In a remarkable scene in Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization, Ladislaus V of Hungary summoned Cardinal Julian Cesarini—who was deputy to the Pope in his area—to discuss the wars with the Ottomans during an intense period of invasions by the Turks in Europe during the fifteenth century. The cardinal advised Ladislaus to break the peace treaty he had with the Ottoman Sultan, on the grounds that, in the eyes of religion, a person can break a promise if the promise was made to non-Christian apostates.
Such a tiny paragraph in history can shed light on the relationship between religion and politics, and the ways in which the former can manipulate its texts to serve the latter. The same thing had occurred in various different forms throughout Islamic history.
An important aspect of the religious detritus that is in need of purgation is the influence that politics had on belief throughout Islamic history. Such influence resulted in certain ideas, which originated from political conflicts or disputes, being presented as integral parts of the belief.
In the early twentieth century, Sheikh Ali Abdel Raziq penned a book titled Islam and the Foundations of Governance. In his book, Abdel Raziq attempted to prove, in many ways, that the concept of caliphate has no basis in the Quran or the Sunnah, indicating that the idea is purely political but found its way early in history to jurisprudence, heritage, and history books, becoming an integral part of the identity of Islam.
Through his revolutionary idea, Abdel Raziq entered into battle with a number of heavyweight early Imams who formed a consensus in opposition to his viewpoint.
Abdel Raziq began by refuting the Quranic interpretations and Hadiths that were the basis on which early Imams relied to support the Caliphate. He concluded that their explanations regarding the necessity of caliphate in Islam were not supported by enough evidence. He subsequently moved to argue that when Abu Bakr took power after the death of Prophet Muhammad, he refused to consider himself a caliph of Allah, insisting that he was the successor to Muhammad.
Moreover, Abdel Raziq went further to claim that the prophet, during his times, did not entrench a form of governance in Islam, insisting that all the stories about him appointing judges or governors are confusing to the extent that we cannot be certain that the prophet established a caliphate system.
Abdel Raziq said that Muhammad was never a king, but rather a prophet and messenger—aware that most Muslims would argue otherwise—and affirmed that the leadership Muhammad assumed in the Islamic state that he founded was only a necessity to deliver the message, and not a political role.
Thus, Abdel Raziq destroyed the notion that Islam was both a religion and a state. In his book, he refuted the idea that Islam imposed a specific political system, hence leaving the door open for politics to move according to the interests and necessities of each time.
He said that it was in the best interest of the sultans to promote that misconception amongst people, to use religion as an endorsement to their rules. "They continue doing so to convince the people that obeying their leaders is equivalent to obedience to God," he wrote.
The Wars of Apostasy
In the same book, Abdel Raziq points out that the ridda (apostasy) wars led by the first caliph Abu Bakr, in which the blood of those labeled as apostates was shed, were in fact political wars. He asserts that many of those indicted of apostatizing refused to pay zakat to voice their opposition to Abu Bakr himself—and that some of them were amongst the ṣaḥābah (companions of the prophet) themselves. He even presents a few stories from the time to prove himself right, including Omar Ibn al-Khattab’s rejection of this war.
In his book Prelude to the History of Islamic Philosophy, another scholar, Dr. Mustafa Abd al-Raziq, who was the rector of Al-Azhar in the early twentieth century, also presented an eloquent story in which the political goals were elevated into concepts that were sanctified almost in spite of the religion.
Separating politics from religious doctrine; a fool's errand?
The agitators who pushed for a critique of Islam through historic revisionism
In debate between Omar and Abu Bakr, in which the first objected to killing Muslims in the war of apostasy, backing his opinion with a hadith: “I have been commanded to fight the people until they testify that there is no deity worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, establish the prayer and pay the zakat.” The latter then responds by urging that the hadith demands prayer and zakat and that he will fight the apostates if they pay any less than they used to pay Muhammad.
Scholar Ali Mabrouk described this incident as the origin of the conflict that later occurred in the faith and in Islam that would later come to be understood as the radical conflation of belief with action in the Islamic scholastic theology.
The Great Fitna and the Emergence of Islamic Doctrines
In his book The Prophecy From Doctrines To the Philosophy of History, scholar Ali Mabrouk dedicates a chapter to the emergence of the Shiite sect. He argues that it was founded completely as a political entity, before it became a separate strict belief system. Hence, he undertakes a historic revisions, beginning with the Saqīfah Banī Sā'idah meeting, which was held to determine who would take the reins after the death of the prophet, and continuing through to most significant historical instances of fitna (sedition).
Firstly, Mabrouk stressed that the idea of the Imamate, in its sense in Shiism, did not emerge until much later than the Great Fitna, particularly in the era of the Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. He added that the concept of the infallible Imam that receives knowledge directly to pass it on to the following Imam did not exist at the time of the prophet, nor during the era of the caliphs.
However, Mabrouk explained, it emerged due to the political dispute, in which the decision-makers of Saqīfah meeting were split between those who wanted the caliphate to be passed on to someone from the Quraish tribe—being the tribe of the Prophet. Meanwhile, others wanted the descendants of Muhammad to inherit the caliphate—pointing to Ali bin Abi Talib—on the grounds that the Prophet and his family from the Bani Hashim tribe were poor, and that Islam emerged to support the poor. Yet another group that wanted the successor to be from among the Ansar.
Mabrouk noted that the first three caliphs, despite playing vital roles in the Islamic history, were from the Qurashiyyah aristocracy, and their nomination was based on preference—which spurred the dispute in the first place.
He points out that those who advocated for Ali waited caliphate after caliphate for his time to take the helm, but they were surprised by an overwhelming objection from the Umayyads. This was followed by an army of detractors leaving the unified state; these were later labeled as the Kharijites.
Furthermore, Mabrouk said that whenever Ali’s advocates tried to defend their opinion, they were defeated and oppressed, until, eventually, they sequestered themselves and turned their efforts toward belief, giving rise to Islamic doctrines and differences.
Mabrouk posited that all political differences in Islamic history, especially the early ones, tended to take on religious guises, noting that each of the disputing parties—or even those who attempted to remain neutral—were caught up in religious smear campaigns and accused offenders of apostasy.
He claimed that even though such political differences have almost been forgotten, the impact of these religious divisions, including their impact on politics on way or another, was more persistent than the differences themselves.
Today, when we deal with these doctrines, we do not pay attention to their political origins. Some of these faiths boiled over from politically oppressed segments, such as the Shiites, to compensate for their lack of political influence by striking up a religious position.
Ali bin Abi Talib Shiites, who were unable to bring the caliphate to Ali and his descendants, bestowed on them a sanctity that sometimes even surpassed the status of Muhammad himself.
Governance in Islam
This brings us to a discussion of the genesis of the concept of governance in Islam. The first to utter the concept in Islamic history were the Kharijites. Governance, in Islam, is summed up in the phrase “God alone can rule.” They provoked this phrase in confrontation of Ali bin Abi Talib repeatedly, and then again against Muawiyah.
Imam Muhammad Abu Zahra, in his book The History of the Islamic Doctrines, stated that the majority of the Kharijites were nomads who were, deep down, disgruntled with the Quraish tribe’s ascension to the caliphate. He pointed out that this resentment was the main reason that they were governed by the phrase “God alone can rule” in their political and military affairs.
Nonetheless, the Kharijites advocated the free election of a successor from among the Muslim masses. This was a unique event in the Islamic history, though it completely contradicted their claim of governance.
The political considerations themselves led to the emergence of more doctrines, such as Mu'tazila at a later date, in an attempt to take a neutral stance on the sidelines of the political war that had taken on a religious guise.
The Holy Quran
In his two books, From Ijtihad to the Critique of Islamic Reason and Issues in the Criticism of the Religious Mind, Professor Mohammed Arkoun distinguishes between the Holy Quran as the first oral text given by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet and then to the Muslim community for the first time, and the Mushaf, as the written text recorded in posterity based on those who had memorized it.
Relying on his work in linguistics and anthropology, Arkoun claims that it cannot be taken for granted that the Quran remained unchanged in its transmissions, without doubt in human memory or the impact of politics at the time it was first written.
As such, he made the suggestion regarding the influence of political will, even in the most sanctified of Islamic pillars. From this vantage point, he suggests that written text can be subjected to critique and analysis based on the foundations of the modern sciences of interpretation, linguistics, and culture—as one would approach any other human text. He referred to this process as humanizing the Quranic text.