Looking at the concepts of state and dawla

September 27, 2003 12:00 AM

In the past two weeks I have discussed the concepts of umma and imam and the way they function in Arab politics. While “the nation” means, among other things, a number of people who live under one government, The umma means a number of people who do not necessarily demand to live under one national government, and thus might have several governments, yet demand that these governments be accountable to the collective rather than to the portions of the umma that fall under their jurisdiction.

The imam, a concept usually connected to medieval supreme leaders, refers as much to books and images as to real political leaders, and it is through subordination to the judgments and rulings expressed in those books and images (in the case of Islam: the Koran and the Sunna) that a person comes to be an imam.

This article deals with the third concept: the dawla, usually translated as state ­ a translation as misleading as translating umma into nation.

Etymologically, state is derived from the Latin stare, to stand. Most of the word’s meanings revolve around the notion of fixity. In the Oxford English Dictionary, it is a “condition, manner of existing ­ a dispensation or system of divine government during a particular era ­ a body of people occupying a defined territory and organized under a sovereign government.” This “static state of the state” is one of the principle differences between it and the concept of dawla, which revolves mainly around notions of temporality, change and rotation.

Etymologically, dawla means “term,” “turn” and ‘shift.” It stems from the verb dal which in letters as well as in meaning falls between the verbs dar (to rotate) and zal (to leave/to fall). Temporality and succession are thus essential connotations for the meaning of dawla. Anything circulated from one hand to another is a dawla; the verb of circulating currency, tadawul, is derived from the same stem. Unlike the European concept of state, whose fixity is its determining feature, the temporality and lack of fixity are the main determining features of dawla.

The dawla is also nonterritorial; it is mainly connected with the ruling elite, rather than the land on which they exercise their power. While there was an Umayyad dawla and an Abbasid dawla, referring to the ruling houses of Umayya and Abbas respectively, in the pre-colonial Arabic usage there was no such thing as Dawlat al-Sham (the state of Greater Syria), or Dawlat Misr (the state of Egypt). Up to the late 19th and early 20th century, the main dawla in the Middle East was Al-dawla al-Uthmaniayya, referring to the house of Ottoman.

Moreover, the dawla was not necessarily sovereign. Any governor with relative autonomy from the central government of the caliphate could claim to be running a dawla, for example within the Abbasid and Ottoman empires, themselves referred to as dawlas, one finds smaller nonsovereign political entities, such as Al-dawla al-Hamdaniyya, or Al-dawla al-Toulouniyya referring to the princedoms of the sons of Hamdan in Aleppo and Mosul and the sons of Ahmad Ibn Touloun in Egypt respectively.

One could also refer to the authority of a minister and his supporters serving under an overarching sultan or caliph  as a dawla, as was the case with the “dawlat bani Barmak,” an expression that referred to period of time in which of the sons of Barmak, serving as advisers and ministers to the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid enjoyed substantial authority.

In a sense a dawla is mainly a tool to an end. Since the overarching dawla is usually led by the Imam, (here meaning the supreme leader), who in turn cannot become an Imam unless he is subordinate to the Koran and the image of the umma expressed therein, the whole dawla is subordinate to the umma. It is a tool to an end, the end being the umma; in fact the word umma, as mentioned before, also means the end, the purpose and the aim.

Unlike the nation state, which is an end the seeking of which makes a group of people a nation, the dawla in the pre-colonial Arab Islamic usage, is an arrangement whose legitimacy is derived from serving the whole umma. While it is true that in modern constitutions it is stated that the sovereignty lies in the nation, modern states are structured in a manner that gives the state apparatus monopoly over the usage of such sovereignty.

Since everyone to whom the state is accountable lies under the state’s authority, this monopoly allows modern states to use the sovereignty they borrow from the nation, against that very nation. To avert that threat, checks and balances are provided by dividing the state apparatus into executive and legislative branches each of whom will enjoy only a portion of that borrowed sovereignty. In the case of the dawla however, the sovereign body is not contained within the boundaries of the state. The dawla is accountable to people who live outside her borders; therefore, it cannot claim that those people have intrusted it with their rights of sovereignty. Theoretically, the dawla owes its existence to the umma, but the umma owes nothing to the dawla.

This can help explain why, in the Arab world, the focus of loyalty is the umma, not the individual states of the past two centuries. It can also, partly, explain the failure of many Arab thinkers and politicians to develop a coherent nationalist discourse, with the colonially created state as its focus of loyalty. Such discourses always clashed with the notion of the umma, entrenched in the political culture of the region.

The question remains: Why there was not enough effort directed to explore the political potentials of such a political culture? Why accept the assumption that difference entails inferiority, and strive to prove how similar our concepts are to those of the other? In world of dinosaurs, it won’t do our birds any good if we spent our lives teaching them to crawl.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2003/Sep-27/111700-looking-at-the-concepts-of-state-and-dawla.ashx#ixzz2wGufzeJF 
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