Introduction 2011

Prof. S. Abdallah Schleifer

Much of the Arab portion of the Islamic world has undergone either significant changes in its political leadership and (as of publishing time) significant violence between Muslims in Libya, Yemen and Syria in which non-violent protests turned, for various reasons, into armed struggle against those in authority–be they legitimate or illegitimate; or were simply crushed by overpowering state violence; as in the case of Bahrain.


The prevailing criteria for ‘Most Influential’ has reflected the influence of Muslims as Muslims be they in Muslim countries or Muslim-minority communities, large (India) or small (Europe and the Americas) though this is somewhat less so in this year’s listings compared to 2010 and our first edition, in 2009. Nevertheless prominence in political and religious affairs (particularly when political legitimacy overlaps with religious factors) remains, but the actual listings in these categories have been affected by the dramatic events referred to as ‘The Arab Spring’.

Our listings do tend towards a more traditional understanding of Islam than either Islamists (politically engaged fundamentalists) or modernists would have it (see: The House of Islam for the editors’ understanding of Traditional Islam), which means that considerations of what constitutes legitimate political rule does, to a degree, impact our ordering of the most influential in the political and religious domains, but not exclusively so. And because of the importance of ‘The Arab Spring’ in all its convoluted manifestations, our introduction to this year’s listings is inescapably far more ‘political’ in concern than would ordinarily be the case.

The traditional Islamic political philosophy of monarchy is summarised by Ghazi bin Muhammad as follows:

‘Traditional, Orthodox Islam has always endorsed monarchy as such. In the Holy Qur’an, God is the King, Al-Malik, (20:114; 23:116; 59:23; 62:1); the King of the Day of Judgement (1:4); the King of the Humankind (114:2), and the Owner of Kingship (3:26). Sovereignty is in His Hand (67:1; 2:107; 5:40; 7:158; 9:116 et al); He has no partner in Sovereignty (17:111), and yet He gives it to whom He pleases (3:26). Kingship is moreover a gift from God (3:26) and a grace (5:20); and it is further ‘strengthened’ by Him (38:20). He has given it to the descendents of the Prophet Abraham (5:54). Indeed, it first came as a result the supplication of a Prophet (Samuel)(2:224—247; see also 38:35) in order that Children of Israel might defend themselves. It came with the Sakinah (God’s Peace) as Divine Sign confirming it (2:248). At least two Prophets (David and Solomon) were kings (38:20; 25:15—17), and God confirms in the Qur’an the hereditary principle in monarchy (27:16). Moreover, another Prophet ( Joseph) served a king as his Chief Minister (‘al-aziz’–12:88), and he himself thus had ‘something of monarchy’ (12:101). Moreover, it is extremely significant to note that the (good) king of Egypt whom Joseph served is always called ‘king’, ‘al-malik’ (12:43 et al) in the Holy Qur’an, whereas the (evil) king of Egypt who rejected Moses (2:49 et al.) is always called ‘Pharaoh’, ‘fir’awn’.

Similarly, in the Seerah [the biography of the Prophet Muhammad], the Prophet Muhammad sent his cousin Ja’far to seek to the ‘just king’ of Abyssinia (see: Tafsir Al-Tabari, vol.9, p.249 on 8:39, and Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, p.311 on 8:39). The Prophet Muhammad  also confirmed the kingship of all those kings who entered Islam (such as Himyar in the Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain), and even predicted that monarchy would be in his tribe, the Quraysh (106:1—3): ‘Kingship is from within Quraysh ….’ (Narrated by Al-Tirmithi in Kitab al-Manaqib, Bab Fadl al-Yameen, no. 3936.)

Indeed, the first four Caliphs–the Prophet’s  successors–were all kinsmen of the Prophet , in various degrees, from Quraysh (the Prophet) having no sons, nor brothers, nor nephews), in addition to being either his fathers-in-law (Abu Bakr and ‘Umar) or his sons-in-law (‘Uthman and ‘Ali, the latter being, in addition his paternal first cousin). In fact, the central point of contention between Islam’s two great denominations (Sunni and Shi’a) is whether all Quraysh or only the Prophet’s own descendents through his daughter the Lady Fatimah and his cousin ‘Ali should succeed him.

How be it, from the time of the death of the Prophet  until the end of the Second World War, regional monarchy and/or pan-Islamic monarchy (the Caliphate) has always been the only accepted form of government in Islam, and it continues to be so with traditional Muslims in many Islamic countries. Many of the greatest figures of Islam were kings or Caliphs:

Walid I; ‘Umar bin Abd Al-‘Aziz; Abd Al-Rahman

Al-Dakhil; Abd Al-Rahman III; Haroun Al-Rashid;

Nur Al-Din Zengi; Saladin; Thahir Baybers; Muhammad

II Al-Ghazi; Sulayman the Magnificent; Akbar–to name a few.

That is not to say that monarchy in Islam ever had a kind of infallibility associated with it, as in the medieval Christian idea of the Divine Right of Kings: on the contrary, kings were there to ensure justice and hence God’s laws–justice was not there to justify kings. The Holy Qur’an makes this abundantly clear (5:44—47).


Nevertheless, monarchy was thought of as the best–and perhaps only conceivable–form of government because it can best deliver justice and adherence to God’s laws. Islamic Monarchy, moreover, whilst not democratic as such in the modern sense of ultimate power being derived and delivered through universal suffrage, nevertheless makes participative consultation (shura) of experts, the learned and the wise (16:43; 21:7; 4:83) incumbent on the ruler (42:38; see also paradigm in 27:32—35). However, although the ruler must consult, he may ultimately choose to make up his own mind (3:159). For it is the truth that serves justice (4:58; 4:135; 5:8; 5:42; 7:28—29; 16:90; 57:25) not the necessarily the will of the majority, who may or may or not be wise (39:9; 35:19; 35:28; 32:18), and whose will and judgement thus may or may not be just (6:116; 23:71). Nevertheless universal consensus (ijma’) is binding both as a source of law in itself (4:115) and upon rulers’ decisions. Indeed, rulers must receive a pledge of allegiance (bay’a) (see: 48:10; 48:18, 60:12) before taking office, but having received it, they must be obeyed (4:59; 4:83) as long as they obey God. Revolution against a legitimate ruler is therefore completely forbidden. This is all summarised by the saying of the Prophet:

‘The best of your Imams are those whom you love and whom love you, and pray for you, and for whom you pray; and the worst of your Imams are those whom you hate and whom hate you, and those whom you curse and whom curse you’. It was asked: ‘Should we not take up arms against them?’ The Prophet  replied: ‘No, so long as they have called you to prayer; [even] if you see from them something which you hate, hate the action and do not disobey them’. (Narrated by Muslim in Kitab al-Imarah, bab khiyar al- A’imah wa Shirarahom, no. 1855).[1]

Many years ago, Dr. Yusuf Ibish, the late Professor of Political Thought at the American University in Beirut and mentor of many in his time (including at least two of the Muslim 500) taught a rather obscure course on Islamic Political Thought. That meant the traditional Sunni Islamic political thought of Imam Abdul Hamid Al-Ghazali and the 11th century Imamate theorists such as Al-Baquilani and Al-Mawardi) and not what has come to pass for Islamic/ Islamist modern political thought. Modern Islamic or Islamist political thought is usually a coupling of any number of 19th and 20th century Western ideologies — be they left-wing Leninist (Marxist) or right-wing Leninist (Fascist–be that hyper-nationalist or racist) or the kinder ideologies of Social Democracy (the welfare state) and Democracy blended with Islamic pieties: Those pieties invoke shariah, usually without reference to its compassionate application in altered social circumstances as was the practice in a ‘medieval’ Traditional Islam that was most sensitive to the cultural and political ambiance contemporary to those older times.[2]

Ibish considered the only truly modern political parties in the Arab World in his prime (the nineteen fifties and sixties) to be the Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. From Ibish’s neo-traditionalist perspective that was not a compliment, because he felt that only in the anomie of modern industrial mass society would loyalty to the party or political movement transcend all other loyalties. For the traditional Muslim, Ibish argued, political loyalty begins with one’s family, one’s religious-communal identity, one’s clan or tribe, and one’s home town or district rather than to the nation, or the state or the party, or all combined, as in the case of ideologically-driven mass movements in the modern nation-state. As for the nation-state, it too was an unknown phenomenon in the world until the most recent centuries.

The Arab Spring bears him out. One could suggest (however factitiously given the enormous size and historic prestige of the Egyptian armed forces in contrast to the Libyan) that the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s greatest mistake was to send his two sons to the American University in Cairo and not to a military academy where they could have acquired skills to lead–as family and or clan loyalists–private armies or special forces (like the Republican Guard) that would in time surpass the regular armed forces of Egypt. The same facetious remark could be made about Tunisia’s deposed President Ben Ali. Even the Republican coup d’états of past decades which in time became revolutionary in their social transformative effect, while motivated at the highest levels of then relatively marginal ideologies in the earliest post-World War II years (Ba’athist, Nasserist Arab Nationalist, Marxism

in the late Marxist republic of South Yemen and Islamist in Sudan and Iran) had significant popular support, if not as in Egypt’s case, even ecstatic popular support, because in that same traditional political reference, the legitimacy of the ruler, all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad  was in large part shaped by the ruler’s ability and responsibility to command armed forces against domestic criminal disorder and foreign invasion. Nowhere is that more clear than in the survival of the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan (in contrast to the Hashemite dynasty’s tragic fate in Iraq) against all odds offered so-to speak by political pundits. In Jordan the sustained military tradition on the part of the Jordanian kings blends seamlessly into the religious prestige of a dynasty linked to the Prophet .

For it is precisely those states where family, sectarian and clan-tribal loyalties prevail in the ruling circles despite the official reigning Republican ideologies–Libya, Yemen and Syria–where relatives of the besieged presidents, with tribal connections and in Syria’s case the Alawite communal- sectarian loyalty battle onwards and ferociously against Arab Spring revolutionaries. So Muslim blood is shed by Muslims–the very phenomena dreaded by the traditional Sunni jurists who recalled with dread the domestic bloodshedding in the earliest centuries of Arab/Islamic history typified by revolt, disorder and ‘revolution.’ These modern day Arab Republics, are (or are-in-potential) ‘hereditary republics’, aspiring in Yemen and Libya as Egypt’s ‘Republican’ ruling family so aspired or already established as in the case of Syria. ‘Republican’ in quotation because the regimes that were based on army coup d’état in much of the Arab world in the fifties and sixties of the past century, were supposed, as good Republicans, to be opposed in principle to the hereditary rule which has prevailed in the Muslim world for most of its history and outside of the Arab World still does, in a very symbolic manner in Malaysia and a more than symbolic (and visible) manner in Brunei.

Indeed the very word dawla, which in modern times has come to mean ‘the state’, meant in classical Arabic the revolving turn to rule for any particular dynasty. For it was dynasty not state that defined political authority in the Muslim World (with the extraordinary exception of that slave military meritocracy of the Mamluks). All this prior to modern colonialism’s letting loose the demons of modern European ideologies. Which is why Karl Marx, recording the appalling atrocities of British colonial rule in mid-19th century India nevertheless argued from his own historic perspective that colonialism in general and British colonialism in particular was a positive or ‘progressive’ force in its time.

And those same considerations play out in this year’s ‘Arab Spring’ which in all of its various forms is perceived in most of the media and in the minds of the protestors or armed rebels as ‘revolutions’ in a positive rather than negative sense of the word.

These changes are reflected in this year’s listings. Among the 500 Most Influential Muslims is the Google marketing executive Wael Ghoneim, credited as the author of the Facebook page that endorsed the call for the first mass demonstration in Tahrir. Although it turns out that Ghoneim served as protective cover for the actual author who was Ghoneim’s friend, Ghoneim’s courageous act in turn led to his own imprisonment in the earliest days of the Tahrir Uprising. Ghoneim’s popular Facebook page was named after Khaled Said, victim of obvious police brutality in Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt.

Also among the 500 is Ahmed Maher, far less well known than Wael Ghoneim, whose fame as the Face of the Tahrir Uprising is largely based on his dramatic and emotionally moving appearance immediately after his release from detention on Al Ashra Masa’ayn; the most popular TV talkshow in Egypt, carried by the Egyptian private satellite TV channel, Dream TV. But it was Ahmed Maher, leader of the 6th of April Youth Movement who quietly trained and planned in the new strategies of non-violent public demonstration and organized that first day of the Tahrir Uprising over the course of many months. So it was television media attention (particularly Al-Jazeera’s coverage) as well as social media attention, more than any other factor that propelled, to a degree, the massive number of demonstrators onto the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said.

The very popular television preachers Amr Khalid and Mo’ez Massoud were also early supporters of the Tahrir Uprising, as was the Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed El-Baradei and the veteran Egyptian diplomat Amr Mousa. Yet the real power, when all was said and done, remains (as of going to press) at least formally in the hands of Field Marshal Muhammed Tantawi, head of Egypt’s now ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, also another newcomer to the Muslim 500.

It is not a coincidence that that the street protests either dissipated or have to date been non-violent or relatively non-violent in the three Arab monarchies one would consider the most legitimate of all the various Arab political systems from the perspective of Traditional Islam: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Sultanate of Oman and above all, the Sharifian Kingdom of Morocco, where to the surprise of radical demonstrators from the Maoist and militant Islamist movements, demonstrations remained nonviolent and never challenged the rule of the monarchy but called for constitutional reform.[3]

This, to the surprise of pundits, particularly blogging pundits–be they Eastern or Western–whose understanding of ‘the political’ in contemporary Islamic societies, is shaped by late 19th century-defined ideologies and the even earlier militant secular republicanism known since the French Revolution as Jacobinist, or at best the more moderate and not intrinsically anti-religious model of the 18th century American Revolution. Indeed, Edmund Burke, the 18th century English political thinker argued the rebellion in the colonies was not really a revolution at all, simply Englishmen (the Americans) rising up against a tyrannical stacked parliament in defence of their rights as Englishmen.

One could argue against the blanket use of the word ‘revolution’ that the American and even the British ‘Glorious Revolution’ which effectively brought the present dynasty to the throne, depended upon an aristocratic presence—a presence that the thoughtful Christian writer C.S. Lewis insisted is a necessity if democracy does not degenerate into plutocracy. That is a tendency first noted by Plato. It could even be reasonably argued, such a process is very much underway in the United States. In fact the USA not a constitutional monarchy due to George Washington’s modesty (his troops offered him an American throne) and the romance of the Roman Republic prevalent among the very aristocrats who led the American Revolution: An aristocracy based on classical education, public service, noblesse oblige, a sense, at the very least of the necessity of religion (Thomas Jefferson) as well as property–an aristocracy that had all but vanished by late 19th century America.

In neither Egypt nor Tunisia were the rulers overthrown by street demonstrators — in both cases it was the Army that decided to send off Ben Ali and Mubarak. In other words, the Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt did not overthrow the social or political order but were soft coup d’états that may or may not lead to reforms on one hand, or future blood baths on the other. Indeed it is the non-politicized Army (not the ‘civilians in uniform’ that characterized Nasserist and Ba’athist military coups) with its sense of honour and readiness to sacrifice in combat–not suicide–as warriors. And at that, as sacred warriors, as mujahideen in the Traditional Islamic sense of armed struggle against the enemy at the frontier or criminal disorder in the streets, that can only be declared by a legitimate political authority in traditional jurisprudence and traditional Sunni political thought.

It is Libya where the Uprising turned armed rebellion most conforms to Traditional Islamic criteria. Gaddafi personally overthrew a relatively constitutional monarchy with Sharifian ties back to the Prophet  and a spiritual association with a Sufi Tariqa–the Senussiya. Gaddafi has behaved as a mad or demented man in the course of his rule and his Green Book makes him a heretic in the eyes of traditional Sunni ulema–both grounds for overthrow in traditional Islamic political thought. He also undermined the regular army that brought him to power in favour of the far better equipped private army brigades commanded by his sons and other relatives; thus undermining the traditionally important regular or legitimate armed forces.

It is not a coincidence, and it is a symbol of legitimacy that the flag raised by rebels or Free Libyan Army in its fight against Gaddafi is the flag of Libyan Independence; i.e. the flag of the Senussi dynasty overthrown by Gaddafi. Unfortunately, while the various rebel brigades fought and triumphed under the Libyan Monarchy’s flag, they did not fight and triumph under the unifying goal and leadership, however symbolic, of a restored Senussi King, which has resulted most recently in serious skirmishes between rival brigades. It is also sad as well as ironic that this, the most legitimate (from a traditional Islamic perspective) of all the Uprisings or revolutions that constitute The Arab Spring, is most subject to criticism or disinterest by many Arab, Muslim and Western commentators–despite Arab League and UN blessings of a Nato + Qatar + UAE intervention against Gaddafi. That Gaddafi had vowed to slaughter the rebel population of Benghazi and would have carried out such a massacre, but for the last minute intervention of the French Air Force seems irrelevant to many left-wing critics. The curious but predicable reaction was that France, England and America were fighting for control of Libyan oil, but the West (and in particular the oil companies) had already made a favourable peace with Qaddafi some years ago, and it was with reluctance that both Presidents Sarkozy and Obama intervened under intense pressure from influential intellectuals (many of whom, at least in America, are Muslim) in both France and America. But this year’s edition does not reflect just changes in the political order. It includes more examples of Muslim celebrities who are not necessarily known for their participation in public life as self-conscious Muslims.

[1]Ghazi bin Muhammad, ‘Islamic Government and Democracy’


[2]See S. Abdallah Schleifer’s discussion of traditional Islamic political thought in a chapter from his Jihad in Modern Islamic

Political Thought, serialized in its entirety in The Islamic Quarterly in the nineteen eighties, with specific reference to Al Baquilani,

Al Marwardi and Al Ghazali, and relevant references to Al Bukhari, Ahmed, Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Marja and other muhaditheen, as

well as references to commentary by Ibn Jamaa and Ibn Taimiya and the contemporary scholars Ibish, Gardet, Hamidullah. Gibb, and available with all of Schleifer’s other articles in the series at

[3]Anyone seeking an explanation of the “Moroccan Spring” which has culminated in the King’s own program of constitutional and parliamentary reform being massively approved by a free and fair referendum should read the account written by Ahmed Charai, publisher of the Moroccan weekly magazine L’Observateur and available on the Foreign Policy Research Institutes’s website at enotes/201106.charai.morocco.html