Ashley Belohlavek: Political Mindset in Early Muslim Society

At the dawn of Muslim society, much of the Arabian Peninsula was at a loss for true religious culture and genuine piety. Arabians, many nomadic peoples, were largely viewed as barbarians and worshipped goddesses in almost a sarcastic, very condescending light.[i] When Meccan commercialism was booming, however, a local merchant named Mohammad was presented with the mission to spread the word of God to his community and beyond. With God’s guidance, Mohammad became the leader of a rising society of Muslims with a very different political philosophy from the other Meccans. Mohammad and his followers were forced to flee Mecca, but they made a home and a prosperous community and society within Medina, a nearby town. Various factors of early Muslim society, such as the state of pre-Islamic Arabian society and the necessity of the Muslims’ relocation to Medina, played a key role in shaping early Islamic law and society.

Political philosophy branched out between two different groups within the Muslim community early on, when the entire community couldn’t all agree on who should succeed Mohammad as the next caliph. Sunnis believed the knowledge and power of the next caliph was imperative, while the Shi‘ite believed that the future caliphs should be descendants of Mohammad, starting with his son-in-law Ali.[ii] Because of this disagreement of leadership, the two groups went on to govern themselves differently. The Sunnis, for example, named the next caliph Umar, a friend of Mohammad, and they did not establish any hierarchal system for clergy. The Shi‘ite, however, only acknowledged certain caliphs, which they refer to as imams, or whom they thought ought to be the caliphs after Mohammad, and they did institute clergy. Due to differing opinions in leadership and vision for the future of Islam, the Muslim community split and created a schism, thus creating different forms of governing for each group—one with clergy and one without.

One of the most interesting and refreshing characteristics of early Muslim political philosophy is that there should be no class system, hierarchy or clergy. This is one of the aspects of Islam that was so appealing to the lower class of urban society. Unlike Christianity, a majority of Islam (Sunni Islam) does not have a system of clergy, and like Judaism, Islam has a group of religious scholars called ulama, similar to rabbis, who lead prayer in mosque and had financial control over madrasas (religious schools). This is an example of how Islam was originally formed to be a religion based on equity, allowing everyone’s spiritual journey to be just as meaningful and important as the next person’s.

In Islamic society, religion and politics are two concepts that cannot work alone, and must be intertwined to maintain society. In pre-Islamic times, Arabian culture was seen, as I have already mentioned, as barbaric in nature, and people were even considered to be generally impulsive, just starting fights with each other without thinking, among other careless acts, showing desperate need for self-control.[iii] Along this line, Islamic law brought more opportunities and advantages for the lower class. A required almsgiving, or charity fee, was required from Muslims, which also added to the importance of egalitarianism within the Muslim community. All of these new developments from the more chaotic, hierarchal system of pre-Islamic times help to show how much Islam contributed to the progression of Arabian society, and at an alarmingly fast rate.

When Mohammad and his followers reached Medina, it was apparent that the Muslims would have to find a way to coexist with the Jewish tribes already present in town. Because of this, Mohammad created The Constitution of Medina with the neighboring tribes, outlining compromises to be made to maintain peace between the groups. Among these rules, a common theme that can be seen is religious tolerance. The fifth point on the Constitution explicitly states that Jews of Medina are considered to be part of the community, and that they are allowed to continue practicing their own faith.[iv] This is very important, because it shows the Muslims’ full intentions to respect differing religions and coexist peacefully with people who have different beliefs from them, a concept even modern day people struggle with.

Another notable aspect of early Muslim society is that women were granted a considerable number of new rights that they didn’t have in pre-Islamic times. Before Islam, it wasn’t uncommon for female children to be buried alive or otherwise murdered, as they were not desirable children as boys were.[v] Islam had no place for this inhumane practice, and a girl’s right to life was stressed and fathers could no longer decide to get rid of their daughters. Another cultural reality for women pre-Islam was that if they even survived to adulthood, they would then just become property of their father or husband and they didn’t have any independent rights as individuals. After Islam came into the picture, women gained inheritance rights and they even had the right to get a divorce.

To recap, the Islamic religion introduced Arabian society to a ton of new ideas and practices. Religious values became intertwined with law. Women were presented with a breath of new opportunities that they hadn’t been given in the past. Mohammad’s struggle to spread the teachings of Islam across the peninsula induced a need for compromise in order to obtain peace. During the early stages of Muslim society, Muslims had to learn to incorporate religious morals into every part of their daily lives, and the political philosophy of this early Muslim society was heavily influenced by the new religion taking the peninsula by storm, along with all of the hurdles Prophet Mohammad and his followers had to endure in their quest to continue God’s plan on Earth.

[i] D. Brown, pg 26

[ii] L. Brown, pg 15

[iii] Mahallati, lecture

[iv] Watt, pg 4

[v] D. Brown, pg 26


Works Cited

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction To Islam. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print

Mahallati, Jafar. 9 September. 2016. Lecture

Watt, Montgomery W. Islamic Political Thought

Brown, L. Carl. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. Chichester, West Sussex. Columbia University Press, 2000. Print