The unrest in Egypt, and much of the confusion and discourse about it, has inspired me to rehash some of my work from the University of Kentucky into some blog posts. As some of you may be aware, while at UK, I studied Anthropology and Arab and Islamic Studies. My focus in Anthropology was religious and cultural practice, doctrine, and theology. While most of my writings were about communal violence and it's attendant causes, a great deal of my work focused in the history of Christianity and Islam.
The thesis I advance in terms of the Islamic state is one of it's inevitable return to prominence in the Middle Eastern world. This does not mean superiority to the secular state in practice or effect, but simply that it is a natural progression. Today, we live in the death throes of the nationalist dictatorshps which dominate in the Middle East. Egypt and Tunisia are two examples of countries which cannot sustain their practices, but the Middle East has longed for change ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
An Islamic state (be it democracy or otherwise) is nothing to fear. While an absolute return to the Shari'a law is not likely, or practical frankly, most aspects of it will definitely pervade should Egypt write a new constitution. The boogeyman of Shari'a law is not really the deathly spectre of violence, repression, and misogyny that many here make it out to be. I find it interesting that this appears to be one thing that the far right and far left can agree on. Those on the far left seem to believe Shari'a is a codification of written law which condemns homosexuals to death and women to a life of servitude. Those on the right seem to think it mandates an inevitable expansion of Islam and war with the west.
Both sides are incorrect. The post I write today will be about the formation of the initial Islamic State, Medina, and its effect on history. I do this to address two concerns: First, the concerns of those on the left in this country seem to have more to do with certain practices in Afghanistan and other areas which they attribute to Islamic government. This is a simple confusion; many of the practices are cultural ones which were maintained by the local people once Islam arrived. They are not mandated (or many times not even authorized) by the Qu'ran or Hadiths. The left also seems to lump all religious government together. That a government based on religion is inevitably corrupt, repressive, inferior, and backwards. This belief is primarily pressed by our experiences in the West with monarchies which claimed to be ruling "for God."
Let me say right off the top that this post has nothing to do with moralisms of either religion. I am not here to advance the idea that any particular religion is better than another. Religions and their theologies have their various "pros and cons." For example, while I believe Islam establishes a far superior system of government structure than Christianity, Islam definitely accepts the institution of slavery. Christ never did, which was why the first groups in Europe fighting against slavery were fringe Christian groups, and why the last country to ban slavery was Saudi Arabia. Not a moral judgment; just a fact that comes from the bare reading of the texts.
The verse from the Gospel of John is the most critical to understanding the relationship of Western history to religious government. This was spoken by Jesus Christ to Pontius Pilate. In this statement, it appears that Christ accepts the legitimacy of human government. But at the same time, he states explicitly that Pilate's power over him comes from God. This, and a few like passages, were those which Christian kings used to rule with absolute impunity over their subjects. It also justified and propagated the hereditary system of passing the throne, as it was accepted that no one would be born into a royal family that God did not intend to be King. We often today cite the famous "render unto Caesar" passage as the most critical to us, but once the Christian Kingdoms of Europe were established, the above cited passage was more crucial to understanding the mindset.
This sentiment is echoed later in the Bible as well. The book of Romans makes allusions to what will come to be understood as the Divine Right of kings. Romans 13:1 basically translates to, "[l]et everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. " Romans 13:5 establishes to principle that disobeying the King is disobeying God: "Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience."
But here is what is critical: During the three or four years of Christ's ministry, he did not explicitly create any system of social structure and government. All of those things came later. What the Gospel and the New Testament created was a claim for legitimacy of human led government, but definitely not a modicum of their execution. There were no guidelines for Kings; this set the table for Monarchs to terrorize their subjects while claiming "Deus vult," Latin for "God wills it."
For a closer to home example of this, take a look at the "Laws and Liberties of Masschusetts," the document adopted by Massachusetts Bay in 1648. The colony was established on the Christian religion, and drew it's authority for governing on the Bible. The Laws and Liberties cite to the bible for all of their authority, and it is demonstrative of the complexity and difficulty of basing government upon Christian principles. In the section titled "Capital Lawes," the drafters cite directly to biblical authority to use capital punishment. However, they do not one time cite to the Gospel or New Testament for this proposition. Only four books are mentioned: Numbers, Leviticus, Deutoronomy, and Exodus. Once we have moved past the Capital Lawes section, we notice no further citations to biblical authority.
This is indicative of the typical problem faced by attempts to set up a Christian government. The New Testament and the Gospels acknowledge human government, but provide only skeletal guidance. As a result, Christian governments were required to create a smattering of Jewish, Christian, and indigenous cultural practices. Without going into too much detail for the purposes of this post, the inevitable result of this was widespread abuse by rulers, shaping the rules and doctrines to fit the needs of the current ruler, and sometimes just creating their own church. See Henry VII, Vladmir the Great, etc. Critical above all else was this simple fact: The King of a Christian Kingdom of the Dark/Middle Ages before the Renaissance became a proxy for God himself. The Christian dogma did not limit the power of the King, in fact it did quite the opposite.
The formation of the first Islamic state was quite different from the first Christian states. When Muhammad was driven out of Mecca, he fled to Yathrib (later renamed Medina). The people there took him in and became the first Muslims. This was the first Muslim state, with Muhammad at it's head. At this point he was not just a religious leader, he was a political leader as well. Muhammad dealt with taxation, warfare, welfare, slavery, trade, and every other issue that faced a leader of a state in the 600s.
Upon Muhammad's death his followers were faced with a problem. How to decide who the new leader would be. The choice was a dramatic departure from the typical political unite of the day. The leader was chosen democratically based upon his merit. Abu Bakr was the first Caliph.
Interestingly, a group of Muslims believed that Allah alone had the ability to choose the Caliph. This led to their support of Ali, Muhammad's closest living male relative. They believed that only Ahl al-Bayt (People of the House) had the authority to lead. The Ahl al-Bayt referred to the people who were related to Muhammad. Eventually, Ali did become Caliph (he was the fourth, after Uthman), but was assassinated by rivals due to their fear he would try to establish a hereditary title. Ali's son Hussein rebelled, and those who supported his succession fought against those who supported Yazid, the new Caliph, at Karbala in 680.
This war echoes to the present day. Hussein's followers became the Shia Muslims and the followers of Yazid, the Sunni.
The Sunni Muslims believed that the Hadiths and the Qu'ran served as a limit on the Caliphs. By the time of the acension of the Umayyad and Fatimid empires, there was a very well established system of government using these sources. In the event of a question, the first source was the Qu'ran itself. If the Qu'ran was silent on the issue, than the Hadiths were referred to. But these were generally not questions for the Caliph; they were for the scholars who operated pretty much independently of the Caliph. The Caliph was expected to act in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence; failing to do so would render him vulnerable to being usurped by one who would.
An image of a 'Qadi,' a sort of Islamic Magistrate
This made the Caliph accountable to the law, which stemmed from many other sources than the Caliph himself. For example, according to the Qu'ran, a person's right to personal and real property is inviolate. Unless they are a criminal, they cannot be forced to cede any land or property to the State. What does this mean? Under the Caliphates, there were absolutely no government takings, no matter what the Caliph may have wanted to do. We will examine some of this sort of thing in a later post.
Christ did not have the advantages Muhammad had. He was living in Imperial Palestina, subject to the laws of the Pharisees and the Emperor of Rome. Muhammad was the leader of a political state. Therefore, establishing Islamic governments was a very ready-made sort of situation. All of the Caliphates that arose from Iran to Spain from the 600s to the 1300s derived from that first state in Medina. The first Christian state was (arguably) established in Edessa, Turkey, by Bardaisan the Gnostic. This was done more than 100 years after the death of Christ, and was done by a sect which was later outlawed by Nicea.
The differences in experience between Christians and Muslims living in Theocracies could not have been anymore different. Christians in the Dark and Middle Ages lived under the Rex Lex system; The King, The Law. This has colored our perceptions in America about religious systems of governance, and still results in our misunderstandings about it today.
The next post in this series will be about the Islam's Golden Age which spanned about 500 years. This is what most people who want to return to an Islamic government are referring to.