The recent upheaval in the Middle East has resulted in the fall of ruthless dictators, toppling them like dominoes. It began in Tunisia and shook the land of the pyramids, and at least briefly, justice, the elusive flower, bloomed in the “Arab Spring” on the banks of the Nile.
A highlight of this upheaval was the start of the deposed Egyptian president’s trial. Hosni Mubarak was wheeled in on a bed and placed in the customary cage of the courtroom in Cairo. A humiliating fall after his 30 years of rule. Despite rising to the top as “president” and having stayed there for the past three decades, Mubarak’s fall from grace took a mere three weeks. His presidency was marked by corruption, murder and brutality. During his time of rule, his secret police engaged in the most vicious abuses of human rights.
The trial of Mubarak is perhaps one of the many awaited events in the Muslim world. That the fall of Mubarak took place through the efforts of the local population at the expense of hundreds of lives and countless injuries is a telling commentary of the desire of people to reclaim the dignity that was for so long denied them. It is also a rebuttal to all those who would accuse Muslims of being complicit in their enslavement to these totalitarian regimes. It is a refutation to all those who want to accuse Muslims and Islam of advocating repressive and dictatorial regimes.
Given that these were “Muslim” leaders in Muslim lands, and considering the ages of oppressive and authoritarian ruler-ship they imposed, the mistake of associating these rulers with the inherent tendencies of Muslims and teachings of Islam is understandable.
However, what Islam teaches in regard to ruler-ship is in sharp contrast with what is prevalent in the Middle East; a contrast between what should be and what is. Islam pervades all aspects of a Muslim’s life, from worship, to business dealings, and to the all important governance of a society. Muslims consider this life as a test and a fulfillment of this test is the adherence to the teachings of Islam.
Islam does not regard ruler-ship, or the authority to rule, as a right to be seized or a right inherited from family. It is a burden upon those who choose to undertake it and a curse for those who abuse it. The leadership of any society is a vital part of the success of that society. Corrupt leaders who exploit their constituents for their own personal gain hamper the progress and well-being of their citizens. This is precisely the reason why Islam takes such a harsh view of leadership, and requires its proper fulfillment as a moral obligation.
It is reported that Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “If Allah puts anyone in the position of authority over the Muslims’ affairs and he secludes himself (from them), not fulfilling their needs, wants, and poverty, Allah will keep Himself away from him, not fulfilling his need, want, and poverty.”
In another teaching, Muhammad (peace be upon him) is also quoted to have said, “Any man whom Allah has given the authority of ruling some people and he does not look after them in an honest manner, will never feel even the smell of Paradise.”
It is the responsibility of the leader of a nation to look after the well-being of its citizens. This responsibility not only encompasses the physical needs, but also the stability of the society by promoting good and preventing evil. However, given Islam’s strict view of leadership, how does Islam expect people to take on these roles?
In another narration, Muhammad (peace be upon him) advises one of his companions, “O ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Samura! Do not seek to be a ruler, for if you are given authority on your demand, you will be held responsible for it, but if you are given it without asking for it, then you will be helped (by Allah) in it. If you ever take an oath to do something and later on you find that something else is better, then do what is better and make expiation for your oath.”
Clearly, the violent crack-down seen in Syria, and many of the other Muslim countries against unarmed protesters de-legitimizes the leadership of these tyrants. The attempt of these leaders to cling to power through these violent means exposes them to the consequences of their follies.
Many of these leaders are so addicted to the power they have acquired that they cannot relinquish it, as illuminated by the following saying of Muhammad (peace be upon him), “You people will be keen to have the authority of ruling which will be a thing of regret for you on the Day of Resurrection. What an excellent wet nurse it is, yet what a bad weaning one it is.”
It was in regards to this influence of power that caused the most senior companion of Muhammad (peace be upon him), Abu Bakr, who became the leader after him to say, “I have been given the authority over you, and I am not the best of you. If I do well, help me; and if I do wrong, set me right. Sincere regard for truth is loyalty and disregard for truth is treachery. The weak amongst you shall be strong with me until I have secured his rights, if God wills; and the strong amongst you shall be weak with me until I have wrested from him the rights of others, if God wills.”
There is a story of another famous leader in Islamic history, Umar ibn al-Khattab, another companion of Muhammad (peace be upon him), that highlights his dedication to his people. Once he was passing through the suburbs of the city of Medina at night during his rule when he noticed a fire of a destitute family in the desert. He hurried to the site to find a woman stirring in a pot over a fire and her children crying. Upon inquiry the woman stated that the water was only to soothe the children in the hope that food was being prepared and lull them to sleep. The woman, not recognizing Umar, cried out, “Allah will judge between Umar and me, on the Day of Judgment, for neglecting me in my distress.” Umar, troubled, returned to the city to collect food, which he personally served to the family.
The Islamic political system hinges on principles of justice, equality, and “Shura,” also known as mutual consultation. A Muslim leader is bound to these principles. Shura entails that a leader consults with representatives of the general population regarding matters of public affairs. The primary principles of Shura are “Ijtihad Jama’i” collective deliberation, “Rida al awam” consent of the majority, and “Mas’uliyah Jama’iyyah” collective responsibilities.
Briefly, the collective deliberation begins the process of analyzing and resolving issues, which is then accepted by the majority. Thereafter, it is the responsibility of all individuals in the society to uphold and adhere to the decision.
The Islamic political system does not advocate any one form of representative governments such as a parliamentary or a presidential system. It provides guidelines and leaves the specific implementation up to the people as they see necessary.
Shura is mentioned at least twice in the Quran where God emphasizes the need for consultation among people for purposes of governance, “Thus it is due to mercy from Allah that you deal with them gently, and had you been rough, hard-hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you; pardon them therefore and ask pardon for them, and take counsel with them in the affair; so when you have decided, then place your trust in Allah; surely Allah loves those who trust (in Him) (Al Imran, 159).”
In this verse, God is commanding Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself to seek the counsel of his companions.
In another verse in the Quran, in a chapter titled “Al Shura”, The Consultation, God enumerates the qualities of those people whom He regards highly, “And those who respond to their Lord and keep up prayer, and their rule is to take counsel among themselves, and who spend out of what We have given them (in charity) (The Consultation, 38).”
While the burden of governance is on the leadership, the citizens of a state also share in the maintenance of the state. It is the right of the citizens to object to unjust policies, and to articulate their objection. Another teaching of the Prophet Muhammad relates that a person who stands up to a tyrant, voices his concerns, and is killed because of it is a martyr. “The master of martyrs is Hamza, and a man who stands up to a tyrant ruler and gives him advice. And so the ruler kills him.”
In the face of the daily toll inflicted on unarmed protesters, it is clear the leaders in those countries are not adhering to the expectations of any ruler-ship, let alone the expectations of Islam. Living in the United States, it is difficult to understand the frustrations of people who feel compelled to protest in the streets, even under the ruthless conditions imposed by their governments. Yet, there is hope that their conditions can be changed for the better. It was this same hope that drove the founding fathers of the United States to sever ties with a ruler who was unjust and undeserving. This spirit, captured in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, led the founding fathers to strive for a union that establishes justice, tranquility, promotes the general welfare and secures liberty.
The motivations that drove the founding fathers of the United States more than 200 years ago are the very same motivations that drive the movements in the Middle East today. Stability and prosperity in the Middle East is a benefit not just to the people there, but in this global village, to the whole world.
However, admittedly whatever the outcome of the trial of Hosni Mubarak, and whatever the immediate outcome of events in Syria, these countries have a long way to go before they achieve a just and fair leadership. The people in these countries are at a critical stage as they experiment with self-determinacy, but this should not be a cause of concern here in the United States. Stable and prosperous societies do not arise over night. Perhaps the phrase “Arab Spring” to describe the current situation is premature; most likely this is still the “Arab Winter,” and the true “Arab Spring” is yet to come.
This Voices column was written by Ali Shareef, a graduate student in the College of Engineering, University of Maine in Orono. Columns on Islam are published in cooperation with the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono.