Shariah and Sovereignty of the Ummah

Shariah and Sovereignty of the Ummah

THE title of this article evokes an extensive subject liable to open up doors on intermingling issues and questions relating to religion, creed, history, politics and sociology. From such issues, the primary question of the “system of rule”, which governs the relationship between the Shariah and Ummah (nation) on one hand and the question of the sovereignty and the application of Shariah on the other, arises. The system is also concerned with determining the shape and nature of this relationship according to the specific historic phases. In order not to get lost in the minute details of the issue, we will focus on the issue of the “system” in this article.
The major question which directly imposes itself is: What distinguishes the concept of Shariah from the concept of the Ummah? In its deep essence, Shariah is a divine concept while the Ummah is a human matter. How should the relationship between these two concepts be established? What will happen to the Shariah tenets, which are fundamentally divine matters, when they fall into human hands which are subject to human, fallible norms such as perception, memory, interpretation, whimsicality and personal interest? There are some people who do not attribute any importance to such questions, believing that faith, alone, will neutralize the mechanisms.
In a book entitled “Sovereignty of the Ummah Prior to Application of Shariah”, Abdullah Al-Malki, an Islamic researcher, answers this question. The writer envisages that the correct application of Shariah — which will ultimately achieve the overall purpose and objective of Islam — should be based on the sovereignty of the Ummah before anything else. Here, the writer is leaning on the fact that Shariah is a divine matter while its application is existential. He asserts that the sovereignty of the Ummah is the proper bridge between these two concepts, making them complementary while at the same time preserving the right of each of them to achieve the purposes of Shariah in the correct manner.
The writer does not provide a clear-cut and a direct definition of the concept of the Ummah, which has the right to supremacy and political authority. It is, however, obvious that the Ummah to which the writer is referring does not entail all the Muslims of the world but any given population of which Muslims constitute the majority in a country. This differs from the definition of the Islamic Ummah during the first centuries of Islam. This difference embodies the discrepancy in the meaning of Shariah and its applications in the contemporary age.
What is meant by the sovereignty of the Ummah? How will this affect the meaning of Shariah itself and the correctness of its application? Does the author mean to say that the sovereignty of the Ummah means that it alone will determine the application of Shariah (through the vote of the majority) on the personal and public lives of the people? This is exactly what Al-Malki wants to highlight in his book. Of course, other people who believe that ultimate rule resides with God himself categorically refuse the writer’s theory. They would rather consider it a kind of secularism. The theory of “ruling is for God” is inconsistent because it is a given that God isn't physically present to personally undertake a worldly matter. He will not rule the people by himself. The matter being so, a particular group of people will take over the reign of the state and give themselves the right to rule in the name of God and on his behalf. This is a quasi form of priesthood which even the people who advocate God’s ruling say has no roots in Islam.
Let us take the issue from the beginning. Al-Malki has chosen the broader meaning of Shariah which includes both worship and man’s daily routine activities. Here arises a complex problem. By its very nature, worship is an individual matter. It is confined to the relationship between man and God. The latter will decide its correctness and reward His subject depending on the real intention of the worshipper, his sincerity and honesty. These are all metaphysical questions which only God is aware of. Only God can rule if worship of a certain individual is correct and done out of fear of Him or if it includes some sort of hypocrisy and is done for worldly gains. Hence, nobody can determine the real intention behind worship except God and the worshipper himself.
The intervention of the state to force people to worship and encourage good behavior will prompt many people to engage in acts of worship and pretend to be religious in conduct, speech and dress to satisfy the rulers and gain their confidence.
The intervention of the state between man and God will increase hypocrisy and ultimately spread corruption. The net result is that the religious objective behind the application of Shariah in this way will be counterproductive which may be harmful to both the religion and the state.
It is obvious that Al-Malki is aware of this aspect of the application of Shariah. For this reason, he has differentiated between what he calls “individual ethical rules” and “communal legal rights”. The former does not have a legal commitment (like Haj). It is an ethical matter to which the individual is free to adhere or not to adhere to. These rules relate to the worshipping and conduct of the individual within his own private world. They stem from the ethics of the individual and his own personal relationship with God. Therefore, the state has no right to intervene in these matters except when they start affecting the society at large. The latter (communal legal rights) are legal matters relating to rights, crimes, trade and the likes. These rules have a legal committing nature which allows the state to impose its laws on the individual and the community. This division is not new but has always been present in Islamic Fiqh. The writer confirms this citing a number of Qur’anic verses and Hadiths to this effect. Accordingly, people should differentiate between adhering to the tenets of Shariah and applying the rules of Shariah. The former is optional while the latter is obligatory on all.
The author finally arrives at the question of the sovereignty of the Ummah as a condition and a base for the application of Shariah. He refutes the concept of the “supremacy of Shariah.” The Shariah is a text that was subjected to different readings throughout the ages. It has no power to impose itself except through the people who own the power or the right to do so. The Shariah can be a legal reference or can be a source of legislation but does not have a supremacy which is a political and a social human concept. The Shariah depends on the will of man in its readings, interpretations and applications which are either individual in the case of kings, emperors or Caliphs or communal in the case of the Ummah when it is the source of sovereignty and power.
The author depends on his supposition that the sovereignty of the Ummah preceded the application of Shariah on certain bases including the sources of the Shariah itself, especially the Qur’an. The first of these premises is freedom which is the main objective of Islam. Since freedom is the base, the Ummah should have the right to choose. The second premise is divine commandment. It is the Ummah, not the individual, which has been assigned the application of Shariah by God. The assignment given to the community by God to apply Shariah may nullify the concept of freedom which is originally meant for the individual. The third base is the Baiea (oath of allegiance) and the fourth is the Shoura (consultation).
The author does no see anything wrong in the Ummah rejecting making the Shariah a reference for the state. He asserts that this attitude does not contradict the essence of the Shariah itself.
In summary, the book is controversial but is rich and useful. The author sincerely argues against his own arguments and those of the readers.

— Courtesy of Al-Hayat newspaper

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