Illegitimacy, Islamic movement and revolution: basis of social action

Developing Just Leadership

Perwez Shafi

Rabi' al-Thani 27, 1432 2011-04-01

Islamic Movement

by Perwez Shafi (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 2, Rabi' al-Thani, 1432)

In Part 1 of his analysis of the Islamic political and decision-making apparatus, Dr. Perwez Shafi, a director of ICIT stationed in Pakistan, offers some thoughts on the question of legitimacy and its relationship to political and social change brought about by a revolutionary Islamic movement.

In Part 1 of his analysis of the Islamic political and decision-making apparatus, Dr. Perwez Shafi, a director of ICIT stationed in Pakistan, offers some thoughts on the question of legitimacy and its relationship to political and social change brought about by a revolutionary Islamic movement.

As the Ummah started showing signs of awakening from deep sleep after a gap of 14 centuries, once again old questions about legitimacy and change loom large. How is one to assess whether a political system is legitimate or not? What are the criteria on which to judge it? If the system and its authorities are not legitimate from the Islamic viewpoint what is the procedure for evolutionary change? If there are no procedures or rules for peaceful evolutionary change at what point is one forced to consider an approach of revolutionary change as the only alternative? Is the illegitimacy problem structural in nature? Does adopting a revolutionary approach for change necessarily mean using violence and force to change the system? If desire for peaceful change is met by violence and brute force, does Islam give the right of self-defence? In such a case, what are the legitimate vehicles, structure and processes available for evolutionary or revolutionary change? When contemplating change and struggle to establish a just social order what is the object of change and struggle: state or society?

Here we seek answers to such questions which are very important and critical to have conceptual clarity about change, legitimacy, Islamic movement, and revolution, and the relationship between them. And also because as Muslims are awakening they have to know the process of change and required social action to achieve desired and legitimate goals for the Muslim Ummah.


Change is a constant feature in nature. Nowadays a human life is constantly touched by change in material conditions, scientific and technological improvements and breakthroughs, and social conditions. However, in this artilce we are more concerned about social and political conditions, structures of the political system and the flexibility to facilitate or resist change.

The change deals with time, space and its outcome. The change could be evolutionary or revolutionary, it could be desirable or undesirable, planned or unplanned, purposive or without any purpose, positive or negative, with direction or aimless, for the benefit of few or all, gradual or rapid, conscious or unconscious. One way to judge the outcome of change is either the uplifting of human values and human dignity or their degradation. The political system and its structures are meant to serve human beings but if they becomes rigid and resistant to change, they become a burden under whose weight human spirit and efforts are crushed. Therefore, change is positive, desirable, purposive when it results in upliftment of human values and spirit for the benefit of all. This criteria guides and determines the process and the outcome of any evolutionary or revolutionary social change.


Associated with the concept of change is legitimacy. When change becomes imperative, is accepted by the majority, is done or achieved according to some well-defined procedure or rules, and the outcome of change is determined to be positive, desirable, purposive resulting in upliftment of human values and spirit for the benefit of all, then such a change, its goals and the way it was brought about is also considered as legitimate.

Thus when any system that is supported, desired and struggled for by majority comes in to existence, it will have a high degree of legitimacy. Any authorities who ascend to power according to prescribed rules and procedures, and who are accountable to the masses, lends further legitimacy and strength to a political system. Thus this legitimacy deals with a system initially coming into existence and the authorities’ ascension to power. Such legitimacy can be described as existential legitimacy.

Later on legitimacy, once achieved, is not necessarily static or itself impervious to growth. A legitimate system may sometimes be unable to perform according to design or as planned due to a number of factors leading to issues of performance legitimacy which is not as severe and critical over a short period. These factors affect the performance of a legitimate system, and if not corrected, may lead to its deterioration over time. Complacency is the first factor: lack of unity among the system’s authorities, failure to keep pace with time, lack of communication between masses and authorities, un-met desires and demands of the masses, gradually building resistance to change, etc. In other words, an original and legitimately created system may still lose its performance legitimacy over time if not corrected. However, even in the short run, performance legitimacy is not as critical as existential legitimacy. Here most of the time when simply legitimacy is mentioned it will always mean existential legitimacy as it sequentially comes before performance legitimacy. In other words, before questions of its performance can be raised, a system coming into existence must be existentially legitimate to start with.

Since the concept of legitimacy is central to the Islamic movement or a revolutionary struggle, the political system has to be evaluated by the concept of moral legitimacy. A political system is considered legitimate, first, when its values, norms and belief system are in harmony with the values, norms and belief system of the people it governs. All political structures and institutions should reflect this consensus on core values. This allows the state to exist and function legitimately and bestows on authorities the right to govern and be accountable. This is known as moral legitimacy.

In other words, a state or political system established and founded on the core values of Islam would be considered as legitimate, existentially but not necessarily morally. In this three-tier hierarchical political system, the top tier is occupied by the authorities and the government who could either be legitimate or illegitimate, the next level is the entire regime consisting of all major institutions and its authorities, and at the base is the state and its components. The purpose, functions and goals as well as the internal and external policies of the legitimate system in Muslim lands is to achieve Islamic values, norms and Islamic goals and interests (not national, tribal or imperial). In such a case the system’s core values, norms and belief system as well as the internal and external policies and ultimate state objectives are in aligmnent with the values of the Muslim rank and file.To the extent they are not aligned, the system’s legitimacy would be downgraded to reflect the degree of contrast between the two, becoming totally illegitimate when the system’s values are defined by other sources of temporal power unrelated to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet (pbuh).

Muslim history: from legitimacy to illegitimacy

The roots of the present nation-state legitimacy problems of the Muslim societies go back to early Muslim history. At that time through an Islamic movement the first successful Islamic Revolution under the guidance and leadership of the Prophet (pbuh) took place and the Islamic State was set up in the 7th century. This was the example of perfect legitimacy as the core values, norms and belief system of Islam were realized and institutionalized in the Muslim society of Madinah; Sayyid Qutb describes this in his famous book Milestones.

The Islamic civilization can take various forms in its material and organizational structure, but the principles and values on which it is based are eternal and unchangeable. These are: the conformity to Allah (swt) alone, the foundation of human relationships on the commitment to the Unity of Allah (swt), the supremacy of the humanity of [hu]man over material things, the development of human values and the control of animalistic desires, respect for the family, the assumption of the vicegerency of Allah (swt) on earth according to His guidance and instruction, and in all affairs of this vicegerency, the rule of Allah’s (swt) law (Shari‘ah) and the way of life prescribed by Him.1

The purpose of establishing the Islamic state was, and is very different than any other arrangement observed in the world. The moral consensus reached by the Muslim society became the moral foundation of the Islamic state. In other words, the object of Islamic movement is the reconstruction of a society based on Islamic values, norms and belief system — not just setting up a state, which may end up being agnostic of those values. If the objective is to only establish an Islamic state — a much easier task than reforming and rejuvenating society — it many lead to an irresistible temptation among various Muslim groups and factions to take a short cut, which even if successful will inevitably lead to a weaker social foundation prone to collapse under slight external or internal pressures geared toward weakening the popular resolve, which may not have been completely on board with the those who struggled to establish the state instrument. Contrary to the popular belief and momentum these days, Islam gives primacy to rejuvenating and energizing society through principled Islamic struggle rather than establishing the state which is only a means to achieve the larger objective. Once the primary objective is pursued and achieved the secondary benefit is automatically accomplished. Pursuing the latter, however, as the primary goal puts the society on a weaker, softer foundation, that will be ill equipped to defend against internal or external hegemony, and unable to sustain the state in times of crisis. On this, Mohammad Asad states,

Thus, an Islamic state is not a goal or an end in itself but only a means — the goal being the growth of a community of people who stand up for equity and justice, for right against wrong; or, to put it more precisely, a community of people who work for the creation and maintenance of such social conditions as would enable the greatest possible number of human beings to live, morally as well as physically, in accordance with the natural law of God: Islam.2

The first constitution of the Islamic state was drawn up and it delineated the rights and responsibilities of each group in times of peace and war. In matters related exclusively to the domain of the laws revealed in previous scripture, each community so attuned was free to follow its own law. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was accepted as the head of the Islamic State by all communities — Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Thus, the legitimacy of the Islamic state served the purpose not only of politically uniting previously weaker communities but also laid the foundations of Islamic institutional development in the social, cultural, economic, and political spheres. Thus Islamic civilization created was now ready to pursue its civilizational goals through various means including those best facilitated by the existence of a state instrument.

However, within the brief period one generation the top tier of the political system — those who ultimately gelled into a ruling class — became illegitimate when it ascended to power by force and subsequently established kingship (by Mu‘awiyah), later converting it into heredity kingship, when Yazid was coronated. Thus the era of hereditary kingship was born with the founding of the Ummayyad Dynasty (661–750ce), which lasted for about 90 years. The Ahl al-Bayt and a number of other muttaqi companions and ‘alims struggled to rectify the deviation in the top tier of the system, but with increasing oppression, the illegitimacy also increased leading to the ultimate demise of the first Islamic State. Then the ‘Abbasid dynasty came and lasted for another few hundred years until 1258ce, followed by various small and weak sultanates.

Throughout these centuries till the arrival of the Europeans in Muslim lands in 17–18th centuries, the Shari‘ah was still the law of the land in most, if not all, matters. The political aspects of Shari‘ah concerning institutions and norms — representative institutions, consultation, collective decision-making, ijtihad, accession to power with the peoples’ consent, bay‘ah, rule with justice and accountability to the people — were suspended. However, in the early stages, only the first pillar of legitimacy of the state had fallen; the other two were to fall during European colonization. The Muslim dynastic states and societies did not keep abreast of developments going on in the rest of the world by venturing out and exploring it. Along with the restrictions on political thought and practice, the spirit of curiosity and intellectual growth was extinguished as well. Their dynastic state structures were severely corroded to the extent they were no match for the superior Western state structures and institutions.

Within a couple of centuries they became easy prey to European colonial expansion. The underlying causes of institutional weakness working over the centuries had the inevitable effect of causing dynastic states to be overwhelmed by the superior forces of the Europeans. The Europeans set up colonial administrations, which ruled by force and abolished all Islamic institutions, structures, processes and laws, replacing them with institutions and practices reflecting Western values in every aspect of life. Islam as a civilizational and social force was reduced to the status of “religion” thus becoming a “personal matter” restricted to a few ceremonial and formal rituals as conceived by the West. The educational system was transformed into a European one by eradicating Islam in its institutional capacity, and economic life was controlled to eliminate business competition with Western monopolies.

Against the thousand years of exploitation of the European masses by the Church, focusing exclusively on “afterlife”, the new European mercantile and capitalist class revolted, creating a new religion and associated values, which were nationalistic and secular in nature. Under the influence of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment the European ideologuesnot only rejected the superstitious, mythological and irrational Pauline “Christian” religion, but went to the extreme of rejecting God altogether. Released from the shackles of medieval superstitious ideas, the human and its unbounded material desires itself became gods. By the 19th century the conception of the universe was completely reversed under the influence of secular humanism, materialism, nationalism, the breakup of the Church, and the emergence of capitalism as a world system, placing more emphasis on the “independent” individual, whose human nature would no longer be conditioned by guidance from God. “Reason” became the new faith in which God was replaced by human knowledge and intellect. Instead of the God-centered universe, the new religion became human-centered with exclusive focus on “this world” and materialism. As Esposito commented, “Western social scientific worldview… [is] man-centered, rooted in a postclassical nineteenth century positivist, empirical tradition.”3 Stavrianos put it this way,

The so-called “Renaissance ferment” involved the growth of individualism and of secularism. The theological and ecclesiastical control of life was challenged and ultimately replaced by new moral and social values arrived at by individual inquiry. A new conception of man himself gradually emerged — a new confidence in his dignity and creativity. Man did not need to be preoccupied with forebodings of divine judgement in afterlife. He had but to develop his innate potentialities and, above all, his power to reason.4

Muslim societies were divided between those who supported the European colonizers for personal gain or otherwise and those who opposed them. This made the Muslim societies dysfunctional and disoriented, creating an identity crisis with built-in mutual antagonism. Thus, the second pillar of legitimacy fell during the European colonization.

Infighting among the major European colonial powers left them weak during the first half of the 20th century. Unable to control and exploit their colonies as they had done before the two great European wars (WWI and WWII), the European colonizers were forced by the mid-20th century to transform their direct control into a more surreptitious indirect one, now characterized as neo-colonialism. Under the aegis of this new policy of control, they granted “independence” to Muslim majority countries and societies, but with the proviso that “independence” be founded upon a nationalistic and secular orientation — a form of kufr — nurtured for more than a few centuries, leading to the establishment of “nation-states”, first in Europe and then duplicated around the world. The global map today reflects geographical nationalistic boundaries carved out in an arbitrary manner to maximize Western power and influence at the expense of those who were previously occupied. The nation-state is a structural problem (hard wired, so to speak) and cannot be resolved through reforms or other soft measures. Thus the final blow to the third tier or last pillar of legitimacy was struck at the state level when the original inclusivist post-national and post-tribal Islamic State was transformed into exclusivist nation-states, committed to European values and goals and firmly integrated into the world capitalist system.

The nation-state was designed to be powerful enough to withstand the potential pressures of self-representation exerted by the exploited masses. Thus, the repression and violence by the states against the protest of the exploited masses was structurally built into the state’s political and security institutions, its ideology, and legalized through various internal and external global structures.

Verdict of History

In short, the Prophet (pbuh) created perfect legitimacy in an Islamic state in the 7th century, which over 14 centuries through internal intrigues and external occupations and imperialism lost all its legitimacy and was ultimately converted into a Western paradigm of nation-states, whether in the form of heredity despots (kingships), military dictatorship or liberal secular democracies — common to all of which are Western core values, norms and a belief system directly opposed to Islam. Thus from the Islamic legal, politico-socio-economic and moral viewpoint, the Muslims have gone from a stage of “perfect legitimacy” to one of “perfect illegitimacy” requiring nothing short of revolutionary change to restore the Islamic order of things, taking into consideration local factors.

The verdict of history is that the status quo is neither acceptable nor desirable. The present situation in Muslim lands is illegitimate, immoral, oppressive and exploitative, and supports and promotes Western core values to the detriment of Islam and thereby to the detriment of universal social justice, equity and equilibration of wealth and resources. The nation-state model is a structural problem of illegitimacy that cannot be resolved through soft measures or reforms. No genuine fatwa or analysis can bypass the flow of history as sketched briefly above and still retain its veracity. Any person, group, political party or government siding with the status quo is in fact siding with and promoting Western values of kufr and their domination and influence over Muslim hearts and minds. For any committed Muslim the only rational and Islamic choice, in the footsteps of the martyrdom of Imam Hussayn and various Islamic scholars from all schools of thought, is to overthrow the evil status quo of illegitimacy or at least oppose it as a representation of kufr. A principled Islamic revolutionary movement is the only and best vehicle to overturn the status quo. This struggle is not only justified and legitimate but also a duty of every committed Muslim to achieve personal salvation as well as making his contribution toward a better and just social order. (Part 2 of this article in the next issue will discuss the two concepts of Islamic movement and revolution, and the relationship between them).

  1. Sayyid Qutb (M.M. Siddiqui, translator), Milestones. (Kuwait: International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations, 1989), p. 196.
  2. Muhammad Asad, The Principles of State and the Government in Islam (2nd edition). (Gibraltar, Spain: Dar al-Andalus, 1980), p. 30.
  3. John L. Esposito, Islam and Development. (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1980).
  4. L.S. Stavrianos, The World Since 1500: A Global History. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966), p. 13.
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