Islam arose in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, during a time when there was a lot of fragmentation of kingdoms, rise of new kingdoms, and reshuffling of borders taking place in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Sayyid Qutb believed that Muslims followed Islam in its totality early on; that is, they fully implemented God’s sovereign rule over all of life, what he sometimes called God’s unitary message.
But the totality of God’s rule was only in place for several decades, according to Qutb. Muslims, like the earliest ancient Jews, “having seized the leadership of mankind, lost its grip on Islamic principles, and went into decline,” as essayist and critic Paul Berman put it in Terror and Liberalism, commenting on Qutb’s view. So what happened, specifically?
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was a committed monotheist, and his biggest religious gripe about the countless small bedouin tribes that populated the Arabian peninsula in his day was that they were polytheists. He preached monotheism with some success among them for more than a decade in and around Mecca. Although he was resisted and at times persecuted for it, he nevertheless united some of the tribes under his banner “There is no God by Allah.”
Then in the year 622, with a small band of close followers, he traveled 280 miles north to Medina, a city with an uneasy balance of power between well-established Jewish settlers and more polytheistic Arabs. It had no stable government and was apparently pretty wild and unruly. Muhammad had accepted the city fathers’ invitation to become the go-to arbiter of Medina’s social and political disputes.
Like many politicians and business people throughout history who have little interest in religion except to manipulate it for their own interests, that was apparently the case in Medina. Islam was merely useful to the city fathers, writes Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis in The Arabs in History (TAH), “not so much as a new religion, but as a system that could give them security and discipline (and) satisfied their political and social needs.” “The full religious conversion of the Medinese did not take effect until much later.”
Lewis believes that it was in Medina, not in Mecca, that the fledgling religion of Islam became politicized, marking a turning point for Muhammad and his closest followers, whom Muslim history calls his “companions.” In TAH, Lewis writes:
“In Mecca, Muhammad was a private citizen, in Medina the chief magistrate of a community. In Mecca he had had to limit himself to more or less passive opposition to the existing order, in Medina he governed. In Mecca he preached Islam, in Medina he was able to practise. The change necessarily affected the character, activities and doctrines of Muhammad and of Islam itself.”
During the several years that Muhammad ruled Medina, a series of bloody skirmishes and deceitful dealings between the Meccans and the Medinese culminated in Muhammad’s victorious return to Mecca. The rudimentary political Islam that ruled Medina now extended to Mecca as well, and here and there in the nearby region. This increased the geography of Muhammad’s religious-political rule, as more and more bedouin tribes and city dwellers came under submission to the new religion of “Islam” – which means “submission” in Arabic.
It was during this period that the growing Muslim “tribe” was first referred to as the umma – the community bound together by the religion of Islam. And in TAH, Lewis writes of key changes in the collective thinking of those so united. Importantly, the Islamic “faith replaced blood as the social bond,” and that “change in effect meant suppression … of the blood feud,” which in turn allowed for greater unity within the umma through arbitration. Also, and significantly, there arose a new conception of authority:
“The Sheikh of the Umma, that is, Muhammad himself, functioned … not by a conditional and consensual authority, grudgingly granted by the tribe [the umma] and always revocable, but by an absolute religious prerogative. The source of authority was transferred from public opinion to God, who conferred it on Muhammad as His chosen Apostle. [The umma, then, was a] political organism, a new kind of tribe with Muhammad as its Sheikh, and with Muslims and others as its members. Yet at the same time it had basically a religious meaning. It was a religious community, a theocracy. Political and religious objectives were never really distinct in Muhammad’s mind or in the minds of his contemporaries.”
After Muhammad’s death in 632, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and a senior companion, became the leader of the umma and was given the title “Deputy” (of Muhammad) – “Caliph” in English. He held executive power and his functions included being the umma’s military leader. With a year of becoming Caliph, Bakr was engaged in a series of successful battles and conquests in and around the Arabian peninsula. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Within 100 years, Islamic rule had spread into Southwest Asia, across North Africa, and into Spain. Muslim armies had conquered cities, provinces, lands, and all sorts of Jewish, Christian, Arab, and pagan tribes that were then part of the ruling Byzantine and Persian empires of the Near and Middle East. In the process, the significant question of how to rule such a widespread empire of diverse peoples had been answered by the institution of state rule around the religious caliphate – the central ruling institution of Islam, which had a variety of guises until it was completely abolished in the early twentieth century.
But what concerns us here are those very earlier years and the twist Qutb put on them to account for what we may call the rise and fall of Islam, which we pickup in the next post.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by jonl1973 & -Reji respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)