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Islam’s founding Texts reveal the requirement to establish a divine order but no man is vested with the authority to do so: indeed, government belongs to God alone. In this sense, the very concept of an Islamic state, that would seek to eradicate idolatry and enforce the divine law, is blasphemous because it implies the existence of men who substitute themselves for God in His judgment. Theorized by Pakistani and Egyptian thinkers, this ideology has inspired numerous extremist movements.
When Arabic terms (appearing either in the Qur’an or in the writings of Muslim authors) denote the power of men, they generally have a negative meaning. This is so for the concepts of kingship and government/judgment, which are expressed by the terms mulk and hukm in Arabic. It could not be otherwise, since the Qur’an is continually recalling that power belongs to God.
The Prophet and the King
Muhammad was not a mere prophet but a rasūl, a Messenger from God with a message to pass on. To be sure, the divine discourse does not in any way confer on him a mandate comparable to that of Israel’s king-prophets but this did not prevent him from being a political leader or founding a community. This latter role is indisputably linked to his prophet function, despite the numerous verses dating to the early period that tend to present him as a simple warner who lacked any coercive power.
Prophecy, like the kingship with which it is associated, is a gift of God accorded the people of Israel, as is demonstrated both by the verses about Moses and those about David and Solomon, who had this double privilege. The New Testament does not introduce any novelty on this point. “You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above,” (Gv. 19:11) Jesus answered Pilate, when he threatened to crucify Him, and Paul was to say, “All [governing authority] comes from God” (Rm 13:1). Paul also speaks of kenosis: the exercise of authority is like a gift, an absence of domination. It is the opposite of the royal, warrior envoy.
The words most commonly used in the Qur’an to indicate kingship and the king are, respectively, mulk and malik. In sura 67, entitled al-Mulk (The Kingdom), this term denotes the universe of bodies, as opposed to malakūt, the universe of spirits. God is king because it is He Who is “protecting and Himself unprotected” (Qur’an 23:88), He whose “throne comprises the heavens and the earth” (Qur’an 2:255).
Numerous instances insist on this divine attribute. The Qur’an also uses the words kursī and ‘arsh (throne), in the concrete sense of the term, in relation to the king-prophet Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
In all the religions of the ancient East, in Babylon as in the Old Testament, God is king and the Lord of the universe, as shown by the books of Malachi and Isaiah (which speak of His majesty and sovereignty). Yahweh, too, is seated on a throne and it is He who delegates His reign to the house of David, His representative sent to the people of Israel. One can therefore understand that the earthly king owes his office solely to the will of God, in whom absolute kingship resides. Belief in the omnipotence of God as absolute king was all the greater during and after the exile in Babylon (c. 587-538 B.C.) when the Jews no longer had a king. After all, the kings of Judah and Israel were mere men and they were not always just. Later, Jesus was not to be king but Messiah and was to say, “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News” (Mk 1:15).
When applied to human matters, mulk denotes power, kingship and might. More commonly used in the sense of possession (of property), the verb malaka denotes, equally, control over oneself or over others, as when Moses speaks of himself or of his brother (Qur’an 5:25). When it refers to King Tālūt (Saul), sent by God to the people of Israel, the Qur’an recalls that kingship, according to divine virtues, is not always accompanied by wealth and material possessions. Whilst Saul is rejected by his own people, who reprove him of being without possessions, their prophet (Samuel) says to them, “God has chosen him over you, and has increased him broadly in knowledge and body” (Qur’an 2:247). In the Bible, it is Samuel once again who reminds the first king about divine wisdom when he has decided to carry out rituals reserved to the priesthood (1 Sam 15:22-23). In the same terms, Deuteronomy reminds the people through Moses that, “[the king must] not increase the number of his horses,” nor “the number of his wives,” nor “must he increase his gold and silver excessively” (Dt 17:16.17).
The Old Testament offers a lacklustre image of its kings: with the exception of the “good kings” (models of piety such as David and Solomon), they needed to be subjected to the prophets’ authority. It is probably thus that the verse of the Qur’an censuring the Jewish deniers needs to be interpreted: “Or have they a share in the Kingdom? If that is so, they do not give the people a single date-spot” (Qur’an 4:53). As in the book of Daniel (chapter 7), the Apocalypse (13:1-2) sees the power of the king as the quintessence of the terrifying and evil beast. The Evil that is expressed through the Roman Empire’s despotism is all the more perfidious in that it obtains men’s assent. Evidently, true domination can only exert its power because it persuades those being dominated that it is acting for their good. Unless there is voluntary servitude. It is here that the Christian lesson comes into play: through death and humiliation, Jesus achieves kenosis, that exercise of authority that is the antithesis of domination, because His kingdom is not of this world.
The Qur’an sometimes uses the word mulk in relation to David: “We strengthened his kingdom and gave him wisdom and speech decisive” (Qur’an 38:20). It seems, however, to reserve it to Saul and, obviously, to Pharaoh. One can therefore understand why, apart from Adam, who represents the entirety of the human race, David is the only person to receive the qualification of “caliph” in the Qur’an. It is thus prophecy that brings with it ethics and wisdom, since terrestrial monarchy – too subject to human passions – has been discredited. Nevertheless, despite their status as the chosen ones, the prophets are in no way spared by the Qur’an: it presents them in a very human light because they have sinned, lied, betrayed and even killed. With the exception, obviously, of Jesus; the only one who did not fail and could not fail.
If those on whom God conferred temporal power as a gift are excluded, the Qur’anic concept of kingship appears rather discredited, referring as it does to the evil power of the wicked despot; of which Pharaoh is the archetypical figure. That is why the man who assassinated the Egyptian ex-president, Anwar el-Sadat, shouted, “I’ve killed the Pharaoh!”
To cite this article
Leïla Babès, “The Paradox of Political Islam”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 84-94.
Leïla Babès, “The Paradox of Political Islam”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/paradox-political-islam.