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The Arabic word dawla is derived from the root D-W-L, meaning "to turn, alternate, or come around in a cyclical fashion." The Qur˒an (59:7), for example, speaks of the Prophet's distribution of the spoils of war to those in need, "so that it may not [merely] make the circuit (dulatan) among the wealthy of you." Another Qur˒anic reference (3:140) speaks of the cyclical nature of human vicissitudes, so that triumph one day is replaced by defeat another day. This sense of alternating periods of fortune and misfortune led Arab writers to use the word dawla when speaking of dynastic succession, particularly in the period after the rise of Abbasid power. The Abbasid "turn" in power had come, just as earlier the Umayyads had had their turn before being overthrown.

As the Abbasid house became entrenched in power, however, the dynastic sense of dawla became conflated with notions of the empire or state that this family ruled. Pre-modern Muslim writers, like their Western contemporaries, did not generally speak in the abstract of the state apart from those who actually wielded power at any given time. For example, Ibn Khaldun's use of dawla signifies, as Franz Rosenthal notes, that "a state exists only insofar as it is held together and ruled by individuals and the group which they constitute, that is, the dynasty. When the dynasty disappears, the state, being identical with it, also comes to an end." (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah).

With the advent of Turkish and Kurdish governors under the nominal authority of the later Abbasid caliphs, titles composed of the word al-dawla combined with an honorific adjective became commonplace. Such titles as nasir al-dawla or sayf al-dawla could be rendered equally as "helper" and "sword," respectively, of the state, the body politic, the government, or the dynasty, all of which were identified (albeit theoretically) as a common entity.

In the nineteenth century, as Western distinctions between the state and the government began to filter into Muslim countries, dawla became increasingly disentangled from its more personalistic connotations and began to be used almost exclusively in the sense of "state." Thus, the 1861 Tunisian constitution, the first promulgated in a Muslim country, was known as qanun al-dawla. Framed under European pressure, the constitution consciously sought to differentiate the traditional powers of the bey, the ruler of Tunisia, from the new constitutional regime of the state under which even the bey was theoretically subordinate. To differentiate it from the state, which was relatively unchanging, the idea of the government and its personnel, which came and went, was connoted now by the term hukuma.

Dawla in contemporary Arabic (devlet in Turkish) is used in the sense of the nation-state, and encompasses the full range of meanings associated with that term in English, including a community of citizens residing within a given set of territorial boundaries as well as the political authority under which they live. The League of Arab States is thus rendered as Jami˓at al-Duwal al-˓Arabiyya (duwal being the plural of dawla) and anything "international" is rendered as dawli or duwali.

One also finds in contemporary Islamist writings the neologism dawla Islamiyya, or "Islamic state." This concept is invariably not well defined, but it reflects the holistic approach to religion and state that is at the core of the fundamentalist project. The Islamic state, unlike secular national states, is one in which shari˓a, or divine law, is fully applied as the only legal code in the state. Beyond this general aspiration, the specifics of what constitutes shari˓a, how shari˓a principles are to be discerned or interpreted, and how non-Muslims are to be accommodated within the Islamic state are all highly contested issues.

See alsoHukuma al-islamiyya, al-(Islamic Government) ; Ibn Khaldun ; Political Organization ; Shari˓a .


Ayalon, Ami. Language and Change in the Arab Middle East:The Evolution of Modern Arabic Political Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Ibn Khaldun. Muqaddimah. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Lewis, Bernard. The Political Language of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Sohail H. Hashmi