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Marginalization of Muslims (continued)

Excerpt from Critical Moments in Islamic History by Professor Nazeer Ahmed


In the competition for worlds resources, the verdict of history is without mercy.

In the winner take-all rules 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.

 The 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.

 English 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 Liverpool.

 Change 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.

 The 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.

 Islamic 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 regional.

 The 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.

 Differences 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.

 Dissention 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. Uthmans assassination destroyed the unity in the Madinite community, and civil war erupted when Ali was elected the Caliph. The war and the aftermath of Alis 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 being healed.

 The first 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 rst three Caliphs, and the difficult judicial issues were referred to him for his advice.

 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. 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.

 The 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.