Monday, April 11, 2005

Succession in Muslim world

Published in Daily Times, Lahore on April 13, 2005

Nazir Naji in his column "The Succession Issue" (Daily Times April 11) writes "succession has always been a problem in Pakistan."

Why only in Pakistan? A democratic succession has been a problem of the whole Muslim world throughout history. And, unfortunately, it still is. The other day I came across this colourful anecdote, told by a 9th century Arab author, Ibn Qutayba, and translated and quoted by Bernard Lewis in his book The Middle East, that throws some light on the Muslim tradition of succession. As most of us would recall, Muawiya assumed the Caliphate in controversial circumstances after the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali and was the first caliph to nominate his son Yazid as his successor. According to this anecdote, "when Muawiya announced his decision to the court (read cabinet or national assembly) the courtiers rose, one after the other, to proclaim Yazid as the heir to the Caliphate.

There were some murmurs of disapproval, whereupon a man rose to his feet, drew his sword a hand-span from the scabbard and said, 'The Commander of the Faithful is that one!' and he pointed to Muawiya, 'And if he dies, then that one!', and he pointed to Yazid. 'And if anyone objects, then this one!" and he pointed to his sword. Muawiya said to him, 'Wallah! You are the prince of orators." And the nomination was confirmed. Since that day in the 7th century the succession in the Muslim world has been decided, with rare exceptions, in more or less similar fashion.

Granted, though, the principle of succession followed in Europe of those days was no better than that in Damascus or Baghdad, but the Europeans learned over the centuries from their experience and mistakes, reformed, and developed the necessary institutions to govern themselves. We did not. Even today it is the sword or the gun that decides the succession in most of the Muslim world.

New York

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