February 17, 2007

Review: God's Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam

Patricia Crone and Michael Hinds analyse in this study the religious authority of the early Ummayad Caliphs. The early history of Islamic political thinking is a fascinating subject- Crone has covered it extensively, especially in her later study of Medieval Islamic Political Thought, a study which is so complex and deep that its review will have to wait for a future post or indeed posts. This particular book though is a very interesting contribution because the authors attempt to show how the concept of the Caliph and the authority of the prophet evolved in early Islam.

Basically the first chapters of the book concern themselves with the distinction between two terms, two ways of describing the caliphs, which in a sense are competing concepts. Firstly there is the description of the Caliph as Khalifat Allah- deputy of Allah and secondly the description of the Caliph as Khalifat rasul Allah, deputy or successor of the messenger of Allah. The first description puts the Caliph on the same level as Muhammed- they are servants of God on earth. The second implies that Caliphal authority descends from Muhammed- that he was the only genuine servant of God on earth and that authority descends straight from him. Crone and Hinds contend that the first description is a more original description- based on a large sample of the available evidence they argue that the early Caliphs did not see themselves as successors of the prophet but saw themselves as deputies of God. In a letter written by Al-Walid II, the authors find the idea that prophets were used by God in the past to advance his message and now after the final revelation of that message to Muhammed, Caliphs are used by God to secure his message in the world. Caliphs and Prophets are thereby made equal in the eyes of God- and they cite further evidence from letters by al-Hajjaj suggesting that in God's eyes one's deputy is better than one's messenger. The argument essentially revolves around making the Caliph the equal and not the inferior of Muhammed and consequently taking away the Prophet's capital P.

Hinds and Crone develop this argument by attempting to reconceive of the idea of the Sunna of the prophet in the same light. They argue that the earliest understandings of the Sunna of the Prophet were as a kind of unlocalised justice, custom- they compare it to the concept of mos majorum in Roman law- essentially custom. They argue that where we see the Sunna of the Prophet cited is in times of rebellion, where the rebellious are making a point about the injustice of certain rulers by citing a vague concept of justice. Therefore it is their argument that the early Islamic concept of law was much more Caliphal than it was later. That early Islamic law was the interpretation mandated by the Caliph of the texts left by the prophet- agents of the Caliph like governors and administrators could too arbitrate but it was the role of the Caliph that was central to the whole idea of Islamic law.

The crucial area of this argument is that Crone and Hinds suggest that as the Islamic empire grew and as Islam grew, the ability of the Caliph to make those decisions for his far flung empire diminished. People in local villages increasingly went to elders and local men who were experts in what had happened in the past and could therefore provide them with a guide. Such elders began the process of transition into scholars of Islamic law, men who acquired power and later wrote the earliest Hadith, sayings of the prophet. Indeed Crone and Hinds argue that the earliest Hadith were not sayings of the prophet but sayings of local scholars.

This is a controversial thesis- criticised in several reviews. Norman Calder of the University of Manchester for example argued (incidentally for this and subsequent reviews you need an Athens password to access them) that what Crone and Hinds had captured was a royal argument against an argument made by elders and priests. He suggested that the rural authorities of the nascent Ulema was something that had always existed and that there was no transition but a competition between two versions of religious authority, one reliant on royal authority the other dependent on local scholars. Other reviews have also pointed to the limited nature of the evidence presented by Crone and Hinds, in the American Historical Review Ira Lapidus argued that what Crone and Hinds presented is a monarchical self image- he argued that other dimensions of Caliphal authority need to be understood as well in conjunction with this- for example the tribal dimension of Caliphal and particularly scholastic authority. In the Bulletin of African and Oriental Studies, A. Rippin argued that further attention needs to be paid to the way that competing views of authority played into the Shia/Sunni split and pointed to the difficulties within the evidence.

Scholars therefore seem to stress that this work is still a mere fraction of what can be said about the role of the Caliph in early Islam. Having said that, what all the reviews and the book itself lead me to suggest is that Islam over its early centuries changed and evolved. Competing claims about legitimacy of various authorities were made, competing ideas about how Islam should work were contested. To think of the Islamic world as a great monolith with single ideas motivating it is false, to think of it even as two great monoliths- Shia and Sunni- competing against each other is false. Especially at this early period and almost certainly afterwards the meaning of what it was to be Muslim fluctuated, the question of who could arbitrate who was a Muslim remained a matter of contention and the actual description of the role of the prophet even was not settled.

Crone and Hinds may not be right in their interpretation, they may need to adopt more nuance in their description- I don't know the sources well enough, but their ideas are interesting and point to a plausible theory of the way that religious authority within Islam developed over the early centuries after Muhammed.


ashok said...

Thank you! That was really interesting - I know nothing about this topic, and it's neat to know where scholarly interest lies and what issues are on the table.