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Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction

Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction

by Gerhard Bowering


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691164823
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/29/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gerhard Bowering is professor of Islamic studies at Yale University and the editor of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought.

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Islamic Political Thought

An Introduction

By Gerhard Bowering


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6642-7



Roy Jackson

From the laylat al-qadr, the "night of power" in which the Qur'an symbolically "came down" from God, to the death of the Prophet, Muslim affairs were governed by the special authority of that prophetic-revelatory event, and it remains the primary paradigm of political authority in Islam. Muhammad was a religious, political, and military leader who founded a new form of community, an umma, that was both spiritual and worldly in nature. The development of this new community, which defined itself in terms of faith rather than national or tribal boundaries, marked a transition from polytheism to monotheism, and was ultimately shaped by both Arab tribal bonds and Persian monarchic systems.

The Arab Bedouin were not anarchic. Their society was governed by what the 14th-century North African philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun referred to as solidarity ('asabiyya). 'Asabiyya signifies internal cohesion, often brought about by the unity of blood or faith. Islam universalized this sense of belonging by replacing local, tribal customs with the sunna (the normative conduct of the Prophet) of the universal tribe called the umma, made concrete through the hadith (reports of the Prophet's sunna) and shari'a (sacred law). In understanding political authority in the Islamic world, this "posttribal" element is essential, as authority does not rely necessarily on formal state structures. First and foremost, Muslims adhere to God and to the expression of God's commands through the medium of prophethood.

The Qur'an is composed in a rhythmic style that makes considerable use of symbolic and allegorical imagery. Its allusions and indirect explanations allow for a multitude of interpretations. Consequently, it is difficult to determine any firm principles of government within the text. The Qur'an provides examples of the proper use of authority, such as Muhammad's consultation with his Companions (3:159) or the imperative to abide by the principles of justice and kindness (e.g., 4:58, 65, 105, 135, and 16:90), but it is concerned more with general principles such as fairness, equity, and discipline than with specific details of government. Political theory in the Qur'an focuses on the status of Muhammad as Prophet and the authority he wielded as long as he was alive, although the Qur'an does suggest that his authority could be questioned and that his role was often one of arbiter among a federation of tribes rather than the possessor of absolute, unquestioned authority.

According to Sunni tradition, Muhammad did not specify a successor, while Shi'is believed that Muhammad had chosen his cousin and son-in-law 'Ali b. Abi Talib to succeed him. As a result of this conflict, a fitna, or civil war, divided the umma between 656 and 661. The title khatam al-nabiyyin (usually translated as "seal of the prophets"), given to Muhammad in the Qur'an (33:40), has traditionally been interpreted to mean that there were to be no prophets after Muhammad, and so an important symbol of religious and political authority was lost after his death. Abu Bakr was selected as caliph (deputy) partly because he came from a relatively insignificant clan with no pretensions to power; it was a falta, an affair concluded with haste and without much reflection, to preserve the unity of the umma and avoid the very real danger of tribal conflict. In fact, Abu Bakr's status of successor to the messenger of God (khalifat rasul Allah) did not come with great power. At the beginning of his reign he was only a part-time caliph, spending the rest of his time as a merchant. In his short reign of only two years, however, he maintained the Medinan regime, bringing the breakaway tribes back into the fold of the umma through the policy of wars of apostasy (al-ridda). Abu Bakr and the three caliphs that followed are known as the Rashidun, or the "Rightly Guided Caliphs," because they knew the Prophet personally and, it is believed, assimilated some of his charisma and values. As such, Muslims looked to the actions and words of the Rashidun as a source of authority.

Divisions within this new community nonetheless continued. The third caliph, 'Uthman b. 'Affan, was assassinated, and the umma was divided between those who supported and those who opposed 'Ali as the fourth caliph. 'Ali was subsequently assassinated by a puritan "seceder" (khariji), and the majority of Muslims accepted his opponent, Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan (602–80), as the leader of the fledgling umma, thus beginning the reign of the Umayyads. The Sunnis eventually took the Rashidun as their model, stating that the leader should be elected by a council from within the Quraysh (the dominant tribe in Mecca), whereas Shi'is developed the notion of the imamate, in which leadership belonged to Muhammad's direct biological descendents.

The Umayyads and Abbasids

The period between 661 and 750 marks the era of two great Islamic dynasties: the Umayyad followed by the Abbasid. With the rapid spread of Islam, the umma came to include not only Arabs but also many other races and traditions, which affected its political makeup. As the religion spread, it encountered a patrimonial bureaucracy, prevalent in Iran. This absolutist notion of authority placed power in the hands of the monarch and his family, who ruled on behalf of the people. This model was in many respects adopted by both the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs as the most efficient system to preserve order. Rule of law and stability trumped piety. A shift in title accompanied the shift in style of government: Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs preferred to be known as God's deputy (khalifat Allah) instead of successor or vicegerent of God's messenger (khalifat rasul Allah). This claim to absolute authority was opposed not only by Shi'is but also by some Sunnis.

The Abbasids came to power following the Third Fitna (744–50) and claimed to represent justice, opposing themselves to the monarchical Umayyad regime and thus garnering support from Shi'is. Yet before long, they too became patrimonial, incorporating Iranian practices of government to an even greater extent than their predecessors. An early work on political thought was the Risala fi al-Sahaba (Epistle on the caliph's entourage, written 754–56) by Ibn al-Muqaffa', who served as secretary to Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs. In response, one suspects, to the views expressed by the Kharijis, he stated that all men are not, in fact, equal before God. Second, he stated that it was erroneous to obey a leader unconditionally, which seemed to reflect a Shi'i view. Ibn al-Muqaffa' argued for obedience to the caliph only so long as he acted according to the shari'a. This may at first suggest that the ultimate authority is Islamic law, with its basis in the Qur'an and the sunna of Muhammad especially, but Ibn al-Muqaffa' states that while shari'a is dominant, it is the role of the caliph to not only administer the law but also interpret it. This effectively takes power out of the hands of the 'ulama' (the religious body) and places it firmly in those of the caliph as God's deputy. This conflict of authority between the 'ulama' and the political body, symbolized by the caliph, has been a concern throughout much of Islamic history, with the 'ulama', on the whole, remaining silent on political matters, especially in the Sunni tradition. The political theory of Ibn al-Muqaffa', though simply presented, was best reflected in the career of the Abbasid caliph Ma'mun (r. 813–33), who put into practice Ibn al-Muqaffa"s view that leadership must have a strong ideological basis. Ma'mun associated himself closely with the Shi'i view of the imam and encouraged the translation of Greek philosophical texts by founding the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) in Baghdad. These respected Greek works helped to portray monarchical leadership as more enlightened and therefore legitimized the caliphate, although many within the 'ulama' were suspicious of appealing to a philosophy that they considered "un-Islamic." This presents another conflict that has existed throughout Islamic history: the authority of theological "Islamic" sources as opposed to philosophical "non-Islamic" sources or, put another way, faith versus reason. Ma'mun argued for leadership on rational rather than religious grounds and promoted Mu'tazili teachings on the subject. This led to a Platonic conception of authority with a pessimistic view of human nature, which called for the masses to be ruled by a rational and enlightened caliphate. These views are perhaps best expressed by the Mu'tazili philosopher Jahiz (d. 869).

Although the Abbasids continued to hold the office of caliph, real power was eventually exercised by the Shi'i Buyids (932–1075), followed by the Sunni Seljuqs (1075–1258). From this point, what had been understood as "caliphate authority" transferred to the 'ulama', who also came to be known as imams. In Sunni Islam, the head of state no longer had religious authority. In 1258, the Abbasid capital of Baghdad fell to Mongol rule and the Abbasid caliphate became extinct. Consequently, authority became more communal or neotribal in nature with the development of jurisprudence (fiqh). In time the four legal schools (madhhab) were recognized and the influence of the legal scholar Shafi'i (d. 820) redefined authority. Shafi'i effectively put religious authority back into the hands of the 'ulama' rather than the caliphate.

Shi'i Leadership

The Zaydi Shi'i Qasim b. Ibrahim (785–860) also argued for a largely Platonic conception of political authority: obedience to the leader is a necessity due to the imperfections of human nature. In Sunni Islam, this meant that the caliphs had to legitimize their power by proclaiming themselves to be less susceptible to desires and emotions than other human beings, while not going so far as to declare themselves prophets. For Shi'is, this claim to legitimacy was made somewhat easier due to the semidivine status accorded to their imams. In Twelver Shi'ism, the imams are considered essential to the existence of the universe, especially the twelfth, Hidden Imam. This doctrine of leadership was developed under the Buyids by such notable figures as Mufid (d. 1022), Murtada (d. 1044), and Tusi (d. 1067). It is the belief of the "Twelver," or Imami, Shi'is that the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into occultation (ghayba, a period of concealment) in 873. While the Mahdi is in occultation, guidance must be provided by the religious scholars who are essentially the Mahdi's representatives. Only when the Twelfth Imam returns are Shi'is obliged to take over the political reins. Until then, they remain politically quiet under illegitimate rulers. In contemporary times, this doctrine led many to believe that Ayatollah Khomeini (1902–89) was the Mahdi.

Imami quietism was countered by a much more politically active Isma'ili doctrine that consisted of a hierarchy of seven emanations of God, with the seventh being the human world, and seven major historical epochs, each having its own prophet and seven imams. Their political hierarchy corresponds with this metaphysical pattern. In 909, the Fatimids declared 'Ubaydallah al-Mahdi (d. 934) to be the Mahdi; he went on to conquer Sicily, North Africa, and Egypt and took control of Mecca and Medina. No longer in hiding, the Fatimid imams could claim much greater political and religious authority than the Sunni caliphs.

The Seljuqs and a New Doctrine of the Caliphate

The creation of the Isma'ili Fatimid caliphate in Cairo, together with the existence of the Umayyad caliphate now residing in Andalusia, raised the question of who was the legitimate caliph and whether more than one caliph could exist at the same time. In addition, a military dynasty called the Buyids had effectively seized power within Baghdad, retaining the Sunni Abbasid caliphate as a symbol of unity, despite the fact that the Buyids were Shi'i sympathizers. Further, another force was on the horizon: the Seljuq Turks, who conquered Baghdad in 1055.

With the rise of the Seljuqs from the 11th century, a new Sunni polity emerged that, to a great extent, rejected rational, philosophical speculation in favor of legalism and literalism. One key figure of this period was Mawardi (972–1058), whose main political work, On the Principles of Power (also often translated as On the Ordinances of Government, Kitab al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya), was written between 1045 and 1058, during the Seljuq Turks' rise to power in Baghdad. In this treatise, he expresses his preference for a strong caliphate based on revelation. Mawardi criticized the view of philosophers that reason alone was sufficient for an understanding of how to rule a state. For Mawardi, reason—a human construct—has its limitations, whereas revelation is God's word. Like the Christian thinker St. Thomas Aquinas, Mawardi saw a direct link between divinely revealed order and political order.

Another important figure during the Seljuq ascendancy was the theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic Ghazali (ca. 1058–1111), universally known as the "proof of Islam" (hujjat al-islam) and the great "renewer" (mujtahid) of the faith. He attempted to synthesize the three main strands of Islamic rationality: theoretical and philosophical enquiry, juridical legislation, and mystical practice. His writings redirected and reinvigorated Sunni religious thought in the aftermath of the Shi'i intellectual dominance of the previous century. In 1085, Ghazali went to Baghdad and joined the court of the celebrated Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), who, though merely a vizier, was effectively monarch in all but name and was at the height of his power. Ghazali's best-known work is The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya' 'Ulum al-Din), in which he argues that the essence of the human being is the soul (nafs), which, in its original state—that is, before being attached to the body—is a pure, angelic, and eternal substance. Through reason, the soul has the potential to know the essence of things and acquire knowledge of God, but to achieve this potential it must attach itself to a body, for the body is the vehicle that carries the soul on its journey to God. The body, however, is a corrupting influence that succumbs to anger, desire, and evil. Consequently, the soul, though still possessing its divine elements, also has "animal" elements. To perfect the soul, the person must subordinate the animal qualities and pursue the virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice. This can be achieved through Sufi practices, which shut the gate to worldly desires. Ghazali points out, however, that it also is important to engage in the rituals associated with Islam, such as pilgrimage, prayer, ablutions, alms, fasting, reading the Qur'an, following the shari'a, and so on. Ghazali's views on religion and mysticism have political implications that are also Platonist in character, for only the few can truly manage to come close to perfecting their soul, and their knowledge of Islam gives them greater political authority. This was Ghazali's attempt to "revive" Islam by making knowledge of religion synonymous with political knowledge, for the religious and the worldly are interdependent.

Andalusian Politics

In the 11th and 12th centuries especially, efforts were made to determine a Sunni religious polity in opposition to the Christian Reconquista (the Spanish and Portuguese word for "reconquest," referring to the retaking of Andalus from the Muslims). Whereas the first major movement led by the Almoravid dynasty emphasized Hanbali literalism and even burned Ghazali's books, the second movement under the Almohads championed Islamic philosophy. This policy was supported by the Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd (also known by the Latin name Averroes, 1126–98). For Ibn Rushd, the truth achieved through the study of philosophy does not differ from the truths of revelation as contained in the Qur'an. What may appear as difference is a matter of interpretation. Ibn Rushd argues that just as reason, through philosophy, can be used to reach truth, so can reason be used to interpret the Qur'anic text. The Qur'an contains many symbols, allegories, and analogies that can be instructive to the less learned, but, Ibn Rushd argues, those possessed of suitable intellect should determine their real meaning rather than treat them literally. It follows from this that the best qualified to interpret shari'a are philosophers, not the theologians. Ibn Rushd wrote commentaries on both Plato's and Aristotle's works, and the influence of these two Greek philosophers is evident in his political views, particularly his view that the leader should be a philosopher-king possessed of a rational intellect.


Excerpted from Islamic Political Thought by Gerhard Bowering. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction, Gerhard Bowering 1

Authority, Roy Jackson 25

Caliphate, Wadad Kadi and Aram A. Shahin 37

Fundamentalism, Roxanne Euben 48

Government, Emad El-Din Shahin 68

Jihad, John Kelsay 86

Knowledge, Paul L. Heck 105

Minorities, Yohanan Friedmann 123

Modernity, Armando Salvatore 135

Muhammad, Gerhard Bowering 152

Pluralism and Tolerance, Gudrun Krämer 169

Qur'an, Gerhard Bowering 185

Revival and Reform, Ebrahim Moosa and SherAli Tareen 202

Shari'a, Devin J. Stewart 219

Traditional Political Thought, Patricia Crone 238

'Ulama', Muhammad Qasim Zaman 252

Women, Ayesha S. Chaudhry 263

Contributors 273

Index 275

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