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Obedience to ‘Political Authority’ (Ulū Al-Amr): A Discursive Analysis of Modern South Asian Exegesis

Abstract

The notion of ulū al-amr in Islamic thought emerges from an understanding of the Qur’ān 4:59, which serves as the cornerstone of the entire religious, social and political structure of Islam. The verse enables us to categorise the āmir (leader) into three categories: a) Allāh, b) al-Rasūl and c) ulū al-amr. The focus here is on ulū al-amr, which is interpreted differently by exegetes. Historically, the verse has been a rich source of debates and numerous elucidations. Ulū al-amr is used to refer to religious scholars as well as political authorities. For some exegetes, their obedience is limited while others hold the view they deserve unquestioning obedience. In the context of such contestations and interpretations, this article discusses some of the pre-modern exegetical discourses surrounding ulū al-amr, compares them with two modern South Asian Urdu tafsīr, Muhammad Shafiʿ’s (d. 1976) Maʿārif al-Qur’ān and Sayyid Abul A‘la Mawdūdī’s (d. 1979) Tafhīm al-Qur’ān, and dwells on the implications of the evolutionary transformations that emerged. In doing so, it addresses some major issues, including the extent to which tafsīr literature has been influenced by different theological traditions, political and sectarian interests and differing interpretations in some cases, mainly pertaining to historical and linguistic issues.

Keywords

Exegesis, Obedience, Ulū al-amr, South Asia

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