Islamic concept of legitimacy

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Muharram 06, 1433 2011-12-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 10, Muharram, 1433)

As mass popular movements sweep the Muslim East (aka Middle East) predatory Western powers and their local satraps are involved in desperate attempts to hijack them. They are offering the same failed systems in a new garb. Since the overwhelming majority in the region is Muslim, it is natural that they would want a social order connected to Islamic principles that represent and ennoble their unique identity. The people’s uprisings have made clear what they do not want: the old decrepit order. What they want instead and what shape the new order would take is as yet unclear.

Both in Tunisia where elections were held on October 23 and in Egypt where mass protests erupted again as Crescent went to press (before the November 28 election date), attempts are underway to keep the political process on a secularist track and Islam at bay to prevent its shaping the order in society. It is argued that Islam has no solutions to contemporary problems. We need to confront this argument and expose the forces behind such thinking but first let us understand the concept of legitimacy in Islam and how it is derived.

It is not the majority that confers legitimacy; Islamic legitimacy comes from divine commands. If the overwhelming majority in society, for instance, decides to kill the minority or to institute cannibalism would that make such acts acceptable? Based on Western notions of democracy, this would be perfectly legitimate but not in Islam. Let us go further. From the Islamic point of view, every Prophet of Allah (a) had legitimacy because he received the message from on high even if the people to whom it was delivered did not accept it. Islamic legitimacy is not contingent upon people’s acceptance or rejection but on following the commands of Allah (swt).

We must also have a clearer understanding of Islam. The Qur’an refers to it as deen, meaning a way of life. Thus, Islam encompasses more than the set of rituals that people perform as part of their religious obligation. Unlike other religions, Islam offers a complete set of principles that guides every adherent through life. It has rules for every aspect: social, political and economic. This is not mere theory; Islamic principles have been put into practice and have produced results that are far superior to any other system.

The West’s greatest claim to superiority has rested on its ability to produce vast amounts of goods to satisfy people’s needs. The financial tsunami sweeping North America and Europe and the realization among people that their ruling elites have lied to them and robbed them of their livelihood has finally exposed this myth. If Western-style democracy and capitalism have failed their own people, why should others buy into them? But that is precisely what is being offered to Muslims in the Muslim East. Not only the ruling elites, that are beneficiaries of the old corrupt order, but also some leaders of Islamic movements have fallen for this fraud. It is tragic and depressing to hear otherwise intelligent and sincere leaders of Islamic movements talk about the virtues of secularism.

When Muslims embark on creating political systems in their societies, they must be clear about what they want. For a system to be legitimate and enjoy the support of the masses, it must be based on Islamic principles of which the most fundamental is justice. Without justice, there can be no peace or security in society.

We must also understand one other point: not everyone is created equal. Some are strong, others are weak; some are tall, others are short. The same applies to wealth and health. Yet such power differentiations must not be used to exploit or oppress the weak and poor. Unlike the Western system where the rich and, therefore, the powerful use their privileges to amass great wealth and power and deprive others of their basic rights, Islam regulates the use of power.

Unfortunately, in most Muslim societies too, the rich and powerful exploit the weak and poor. Western powers prop up the corrupt elites so that they institute policies beneficial to the West even if they are detrimental to the interests of their own people. Thus, Saudi Arabia must pump excessive amounts of oil, far beyond its own needs, to satiate America’s thirst. For toeing Washington’s line, the illegitimate House of Saud is kept in power. The same holds true for the city-states on the western shores of the Persian Gulf and regimes elsewhere in the Muslim East. The way out of this mess is not to apply the failed Western model but to create a system based on the values of Islam. It is only then that Muslim societies can be truly liberated.

Without Islam, no regime in the Muslim world can claim legitimacy regardless of the number of elections it holds. If the people desire a life of dignity and honour, they must continue to agitate and resist until they have established an Islamic system of governance.

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