The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, commenced his message around 610 ce in his native city, Mecca, which was an important religious, economic, and cultural center of Arabia at that time. His political maneuvers in that early era secured a growing band of followers. In the beginning he established an underground movement and led a peaceful and passive resistance in the face of the severe opposition and persecution with which he and his followers were met. Islam gained momentum due to several factors, including its being a liberating force for the weak and poor from the injustices of Meccan society. That epoch ended when the Prophet secretly migrated to a nearby city, Medina, in 622 while the native Meccans were plotting to assassinate him. His migration, hijra, was a significant axial turn and was taken by Muslims as a starting date for their calendar. The experience of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in their hijra from oppression set an example that has continued to influence Muslim tactics throughout the centuries and up to the present time.
The new home of Muslims, Medina, became an Islamic polity under the leadership of Muhammad after a covenant was agreed among its inhabitants, forming an alliance with the Muslims (Bashier 1990: 99-119); some writers call this the "constitution of Medina" (Watt 1968). The Jews of the city were among those who signed the covenant, and that participation laid the foundation of the relationship with covenanted non-Muslims, later called dhimis, who lived within the Islamic territory. The Prophet became the effective ruler of Medina, wielding political and religious authority and enacting various laws to regulate that society. The emerging Muslim polity fought several victorious wars against neighboring tribes, including those of Mecca. Military struggle, jihad, thus became an important instrument of Islam for defense, survival, and dominance, and the cry for it remains loud even today.
The death of the Prophet in 623 created a problem of succession that was quickly resolved, thus giving birth to the first system of the caliphate. For about 30 years the caliphate was consolidated while the territory under Muslim control expanded swiftly to include vast areas in Asia and North Africa. The legal precedents that shaped the government of the first four caliphs, described as al-rashidun (the rightly guided), initiated early developments in Sunnite theories. The practices of al-rashidun were viewed as an authority by later generations in the belief that they were supported by ijma', consensus of opinion (Maududi 1980: 203). The most important principle derived from this line of argument is that the caliphate system was an elective office based on consultation and consent. The Sunnites authenticated this in their report that the first caliph, Abu
Bakr, was duly elected at a meeting of the notables of Medina after the death of the Prophet. 'Umar, the second caliph, was quoted as having commented on the incident in a public speech in Medina when he said: "If any one swears allegiance to a man without taking counsel with the Muslims he is not to be obeyed." However, there appears to have been no agreed precise way of conducting the procedures of election, and elections of the second, third, and fourth caliphs followed variant methods (Khir 1996: 85-6). Nonetheless, modern thinkers use the principle as a basis of democratic rule.
The model of the rashidun caliphate did not last long: after about 30 years a civil war broke out. In the aftermath of the conflict a major change took place in the form of rule. The caliphate, which was in origin an elective authority based on consent, was transformed into a monarchy, mulk, founded on force (Ibn Khaldun 1958: 598-608). Muslims adopted the type of rule that was common in ancient empires and power was passed on through hereditary succession. The first family to seize control was the Umayyad dynasty, and their imperial, despotic type of rule continued throughout Muslim history up to the time of the Ottomans, whose rule ended at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the results of this development is that Muslim society began to take an effective role in administering its affairs independently of the government. Nongovernmental autonomous establishments carried out many of the functions of social justice that were no longer performed by the rulers. The services that enjoyed a sphere of autonomy free from governmental intrusion comprised, among others, education, health, transport, mosques, and mystic orders. A huge enterprise system of endowments, awqaf, generated income to run the services and facilitated their independence. "These institutions played roles analogous to those institutions we today identify with civil society" (Hashmi 2002: 61).
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