Sacred Texts  Islam  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 50


The problem of the Abbasids; the House of Barmak; the crumbling of the empire; the Prætorians of Baghdad; the Buwayhids; the situation of the Khalifa under them; the Saljuqs; the possibilities of development under them; the Mongols and the Abbasid end; the Egyptian Abbasids; the Ottoman Sultans, their heirs; theory of the Khalifate; the modern situation; the signs of sovereignty for Muslims; five grounds of the claim of the Ottoman Sultan; the consequences for the Sultan; other Muslim constitutions; the Shi‘ites; the Ibadites; the Wahhabites; the Brotherhood of as-Sanusi.

WE must now return to the Abbasids, whose empire we left crumbling away. It was a shrewd stroke of policy on the part of its founder to put the new capital, Baghdad, on the Tigris, right between Persia, Syria and Arabia. For the only hope of permanence to the empire lay in welding these into a unity. For a short time, in the hands of the first vigorous rulers, and, especially, during fifty years of guidance by the House of Barmak--Persians who flung in their lot with the Abbasids and were their stay till the madness of Harun ar-Rashid cast them down--this seemed to be succeeding; but, just as the empire of Charlemagne melted under his sons, so did the empire of al-Mansur and al-Ma’mun. The Bedawi tribes fell back into the desert and to the free chaos of the old pre-Islamic life. As the great philosophical historian, Ibn Khaldun, has remarked, the Arabs by their nature are incapable of founding an

p. 51

empire except when united by religious enthusiasm, and are of all peoples least capable of governing an empire when founded. After the first Abbasids, it is a fatal error to view the Muslim dynasties as Arab or to speak of the Muslim civilization as Arabian. The conquered peoples overcame their conquerors. Persian nationalism reasserted itself and in native independent dynasties flung off the Arab yoke. These dynasties were mostly Shi‘ite; Shi‘ism, in great part, is the revolt of the Aryan against Semitic monotheism. The process in all this was gradual but certain. Governors of provinces revolted and became semi-independent. Sometimes they acknowledged a shadowy sovereignty of the Khalifa, by having his name on their coins and in the Friday prayers; sometimes they did not. At other times they were, or claimed to be, Alids, and when Alids revolted, they revolted absolutely. With them, it was a question of conscience. At last, not even in his own City of Peace or in his own palace was the Khalifa master. As in Rome, so in Baghdad, a body-guard of mercenaries assumed control and their leader was de facto ruler. Later, from A.H. 320 to 447 (A.D. 932-1055), the Sunnite Khalifa found himself the ward and puppet of the Shi‘ite Buwayhids. Baghdad itself they held from 334. But still, a curious spiritual value--we cannot call it authority--was left to the shadowy successors of Muhammad. Muslim princes even in far-off India did not feel quite safe upon their thrones unless they had been solemnly in-vested by the Khalifa and given their fitting title. Those very rulers in whose power the Khalifa's life

p. 52

lay sought sanction from him for their rule. At one time there seemed to be some hope that the fatal unity of theocratical Islam would be broken and that a dualism with promise of development through conflict--such as the rivalry between Pope and Emperor which kept Europe alive and prevented both State and Church from falling into decrepit decay--might grow up; that the Khalifa might become a purely spiritual ruler with functions of his own, ruling with mutual subordination and co-ordinate jurisdiction beside a temporal Sultan. The Buwayhids were Shi‘ites and merely tolerated, for state reasons, the impieties of the Sunnite Khalifas. But in 447 (A.D. 1055), Tughril Beg, the Saljuq, entered Baghdad, was proclaimed Sultan of the Muslims and freed the Khalifa from the Shi‘ite yoke. By 470, all western Asia, from the borders of Afghanistan to those of Egypt and the Greek Empire, were Saljuq. With the Saljuq Sultan as Emperor and the Khalifa as Pope, there was a chance that the Muslim State might enter on a stage of healthy growth through conflict. But that was not to be. Neither State nor Church rose to the great opportunity and the experiment was finally and forever cut off by the Mongol flood. When the next great Sultanate that of the Ottoman Turks--arose, it gathered into its hands the reins of the Khalifate as well. This is what might have been in Islam, built on actual history in Europe. The situation that did arise in Islam may become more clear to us if we can imagine that in Europe the vast plans of Gregory VII. had been carried out and the Pope had become the temporal as well as the spiritual

p. 53

head of the Christian world. Such a situation would have been similar to that in the world of Islam at its earliest time during some few years under the dynasty of the Umayyads, when the one temporal and spiritual sovereign ruled from Samarqand to Spain. Then we can imagine how the vast fabric of such an imperial system broke down by its own weight. Under conflicting claims of legitimacy, an anti-Pope arose and the great schism began. Thereafter the process of disintegration was still more rapid. Provinces rose in insurrection and dropped away from each rival Pope. Kingdoms grew up and the sovereigns over them professed themselves to be the lieutenants of the supreme Pontiff and sought investiture from him. Last, the States of the Church itself--all that was left to it--came under the rule of some one of these princes and the Pope was, to all intents, a prisoner in his own palace. Yet the sovereignty of the Khalifa was not simply a legal fiction, any more than that of the Pope would have been in the parallel just sketched. The Muslim princes thought it well to seek spiritual recognition from him, just as Napoleon I. found it prudent to have himself crowned by Pius VII.

But a wave was soon to break in and sweep away all these forms. It came with the Mongols under Hulagu, who passed from the destruction of the Assassins to the destruction of Baghdad and the Khalifate. In A.H. 656 (A.D. 1258), the city was taken and the end of the Abbasids had come. An uncle of the reigning Khalifa escaped and fled to Egypt, where the Mamluk Sultan received him and gave him a

p. 54

spiritual court and ecclesiastical recognition. He found it good to have a Khalifa of his own to use in any question of legitimacy. The name had yet so much value. Finally, in 1517, the Mamluk rule went down before the Ottoman Turks, and the story told by them is that the last Abbasid, when he died in 1538, gave over his rights to their Sultan, Sulayman the Great. Since then, the Ottoman Sultan of Constantinople has claimed to be the Khalifa of Muhammad and the spiritual head of the Muslim world.

Such were the fates of the Commanders of the Faithful. We have traced them through a long and devious course, full of confusions and complications. Leaving aside the legitimist party, the whole may be summed in a word. The theoretical position was that the Imam, or leader, must be elected by the Muslim community, and that position has never, theoretically, been abandoned. Each new Ottoman sovereign is solemnly elected by the Ulama, or canon lawyers and divines of Constantinople. His temporal sovereignty comes by blood; in bestowing this spiritual sovereignty the Ulama act as representatives of the People of Muhammad. Thus the theoretical position was liable to much modification in practice. The Muslim community resolves itself into the people of the capital; still further, into the body-guard of the dead Khalifa; and, finally, as now, into the peculiar custodians of the Faith. Among the Ibadites the position from the first seems to have been that only those learned in the law should act as electors. Along with this, the doctrine developed that it was

p. 55

the duty of the people to recognize un fait accompli and to do homage to a successful usurper--until another more successful should appear. They had learned that it was better to have a bad ruler than no ruler at all. This was the end of the democracy of Islam.

Finally, it may be well to give some account of the constitutional question as it exists at the present day. The greatest of the Sultans of Islam is undoubtedly the Emperor of India. Under his rule are far more Muslims than fall to any other. But the theory of the Muslim State never contemplated the possibility of Muslims living under the rule of an unbeliever. For them, the world is divided into two parts, the one is Dar al-Islam, abode of Islam; and the other is Dar al-harb, abode of war. In the end, Dar al-harb must disappear into Dar al-Islam and the whole world be Muslim. These names indicate with sufficient clearness what the Muslim attitude is toward non-Muslims. It is still a moot point among canon lawyers, however, whether Jihad, or holy war, may be made, unprovoked, upon any Dar al-harb. One thing is certain, there must be a reasonable prospect of success to justify any such movement; the lives of Muslims must not be thrown away. Further, the necessity of the case--in India, especially--has brought up the doctrine that any country in which the peculiar usages of Islam are protected and its injunctions--even some of them--followed, must be regarded as Dar al-Islam and that Jihad within its borders is forbidden. We may doubt, however, if this doctrine would hold back the Indian Muslims to

p. 56

any extent if a good opportunity for a Jihad really presented itself. The Shi‘ites, it may be remarked, cannot enter upon a Jihad at all until the Hidden Imam returns and leads their armies.

Again the two signs of sovereignty for Muslims are that the name of the sovereign should be on the coinage and that he should be prayed for in the Friday sermon (khutba). In India, the custom seems to be to pray for "the ruler of the age" without name.; then each worshipper can apply it as he chooses. But there has crept in a custom in a few mosques of praying for the Ottoman Sultan as the Khalifa; the English government busies itself little with these things until compelled, and the custom will doubtless spread. The Ottoman Sultan is certainly next greatest to the Emperor of India and would seem, as a Muslim ruling Muslims, to have an unassailable position. But in his case also difficult and ambiguous constitutional questions can be raised. He has claimed the Khalifate, as we have seen, since 1538, but the claim is a shaky one and brings awkward responsibilities. As stated at the present day, it has five grounds. First, de facto right; the Ottoman Sultan won his title by the sword and holds it by the sword. Second, election; this form has been already described. Third, nomination by the last Abbasid Khalifa of Egypt; so Abu Bakr nominated Umar to succeed him, and precedent is everything in Islam. Fourth, possession and guardianship of the two Harams, or Sacred Cities, Mecca and al Madina. Fifth, possession of some relies of the Prophet saved from the sack of Baghdad and delivered to Sultan Salim, on his conquest of

p. 57

[paragraph continues] Egypt, by the last Abbasid. But these all shatter against the fixed fact that absolutely accepted traditions from the Prophet assert that the Khalifa must be of the family of Quraysh; so long as there are two left of that tribe, one must be Khalifa and the other his helper. Still, here, as everywhere, the principal of Ijma, Agreement of the Muslim people, (see p. 105) comes in and must be reckoned with. These very traditions are probably an expression in concrete form of popular agreement. The Khalifate itself is confessedly based upon agreement. The canon lawyers state the case thus: The Imamites and Isma‘ilians hold that the appointment of a leader is incumbent upon God. There is only the difference that the Imamites say that a leader is necessary in order to maintain the laws unimpaired, while the Isma‘ilians regard him as essential in order to give instruction about God. The Kharijites, on the other hand, recognize no fundamental need of an Imam; he is only allowable. Some of them held that he should be appointed in time of public trouble to do away with the trouble, thus a kind of dictator; others, in time of peace, because only then can the people agree. The Mu‘tazilites and the Zaydites held that it was for man to appoint, but that the necessity was based on reason; men needed such a leader. Yet some Mu‘tazilites taught that the basis was partly reason and partly obedience to tradition. On the other hand, the Sunnites hold that the appointment of an Imam is incumbent upon men and that the basis is obedience to the tradition of the Agreement of the Muslim world from the earliest times. The

p. 58

community of Islam may have disputed over the individual to be appointed, but they never doubted that the maintenance of the faith in its purity required a leader, and that it was, therefore, incumbent on men to appoint one. The basis is Ijma, Agreement, not Scripture or tradition from Muhammad or analogy based on these two.

It will be seen from this that the de facto ground to the claim of the Ottoman Sultan is the best. The Muslim community must have a leader; this is the greatest Muslim ruling Muslims; he claims the leadership and holds it. If the English rule were to become Muslim, the Muslims would rally to it. The ground of election amounts to nothing, the nomination to little more, except for antiquarians; the possession of the Prophetic relics is a sentiment that would have weight with the crowd only; no canon lawyer would seriously urge it. The guardianship of the two Harams is precarious. A Turkish reverse in Syria would withdraw every Turkish soldier from Arabia and the great Sharif families of Mecca, all of the blood of the Prophet, would proclaim a Khalifa from among themselves. At present, only the Turkish garrison holds them in check.

But a Khalifa has responsibilities. He absolutely cannot become a constitutional monarch in our sense. He rules under law--divine law--and the people can depose him if he breaks it; but he cannot set up beside himself a constitutional assembly and give it rights against himself. He is the successor of Muhammad and must rule, within limitations, as an absolute monarch. So impossible is the modern Khalifate,

p. 59

and so gigantic are its responsibilities. The millions of Chinese Muslims look to him and all Muslims of central Asia; the Muslims of India who are not Shi‘ite also look to him. So, too, in Africa and wherever in the world the People of Muhammad have gone, their eyes turn to the Bosphorus and the Great Sultan. This is what has been called the modern Pan-Islamic movement; it is a modern fact.

The position of the other Muslim sects we have already seen. Of Shi‘ite rulers, there are the Imamites in Persia; scattered Zaydites still in south Arabia and fugitive in Africa; strange secret bodies of Isma‘ilians--Druses, Nusayrites, Assassins--still holding their own in mountain recesses, forgotten by the world; oldest of all, the Sharifs of Morocco, who are Sunnites and antedate all theological differences, holding only by the blood of the Prophet. At Zanzibar, Uman and the Mzab in Algeria are the descendants of the Kharijites. Probably, somewhere or other, there are some fossilized descendants of every sect that has ever arisen, either to trouble the peace of Islam or to save it from scholastic decrepitude and death. Insurrections and heresies have their own uses.

It only remains to make mention of two modern movements which have deeply affected the Islam of to-day. The Pan-Islamic movement, noticed above, strives as much as anything to bring the Muslim world into closer touch with the science and thought of the Christian world, rallying all the Muslim peoples at the same time round the Ottoman Sultan as their spiritual head and holding fast by the kernel of

p. 60

[paragraph continues] Islam. It is a reform movement whose trend is forward. The other two, to which we now come, are reform movements also, but their trend is backward. They look to the good old days of early Islam and try to restore them.

The first is that of the Wahhabites, so called from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (Slave of the Bountiful), its founder, a native of Najd in central Arabia, who died in 1787. His aim was to bring Islam back to its primitive purity and to do away with all the usages and beliefs which had arisen to cloud its absolute monotheism. But attempts at reformation in Islam have never led to anything but the founding of new dynasties. They may begin with a saintly reformer, but in the first or the second generation there s sure to come the conquering disciple; religion and rule go together, and he who meddles with the one must next grasp at the other. The third stage is the extinction of the new dynasty and the vanishing of its party into a more or less secret sect, the vitality of which is again directed into religious channels. The Wahhabites were no exception. Their rule extended from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, touched al-Yaman and Hadramawt and included some districts of the Pashalik of Baghdad. That was early in the nineteenth century; but now, after many dynastic changes, the rule of the Wahhabites proper has almost ceased, although the Turks have not gained any new footing in Najd. There, a native Arab dynasty has sprung up which is free from Turkish control in every respect, and has its seat in Ha’il. But the zeal of the Wahhabites gave an impulse to

p. 61

reform in the general body of Muslims which is not yet, by any. means, extinct. Especially in India, their views have been widely spread by missionaries, and at one time there was grave fear of a Wahhabite insurrection. But dead parties in Islam seldom rise again, and the life of Wahhabism has passed into the Muslim Church as a whole. Politically it has failed, but the spirit of reform remains and has undoubtedly influenced the second reform movement to which we now come.

That is the Brotherhood of as-Sanusi, founded in 1837 by Muhammad ibn Ali as-Sanusi in order to reform and spread the faith. The tendency to organize has always been strong among Orientals, and in Islam itself there have risen, as we have seen, from the earliest times, secret societies for conspiracy and insurrection. But apart from these dubious organizations, religious feeling has also expressed itself in brotherhoods closely corresponding to the monastic orders of Europe, except that they were, and are, self-governing and under no relations but those of sentiment to the head of the Muslim Faith. Rather, these orders of darwishes have been inclined toward heresies of a mystical and pantheistic type more than toward the development and support of the severely scholastic theology of orthodox Islam. This is a side of Muhammadanism with which we shall have to deal in some detail hereafter. In the meantime, it is enough to say that the Brotherhood of as-Sanusi is one of the orders of darwishes, but distinguished from all its predecessors in its severely reforming and puritanic character. It has taken up

p. 62

the task of the Wahhabites and is working out the same problem in a rather different way. Its principles are of the strictest monotheism; all usages and ideas that do not accord with their views of the exact letter of the Qur’an are prohibited. The present head of the Brotherhood, the son of the founder, who himself died in 1859, claims to be the Mahdi and has established a theocratic state at Jarabub, in the eastern Sahara, between Egypt and Tripolis. The mother house of the order is there, and from it missionaries have gone out and established other houses throughout all north Africa and Morocco and far into the interior. The Head himself has of late retreated farther into the desert. There is also an important centre at Mecca, where the pilgrims and the Bedawis are vitiated into the order in great numbers. From Mecca these brethren return to their homes all over the Muslim world, and the order is said to be especially popular in the Malay Archipelago. So there has sprung up in Islam, in tremendous ramifications, an imperium in imperio. All the brethren in all the degrees--for, just as in the monastic orders of Europe, there are active members and lay members--reverence and pay blind obedience to the Head in his inaccessible oasis in the African desert. There he works toward the end, and there can be little doubt what that end will be. Sooner or later Europe--in the first instance, England in Egypt and France in Algeria--will have to face the bursting of this storm. For this Mahdi is different from him of Khartum and the southern Sudan in that he knows how to rule and wait; for years he has gathered arms and munitions,

p. 63

and trained men for the great Jihad. When his plans are ready and his time is come, a new chapter will be opened in the history of Islam, a chapter which will cast into forgetfulness even the recent volcanic outburst in China. It will then be for the Ottoman Sultan of the time to show what he and his Khalifate are worth. He will have to decide whether he will throw in his lot with a Mahdi of the old Islam and the dream of a Muslim millennium, or boldly turn to new things and carry the Successorship and the People of Muhammad to join the civilized world.

Next: Chapter I