God’s Rule: Government and Islam. Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought. By Patricia Crone. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 462. $39.50.)




In her study of Islamic political systems of thought during the first six centuries of Islam (the seventh to thirteenth centuries A.D.), Patricia Crone notes in her introductory remarks that in the ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean societies that the Arab Muslims were to conquer in the seventh and eighth centuries, there was no fusion of the religious and political spheres. Paradoxically then, Islam from its very beginnings, by postulating the notion of umma as “the community of believers,” had in one stroke brought together state and society as a coherent whole, forming a single polity, whose original guide was the prophet himself, a mission that was subsequently delegated to the first four caliphs, all of which belonged to the prophet’s tribe of Quraysh, and were kin related to Muhammad personally.


Up to that point, the preeminence of the prophet and the four-caliph thesis created a consensus among the community of believers, the umma, despite early signs of dissent, in particular among the ‘Alids (followers of the fourth caliph ‘Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the prophet, and which became known as the Shi‘is). Further dissent came along with the first civil war, fitna, when the ‘Alids battled the then emerging clan of the Umayyads (also from Quraysh), and when a Kharijite killed ‘Ali in Kufa in 661, abruptly ending his rule. Subsequently the Umayyads transferred the caliphate from the Mecca-Medina axis to Damascus, right into Christian territory, and which had been conquered from the Byzantines by the second caliph ‘Umar only a couple of decades earlier. By transforming the caliphate now acquired by force into a quasi-hereditary monarchy, the Umayyads voluntarily set themselves apart from the early caliphs. A pattern will henceforth emerge, which will consist of a caliphate caught into more political intrigues and bloodsheds. When the ‘Abbasids came to power after a bloody revolution in 750, they were among the last caliphs to claim legitimate descent from Quraysh. Even though the ‘Abbasid first century brought preeminence to Arabic literature, arts and the sciences, and architecture, political stability was short lived. In 861 the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil was assassinated and slave soldiers took over, and when in 945 the Shi‘i Buyids took control of the capital Baghdad, the caliphate had already decentered into several rival political entities, such as the Fatimids in Egypt, and the Umayyads in Spain, both of which declared their own autonomous caliphates.


The original Islamic political thought of the first century or so was based on the oneness of the umma and the state, and assumed pious and legitimate political leaders (caliphs and imams). But by the tenth century, with the increasing militarization and fragmentation of political rule, such idealistic notions became harder to maintain in practice. Two different communities de facto emerged: the religious umma, on the one, and the political profane rulers on the other. From now on—up to the last Islamic dynasties, the Mamluk and Ottomans (which Crone does not cover)—the various sects, legal and religious schools, and independent thinkers, will denounce the rulers as usurpers of the caliphate, and operate within that division between the religious and profane. Their solution to such a crisis, however, differed greatly from one group to another. The majority portrayed individuals and groups finding their own tortured ways to salvation under brutish political dynasties. But while the denunciation of the rulers as usurpers became normative, the Sunni majority managed to keep the present legitimate. The inherent division between the pan-Islamic umma, and the plurality of kingdoms, however, found no viable theoretical and conceptual solution. In other words, there were no “Middle Ages” that would have brought a “Renaissance” along the line, meaning a scheme of concepts that would have shaken off the original consensus of umma and state. Instead, the rollover of what many saw as illegitimate caliphs, imams, sultans and princes, generated since the tenth century a plethora of opinions and counter-opinions, which, in the final analysis, were variations of few predominant themes either on the character and piety of the ruler-as-person, or else on his legitimacy (primarily the Quraysh background).


The question is in effect much more complicated than a simple and straightforward separation of powers between the religious and profane, as it involves a rethinking of political power beyond the primitive consensus of the umma, on the one, and the brutality of rulers on the other. Since Greek and Roman cultures had marginal effects on Muslims, and considering that the city-state political experience and the juridical armature of European feudalism went almost unnoticed on the eastern Mediterranean, Islamic thought was locked for many centuries in its initial central premises. The bulk of the political literature that was produced in the first six centuries, and which was to persevere in the following ones, was one of “mirrors of princes,” admonitions, and advice to rulers and their entourage. As the sects and schools that produced them—not to mention independent thinkers—were genealogically defined around a totemic saintly figure, the “mirrors” literature directly reflected the genealogies of power within those sects. In sum, if a more robust political theory that would have analyzed the nature of state power did not see any light, it was probably because the sectarian genealogies had no other purpose but to personify rather than institutionalize political power. In other words, since it was not power as such that was legitimate, but only the person who appropriated it, and who was supposed to respect religious values and the law, it made perfect sense then not to work in terms of a theory of a state and civil society, but only to create a literature that would admonish rulers—hoping that there’s someone over there to listen. The brutish rulers were then seen in the mirrors of saintly imams who were at the core of sectarian genealogies.


Crone’s claim that Islam in its very origins broke a rule of the separation between religion and politics, which was predominant in the Near East and elsewhere, is by all accounts incorrect. All the work of the late Georges Dumézil on the Indo-European mythologies point to the fact that the king did not only regulate relations among men, but also between men and gods. In similar vein, the recent work by Gilbert Dagron (Empereur et prêtre, Paris, 1996) shows that a Byzantine monarch was “emperor and priest.” Indeed, one might even suggest, as Dagron does, that Islam was in continuum with Byzantium when the early caliphs were construed as “representatives” of God’s will on earth. In this respect, substantial differences between the western and eastern Mediterranean begin to emerge only by the tenth century: at a time when the caliphate went through its irreversible disintegration into autonomous political entities, the Italian city-states were in the process of freeing themselves from the yoke of the Carolingians and the Holy Roman Emperor, fostering in effect the roots of proto-capitalism and a civil society protected by rights and duties. The Islamic world by contrast, having managed to persevere in its feudal past up to the late Ottomans, is just beginning to learn the benefits and hardships of capitalist modernity.





copyright © 2004 by zouhair ghazzal