On knowledge and statecraft


  • Opinion
  • Tuesday, 23 Jan 2018

IN Plato’s Republic, the philosopher-king is a leader who loves and embodies the cardinal virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Therefore, the community that produced him would dispense with the mechanisms of democracy meant to curtail misuse of power by corrupt politicians who preyed upon the masses because of their ignorance.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried.” This may only refer to the inadequacies of the present set-up in producing leaders who do not require constant oversight.

The leader reflects the people. The Prophet said, “As you are, so shall your leader be.” He also said, “Each of you is a shepherd (ra‘in) and each of you is responsible for his flock (ra‘iyyah)”.

The Arabic word ra‘iyyah, from which the Malay word rakyat originated, has its root in ra‘in, which also means guide, guardian or caretaker. In the worldview of Islam, both the leader and the people form a unity; they are like a single body.

The Prophet also prophesied the emergence of leaders (umara) who “will be corrupt but God may put much right through them”.

Therefore, the people are obliged to be thankful when leaders do good and patient when the leaders commit evil.

The Proof of Islam, Imam al-Ghazali, in his Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), stated that religion is established through the sultan, who is not to be belittled.

We should not justify a wrongdoing when it is proven, but our limited senses may often lead us to believe that no good may come out of the things we perceive as evil because we think evil is the absence of good.

While weed follows the cultivation of rice and there seems to be no good in growing weed, it does not stop us from planting and harvesting the rice.

A well-known Sufi figure, Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad, said, “If I had one supplication that was going to be answered, I would make it for the sultan, for the sultan’s well-being and righteousness means well-being for the land and its people.”

Another Sufi figure, Sahl al-Tustari, was once asked, “Who is the best among men?” He replied that it was the ruler, which surprised his inquirers because it was thought that rulers were the worst.

Sahl continued, “Don’t be hasty! God Most High has two glances every day: one is for the safety of the Muslims’ possessions and another for their bodies. Then, God looks into the Register of Deeds and forgives him all his sins (for his protection of both).”

But the precondition for forgiveness is that the ruler must protect both.

The establishment and statecraft of our centuries-old Malay sultanates mirrored those in Islam’s civilisational epicentre, which in turn were modelled after the Prophet’s Medina.

While colonial rule modernised our country’s administration, it did not abolish the sultanates but merely interrupted them.

However, colonisation also displaced the ulama’s traditional role in advising the Rulers.

It also severely impaired the ability to follow the Prophetic practice called shura in consulting scholars and learned men as well as the ability to recognise and acknowledge them properly. This is the reason for today’s greater need for checks and balances.

Even so, we are lucky to be blessed with a unique system that combines constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. This is the time when rulers work closely with the ruled towards the common good.

While our Rulers do not interfere in politics, adherence to royal protocols should not conceal the fact that the Rulers are in the best position to decree the people so that they would choose the best stewards for the nation.

The counsel of learned people is important in guiding a ruler’s politics because statecraft is like a knife in the kitchen – a housewife could wield the knife as a utensil or a burglar as a weapon.

Muhammad Husni Mohd Amin is senior research officer at Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environ­ment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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