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  • 10/1/2005

State and Society in an Islamic System:

A Balanced, Reciprocal and Integrated Relationship

Mohammad Abdul­‑Jabbar (1)

It is a prime objective of Islam to establish a healthy and constructive relationship between the state (its government and authority) and the overall community, that is, the nation comprising all individuals. The soundness of this relationship is based on balance, reciprocity and integration. In this context, it is recognized that the state–community relationship is a major problem facing any nation, whereby a reasonable and balanced solution is required so as to ensure smooth co-operation, resulting in stability for both the community and the system of government, as well as sufficient mutual understanding.

"Balance" refers to the equitable and measured division of authority between state and community, whereupon the former does not overpower the latter, norviceversa. "Reciprocity" is based on a fair, clear and detailed exposition of rights and obligations for each side. In this context, the state possesses particular rights over the community. However, the state apparatus must also fulfil given duties towards the community. Similarly, the community can be said to hold definite rights over the state, yet must also accept a well-defined set of responsibilities.
The acceptable understanding of "integration" is that each side complements the other according to a clear description of rights and duties, as well as the overall role performed by each party. The state complements the community; the community assists and interacts positively with the state. The nature of this state–community relationship is clarified in the following passage taken from a speech delivered by Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, who ruled as the fourth Caliph after the Prophet. He was one of the most scholarly of the Prophet’s Companions, placing a particular emphasis on the need for justice and fairness, while at the same time possessing immense knowledge and insight. He said in this regard:

And God Almighty has ordained well-defined rights to some people in relation to others, ensuring that these rights complement one another, while some rights cannot be invoked unless counter-rights are fulfilled. The more significant of these rights are those of the rulervis-à-vis the ruled, and those of ordinary individuals in relation to the ruler. This framework of rights/obligations has been designed by the Creator as compulsory and beneficial to all, result­ing thereby in a compact system, which cultivates harmony and strength for all individuals, as well as for religion. In conse­quence, the welfare and progress of the masses are not possible without a righteous leadership, nor can the ruler remain on the virtuous path unless righteousness permeates the ruled.

When the ruled carry out their obligations towards the ruler, and rulers duly fulfil their part of the bargain, righteousness will remain supreme, religion will be upheld, and justice will be done. All this will shape actions and demeanours into appropriate moulds, where­by a truly peaceful and prosperous epoch will come about, leading to the preservation of the [Islamic] state, while the evil intentions of enemies will be thwarted.

 On the other hand, when the ruled have the upper hand [over the state], or the ruler becomes oppressive towards the people, sharp differences will surface, along with signs of injustice and much false­­hood in religion. This will open the way for diversion from the righteous path, so much so that people will follow their own wishes, with the result that fair rulings will be obstructed and emotional/social illnesses will become prevalent. Within such an environ­ment, many appropriate actions will become impractical; great falsehoods will be forthcoming. Honourable people will be down­­graded, and evil spirits will acquire ascendancy. Any actions for the sake of God will be very hard to sustain among ordinary people. All this will make it inevitable for all of you to share your counsel and co-operate, in order to survive such a state of affairs.

During his reign, Imam Ali proclaimed in yet another sermon:

Citizens… I can claim specific demands from you, while you also can make certain claims upon me as your ruler. Your demands on me include giving you advice, providing you with a conducive and compassionate environment, teaching you to shun ignorance, and giving you guidance on correct behaviour.
As to my rights over you, these include compliance with the terms of my selection to be your ruler, providing honest advice in my presence and elsewhere, responding positively whenever I call upon you [to perform a task], and obedience to my directives.

It is clear that Imam Ali envisages in this passage two situations where an unhealthy relationship may evolve. The first is where the "masses gain the upper hand" and utilize this power to their advantage. In effect, this indicates that society dominates the state, whereby the community as a whole is more powerful than their ruler. As a consequence, the views of the community – whether by direct action or via representative bodies – will acquire primacy and become more influential than those of the rulers to the extent that the latter cannot impose anything contrary to the wishes of society.

This dominance of the state by society may take various forms, reaching its peak when the authority of the state shows signs of total disintegration, whereupon state organs will have authority in name only without wielding any effective sanctions over society. An example was the final phase of the Abbasid era, when the leaders (the Caliph and his senior ministers) were essentially powerless.
In such an environment, matters may worsen to the point where civil war erupts, or the state may become totally deficient in meeting its obligations to protect and serve its citizens and the country as a whole, leading quite naturally to further turbulence and the breakdown of law and order. Enemies of the nation or state will thus see a golden opportunity opening up in front of their eyes.
The second type of situation is where the ruler becomes decidedly "oppressive towards the subjects", thus resulting in the clear domination of the state over society.  Here, the balance swings in favour of the ruling clique, and the state will be more powerful than society. Once again, although this dominance by the state can take any of a range of possible forms, it reaches its absolute limit under a Pharaonic system or dictatorship, whereby rulers have unlimited authority over society, and the latter will be deprived of any influence or leverage to redress the balance.

It is only to be expected that dictatorship and oppression will produce violent and sharp reactions. Members of society may shun public activities, leading to the spread of passive behaviour. Alternatively, they may go underground and resort to clandestine and/or armed activities to combat oppression and undermine dictatorial rule. In either of these two situations, the main outcome will be the loss of both an effective state and a healthy social setting, while energies will be wasted and nothing of substance will be achieved on any level that may be viewed as culturally desirable or creating an acceptable image at the national or international level.

Imam Ali warned of the catastrophic consequences of these two scenarios for the lives of members of society.  He recounted some of these consequences as follows:

Sharp differences of view, surfacing of indications of repression, multiplicity of heretical ingredients in religion, shunning of established deeds of goodness, practices based on mere desire, neglect of virtuous rulings, while emotional illnesses proliferate. In this state of a socio-political wilderness, many righteous rulings will be ig­nored, and deviousness and manipulation will be perpetuated. Virtu­ous and God-loving people will be humiliated, while vicious individuals and wrongdoers will gain influence. All this will mean that many people will be burdened with sins, for which they must account to God.

Islam takes a firm stand against either of these two situations, calling instead for the establishment of a balanced, reciprocal and integrated relationship between the state and society. This relationship must be based on the axiom of "competent and fair leadership, along with rational and participative citizenship", as Imam Ali emphasized. The question then arises of how Islam can accomplish this objective. First, there is a need to recognize the independence granted to both the state and society – one from the other – while some links between the two sides will doubtless remain, especially regarding the myriad of mutual and integrated rights and obligations.

We can, in fact, take note of this independence when viewing the upper structure of the Islamic system in the form of rulings, guidelines and sub-systems, which Islam espouses. One example of this is the clear differentiation between state and common ownership in an overall system of ownership in the economy. Another example is provided by "religious trusteeship", in which a large share of national wealth can be administered by groups of individuals, far removed from state inter­ference.

Second, there is equal treatment of the state and society in their subjugation to the Word of God, as expressed in Islamic law or the Shari'ah. Both ruler and ruled must obey the laws of God, and neither the state nor the holders of the senior positions in its hierarchy can be above the Shari'ah. An outstanding illustration of this is where both ruler and ordinary citizens are placed on an equal footing in front of judges, who are required to issue their judgments not on the basis of the politico-social standing of the protagonists facing them, but within the framework of natural and well-established principles that do not differentiate between the rulers and the ruled.

Third, Islam insists on the distinctive and decisive constitutional delineation of the roles of the state and society. Under an Islamic system, priority must be given to the society (nation), because God’s trusteeship on Earth is granted essentially to the nation – not the ruler. In other words, God grants this crucial trust to the people as a whole, and the ruler is simply their agent who deputizes for the community in managing their affairs and applying the law.

On this basis, society performs three major functions (or rights), as follows:

Selecting the ruler
Monitoring the ruler
Deposing the ruler whenever the conditions of governance are contravened.

These functions give power to the nation over their ruler. At the same time, it is incumbent upon all individuals to obey their rulers, as long as the latter follow the Shari'ah. A basic axiom in Islam is that "no created [person] owes any allegiance whenever the Creator’s commands are contravened". This also provides strength to rulers over the people that they rule, for they can claim obedience so long as they remain faithful to God’s true religion. Thus the powers of the two pillars (state and society) will remain balanced, reciprocal and well integrated.


1-Mohammad Abdul­‑Jabbar: Writer & Researcher- Baghdad - IraqTaken from:

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