Alison Cameron: Early Political Development of the Muslim World

Islam, at its core, is centered around the ritualistic practices of the Qur’an. Unlike Christianity, there is no institutional power that creates hierarchy, rather each follower of Islam has a direct relationship with God himself. Muslims look for guidance by praying, studying the Qur’an, building community, and following the five pillars. Islam is also a proselytizing religion which encourages others to convert and study the Qur’an. Because it is not a hierarchical religion, it is more accessible for converts to become a part of a Muslim community through practice rather than strictly adhering to a standard of orthodoxy.

The prophet Mohammad plays an essential role in Islam and its early religious and political development in the dawn of the Muslim world. He was an orphan who grew to be a successful merchant and spread the word of God through his travels, therefore establishing Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. Through said establishment, Mohammad united 250 Arabian tribes into what would eventually become a Muslim society and the first Golden Era of the Muslim World. Therefore, the establishment of Islam also provided an establishment of united governance; there was no notion of separating “church and state” through different hierarchical institutions. Religious ideology guided political practices as well as adhering to  spiritual rituals, praxis, and laws.

In 627 C.E., Mohammad wrote the Constitution of Medina. It currently is recognized as the foundation of modern and early Muslim theocracy. The Constitution of Medina was established to further unite the Arabian peninsula and the regions tribes, as well as established the nature of said unification. W. Montgomery Watt, a western scholar, understands the document as a uniting force for all religious practices, even if they exist under the laws and followers of Islam. Watt explains that “the believers and their dependents constitute a single community (umma)”. This understanding of the Medina Constitution also renders to the fact that Jews and other religious minorities could live peacefully and respectfully among Muslims and under Muslim rule. This understanding also connects back to the core practices of Islam, in which orthodoxy and universal adherence is not necessary, but practice, participation, and direct communication to God are how followers adhere to the laws and teachings of Islam. Watts further emphasizes the importance of interfaith community support which motivated all “tribe members” of Mohammad’s land to better themselves as citizens, individuals, and community members.

After Mohammad’s passing, there were three Muslim Golden Ages which constituted the power and social, economic, and scientific developments of the Muslim world. The eras can be categorized as such: the Prophetic Era, the Caliphates, and the Three Empires. Through the Caliphates’ expansion, the Muslim Empire expanded from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, Central Asia, and parts of Southern Europe. Because of their conquests, the Caliphates created an atmosphere in their empire of a more secular understanding of the Qur’an and Islamic Law. Watt also analyzes the Ordinance of Government by the political thinker Al-Mawardi. Through his writings, Al-Mawardi defends the central control of the Abbasid Caliphate. However, he does not support the unchallenged rule of the Caliphs. He interprets the Caliphate ruler as the enforcer and interpreter of Sharia, or Muslim Law. This provides legitimacy to any ruler who upholds religious law, as long as they do so righteously and in honor of God’s word.

The most essential aspect of the early development of Muslim political practice and philosophy is the emphasis of secular life in the context of religious law. This allowed for people of different faiths and backgrounds to live peacefully and thrive underneath the strength and power of Muslim rule and the prophet Mohammad’s legacy. The practice of Sharia, ulama and umma, and importance of religious participation and community support allows for diverse communities to live among each other without ethnic or religiously motivated violence.