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Issues of Authority in Islamic History

Anthropology of Islam:
Issues of Authority in Islamic History
Part 1.

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Praise be to Allah.

The earliest period in the history of the Islamic Fact, that is the period of Prophet Muhammad’s(saws) call, and the immediate period after his death saw the first serious issues of authority arise. The question of who is to rule the Islamic or Muslim community, the Ummah, is not a question that seems to have been answered adequately in Islam’s earliest periods nor can it be easily resolved today. Looking at three distinct periods in Muslim history one can analyze why issues of authority have immediately arisen amongst the Ummah, what the basis of that controversy is, why these issues of authority continue to hold significance in the modern, contemporary Muslim world and world at-large, and what the outcomes and influences of these controversies are and how they continue to affect the Ummah.

The early period after the death of the Prophet(as), with the election of one his closest companions, Abu Bakr(ra), is the first period that will be evaluated. The Umayyad period, considered to be the first Muslim empire, and the Contemporary period will next be compared and contrasted in an attempt to connect the effect of these issues of authority and how they were resolved in the Umayyad period and how they continue to affect Muslims and the idea of reformulating Islamic ideas with respect to the question of authority. In a future article issues of authority will be analyzed vis a vis the Early Period, the Classical Period, the Mongol Invasions, the dissolution of the Caliphate, and Colonialism and Neo-colonialism and how events in these periods directly contributed to the crisis of authority currently being experience by the Muslim world.

From the beginning Islam was seen both as a spiritual force and a political force with its leader, Prophet Muhammad(saws), serving as the leader of a religious community and as the head of state, if one will, of a political entity. According to Mohammed Arkoun in “Rethinking Islam: Common Questions and Uncommon Answers”, the ultimate issues at stake in Islam are “the distinction between power and authority”. He defines authority as the ability to persuade…” from the conversion of the consciousness to that which gives meaning to the existence of the person(Arkoun 18). One can add to this idea that not only must a leader provide meaning for his converts/followers, but his assumption of authority leads to the acceptance of the leader’s authority as well as the ability of the leader to exercise said authority. According to Esposito in “Islam: the Straight Path”, “Given Muhammad’s formative and pivotal role, his death(in 632) threatened to radically destabilize the community. Who was to lead?(Esposito 35). This is when the issue of authority became initially crucial.

The death of the charismatic leader left not only a power vacuum, but a competition for authority over the surviving Ummah. With the selection/election of Abu Bakr(ra), a precedent, it is believed, was set as to how to elect a Khalifah(successor); a precedent that present-day Sunnis mythologize and glorify as the proper way for a Muslim to assume authority. Coupled with Quranic ideas about consultation(shura), we see Islam laying down broad democratic principles of government. Of course this authority was understood as representative authority, as Allah, the Qur’an and finally the Sunnah are the true sources of authority for those who would later call themselves Ahl al Sunna wal Jammah(Sunni for short). Mankind is regarded as the vice-regent of Allah and the khalifah stands in place of the Prophet(as) in terms of temporal authority, but not spiritual authority. The period of Abu Bakr’s reign is of course known as the beginning of the “ rightly guided caliphs”,  the Rashidun Era. These caliphs, along with the accomplishments of Muhammad’s(saws) lifetime and the period in which they lived, have been mythologized into a utopian, normative period. Sunnis believe, in stark contrast to Shi’a doctrine, that Muhammad (saws) never designated a successor (Esposito 36).

The Rashidun Era, although regarded as part of the mythical, normative period was not without its conflicts, especially over issues of authority. These conflicts boiled over until it culminated in the first Sunni/Shi’a Split. The fourth Caliph, Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet(as) was regarded by his supporters as the legitimate successor to Muhammad (saws). According to these Shi’a Ali(partisans of Ali), the leadership of the Muslim community should remain in the hands of the Prophet’s(as) family. This doctrine was further elaborated in the many different forms of Shi’i religion. Further, Ali’s(ra) later supporters claimed evidence for their doctrine existed in the Qur’an itself.

Now we come to the period where the collection and elaboration of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad(saws), his sunnah, became crucial not only for establishing Islamic law(Shari’ah and Fiqh), but to where these traditions were being used to legitimize political positions. This in turn sparked the beginning of Hadith criticism and the Islamic sciences derived from this endeavor. The emergence of the Umayyad Empire, considered the first “real Muslim world empire”, literally exacerbated the controversy over who should rule the ummah, and how this community should be ruled. The advent of this empire saw the emergence of imperialism, dynasticism, bureaucracy, and military aristocracy in the Muslim community. These phenomena elicited minor to severe protest from such groups as the emerging religious elite, the ‘ulama, the so-called mystics, the Sufis, and the violent opposition groups like the Kharijites. These groups could all agree that many Umayyad practices were considered to be “unIslamic”. Among these were the institution of the monarchy itself, the innovations brought about by co-opting the cultural, administrative, and military practices of the conquered, as well as the decadence and intrigue of imperial court life and the Arab nepotism and nationalism that was in direct contradistinction to Islamic ideas of egalitarianism.

In short, Umayyad rule was increasingly seen as illegitimate and lacking any real authority over the Muslim community. The ‘ulama began to take a more prominent role in formulating a body of law called Shari’ah, but properly understood as fiqh. The creation of a comprehensive law, covering all aspects of human existence and our duties to Allah was seen as a necessity in the face of Umayyad erosion of Islamic values. According to Esposito, “ dissatisfaction with Umayyad rule also resulted in the development of nonrevolutionary reform movements(Esposito 48). Indeed it may be said the greatest contribution of this period is the rapid development of the Islamic sciences, religious and secular(the distinction is however, often blurred in Islam), and the creation and elaboration of Islamic law as well as other Islamic literature; in this period we see the foundations for the myth of the “closing of the gates of ijtihad”. Muslim scholars wanted to solidify usul al-fiqh to protect against the threat to the authority of the ‘ulama. According to Arkoun, Islam had become “institutionalized as a state to provide centralization and administration of a vast empire”(Arkoun 21). Protests to this resulted in the creation of an “official, orthodox Islam”; indeed orthodoxy is best understood more as a relationship of power, even if that “orthodoxy” is in fact “correct belief”.

In the contemporary period, we see the results of these controversies. Of course I have skipped over major developments and periods contributing to the conflicts in the Muslim community in this introduction; conflicts surrounding issues of authority that include the events surrounding the Abbasid revolution and period, the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires, The Mongol invasions and conversions, colonialism, modernity and globalization. I will attempt to comprehensively, but not exhaustively, cover these throughout the course of the series. These issues notwithstanding, it is possible to introduce the subject of how issues of authority in the Islamic community during Islam’s earliest, formative period and the formation of a corpus of law that was paradoxically not a fixed, codified body of written laws and that helped formulate and shape an official orthodox Islam, eventually lead to the foundations for a crisis of authority in the Muslim community. This crisis of authority is the aftermath of a colonialism that sought to circumvent, subvert, and marginalize traditional Islamic authority, vested in the ‘ulama.

It is also the aftermath of modernism and modernization as well as globalization. This crisis was precipitated by the vacuum in authority that is the by-product of Muslims losing political authority in our own lands, caused partially by the aforementioned phenomenon. When the ‘ulama gained maxim prestige and authority as a form of parallel power, in response to what were seen as corrupt state leaders, all that remained to be accomplished by imperialists was destroying this  bastion of authority, as the corrupt Muslim leaders became elites aligned with the colonialist power structure. This was the danger of vesting all real authority if not political power with the ‘ulama that I alluded to with the statement:

issues of authority in the Islamic community during Islam’s earliest, formative period and the formation of a corpus of law that was paradoxically not a fixed, codified body of written laws and that helped formulate and shape an official orthodox Islam, eventually lead to the foundations for a crisis of authority in the Muslim community. This crisis of authority is the aftermath of a colonialism that sought to circumvent, subvert, and marginalize traditional Islamic authority, vested in the ‘ulama.

The power of the ‘ulama, which saw its maximal realization in the Shi’a state of Iran, is being challenged everyday by educated and uneducated lay Muslims alike, if we take the large body of intellectual literature and current events seriously. Many of these leaders have reacted violently to the “power and authority vacuum” resulting from previous Islamic history in an effort to restore an idealized “Muslim glory”.


Traditionally, and in today’s Muslim regimes as well, many ‘ulama have been co-opted or have voluntarily allied themselves with state authorities, usually authoritarian regimes, in order to legitimate their own own authority, creating the “scholars for dollars” phenomenon that eventuated in the modern distrust of religious authorities. Because Islam displays “a rich, at times, bewildering array of interpretations”,(Esposito 223), it  is now becoming increasingly relevant for contemporary Muslim societies to resolve issues of authority. In fact, who has the authority to decide who will have the authority is itself an issue(!) The rise of self-proclaimed Muslim leaders, the majority of whom have no traditional Islamic education is rampant and does not seem to be at an end. Osama bin Laden’s death will give rise to another Muslim ideologue with not “‘ulama credentials” or very little Islamic education beyond the basic. These issues are crucial to Muslim realization of self-determination, to avoid irresolvable fractioning of the ummah, and to avoid Islam being “reformed” into the irrelevance reminiscent of a secular West that hypocritically invokes its Christian past when it is convenient or feels threatened.

  1. May 26, 2011 at 10:30 am

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