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Islam Religious and Political Organization

The community of all Moslems is called the umma. Everyone who speaks the Shahada with intention and who strives to fulfill the Five Pillars of Islam belongs to the Umma. Since Mohammed’s time, the umma has grown both in numbers of people and in the geographical area it covers. This growth and expansion was accompanied by changes in governing structure as well as by religious, political and ethnic divisions. These can be divided into major periods, as is evident from the timeline. In each period, different political or religious organizational structures developed.

One way to view the development of Islam into different groups is to look at the balance between religious and political authority. Different ways of understanding who should wield these two types of authority helps explain the manner in which different types of Islam developed. After the initial period of Mohammed and the Four Righteous Caliphs, Islam split into two major groups. Sunni Islam accounts for the vast majority of all Moslems, some 85%. In it, the civil and political authority of the empires has been strong, while religious authority has been given to all believers. Shiite Islam, by contrast, makes up only about 15% of all Moslems. It combines both political and religious authority in a single individual called an Imam. Although not a prophet like Mohammed, this person continues Mohammed’s spiritual leadership; his knowledge and guidance are divinely inspiredby Allah.

In the Beginning

Islam began in an area of the Arabian Peninsula inland from the northeast shore of the Red Sea. This dry hilly area, called the Hijaz, was dominated by a number of different tribes in the latter half of the sixth century, when Mohammed was born. It was also the location of an important trade route between the Mediterranean world to the west and the "Asian" world to the east. In fact, as wars between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire blocked the northern trade routes, the route through the Hijaz became more important and more heavily used. The tribes gained much income as traders passed through their territories. Some of this income was acquired through commercial means, such as supplying food, water and lodging for travelers and their animals, and other monies were extracted through tolls, duty and protection money.

The Koreish tribe was one of the strongest tribes in the Hijaz and it controlled the city of Mecca, which housed a sacred sanctuary called the Kaba. It was here where Mohammed was born and spent most of his life. (See Map #1.) The people in the Hijaz were polytheistic, worshipping many gods, and the Kaba was a shrine to over three hundred of them. Since people would come here to worship, the Koreish tribe had a large economy that provided the pilgrims with food, lodging and other services. The political organization of the city and of the tribe worked to promote and maintain this economy.

In 610 CE, Mohammed began to receive the Koran and Allah’s teachings from the angel Gabriel ("Jabril" in Arabic). When Mohammed began preaching and gaining followers, the rulers noticed that part of Mohammed’s message was potentially destructive of their economic base. If widely adopted, the idea that there was only one god, Allah, would would cause people to stop visiting the Kaba and thus ruin the city’s and the tribe’s economy. Mecca’s rulers began to take measures to stop Mohammed, using persuasion and political means first and gradually moving to more violent means. So at the beginning, Mohammed’s religious authority was pitted against the political authority of Mecca.

By 622, Mohammed’s life was in danger from the Meccan authorities and they were persecuting his followers who had grown in numbers over the years. Then an unforeseen opportunity occurred. A town to the northwest of Mecca, now know just as Medina ("the city") was having trouble governing itself. They came to Mohammed because of his reputation as an honest man and asked him to be their mayor/governor. He agreed on the condition that he could bring his followers and that the inhabitants would convert to Islam. They agreed and in 622 Mohammed and his followers went to Medina; this exodus is called the Hijra. There, Mohammed combined his religious and spiritual authority with political and civil authority. This included not merely governing the town and the surrounding area, but also mustering an army and leading it in battle several times. Mohammed continued to receive revelations of the Koran as the Prophet of Allah and to govern Medina until his death in 632.

With regard to the question of religious and political power, therefore, Mohammed combined both in himself. He was Allah's Prophet (or Messenger) and thus exercised religious and spiritual authority as Allah's direct representative. At the same time he served as a governor and the highest civil authority of his expanding community.

The Four Rightly Guided Caliphs (632-661 CE)

In 630 ce, two years before Mohammed’s death, the Moslems took control of Mecca and cleansed the Kaba, reestablishing it as the center for worship of Allah. Although Mohammed was seen as the leader of all Moslems, he stayed in Medina to govern and did not return to live or govern in Mecca.

After Mohammed’s death, the leadership of the umma was taken up by Abu Bakr, who took the title Caliph. This title, which means "successor," indicates that he was the successor to the Prophet of God. This means that he claimed all Mohammed’s political and administrative power, and that he became the religious leader. He was NOT another Prophet, however. Gabriel did not appear to him on behalf of Allah; in fact, this would have been odd since Mohammed was the last and final prophet of Allah. He lead prayers, for example, and was responsible for the well-being of the umma, but he was not a spiritual guide or inspired by Allah.

When Abu Bakr died in 634, Umar became Caliph. Umar lead the Moslem troops to conquer all of Arabia, and then north into Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as westward into Egypt and North Africa.

When Umar was murdered by a slave in 644, Uthman was elected Caliph over the strong contesting by Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali. Although a pious and humble man, he was a weak ruler and too much influenced by his relatives of the Umayyad clan of the Koreish tribe (who had been "late" converts to Islam). Finally, his supporters turned on him and he was killed by a mob in 656.

Ali became the last Rightly Guided Caliph in 656. Unfortunately, he failed to deal firmly with Uthman’s killers—never discovering the murderers or bringing them to justice. This angered Uthman’s relatives who stirred up trouble. Ali fought them in 657, but without any clear outcome. This continued to cause difficulties until he was assassinated in 661.

Of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, Ali was the only one who was a close blood relative of Mohammed. From Mohammed’s death, his followers thought that the succession should not be decided by election, but by birth. They thought that the ability to communicate with Allah was passed on in this way. These followers were known as the Shia ("party") of Ali, formed the basis of what later became Shiite Islam (see below). When Ali was elected Caliph, they believed that their views would finally dominate, but after Ali’s assassination, the leadership of the umma moved to the Umayyads.

So while Mohammed was alive, his authority was both divine (he was Allah’s Prophet) and political. After his death, the Caliphs claimed to inherit his political authority, but not his role as the God's messenger. While they were religious leaders, this was a power granted by the believers—they were the "most equal" of equals—rather than divinely ordained. They led worship services, but did not receive messages from Allah.

For the extent of Moslem-controlled territory at the end of the period governed by the Four Righteous Caliphs, see Map #1.

The Empires

After Ali's death, Islam began a long succession of empires. These were led by individuals and their descendants who claimed the title of "caliph," as had the Four Righteous Caliphs. This means that they saw themselves as successors to the civil and political authority, but only in a nominal manner to the religious authority. Thus while they were clearly "emperors," they were not particularly devout or even religious. While they exercised their political power in the name of Islam, they were no more pious than the average emperor or general.

These empires were primarily based on Sunni Islam, and that meant that there was no religious authority to counterbalance the political power exercised by the caliphs. According to Sunni beliefs, each individual must work out their own submission to Allah; there is no priest or other religious authority to intercede upon a person's behalf or to lead the religious aspects of the community. To the extent that there was a religious center of power, it was in those who studied, developed, and exercised the laws of Islam, known collectively as Sharia. These experts carried the title of mullah or ulama, but they were not leaders, so much as a combination of scholars, lawyers and judges.

Within Sunni Islam, then, the civil and political power of Mohammed continued through the office of the caliphs of the empires, but the kind of religious authority Mohammed exercised vanished. There was no one and no office that retained Mohammed's strong connection to Allah, who served as his Messenger. There was no one who could provide infallible guidance for the umma and undisputed interpretation of Allah's message.

The Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)

After Ali’s death, the Umayyad dynasty established itself in Damascus (Syria). The Umayyads were relatives of Uthman, the Third Righteous Caliph, and presented themselves as continuing the authority of the four preceding leaders. The Umayyads were a political and military power, conquering west through North Africa into Spain, Portugal and southern France as well as east through Afghanistan to the Indus river in modern-day Pakistan. (See Map #2.) While the Umayyads nominally claimed the religious leadership as well, this was not a major emphasis of their activities. In fact, they were roundly condemned for not following the developing Islamic law.

During this time, four main schools of legal interpretation arose within Sunni Islam, giving different levels of authority to the Koran, the Hadith, community consensus and reasoning. These four schools were ultimately all considered to provide valid interpretations of the Sharia, with their influence varying from region to region.

After Damascus and the Umayyad dynasty fell in 750, an different line of the Umayyad dynasty continued in Spain until the 1400s.

The Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258)

The Abbasid rulers established their capital in Baghdad (Iraq). Although their empire had its ups and downs, it was generally peaceful and stable. It was during this time that Islamic art flourished, the Hadith was edited, the main elements of the Sharia were developed, and important schools of philosophy and religious thought came about. This was also the time when Sufism developed.

During this period, the Arab hold on Islam was finally broken, and all Moslems came to be seen as equals. In the early decades of the movement, all the initial followers of Mohammed and the Four Caliphs were Arabs. As they conquered more and more territory, the inhabitants converted to Islam. This brought a number of different ethnic groups and nationalities into the umma. The Umayyads had dealt with this by treating the Arab Moslems as superior to the newer converts. But the Abbasids’ chief supporters were actually Persian (Iranian) Moslems, and so they worked to have all members of the umma treated equally, whatever their background.

In the empire’s later centuries, its peace was disturbed by Seljuk Turks who came down out of the north, converted to Islam, and ultimately settled in what is today Turkey.

From the 11th century onwards was the period of the Crusades, when armies of Christian soldiers came to "liberate" the Holy Land from the "infidel" Moslems. These wars caused great destruction and large numbers of indiscriminate killings (mostly but not exclusively by the Christian forces), but ultimately resolved nothing. In 1250, most of Palestine remained in Moslem hands, and that amount dwindled as the decades passed. The Crusades were important in that they gave the Moslems their first experience with the Christian West since their initial expansion. The impression left on the Moslems was that of ruthless barbarism, a view that still influences Moslem understanding of the West today.

For a map of the Abbasid Empire prior to the Seljuks and the Crusades, see Map #3. For a map of Moslem holdings just prior to the fall of the Abassid Empire, see Map #4.

The Ottoman Caliphate (1290-1924 CE)

After the destruction of Baghdad and the Abbasid Empire by the Moghuls in 1290, the Ottoman Empire came into power. It was dominated by the Turks and centered in what is modern-day Turkey. In 1453, they conquered Constantinople (which had been founded as the capital of all Christendom by Constantine himself), renamed it Istanbul, and made it the capital of their Empire.

The Ottoman Empire expanded into southeastern Europe (the Balkans and Hungary) and then east and south into Iraq, Arabia, and Egypt. See Map #6 (which includes the Moghul Empire). After rising to its zenith under Suleiman the Magnificent (died 1566), the Empire gradually began to deteriorate before the increasing technological and industrial might of the European nations. It did not come to a final end until World War 1, however, when the Allies managed to encourage many of the dissident factions within the Empire to bring about such internal strife that it fell as much from internal troubles as from the Allies’ external attacks.

The Moghul Caliphate (1526-1857 CE)

The Moghul Empire (a.k.a., Mongol Empire) began in 1526 in Northern India. By 1605, the third emperor Akbar had managed to extend the Empire throughout most of India. Akbar took an enlightened view towards Hinduism and encouraged equal treatment of all religions. This policy helped keep peace in the empire. His two successors continued this policy and extended the empire southward while keeping it stable and peaceful. Under Shah Jahan (1628-58), art and architecture flourished. The most famous example of this was the Taj Mahal which the Shah built to honor one of his wives.

The Shah’s son Aurengzeb (1658-1707) reversed the tolerance policy, however, and introduced a tax on non-Moslems. Forced conversions happened and Hindu temples were destroyed. By the end of his reign, instability set in. Matters deteriorated until the British conquered the Indian sub-continent in 1858. (See the eastern part of Map #6.)

During the Moghul Empire, millions of Indians became Moslems—most of them by choice. But it also created a large amount of hatred and distrust between Moslems and Hindus. In the twentieth century, this required the creation of Pakistan (in 1947) to give Moslems a nation of their own to protect them from mistreatment by the now-dominant Hindus.

The Moghul Empire in India also served as a jumping off point for the movement of Islam into the southern Pacific. Today, the nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are largely Moslem.

 

The Shiite Perspective

While the majority of the Moslem umma defined the leadership in terms of civil and political leadership, a significant minority saw it not just in political or even just political and religious terms, but in spiritual terms. Although no one would replace Mohammed as Allah’s Prophet, they believed, there were people who could continue Mohammed’s spiritual authority and who received divine inspiration and guidance. After Mohammed’s death, the group who believed this were the Shia (i.e., the "followers") of Ali, who was a young cousin of Mohammed, one of the very first believers, and the husband of Mohammed’s daughter Fatima. They believed that the spiritual link to Allah was passed into designated individuals of Mohammed’s blood relatives, in a manner similar to ordination. Furthermore, they believed that Mohammed had designated Ali as his successor in a public speech before he died. When the umma elected Abu Bakr as the first Caliph, the Shia were quite disappointed, but they waited until Ali was elected Caliph. From that point on, they expected the umma’s leadership to follow Ali’s line. His assassination by Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty, put a drastic end to those hopes.

For the Shiites, Ali was succeeded by his son Hasan, and after Hasan’s untimely death, by Husayn his second son. Husayn was unalterably opposed to the Umayyads, but before he could organize an opposing army, he and his family were massacred by Yazid, the second Umayyad ruler, at Karbala in Iraq. This brutal act shocked all Moslems, and became an important turning point for Shiite Islam. From then on, the split between Sunni and Shiite Islam grew and solidified. The massacre imbued Shiism with a sense of tragedy and persecution, which has colored their beliefs to this day.

The Shiites developed the idea of the link between the decendants of Mohammed (through Ali) and the spiritual leadership of the Shia into the concept of the Imamah. This main aspect of this idea was that this leader, known as an Imam (which simply means "leader" in Arabic), ensured the protection and implementation of the Islamic message. The Imam was able to interpret infallibly the Koran and the sunna because he was divinely inspired, thus being able to spiritual guidance.

There are two main groups of Shiites, the "Twelvers" and the Ismailis. The Twelvers believe that were a total of twelve Imams. The twelfth, known as Mohammed al-Mahdi, left this world without dying and went into "spiritual hiding." He is expected to return as the "Mahdi"—that is, the "Messiah"—to restore a perfect, just society on earth when Allah determines the time is right. Until then, the leadership of the Shiites is performed by individuals who are given the title mujtahid, who strive to support, teach and further Islam. There are several levels of mujtahids, the highest being that of ayatollah. The ayatollahs represent the hidden Iman. This is what gave Ayatollah Khomeini, the ayatollah most widely known in the modern West, the power to unite Iranians and overthrow the Shah. Twelvers are mostly found in Iran and Iraq.

The Twelver Shiites developed their own code of Shariah. Like that of the Sunnis, it is based largely upon the Koran and Mohammed’s sunna, but it also includes the sunna of the Imams, whom the Shiites believe were also divinely inspired.

The Ismailis are divided into a number of groups, one of which is known as the "Seveners." The Seveners believe that there were only seven Imams, and that the seventh went into spiritual hiding and will return as the Mahdi. The largest group of Ismailis is the Nizaris. They believe that the Imams will never disappear from this world until the final end. Their Imam has taken the title of Agha Khan and he remains active up to today. Although few in number, the Nizaris are widely known in the Islamic world because of their efforts in promoting health and education.