The medieval worldview cannot longer be considered as being faithful to the Prophetic model and action. Prof. Ramadan brings in another concept, namely that of dar-ul-shahada (abode of testimony) to say that Muslims in vast majority of cases , especially but not exclusively in the context of Muslim minorities living in liberal democracies, enjoy constitutional rights as citizens allowing them to remain faithful to their faith and be witness bearers of God .This, in turn ,enables them not only to remain faithful to their religious principles but also to meaningfully engage in the betterment of their societies in accordance with Islamic values that are universalist and socially non-contingent such as social justice, freedom of belief and thought etc.
Thus depending upon the approach and interpretational models of Qur'an and Sunnah the Muslim -Non-Muslim dynamics can take two diametrically opposed pathways, a pathway of peaceful co-existence based on commonly shared values or that of animosity and oppositional dialectics that can seriously affect the future course of international affairs/politics .

The concept of Prophetic authority , its underlying epistemological parameters and methodological tools have occupied a central place among the debates between Muslims ever since the conception of Muslim Ummah. Often the conclusions have been quite diametrically opposed with enormous consequences for not only individuals but also societies at large may they be Muslim or non-Muslim. Author has just scratched the surface by choosing the examples of democracy and Muslim-non-Muslim dynamics as just two of many issues that are of great importance for understanding the role of Islam and Muslims in contemporary international politics ands the future nature of that dynamics.


About Adis

Editors of MAJALLA.

Next Post
No comments:
Write comments

Recommended Essays

- See more at:


MAJALLA is a repository of digital content relevant to the Islamic civilization. The site operates through the collaborative effort of volunteer Editors based in many countries around the world.

The site archives content in most languages. We accept content in languages in which some of our Editors are familiar. if you have a collection you want to make available through, or you would like to become an Editor of content in a particular language, please contact us.

If interested in collaboration or in submitting your work or a collection you own, please contact us. Your efforts help in creating an archive of knowledge about Islamic thought, events, and history.

This is primarily a public service and the initial founders would like it to be self-sustaining in the long run so that it remains freely accessible and free of influence and control by narrow interest groups. Your support can help achieve these goals.