Written by Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin
Translation by Umm Hajar (ummhajar@gmail.com)

There is a hot debate going on in PAS deliberating whether the top leadership posts should be occupied by the ulama or the professionals. Initially, I had no intention to give my thought on this issue since I did not see the need for it. However, when many put across this question in a broader perspective, of whether Islam specifies that only ulama are qualified to be the country’s leader, I feel obligated to share my opinion in this issue.

A few months back, I was interviewed by the Harakah daily. Almost all of my answers to their questions were published. In one of my responses that were not printed, I stated that, “The way some advocates of Islamic state understand the political thought of Islam requires revivification or tajdid. We should no longer tie our thinking to the cotrancept of Darul Islam as written by al-Imam al-Mawardi r.h inal-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah.

A big portion of what’s written in that book is probably applicable to the period of Abbasiyyah governance during al-Mawardi’s time. We have the utmost respect for his scholastic achievement and status but in many instances, al-Imam al-Mawardi r.h only described the political system in his time whereas the concept of governance and politics explicated by the teachings of Islam are much more extensive than that.

In deliberating Islamic politics, we cannot afford to merely repeat the words of al-Imam al-Mawardi r.h or else we will be constricted. If the religious figures who are advocating the establishment of an Islamic state fail to be more broad-minded, they will face problems or in-fighting when they reach the stage of implementing Islam in the real world. In the end, a group of reformists will emerge among them and cause internal conflicts. Because of that, the definition of Islamic politics needs to be broadened.”

Yes, al-Imam al-Mawardi r.h. did state that one of the prerequisites for a Caliphate is that he must possess the knowledge that enables him to make ijtihad (derive a rule of divine law from the Koran and Hadith without relying on the views of other scholars) in resolving issues and concluding rulings. Al-Mawardi also stated that a Caliphate must be of the Quraish descendant. Although there are some logics in that, there is no religious text that can be used as evidence to establish that a Caliphate must attain knowledge up to the level of being able to make ijtihad.

However, there is a sahih hadith that states, “Rulers shall be of the Quraish” (Reported by Ahmad). Al-Mawardi even stated, “An imam (Caliphate) must be of the Quraish descendants because it is stated in the religious text and is an ijmak (consensus) among the ulama.” This means that of all the prerequisites stated by al-Mawardi, the Quraish specification is the one to be adhered to since it is manifested in a sahih hadith. The other specifications are only based on logic where it is stated that a Caliphate must have unflawed physique, good state of health and mind and the likes of it.

Interestingly, no one in Malaysia has ever asked whether the Prime Minister should be from the Quraish descendant. Note that Ibn Khaldun and a few other scholars had different interpretations on the issue of specifying a Quraish descendant as the Caliphate but this is not the place for me to discuss it. What I am trying to highlight is that there is a need to adopt broad-mindedness in analyzing or adhering to classical texts of which most are tied to different situations than we are presently in.

During the upsurge of the Iran revolution, Khomeini talked about the concept of Wilayah al-Faqih that assigned the leadership post to ulama. This further intensified the debate that had been going on in the intellectual world on whether a country’s leader must be of ulama. That particular concept, although was also being debated among them, had its root in the Syiah doctrine. A number of the Islamic movements present those days were influenced by such events.

Admittedly, we have seen that many heads of government who are ‘non-ulama’ in Muslim countries have failed to hold on to the principles of Islam. This in turn causes the Muslims to think that ulama should hold the country’s leadership post in order for Islam to be upheld. The truth is, all the power abuse that has been going on is in many cases not caused by the academic background of that individual. It actually stems from the principles a leader chooses to live by. In other words, even if he is not of ulama, a leader is capable to establish Islam as the governing principles of his country if he sets his heart and mind into it.

He can always get the ulama to provide him with the required assistance and advices to achieve his goal. Many leaders who are not scientists by profession have been successful in advancing the scientific and technological innovation in their countries. On the other hand, even if the leader’s academic background is in the religious field of study, he will not be able to execute Islamic based governance if he has no intention to place justness at its rightful position as commanded by the teachings of Islam.

In addition to that, another issue that mills around our community is how to define ‘ulama’. Is a person regarded as ulama merely because he is a graduate of Islamic study? Or is it because he wears a long garment and a turban? Or is it because he is known as an ‘ustaz’? In actual, the root word of ulama is ilmu (knowledge) and it refers to one who is well learned. If we want to relate the word ulama to the field of Islamic study, it carries the meaning of one who is proficient in Islamic knowledge.
Then again, Islamic study is a very broad field of study. It is further divided into branches such as ibadah (acts of worship), muamalah (daily dealings), siasah (governance), taskiyah al-nafs (spiritual refinement) and many more. Is it appropriate to say that an individual who masters only one branch of it is qualified to rule a country whereas he does not possess any aptitude in politics? Al-Imam al-Mawardi himself stated that one of the seven prerequisites of a Caliphate is that he must have the kind of thinking capability that enables him to manage the country’s political affair and protect the well-being of his people. Even if he is regarded as ulama but is lacking this aptitude, he is not qualified to rule a country.

My view is that the debate on whether ulama or the professional is more qualified to become the country’s leader is a waste of time. It is more important for us to be clear of what is it that we need from the leadership and the country’s politics. The main duty of Islamic politics is to uphold fairness and harmony based on the divine teachings.

In realizing this intent, it is vital for a leader to have both the desire and the knowledge. If he is an ulama who knows his way around politics and has the vigor to govern, he is the best to be the leader. If he has the political expertise but without the qualification to be regarded as ulama, he can still be assisted by the ulama who are supportive of his intent. This arrangement is more plausible if applied in this modern era because knowledge sharing is more integrated and structured nowadays compared to the period when those classical books on Islamic politics were written.

Problem arises when one who is ignorant or does not have the expertise in governance and politics wishes to be a leader regardless of whether he is of ulama or professionals. Because of that, the Prophet s.a.w said to one of his companions who was pious and devout named Abu Zar al-Ghifari:

“Abu Dharr, you are weak and authority is a trust. And on the Day of Judgment, it is a cause of humiliation and repentance except for one who fulfils its obligations and (properly) discharges the duties attendant thereon.” (Reported by Muslim)

However, in the case of Khalid bin al-Walid r.a, despite the fact that the Prophet s.a.w had criticized and objected to a few of his actions that were contradicting to the disciplines of war dictated by him, the Prophet s.a.w appointed him to lead the Muslim army and dubbed him as Allah’s Sword. This was because Khalid possessed the aptitude that was lacking from the other companions even though they were more knowledgeable about Islam and were much closer to the Prophet s.a.w.

Al-Imam Ibn Taimiyyah in Al-Siyasah al-Syar`iyyah fi Islah al-Ra`iy wa al-Ra`iyyah stated: “When there are two candidates for a post; one is more trustworthy and the other one has more vigor, the candidate who can bring more benefits and less harms to the position has to be given the precedence. Therefore, in leading an army, the one who is stronger and bolder – though there are wickedness in his character – is preferred than the one who is weak and incapable though he is trustworthy.”

For that reason, the Muslims’ duty is not to debate whether ulama or professionals are more qualified to govern the country. Instead, the Muslims’ duty is to look at the due responsibility that position holds within the current political framework and determine which individual is most suitable or most effective in realizing their objectives of establishing a just government that is blessed by Allah. The critical issue is not on titles or clothing but more on trustworthiness and capableness in governing and managing the people’s life.