According to Iqbal, the purpose of religion is not thinking about life. Instead, religion aims at creating a new type of character, and a new universe suitable for that character. The type of character the Quran wants to produce, and its universe, seem to be given in the story of Zulqarnayn – the ideal ruler – in Chapter 18, The Cave (Surah Kahaf).
Of course, the perfect role model according to the Quran is the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). But a follower of the Prophet, no matter how closely he or she follows the role model, cannot be compared with the Prophet himself – the follower simply cannot become like the Prophet.
Hence, Zulqarnayn is not (and cannot be) a role model in the same sense as the Prophet is. It is rather an example of what a true believer will look like after having followed the Prophet.
One of the aspects of this story is that it contains many references to politics and international relations in simple but meaningful ways.
For instance, Zulqarnayn makes three demands from citizens: (a) believe in God; (b) do good deeds; and (c) expect to be rewarded in the Hereafter.
This is exactly the criteria prescribed for citizenship by the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Iqbal regarded as the real founder of modern political thought (the currently widespread impression that a modern state has got nothing to do with religion can be revisited from certain angles that have been ignored so far).
As a ruler, Zulqarnayn defines his role as ordering the citizens to do ‘what is easy for them.’ This, we can say, is the basic criteria of desirable government according to the Quran.
The Quran does not define its ideal government in terms of a system, form or appearance. Instead, it gives us certain principles, such as consultation and consensus. The desired result to be achieved by implementing those principles seems to be given in the dialogue of Zulqarnayn – ‘command them to do what is easy for them.’
‘What is easy’ may vary from time to time, place to place and person to person. In the past, some people might have found it easy to bow down before a monarch. Today, they may find it repugnant to follow even the most lenient regulation until it has been passed with their consent or by their elected representatives.
The point is that a law cannot be called good because the ruler thinks that it is good for the people. The people themselves have to be happy with it.
Most interestingly, Zulqarnayn is not an exploiter of the weaker nations. He does not make them dependent on himself, nor bags financial gains from them. Instead, he facilitates them in developing their own strength and resources:
Then, when he reached a place between two mountain barriers, he found beside them a people who could barely understand him.
They said, ‘Zulqarnayn, Gog and Magog are ruining this land. Will you build a barrier between them and us if we pay you a tribute?’
He answered, ‘That in which my Lord has established me is better, but if you give me your strength, I will put up a fortification between you and them:
Bring me lumps of iron!’ and then, when he had filled the gap between the two mountainsides, ‘Work your bellows!’ and then, when he had made it glow like fire, he said, ‘Bring me molten metal to pour over it!’
These are just a few highlights. The story of Zulqarnayn is a treasure-trove of insights in politics and international relations.
Unfortunately, these insights have remained mostly ignored, as the scholars have usually restricted themselves to certain other discussions.
The practical implications of this story become prominent if we follow the lead from Iqbal that the purpose of religion is to create a new type of character, and a new universe suitable for that character (‘The Muslim Community – A Sociological Study’).
Then it becomes obvious that Zulqarnayn is what the Quran wants every Muslim to become, and the world the Quran envisions for us is one where neither individuals nor nations have to face coercion.
These and other insights will be explored and discussed in the online course offered at Marghdeen from 28 August. The last date for registration is 17 August. If you are interested, please see more details or get registered now.
5 thoughts on “The ideal ruler in the light of Iqbal’s vision”
I was wondering along the same lines as Mr. Soman ul Haq regarding the meaning of the term “What is easy for them.” I think Soman ul Haq sahib and you have shed some light on it. Certainly, this term must be considered in a wider sense in order for it to be of any benefit to the society because to give a very third world example (unfortunately), jumping the line, or driving against one way(am ashamed to say, common practice in Pakistan) might be easy or convenient on an individual level, but certainly against the best interests of the society as a whole, and thus, ought not to be tolerated. The same reasoning can be applied to a lot of other issues such as tough laws against corruption, nepotism, theft, robbery, etc., all such evil practices, although easy and rewarding for the perpetrators in the short term, are detrimental to the society in general. So, the principle that we have, on the basis of which certain practices are legal and others illegal, is that of utilitarianism, or happiness of the greater number of the society.
P. S. Just last evening, unfortunately, I saw an individual driving against the one way just so he could avoid driving half a kilometer more. I made a gesture to him to indicate my displeasure ( although I am not sure if it will discourage him from indulging in such selfish behaviour in the future). I am sure it was easier for him, but definitely not convenient or beneficial for the society.
Thank you Shafique sahab for another enlightening article.
Thank you for this article. I’m fascinated with the insights here into politics, international relations, and being a good human being.
Assalam o Alaikum
About doing what “is easy for them”, does it translate into another way of reaching consensus of the masses?
In my humble opinion: yes, absolutely.