Communication and Human Development

Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership and Its Modern Implications

Although the Qur’an does not mandate a specific form of government, it provides broad moral directives for sound political governance. The Qur’an further refers to two specific traits in the legitimate leaders of the Muslim (and any other righteous) polity: precedence and moral excellence, two concepts which were understood to have considerable socio-political implications as well. In the secondary, extra-Qur’anic literature, there is extensive commentary on these two traits and their significance for defining legitimate leadership. This article traces the broad contours of this extended discussion and refers to its continuing relevance in our own times. It further indicates points of similarity between this discursive treatment of leadership and some aspects of the modern electoral system.

Excellence and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership

The question of the imamate or the caliphate, the designation of the Muslim community’s legitimate leader, is undoubtedly one of the most important in Islamic history. The first civil war (656-61), which broke out with the murder of Caliph `Uthman, had a profound effect not only on subsequent Islamic political and religious institutions, but also on later Muslims’ views, accounts, and discussions of the community’s early history. This bitter conflict, which necessarily involved extensive controversy concerning the identity and required qualifications of the community’s legitimate leader, laid the foundations for an enduring theological split among Islam’s three major “sects”: the Shi`ites, the Sunnis, and the Kharijis – one that would persist long after the war ended with the assassination of `Ali.

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