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.

History, they say, should be studied so that one may not be condemned to repeat it. In the Islamic context, there is a great deal of justification to state the opposite: “History,” we may say, “should be studied so that one may repeat it” – or at least selective parts of it. This injunction may well apply when scouring the early Islamic landscape for pointers on how to govern the polity, a topic that has been the subject of much debate in recent history and even earlier debate among Muslims of the first and subsequent generations.

The Qur’an does not explicitly mandate a specific form of “Islamic” government. However, it does espouse certain moral concepts that have enormous sociopolitical implications. These concepts and their foundational role in shaping the early Muslim polity are reflected clearly in hadith literature and individual monographs that deal with the moral excellences of the Prophet’s Companions. To this, one must add biographical compilations, such as Muhammad ibn Sa‘d’s famous al-ÿabaqat al-Kubra and the major exegetical works of the medieval period.

These works are a clear proof that the early Muslims remembered the discourse on legitimate leadership as having been cast in terms of two key Qur’anic concepts: sabiqah (precedence or priority, particularly in conversion to Islam) and fadl/fadilah (virtue or moral excellence).1 Qur’anic warrants that point to the greater moral prominence of the earliest and most committed believers are, in fact, plentiful, and constitute, for Muslims, a divinely ordained vision of a hierarchy of moral excellence in both this world and the next. This is reflected in the Qur’an, as the following verses indicate: “Those among you who spent and fought before the victory are not of the same rank [as others], but greater in rank than those who spent and fought afterwards” (57:10) and “God is pleased with the foremost in precedence (al-sabiquna al-awwaluna) from among the Emigrants and the Helpers and those who follow them in good works, and they are pleased with Him” (9:100).

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