Representative Of The People: Egypt's new President, Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been hailed as that country's first democratically elected leader. But early Islamic history manifested a strong impetus towards political representation and equality within the community of the faithful. The great hope of the so-called "Arab Spring" is that these traditions will undergo a powerful revival.
IS MOHAMMED MORSI Egypt’s first democratically elected leader? Though many journalists are insisting he merits that distinction, it’s just possible the journalists may be wrong.
Among the first peoples to be conquered by the followers of the Prophet Mohammed, Seventh Century Egyptians discovered earlier than most that membership of the community of the faithful (the Ummah) conferred radical new rights. Among the most important of these was the right to elect representatives. These upright citizens (the Shura) were, in their turn, collectively charged with determining upon whose shoulders the responsibility for leading the peoples of Islam should fall.
The chosen one, known as the Caliph, was of necessity both a religious and political leader. Islam, unlike Christianity, draws no clear distinction between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belongs to God. The Caliphate, at least in its original form, was, therefore, a proto-democratic republic of faith, ruled over by a person in whose supreme office the powers of President and Pope were combined. It’s at least arguable that, fourteen hundred years ago, Mr Morsi had a predecessor.
Given the political traditions of the era, it is hardly surprising that the Caliphate became the prize of a succession of dynasties. Even so, the core religious-political principle of the fundamental equality of all believers made possible the dazzling and extraordinarily tolerant culture of Islam’s “Golden Age” (750-1250 AD).
The Great Mosque of Cordoba, in Spain. In the islamic Golden Age (750-1250 AD) the best scientific minds were to be found in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
Weakened by successive Christian assaults from the West (the Crusades) the Abbasid Caliphate was finally laid low in 1258 by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan. The West, however, had reason to be grateful that before the beautiful cities, towering mosques and celebrated universities were destroyed, most of the scientific, mathematical, medical and philosophical achievements of Islamic civilisation had already, by fair means and foul, passed into the hands of Christendom.
Though the Caliphate would rise again under the Ottoman Turks, it would never again attain the extraordinary confidence and poise of Islam’s golden age. Hugely impressive (not to mention militarily dominant) though the Ottoman Caliphate may have been, there was something missing. That vital spark which had lit the fires of creation and inquiry for so long was, for some reason, no longer being struck.
Scholars of Islamic history called that missing spark ijtihad – the spirit of independent reasoning. Today, we’d call it critical thinking. The loss of confidence which followed the slaughter and devastation of the Mongols, combined with the authoritarian military-bureaucratic culture of the Ottomans, saw ijtihad replaced by taqlid – reliance on the tested, following established practice, deferring to the teachings of those who had come before.
At the same moment that the knowledge passed to Christendom began fostering the intellectual forces that would result in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the Islamic world was beginning its slow but remorseless decline into insularity and orthodoxy.
The real question to be asked about the so-called “Arab Spring” is whether or not it signals a reaffirmation of the fundamental equality of all believers, and a rebirth of the democratic spirit of the shura? If so, then the world can hope that the spirit of independent thought, of ijtihad, will similarly be born again and the Islamic world will recapture the glories of its golden age.
But, if the revolts taking place across the Middle East end up being hijacked by the upholders of taqlid: if Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are only interested in the re-establishment of orthodoxy and the extinguishing of freedom, then spring will become winter and the Ummah will, once again, be robbed of the summer they deserve.
As we watch these events unfold across the Islamic world, we should resist the temptation to celebrate our historical escape from the clutches of taqlid. The global financial crisis harrowing the West may not mirror the mayhem of the Mongols, but all around us there is evidence of a very similar loss of confidence and intellectual agility.
Looking at our own caliphs, are we struck by their ability to engage in independent reasoning and creative thinking? Or have they, too, fallen victim to the false promises of orthodoxy?
What now lies before the West: a golden light, or gathering darkness? In the words of the Fifteenth Century Syrian scholar, Ahmad ibn Arabshah: “If the future is hidden, yet you should guess it from the past.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 June 2012.