The Relationship Between the Ruler and the Ruled:
A Mutually Obligating Agreement

Ibrahim bin Ali Alwazir

The term "Social Contract" refers to a state of existence in which men are assumed to have surrendered living as free and independent individuals in nature, and chosen a communally agreed form of social organization. This notion can be traced back to the time of the ancient Greeks, yet it only became an important argument in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the most important thinkers who expounded the theory of social contract. What is significant for us is that to Rousseau, social contract was only an assumption and ideal; whereas, Islam - eleven centuries before Rousseau - introduced the same concept and translated it into a living workable reality. "Al-Bay'ah" is the Arabic term for social contract.

"Al-Bay'ah" literally means a commercial transaction. Hence, it brings to mind, by free association, the meaning of the act of a free-will transaction between two or more parties where each becomes reciprocally obligated to the other. It follows from that if one party does not fulfil its obligation, the whole transaction is then rendered void and unbinding to the other party or parties. According to the Islamic canon law, a would-be ruler has to be voted for according to the bay'ah. This means that he should be chosen by a process of free consultation among the people or their representatives; and according to the conditions set by the majority of them. The first and foremost of such conditions is the adherence to the constitution - the Quran. Only then does he become entitled to the people's obedience and support.

At the conclusion of the bay'ah, the ruler shakes hands with the people's representatives; which symbolizes his acceptance of the responsibilities entrusted to him. The same procedure of the bay'ah is to be followed all over the nation's provinces between the inhabitants of such provinces and the administrators whom the elected ruler delegates to govern the provinces on his behalf. It is important to indicate that if the ruler rules unjustly or abuses his powers, he would be then breaching the bay'ah; and the people then have the right to rise up against him and even to impeach him. In fact, the tradition of the Zaydi school of "Fiqh" and thought makes it imperative to rise up to overthrow a deviant and unjust ruler. Zaydism - committed to justice on earth, among other things - has had a long history of fighting against injustice. It started after the end of the rightly-guided Caliphate and the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty, when Al-Hussein and the committed Muslims took to revolt against Mu'awiya; which resulted in the tragic and bloody murder of Al-Hussein. Thus thirty years after the Prophet's (PBUH) death, rulership no longer adhered to the Quranic principles of shura (communal consultation) and bay'ah (voting); rather, it retrogressed to pre-Islamic forms of kingship. Muslims, since the Umayyads down to the present time, have been suffering under rulerships that are absolutist, tyrannical, and anti-Islamic. Islam is innocent of such unjust systems which falsely claim to be Islamic. For the Quran commands every Muslim to work for the realization of the call of all prophets - justice.

"We sent aforetime our messengers with Clear Signs, and sent down with them the Book of the Balance [of Right and Wrong], that men may stand forth in justice." [Quran 57:25]

Communal Consultation is the Method of Decision-Making

And the purpose is "to bend he who is the first entrusted with responsibility to conformity with justice."

After the bay'ah is completed, the elected ruler should set forth to perform his duties. Yet, he shall do so according to a process of mutual consultation with those in authority from among the people. In fact, this procedure is a basic Quranic principle which ought to characterize not only the relationship between the ruler and ruled, but also all aspects of conduct of the believers in the Muslim community. A special verse on that matter was revealed in the Quran; and was entitled Ash-Shura: "Those who respond to their Lord, and establish regular prayer; who [conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation." [Quran 42:38]

The implementation of the principle of communal consultation during the rightly-guided Caliphate took the form of public discussion in the mosque. Whenever an important issue came to be, the Mu'addin (announcer of prayer) would call upon the Muslims to gather for a group prayer. (The consultation procedure had its own characteristic call which was: "group prayer; group prayer"). Then all men and women would hasten to the mosque. The Caliph would present the issue or issues and take the people's opinion. It is important to indicate here that the democracy of the mosque in Al-Madina included women and slaves, unlike the Athenian democracy which excluded them.

The Islamic democracy of the mosque proved itself in principle and practice. Al-Imam Ali's (PBUH), dictum: "I have no authority without your support," indicates the respect of the political rights of the people. On the practical plane, the following two incidents illustrate such respect.

It was reported that after Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, was elected, he set out to the market to earn a living to support his family. He was then seen by one of the Companions; and the following dialogue ensued between the two:

Companion: To where are you heading?
Abu Bakr: To the market to earn a living.
Companion: You are already working for the Muslims!
Abu Bakr: How then can I feed my children?
Companion: Call upon the Muslims to get together and present the matter to them.

That Companion was one of those who were schooled by the Prophet (PBUH). He learned that people, and not individuals, are the legitimate source of power. Thus he announced the Shura call for prayer. When the people gathered in the mosque, Abu Bakr addressed them: "I used to work to support my children, now I work for you. So, appropriate for me from the treasury whatever you agree upon for my needs." The Muslims consulted among themselves and decided to give him wages enough to secure his needs.

The other incident is very well known in Islamic history. It was when Omar ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph, proposed that a limit be set regarding women's dowries. A woman then stood up to him and brought to his attention that his proposal goes against a Quranic text. Omar did not hesitate to admit that he was in error and that she was correct.

All that indicates that the supreme ideal which the Islamic political system aims to pursue and, indeed, realized during the rightly-guided Caliphate is justice. This follows naturally since Islamic rulership rests its legitimacy on the Quranic law where justice is the decisive criterion. The Quran abounds with verses that command justice and forbid injustice. It is significant that there is no mention whatsoever in the Quran that a ruler should rule "over" people; rather it addresses those who rule, or judge, or arbitrate, and that they should do so not "over" people but "between" them. A ruler, like a judge, should aim at justice - which was the aim of all the Prophet's missions.

This indicates the judicial nature of the Islamic rulership. It is also the reason why all are equal before the Islamic law - no impunities for certain social classes or exemptions for certain professions. Even a ruler in Islam is as subject to the law as the ruled.

It is clear from the above presentation that Islam made significant contributions to the progress of mankind on all planes: ethical, spiritual, and practical… Yet the image of Islam is still misunderstood and distorted in the Western world. The lack of objectivity in presenting Islam in the West is a legacy of the Crusades. Added to this are the inaccuracies of the historical scholarship of the orientalists. It is also unfortunate that the decadence of the state of affairs in the Muslim world has contributed to the West's negative perception of Islam. However, as much as Christianity as a religion should not be judged by how the Christian world is today, the same is true for Islam. Islam should be viewed in the light of its moral and spiritual precepts and how they have contributed to the dignity and the welfare of the mass of mankind. In the Outline of History, H.G. Wells points out that:

Islam prevailed because it was the best social and political order the time could offer. It prevailed because everywhere it found politically apathetic peoples robbed, oppressed… and it found selfish and unsound governments out of touch with any people at all. It was the broadest, freshest, and cleanest political idea that has yet come into actual activity in the world, and it offered better terms than any other to the mass of mankind. (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961, Vol. II, p. 493).

"O Muhammad, We have not sent thee otherwise than to mankind at large." [Quran 34:28].

Mr. Alwazir is the President of the Union of Supportive Shurists. This article is part of his publication "Two Testimonies: A Charter for the Good Life".


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