According to some theoreticians neither the ancient Greeks nor the ancient Romans possessed the concept of ‘right’. By contrast, there are others who argue that the concept was implicit in some of their moral principles and that each person had a natural right to self-preservation and property in his own body. The general agreement among scholars is that the concept is something new formulated around the 17th century by theoreticians such as Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Locke. There is however another understanding, that the concept of right came first from within the Muslim World.
According to Dr Hamid Hadji Haidar it was in fact Ali ibn Abi Talib (599-661), the most revered religious scholar among Shiite Muslims who made the first explicit attempt to conceptualise rights in the history of political thought. According to him, Imam Ali – the fourth ruler in early Muslim society after the death of the Prophet – is the first Muslim political theorist and the author of the first Islamic political essay. Dr Haidar’s main claim is that Imam Ali’s political theory, as a variant of what he calls ‘welfare limited guardianship’, embodies several innovations in the history of political ideas.
“The concept of welfare state, as well as the concept of publicly confirmed guardianship, registers Imam Ali as a definite original political thinker in history. Further, his concept of citizens’ rights that guarantees his view of limited government should be received as another innovation in the history of political thought. Unfortunately, , the influence of his original political theory had to wait until Na’ini (1861-1936), the political theorist of the ‘Iranian Constitutionalist Revolution’ (1905-1911), developed Imam Ali’s political theory with a flavour of modernity”, says Dr Haidar. Imam Ali’s letters and lectures including several political letters were collected by al-Sharif al-Radi in 1010 in a book named Nahj al-Balagha (The Way of Eloquence). Dr Haidar believes, one of his political letters can well be considered as the first Islamic political essay which draws a picture of the ideal Muslim state.
The collection of directives to Malik al-Ashtar – Ali’s appointed governor to Egypt in 660 – had been preserved among Shiites as an independent book. Dr Haidar uses the contents of the Imam’s letters to systematically introduce Imam Ali’s political theory. He calls the collection ‘Directives to the Muslim Ruler’. Dr Haidar begins to describe Imam Ali’s ‘Theory of the State’ by answering three major questions: Who should rule? How? And, why do we need government?
Welfare limited guardianship
Dr Haidar believes the political theory of Imam Ali is best described as ‘Welfare Limited Guardianship’. And in regards to ‘who should rule?’ he says: “Imam Ali’s use of words imamah, wilayah and ulu al-amr respectively meaning leadership, guardianship and one who possesses authority, have been understood by Shiite scholars as indicating ‘guardianship’.
Imam Ali, throughout his directives, maintains that an Islamic society should be governed by a competent figure possessed of the ‘knowledge of Divine laws’, as well as ‘self-restraint’ required for implementing those laws. However, although the guardian is competent to assume political power in an Islamic society, public acceptance of the guardian is necessary.
Imam Ali quotes a saying, from the Prophet addressed to himself: “You are the guardian of my people after me. Hence, if they accept your guardianship and consent to it, take the position, and if they disagree on your guardianship, leave them with their situations”. Hence Dr Haidar rightly claims that ‘Imam Ali’s theorisation of ‘the publicly confirmed guardian rule’ is the first step towards his political theory at his time.’
‘How should one rule?’ One of the most important aspects of Imam Ali’s theory, according to Dr Haidar, is his insistence on the concept of ‘limited government’ or ‘restriction of political obligation and the accountability of the ruler to the public’.
Imam Ali confirms that political obligation is limited to the extent of the ruler’s correctitude. So if there is no legitimate rule there would not be any obligation either. Here Dr Haidar points out that Imam Ali’s suggestion that ‘the political obligation of Muslim citizens is limited’ should be taken as an indication of his commitment to limited government. Haidar quotes from Imam Ali: “Do not say: ‘I have been given authority, I should command and should be obeyed, for this attitude is corruptive of the heart, destructive of the faith, and [provides] potential for overthrowing you”.
The restraints and limits Imam proposes upon governors oblige them to publicly provide information about their decisions and be answerable about their performance to the public. For if the power of a ruler is ‘absolute’ then he will do as he pleases and therefore accountability has no value.
‘Why do we need government?’ Here Imam Ali’s emphasis is on a conception of ‘needs-based distributive justice’.
“… Imam Ali proposes that the Islamic rule is not something valuable per se; rather, political power is intended to provide some ‘common goods’… An Islamic government is obligated, according to Imam Ali, to provide for society: security and peace, economic
development, social justice, and individual virtues …The idea of distributive justice on the basis of needs is, definitely, an innovation by Imam Ali and of course quite in line with the Quranic teachings and is not found in any ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, nor in ancient Chinese philosophy”, says Dr Haidar.
Imam Ali’s conception of distributive justice has been put in terms of fairness, justice and citizens’ rights. “Imam Ali’s conception is not egalitarian. He does not support equality of income and wealth for all citizens. Nor does his conception of justice directly necessitate reducing or removing the gap between the rich and the poor. In other words, Imam Ali’s conception of distributive justice requires meeting the basic needs of the poor and the entitlement of the rich to their property”, adds Dr Haidar
Here we see that Imam advises his governors to pay attention to the ‘merchants’ and ‘industrialists’ by respecting their self-esteem, as well as providing security for their jobs. On the other hand the merchants and industrialists are obliged to supply necessary goods for society as well as paying taxes required for public expenditures.
“In all cases Imam does not interpret justice as providing a unified level of prosperity for all citizens. Rather, he incorporates into the concept of justice proportionality between the public burdens everyone bears with public benefits that person receives”, says Dr Haidar.
As Dr Haidar explains: “According to Imam Ali, a right is a ‘benefit’ for the right-holder, as it is a ‘burden’ upon the duty-bearer”. Hence, there is a link between a right and a duty. Imam Ali also defines a right as something mutually possessed. In other words, when a duty-bearer respects a right possessed by the right-holder, the former is entitled to a benefit, that is, a right. In this regard, Imam Ali, as the ruler, addresses the public and says: ‘Definitely, I have a right against you, and you have a right against me’.
To summarise Imam Ali’s concept of ‘citizen’s right’, we can say the first feature is the link between rights and duties, second is ‘mutual existence of rights’ and the third feature is ‘the individual’s right in respect of those who respect their rights’. Individual rights extend to the right of that individual against the ruler and vice versa. In this regard Imam states: ‘The greatest rights among human beings confirmed by God is the right of the ruler against the ruled and the right of the ruled against the ruler … Hence, … the truth gets powerful between them, life becomes enjoyable, the stability of the state is guaranteed, and the enemies become hopeless’.
Dr Haidar further explains: “Imam Ali confirms that citizens have ‘a right to prosperity, education, moral progress and to the good-will of the ruler, which can collectively be called ‘welfare rights’. The ruler has ‘a right to obedience’ and respect for his commands. When citizens obey the ruler, their right to welfare is confirmed. By contrast, if the ruler fails to provide welfare for the citizens, he will forfeit his right to obedience. This view concerning citizens’ rights sheds light on Imam Ali’s conception of limited government and political obligation. Hence Imam rejects authoritarianism and supports limited government. Therefore the scope of the authority of the Islamic government is limited by citizens’ rights.”
The importance Imam Ali puts on the dignity and freedom of individuals is illuminating especially when considering how it precedes any other declaration of rights by several centuries. •