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Qurayshite Descent: A Condition for the Khalīfah
Political Issues
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)

An Islamic State is an ideological state. It is founded on some principles and beliefs and not on race, tribe or family. All the Muslims believing in God and following God and His Messengers are equal citizens of the state and as such enjoy equal rights. None among them bears superiority over his fellow citizens. The only thing that raises some of them among others is their piety, understanding of religious sources and ability to reach conclusions using independent reasoning. In an Islamic society, it is only excellence on the basis of taqwa (God-consciousness) that earns some people the authority to rule others and decide their collective affairs. They are not elected for the purpose considering their superior race or pure descent.

The above fact is a very conspicuous directive of the Holy Qur’ān. We do not think it necessary to quote the divine commands in this regard from the Book. Yet, unfortunately, having misinterpreted a Hadīth narrative, some people believe that only a Qurayshite may be elected as ruler of the Muslims. No other person can be elevated to the position of khalīfah. The text of the Hadīth follows:

الأئمة من القريش

The rulers are from among the Quraysh.1

The most common interpretation of the above prophetic Hadīth violates the above mentioned fundamental Islamic doctrine in this regard. It also provides the disputants with a firm basis to label objections on Islam. To explain our point fully we need to refer to some of the objections against the Islamic system of government.

The most favorite objection raised against such faulty conception of the Islamic system goes as follows. Islam very vociferously claims that all humans are equal. Such Qur’ānic claims are in fact hollow. When it is believed, based on the consensus of the Muslim, that only a Qurayshite can assume the chair of khilāfah, the Islamic claim of equality of mankind loses all meaning. What kind of equality can exist in the presence of such marked discrimination? This doctrine grants the Quraysh a status no less than what the Levites held among the Children of Israel or that held by the Brahmans among the Hindus. Just like the Hindu religious law does not allow a Vaisya or a Shudra to participate in social and political affairs, Islam considers non-Qurayshites inherently ineligible for the post.

Another objection against such a conception of Islamic system of state claims that, God forbid, the Holy Prophet (sws) Muhammad (sws) failed to found the state in accordance with his teachings. The whole life he propagated equality and justice, and condemned racial discrimination only to hand over the state and political authority to his family a little before his death.

It will not be out of place to mention that it was this Hadīth narrative which, during the British rule in India, some English Orientalists and political leaders employed in misguiding the Muslims and in thus achieving their political ends regarding the Muslim movement of khilāfah. They tried to make the protesting Muslims realize that they were going out of the way in order to protect and help out the Turkish khilāfah, whereas their religion only recognizes the right to rule only for the Qurayshites. In the presence of such a pronounced judgment from their Messenger, how can they consider helping the Turkish khalīfah a religious obligation? It was on the contrary a violation of the sharī‘ah.

In present times, some “intellectuals” have endeavored to establish, on the basis of the Hadīth mentioned above, that some of the basic and fundamental teachings of the religion can be abandoned if the wise consideration of the circumstances demands such an expedient suspension of the sharī‘ah. Though equality is one of the fundamental teachings of Islam underscoring many a Qur’ānic commandment and Prophetic teaching, yet, they maintain, it was only wise to abandon such teachings in those crucial circumstances as prevailing around the death of the Prophet (sws) and thus the right to rule was held exclusive for the Quraysh. That is why the Prophet (sws), before his death, made it clear to the people that only the Quraysh would be chosen as political leaders of the state after him.

True Context of the Prophetic Hadīth under Discussion

These and other objections labeled against the political teachings of Islam, owe themselves to an erroneous interpretation of the Hadīth mentioned above. The prophetic saying has been interpreted severing it from its context and considering it an order or commandment rather than an expression of the hard political reality of the time.

We believe it was neither a command nor a testamentary will left by the Holy Prophet (sws) rather it was a decision, a judgment pronounced on a dispute under current in that political context. There is no denying the fact that the issue was not presented before the Holy Prophet (sws) as a dispute between prospective candidates for the khilāfah yet it was there in the minds of the people and manifested itself in different forms. It was not difficult for the Holy Prophet (sws) to read the real implication of the question and that after his death it would translate into a serious dispute, giving rise to dissension among the ummah. Therefore, the Holy Prophet (sws) considered it only wise to decide the issue in his life. He stated that considering the political condition of Arabia at that time it was only the Quraysh who could assume the authority.

One party of the claimants to the khilāfah were the Quraysh. The only contestants besides them were the Ansār. During the Prophet’s time, only these two groups wielded political influence. Though Islam had purified them of any bias of the jāhiliyyah period yet they kept alive the lawful flare of tribal solidarity. During the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (sws), their mental state would not reveal itself in much serious forms. However, after his death such a dispute could have intensified. Though it was not feared that their lust for power would generate political dissension, for both groups aspired to serve the religion of God more actively, yet their enthusiasm for service of God’s religion could create contention and problems in the nascent state. This did not leave the Holy Prophet (sws) but to decide the matter during this lifetime.

Since both groups were contesting for the political leadership of the Muslim world of the time and not for a position for the imām of a mosque, the only criterion for a just decision and preference of one over the other was their services to religion and the political influence they exerted over other Arab tribes.

Both had rendered equal services to religion and were its true and diligent followers. If the Quraysh had some specific services rendered to religion, the Ansār had some other equally important ones to their credit. Therefore, we see, that whenever the Holy Qur’ān counts their services to the religion of God, it praises both in equal terms. We cannot therefore base ourselves on the Qur’ān in saying that any among them has been given more importance. Similarly the Holy Prophet (sws) too has always considered the services of both the parties equal and neither of the parties lost significance in his sight. Therefore, none among them could be given superiority over the other on the question of their religiosity and service to Islam.

The Quraysh, however, outmatched the Ansār in that they exercised more political influence over the Arabs than the Ansār did. The political supremacy a group wields does not mean anything if taken alone. However, added with the sound religious grounding of the group, it renders that particular group competent enough to successfully run the state and guard the public and religious interests of the nation. It therefore adds to the qualities of that group and makes it more deserving of political power than others. In Islam, the responsibility of khilāfah is allotted to a group keeping in consideration its religiosity as much as its political status. The Quraysh were considered a dominant political power in Arabia even before the advent of Islam. This position they did not lose after the rise of Islam. Their rule was not therefore an unfamiliar and unacceptable thing for the Arabs. The Arabs could readily recognize the rule of the Quraysh in Islam which they were accustomed to obey in the jāhiliyyah period provided no religious commandment prohibited them doing so. By the grace of Almighty Allah the Quraysh had, by serving the religion of God, attained prominence among the believers too. Thus they were equipped with both qualities necessary for political leadership: political dominance and their services to the religion of God. This is the fact on the basis of which the Holy Prophet (sws) decided in favor of the Quraysh against the other claimant party namely the Ansārs, and explicitly stated that the considering the hard political reality of the time the leadership would go to the Quraysh. Consequently, this timely verdict of the Holy Prophet (sws) later helped greatly in removing the conflict among the Quraysh and the Ansār that did not take long to appear. It has been reported that just after the Prophet’s death the Ansār gathered in the Saqīfah of Banū Sā‘idah and claimed their right to rule the Muslims.

It would be utterly wrong to claim that the Holy Prophet (sws) decided in favor of the Quraysh merely because of their Qurayshite origin. Had there been a third political group outmatching the Quraysh and the Ansār in their services to religion and wielding more political influence than these two, the Holy Prophet (sws) would have decided in the favor of that group.

Further Clarification of the Issue

Though the explanation of the Hadīth we have offered is very clear, yet some people may still have some questions in their minds in this regard. We will first of all try to determine such possible confusions and then provide our response to them:

First, it may be asked that what determines the difference between a decision pronounced on a dispute and an independent directive. One may also hold that the preference the Holy Prophet (sws) gave to the Quraysh in this regard should be taken as it is. It does not make any difference whether they were given preference over the Ansār or all the nations of the world. One thing is certain: the Holy Prophet (sws) preferred them over others.

Second, one may seek to know how is it established that it was a judgment on a dispute in absence of any historical proof to the fact that there existed any such contention between the Quraysh and the Ansār during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (sws).

Third, how can one be sure that it was really a judgment on a dispute between the two groups? Did the Holy Prophet (sws) make it clear that he was deciding a dispute? Are there some other indications in the related historical material which provides sufficient proof to say that it was a decision and not an independent ruling?

Fourth, many scholars have stated that there is a consensus of the ummah on that none other than the people of Qurayshite origin be made rulers. How can a dissenting view be validated then?

We believe that none of these is a serious issue yet they can potentially lead people into confusion. We, therefore, consider it desirable to explain them.

As regards the first confusion, we wish to explain that there is a difference, though subtle, between a decision pronounced on a dispute and an independent ruling. This requires a little elaboration. It is however upon the interlocutors to seriously try to understand it. A decision pronounced on a disputed issue between two parties applies only to the very contestants. It cannot be extended to a third group. It means that when a third party which is more deserving than the first two appears it would be considered the rightful owner of the position allotted to any two of the original contestants. In other words, considering it a decision pronounced on a dispute entails that the right will accrue to any third contestant with more solid qualification. If, therefore, the Holy Prophet (sws) gave an independent ruling to the effect that no non-Qurayshite has the right to rule Muslims then it will be considered an absolute directive applied to all in all times. None will be able to lawfully rule the Muslims till the Day of Judgment except for the Quraysh. Then the Muslims will have to search for a Qurayshite to appoint as the head of the state whenever they have to form one. If there is nobody of the Qurayshite origin in a Muslim state, it has to import one. If on the contrary it was just a judgment on a dispute then it would mean that the Quraysh were given preference over the Ansār only. It does not then entail that this preference was universal and the Quraysh were given preference over all the people of the world and that none would lawfully rule the Muslims except for them no matter how clearly competent and remarkably deserving.

As regards the difference the nature of the Prophetic command creates, it can be ascertained through careful analysis of the basis of the preference. In order to know the basis, we have to see the nature of the dispute first. We will see what the issue being contested was and what were the factors which contributed to such a dispute. Thus if we come to know that the dispute was among the Quraysh and the Ansār on the issue of khilāfah on the basis of their racial origin, and the Holy Prophet (sws) preferred the Quraysh on the basis of their race and descent that would take us to the conclusion that in the matter of the right to rule in Islam the basic criterion is racial origin. It was the racial origin based on which the Holy Prophet (sws) preferred the Quraysh over the Ansār. However, a thorough investigation into the whole issue reveals that the dispute was over the right of caliphate and both parties considered themselves more deserving for the caliphate on the basis of their religious services and their political power; but the Holy Prophet (sws) decided in favour of the Quraysh. This means that in Islam the issue of rule is decided considering the religious services and the political status of the contesting parties. The right to rule then accrues to that group that wields more political power, is recognized by all the factions of the society as political leaders and outshine others in their services to the religion. Racial origin does not play any role in this second case.

Now, we believe, it is clear what difference does it make to consider the prophetic saying a decision on a dispute rather than an independent judgment.

The answer to the second question consists of certain points, which follow.

First, the dispute between the Quraysh and the Ansār did not necessarily relate to the issue of khilāfah because the question of ascendancy to the khilāfah could not have been manifested until after the death of the Holy Prophet (sws). We know that the Ansār considered themselves equal to the Quraysh in their political status and their religious services. On the basis of this fact, we can conclude that a contest between both parties really existed. This feeling had generated in their minds a sense of competition with the Quraysh. There is no denying the fact that the Ansār considered themselves a dominant political power at least in Madīnah. They were in no way wrong in this estimation of their political power in their hometown. We also know that their services to Islam were no less important than those rendered by the Quraysh. That is why they considered themselves equal to the Quraysh both politically and religiously. The presence of such a spirit of contest was so pronounced that no student of their history can deny it. Let us, for example, consider the following speech of their leader Sa‘d Ibn ‘Ubādah delivered in the meeting of the Ansār in the Saqīfah of Banī Sā‘idah:

يا معشر الأنصار إن لكم سابقة في الدين و فضيلة في الاسلام لسيت لقبيلة من العرب. ان رسول الله لبث في قومه بضع عشرة سنين يدعوهم إلى عبادة الرحمن و خلع الاوثان فما آمن به من قومه إلا قليل والله ما كانوا يقدرون ان يمنعوا رسول الله ولا يعرفوا دينه ولا يدفعوا عن انفسهم حتى اراد الله بكم الفضيلة و ساق إليكم الكرامة و خصكم بالنعمة و رزقكم الإيمان به و برسوله والمنع له ولاصحابه والاعزاز لدينه والجهاد لاعدائه فكنتم اشد الناس على من تخلف عنه منكم واثقله على عدوكم من غيركم حتى استقاموا لامر الله تعالى طوعا و كرها و اعطى البعيد المقادة صاغرا داحرا حتى اثخن الله تعالى لنبيه بكم الارض و دانت باسيافكم له العرب و توفاه الله تعالى و هو راض عنكم قرير العين فشدوا ايديكم بهذا الامر فإنكم أحق الناس وأولاهم به فاجابوه جميعا ان قد وفقت في الراي واصبت في القول

O party of the Ansār: “Your excellence with regards to your services to the religion of Islam is not the share of any other tribe in the whole of Arabia. The Prophet (sws) of God stayed among his folks more than a decade. He continued calling them to worship the Most Merciful and pleaded them to abandon their idols. None believed in his message except for a few. These few however did not have the power to protect the Messenger of God nor were they able to propagate his religion. They could not even defend themselves. This state of affairs remained until God intended to grant you excellence. He granted you respect and specifically chose you for his bounty. He bestowed upon you the ability to believe in Him and in His Messenger. He chose you for the protection of His Prophet (sws) and the Companions (rta), for helping the religion grow and for fighting the enemies of God. You have been the most hard on those who turned away from religion, from among you or other people. You continued rendering services till the enemies had been made to bow before the will of God willingly or unwillingly. Those from the far flung areas were compelled to follow. God conquered the land for the Holy Prophet (sws) through you. He made the Arabs surrender before him through your swords. Now the Messenger of God has departed for the next world while he was pleased with you. This is why you deserve the right to succeed him more than any other group. Hold this (khilāfah) firmly.” Then all those present among the Ansār said: “What you have opined and expressed is right.”2

We do not think it possible that these feelings of competition sprouted instantly among the group of Ansār and that there were no traces of contest before this event. Considering that such a spirit of contest was there in the minds of the Ansār, one may say, the Holy Prophet (sws) had to address the issue. He felt compelled to guide the people in the right direction so that they could amicably solve the dispute.

That such feelings indeed were there in the minds of the Ansār can be gleaned from the fact that the Hypocrites would take advantage of such a communal attachment during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (sws). History clearly shows that at various occasions the Hypocrites incited the feelings of the Quraysh and the Ansār in such a way that people from both parties drew out their swords against each other. One such incident happened during the expedition of marīsī‘.

The incident of Saqīfah Banī Sā‘idah did not accidentally happen. There were various factors which worked behind such an expression from the Ansār. There is no doubt that in every such case the Hypocrites had played their role. The Hypocrites could not have succeeded in inciting the communal bias of the Ansār if there were nothing supportive in their minds to be aggravated. Who could have been more sensitive to all these affairs than the Holy Prophet (sws)? It was only he who could come up with a proper solution to the problem and could curb the ensuing difficulties. We find it perfectly understandable that the Holy Prophet (sws) realized the feelings of competition underlying various expressions from both groups. He therefore decided on the matter before it could get aggravated after his passing away. Thus the Holy Prophet (sws) could curb the conflict between the Ansār and the Quraysh which the Hypocrites were able to raise just after his demise.

Second, it is utterly wrong to say that during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (sws) Muslims had never imagined that the Holy Prophet (sws) would depart or that the issue of khilāfah would be raised after that. Such assumptions clearly negate the influence of the Prophet’s teaching over the Companions (rta) and misrepresent the mentality of the Muslims of the time. Had the Holy Prophet (sws) left this ummah in dark regarding such basic issues they would have fallen in more grievous kinds of ignorance and the prophet’s saying: “the nights (ie. the future) of this ummah are as bright as its days (ie. the prophetic era),” would be totally proved wrong. Every Muslim living during the time of the Holy Prophet (sws) fully appreciated the fact that he was a human being and that he would depart from this world one day. They knew that they had to establish a government after him. Somebody would succeed him. The principles and basis of the khilāfah were also clear to them. They knew what would be the nature and characteristics of the caliphate in the beginning as well as later deviations expected to creep in the institution. All these things had clearly been explained by the Holy Prophet (sws). The Companions (rta) have reported them all as recorded in the books of Hadīth.

How could the Companions (rta) ignore the issues facing them? They could certainly not remain oblivious to the issues which directly related to them and which affected their lives. They knew that thinking over these realties and forming an opinion in this regard was no sin. If it were not for fear of a lengthy discussion, we could cite all the traditions which enlighten us in this regard and help us know that the Ansār had in their minds some issues and problems expected to surface after the death of the Holy Prophet (sws).

In response to the third question, we state that the text of the Hadīth: “the rulers would be from among the Quraysh” does not contain any textual indication to the explanation we have offered. It does not explicitly state that the Prophet (sws) passed a judgement on a disputed matter. However, the text does not also indicate that it was an independent directive. Neither does it guide us to the fact that because of wise consideration of the circumstances we can abandon the basic teachings of Islam.

The text therefore is not decisive in ascertaining any of the explanations given so far. In such cases, the scholars of the science of Hadīth follow the principle of ta’wīl (interpretation).

Such an interpretation is usually done according to the principle that a khabr-i wāhid (an individual report) cannot contradict the basic categorical teachings of Islam. An individual report contradicting the categorical teachings of Islam has to be interpreted in such a way that it is shown in conformity with the basic principles of Islam. Such an interpretation should then be strengthened by external and textual indicators and circumstances.

Now we discuss the factors which force us to take the Hadīth as a decision over a dispute based on the criterion of religious services of the groups involved and their political power.

The first thing that substantiates our interpretation is that, as stated above, there existed a spirit of contest and competition between the Quraysh and the Ansār. Such a spirit was at occasions exploited by the Hypocrites to sow difference among both the major groups even during the life time of the Holy Prophet (sws). This could have made the Holy Prophet (sws) see that after his death this feeling, though positive, could be misused by the Hypocrites in a well planned manner and could be destructive for the unity and solidarity of the nascent state. This sense of apprehension required that the Holy Prophet (sws) decide the most crucial issue of succession in his lifetime so that at the hour of need his decision could guard the community from possible dissonance.

Secondly, such a claim over the khilāfah could only be made by the Ansār. In the whole of Arabia, at that time, there was no other group besides them with such great services to religion and political influence over other tribes, except for the Quraysh, on the basis of which that group could claim to be the rightful heir of the Prophet’s political leadership. The other groups therefore were not considered claimants for the post of khilāfah on this ground. There was also no other compelling connection of those groups with the question, making them a potential candidate and subject of the prophetic judgement.

Thirdly, according to the most fundamental teachings of Islam no individual or group can rightfully be given priority over others except on the basis of their services to Islam and the political dominance in the public. None can however lay any kind of preference over others on the basis of their racial or tribal origin. The Holy Qur’ān says:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُم

O People, We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. The noblest of you in God’s sight is he who is the most righteous among you. (49:13)

Similarly, the Holy Prophet (sws) also made it clear that no Arab enjoys any kind of superiority over a non-Arab and no non-Arab has any such preference over an Arab. The only thing that can lend excellence to a person is God-consciousness. Keeping in view the above mentioned clear Qurā’nic teachings and the prophetic clarifications, we cannot correctly take the Hadīth: “the leaders would be from among the Quraysh” to mean that the Quraysh were given preference over all others in this regard on the basis of their Qurayshite origin. Seen in the light of the Qurā’nic teachings and prophetic explanations, it can only be interpreted to mean that the Holy Prophet (sws) considered the political power wielded by the Quraysh over Arabs and their unparalleled services to the religion of God. Even the Ansār did not match them in this regard.

Fourthly, the text of some of the prophetic Hadīth in this regard indicates that the question of Quraysh’s superiority was in fact created in relation to the Ansār. They also make it clear that the basis of the preference attached to the Quraysh was not their origin but the confidence of the majority of the Arabs in them. Consider the following narratives:

While arguing against the claim of the Ansār regarding the khilāfah, Abū Bakr (rta) said to Sa‘d Ibn Mu‘ādh (rta):

لقد علمت يا سعد أن رسول الله قال و انت قاعد قريش ولاة هذا الأمر فبر الناس تبع لبرهم و فاجرهم تبع لفاجرهم فقال سعد صدقت

Sa‘d, you well know that the Holy Prophet (sws) said in your presence that the Quraysh are the rightful custodians of the khilāfah. The righteous Arabs follow the righteous among the Quraysh and the evil among the Arabs follow the evil among the Quraysh. Sa‘d replied: “You are right.”3  

Another saying ascribed to Abū Bakr (rta) says:

و لم تعرف العرب هذا الأمر إلا لهذا الحي من القريش

The Arabs are not familiar with the rule of any group other than the Quraysh.4

‘Alī (rta) says:

عن رسول الله الناس تبع لقريش صالحهم تبع لصالحهم و شرارهم تبع لشرارهم

The Holy Prophet (sws) said: “The people [of Arabia] follow the Quraysh. The righteous Arabs follow the righteous among the Quraysh and the evil Arabs follow the evil among the Quraysh.”5

This theme has been discussed in various other narratives. All these things do not make sense unless they are taken to imply that the Holy Prophet (sws) wanted to make it clear to any claimant of the khilāfah that the only group which can fulfill the responsibilities of the khilāfah are the Quraysh because the Arabs would not accept the rule of any other group. A little deliberation over the political circumstances of the time shows that only the Ansār could lay such a claim on the right of khilāfah besides the Quraysh. We must also consider the fact that it was the political influence of the Quraysh over the Arabs during the days of ignorance and also after Islam that is being discussed as the basis of preference in this regard. Nothing in the text of the relevant narratives indicates that it was the Qurayshite origin that provided the basis. Just as in a democratic culture the party which enjoys the confidence of the majority is given the right to rule, similarly the Quraysh were given the responsibility to run the government after the Holy Prophet (sws) because of the confidence of the majority of the Arabs they enjoyed and the services they had rendered to the religion of God.

In response to the fourth objection which says that the condition of Qurayshite origin is based upon the general consensus on this point obtained in the ummah, we hold that if this is the consensus established among those participating in the meeting called by Ansār in the Saqīfah of Banū Sā‘idah then we recognize it. It is a known fact. If the reference is towards some other kind of consensus then the claim is unfounded. Such a consensus is not known to Muslim scholarship. Perhaps it was only limited to Imām Nafsī and Shahrastānī. As regards the consensus of opinion among the elders of the Ansār and the Quraysh in the Saqīfah of Banū Sā‘idah, it did not violate any principle of Islam. It was perfectly in accordance with the Islamic teachings. It is not the peculiarity of this consensus under discussion rather all consensuses held in the entire history of Islam were in accordance with the Islamic teachings. Never ever the ummah gathered over a view which violated the principle teachings of Islam. We believe that no consensus is considerable and valid unless it is in accordance with Islamic teachings. If the ummah or the scholars of the ummah agree over an issue which contradicts Islamic teachings, the agreed upon matter is not valid because it lacks the basic conditions of consensus in Islam. Such a violation is utterly wrong and should never be heeded to.

The elders among the Ansār and the Quraysh did not agree on the opinion that only the Quraysh would enjoy the right to rule after the Holy Prophet (sws) because they were of a superior race. As stated above they reached a consensus on the point that the Quraysh enjoyed the confidence of the majority Arabs and had rendered great services to Islam and, on that account, they would be given the right to rule in those particular circumstances. Had the Quraysh lacked any of these qualities and had there been some other group having these qualities, the Quraysh would never be given that priority. The negation of this right to rule would not have, however, removed their Qurayshite origin. Had the Companions (rta) known that the basis of such preference was the Qurayshite origin, the Quraysh would have argued that according to the Prophet’s teachings no non-Qurayshite would be taken as the ruler. They would have brought the discussion to end simply by proving this point. A scholar well versed in the history of Islam when reads through the reliable works on the subject can learn that the arguments of the Ansār and the Quraysh in the meeting held in the Saqīfah were not based on the origin of the Quraysh. They, on the contrary, pleaded to their political competence and the services to religion as the basic criterion.

If racial origin and tribal affiliation would mean something in this regard only the tribe of Banū Hāshim could have been the most prominent claimant of khilāfah. They were the noblest race. But the crucial question in this regard was the political competence and influence over the subjects. The Quraysh possessed this quality collectively. No clan among the Quraysh individually wielded that political power over the Arabs which they wielded collectively. That is why we see that the Holy Prophet (sws) did not say that it was necessary for a caliph to be of Qurayshite origin. On the contrary, he said that the rulers would be from among the Quraysh. This sufficiently proves that the basis of decision in this regard is their political power and not their origin.

Had the Companions (rta) taken the prophetic saying to mean that the Qurayshite origin was a necessary condition for a caliph and that this principle is a major clause of Islamic political directives and had the Ansār and the Quraysh agreed on this understanding of the Prophet’s saying, it would not have been possible for ‘Umar (rta), one of the participants of the claimed ijmā‘, to wish to transfer the khilāfah to some non-Qurayshite. Every student of Islamic history knows that on his death bed the caliph ‘Umar (rta) was requested to nominate his successor. He sorrowfully said that if Mu‘ādh Ibn Jabal would be alive he would have nominated him as his successor. He said:

 فإن سألني ربي قلت إني سمعت نبيك يقول انه يحشر يوم القيامة بين يدي العلماء برتوة

Then, if my Lord would ask me: [“Whom have you handed over the affairs of the ummah?]”, I would be able to say: “in the hands of Mu‘ādh Ibn Jabal. I heard your Prophet (sws) say that Mu‘ādh would be walking in front of all the scholars.”6

Similarly regarding Sālim he said:

If Sālim would be alive, I would not have been forced to form this council asking it to select a caliph from among them. I would have nominated him instantly.7

One wonders how the caliph ‘Umar (rta) expresses his grief over the loss of Mu‘ādh, one of the Ansār. How did ‘Umar (rta) remain ignorant of the ijmā‘ these people so vociferously claim over the condition of Qurayshite origin for the caliph when we know that he was present in the meeting of the elders among the Ansār and the Quraysh? Do we have to believe that the nature of that ijmā‘ was more clear to Imām Nafsī and Shahrastānī than it was to ‘Umar (rta)? We must notice that ‘Umar expressed his desire to appoint a non-Qurayshite even during the same political circumstances. The Quraysh still enjoyed, in their collectivity, the confidence of the Arabs. They were still united and organized. They had among them great leaders like ‘Uthmān (rta) and ‘Alī (rta).

The matter of Sālim is even more enlightening. He was not a Qurayshite even not an Arab by origin. He was an ‘ajamī, a freed slave, not even a free ‘ajamī man. He was freed by Abū Hudhayfah or his wife. ‘Umar (rta) says that if Sālim were alive he would have appointed him as his successor.

The crux of the matter is that it was not the Qurayshite origin that determined the status of the Qurasyh rather the basic criterion was the confidence of the people in them. In that time, the confidence of the people the Quraysh enjoyed or potentially enjoyed was considered by the Holy Prophet (sws). This made them competent enough to fulfill the responsibilities of the khilāfah. Considering their political power, they could have nominated a slave, any from among the Ansār, or even a non-Arab. Their nominee could have run the government with them on his back. Without this political power and influence, none could have been competent enough to be burdened with the responsibility. This explains the Prophetic saying: “the rulers will be from among the Quraysh.” Do you think that when a group or a party is appointed as ruler considering their political mandate it would be a violation of any of the Islamic teachings? Such preference for the majority parties against the minority is considered the real beauty and apex of democracy. But unfortunately we have interpreted this virtue to be a violation of the basic Islamic principles of justice and equality and have toppled one of the pillars of Islam opening the door of deterioration in other principles too.

Viewpoint of Ibn Khaldūn

It would not be out of place to explain the viewpoint of Ibn Khaldūn in this regard.

Those well versed in Ibn Khaldūn’s prolegomena know that his political theory is based on the concept of communal support and political unity. This communal support and political unity develops out of blood relations. People of a race create the sense of unity among them in that each individual of them has a strong urge to support and help others. This mutual help and care creates in turn the courage to protect the interests of the community and seek for it the opportunity to self-rule and this last thing culminates in a formal government.

According to Ibn Khaldūn, the communal support which engenders a government initially develops out of common descent. However, the common descent works only when the sense of unity among the group is strong enough to create the feeling of help and protection of the fellow group members. The stronger this feeling for others and the desire to help and protect the members of the group the more productive this common descent is. Without this it is not enough to be considered a firm basis for the establishment of a rule. In that case, it would only be an illusion.

According to Ibn Khaldūn, the Quraysh were able to wield that political power and supremacy among the Arabs only on the basis of this communal support. This communal support when further strengthened by their religious affiliation made them rightful heirs of the political legacy of the Holy Prophet (sws). No other Arab tribe was their rival in this regard. They were the rightful owners of the right to rule until their communal support and the resultant political power was shattered. Once the Quraysh lost this basic competence to rule other nations, which had developed their communal support and the required political power, they were replaced by these new political powers.

The above is a summary of Ibn Khaldūn’s political theory. If, according to him, the Quraysh were made rulers of the Arabs and the rightful owners of the khilāfah only because of their communal support and the resultant political power over other factions in the Arabian society of the time, then it becomes clear that this factor does not necessitate the suspension of any basic Islamic principle. One can however accept or reject it on the basis of sound proofs but one cannot maintain that Ibn Khaldūn has come up with a theory which violates any of the basic teachings of the Qur’ān. If Ibn Khaldūn lived in the modern age, he would have put his theory differently. He would have said that since the Quraysh were the most powerful party among all the Arabian tribes both in terms of their religiosity and political power, they were granted the right to rule by the Holy Prophet (sws).

(Translated from Islāmī Riyāsat by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)





1. Ahmad, No: 19792.

2. Ibn Qutaybah, al-Imāmah wa al-Siyāsah, vol. 1 (Cairo: Sharikatu Maktabati wa Matba‘ati Mustafā al-Bābi al-Halabī wa Awlādihī, 1969), 5.

3. Ahmad, No: 18.

4. Ahmad, No: 391.

5. Ahmad, No: 790.

6. Muhammad b. Ahmad Ibn Uthmān, Siyar A‘lām al-Nubulā, 8th ed., vol. 1 (Berut: Mu’assasah al-Risālah, 1995), 10.

7. Ibid., vol. 1, 170.

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