Book Review | Ihsan as the basis of “Good Governance"

The Qur’an states: “Allah loves the good-doers [Muhsinin]” (Q. 2: 195); “Shall the reward of good [Ihsan] be anything but good?” (Q. 55: 60); and “God commands justice, doing good [Ihsan]” (Q. 16: 90). The Prophet (pbuh), in a seminal Tradition, taught that “God has ordained Ihsan in all spheres of life”. The Arabic term ‘Ihsan’ (which is variedly translated as perfection, goodness, excellence, beautify, beautiful, etc.) occurs over 190 times in the Qur’an and has been explained in the Prophetic Traditions (Ahadith) as well. As an Islamic concept/ value, it has been explored, but mostly in the mystical tradition, but in the Islamic scholarly tradition, this concept has received very little attention, as far as its overall content and context is concerned. In other words, “Muslim scholars have written extensively about the concepts of Islam including Ihsan, but not much about the role of Ihsan in politics or in governance”. Taking insights from this very fact, M. A. Muqtedar Khan (Professor in the Department of Political Science and IR, University of Delaware, USA), attempts to develop a vision of Ihsan-based political philosophy, in his Islam and Good Governance (hereinafter abbreviated as IGG), as none of “the books on Ihsan have ventured into politics” (p. 3).

Bringing “Ihsan—doing beautiful deeds—into politics”, Khan seeks to “develop a political philosophy based on Ihsan” by articulating “an alternative vision and understanding of the role of Ihsan in politics that can be inspirational, enlightening and even desirable” (pp. 2, 3). That is, Khan pronounces “a vision of a beautiful (love-based society) and a state of Ihsan”, and thus “move[s] away from the now failed vision of Islamic states” (p. 2; italics in original).

Consisting of eight (8) chapters, including introduction and conclusion, it is preceded, among others, by ‘Foreword’ by Professor John L. Esposito (pp. vii—x)—wherein he praises Khan both for proposing vision of “a state that is not based on a secular or Islamic model but rather on Ihsan”, taken in mystical sense (p. ix), as well as for advocating/ presenting “a paradigm based on Ihsan and its application for a postcolonial relationship of Islam and politics” (p. x). It is, however, deplorable to see that a reputed and respected scholar like Esposito differentiates between Islamic and Ihsan based model giving the impression that the latter is ‘non-Islamic’.

Employing two methodological gambits—deconstructing existing orthodoxy and reconstituting a new and more mystical and compassionate narrative of Islamic principles and values—it “seeks to find a meeting point” by bringing together “mysticism, theology, and political theory” (p. 5). Khan provides the detailed description of his vision of good governance in seventh chapter (pp. 209-46).

Making a “Quest for a Political Philosophy of Ihsan” (pp. 1-8), the introductory chapter provides both the philosophical and theological foundations for understanding this work as well as offers an outline/ structure of the book. “None of the books about Ihsan”, argues Khan on the basis of the literature survey, “have ventured into politics” so far; therefore, IGG develops Ihsan-based political philosophy that “emphasizes love over law, process (Islamic government) over structure (Islamic state), and self-annihilation (Fanna) over identity or self-assertion” (p. 3). Revisiting Islam’s fundamental sources, it rearticulates “a vision of Islam that is at once authentic and transformative” and emphasizes “Islamic idealism … over Muslim realism” as well (p. 4).

In Chapter 2, “The Loss of Ihsan” (pp. 9-42), Khan demonstrates how “Islamic scholars deduce legal rulings … excluding the Ihsan” (p. 39). Chapter 3 (pp. 43-76) explores “the modern manifestations of the Islamic tradition of revival and reform as a response to the challenges of modernity … [and] the West” (p. 45). Chapter 4 provides a detailed examination of “Classical and Contemporary Understanding” of Ihsan (pp. 77-102) and scrutinizes the views of classical scholars, like Ibn Taymiyya, al-Ghazzali, and Ibn Arabi, etc., and then evaluates some contemporary prominent works (both in Arabic and English) on Ihsan, namely Sheikh Abdelsalam Yassine (1998), Shaykh Muhammad Bin Hasan (2010), Sachiko Murata and William Chittick (1994), and Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani’s (1998), as these scholars, and their works, “represent many different schools of thought” (p. 89). By this evaluation, Khan concludes that “the awareness of Ihsan and its place in Islamic value system was minimal” (p. 102).

This critical evaluation and scholarly understanding on Ihsan is the basis of Chapter 5, “Unveiling Ihsan: From Cosmic View to Worldview” (pp. 103-59), wherein Khan introduces his understanding of Ihsan by looking at this concept “afresh, revisiting the key sources of Islam” (p. 124), unpacking them, and defining Ihsan beyond ‘a spiritual state’. That is, he presents a “new vision of Ihsan” which is jointly “influenced” by his “reading [of] the tradition” as well as his “experiences” as a “globetrotting mystic-curios” (p. 111).

Chapter 6 (pp. 161-208) provides a “critical reading of the history of Islamic political thought” by identifying the “different iconic perspectives and approaches that Islamic political thinkers have adopted” in conceptualizing and studying Islamic political philosophy (p. 161; italics In original). This critical analysis is done in two sections: ‘Islamic Theories of Polity and Governance’ (pp. 172-92) and ‘Islamic Polity and Islamic Governance’ (pp. 192-207). Section-I explores the political philosophy of five (5) “key thinkers”, namely al-Farabi, al-Mawardi, Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Khaldun, and Saa’di Shirazi, who represent “major trends in the premodern period” (p. 163; italics in original). Here it is interesting to note that Saa’di, an exemplary representative of Sufi ethos, is explored and presented as “representative of Sufi political thought” (p. 188). Khan’s major aim for selecting Saa’di’s political philosophy is to highlight both Sufi contribution to “good governance and good living” as well as to demystify the notion that there is no, or one cannot built, “Sufi conceptions of an Islamic polity” (p. 192). Section-II makes a critical survey of four “key [political] theories” of post-colonial period with a focus on the writings/ ideology of Syed Qutb, Mawlana Mawdudi, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, as they represent “important trends in Islamic political thought”, which emerged in response “to the dual challenges” posed by modernity and the West (p. 163). In a nutshell, Khan here makes a ‘transition’ from ‘politics as we know’ to ‘politics of Ihsan’/ ‘State of Ihsan’, which is elucidated Chapter 7, “Ihsan and Good Governance” (pp. 209-46)—the hub and heart of IGG.

In Chapter 7, Khan first provides an outline of his vision of ‘an alternate way of thinking about Islam’s role in politics in different sections, viz., ‘The State of Ihsan’ (pp. 212-26), ‘The Society of Muhsins’ (pp. 226-44), and ‘Ihsan and Good (ness) Governance” (pp. 244-46). In sum, Khan proposes “a broad model of good governance that seeks to realize the highest virtues in Islamic ethos—Ihsan” (p. 209). It discusses, at length, “what constitutes a State of Ihsan”, and advances a “vision of Islamic governance” which is based on the idea that Islamic governance is “the realization of virtuous outcomes such as social justice, tolerance, acceptance, compassion and peace” and is not just meant for “the implementation of Islamic laws” (p. 209).

In section-I, Khan first proposes “five normative Ihsan-based principles” of good governance, which “shape the structure and nature of the state” as well as “inform the constitution of the society” (p. 211, cf. p. 226). These principles are: (1) To “think of the modern concept of sovereignty in the same vein as one thought of Tawheed in the political sense” (p. 215); (2) To “return to the prophetic example (Sunnah)”, or to look “explicitly and exclusively at the prophetic example for principles of good governance”, and “not to privilege the example of the rightly guided Caliphs” (p. 216); (3) To “stop attaching too much significance to the structure and architecture of the government”: “good governance is the deliverable and Muslims should focus on Islamic (good) governance rather than Islamic government” (italics in original), and “pursue gradual democratization with emphasis on Islamic or good governance” (p. 218); (4) To be “more concerned with national virtue than national identity” (p. 221; italics in original); and (5) To rescue justice “from the limiting influence of law” and to base it entirely on “the Quranic conception of justice that defines both state and state laws rather than law defining the state and the concept of justice” (pp. 225-26).

In the next section, he submits five more principles which form basis of his “theory of good citizenship necessary for good governance” (p. 226). These principles “characterize”, in Khan’s vision, “a society of Muhsins” (p. 227), and are summarized as: (1) The “citizens of the State of Ihsan … [should] bear witness to God about the state of governance”, similar to the mystical state of Ihsan (p. 227); i.e., to become ‘Citizens as Witnesses’, so that to create a society of Muhsins “that holds a mirror to its government in pursuit of good and virtuous governance” (p. 228); (2) To “employ a similar index” as UNDP’s ‘Human Resource Index’ which must have “indicators for spiritual health” as well (p. 230) and is aptly labeled as ‘Citizens as Character Builders’ (p. 229); (3) To implement ‘Shariah by Shura’ framework—a two-way process of Shura “to arrive at Shariah rulings”—for resolving challenges and issues between “government and the citizens” (p. 233), based on the principles derived from the Qur’an (42: 38 and 4: 59)—which is, in Khan’s opinion, “the best way to govern” (p. 235); (4) To use the concept of freedom (hurriyah) both as a “necessary condition to enable the politics of Ihsan” (p. 238) and to conceive “citizenship as self-regulating freedom” (p. 236); and (5) To focus on ‘God-centric’ governance instead of ‘God Governance’, and to differentiate them—i.e., to make “a shift from the authoritarian model of governance to a more democratic model”, in which “the citizens are God-centered and so is the society, but the state itself is more focused on good governance” (p. 244).

In the ‘Closing Thoughts’ (pp. 247-50), Khan “encapsulate[s] and summarize[s]” his “vision of Islamic political philosophy anchored by the concept of Ihsan” (p. 247) and seeks “Ihsan to be realized in the public sphere” as it “emphasizes compassion and love” (p. 248). Thus, in this book, Khan channels the concept of Ihsan from merely a virtue/ value/ dimension of Deen (Religion) to its advocacy as the foundation of “good governance in Muslim societies” by infusing “the virtue of Ihsan in the legislation of Shariah, in the conception of citizenship, in the delineation of the purpose of the state and in guiding the activism of civil society” (p. 249).

Though IGG has a number of grammatical mistakes, typographical errors, and technical lapses; nevertheless, it is gratifying to see Khan’s IGG is a unique and fresh contribution which has been acclaimed and commended by numerous reputed academicians, especially from USA. Though many academics, especially political theorists, will show reservations in accepting, wholeheartedly, Khan’s Ihsan-based vision of good governance (both its principles and practicality), but none will hesitate in appreciating him—that will be really against Ihsan—for his ‘innovativeness’: be it in his reading of the sacred sources, in reviewing and analyzing the Islamic scholarship, or in developing his ‘unique’ vision. In sum, Khan’s Islam and Good Governance is a fresh and unique approach to the Islamic political philosophy through the prism of Ihsan. It will prove valuable to the students and scholars of Islamic/ Religious Studies, Comparative Politics, Political Science and Philosophy.

Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC for Women, Pulwama (J&K).