“Islam Represents a Monolithic Religion and Culture”
The representation of Islam as a monolithic entity is one of the most challenging pedagogical problems students and teachers face. If one simply considers the expansive geographic distribution and linguistic diversity of Islam’s over one billion adherents, it is almost incomprehensible how the perception of Muslims as a homogenous mass – in terms of discourses, practices, communities, and institutions – persists. For many of those persuaded by the idea of Islamic universalism, it applies not only to contemporary Muslims, but also Muslims of the past. In this framework, any Muslim in any time or place is animated by a uniform and fixed orientation to an unchanging religious and cultural system, and as a consequence, he or she engages the world in a predictably similar manner.
The varied and complex political history of Islam offers ample opportunities for educators to dismiss the reductive stereotype of Muslim homogeneity. In particular, the evolution of political and religious institutions demonstrates that Islamic civilization has exhibited an adaptive dynamism since its inception.
Evolution of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate (661–1924 CE)
Each of the four Rāshidūn caliph-imāms contributed in various ways to the disintegration of the utopian Medinan community through the construction of an independent state apparatus outside the realm of religious authority. For example, ‘Umar, the second caliph-imām, played a critical role in advancing this process through his creation of the diwān, an innovative and unprecedented administrative system which paid pensions to Muslim military commanders rather than distributing land among them. Beginning in the time of Mu‘āwīyah, the first Umayyad caliph-imām, and continuing throughout the Umayyad (661-750 CE) and early Abbasid (750-945 CE) caliphates, the isolation of state personnel and state functions from the influence of the religious elite accelerated, creating a vast, secular and decentralized imperial bureaucracy which inherited political traditions and methods of governance from the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. One historian characterizes the post-Rāshidūn caliphal state as “a more mundane imperial power, no longer based directly on Islam. Rather it was supported internally as well as externally by a particular complex of military and physical power which was partially supported in turn by Islamic faith.”
During the period of the Rāshidūn caliphate, executive authority was concentrated primarily in the hands of the caliph-imām, and he served the community as the chief administrator, military commander, and jurist. However, as the state grew, the maintenance of a large bureaucratic system required the caliph-imām to transfer these responsibilities to trusted deputies through a process of delegation. Supporting the Umayyad caliph-imāms and their dynastic successors, the Abbasids, in executing administrative, military, and judicial tasks were three specific classes of state officials: 1) wazīrs, bureaucrats who served as ministers of state and caliphal advisers; 2) amīrs, field commanders who organized and led military expeditions and governed conquered territories; and 3) qādīs, judges and magistrates appointed by the caliph-imām and charged with rendering binding legal decisions in accordance with Islamic law. Image #3 in the image resource bank illustrates this general scheme.
It is important to note that the position of qādī was often filled by individuals trained in Islamic jurisprudence but not necessarily the foremost legal scholars, who were known as mujtahids. Before deciding a case, it was not uncommon for a qādī to consult a mujtahid to ensure that a decision complied with established Islamic legal precepts. The expertise of the mujtahid and the authority of the qādī prevailed in a finite legal jurisdiction of sharī‘ah courts, which were concerned with the opinions of scholars and jurists in the discernment and application of sacred law.
Moosa, Ebrahim. “Review of Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
Link to resource (accessed April 20, 2010).
“Islamic History.” University of Georgia. Link to resource (accessed April 22, 2010)
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. How did the separation of religious and state functions evolve?
2. How did the governmental structure of the post-Rashidun states differ from those of the Rashidun caliph-imams?