IN a recent interview on local television, prominent American Muslim scholar, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, spoke favourably about the virtues and stability of constitutional monarchy-led governments such as Malaysia, against the backdrop of political turmoil, violent anarchy, and failed states, which almost always resulted from the break-up of consensus in the governing structure of democratic republics.
Since the Caliphate’s abolishment in 1924, for 95 years kings and sultans have shouldered the onerous temporal as well as religious responsibilities of governing the interests of Islam and the affairs of Muslims, who now make up 1.8 billion, or 24 per cent of the world population.
Loss of leadership is a calamity. For this reason, discerning Sunni scholars such as luminary Imam al-Juwayni (d. 1085) and his
brilliant protégé Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111) cautioned against the preoccupation with reviling rulers, preferring instead to guide the community towards God in the hope that perhaps their conduct may improve.
Kingship (mulk) is natural to human beings. Scholar and litterateur of the 14th century Mamluk Sultanate, Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, recounted how, in Nihayat al-Arab fi Funun al-Adab (The Ultimate Purpose in the Arts of Erudition), the angels crowned Prophet Adam with “a golden crown encrusted with pearls and jewels” after God taught him the names of everything (Surah al-Baqarah, verse 31).
As a massively encyclopaedic work on world history and Sunni cosmology, the Nihayat highlights recurring themes in the world view of Islam which include the knowledge of man’s unique nature and position as earthly vicegerent (khalifah) in the cosmic order.
Man is originally spirit (ruh) breathed from God (Surah Sad, verse 72). As a soul (nafs), it has appetitive power (nuzu‘iyyah) for taking possession (tamalluk), which is a manifestation of God’s Name, al-Malik (The King).
However, as Imam al-Ghazali explains in his work, al-Maqsad al-Asna (Exposition on the 99 Beautiful Names of God), man’s share of the Divine Name is only analogous; all of creation needs God, while God as the Absolute King “is independent of everything”.
Profound thinker of our time, Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, elucidates that man has a dual nature.
His spirit is composed of the animal aspect by which his soul directs the acquisition of means for his physical sustenance; and the rational aspect from wherein, like a king, his spiritual heart (qalb) rules the animal aspect.
Therefore, it is knowledge and discernment of the intellect (‘aql) that enables man to recognise his own true reality and restrain (tamaluk) his desires from transgressing the limits (hudud) ordained by God.
Herein lies the secret to successful rulership: he who governs the kingdom of his own self grasps the governance of others.
“The hearts of kings are sensitive to public affairs and the events of time,” writes Ibn al-Dawadari, the 14th-century Egyptian author of world history compendium Kanz al-Durar (Treasure of Pearls).
Arguing that the power to understand people’s needs is God’s bestowal upon kings, he adds: “This is why God has placed them in charge of men’s lives. For they see the events of their age from behind a thinly transparent veil and gain God’s approval by following rightly guided policies.”
The 6th-century Persian Shahanshah (King of Kings), Anushirwan, once asked advice from his vizier, Buzurgmihr, to preserve his sovereign state and perpetuate his kingdom.
Explaining the king’s relative position in the cosmic order, he formulated: “The world is a garden, its enclosure is the state; the state is a dominion whose legislation is the king; the king is a shepherd whom the army supports; the army is a relief which wealth maintains; wealth is sustenance which the subjects gather; subjects are servants whom justice subdues; and justice is a subsistence by which the world stands.”
In a very well-known hadith, Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said: “Everyone of you is a shepherd and every shepherd is responsible for his flock.”
Similarly, the heart is a shepherd and the limbs are its flock; the sultan is a shepherd and God’s servants are his flock.
The 10th-century Andalusian poet and author of al-‘Iqd al-Farid (The Unique Necklace), Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih, said: “The ruler is the reins of power, the regulator of rights and claims, the mainstay of God’s Law, and the axis around which all religious and worldly affairs turn. He is God’s protection in his lands, and God’s shade that extends over his subjects, through which he forbids the impermissible, aids the oppressed, restrains the wicked, and protects the meek.”
Surely, the jewels of age-old wisdom are worth thoughtful appraisal while we experience the joyous mood of today’s celebratory occasion in conjunction with the installation of Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah as the 16th Yang di-Pertuan Agong, our King.
The writer is senior research officer at the Centre for Science and Environment Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM)