Al-Huda Foundation, USA
the Message Continues ... i4/4
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of Muslims (continued)
Moments in Islamic History by
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
the competition for world’s resources, the
verdict of history is without mercy.
the “winner take-all”
of global competition, civilizations with the most efficient
institutions win out. By the end of the seventeenth century, it was apparent
that the tide of history was fl owing in
favor of Europe and away from the Islamic world.
tension between the rulers and the society had disastrous long-term effects on
the development of trade and technology in the Maghreb. What was good for the
society was not necessarily good for the Emirs, and vice versa. The Emirs and
Sultans had nothing to gain from any improvement, which would help either the
Jazuli Shaikhs, or the rich merchants along the Mediterranean coast. For
instance, cultivation of sugarcane, which had been introduced into Morocco
around 1570, was abandoned because the primary beneficiaries
of this cultivation were the Sufi zawiyas.
Even though there was a ready market for Moroccan sugar in Elizabethan Eng-land,
the Saadid Emirs saw no advantage in furthering this trade. Similarly, profits that were
reaped by a few merchants on the Mediterranean coast benefited
neither the Emirs nor the society at large. A few merchants became wealthy from
the trade but it did not help the consolidation of political power in the
Maghreb, or provide a channel for the energies of the masses in the direction of
the increasingly important Atlantic Ocean. In contrast to the accelerating
social and political fragmentation in Maghreb, England went through a political
consolidation under the stimulus of similar impulses.
pirates were equally active against Spanish and Portuguese shipping. However,
the impact of piracy was to hasten the demise of feudalism in England. Rich
merchants, noblemen, even the crown, invested in trade and benefited
from its profits. The infusion
of wealth created a new class whose interests lay more in the ships that plowed
the Atlantic Ocean than in exploiting the land. As the newly rich made a bid for
power, there was resistance from the established feudal lords. Tensions
developed between the city and the country. Bold forays were made in the
Parliament by both sides. After Oliver Cromwell (d. 1658), the debate between
the trader and the landlord was decided in favor of the former, and power
shifted inexorably in favor of the merchants. The key difference between the
experience of England and the Muslim Maghreb lay in the process by which change
was internalized and incorporated into the historical experience of the people.
In the Maghreb, trade was external to the masses. It benefited
neither the rulers nor the peasants. In England, trade became a part of the
national experience. Out of the conflicts
between the old feudal structure and the new mercantile order, emerged a dynamic
Eng-land, which provided a mechanism to channel the energies of the people, and
the ocean became the new frontier for the crowded masses in London and
was internalized and became a part of the national experience. Within a century
after Elizabeth I (d. 1603), the English navy emerged as the most powerful in
the world. In the Maghreb, change was resisted and discarded because it was of
marginal benefit to the rulers.
The result was that the Maghreb itself became marginalized. The principal
element in this divergence lay in the legitimacy of rule. The Saadid Emirs, like
their counterparts in much of the Islamic world, were absolute monarchs.
interests of the masses were not always the same as those of the rulers. The
masses were more in tune with the Sufi s,
and their life revolved around the Jazuli zawiyas. The only contact that the
peasant had with the ruler was through the hated tax collectors. The Emirs in
Marrakesh would not, and did not, encourage commercial or industrial activities
that would further benefit the
zawiyas from which the Emirs themselves derived no benefit.
There was a similar divergence of interests between the Emirs and the merchants
on the Mediterranean coast. The merchants benefited
from the trade, and their interests lay in working closely with the Christian
Genoese. The benefits did not trickle
down to the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains. By contrast, the political processes
in England underwent a transformation in the seventeenth century, accommodating
change, and giving the merchant and the landowner alike, a stake in how the
country was governed. The monarchy itself was trans-formed, reflecting
a desire to be more responsive to the emerging merchant classes. The political
and social patterns in the Maghreb around the year 1600 offer insights into the
process of decay that overwhelmed the
Only a legitimate ruler can command the willing support and cooperation that is necessary for just rule. Conversely, in the absence of legitimacy, a ruler can enforce his writ only by coercion or bribery.
world a century later. It is instructive to note that the political collapse
that engulfed the Islamic world around the year 1700 was global rather than
Moghul, Safavid and the Ottoman dynasties suffered significant
regression almost simultaneously. This suggests that the reasons for the loss of
Muslim political initiative in world affairs were not regional; they were
global. Regional analyses distort the perspective and provide only partial
answers. The issue demands a global perspective. Legitimacy of rule was an
important reason in this political collapse. Indeed, legitimacy of rule has been
a recurrent theme in Islamic history since its inception.
of opinion regarding rules of succession, and the qualifications
of a ruler, arose immediately after the death of the Prophet. The Ansars felt
that they had an equal right to rule with the Muhajirs, and demanded a dual
power structure at the top.
was contained and the issue was settled with the timely intervention of Abu Bakr
and Omar bin al Khattab, and the Caliphate was established. The opinion that Ali
b. Abu Talib was the true heir to the leadership of the community also surfaced
immediately, but remained submerged until the assassination of the third Caliph,
Uthman b. Affan. Uthman’s
assassination destroyed the unity in the Madinite community, and civil war
erupted when Ali was elected the Caliph. The war and the aftermath of Ali’s
assassination destroyed whatever cohesion was left, and created the Shii-Sunni
split, which runs through Islamic history like a giant earthquake fault. Only
now, under the over-arching pressure of Western civilization is this giant fault
four Caliph, Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali, are considered the Khulfa e
Rashidoon (Rightly Guided Caliph) by Sunni Muslims. Most Shii Muslims accept
only the Caliphate (and Imamate) of Ali, although some (such as the Zaidis and
the Ibadis) accept the Caliphate of Abu Bakr and Omar but not that of Uthman.
Nonetheless, there is agreement amongst an overwhelming majority of Muslims that
the early Caliphate followed the principle of consultation and its legitimacy
was accepted and sup-ported by the community. Ali himself acted as the spiritual
pole of the Islamic community during the rule of the fi
three Caliphs, and the difficult
judicial issues were referred to him for his advice.
a legitimate ruler can command the willing support and cooperation that is
necessary for just rule. Conversely, in the absence of legitimacy, a ruler can
enforce his writ only by coercion or bribery. Emir Muawiya changed the
Caliphate. When he nominated and forced his son Yazid upon the community, the
Caliphate became a dynasty. Its character was now closer to the Persian and
Byzantine models than the one accepted by the Companions of the Prophet. Alone
among the Umayyads, Omar Abdel Aziz (d. 719) tried to stem the tide towards
autocracy, attempted to heal the wounds in the Islamic community, and rule with
the consent of all segments of the society. For this reason, some refer to him
as the Fifth Rightly Guided Caliph. When the Umayyads were displaced, and the
Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad (762), the Caliphate underwent further
changes and became more personalized. In the ninth century, the Turks became the
kingmakers in Baghdad, and without abolishing the Caliph-ate, replaced it with a
new institution, the Sultanate.
Caliph remained as spiritual relics of the past, but the temporal power passed
on to the Sultans. Even when they had lost their temporal power, the community
recognized the right of the Caliph to bestow legitimacy upon a ruler, and
Turkish Sultans and North African Emirs alike coveted the honor of recognition
from Baghdad. In the tenth century, a powerful challenge to the legitimacy of
the Abbasid Caliphate arose from North Africa.
to be continued in the next issue.