Principles of International Relations in Islam in Light of Contemporary Changes

Islam provides a comprehensive set of principles for governing relations between Muslim states and non-Muslim states. These principles are derived from the Quran, the Sunnah (practices and sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad, and the jurisprudential tradition of ijtihad (independent reasoning) of Muslim scholars.

In early Islamic history, relations between the Muslim ummah (community) and non-Muslim states were influenced by the need to spread the Islamic faith. However, with the establishment of stable Muslim empires, international relations came to be conducted on the basis of Muslim statehood and sovereignty more than religious conversion. In the contemporary world, relations between Muslim states and other states are governed by the nation-state system, international law, and global institutions. This represents a major shift from the environment in which classical Islamic principles of international relations developed.

This article examines the traditional Islamic principles of international relations and analyzes how these have been reinterpreted in light of contemporary changes. It discusses principles such as justice, fulfillment of agreements, non-aggression, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty. It explores how contemporary Muslim scholars and states have sought to articulate an Islamic vision of international relations that is true to foundational texts and values but acknowledges the realities of a globalized world.

The Sources of Islamic Principles of International Relations

The Quran and Sunnah provide broad ethical guidelines for how the Muslim ummah should engage with non-Muslims, whether in peace or war. Quranic verses emphasize justice and fairness in dealing with non-Muslims: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor, Allah is a Better Protector to both” (4:135). They allow fighting only in self-defense: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors” (2:190).

The Sunnah relates examples of the Prophet making treaties with non-Muslim tribes and states. At the same time, aggressive expansionary warfare was at times religiously legitimized during the Prophet’s lifetime. However, some scholars argue this was a temporary necessity limited to Arabia and not a universal principle of international relations.

The detailed legal implications of these sources were elaborated by Muslim jurists and theologians in the centuries after the Prophet’s death. They articulated rules on the conduct of jihad, the protection of non-combatants, fulfilling treaties, and managing relations with non-Muslim states through principles like the dhimma pact granting protected minority status to non-Muslims.

Classical Islamic civilization thus developed a sophisticated pre-modern legal and philosophical framework for international relations. Ibn Khaldun’s 14th century Muqaddimah describes philosophical underpinnings of interactions between states and civilizations. Contractual treaties were established between Muslim and Christian rulers throughout the Middle Ages.

However, pre-modern Islamic international relations operated in a fundamentally different context than the contemporary global system. Relations were structured primarily around the abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam), the abode of war (Dar al-Harb) and the abode of treaty (Dar al-Sulh). The contemporary nation-state system, international institutions, and technologies fundamentally reshape this classical paradigm.

Key Principles and Their Contemporary Interpretations

Justice (‘Adl)

The Quran emphasizes justice as a supreme virtue in all dealings (4:135, 5:8). Justice in interstate relations requires recognizing the rights of other states to sovereignty, non-interference, and equality. Contemporary Muslim scholars argue that an Islamic foreign policy must be motivated by a sincere desire for justice, not self-interest or power politics.

At the same time, radical groups like Al-Qaeda argue that the pervasive injustice in contemporary global politics requires militant jihad as a corrective duty. Mainstream scholars condemn the extremist literature as manipulating the concept of justice to justify ideological violence and dangerous adventurism that only breeds more injustice.

Fulfilling Agreements (Wafa bi al-‘Uqud)

The Quran treats covenants and agreements between Muslims and non-Muslims as religiously binding: “Fulfill the Covenant of Allah when you have entered into it, and break not your oaths after you have confirmed them…for you ratify then Allah knows all that you do” (16:91).

Classical jurists insisted that treaties can only be annulled if their terms are breached by the other party. Contemporary Muslim diplomats and scholars argue this provides an Islamic imperative for adhering to international treaties and conventions in good faith. Critics argue that modern international law lacks the bilateral reciprocity that characterized classical Islamic diplomacy.

Non-Aggression (‘Adam al-‘Udwan)

Classical jurists considered Muslims prohibited from initiating hostilities without legitimate casus belli. Ibn Khaldun states “the Muslims are prevented by their law from breaking the peace with those with whom they have concluded (explicit) peace agreements” (Muqaddimah). Contemporary scholars argue non-aggression should be the norm in foreign policy.

However, debates persist over what constitutes legitimate casus belli according to Islamic law in modern contexts. Defensive jihad has been invoked in conflicts from Kashmir to Palestine to Bosnia. But most mainstream scholars condemn justifying aggression through jihad legalisms as distorting the core ethics of Quranic teaching.

Reciprocity (Mu‘amalat bi al-Mithl)

Jurists recognized customary reciprocity as regulating normal diplomatic relations between Muslim and non-Muslim states. Ibn Khaldun argued that if non-Muslim adversaries “observe honesty…it is obligatory for Muslims to reciprocate” (Muqaddimah). Contemporary scholars argue that reciprocity provides flexibility for engaging constructively with all states, Muslim and non-Muslim, based on their conduct.

Critics argue that modern international law is too secular and Western to be accepted as a neutral basis for reciprocity. Authors like Sayyid Qutb tried to redefine reciprocal relations in terms of recognizing Muslim sovereignty over the Dar al-Islam. Such debates reflect tensions over reconciling Westphalian notions of statehood with the ummah identity.

Respect for Sovereignty (Ihtiram al-Huquq al-Siyasiya)

Classical jurisprudence recognized certain protected rights and obligations of states regardless of Muslim or non-Muslim identity, traversing strict Dar al-Islam / Dar al-Harb boundaries. Modern Muslim scholars argue this provides foundations for respecting Westphalian sovereignty in contemporary international law.

However, debates persist over the limits of such respect, especially where conflicts arise with Muslim self-determination or human rights. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation charter affirms non-interference but also the right of OIC states to support self-determination struggles of Muslim communities globally. Critics see irreconcilable tensions in these principles.

Reconciling Islamic and Contemporary
Visions of World Order

The challenge of reconciling Islamic ethics and classical jurisprudence on international relations with modern international law and governance institutions has spurred widespread debate and controversy. It is closely bound up with broader debates over reconciling Islamic and Western political philosophies.

Idealist visions advocate transcending sovereignty and power politics by reviving the ummah identity and restoring the ethics of classical Islamic internationalism. Realist visions emphasize flexibility and pragmatism in adapting the ideals of revelation to constraints of human society. Critical visions argue for radical deconstruction of the modern nation-state system seen as imposed by Western imperialism.

These debates play out in the politics of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation representing 57 Muslim-majority states. The OIC charter proclaims commitment to the Ummah’s fundamental values and loyalty while also adhering to the United Nations charter, international law, and non-interference. But tensions persist over reconciling these principles with issues like Muslim self-determination struggles or Islamophobia.

The contrasting foreign policies of Islamist parties also reflect these tensions. Turkish foreign policy under the AKP government of the 2000s pushed greater engagement and cooperation with Western institutions and universalist rhetoric. Iran’s revolutionary ideology proclaimed pan-Islamic aspirations challenging the Westphalian system, though some argue its state conduct has been more pragmatic.

Radical Salafi-jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS advance ideologies claiming to restore the ethics of classical jihad through violent non-state methods in total opposition to the Westphalian system. Such groups attract recruits by exploiting frustrations over the difficulties of reconciling Islamic ideals with contemporary realities. Their ideologies however find little mainstream support in the Muslim world.

Bridging classical Islamic ethics and contemporary institutions remains an ongoing generational project, with gaps between rhetoric and realities. Further scholarship and diplomacy rooted in the flexibility and pragmatism of tradition could help reduce these gaps. Abdulaziz Sachedina argues that the meaning of the Quran and Shariah for international relations must be continually reinterpreted and evolves organically through “socially conditioned consensus”. Permanent ethical principles articulated in revelation provide anchors for this continual evolution.

Conclusion

Islam contains a rich pre-modern legal and philosophical tradition providing principles for international relations between Muslim and non-Muslim states. Core principles in this tradition include justice, fulfilling agreements, non-aggression, reciprocity and respect for sovereignty. Contemporary scholars have sought to interpret these principles faithfully in a modern context deeply shaped by the nation-state system, international law and global governance institutions.

There remain profound debates and tensions in reconciling aspects of the classical Islamic paradigm like the abode of war and abode of Islam categories with Westphalian sovereignty while retaining Islamic ethical anchors. Resolving these debates has high stakes for Muslims seeking to articulate an Islamic vision of world order that is true to foundational texts but accepts the realities of a globalized world. Further scholarly inquiry informed by the pragmatism and flexibility of scholars like Ibn Khaldun could help reduce gaps between idealistic pan-Islamic rhetoric and complex realities. A sincere commitment to foundational principles like justice and God-consciousness must guide continuously evolving understandings and interpretations.

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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