Eli Hovland: Political Context and the Creation of Early Islamic Political Thought

What religious and socio-political factors contributed the early Muslim political philosophy?

One of the central questions in defining the development of early Muslim political philosophy was the idea about the nature of legitimate political authority. Who could legitimately wield power and too what ends should political power be turned? Many of these questions were brought into focus by the the disintegration of the centralized empire under the direct control of the Caliph and the rise of a multiple hereditary governorships, nominally accountable to the Caliph and eventually several largely independent Sultanates.

One text that Watt cites as critical to understanding the evolving political philosophy of the early Muslim period was the The Ordinance of Government by Al-Mawardi. The Ordinance is a  document written by a scholar at the behest of one of the Abbasid Caliphs as a defense of the centrality of the Caliphate. The Caliphs attempted to retain some level of secular power over their disintegrating empire. Even this document produced in support of the Caliphs does not came supreme political or spiritual authority to the Caliph but rather holds that the Caliph is merely representative of a system of governance in which religious law, Sharia, is paramount and it is the duty of political leaders to uphold that law. Eventually, separates this idea of government upholding Sharia from the person on the Caliph and even the question of legitimacy of any individual to rule. This, Ash’arite branch of political theory eventually reached the point of simply asserting the power obtained by any individual as long as it was used to uphold the divine laws was held legitimately.

Another core issue that early Muslim political philosophy attempted to resolve was the tension between secular and religious communities as the dominant factor in society

Under the original model of the Caliphate and Prophetic governance the source of political and religious authority had been united in one communal leader, either the Prophet or the Caliph. Since the end of the period of the first four Caliphs these two sources of authority had began to diverge.

The religious authority began to be embodied no longer in an individual but in the body of sacred laws and the question became what political forces would be its garniture. One possibility put forward by Watt is that the Ulama would have emerged as an independent political force existing independent of the secular political actors and forcing through them through to abide within a system of law. It is unclear what the method of force to be employed by the Ulama in this vision of their role. Brown notes that while it was an active question in the Christian world throughout much of history what methods the Church possessed to serve as the legitimators of secular rulers no equivalent debate was present in Islam. The principle cause of this lack of confrontation Brown identifies as the lack of a cohesive institution that encompassed the whole of the Muslim clerisy. This lack of institutional cohesion both required that individual clerics speak out on their own and that clerics find other institutional venues to house their work, often ending up within the support of the state itself

Whether it would be purely that of validators legitimizing secular rulers based or whether an institutional role was envisioned in which the scholarly or clerical class was integrated into the practice of secular government. The ultimate prohibitive factor in the Ulama obtaining this independent role was the existing role its members had begun to hold across the Muslim world. Consistency religious scholars were called upon to fill the role of judges, preceding over matters of Sharia law. This role meant that while fulfilling an important state function the Ulama, but occupying the role of judges Watt asserts formed the Ulama into a subservient institutional role the the secular leaders, which increasingly meant the War Lords. From this subservient role it was impossible for the scholars to act as either a controlling or even a legitimizing force behind the secular authorities.

1Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. United States: Ulan Press, 2012.

2 Brown, L. Carl.. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (p. 31). Columbia  University Press. Kindle Edition.