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Political Accountability, An Islamic viewpoint

Governance in Islam

The question of “accountability” has for long been one of the major issues in politics and administration. In the Western literature, two groups of theorists — the Marxists and the Liberals — have given basically contradictory opinions on this issue. However, both groups have serious weaknesses which have led many others to think of alternative approaches to this concept. Today, man-made doctrines are driving mankind rapidly towards its doom and this dire dilemma prompts thinking to find a solution. Islam is the only religion that offers the really ideal solution to this burning question of the modern day.

Accountability is the hallmark of good governance. It embraces the enforcement of free and fair elections and the executive’s answerability to the public in a political ambience of openness and transparency. The malfunction of any of these critical operating systems will retard national development and progress. If political accountability is unheeded, neglected or dysfunctional, citizens may resort to civil disobedience, street protests, rebellions or violent revolutions. So, an accountability system can be efficient only when there is the existence of related concepts of governance such as rule of law, people’s participation and a high degree of civil liberty.

Accountability in Islam derives from the concept of amanah (often translated as “trust”). As a political concept, it suggests that Allah Almighty has given the trust to human beings to deliver and promote His guidance through justice and fairness in their lives. Everyone becomes a recipient of such a trust and consequently has to stand in reverence before his people for whose sake he will be called upon to exercise his duty. This concept is enshrined in the Qur’an:

“And let there be [arising] from you a nation inviting to [all that is] good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be the successful.” (Qur’an, 3:104).

Governance in Islam This and similar verses illustrate that Islam promotes active citizenship through participation in governance. The spirit of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoinment of good and forbidding of evil) must be expanded from the spiritual-ritual dimension towards a broader and holistic horizon of moral, ethical, social and political responsibilities.

In harmony with the Quranic spirit, the Prophet (SAWW) was reported as saying:

“Whoever amongst you sees anything objectionable, let him change it with his hand; if he is not able, then with his tongue; and if he is not able even to do so, then with his heart; and the latter is the weakest form of faith” (Narrated by Muslim).

There are other analogous records which denote the Prophet’s (SAWW) position on the political life of the believers. For example, he (SAWW) recognised and praised those who would stand against tyranny with the words of justice:

“The master of the martyrs is Hamza (one of the Prophet’s (SAWW) uncles), and whoever is killed speaking truth in the court of a tyrannical ruler.” (Narrated by al-Hakim).

On another occasion, he associated an act of accountability with jihad:

“The best jihad is the word of truth to an unjust ruler.” (Narrated by al-Tarmidhi, Abu Daud and Ibn Majah).

These pieces of evidence from authentic texts demonstrate that accountability is pivotal in articulating the purity of the spirit of amanah in political life. The high sense of accountability empowers individuals, hence crystallising the true meaning of equality and allowing individuals to act as benchmarks for the community of believers.
The practice of accountability in early Islamic political life could also be found during the period of Caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA). He stressed the importance of accountability in his very first speech to the Muslim community after being elected as the Caliph:

“Cooperate with me when I am right, but correct me when I commit error; obey me so long as I follow the commandments of Allah and His Prophet (SAWW), but turn away from me when I deviate.” (Narrated by al-Hindi).

In fact, his companions often held him to account for his decisions and weaknesses in state administration.

This was also the position of Caliph Umar (RA), who succeeded Abu Bakr (RA). In his first speech as Caliph, he (RA) stressed the need for accountability in his administration, and the rights of every citizen.

Umar’s (RA) policy on accountability did not end with the primitive style of verbal complaints and condemnations from the public. He established a specific office to deal with the public administrators’ accountability. The office was designed for the investigation of complaints against officers of the state.

Another example of accountability practiced during the period of the Rightly-guided Caliphs can be found in the famous letter written by the fourth Caliph Hazart Ali (RA), to his governor in Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar. In his invaluable advice to the governor, he said:

“Out of your hours of work, fix a time for the complainants and for those who want to approach you with their grievances. During this time, you should do no other work but hear them and pay attention to their complaints and grievances. For this purpose, you must arrange public audience for them. During this audience, for the sake of Allah, treat them with kindness, courtesy and respect. Do not let your army and police be in the audience hall at such times so that those who have grievances against your regime may speak to you freely, unreservedly and without fear.”

From the above-quoted examples, it becomes evidently clear that Islam encourages the formation of a just society based on the principles of equality, justice, rational thinking, tolerance and equity. The Islamic idea of governance is to nurture humane and accountable leaders who would focus on the well-being of common people by establishing different institutions. If we go through these teachings in more detail, we shall realize that they are valuable for any person aspiring to become a future political leader even in the modern world.

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