In examining configurations of political power and authority from the classical period of Islamic civilization until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, two types of rulership inform our analysis. In the first type, which we will call sacral kingship, the sovereign is said to be chosen by God to rule. Similar to the European doctrine of royal absolutism known as “the divine right of kings,” the sovereign’s political authority is thought to be derived from God and not subject to earthly contestation.
The second type of rulership is the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate. The Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamatecan be defined as a Godly nation or community committed to the implementation of Divine Will, in which leadership is determined by select members of the community through a process of election or delegation and then ratified through the swearing of an oath. First elaborated in the years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the majority of Muslims regard the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate as the paradigm for Muslim socio-political organization. In Middle Eastern states that rose and fell from the medieval until the modern period, most systems of rulership and justice reflected attempts to integrate sacral kingship with the institution of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate.
Insight into the political evolution of Islamic civilization is predicated on a familiarity with the genesis of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate in the context of the first Muslim community. Thus, a discussion of the life and times of Muhammad and his first successors will now command a disproportionate amount of our attention.
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. What are the two kinds of rulership identified above that are critical to understanding Islamic civilization from the classical period to the fall of the Ottoman empire? Where or from whom do leaders derive their authority in each model?
2. What was the significance of the Muslim victory over the Quraysh?
3. What caused the split between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions?