Michael Kennedy: Shaping State for Religious Community

Early Muslim political thought and practice can easily be misrepresented by histories of the early caliphate as religiously zealous, militaristic, and imperial-minded. While early Muslim Arabs were deeply committed to their religion, participated in militaristic ventures, and were zealously supportive of state-expansion, the formation and of the Muslim state and its development was an unprecedented political project highly influenced by Islam and tribal Arab society. Through the development of the state, a once-tribal society came to constitute a collective body politic; whereas pre-Islamic Arabs were concerned with survival, the formation of a Muslim state raised broader questions of community, authority, and avenues of power. The new Muslim community and their commitment to Islam played an integral role in shaping the state and Muslim political philosophy.

Part I: The Qur’an and Community

Whereas politics is often conceptualized as a study of power (who holds it, how is it distributed, what is it used for), the political project of the early Muslim state is conceptualized differently by modern scholars. Instead, this political project began as a commitment to community. The origins of the Muslim state can be traced down to the political leadership of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina. It is for this reason that William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton begin the first chapter of their textbook, A History of the Modern Middle East, with the story of his life. The Prophet Muhammad was well-known during his time as a peace-maker and arbitrator, but his political leadership and community-building efforts cannot be separated from his role as messenger of the Qur’an. Cleveland and Bunton describe Islam’s effect on the region:

“It would be an exaggeration to call Arabia a cohesive, unified state after the surrender of Mecca; nevertheless, the transformation the Prophet created had been substantial. He had implanted the core concept of a community of believers united in their recognition of a single Supreme Deity and in their acceptance of that diety’s authority in their daily lives; he had conveyed notions of social morality that forbade alcohol and the blood feud and that recognized the legal status of women and demanded protection for the less fortunate in society. Muhammad combined in his person the roles of prophet, state builder, and social reformer… to comprehend fully Muhammad’s mission, we need to consider the importance of Quranic passages like this one:

Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman,

and to orphans, and to the needy,

and to the neighbor who is of kin, and to the neighbor who is a stranger,

and to the companion at your side,

and to the traveler. (Sura 4)”[i]

The inclusion of Quranic verse illustrates a unique aspect of the Prophet’s state-building project that even Cleveland and Bunton seem to contradict. While the political development brought together a religious community through their belief in Islam, their adherence to Islam would involve a broader sense of duty not only to one another, but to a community of God. While many states are formed by homogenous groups and grow to acquire material resources, secure strategic territory, or combat adversarial states, the early Muslim political project was to include people into a religious community serving the needs of one God. In other words, the political project of early Muslims coaligned with the broader project that the Qur’an laid out for humanity.

The Constitution of Medina is recognized as a foundational effort in this religious-political project. When the Prophet Muhammad eventually gained support of believers in Medina, he became the political head of a newly unified state and drafted a constitution. This document defined the nature of the state mainly around the themes of protection of and cooperation amongst a diverse community. Among the articles include points summarized by W. Montgomery Watt:

“The believers and their dependents constitute a single community (umma)” and “The Jews of various groups belong to the community, and are to retain their own religion; they and the Muslims are to render ‘help’ (including military aid) to one another when it is needed.”[ii]

Community-building on such a large scale between people of different tribes and faiths was a difficult political project. Before the rise of Islam, Arabs had not lived under a unified state, instead existing in hundreds of different tribal societies. In his work on Islamic Political Thought, W. Montgomery Watt explains the tribal institution as the only political framework Arabs had exposure to:

It was only natural that Arabs in the early seventh century should have the concept of ‘tribe’ at the centre of their political thinking. The great majority of Arabs had no experience of any body politic other than the tribe.”[iii]

Due to their unfamiliarity with other forms of political governance, the structure of early Muslim government drew from previous tribal structures and understandings to unite, protect, and provide for people of different tribes and religions. Muslim scholars and communities would grapple with conflicting and evolving beliefs in how to change the structure of governance to best serve its religious purpose.


Part II: The New Body Politic and Government

Islam has from the first been relevant to the political and social organization of the community.”[iv]

Studies of political philosophy often trace political evolution to the influence of individual scholars, however the early Muslim community itself played an integral role in defining the relationship of the body politic and influencing the ways in which it was governed. After the death of the Prophet Muhmmad, a crisis of leadership emerged in which a succession of Muhammad’s contemporary followers served as head of state. These caliphs served as heads of state as well as the new religious authorities for the first century of Islam. While these men had considerable power in shaping the course of Muslim politics- although this power would pale in comparison to the Prophet Muhammad- the early Muslim community contributed to political philosophy.

One of the points that Watt makes throughout the first ten chapters of his book, Islamic Political Thought, is that Islam produced a powerful emphasis on community solidarity that didn’t exist previously in tribal society. Individuals not only cared about the well-being, the behavior, and the practices of people in their self-defined communities, but were vocal in changing their communities. They were highly political citizens.

The public fought over who belonged in the body politic of the new Muslim state. During negotiations between the Caliph Ali and his political rival regarding the succession of the caliphate, a movement of dissenters arose called the Kharijites. Among their many religious and political stances was the belief that “grave sin” was grounds to exclude a believer destined for Hell from the community. Although the belief in sin and Hell were religious beliefs, they carried political implications in early Muslim society. The place of the Muslim sinner in the body politic was debated fiercely, and a group known as the Murji’ites would craft the most accepted response:

Their contrary thesis was that the question of whether a particular sinner belonged to ‘the people of Hell’ and was excluded from the community must be postponed to God’s decision on the Last Day; it cannot be answered by man. The principle that the grave sinner is not excluded from the community was accepted by nearly all Muslims, and this part of Murji’ite views is thus accepted by the main body of Muslims.”[v]

This debate was one of many that show how early Muslim political thought struggled with questions of authority, especially in religious manners. While many scholars of Middle Eastern history and Islamic history identify infighting over questions of who holds religious authority (such as the events that occurred during transitions to Caliphs), the question over what matters humankind can have religious authority over is a consistent debate in Muslim political philosophy to this day. Stances on religious authority created and continue to define the Sunni and Shi’ite denominational differences in Islam.

The public’s expressed need for religious authority lead to the political transformation of the caliphate that not only pushed the state to grow, but redefined the political order of Muslim society. While the early caliphate was successful in uniting, protecting, and serving a diverse community, the relationship between subjects and their government grew more distant. While the Prophet Muhammad was a notable head of state whose words were transcribed and disseminated, the caliphs were “inaccessible to the ordinary Muslim” and were often focused on issues of governance rather than religion.[vi] Moreover, their ability to govern effectively was being challenged as they incorporated swaths of territories and diverse subjects. The Arab tribal style of government de-centralized into a more bureaucratic state with separate government and religious authorities to better meet subjects’ religious and material needs.

One of the most prominent and influential early Muslim scholars was al-Mawardi (d. 1058). As Watt reflects, his work “The Ordinances of Government” is “the standard account of the political thought of Islam.”[vii] By the time of his writing, the Persian-influenced bureaucratic system of government had overtaken the original structure of the caliphate. In a review of an English translation of al-Mawardi’s “Ordinances”, Ingrid Mattson describes the defining content of al-Mawardi’s work:

One of his majors concerns is to clarify the different jurisdictions of local officials and judges (“qadis”) on the one hand, and provincial governors or generals (“amirs”) on the other…. These differences arise, says al-Mawardi, “because of the amir’s concern with administration, and the qadi’s concern with laws.”[viii]

For each major issue (justification/rules for war, the judiciary, tax collection, distribution of charity, budget issues, use of land, criminal law, and public order)… “al-Mawardi tries to include the most well known opinions of the major Sunni schools of law.”[ix]

This account reflects the change in the preferred Muslim political system. The Muslim state expanded tremendously from its incarnation in Medina. Muslims wanted to maintain a religious community, and this would require the dissemination of power from the caliph to more local authorities of governance and religious matters. The selection of certain caliphs created intra-communal fractures and animosity. The early Muslims wanted their state to advance the teachings and practices of Islam while also being able to address and settle debates over those very teachings and practices. The transformation from the original caliphate to the expansion of bureaucracy to include jurists and administrators was not just means to ensure control over the populace, but was a new cornerstone of Muslim political vision for governance. Early Muslims defined the role of the state as forming a religious community; as the state expanded, Muslims knew that its structure had to transform for it to effectively serve communal religious and material needs.

[i] William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East (Sixth Edition), Westview Press, Boulder Colorado. Pg. 12

[ii] W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 1968. Pg. 5

[iii] Watt, Pg. 12

[iv] Watt, Pg. 28

[v] Watt, Pg. 58

[vi] Watt, Pg. 79

[vii] Watt, 101

[viii] Ingrid Mattson, “Review: Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah: The Laws of Islamic Governance by Asadullah Yate; the Ordinances of Government: A Translation of Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyya A’Al-Wilayat Al-Diniyya by Wafaa H. Wahba” in Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 15, No.½ (2000-2001). Cambridge University Press. Pg. 401

[ix] Mattson, Pg. 402


Ingrid Mattson, “Review: Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah: The Laws of Islamic Governance by Asadullah Yate; the Ordinances of Government: A Translation of Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyya A’Al-Wilayat Al-Diniyya by Wafaa H. Wahba” in Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 15, No.½ (2000-2001). Cambridge University Press.

  1. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 1968.

William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East (Sixth Edition), Westview Press, Boulder Colorado

*Picture taken from: http://all-that-is-interesting.com/medina-saudi-arabia