In the previous post, I summarized the ideas by Christian thinkers in the medieval era. In this post, I will write about ideas by their Islamic counterparts, the Islamic thinkers.
Islam was founded by Prophet Muhammad, who was born in Mecca. He began preaching in his 30s and was exiled because of his teachings, which led him on the path to Medina. In Medina, he spread his religion and formed the first ever unified Islamic State. Under this Islamic State, he created the religious Constitution of Medina. The constitution vested absolute power in Muhammad based on the clause: “Whenever you differ about a matter, it must be referred to God and Muhammad.”. The rationale behind the heavy weight of Muhammad’s words is that Muhammad was the messenger of God, hence, his words carried unquestionable and God-equivalent authority. The constitution paved way for Muhammad to advance his conceptualized idea of Just War, allowing him to conquer neighboring countries. By the time of his death, most of the Arabian Peninsula was under his rule.
True to the words of progressive-defenders of the Muslim faith today, Islam is, according to the Quran, a peace-loving religion. However, it isn’t pacifist, which was similar to Aquinas’ interpretation of Christianity. Muhammad claimed that there exist Just Wars, with strict conditions similar to what Aquinas proposed. In the Islamic context, he underpinned this concept with the term “Jihad”. Jihad can be interpreted on 2 levels: On the individual level, it means the internal struggle to fight against desires and temptations. On the nation level, it means the struggle to defend the faith, which is synonymous with the country itself. Initially, the term Jihad was a political instrument to represent the threat that Muhammad’s Islamic State faced from its neighbors. Using the religious rhetoric of Jihad, Muhammad rallied sympathizers and believers, allowing him to consolidate great strength to carry out his conquest of the Arabian Peninsula.
Sounds familiar? Plato perhaps? Yes, but instead of Philosopher Kings, it is Philosopher Prophet. One of the most prominent Islamic political thinkers in the medieval era was Al-Farabi. He was, unsurprisingly and just like Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome, inspired by the Greek duo of Plato and Aristotle. For Al-Farabi, it was more of Plato. Al-Farabi agreed with Plato on the structure of their utopias, however, they are in disagreement about the fundamental of virtues. As you might already expect, while Philosophers have a good grasp on what is a good life based on Eudaimonia, Prophets have a good grasp over what is a good life based on divine laws. Both thinkers abhor the pursuit of wealth and power and saw them as evil. Based on the fundamental difference stated, ceteris paribus, Al-Farabi advocated for the institution of a Philosopher-Prophet, in Islamic terms, a just Imam. Today, we see the practice of Al-Farabi’s idea in Iran, where it is a theocracy helmed by an Islamic prophet.
Among the prominent Islamic scholars, there was one who did not think much of religion as an important component in his political idea. His name is Ibn Khaldun, a political realist who saw the government as an evil entity. Khaldun theorized a cycle of government downfall based on corruption, bearing similarity to Karl Marx’s prophetic cycle of class struggle. He saw that the initial intent of creating a government is to prevent injustice. However, as the society matures, community spirit/asabiyyah, diminishes and the government will begin to lose its initial vision. The individuals in this government will then, because of human nature, become corrupted, exploit the citizens, leading ironically to injustice. This will then lead to the downfall of the government and thus a renewal of vision for the new government to fulfill, only to lose it again. Khaldun was cynical of human nature to the extent that he unexceptionally assert that governments will always be evil and corrupted in the end. However, he wasn’t an anarchist, because he agreed with Aristotle that humans are political animals. Hence, the government is a necessary evil, but to minimize the damage that this evil can inflict on the society, the government’s power must be minimized.
Legacy of Islam
Islam left a considerable legacy behind. Since it’s inception, it has been the source of both unification and conflict. The holy wars waged between a catholic Europe and an Islamic Middle East lasted for centuries until it took a pause after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Although in a differing context, the holy battle revived along with the rise of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East, triggered by the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Today, it takes the form of “Islamic terrorism”, with ISIS attempting to establish a caliphate.
Islam as a religion grew in influence under the religious leadership of Muhammad. The idea of Just War and Islam itself materialized under him. Al-Farabi, the Islamic version of Plato, advocated for the institution of a Philosopher Prophet while Khaldun observed the vicious cycle of the downfall of governments, thus advocating for minimum governance. The legacy of Islam is, as Zhou Enlai had said of the effects of the French Revolution, too early to say.
ISIS religious rhetoric is the recreation of history, a play to re-enact what Muhammad and his predecessors had achieved through conquest. It is easy to see how Islam is providing a stronger religious zeal today than Christianity. The Muslims are proud of their history, with glorious stories of conquest that they wish to relieve in this age of westernization and monotony. Christianity, perhaps to our own fortune, do not have such compelling war narratives. The Crusades ended terribly, exposing the selfish intent of those who participated, looting their way through provinces and embarrassingly they even had to be excommunicated by the Catholic Church. However, that is not to say that Islam is a violent religion. Indeed, the actions of the prophet may seem contradictory to his own teaching, spreading Islam through conquest. However, the existential crisis he faced back then demanded him to deal with reality using military. Should he be in a different historical situation where there was room for peace, he might not have been so inconsistent. The ISIS members fighting in Syria now are the ones interpreting Jihad through the actions of Prophet Muhammad, most likely manipulated by their leader who uses the religious rhetoric as a pretext to wage war. The rest who are doing their best to separate themselves from their more extreme counterparts are the ones who decide to listen to his words through the Quran. To get a better picture of what “Allah” or Prophet Muhammad wants, one should look only to the holy text. Because the actions of Muhammad are influenced by contextual pressures, which make them “contaminated”.