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.

Chemical Plants and Security

The Washington Monthly carries a fascinating and worrying article at the moment about the security within the United States of chemical plants. At the moment it is perfectly possible that a terrorist could blow up a chemical installation- say the one near Philadelphia and because of the particular chemicals involved produce a cloud of poisonous fumes that could kill large numbers of people. The article points out that there are plenty of ways of alleviating that danger- for example by mandating the use of different chemicals in various processes. Some commentators, like Salon's Joe Conason have pointed to the fact that Dick Cheney's son in law who has worked for the administration in homeland security has also lobbied on behalf of his law firm against regulation of the chemical industry to secure it against terrorism. Others like Senator James Inhofe argued that the Democrats were using 9/11 as a way to regulate and extend the power of government. Senator Inhofe's concern for small government seems to me to be a false one- there is no greater duty for government than protection of its citizens which is why clean water standards and clean air standards are pretty much universally supported throughout the world. In this case as well, the argument is clear. There is no reason why a private company should be concerned about terrorist attacks on its facilities- afterall its concern is rightly for shareholder profit and if the chemical plant is blown up that's lost, no matter how damaging the outcome is to the surrounding population. It is the concern of government that that not happen as there is a public good- avoiding the deaths of thousands and possibly more of its citizens. Regulation therefore is needed in this area and should not be prevented- the options are well laid out in the Washington Monthly.

Incidentally does anyone know the United Kingdom's situation in this regard- I'm picking up here on American evidence but it would be interesting to know whether British chemical plants and other installations which have the capability of causing massive damage if they were attacked are similarly laxly defended or not.

February 14, 2007


Recently the website of the British Prime Minister inaugurated a new feature- the opportunity to petition the Government of the day about the concerns held by ordinary people. The most popular petition at present is one against a new initiative- to price travelling by roads, according to the website at present (11.00 PM) 1,444,058 people have signed this petition and no doubt by the time you read this post there will be more signatures afixed to it. This particular petition has so interested Government ministers that Douglas Alexander the Transport Secretary is now coming under pressure to implement it and according to the Guardian a civil servant may be forced to send out a response to the road pricing petitioners if there concerns aren't met.

But even if the petition attracts 2 million or even 3 million signatures should we, irrespective of the merits of the policy, follow what the petition reccomends. Chris Dillow has summarised very well some of the good arguments for road pricing on his blog. Is this a case of Vox Populi vox dei? Is this a case where the government must follow what the petitioners wish for?

The first problem is the way that the petition is phrased- the petitioners are concerned they say because of the tracking software that might be introduced and because of the fact that poorer people and rural individuals might be penalised unlike through say taxation on fuel. The petition envisages a kind of universal price for any road and any car- but of course the petition may well be wrong in assuming that. Its perfectly possible for example that it might be only areas of high congestion in cities that would be priced and the countryside road use priced lower or not at all, its also perfectly possible that it might vary with time so for example travelling in the rush hour be more expensive than travelling in the night so that poorer individuals like cleaners wouldn't be penalised. Indeed there are many ways in which this policy might penalise the poor and rural communities less than current fuel tax policies. Drafting petition questions and referenda questions has always been seen as the flaw of direct democracy- compare you instinctive reactions to the questions do you want to be part of a European Empire, or do you want to be friends with our neighbours- both would be ways of phrasing a question on the EU, neither would be neutral. Likewise petitions aren't neutral in the way that they are drawn up.

There is a further problem though- in that these petitions are found on the internet and attract minority support. What would happen for example if the other 50 million people in Britain support Road pricing- they haven't got a petition to sign and anyway might be happy for others to carry the can but their views aren't represented. Furthermore the petitions appeal to a kind of mind that evaluates a whole situation in a sentence and sees that as the way forward. Politics ultimately is about finding constructive answers to questions and trying to work out why the other guy disagrees with you. These are difficult problems which require quite difficult and troubling solutions- whether involving more or less government involvement. A petition strikes me as being a bit like a teenager shouting at his parents "I don't like this" without considering why they might want him to do 'this'.

Petitions are in my view a blunt instrument in dealing with politics- they don't help us understand it and nor do they really get to the heart of what the population thinks about an issue. They incite mobs rather than debate. If we are all going to get more involved in the running of our government I'd prefer we didn't come to ministers screaming our heads off like irresponsible adolescents, but rather come like adults, thinking and analysing- respecting other points of view whilst explaining the logic of our own and considering whether we need to adjust it.

UPDATE I should also say that Dave Cole has made some similar points at his blog.

February 13, 2007

Supporting the troops

Well I just thought it worth noting that President Bush's budget plans include cuts from 2008 in support given the veterans for health care- just as those veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course rightly it could be said that these are just predictions but even so they are irresponsible- you should plan to afford what you will reasonably expect to require- it is reasonable to expect given the surge that America will need to care for its troops in the years to come, it is irresponsible not to.

Admin: Gracchi pontificates at Imagined Community and Welshcakes reviews from Sicily

I promised before that I'd link across to the articles I wrote at Imagined Community so here's a log of them

On Tuesday I looked into traditionalist Catholic anti-semitism

On Friday I enquired about apologising for slavery

On Sunday I wrote two articles- one which dealt with a possible anti-Taliban movement in Afghanistan and the other looked into the role of argument in Mr Smith goes to Washington

I also ought to point out that Welshcakes Limoncello has written a fantastic set of reviews of blogs, including this one. She is one of the nicest bloggers on the net and judging by the list of blogs she has reviewed also has extremely good taste (well I would say that Westminster Wisdom is amongst them!) seriously though she has written some really good reviews of some really good blogs- and you should go across and be tempted to expand your net reading habits!

February 12, 2007

Federalist Papers Online

Just found this wonderful free issue of the Federalist Papers- crucial pamphlets published by James Maddison (founder and fourth President of the United States), Alexander Hamilton (also a founder and first Treasury Secretary of the United States) and John Jay (founder, ambassador and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the United States from 1789 to 1795). The pamphlets were written during the debates about whether to ratify the constitution and are indispensible to understanding what happened at the time. I recommend having a look through the papers- beyond the local American influence- the pamphlets have an abiding philosophical interest as well. Read and enjoy...


This is an interesting article in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review about the Roman definition of Virtus or manliness. Myles McDonnell in a recent book published by CUP has asserted that for the Romans in the early Republic manliness was a very simple thing, it stood for courage in a cavalry encounter in the field. Bob Kaster of Princeton University is less sure about McDonnell's conclusions and points to lots of problems within the evidence that he cites. Its an argument worth perusing- as would be McDonnell's reply to it- partly as a reminder of how different Roman ideas about manhood are from ours.

February 11, 2007

The Bureacratic Empire of the Iraq War

The state department strikes back about the Iraq war- about the detatched nature of the Feith office on Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction and the way that the analysts were not even consulted nor even knew what was going on at the top of the government. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan who carries the Youtube. The problem according to one analyst with the Intelligence Services for the policy makers was that the answers that the intelligence analysts produced weren't the right ones. So they changed the investigators and here we are years later...

Quickness by George Herbert

This is I suppose a new branch of this blog- but poetry is something that interests me a lot and I'd love to have other people's views on poems that I enjoy and appreciate so please comment- George Herbert is one of the most interesting poets of Christianity to write in English, his poem Quickness to me illustrates some of the fundamental truths about Christian thinking in his and maybe in any era.


False life! a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?
Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the truth come on.

Thou art a Moon-like toil; a blind
Self-posing state;
A dark contest of waves and wind;
A mere tempestuous debate.

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit; but ever bright,
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

'Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile, and hath the skill
To please without eternity

Thou art a toilsome Mole, or less
A moving mist.
But life is, what none can express
A quickness, which my God hath kissed.

Many of Herbert's familiar tropes are visible here- the musicality of his language, the normality of his imagery- toilsome Moles struggling through the earth represent the souls of sinners struggling through their lives. Part of what poetry can do, which other ways to communicate struggle with, is to express very aptly a central concept to a particular creed or faith. You don't need to share the faith or creed to appreciate the elegance with which Herbert visualises in this poem a central concept of Christianity- indeed I write this as a non-Christian.

What Herbert gets at though here is something very profound that many Christians have shared. What Herbert wants to do is to contrast a false life- a life led without knowledge of Christ, a life that ultimately in his view is meaningless with the true life, a life led through knowledge of Christ. The first life he characterises as a life that means very little- its life as a procession of meaningless events, a life which struggles through the fact that it itself is false. The liver of such a life becomes a traveller who doesn't know where he is going, like the moon or a blind mole striving to find meaning. Herbert though wants us to realise that a real life, a life with Christ has a different order to it. The fact that it has been kissed or quickened by God makes it meaningful- it becomes a 'fixed... light' and acquires meaning and virtue from the mere fact that the human being recognises his true position in the cosmos. Fitted into a proper pattern such a Christian becomes someone who can please without caring that he dies, without eternity, because his life is part of the eternal pattern of meaning woven by God.

The beauty of this poem lies in that transformation brought about by God in the life in the beleiver- a transformation which Herbert wants us to see as something that transforms mundanity into mysticism. I'm not a Christian but the poem has incredible power- because by the end of those short lines things that at the beggining seemed meaningless in the eyes of the poet appear full of meaning and full of significance. The poet sees now through the mist in which he is wandering the faint glimmers of far off lights- the lights of heaven.

Please comment because as I say this isn't an authoritative post- this is a wonderful poem, just toy with the words and feel the sonority of them- I'm not a Christian but I'd love to hear how Christians regard Herbert.