“In Islam There is No Separation of State and Religion”
When the Abbasid family overthrew the Umayyads in 750 CE, it moved the capital of the caliphate from Damascus to the newly established capital, Baghdad. For the next two hundred years, the Abbasids ruled territory from North Africa in the West to the frontiers of India in the East. However, beginning in the first half of the tenth century, the Abbasid caliphate began to splinter and the locus of political control diffused across several emerging states ruled by sultāns. The Arabic word sultān appears in the Qur’ān and can be translated as “strength” or “authority.” However, as an honorific title, sultān describes a regional military commander who seizes the reins of power through conquest and governs independently of caliphal administrative oversight. With the rise of independent sultanates (states ruled by sultāns) in the later Abbasid period, 945 – 1258 CE, the political authority of the caliph-imām was redefined and drastically reduced. However as an institution, the ideal of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate endured as an important manifestation of sharī‘ah. A sultān’s legitimacy depended partly on the recognition and approval of the sitting caliph-imām, who Muslims continued to recognize as the titular head or personification of the ummah.
Emerging during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and becoming more prominent in the era of sacral sultanates was a system of secular, dynastic law operating outside the purview of shari‘ah courts. Known collectively as qānūn, this legal complex was a jurisdiction of the sultān or one of his authorized representatives. Encompassing public institutions and activities such as the establishment of taxation schedules, the convening of the court of appeals, the inspection of markets, the censoring of public morals, and the police force, the qānūn system was distinct from the sharī‘ah courts presided over by the caliph-appointed qādīs in that the sultān was the final arbiter and the evidentiary regulations were much different, allowing for a greater degree of flexibility in rendering decisions and meting out punishments. In this new model of rulership, the sultān, the recipient of dawla (meaning royal fortune), functioned as a sacral king whose authority was not derived from the ummah, as was the case with the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate, but rather directly from God. It was customary for a sultān to receive a “diploma of investiture” from the sitting caliph-imām, which legitimized the sultān’s right to rule through a formal act of delegation. Image #4 in the image resource bank illustrates the basic relationship between the erstwhile Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate and the assortment of regional sacral sultanates – a system of separate domains for religious and state authority, which prevailed during the middle period of Islamic civilization, particularly in the time of the Saljuq Empire (1055-1194 CE).
According to the Persian statesman and scholar Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1318 CE), the period of the Abbasid Caliphate lasted 525 years during which reigned 37 caliph-imāms. It came to a cataclysmic end when the invading Mongol armies conquered Baghdad in February 1258 CE. Following the looting and plundering of the city, the Mongol commander, Hulagu Khan (grandson of Chingiz Khan), ordered the execution of the reigning caliph-imām and his family. After the conquest of Baghdad, the Mongol advance continued until they were finally turned aside in Syria by the armies of the Mamlūk sultanate. The Mamlūks, the dominant political force in Egypt and Syria from the mid-1200s to the early 1500s CE, provided refuge for a surviving member of the Abbasid family and installed him as caliph-imām in Cairo. Under the protective aegis of the Mamlūks, these descendents of the Abbasid family possessed no political responsibilities and were confined to certain religious duties and ceremonial activities. The famous Mamlūk sultān Baybars (d. 1277) arrogated the title “protector of the commander of the faithful,” and historians commonly refer to this phase of the Sunnī Jamā‘ī Imamate as the “shadow caliphate.”
The relationship between the caliph-imām and the Mamlūk sultān in the time of the shadow caliphate anticipates the reordering of state authority vis-à-vis religious institutions that occurred in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. By the middle of the sixteenth-century, an ascendant Ottoman sultanate, approaching its zenith under the rule of Süleyman the Lawgiver, had conquered Anatolia, Iraq, Syria, the Hijāz (including Mecca and Medina), Egypt, North Africa, the Caucasus, and Southeastern Europe. Similar to their predecessors, the Ottoman sultāns and their network of bureaucrats presided over a body of secular qānūn law, but unlike the sacral sultanates of the early middle period, there was no separate Sunnī Jamā‘ī Imamate to confer legitimacy upon the Ottoman ruler. Much later, when the Ottoman sultān was accorded the title of caliph-imām, a corps of state-appointed legal scholars and jurists was assembled to validate his claim. At the center of this institutional body was the Shaykh al-Islam, a high-ranking dignitary appointed by the sultan who managed the religious affairs of the state. Image #5 in the resource bank illustrates the reconfiguration of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate during the Ottoman age, perhaps the most transparent and complete subordination of religious authority to that of the state in the political history of Islamic civilization, and Image #6 summarizes the historical evolution of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate from the seventh until the early twentieth century CE.
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 proliferation of sultanates change the nature of Islamic legal systems?
2. What are the differences between the shari’ah courts and qanun?
3. What were similarities between the Ottoman legal systems and their predecessors? How were they different? What was the ultimate effect of the Ottomans on the relationship between religious and state authority?