The hollow states of Islam

By Lorenzo

Reading Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms, it struck me how much Islamic states–across most of the history of Islam–resembled the fluid warlord states of Europe in the centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but did not resemble the institutionally resilient Christian states of the later medieval period. These divergent paths came from the very different internal dynamics of Islamic and Christian states, particularly, the very different roles of law within the two civilisations.

Subjects but not participants

Once the Abbasid revolution (750) had broken the link between the Arab tribes and the Caliphate, by establishing the common status of all believers, Islamic states became very poorly linked to the subjects they ruled. Law was overwhelmingly the province of Islamic scholars, so Islamic states could not use law as an integrative mechanism. Sharia mandated the division of inheritance among heirs, which blocked the creation of substantive warrior aristocracies or powerful merchant families. Sharia did not recognise juristic persons, which blocked the creation of corporate bodies able to bargain with rulers. As law was overwhelmingly the province of Islamic scholars, but derived from the words and example of Muhammad, that meant there was no group of people who could sit down and change the law.

So Islamic rulers did not face powerful interest groups outside the state apparatus with whom they could bargain (or be forced to bargain) while what they could putatively bargain over was hugely attenuated. Thus Islam remained dominated by ruler-and-agents states where political processes and decision making were essentially entirely interior to the state apparatus.

Hence, until the late C19th, Islam never moved (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire, of which more below) beyond the fluid warlord states analogous to those of Christian Europe in the centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. For example, there was continuously a state in Egypt; the FatimidAyyubid and Mamluk states from the Fatimid conquest in 969 to the Ottoman conquest in 1517. But the ruling dynasties, their soldiers and warriors were all overwhelmingly (and continually) foreign. There was a state in Egypt, but there was no Egyptian state.

Which was the typical Islamic pattern, especially anywhere slave soldiers were used in significant numbers (mamluksghilmanjanissaries). But not only there. Thus, whenever the dominant Islamic state in Iberia collapsed, it would fracture into the small taifa states. There was none of the institutional resilience or continuity of a kingdom of England, or France or, for that matter, a kingdom of Castile or Aragon.

Which gave the Christian states a decisive and continuing advantage over the Muslim warlords, hence the Reconquista. But Christian rulers dealt with warrior aristocracies, continuing merchant families, legal persons, had states with specific laws and could bargain with all the former over the latter.  Of course the Christian states were much more resilient; they had far deeper institutional links with the societies they ruled.

Ottoman (partial) exception

The Ottomans were able to develop a state that balanced sipahi tax-collector mounted armoured warriors with royal sipahi household cavalry and Janissary slave soldiers. The Janissary corps was founded in 1383 and abolished in 1826. It was primarily recruited (until 1683) by the dev?irme child-levy.

The Ottoman state was organised in its internal operations by Kanun (state law operating in the silences of Sharia). The combination meant that the Ottoman dynasty and its agents could organise a state large and durable enough to successfully compete with Christian states. So successfully, that the Ottoman Empire advanced steadily into Europe until the disastrous Battle of Vienna in 1683.

Especially by using ghazis on the borders to continually soften up Christian borderlands by raiding (including slave raiding) them. Once the population and revenue of the Christian borderlands had been degraded or driven away, invasion and incorporation into the Ottoman Empire would follow. Whereupon the ghazis moved to the new border and the cycle would repeat.

Which worked fine, until the Serene Republic of Venice and the Habsburg Monarchy recruited grenz Serb peasant militia to hold the border, the Military Frontier. After that, the superior institutional power of the Habsburg monarchy (and the Romanov monarchy) were able to continually push the Ottomans out of Europe. Eventually, even relatively minor European states could do so. Processes which essentially replicated the dynamics of the Iberian Reconquista, except that the Ottoman state never fractured.

Note that I am not claiming the Ottoman state was more or better institutionally engaged with its subjects than other Islamic states; merely that the Ottoman state apparatus itself was more capable and resilient than was normal for Islamic states. Indeed, a recent paper (pdf) found that being ruled by the Ottoman Empire after the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) has persistent (negative) effects today in higher rates of corruption and lower economic development.

Institutionally attenuated

All of which meant that Islam did not indigenously develop the institutionally resilient, social bargaining states of Christendom. Indeed, significant strands of Islamic thought reject the entire approach. In the words of the most prominent Salafi scholar of the C20th, Muhammad Nasir-ud-Din al-Albani (1914-1999):

Elections according to democracy are unlawful, and parliaments that do not govern in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunna [orally transmitted traditions of Muhammad], but rather on the basis of the majority’s arbitrariness, are tyrannical. Parliaments cannot be recognized and Muslims can neither seek nor cooperate to found them, for they contend (combat) God’s revelation. And they are a Western technique made by the Jews and the Christians, who cannot be legally emulated (p.37).

It is harder to develop democracy when the entrenched habits of social bargaining are, at best, only weakly developed and significant strains of belief reject the entire enterprise. The point is not whether many Muslims support democracy–they do, which is precisely what horrifies and enrages the Salafi. The point is whether the social habits and institutional patterns exist to support the politics of broad social bargaining and how strongly.

Not very, which does much to explain the serial conflicts and tyrannies of the Middle East. Though the examples of Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia all suggest that Islam can get there, eventually.


ADDENDA: Not only was law not a mechanism that Islamic states could use to integrate their societies, it tended to work against such integration because the actions of rulers were often seen as against the letter or spirit of Sharia, of God’s law. As the great Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun wrote in The Muqaddinmah:

Royal authority … requires superiority and force, which express the wrathfulness and animality (of human nature). The decisions of the ruler will therefore, as a rule, deviate from what is right (p.154).

Lacking means to engage in compensating social bargaining, this tended to encourage withdrawal by pious Muslims from political life. Historian Daniel Pipes argues that the conflict between what Muslim rulers did and what Sharia rule was supposed to entail encouraged the development of slave warriors (pdf) by Muslim rulers, as they could not induce systematic loyalty from local Muslims. I would argue that the gulf between rulers and subjects had broader causes, but would agree that said gulf did encourage developing slave warriors: warriors whose scale of use, and status, were very much distinctive to Islam.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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