Principles of reform and good governance


[This paper was presented at CILE 4th Annual International Conference which was held in Doha, Qatar on April 2-3, 2016]




Abstract: In this paper I argue that there is no single model of government to be derived from the Qur’an and Sunna, but that there are certain principles of good governance that have to undergird a political system in order for it to be legitimate in both religious and political terms. These principles may vary over time and place in terms of their relative weight and concrete articulation. Under the conditions of modern mass society, the principles of consultation, participation, accountability, and the rule of law, which can all be derived from the Qur’an and Sunna, require institutionalization. They require policies of inclusion that make rights and services available to the residents of a given territory. They require that the governing elites be considered as, and act as, representatives of society rather than as rulers confronting the ruled. To be considered legitimate, the ruling elites have to come into their positions by legitimate means, deliver on basic goods, and demonstrate credibility in their conduct and policies. Reforms cannot prevent further protest, or even violence,  if they do not respond to popular demands that are voiced peacefully, and if they are not subsequently put into practice. Reforms not accompanied by recognizable improvement in the economic, political, or other spheres carry the risk of raising expectations and fuelling the unrest they are supposed to prevent. 


Principles of good governance: consultation and accountability

Contrary to many advocates of an Islamic solution to modern society’s ills and expectations, I argue that there is no single model of government to be derived from the normative sources of Islam but that there are certain principles of good governance that have to undergird a political system in order for it to be considered legitimate on both religious and political grounds.[1] These principles include consultation (shūrā), participation, accountability, and justice, all of which can be derived from the Qur’an and Sunna. These principles have varied over time and place with regard to their relative weight and concrete articulation. It is certainly true, as not only Talal Asad has argued, that Islam is a discursive tradition whose self-understanding, continuity, and cohesion rest on the internalization and interpretation of authoritative texts. It is also evident that the very acts of internalization and interpretation under widely different circumstances have made for continual and subtle change, fresh thinking, and new practices.[2] As any analysis of the great premodern traditions, from ancient China to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome will show, epistemes are continuously in motion, even when their guardians declare them to be perennial and immutable.[3] This is not to deny that under the conditions of modernity, the scope and pace of change have significantly broadened and accelerated, and that change has been widely affirmed as natural and positive. Rather, it is the notions of premodern uniformity and immobility that need to be challenged.

The principles of good governance serve to illustrate these general remarks. There is general consensus that consultation, or shūrā, is strongly recommended in the Qur’an (notably sūras 3,159 and 42,38), that it was practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and the early community of Muslims, and that it is indeed one of the distinguishing marks of any political system that deserves to be called Islamic.[4] Still, articulations of shūrā have ranged from discussion among members of the community and of the ruler with his advisors, occasionally organized in a council, majlis, or dīwān (non-binding shūrā), to mandatory consultation with authorized representatives of the community whose majority decisions are binding on the ruler, or government (shūrā wājiba and shūrā mulzima). Shūrā has also ranged from informal discussion and consultation to institutionalized parliamentary rule, all of which have been declared legitimate in Islamic terms by some and contested as illegitimate by others. By the same token, accountability (mas’ūliyya or musā’ala) has varied from the responsibility of the ruler before God and selected spokesmen for the community, to his accountability to elected representatives of the community, or the people (and there is obviously a difference between the community on the one hand and the people on the other), especially if these representatives hold the right to dismiss and replace those rulers or members of government whom they do not see as having fulfilled their duties.

Law and justice

Understandings of justice have ranged from premodern notions of a “circle of justice,” premised on the complementary roles of unequal parts and their judicious balancing by the ruler, to modern conceptualizations of justice and equity based on the principle of equality.[5] Premodern notions of just rule, exercised by a just ruler, gradually evolved into principles of good governance and the rule of law, shifting the balance from the personal qualifications of the ruler, such as his piety, physical integrity, and competence, to the legal-cum-ethical framework that enables good governance to be carried out. This shift of emphasis from the person of the ruler to abstract rules did not signal a rupture with previous assumptions. At least for Islamic scholars, the abstract rules had always played an important part in their perceptions of legitimacy. Yet there is still considerable debate: while some Muslim thinkers hold justice to be an absolute value (qīma muṭlaqa), others consider it to be conditioned by other values, or even subordinate to them.[6]

The assumption that a society or community must be governed in accordance with norms, rules, and laws that are known to all, and binding on all, the ruler and the ruled, was and still is widely shared, and it can be easily supported with Qur’anic references. The same may not be true with regard to the exact definition of these norms, rules, and laws, and their institutionalization. We need perhaps not elaborate on the fact that the “law” invoked in modern ideas of the rule of law is not necessarily the same as Islamic law, or Sharīʿa more narrowly defined. In most Muslim-majority countries, the legal sphere has been to varying degrees modernized and secularized.[7] Regardless, the idea of an authoritative frame defining the rights and obligations of all has proven strikingly attractive, especially in the modern period.

In the mid-nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, the call for a constitution to curb autocracy, or “despotism,” was not only voiced by patriotic intellectuals, such as the Young Ottomans, the Young Tunisians, and the Young Turks, who hoped to strengthen the state and empire in the face of internal and external challenges. The demand for a constitution, and a parliament, served to mobilize broad support in both Qajar Iran (in the shape of the constitutional movement of 1905-11 which brought together wide sections of Iranian urban society) and the Ottoman Empire (with the more narrowly based Young Turk revolution of 1908).[8] In more recent times, reference to the so-called constitution (ṣaḥīfa) of Medina as the first constitution of the world has been used to provide constitutional ideas with added depth and authenticity.[9] In many ways the demand for a constitution as both the symbol and foundation of legitimacy, collective strength, and success can be compared to the struggle for the application of Sharīʿa, or of a frame of reference that owes its legitimacy to its conformity with Sharīʿa (sharʿiyya, marjaʿiyya islāmiyya), in the second half of the twentieth century. Irrespective of their differences in content and genealogy, they share the concern for an effective framework of rights, responsibilities, and governing practices that blocks the path to despotism, “tyranny,” or authoritarian rule more generally.

Premodern notions of good governance (not all of them are traceable to the Qur’an and Sunna) may still inspire current concepts, practices, and institutions. The very fact that the conveners of the present conference referred to relations between “rulers and ruled” suggests as much. However, premodern notions cannot be taken from historical precedent without adaptation and modification, and this applies to all societies no matter whether defined along the lines of origin and history, language and ethnicity, or religion. This is all the more relevant as the community (al-umma) is not necessarily the same as the people (ahālī, al-shaʿb) residing within a given territory, and it has rarely been so. The great “Muslim” empires of the Abbasids, Umayyads, Ottomans, Safawids, and Mughals all had large numbers of non-Muslim subjects, if non-Muslims did not form the majority of the subject population altogether. To call them “minorities” can be misleading: in many instances, it is not numbers that made them a “minority,” but their subordinate position in a hierarchy of power. Today, there are few countries in what is commonly called the Islamic world that are homogeneous in regard to religion, and for this reason, “the people” cannot be identified with the Muslim umma, or a given segment of the umma. This highlights the issue of citizenship which has triggered intense debate. The Egyptian thinkers-cum-activists Muḥammad Salīm al-ʿAwā and Ṭāriq al-Bishrī are probably among the most influential voices here, at least in the Arab world.

Under the conditions of modern mass society, consultation, accountability, participation, justice, and the rule of law require institutionalization at the political, legal, and constitutional levels. In the modern territorial or nation state, where legitimacy is tied to the consent of the people, participation cannot be restricted to a specific group, let alone their established elite, or the “men that bind and loosen (ahl al-ḥall wa’l-ʿaqd)”. Participation calls for policies of inclusion that make rights and services available to the residents of a given territory irrespective of origin, religion, ethnicity, and gender. Again the modalities of inclusion may vary, as they do in all societies from Canada to Germany, and from Morocco to Indonesia.

Modern concepts of good governance require that the governing elites be considered as, and act as, representatives of the community and society rather than as rulers confronting the ruled. This does not necessarily involve a break with premodern norms and ideals. The principle of representation or to be more precise, the perception of the ruler as representative and trustee of the community (wakil) is well founded in the Islamic normative tradition. True, claims to divine appointment and articulations of “representative theocracy,” in which the ruler poses as God’s shadow on earth, are more common in Muslim history, Sunni as well as Shiʿi, than is widely assumed and acknowledged.[10] Still, it would be difficult to find passages in the Qur’an and Sunna that explicitly sanction these claims, rather than leaving the possibility for certain exegetes to interpret them accordingly. By contrast, the perception of the ruler as representative and trustee of the community, and indeed of the community as trustee of God’s creation, can be derived from Qur’anic references to khilāfa and istikhlāf, although once again one has to concede that the references usually invoked allow for more than one reading and do not necessarily invite a political interpretation.[11]

There is wide consensus that to be considered legitimate, rulers have to come into their positions through legitimate means; they have to deliver on basic goods, and they have to establish credibility through their conduct and policies. These principles are broad enough to allow for considerable diversity and controversy, and these controversies are played out openly today. Legitimate access to power may include anything from hereditary rule to regular election, based on universal suffrage, and both have been defended and contested among Muslims on Islamic grounds. Monarchical succession in particular has been subject to debate. Basic goods may be defined in many different ways, including the public interest and the five basic goods or interests (maṣāliḥ) defined in the Islamic legal tradition.[12] Credibility ultimately reflects value-based assessments that are often subjective. Pre-modern debates on siyāsa sharʿīyya and the ruler’s room for maneuver within an Islamic framework offer useful insights into the issues at stake. The same is true of premodern discussions of the relative weight of belief, justice, and the maintenance of order, respectively. The dictum attributed to al-Ghazālī that an unjust tyrant who maintains order is better than a just ruler who does not, raises important questions, including the question of legitimate resistance.[13] It is particularly relevant in light of the threat posed by militant activists who take up jihad against Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and of the claim made by rulers and governments that they defend order against chaos, and that the goal justifies the means.

Recognizing plurality

Many of the issues addressed by Muslims past and present are not answered in the Qur’an, or not even addressed, at least not explicitly. The first thing to acknowledge, then, is the existing plurality of opinions, and interests, as natural and legitimate. I would argue that within certain limits, the Qur’an and Sunna and the authoritative Islamic tradition more generally, are supportive of plurality, and that Muslims today can draw on this tradition in order to authenticate the principles of plurality and diversity.[14] True, there is repeated reference in the Qur’an and the Prophetic Traditions to right and wrong, the licit and the illicit, the party of God and the party of Satan, etc., and these references have informed Muslim thought and behaviour in the past and present.[15] But next to these references there are others that declare plurality to be divinely sanctioned, allowing for subtler choices, and these, too, have shaped Muslim thought and practice in different times and places. The fact that many political actors today only seem to know right and wrong reflects considerations of power rather than Qur’anic injunctions.

Wasatiyya: the middle and the common ground

The search for the golden mean, just measure, balance, and equilibrium were widely shared among premodern societies and reflected in their visions of good order and governance. Most Western authors would refer first and foremost to the great philosophers of classical Antiquity whose ideals were over time adapted and adopted by representatives of the monotheistic religions. Yet balance, equilibrium, and the juste milieu have been equally cherished by traditions of morality and wisdom that are not premised on belief in a deity, such as Confucianism.[16] Islam illustrates these concerns very well. As is well known, Q 2,143 (sūrat al-baqara) describes the Muslim community as ummat al-wasaṭ.[17] The term has been variously translated as a middle, just, or balanced community or nation, or alternatively, as the best community or nation. In the modern period, and more specifically since the 1960s, the description was expanded into the principle of wasaṭiyya (centrism, representing the mainstream) and propagated as the quintessential Islamic approach to all matters. Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, who in the early 1990s elaborated wasaṭiyya as a method of legal reasoning, is perhaps best known as an advocate of Islamic centrism.[18] Given the climate of violence and confrontation marking the past few decades, especially in the Arab world, the call for wasaṭiyya is easily understood as an attempt to justify moderation on Islamic grounds. By the same token, it appeals to the spirit of compromise that goes against the logic of the zero-sum-game in which the winner takes all and compromise signifies weakness.

The term wasaṭiyya has often been rendered as the “middle ground” between two positions, which implicitly or explicitly are characterized as extremes. The classic formula to describe this dichotomy speaks of excess and neglect (ifrāṭ / tafrīṭ), notably in religious practice. If the function of this formula is clear the same is not true regarding its meaning. For the question is, of course, what precisely constitutes the middle ground in any given situation. If it might be said that the middle ground between “extreme” riches on the one end and “extreme” poverty on the other is a fair share for all, irrespective of whether fairness is defined as equality of opportunity or distributive justice, the same cannot be said of all political constellations. For what is the middle ground between an authoritarian government that uses violence against its own people and militant groups that resort to terrorism? Is it that both do a little less of what is regarded as harmful, evil, or illicit by large numbers of domestic and outside observers? In the case of open confrontation between a government, or the ruling elites, and armed resistance the search for the middle ground may serve to encourage moderation and thus lead to a reduction of violence. But it is difficult to see how it could prevent and solve the underlying conflicts, unless the parties involved recognize each other and their concerns as legitimate and actively seek a settlement based on compromise.

At least under the conditions of a conflict that has not erupted into armed confrontation, or war, it might be more productive to think of wasaṭ as “shared ground” or “common ground,“ for this suggests a commonality of interest between the parties concerned. In order for this sense of commonality to develop between “the ruler” and “the ruled,” the principles of consultation, participation, accountability, and justice mentioned above need to be recognized both theoretically and practically. Again I would argue that the Islamic normative tradition provides excellent guidelines for such a recognition.

Effective reform

Reforms cannot prevent further protest, or even violence, if they do not respond to popular demands that are voiced peacefully, and if they are not put into practice. Reforms not implemented and not accompanied by recognizable improvement in the economic, political, or other spheres carry the risk of raising expectations and fuelling the very unrest that they are supposed to end. There is ample historical evidence for this thesis, from Tsarist Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century to Pahlavi Iran under Mohammed Reza Shah and the final phase of the German Democratic Republic in the second half of the twentieth century, not to mention more recent events in the Arab world. The difficulty resides in deciding what kind of reform is deemed “responsive” to popular demands, what the “people” stands for, who is included and excluded, and when improvement becomes “recognizable.” None of these questions can be adequately answered in the abstract, without looking at specific instances. With regard to Muslim majority countries, Qur’anic teachings can help to reinforce commitment to the principles on which conflict prevention and peaceful conflict resolution rest: recognition of plurality as a legitimate expression of existing diversity (always provided the parties involved do not resort to violence); inclusion, consultation, and participation of all concerned and affected by policy decisions; justice, equity, and the rule of law. The Qur’an does not offer sufficient detail to flesh out the mechanisms of consultation and participation in a modern mass society, or the precise form justice may take in a society marked by mass migration. Nor does it specify the agents charged with enacting the general principles. The ulū l-amr are notoriously difficult to identify in societies more complex than first/seventh-century Medina. The one thing that is clear is that they are more than one person. Debates on religious authority and authorities are of limited relevance here unless they reflect on the implementation of religious norms and rules by “lay” agencies, such as rulers, governments, and parliaments.[19]

I would like to conclude with a few remarks on a highly sensitive and controversial issue: the relevance of secularity (rather than secularism) to conflict resolution in Muslim states and societies. Whereas secularism describes the principled separation of religion and state and the institutional arrangements resulting from such a policy, secularity denotes a differentiation between religious and non-religious domains as well as the social functions and cultural meanings attached to such a differentiation.[20] A principled separation of religion and state is only found in a very limited number of countries, and as the cases of India and the US show, it does not necessarily entail widespread, government-sponsored atheism and agnosticism. Nor does it keep religion out of politics. In contrast to separation, differentiation is almost universal and hence characteristic of non-Muslim as well as Muslim states and societies. The organization of the legal, economic, and cultural fields even in countries that officially call themselves Islamic bears ample witness to this observation. For this reason it would be good if this issue were discussed with the care and sophistication it deserves rather than being rejected out of hand as inappropriate and unauthentic. Calls for a “civil state” or “civic state” (dawla madaniyya) in the sense of a state not ruled by either a clerical or a military elite, point in a slightly different direction. [21] Obviously they, too, merit attention, and not only in academic circles. The challenges are enormous, and they will affect us all. Addressing these challenges openly will be one step in the direction of meeting and hopefully overcoming them.


Gudrun Krämer is Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, both at Freie Universität Berlin; a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (BBAW) and the Tunisian Academy of Sciences (Bayt al-Hikma), and an executive editor of The Encyclopaedia of Islam Three. She has an honorary doctorate from Tashkent Islamic University and in 2010 she was awarded the Gerda Henkel Award. Gudrun Krämer has been a visiting scholar in Bologna, Beirut, Cairo, Erfurt, Paris, and Jakarta. She has published widely on Middle Eastern history, Islamic movements, and Islamic political thought. Her English-language monographs include Hasan al-Banna (Oxford 2010), A History of Palestine (Princeton 2008; Munich 2002), and Speaking for Islam. Religious Authorities in Muslim Societies, ed. with Sabine Schmidtke (Leiden 2006).

Dr Gudrun Krämer's public lecture

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