Islamic View On The Role Of The Government
As of the writing of this article, the country is undergoing a new political experience, i.e. a government formation deadlock that will be recorded in the annals of history as something that will surely be studied, analysed and commented upon.
While this experience may be new to Malaysia, it has been experienced by several countries under the democratic system. These include Belgium (2010-2011), the Netherlands (2017), Sweden (2018-2019), and even more recently the Republic of Ireland (2020), where they were under a government formation deadlock for a period of time. Belgium experienced the longest deadlock for 541 days.
While we pray that the situation in Malaysia will be resolved in the shortest possible time, it is perhaps useful to understand what a government is from the perspective of Islam.
The word “government” has its origins from the Latin word “kubernan” which in its literal sense means “to steer.” A government according to the Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia refers to “the act of ruling and the institutions through which this rule or ruling is conducted.” The same encyclopedia also defines “government” as “an exercise of influence and control through law and coercion over any group of people, but particularly those formed in a state.”
It is interesting to note that in Islam, the word “al-hukumah”is used to mean “government.” The word was first used in the 19th century by the Uthmaniyyah Empire. The term essentially is used to highlight the difference between the state (Arabic dawlah, Turkish devlet) and government (Arabic hukumah, Turkish hukumet).
In essence, a government is a group of people, either elected or appointed, to administer the political, social and economic aspects of a country. While there may be many systems of government in the world, it is understood that leaders are given the trust to form a government which functions to oversee and manage the socioeconomic needs of the people in the state.
These socioeconomic needs encompass the well-being and welfare of the people. In other words, the bread-and-butter issues which include employment, livelihood, healthcare and education. In the context of Islam, a government also needs to look after, not just the physical and economic aspects, but also the spiritual and moral well-being of its people.
Syed Abul A’la Al-Maududi (1903-1979) stated that a government is formed to fulfil a number of functions. The first is to ensure that any form of exploitation between peoples, groups and classes in a society does not take place. A government is also responsible to ensure freedom amongst its people, while at the same time ensure that the security of the nation is well looked after.
Al-Maududi also iterated the need for a government to uphold social justice as highlighted in the Quran. He also stressed that it is the responsibility of a government to carry out amar maaruf nahi munkar (enjoining good and forbidding wrong). It is also incumbent upon the government to ensure that the country is safe and governed under a rule of law which carries out justice without discrimination.
At the end of the day, it is imperative for a nation to have a functioning and stable government so that it can focus its attention on carrying out its responsibilities to fulfil the needs of its people. For this to happen, it is critical for all leaders to understand the weight of the amanah (trust) that they carry.
The importance of being trustworthy is highlighted in verse 27 of Surah al-Anfal, where it is mentioned thus, “O you who have believed, do not betray Allah and the Messenger, or betray your trusts while you know (the consequences).”
While leaders who make up the government carries with them a huge burden of amanah, the followers also have responsibilities that cannot be ignored. The elements of a successful government should be found not only in leaders, but must also be present among followers.
A leader must possess certain characteristics, charisma and caliber to lead. In Islam, a leader is guided by his belief in Allah and His Messenger, is knowledgeable and wise. He is someone who is willing to enjoin what is good and forbid what is bad. Integrity should be at the heart of leadership, and by extension the government.
The followers, meanwhile, should demonstrate loyalty to leaders as long as leaders meet the above criteria. Khalifah Ali ibn Abi Talib, was asked by a companion why there were more schisms during his time as compared to the time of the Prophet and the previous caliphs. To this question Ali remarked, “During the time of the previous caliphs, it was people like me who were the followers; and during my time as caliph, it is people like you who are my followers.” The underlying message is that the best of leaders need the best of followers.
Essentially, all have a role in ensuring that we have a government that can function to carry out its responsibilities. It is perhaps appropriate that the word “government” has its roots in a Greek word that means “to steer.” Now is the right time for all to steer the country back on its track in ensuring that the well-being and welfare of all Malaysians are protected.