The Baseless Doctrine of Vicegerency of Man
Political Issues
Question asked by .
Answered by Dr. Shehzad Saleem

What is the religious basis of the doctrine of vicegerency of man? Every book on Islamic directives of politics that I have come across mentions this doctrine. However, I am unable to understand the real line of argument regarding the doctrine.


Your information is correct. The doctrine of vicegerency of man has, over the years, remained the basis of Muslim political thought. In this regard, some of our scholars have also coined the term of ‘popular vicegerency’ as against ‘popular sovereignty’ of a democratic order. According to this doctrine, every man has been delegated some powers by the Almighty and as such he is His deputy on earth. In my humble opinion1, this doctrine has no basis at all in the Qur’ān. The verse most often quoted in its support is the one which goes against it the most:

وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً (٣٠:٢)

I am going to make a khalīfah in the earth. (2:30)

The word khalīfah in the Arabic language has two meanings:

1. A person who succeeds someone by assuming his position of power and authority.

2. A person vested with power and authority.

The exponents of this doctrine attribute the first meaning to the word khalīfah in the above verse, as indeed they do wherever the verse occurs in the Qur’ān. A little deliberation shows that the word ‘khalīfah’ has been used in this verse in the second meaning ie. a person vested with power and authority. Linguistically, it is not possible to adopt the first meaning. Grammatical principles dictate that the word khalīfah which actually occurs as a common noun in the verse, should have either been defined by the article alif lām or by a determining noun (mudāf ilayh) if the first meaning were to be attributed to it. Someone may question whether the word has ever been used in the second meaning ie. ‘a person vested with power and authority’ in the Arabic language. The following verses of the Qur’ān, the most authentic Arabic work, conclusively use the word in this meaning:

وَاذْكُرُوا إِذْ جَعَلَكُمْ خُلَفَاءَ مِنْ بَعْدِ قَوْمِ نُوحٍ وَزَادَكُمْ فِي الْخَلْقِ بَسْطَةً فَاذْكُرُوا آلَاءَ اللَّهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ (٦٩:٧)

And remember when He made you khulafā after Noah’s folks. (7:69)

يَادَاوُودُ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاكَ خَلِيفَةً فِي الْأَرْضِ فَاحْكُمْ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ (٢٦:٣٨)

O David! We have made you a khalīfah on the earth, so rule with justice among men. (38:26)

The verb ‘اِسْتَخْلَفَ’ (istakhlafa) derived from khalīfah is also used in the same meaning:

وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنْكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُم فِي الْأَرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ (٥٥:٢٤)

Allah has promised those among you who have accepted faith [in the actual sense] and have done righteous deeds, that He will make them khalīfah in this land as He had made their ancestors khalīfah before them. (24:55)

The people of ‘Ād have been addressed in the first of the above verses, as is evident from its context. It is a historically proven fact that there exists a time lapse of many centuries between the People of ‘Ād and the People of Noah (sws), during which many other nations arose to a position of political ascendancy. Moreover, the places where these two nations gained power were in totally different parts of the Arabian peninsula. So the People of ‘Ād could not have succeeded the People of Noah (sws). Hence the first meaning cannot be attributed to the word khulafā in this verse. In the second and third verses, similar contradictions result if the word is used in the conventional meaning. In the second verse, why is the Almighty singling out the Prophet David (sws) as His khalīfah when according to the doctrine every man on earth is God’s khalīfah? In the third verse, how come the believers are being promised khilāfah, a position they already have by birth? However, all these verses become meaningful if the word is understood to imply the second meaning.

It would be appropriate here to point out that the second meaning ie. ‘a person vested with power and authority’ is actually a developed form of the first ie. ‘a person who succeeds someone by assuming his position of power and authority’. Such developments in the meaning of a word often occur in a language, which is always under a state of evolution. The word ‘وَارِثْ’ wārith and can be presented as an example. It originally means ‘an heir ie. the owner of a legacy’. But it also means ‘an owner’ simply, as is evident from the following Qur’ānic verse:

وَإِنَّا لَنَحْنُ نُحْيِ وَنُمِيتُ وَنَحْنُ الْوَارِثُونَ (٢٣:١٥)

Indeed, We give life and death and We are the Wārith [Owners] of all. (15:23)

It would be quite ridiculous to interpret the verse in the light of the first meaning.

Therefore, it can be safely concluded that the doctrine is a logical fallacy.



1. This opinion is based on the research carried out by Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. For details see: Ghamidi, Maqāmāt, 1st ed., (Lahore: Danish Sara, 2001), pp. 109-111


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