Camille Backman: Leadership and Community within Early Islamic Political Philosophy

The formation of an early Muslim political philosophy evolved largely due to the intertwining of community attitudes and the concept of ideal rulers. The early Islamic political philosophy was largely outcome based and heavily drew upon systems that would function in such a way so as to not disrupt the ability to follow a religious lifestyle.

The solidification and expression of Islamic community created several necessities of a political body that could function sufficiently to meet the needs of the people it engaged with. First, community was reinforced through an original egalitarian view of all Muslims, the promise of eternity, and the addressal of the power gap. Second, the new Muslim community that emerged from rapid expansion “developed from a worldview that perceived religion and politics as a seamless web” (Brown 46). The sudden growth of Islam occurred in such a way that there was little controversy over the religious affairs of those in power, mostly due to the fact that they were deemed just enough to lead a vast majority.

Furthermore, the establishment of the Medina Contract led to a greater sense of community through a multitude of agreements. This contract enabled the unification of 250 tribes and solidified the notion that despite having many desert and nomadic members, Islam “evolved as a religion of oasis urbanites living in symbiosis with the desert and the nomads” (Brown 28). The contract paved the way for arbitration and allowed for a smooth transition into religious governance. Finally, the Islamic community appeared strong due in part to the principle of “no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256) thus creating a community of voluntary and willing participants as opposed to an oppressed and scared group. This initial sense of participation rather than force only further instilled the growth of political philosophy from tribe attitudes and the spread of knowledge through such communities.

The foundation for early Islamic Political Philosophy could not be attained without the support and guidance of strong leaders. In the beginning, the question of who should lead was guided by three main factors: Knowledge, Power, and Justice. Further qualities required of these leaders was the ability to implement a plan that aligned with God’s plan and be able to accept that the majority of their support comes from the concept that rulers are a means to a desirable outcome and less about the individual actions of the established ruler. The progression of Muhammad’s first four successors display a shift towards placing a just leader, but provide little to no clarity of distinct political style. Each successor was placed into power through a variety of systems. First, an assembly of seniors selecter the first caliph. Second, the first caliph appointed the second caliph. Third, a collection of 6 elders nominated the third caliph. Lastly, the fourth caliph was put in place through a sort of popular vote. Despite this convoluted and irregular process multiple scholars agree that the caliph functioning as a “religious and political leader of the Muslim umma [remains] throughout the centuries the centerpiece of Muslim political theory” (Brown 36). These first four rulers are considered the ideal model for a political philosophy, and even now stand as the guiding point for strong community involvement.

Finally, the notion of outcome based political structures and leaders helped largely influence the establishment of certain political philosophies. Often, the ideal umma model was implemented as a desire rather than an extremely effective plan. This trend of looking back at of previous models of government occurs frequently but often provides misleading guidance as opposed to a functioning model. Often, idealized models attain a sort of prominence in theory, yet a true lack a function. However, it appears that in these initial political movements, a weaker government was widely accepted as long it did not interfere with the practice of faith. Brown argues that the original political philosophy was more of a “submissive attitude toward political authority” (Brown 54) but it appears that rather than submitting it was the concept of adapting to any system so as to not interfere with progression and following of faith. The ulama provided this security within the weaker governments as a method of checks and balances that allowed certain discrepancies to be acknowledged and helped the community accept a harsher government in preference to anarchy.

The early Islamic Political Philosophy was heavily influenced by rapid expansion with the notion that Islam would easily fit into whatever land and community was conquered. Due to the exhaustive conquests pursued by Christians and depletion of a strong united front, Islam gained prowess through small tight communities lead by urban centers. Further, those in power always worked in such a fashion so as to promote religious ideals and emphasize community values as a means of continuing God’s plan for Islam regardless of the unclear political frame. Through constantly shifting structures, the reassurance that those in power would lead to a greater outcome for the community kept the interaction of politics and religion close together as the religion spread.


Works Cited

Carl L. Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. New York: Columbia


  1. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1968