In the State of Ihsan, the government no longer exercises its authority in a top-down coercive manner but rather interacts and collaborates synergistically with the citizenry to construct a virtuous, egalitarian polity. Muslims should be more concerned with Islamic principles of governance rather than with an assumed blueprint for an “Islamic government,” which is non-existent in any case, Khan remarks. It is the implementation of these principles that guarantee moral and righteous polities. The hunt for the elusive “Islamic state” of modern-day Islamists is futile and must be abandoned. The conclusion is inescapable: in the absence of adherence to Qur’anic principles, no amount of sloganeering turns a state “Islamic.” Islam, after all, is not an empty shibboleth merely to be invoked and publicly professed.
Khan appeals to the example set by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century that, he says, must be emulated by contemporary Muslims in establishing their State of Ihsan. The Qur’an (33:21) describes the Prophet as “a beautiful example,” signaling the importance of beauty (husn), etymologically related to the term Ihsan, as an attribute that must undergird everything that a Muslim does in emulation of the Prophet. The community and city-state that he established in Medina is a shining beacon for modern Muslims and invites them to similarly uphold the virtues of justice, equality, beauty, mercy, and compassion in the administration of their daily
Khan, however, is not as enamored of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs who came after the Prophet and says that Muslims must not be so concerned with their legacy as they currently tend to be. He recognizes some of their positive accomplishments but suggests that Muslims go overboard in lionizing them. And here I must express mild dissent with the author. In my own studies of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs,[ii] I find that the way they are said to have comprehended proper and righteous governance continues to impart important lessons to modern Muslims. One of the fundamental traits associated with the legitimate caliph by seventh-century Muslims is that of fadila or moral excellence. The importance of this concept is enshrined in the general political adage that the most virtuous (afdal) individual should govern the Muslim community. A quick survey of early Islamic literature reveals that influential Muslim authorities in the formative period remembered the early debates about legitimate leadership as having crystallized around the two key concepts of moral excellence and precedence (sabiqa). The best candidates for the office of the caliph drawn from the first generation of Muslims were deemed to have possessed certain virtues, such as charitableness, truthfulness, magnanimity, and courage, while precedence was predicated on early conversion to Islam.
As Sunni sources affirm, Abu Bakr was understood by the majority of Muslims to have met these criteria after the death of the Prophet and, therefore, was considered to be the most qualified to become the caliph. Using very similar arguments, early Shi‘i sources assert that Ali, rather than Abu Bakr, was the most virtuous Companion and, therefore, was the best suited to assume the office. Using Khan’s terminology, we can say that according to early conceptions of legitimate and righteous governance, Muslim rulers were expected to display and practice Ihsan – which, in its capacious sense, includes traits like charitableness and magnanimity considered indispensable in the legitimate caliph. However imperfectly realized in reality, these were ideals drawn from the Qur’an and the sunnah that informed the political consciousness of early Muslims in significant ways. The Rightly-Guided Caliphs also famously practiced shura or consultative governance and considered themselves to be first among equals, eschewing, as our sources inform us, absolutism and tyranny (istibdad). This idealized conception of virtuous, moral leadership is the enduring legacy of the first four caliphs. The principles that informed their administrative decisions are fully replicable today but not the actual mode of government (the historical caliphate) that was a contingent institution applicable for that time and circumstance.
The concepts of precedence and moral excellence, however, progressively receded in socio-political importance with distance from the first and second generations of Muslims. Although moral excellence as a central trait of the most qualified leader continued to be endorsed and upheld as a requirement that must ideally be fulfilled, more pragmatic considerations of effective leadership began to gain ground by the ‘Abbasid period. This becomes quite evident in al-Mawardi’s writings in the eleventh century and receives greater emphasis in Ibn Taymiyya’s works in the late thirteenth century during the Mamluk period. Al-Mawardi (d. 1058) maintained that it was no longer necessary that the most virtuous individual assume the caliphate; it was adequate if the candidate possessed the minimum qualifications understood to be necessary for governing the Muslim polity.[iii] Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) similarly declared that on the issue of good governance, pragmatic and mundane considerations of public benefit and communal welfare should take priority over idealized notions of moral-political leadership. Thus, he stated, one should appoint the individual who is most suitable (al-aslah) for a particular position and that their qualifications have to be assessed in view of who would best serve the public interest. Out of consideration for the greater public good (li-maslaha rajiha), Ibn Taymiyya affirms, one may appoint less virtuous but more competent individuals to positions of public prominence, despite the existence of others who are more knowledgeable in religious matters and more pious than them. Thus, for the position of a military commander, the strongest and the most courageous man should be picked, even though “he may have moral failings” (wa-in kana fihi fujur), over the weaker and less capable individual, even though he may be more trustworthy.[iv] Given the crisis-ridden world that he inhabited – with the memory of the Crusades still very strong and the Mongol invasion underway – it is perfectly understandable why Ibn Taymiyya would emphasize practical, worldly skills over moral probity as the required desiderata in the most qualified leader(s) of his time.
Ibn Taymiyya’s influential conception of leadership represents a clear concession to hard-headed realism and a significant modification of the caliphal paradigm of precedence and moral excellence. Aslah (“the most suitable”) replaces afdal (“the most excellent”) in Ibn Taymiyya’s thought. According to him, an individual’s greater precedence in some activity is established not on account of any a priori generalized standard of moral excellence but through his “fit” for that particular activity on the basis of pragmatic criteria which maximizes the public benefit to be derived from his appointment. In Ibn Taymiyya’s conceptualization, the State of Ihsan was effectively aborted by this transmutation and realpolitik was assumed to determine the contours of good governance.
To some readers, the State of Ihsan replacing the modern amoral nation-state may sound preposterously far-fetched and impossibly pie-in-the-sky. Can any form of government, after all, remain unsullied by the ambient world in which it functions and refuse to capitulate to realpolitik? As John Lewis’s words above remind us, we have, nonetheless, a moral and ethical obligation to try. Otherwise, in the American context, we may never be able to achieve that more perfect union envisioned by the country’s forefathers and heal the horrendous racial and ideological divides plaguing contemporary American society. The injustices engendered by the sin of racism can only be transcended by the adoption of values that were meant to animate the American psyche and state formation: equality and justice for all.
Similarly, Khan’s extended and eloquent cri de coeur reminds us that Muslims in their own societies must endeavor to aspire towards the Qur’anic ideals of beauty and justice encapsulated by the term Ihsan or surrender to the socio-political cleavages created by the divisive religio-political rhetoric emanating from certain extremist groups today. Though the ideals of beauty and justice embedded in foundational Islamic texts and retrievable from early Islamic society may never be fully or perfectly realized in this world, the very attempt to realize them provides a way out of the spiritual and intellectual morass that afflicts many Muslim-majority societies today. The State of Ihsan will always be a work in progress, ensuring its adaptability and relevance through time. Ihsan’s embeddedness in classical Islamic texts and enshrinement in Muslim practices and norms over the centuries are irrefutable, creating a normativity that cannot be disavowed, except through ignorance and rhetorical legerdemain. Khan’s invocation of this hallowed tradition specifically in the political sphere is not only timely and necessary but irresistible.
[i] M. A. Muqtedar Khan, Islam and Good Governance: A Political Philosophy of Ihsan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
[ii] Asma Afsaruddin, Excellence and Precedence: Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership (Leiden: Brill, 2002); idem, The First Muslims: History and Memory (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008).
[iii] Al-Mawardi, The Ordinances of Government, tr. Wafaa H. Wahba (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1999)
[iv] Ibn Taymiyya, Al-Siyasa al-shar‘iyya fi islah al-ra‘i wa ’l-ra‘iya (Beirut, n.d.), 23-26.