Is sovereignty given to Shariah or the rule of man?

The first Muslim scholar to formally write about an experience of European democracy was probably Rifa’ah Tahtawi (d. 1873), who in 1834, on his return from France, wrote of the virtues of French democracy. Tahtawi, an Imam, felt that Muslim societies could borrow experiences from the West if they did not directly contradict Islam. Another early figure was Khairuddin al-Tunisi (d. 1899) who stressed that political reform was necessary to rejuvenate the Arab world. Muhammad Abduh, the famous Egyptian scholar, argued that Islam is not a theocracy and that there is a clear distinction between the ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’. But some have argued that democracy constitutes a form of polytheism (shirk bi-Llah) by interfering with God’s authority to rule, as in their view the ultimate source of sovereignty (hakimiyyah), rests with God. As with the idea of political parties, the idea of ‘sovereignty’ ascribed to the Shariah is a new idea, and is not found in the works of the classical scholars.

Tahrir, and other more militant groups, use the slogan of ‘Sovereignty belongs to God’ as their ideological foundation. Tahrir believe that only they are able to understand Islam correctly in matters of governance and therefore only they can establish Dar al-Islam (the world, or ambit, of Islam) because the world as-it-is is seen as Dar al-Kufr or Dar al-Harb – a world of disbelief or war. However, what they really mean by ruling by God’s law is ruling by their interpretation of God’s law. Such ideas of the hakimiyya of God were developed by writers such as Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), creating a view that democracy cannot be reconciled with Islam.

This idea, that men rule by claiming God’s rule, was warned against by the Prophet (pbuh) when he said:

If you… are asked to pronounce God’s ruling upon them, then do not pronounce God’s ruling upon them. But pronounce your [own] ruling (hukm-ik), for you do not know God’s ruling.[1]

In this hadith he forbade referring to everyday laws as ruling by God’s law. The fatawa (judgements) given by the scholars of Islam in response to this statement state that pronouncing human judgments as ruling by God’s law is either forbidden (haram) or detestable (makruh), and that any fatwa given by men is not God’s rule.

Imam al-Nawawi[2] comments that this ‘prohibition (of claiming to rule in God’s name) is one of precaution and it is discouraged [to do so].’ Imam al-Sarakhsi,[3] the great Hanafi jurist, explains the wisdom in the Prophet’s (pbuh) statement as intending to avoid sectarian political claims:

The benefit in this is that doubt in scholarly difference (shubhat ul-khilaf) is avoided by pronouncing upon them ‘our ruling’ and judgement according to ‘our opinion’. However, this is not avoided if we say we are pronouncing God’s ruling, as the mujtahid (jurist) could be correct, or incorrect. This is the benefit in using this wording.[4]

Al-Sarakhsi explains, if the decisions of men are accepted to be the decisions of men and not God’s rules it prevents one from thinking that one may be right and one wrong, and also the disputes that ensue from such a discussion. If the rules are seen as man’s rules then this lends to a more pluralistic outlook and difference of opinion or judgement is seen as normal and human. Disputes over differences are therefore regarded as less relevant and the potential polarization of society that can result is negated from the start. Therefore, rather than being the rule of God, ruling should be seen as the ‘rule of human beings’.

So: far from being an Islamic slogan, ‘ruling is for God alone’ is viewed by the scholars as, at best being potentially divisive and by some, such as Imam Muhammad bin al-Hasan al-Shaybani,[5] as forbidden (haram).[6] Again, the only precedent for this slogan in all Islamic history is from the Khawarij.

Scholars today have discouraged the formation of Islamist political parties precisely because of the sectarian conflict that they create. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah has stated it is instead preferable to form co-operative associations with mainstream political parties which share common values.[7]


[1] Al-Minhaj Shar’h Sahih Muslim bin al-Hajjaj, vol. 6, parts 11/12, p. 267. Dar al-Marifa, Beirut – Lebanon.

[2] Imam al-Nawawi (1255–1300) is one of the most famous scholars of the Shafii madhab. Legal ruling transmitted by him are often taken as the position of the madhab (school of thought) on the issue. He is author of the famous and most-often used commentary on Muslim’s hadith collection: Al-Minhaj Shar’h Sahih Muslim bin al-Hajjaj.

[3] Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Abi Sahl Abu Bakr al-Sarakhsi (from Sarakhs in Khorasan) was an Islamic scholar of the Hanafi school, who lived and worked in Transoxiana. His family background is unknown; he died around the year 1106 CE.

[4] Kitab ul-Mabsut, vol. 5, p. 1800, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut.

[5] Imam Muhammad Bin Hasan al-Shaybani died 850 was the foremost student of Imam Abu Hanifa, whom the Hanafi madhab is named after.

[6] Kitab ul-Mabsut, vol. 5, p. 1799, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut.

[7] Sana’aat ul-Fatawa wa Fiqh ul-Aqaalliyaat, Dar ul-Minhaj, 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s