Thursday, November 12, 2009

History of Islamic Societies (2)

(This continues my review of Ira Lapidus’s A History of Islamic Societies. The first part is in my previous post.)

Lapidus's work is so rich in detail, one can see the recurring patterns in Islam, even beyond those he explicitly considers.

Recurring patterns
As a religion, Islam is clearly more violent than Christianity, partly because it so quickly became a religion of rulership. (Which is not the same as saying that Muslims are inherently more violent than Christians: the point is about the basic precepts, not the characteristics of believers as people: the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers.)

It took Christendom centuries to evolve wars for the faith. Islam began with wars for the faith. It took Christendom centuries to evolve wars of religion. It took Islam a single generation. When, after one-and-a-half millennia, wars of religion evolved within Christianity, they led, over time, to evolution of secular states. (A concept alien to Islam and very much a Western import.)

In its first thousand years, Islam aggressed against every culture it came up against and only stopped because it came up against more successful predators. Jihad—and jihad understood as including aggressive war—was quite central to Islam’s development, right from its first generation. And remained a recurring pattern in Islam, particularly where Islam confronted non-Islamic cultures. Sufi preachers in central Sudan even preached that the inner jihad (strengthening one's own submission to Allah) as being preparation for outer jihad (forcing others to submit to the rule of Allah) (p.419).

In the world of the “global village”, we all have Islam as a neighbour to some extent. The language al-Qaeda uses to fellow Muslims fits in with longstanding patterns.

Alas, a great deal of obfusticating nonsense is propounded on this point. From two sources: Muslim apologists who are aware of a religious duty for aggressive war looks bad and those whose politics requires that the West (particularly the US) always has to be to blame and so always has to be worse than its opponents.
Lapidus points out that Islam, in many ways, replicated previous patterns. One gets a picture of North African and Middle Eastern Islam as a region where the Volkerwanderung which never ended. Ibn Khaldun’s basic model of alternating between political unity that, after a period of cultural effervesce, decays into stagnant corruption then collapses into chaotic disunity certainly seems to work.

But a conquest religion suits an area subject to regular conquest.

The lack of communal institutions meant that even where there were fairly stable states, these were institutionally attenuated by the standards of Christendom/Europe/the West. So the Ottoman regime could decay, but not evolve, since lacked mechanisms for connecting centre and society other than command, bribery and patronage. In particular, it lacked the link that Germanic warrior assemblies had provided and from which medieval assemblies (and later modern representative legislatures) evolved. Until, of course, said medieval assemblies were subverted by absolutist governments—in the case of the ancien regime in France, ultimately disastrously, since the monarchy also lacked mechanisms for connecting centre and society other than command, bribery and patronage.

The much-vaunted Islamic tolerance generally peaks when Islam is triumphant and the religion of a ruling minority. As Islam became more dominant in the society (so the refusal to convert more problematic) and/or Islamic rule became more contested, tolerance diminishes. (Norman Sicily and Reconquista Iberia showed similar patterns.) The ultimate expression of these trends in Islam being that the first megacide of the C20th was the slaughter of a dhimmi group in a Muslim empire in its last years.

The lack of stable competing jurisdictions, and the lack of representative institutions, meant that, in Islam, intellectual suppression on religious grounds was not operating against counterbalancing mechanisms. On the contrary, such suppression was often convenient for political authorities.

Islam is also clearly a more structurally misogynist religion than Christianity. There are precisely two Muslim women with any religious significance. Fatima—daughter of the Prophet and the source of all his descendants. And Aisha, youngest of his wives and a very important source of hadiths.

But no woman matters religiously outside the family of the Prophet. There is no mainstream Muslim equivalent of Hildegard of Bingen, of St Theresa of Avila, of Mother Theresa.

Modern Islam
Lapidus’ discussion of modern Islam is fascinating and provides a framework for making sense of the better contemporary commentary. Such as the way Hezbollah (and, to a lesser extent, Hamas) stand out in effectiveness precisely because they use Islam as a unifying force.

Similarly, his discussion of Turkish politics as a struggle between two identities helps see that, given if the central identity is not Turks, then Muslim, the election success of a moderately Islamist Party is good for Kurds in Turkey (along with the election of Kurdish MPs), since it can deal with them as fellow Muslim, not as “not-Turks”.

Lapidus has a particularly informative discussion (pp 529ff) of the role of the Islamic revival in Egyptian society.
In some ways, the Islamic revival even serves as a diversion from politics … In many cases, the most important tenet of Islamic revival is the restoration of symbolic and actual male supremacy over women and the curtailment of the social and educational rights that have been gained by women in the last couple of generations. … The result is … a continued division of the Egyptian population between those segments that are moved by nationalist symbols and those that are affiliated with the Islamic revival (p533).
In the 1930s and 1940s, opposition to the British meant anti-imperialist aspects of Islam were stressed; in 1950s and 1960s solidarity and justice were stressed in opposition to the corruption of the military regime; in the 1970s personal morality and family values in response to changing social order; in the 1980s and 1990s
in Egypt as in Turkey, Islam has been the main vehicle of resistance to the state and its policies (p.534).
After all,
in many Muslim societies the state was conceived as the direct expression of God’s will for the ordering of human affairs (p.816).
In postcolonial Islam we see
a threefold structure of society. This included a secularized state, correspondingly differentiated non-political Muslim religious associations, and opposition movements that favored the reconstruction of an integrated Muslim state and society (p.818).
With some profound changes:
Sufism as a system of organizing tribal peoples for political purposes virtually disappeared (p.818).
One of the themes in the last part of Lapidus's book is the consequence of a lack of a Caliph in Islam. If there is no Caliph, then either must go back to original text (reformism) or must adapt the texts to new conditions (modernism): with finding a new Caliph being an implicit program.

One can also see how confronting Western success and globalisation can be for many Muslims. Leading to a contrast various folk have remarked upon. In the West, people have much to enjoy, so want to live and are afraid to die. While contemporary Islam produces rather too Muslims who seem afraid to live, so want to die. And—this being central to the exercise—kill people on the way out.

It is obviously silly to claim that the West has had no impact on Islam: the effect has been profound. But Islam is also a civilisation 13 centuries old (and heir to even older civilisations), with its own patterns and dynamics. Lapidus’ book is quite simply the best single source to understand them and to understand Islam as it is, and has been, in the world.


  1. Assalamu alaikum,

    Nice blog, the content in this blog is very useful to the people who are looking out for islamic knowledge.