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Posted on May 21, 2016

The Ruling System in Islam – A Brief Overview

The Ruling System in Islam – A Brief Overview

More than two centuries of foreign cultural and ideological onslaught have left its mark on the Muslim psyche. The relentless attacks on various aspects of Islam on the one hand, and the continual propagation of various other “ism’s on the other, has left many Muslims, particularly those who have grown up in West, with only a vague understanding at best of some core aspects of Islam. Ruling or governance is one such aspect. Br. Uthman Badar presents in this short piece a brief outline of ruling in Islam.

 The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “Verily, the knots of Islam will be undone one by one. Whenever one knot is undone, the people will grab onto the one which follows. The first of these knots to be undone will be the ruling and the last will be the prayer.” (Ahmad)



Islam is built upon a spiritual creed. However in contradistinction to the likes of Christianity and Buddhism, its creed is also political inasmuch as it seeks implementation in life and domination over other creeds and ideologies. This is where the aspect of ruling becomes a core element of Islam, for without it the comprehensive implementation of Islam is not possible, nor is dominance attainable.

It is not possible, for example, for individuals alone, without a leadership, to implement the hudud, organise, equip and train the armies, collect and distribute the zakat, defend the frontiers, establish justice, remove oppression, resolve disputes amongst people, or carrying Islam to the world through Jihad. Hence Ibn Taymiyyah (rh) notes in his work on ruling, al-Siyasah al-Shar’iyyah (p. 161):

“It must be known that the leadership authority of the people is of the greatest obligations of the deen, nay, there is no establishment of the deen except by it…”

This significance of ruling in Islam can be understood from the hadith of the Messenger (ﷺ) quoted at the beginning of this article in which he refers to the ruling as a ‘knot’ of Islam. A knot is that which holds a thing together. The mention of prayer, whose fundamental significance we all know about, as a knot of Islam as well shows the level of significance being indicated. Notwithstanding the implicit indication in ahadith like this one, there are many other explicit ahadith and Qur’anic verses on the basis of which the scholars of Islam in fact consented unanimously that appointing a ruler, a Khalifah, was a definitive obligation upon the Muslims. Imam al-Qurtubi mentions in this regard:

“And there is no difference of opinion regarding the obligation of that (appointing a ruler) between the Ummah, nor between the Imams, except what is narrated from al-Asamm (lit. the deaf), who was indeed deaf with regards to the Shari’ah, as were all those who held his opinion and who followed it.” (al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur’an, 1:264)

The Sahabah demonstrated the importance of having this ruler in action after the death of the Prophet (ﷺ), as Imam al-Haythami notes:

“Know that the Sahabah (Allah be pleased with them) consented that selecting the Imam after the end of the era of Prophethood was an obligation. Indeed they made it the most important of obligations as they were busy with it (giving it priority) over the burial of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).” (al-Sawa’iq al-Muhraqah: 7)

Form of Ruling in Islam

The form and structure of ruling in Islam brought by the Prophet (ﷺ) was the Khilafah, whereby one man would be appointed by the Ummah to ruler over her by Islam. In one hadith he (ﷺ) said:

“The Prophets ruled over the children of Israel. Whenever a Prophet died another Prophet succeeded him, but there will be no Prophet after me. There will be Khulafaa’ and they will number many.” (Muslim)

Khulafaa’ is plural of Khalifah. Hence this hadith is a clear text denoting the ruling system of Islam. In other ahadith he (ﷺ) noted that this ruler was a shield for the Muslim by whom they were protected, and commanded that the Muslims maintain one ruler and remain obedient to him as long as he implements Islam.

This system of Khilafah is unique and is different from every other ruling system adopted by humans. Unlike democracy, the people are not sovereign, Allah is. Unlike a monarchy, rule is not inherently hereditary; the authority to select the head of state (the Khalifah) lies with the people. Unlike a dictatorship, the Khilafah does not rule by his whims and desires but by the dictates of Islam.

Further, in Islam ruling is a contract between the ruler and the ruled. Not the secular ‘social contract’ of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, where the legitimacy of the state is derived from the consent of the people, but a contract of a spiritual nature, where the ruler and ruled form mutual relationships in response and submission to their Creator, Allah (swt). It is a contract whereby the ruler (the Khalifah) rules the people by Islam and the people observe obedience to him to the end of achieving mutual objectives set by Allah.

Naturally if the contract is broken by either side there are legal consequences. If the people withdraw allegiance the ruler has the right to fight them as rebels [bughāt] in order to subdue them. If the ruler ceases to rule by Islam, the people have the mandate to remove him and appoint someone else. Both these mandates are subject to various conditions as derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah by the scholars of fiqh.

As for the rulers in the Muslim lands today, they are agents of the disbelievers and do not rule by Islam. Hence the Islamic hukm with respect to them is that they must be removed and replaced by a sincere Muslim leadership which rules by Islam.

Objectives/Roles of the Ruler

Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, the great scholar of the fifth century and one of teachers of Imam al-Ghazali, presents the roles of the Khilafah after defining what it is as such:

“The Imamah (Khilafah) is a complete authority and general leadership over all the people in all important religious and temporal affairs. Its roles include the defence of the territory of Dār al-Islām, looking after the interests of the community, establishing Islamic da’wah by providing evidence and proof and by the sword, restraining deviation and inequity, providing help and support to the oppressed against transgressors and recovering the dues from those who refuse to be paid to those who were deprived of their rights.” (Ghiyath al-Umam: 15)

It should be understood therefore that the Khilafah is a means, not an end in itself. It is a means whereby specific objectives are to be achieved through the leadership of the Imam and the co-operation of the people; objectives which individuals alone, or groups, cannot achieve. In sum, it is the means whereby Islam is comprehensively implemented.

The overall objective is the establishment of the commands of Allah whereby His pleasure is sought. More specifically, the objective is two-fold: establishing the deen, and managing the world by it as al-Mawardi mentions in his definition of Khilafah (Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah: 5). These include roles like:


a) Preserving the deen

The Khalifah must preserve the deen, in the sense of preserving the Islamic aqeedah and the correct understanding and practice of Islam amongst the believers. Abu Ya’la, a Hanbali scholar and one of the earliest authorities on the fiqh of ruling, says in this regard:

“It is upon the Imam to preserve the deen upon the fundamentals agreed upon by the early Muslims. If those of dubious standing deviate they are to be shown the proof and explained the correct view. If applicable the appropriate penalty is to be applied, so that their deen is guarded from flaws, and the Ummah is prevented from deviation.” (Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah: 27)

b) Spreading Islamic rule through Da’wah and Jihad

The best form of defence is offence, as the saying goes, and the da’wah to Islam is an obligation on all Muslims, but more so on the Khalifah, because, as Imam al-Juwayni says:

“As for Jihad, it is assigned to the Imam and he is personally responsible to make sure it is carried out. It is an individual obligation on him because he has assumed responsibility for the affairs of the Muslims, whereby his individual person becomes representative of the Muslim collective.” (Ghiyath al-Umam: 156)

c) Defending the Islamic lands / Fortifying the frontiers

The Islamic leadership must maintain military security internally and externally. Allah (swt) says:

“O you who believe, be patient, persevere and remain steadfast, and fear Allah that you may prosper.” (Aal-Imran: 200)

Ibn Kathir in his tafsir on this verse says:

“It is said that murabatah (translated as ‘remain steadfast’) here refers to battles against the enemy, and manning Muslim outposts to protect them from enemy incursions inside Muslim territory.” (Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Adheem, 2:171)

d) Establishing the laws and hudud

The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:

“Implement the hudud of Allah with respect to the near of kin and the stranger, and do not let the blame of a reproacher prevent you.” (Ibn Majah)

Unlike democracy where the people are free to legislate whatever they deem appropriate, in Islam the inherent limitation of the human mind is given due recognition, as is the infinite wisdom of Allah. As such, the right of legislation, of permitting things and actions or prohibiting them, is Allah’s alone. Thus all the laws which are established by Islam through the Qur’an and Sunnah must be implemented by the Khalifah without fear or favour. Some of these are definitive laws (like the prohibition of alcohol) whilst others are the subject of difference of opinion (like some of the details of collecting Jizyah from non-Muslims living in the Islamic State) in which case the Khalifah has the right to adopt an opinion which then becomes binding on the Muslims.


e) Facilitating the people’s adherence to Islam

It is also part of the roles of the Khalifah to facilitate people’s adherence to Islam by encouragement of obedience and threat of punishment for disobedience. Using these means must be preceded however by removing the causes of corruption and means of munkar spreading in society. There is no point in leaving all the root causes of evil – as happens in so-called Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran – and then forcing people to avoid them.


f) Organising/Managing the world affairs by Islam

Islam is more than just hudud. A hukm shar’i exists for all things and actions. Allah (swt) says:

“And we revealed unto you the book clarifying all things, and a guidance, mercy and glad tiding to those who submit.” (al-Nahl: 89)

Thus things like Economic policy, Educational policy, Ruling structure, Foreign policy, Social norms are all subject to Islam in the Islamic State. Even in those matters which may seem to have nothing to do with the deen like production mechanisms, farming practices, advertising etc., these come under the hukm of ibahah (permissibility), and must be considered in line with overall policy and objectives.


g) Maintaining Justice and removing oppression

Islam places an imperative importance on justice. Procuring justice with regards to the ruler takes various forms: removing oppression, providing for people’s basic needs, not leaving any people neglected, upholding equality of people as dictated by Islam, removing corruption, preventing the sacrilege of what people hold sacred, protecting people’s self, honour and wealth, settling disputes and giving people their due right, and upholding the rights of the Ahl al-Dhimmah.


h) Uniting the Muslims and preventing division

Allah (swt) says:

“This Ummah is one Ummah and I am your Lord, so worship me.” (al-Anbiya’: 92)

“And hold on to the rope of Allah, and be not divided.” (Aal-Imran: 103)

Hence the Ummah must be united, and whilst unity is a word which can mean many things, with respect to ruling this obligated unity requires that the Muslims have one state and one ruler, the Khalifah.


Ruling is a task of great virtue in Islam. Abu Ubayd narrates from his chain to Abu Hurayra (ra) that the Prophet (ﷺ) said:

“A day’s work of a just leader among his people is more virtuous than fifty or a hundred years worship of a worshipper in his house.” (al-Amwal)

Over and above this virtue, the great importance of ruling should be obvious considering the many momentous objectives it has to fulfil as listed above. In the absence of a just leadership, the result can only be chaos and harm, as we see today all over the Muslim world. The opposite is also true: the way forward for the entire Muslim world is to get the ruling in order by appointing a sincere and just Khalifah who rules by the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger (ﷺ). In this regard, Shaykh Mahmud al-Khalidi notes a fact of fundamental importance:

“And the humiliation which befalls the Muslims, making them live on the periphery of the world, at the tail of nations in backwardness, is not but because of their not working to establish the Khilafah and their lack of rushing to appoint a Khalifah, in accordance with the hukm shar’i which has come to be known to be of the deen by necessity, like Salat, Sawm and Hajj.” (Qawa’id Nidham al-Hukm fi al-Islam, 248)

May Allah facilitate for us the path to the return of the Khilafah.

– Uthman Badar

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