Posts Tagged ‘Muslim world’

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.

Anthropology of Islam: Pluralism in Islam

Front of the Quran

Image via Wikipedia

Anthropology of Islam: Pluralism in Islam

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq

The idea of  pluralism in Islam centers on three main issues: syncretism in religious practice, the intrinsic ability of  Islam to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies. It also seems that marginalized Muslim groups in the so-called Islamic societies or nations are so marginalized and relegated to the periphery by the perceived “orthodox establishment” to maintain a sort of political stability. As long as the government and the ‘ulama(religious scholars) who support them don’t interfere too much with the religious affairs of these peripheral cultural groups their  governance is tolerated or approved or regarded indifferently. There is no incentive to rebellion. And the Muslim governments are content to concentrate on administrative tasks as long as those on the periphery at least make an outward show of maintaining orthodox practices(orthopraxy). Yet and still there have been numerous instances of abusive governmental regimes and authoritarianism.

Socially, the idea of a pluralistic, inclusive Islam as found in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, or East Africa is a contentious issue. Syncretistic practices are usually roundly condemned by what I call the “orthodox establishment”. In nations that are secular, as in the majority of the Muslim world, this orthodox establishment consists of the ‘ulama. Usually in these governments, which are usual very repressive, totalitarian, or seen as proxies for Western governments, religion only becomes a concern when individuals, groups or movements threaten the governments political power. Egypt is a perfect example of this type. In theocratic or monarchial forms of government, the ‘ulama are either co-opted or allied with the State to form this “orthodox establishment”. Iran and Saudi Arabia represent this type.

Syncretism in religious practice refers to the inclusion of elements into the religion of Islam that are either borrowed from or influenced by non-Muslim society. It also includes situations where Islam is overlain pre-existing cultures. Usually this is referred to by the orthodox establishment as bid’ah, innovation in religious practice and kufr, deviation in correct religious belief,. These societies have existed among the Muslims since the time of the final Messenger of Islam, Muhammad(saws).  Some of these practices include saint worship, certain faith healing practices, sorcery and witchcraft, astrology, and spirit possession. It can also include celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and birthdays. Curiously, Female Genital Mutilation(FGM), honor killing, even stoning to death as a punishment for adultery and death penalty for apostasy also qualify, anthropologically, as syncretic practices or bid’ah, yet the critics of Isl, many traditional Muslims, and Muslim extremists regard these practices as Islamic.

Islam  has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with. This maybe why one speaks of a Euro-Islam, a Western Islam, or an American Islam. Many scholars have suggested that there are many types of Islam, religious expressions that are unique because of the way the existing sociocultural milieu shapes Islamic experience. However, I have posited elsewhere that there can only be one Islam, especially when we understand the difference between content and container, essence and form. There is an interdependent reaction between Islam and pre-existing cultures. Both act on an affect each other, creating unique., local Islamic experience. Both those who believe that there are multiple versions of Islam and those that claim there is only one authentic Islam have difficulty reconciling their ideas with the Islamic concept that all Prophets of Islam, from Adam to Nuh to Ibrahim to Musa to Isa,(as) to Muhammad(saws) were Muslims.

How does one believe that all prophets were Muslim if the form that Islam took as a result of  the Revelations each Prophet received and the teachings they expounded took different forms? And how does one reconcile the idea of multiple Islams  with the other Islamic concept that Islam was in fact the religion that all Prophets taught?  In an intellectual climate that accepts multiple interpretations of Islam it is possible to validate the extremist interpretation of Islam as legitimately Islamic, it seems. Often we hear pundits talk about the need to “reform” Islam by expunging extremist interpretations of it. Yet, in the mainstream mind, these are not legitimate Islamic interpretations at all. One possible answer is that Islam is inherently pluralistic, even as certain “interpretations” fall outside the possible range of legitimate Islamic expression. Inclusive and pluralistic does not mean that all expressions and interpretations are Islamic.

The issue of religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies is the most contentious and possibly most important of the issues related to pluralism in Islam. Theologically Islam is in fact exclusivistic. This cannot be denied. However the real question of concern is the idea of religious freedom for non-Muslims in an Islamic state. When looking at the state of Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority nations it is evident that they are treated poorly, regarded a second-class citizens, discriminated against, even persecuted in some cases. We see this happening to Christians and Jews in Iraq and Egypt and other countries of the Muslim world.  It happens to Buddhists in Afghanistan, Parsis(Zoroastrians) and Baha’is in Iran, and Ahmadiyya and Hindus in Pakistan and Kashmir. Many critics of Islam look at these realities on the ground and studies of history and conclude that Islam is inherently and uniquely intolerant of religious minorities. Opinions among Mainstream Muslims range from denunciation of this behavior as unIslamic to outright denial of these realities. What does the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book say?

The oft repeated Quranic verse describing religious tolerance that is rejected by Islamophobes by utilizing the idea of an-nasik wa’l mansukh is only the beginning:

There is no compulsion in Religion… [Qur’an 2:256]

Critics of Islam contend that all of the so-called” peace verses” found in the Qur’an are canceled out, effectively abrogated by its “sword verses” or “war verses”. We will analyze the legitimacy of the Law of Abrogation in Islam in full detail in another article. But it will be briefly stated that the criticism amounts to a belief that certain verses in the Qur’an are no longer applicable, that Allah has replaced them. All of this flies in the face of actual Muslim belief, even among extremists. Muslims do not believe that the peace verses are no longer the word of Allah or do not belong in the Qur’an any longer. To get a clearer picture of the Quranic vision of religious tolerance and liberty I can list numerous v.

We have shown him the way, he may be thankful or unthankful [Qur’an 76:3]

The Truth is from your Lord, so let him who wishes believe and let him who wishes disbelieve [Qur’an 18:29]

Indeed there have come to you clear proofs from your Lord; whoever will therefore see, it is for the good of his own soul, and whoever will disbelieve, it shall be against himself [Qur’an 6:105]

Bu the actual verse that lays down the broad principles of religious freedom is:

And fight them until there is no more persecution and religion is only for Allah. But if they desist, then there should be no more hostility except against the oppressors [Qur’an 2:193]

Critics of Islam and extremists hone in on the phrase “and religion is only for Allah” and conclude that fighting must continue until Islam is dominant. Yet in light of the most primary method of Quranic interpretation(ta’wil), Qur’an explains Qur’an, we will see that not only does this verse completely defeat the idea of perpetual warfare in Islam, it defeats the idea that religious war in Islam is for the purpose of spreading Islam. In fact it shows that any religious war in Islam is only to prevent or fight religious persecution. Jihad is not “holy war”, as the Islamophobes contend. It also clearly shows, when coupled with verses 39- 40 of Surah 22, Islam allows religious liberty and does not countenance religious compulsion:

Permission to fight is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed. And surely Allah is able to assist them-

Those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is all. And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered, would have been pulled down. And surely Allah will help him who helps Him. Surely Allah is Strong, Mighty [Qur’an 22:39-40]

As we can see Muslims are supposed to not only protect themselves from religious persecution but also protect other religious communities from harm from those who would persecute them on account of religion. The phrase “and religion is only for Allah” means that no one is to be persecuted on account of their religious beliefs and everyone is at liberty to hold whatever belief they wish. We can now conclude three things in light of this information: syncretism in religious practice is condemned as bid’ah in Isalm, Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies, though not realized in most Muslim-Majority countries, is guaranteed by Allah through the Qur’an. Each of these ideas will be explored further in future articles.

Allahu A’lam