The Islamists claim to be restoring the thinking and practices of the first Islamic communities. In this way, the various interpretations that can be found in the oldest sources are ignored

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:27

The Islamists claim to be restoring the thinking and practices of the first Islamic communities. They appropriate the sacred texts in order to construct their own concept of a theo-democratic government founded on the notion of divine sovereignty. Such a notion would purportedly date back to Islam’s formative period. In this way, the various (and, principally, a-political) interpretations that can be found in the oldest sources are ignored.


There are a number of people – Muslim and non-Muslim – who attempt to read into the Qur’an a distinctive mandate for the creation of a particular political culture and even a specific form of government. Most notable among them are modern Islamists who claim to derive a wholesale political system based on scripture and who regard its establishment as the most urgent priority of Muslims in the modern period. Interestingly, a number of Orientalist scholars would support their assumption that there is a distinctive political theology within Islam and that the Qur’an itself imposes upon Muslims a religious, charismatic mode of leadership. Sunni histories that project a different, more mundane image and role for the ruler of the Muslim polity are assumed by such scholars to deliberately obfuscate early political trends and subvert the Qur’anic ideal of legitimate leadership.[1]


A specific Qur’anic verse is frequently cited in political discourses, generated by both Muslims and non-Muslims, to establish the existence of a pre-determined socio-political order presumably sanctioned by the sharia. The Qur’anic verse invoked in this context is 4:59, which is generally interpreted to mean that unless they are required to violate a religious requirement, faithful Muslims should readily obey their political rulers, who are understood to be the referent in the Qur’anic phrase ulī ’l-amr. Some modern scholars have gone so far as to say that this verse precludes the possibility of a dynamic political culture emerging in Muslim-majority societies. Bernard Lewis, for example, has brashly asserted that Qur’an 4:59 teaches that “...the primary and essential duty owed by the subjects to the ruler is obedience.” He further comments, “The duty of obedience to legitimate authority is not merely one of political expediency. It is a religious obligation, defined and imposed by Holy Law and grounded in revelation.”[2]


It should be noted that in some Muslim medieval political treatises composed after the ninth century, this verse is indeed often deployed as a proof-text to promote political quiescence and a culture of obedience to legitimate political authority. However, it is patently wrong to assume that this was an uncontested interpretation whose genealogy goes back to the very inception of Islam, rather than a historically-conditioned organic development in response to specific external political circumstances.


Our discussion below will indicate that when the earliest significations of this verse available to us are compared with later, including modern interpretations, certain important evolutionary transformations emerge.[3]



Pre-Modern Exegesis


Qur’an 4:59 states, “O those who believe, obey God and the Messenger and those who possess authority among you” (ulī ’l- amr minkum).


The earliest published work of exegesis we have at our disposal is the one by the late seventh century exegete Mujāhid Ibn Jabr (d. 722). In his Tafsīr, Mujāhid states that this verse was revealed in reference to “those possessing critical insight into religion and reason” (ulī ’l-fiqh fī ’l-dīn wa-l-‘aql). A second variant report recorded by Mujāhid relates that the phrase refers to “those possessing critical insight, knowledge, [sound] opinion and virtue” (ulī ’l-fiqh wa-l-‘ilm wa-l-ra’y wa-l-fadl).[4] Particularly noteworthy in these glosses is the emphasis on knowledge, independent reasoning, and critical discernment as the distinctive characteristics of the ulī ’l-amr, who are not identified with any particular group of people or occupational category.


Another early exegete from the eighth century, Muqātil Ibn Sulaymān al-Balkhī (d. 767), records in his Qur’an commentary that the key phrase ulī ’l-amr minkum was revealed specifically in reference to the military commander Khālid Ibn al-Walīd in a particular historical context, and more broadly refers to the commanders of military contingents (sarāyā).[5] Significantly, Muqātil considers Qur’an 4:59 to have an analog in Qur’an 24:51-52, which helps to further elucidate the meaning of the former verse. Qur’an 24:51-52 states, “When the believers are invited to God and His messenger so that He may judge between them, they say, ‘we hear and we obey;’ these are the successful. For those who obey God and His messenger and fear God and heed Him, they are the ones who are victorious.” In comparison with these verses, Muqātil thus understands Qur’an 4:59 to be prescribing obedience to God and His messenger only, with the ulī ’l-amr excluded.


These two interpretations find reflection in the early tafsīr work of ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-San‘anī (d. 827) who reports on the authority of the famous Successor al-Hasan al-Basrī (d. 728) that “those possessing authority among you” refers to “the learned people” (al-‘ulamā’) and on the authority of Mujāhid that the phrase refers to “people of insightful understanding and knowledge” (ahl al-fiqh wa-l-‘ilm). ‘Abd al-Razzāq thus provides valuable corroboration that in the first two centuries of Islam, the phrase ulī ’l-amr was understood primarily to refer to a) the learned and insightful people in general and b) the Prophet’s designated military commanders in specific circumstances.


The celebrated late ninth century Qur’an commentator al-Tabarī (d. 923) gives an account of the various meanings attributed to this phrase and gives us a sense of the evolution in its interpretation. He cites several early authorities who understood the ulī al-amr as a reference to diverse groups of people. According to Ibn ‘Abbās and al-Suddī (d. 744) the phrase referred to various military commanders during the lifetime of the Prophet.[6] Interestingly, in another report recorded by al-Tabarī, Ibn Zayd, from the second generation of Muslims (Successors), quotes the Companion Ubayy Ibn Ka‘b as saying that the verse was a reference to the political rulers (al-salātīn).[7] Al-salātīn is an interesting anachronistic usage in this context here since sultans did not rise in the Islamic world until about the ninth century, well after the time of the Companions.[8]


However, al-Tabarī then goes on to refer to a considerable number of authorities who understood this verse as referring to “the people of knowledge and insightful understanding” (ahl al-‘ilm wa-l-fiqh). Other variants of this report which identify the ulī ’l-amr as “the possessors of insightful understanding in religion and of reason” (ulī ’l-fiqh fī ’l-dīn wa-l-‘aql); “people of insightful understanding and religion;” “people of knowledge;” and “the possessors of knowledge and insightful understanding,” are recorded on the authority of various sources.[9] Another cluster of reports identifies the ulī ’l-amr as “the perspicacious and learned people” – these terms together should be understood as analogs of the early phrase ahl al-fiqh wa-l-‘ilm, understood more broadly as referring in general to people who possess unusual discernment and knowledge. Other early commentators like Mujāhid, according to al-Tabarī, were inclined to understand this verse as referring to all the companions of Muhammad.[10] Al-Tabarī’s fulsome commentary therefore corroborates for us that the earliest strand of exegesis on this critical verse did not impute political authority to the ulī ’l-amr but rather an epistemic authority, predicated as it is on superior knowledge and understanding of matters.


The twelfth century exegete Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) offers a detailed exposition of this verse and its various interpretations that were current by his time. He then indicates his preferred interpretation of the phrase and asserts that the phrase wa-ulī ’l-amr minkum is a reference to scholars who are also termed ahl al-hall wa-l-‘aqd (lit., “the people who loosen and bind”) in the juridical literature. This conflation of terms establishes that only the jurists are to be included in the ulī ’l-amr, for he remarks that “this type of scholar” has the exclusive ability to command and prohibit on the basis of the religious law.[11]


Another late medieval exegete, Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373) records the various interpretations of this verse in his influential exegetical work, documenting both its earliest interpretation as referring to “people of discernment and religiosity” (ahl al-fiqh wa-l-dīn) and/or to specific military commanders during the Prophet’s lifetime.[12] However, it is clear that Ibn Kathīr himself is inclined to the view predominant in his time (the Mamluk period) that the Qur’anic term ulī ’l-amr refers primarily (if not exclusively) to those who have political authority. He enlists as proof-texts a disproportionate number of hadīths which enjoin obedience to the political ruler in general and counsel the faithful to maintain stoic forbearance during the reign of an unjust ruler, since the latter is bound to be punished for his excesses in the next world. The text of the hadīths, however, betray no connection to Qur’an 4:59; that is to say there is no indication within the reports themselves that the Prophet had uttered them in direct explication of this verse.



Modernist and Islamist Discourses


The views on good governance of the twentieth-century Egyptian exegete and reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh may be derived to a great extent from his treatment of Qur’an 4:59 in the exegetical work Tafsīr al-Manār (edited by his famous student Rashīd Ridā). ‘Abduh refers to the early Qur’an commentator Mujāhid Ibn Jabr (d. 722) who, as we have just seen, had understood this phrase as referring primarily to an amorphous group of learned scholars, or more literally, “those possessing critical insight into religion and reason.” ‘Abduh expands on this idea and comments that the phrase ulī ’l-amr refers to the political rulers, the judges, the religious scholars, the chiefs of the army, and the rest of the rulers and leaders among Muslims to whom, he says, people resort in their need and for their general welfare.[13] ‘Abduh warns, however, that Qur’an 4:59 does not call for obedience to the ulī ’l-amr but only to God and His Messenger, the reason being that the verse continues with “And if you should differ with regard to a matter, then refer it to God and His Messenger.” If the ulī ’l-amr rule according to the precepts of God and the Sunna, then obedience is due to them; if they do not and in fact resort to tyranny and oppression, then obedience is no longer an obligatory duty, but is rather forbidden. He continues by saying that the actions of the temporal, political rulers (al-umarā’ wa-’l-salātīn) are bound by the legal opinions (fatāwā) of the ulama, for they are in fact “the leaders of the leaders” (umarā’ al-umarā’).[14]


In this interpretation, ‘Abduh is again echoing in part the exegesis of Muqātil Ibn Sulaymān, who, as shown above, had similarly understood the verse as enjoining obedience to God and His Messenger only and not to the ulī ’l-amr as well. The ulī ’l-amr have primarily a consultative role; their counsel is to be solicited when the Qur’an and the Sunna do not provide categorical answers in certain matters. Acting upon the ulī ’l-amr’s recommendations is consequently a discretionary option, rather than binding. These conclusions are implicit in Muqātil’s exegesis but more explicitly formulated in ‘Abduh’s.


Further on, ‘Abduh equates the ulī ’l-amr with the “people who loosen and bind” (ahl al-hall wa-l-‘aqd), a formulation that was already used by al-Rāzī, as we saw, but he broadens the description of this group of people in a modernist vein. The “people who loosen and bind” embrace all those in whom the Muslim community has faith: they would include the scholars, the leaders of the army, and the leaders of various sectors of society who promote the general interests of the people (al-masālih al-‘āmma). Among these sectors are trade, industry, and agriculture. Therefore, labor union leaders, political party leaders, members of the editorial boards of respectable newspapers and their chief editors are all included in the category of the people “who loosen and bind.”[15] Thus ‘Abduh explicitly yokes the concept of maslaha/masālih (general interest-s) to the Qur’anic phrase ulī ’l-amr and includes within the latter phrase those groups of people whose combined specialized expertise, most of which is not explicitly religious, contributes to the overall commonweal of the polity.


‘Abduh’s views are in marked contrast to those of the fiery Egyptian political thinker and activist Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), whose religio-political thought on so-called “Islamic government” and “divine sovereignty” (in Arabic al-hākimiyya) has and continues to have considerable influence on those whom we call Islamists today. In his exegetical work Fī Zilāl al-Qur’ān (“In the Shade of the Qur’an”), Sayyid Qutb, interestingly, does not dwell as much on the phrase ulī ’l-amr itself as one might have expected him to, but regards the “people possessing authority” as being practically subsumed under the commandment to obey God and His Messenger. At two points, he glosses the term ulī ’l-amr. In the first instance, he says “as for the phrase ulī ’l-amr, the text [i.e. the Qur’an] distinguishes who they are; that is, they are those believers in whom the condition of faith and the precepts of Islam ... are realized.” He continues by stating that these precepts have to do with obedience to God and to the Messenger, and with divine sovereignty – al-hākimiyya – and the right to legislate for the people from the very outset on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunna alone. Slightly earlier in his tafsīr, Sayyid Qutb makes clear that sovereignty belongs to God alone and governs every aspect of human life, for God had prescribed His law as contained in the Qur’an.[16] In the second instance, he says that the phrase ulī ’l-amr refers to “believers who stand upon the law of God (sharī‘at Allāh) and the Sunna of the Messenger”,[17] which is a more succinct rephrasing of his first gloss.


In effect, Sayyid Qutb’s highly politicized understanding of verse 4:59 with its linkage to the novel term al-hākimiyya represents the culmination of his mentor, Abū al-A‘lā Mawdūdī’s vision of a hegemonic political Islam. In his exegesis of Qur’an 4:59, Qutb does not include the customary caveat, common in exegetical works composed by the earliest authors down to Mawdūdī, against obeying the ruler if his actions or dictates are deemed to be in violation of the religious law. His brief explication of this critical verse also leaves little room for consultation with the people at large and solicitation of their advice (munāsaha), a procedure earlier scholars like Ibn Taymiyya had insisted upon.[18] A dangerous determinism therefore appears to undergird Qutb’s schema for an Islamic government.



Mystifying the Past


Our diachronic survey categorically establishes that modernist scholars like Muhammad ‘Abduh are far closer in their thinking and understanding of the term ulī ’l-amr to the first and second generation of Muslims than are Islamists who claim to be reviving the thought and practices of the earliest Muslim community. Modern Islamist thinkers, as we saw, have appropriated Qur’an 4:59 to construct their conception of a theo-democratic government founded on the notion of divine sovereignty. They claim that this notion goes back to the formative period of Islam, being completely unaware of or deliberately ignoring the diverse and primarily non-political understandings of this verse through at least the first three centuries of Islam that can be retrieved from early sources as we have established.


To a large extent, Western scholarship on political and religious authority in Islam has focused primarily on late medieval works which present a conception of the Muslim polity along authoritarian lines, often invoking Qur’an 4:59 as a proof-text. This position is not tenable. As evident from our discussion above, political expediency rather than any kind of an assumed scriptural mandate allowed for the notion of practically unqualified obedience owed to the ruler to progressively gain ground (but not without opposition) in certain quarters.


Our survey above therefore brings to the fore the polysemy of concepts like ulī ’l-amr and their malleability within the Muslim ethical and political lexicon. This malleability augurs well for the contemporary period when Muslim scholars as well as ordinary citizens are engaging in passionate discussions concerning broad issues of political legitimacy and fidelity to the Islamic tradition. Modernist understandings of Qur’an 4:59 – firmly anchored in the earliest exegesis of this critical verse – which emphasize the consultative nature of collective decision-making has important implications for the creation of viable democratic systems in Muslim-majority societies today. In this context, it is appropriate to conclude with Muhammad ‘Abduh’s cogent observation in the late nineteenth century:


The longing of some people for consultative government and their dislike of despotism does not result from imitating the foreigners. It is because consultation is a duty of the sharia and despotism is prohibited by the sharia. For the law of Islam instructs that the rules of the Qur’an be followed and the Sunna of the Prophet be adhered to. As for despotism, this contradicts the sharia as it is not restricted by law.[19]


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation



[1] See, for example, Wilferd Madelung, Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998).

[2]. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1988), pp. 91,7.

[3] This section draws heavily on my chapter “Engaging the Shari‘a: rereading the Qur’an and hadith,” in Contemporary Issues in Islam (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015), pp. 37-60.

[4]. Mujāhid Ibn Jabr, Tafsīr Mujāhid, ed. ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Tāhir Ibn Muhammad al-Sūratī (Majma‘ al-buhūth al-islāmiyya, Islāmābād, n.d.), vol. 1, pp. 162-163.

[5]. Muqātil Ibn Sulaymān, Tafsīr Muqātil, (Mu’assasat al-halabī wa-shurakā’i-hi, al-Qāhira, 1969 [?]), Vol. 1, p. 246.

[6]. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 151.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. See the article “Sultan” in the Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition, ed. G. E. Bosworth et al. (Leiden, 1997), vol. 9, pp. 849-851.

[9]. Al-Tabarī, Tafsīr al-Tabarī, also known as Jāmi‘ al-bayān fī ta’wīl al-Qur’ān (Dār al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Bayrūt, 1997), vol. 4, p. 152.

[10]. Ibid.

[11] Al-Rāzī, Al-Tafsīr al-kabīr (Dar ihyā’ al-turāth al-‘arabī, Bayrūt, 1999), vol. 4, p. 113.

[12] Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘azīm, (Dār al-jīl, Bayrūt, 1990), vol. 1, pp. 490-491.

[13] Rashīd Ridā, Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-hakīm, known as Tafsīr al-manār, ed. Ibrāhīm Shams al-Dīn (Dār al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Bayrūt, 1999), vol. 5, p. 147.

[14] Ibid., vol. 5, p. 150.

[15] Ibid., p. 152.

[16]. Sayyid Qutb, Fī zilāl al-Qur’ān (Dār al-shurūq, al-Qāhira, 2001), vol. 2, p. 691.

[17]. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 692.

[18]. See Ibn Taymiyya, Majmū‘āt al-fatāwā, ed. ‘Āmir al-Jazzār and Anwār al-Bāz (Maktabat al-‘ubaykān, al-Riyād, 1998), vol. 18, p. 7.

[19] Cited by Aziz Azmeh, Islams and Modernities (Verso, London, 2009), p. 124.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Asma Afsaruddin, “The Qur’an as a Political Programme”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 14-21.

Online version:
Asma Afsaruddin, “The Qur’an as a Political Programme”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: