What challenges did Mohammed face

Islam and Politics

Islam can look back on a long history. Where are its origins? How has it developed over time?

A praying Muslim in the Omeriye Mosque in Cyprus. (& copy AP)

The English scholar of Islam, Malise Ruthven, once called Islam a religion that was "born to win". Ruthven was alluding to the history of the origins of Islam. Unlike Christianity, which remained persecuted for centuries after the death of Jesus Christ, a whole world empire was founded in the name of Islam just a few decades after its creation.

Islamic community under Mohammed

When Mohammed (around 570–632) received his first revelations from God in Mecca, it was difficult for him to convince the people of Mecca to be the herald of a new religion. The city's wealthy businessmen, in particular, refused to obey his call for submission to the strict monotheism of Islam. Correspondingly, the revelations from the Meccan period contain cautionary examples of unbelievers who refused to follow God's prophets. On the other hand, God in his revelations promised the followers of the prophet eternal life and paradise.

But at some point the situation became too difficult for the still small Islamic community in Mecca, and Mohammed decided to emigrate to the city of Medina, 400 kilometers to the north. The so-called Hijra in 622, the emigration from Mecca to Medina, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

Mohammed found himself in a completely different situation. The people of Medina received him with open arms. Some of the city's tribes found themselves in an ongoing feud that disrupted social peace. Mohammed offered himself as a neutral mediator, but in return demanded that the people of Medina submit to his religious authority.

So it came about that Islam had to prove itself in the real world already in its early development phase. Mohammed could no longer limit himself to proclaiming a religion directed to the hereafter; rather, he now had to develop regulatory and ethical standards in the name of Islam in order to be able to direct the community of Medina.

The revelations that Mohammed received in Medina changed accordingly. Some of them contain detailed legal instructions, especially with regard to civil status law, i.e. marriage, family and inheritance law. In five cases the Koran also contains more or less precise criminal law ordinances.

Mohammed quickly managed to establish himself as a religious and political authority in Medina. In this phase the umma, the Islamic community, corresponded to a theocracy, to a rule of God. As the representative of God - to whom, however, no divine qualities were attributed - Mohammed made sure that the divine will on earth was obeyed.

Nevertheless, or precisely because of this, the Koran does not make any clear statements about how the umma should be organized politically. It does not go beyond vague instructions. For example, at one point the believers are called upon to consult with one another before making important decisions. This principle, in Arabic Shura, is taken by reform-minded Muslims today as evidence that democratic elements are already laid out in the Koran and are therefore compatible with Islam.

Above all, however, the Koran is silent about who should take over the leadership of the ummah after the death of the prophet. And even Mohammed himself left no instructions in this regard. The unregulated succession of the prophets quickly led to political conflicts that split the Islamic community to this day.

Mohammed died in 632. The Islamic community now had to make an unprepared decision as to who should take over the leadership of the Ummah. An agreement was reached on Abu Bakr, an early companion of Muhammad. He got the title of Caliph, Deputy of the Prophet. The next three caliphs were also men who had committed themselves to Islam early on and whose authority was derived from their closeness to Mohammed. This early phase of Islamic history, which lasted from 632 to 661, is known as the period of the rightly guided caliphs. Because the source of the revelations dried up with the death of the prophet, the caliphs now had to find ways of directing the ummah in the spirit of the founder of the religion. The Koran served them as the most important guide, and where the Holy Scriptures made no concrete statements, they orientated themselves to the actions and sayings of the Prophet, summarized in the so-called Sunnah. The name of the largest Islamic denomination, the Sunnis, is derived from it.

Ideal and Reality during the Caliphate

Faiths of Islam
The Islamic umma expanded within a few decades, from the Arabian Peninsula via the "Fertile Crescent" (Palestine, Syria and Iraq) to Persia and North Africa. The Islamic rulers were often confronted with situations for which neither the Koran nor the Sunna of the Prophet could find concrete instructions for action. Two further methods of finding the right law were developed: One is the so-called consensus of believers. If a majority of legal scholars agreed that a particular act did not contradict the spirit of the Quran and Sunna, then it was considered acceptable. The fourth important source of legal finding developed the so-called conclusion by analogy: If the believers were confronted with a situation that was unknown to them until then, they looked for similar cases in the Koran or in the Sunna and tried to deduce from them how the Prophet would have behaved in a similar situation.

That applied, for example, to dealing with other religions. Mohammed was familiar with both Christianity and Judaism. He recognized both as revelatory religions, whose followers should receive protection in an Islamic state, but without enjoying the same legal status as Muslims. After the death of Muhammad, the Muslims also met other religious communities on their conquests, such as the Persian Zoroastrians or the Hinduists. Instead of forcing these religions to Islamize, the consensus prevailed that Zoroastrians and Hindus could also continue to practice their religion in an Islamic state.

The divine Koran, the Sunna of the Prophet, the consensus of the believers and the conclusion by analogy are the essential components of Sharia, Islamic law. According to Muslim beliefs, Sharia is divine. From the development outlined here, however, it is already clear that the Sharia is not least a product of human interpretation. The reference points of the legal scholars were always the Koran and Sunna, but their judgments were ultimately based on their understanding and their ability to apply the statements of the sources to the new situation. Even if the sources were divine, they required human interpretation. And this interpretation reflected the circumstances of the respective epoch.

The independent interpretation of the divine sources is called Idschtihad in Arabic. In the first centuries of Islamic history, Islamic legal scholars made ample use of ijtihad. After that, however, the opinion prevailed that too much human reasoning could dilute the divine message. That is why the "gate of ijschtihad" has been considered closed since around the ninth century. Reform-minded Muslims of the modern age consider it advisable to reopen this gate in order to adapt Islam to the needs of the modern age.

During the lifetime of Muhammad, who appeared as a prophet and statesman in one person, the Islamic umma corresponded to a theocracy, so religion and politics belonged closely together. But even if the Islamic community under Mohammed may have been the model for the rulers who followed him, in reality a separation of religion and politics developed in the Islamic state. After the death of the last rightly guided caliph, the Umayyads became the first in a series of secular ruling dynasties in Islam. Certainly the caliph was supposed to base his rule on Sharia law, but when the reasons of state required it, he also acted against classical Islamic law. "The Muslim rulers did indeed use theologians to legitimize their actions when this seemed opportune, but otherwise acted purely for power-political considerations, as elsewhere in the world," said Hamburg scholar Gernot Rotter. So the state took over religion and not the religion of the state.

Dealing with colonialism

For centuries, the relationship between Europe and the Islamic world was shaped by military conflicts. After the Muslim expansion, which also covered large parts of Spain by 732, the Crusades followed from 1099, in which Christian Europe obtained temporary rule over the holy places in Jerusalem by force, which was ended again in 1187 by the legendary Sultan Saladin. In 1683 the Turkish Ottomans made the last attempt to expand their empire northwards and besieged the city of Vienna in vain. Since then, the Islamic world has been on the retreat from the West - technologically, economically, militarily, but also politically.

The first modern European to conquer the Arab world was Napoleon. In 1799 his troops occupied Egypt for a short time and thus became a harbinger of colonialism, under the sign of which England and France brought large parts of the Islamic world under their rule from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the First World War. Colonialism had a lasting influence on the thinking of Muslims, as the German Islamic scholar Rudolph Peters, who teaches in America, writes. "The domination of the Islamic world by the West and the domestic reaction to it have been the main factors that have shaped modern Islam."

Muslim thinkers, but also rulers, realized that the Islamic world needed reform. The openness to the achievements of Western civilization was initially very high, even among the clergy who were later often regarded as backward. An example of the new open-mindedness was the trip to Paris by the Egyptian theologian Rifaa al-Tahtawi (1801–1873), who set out in 1826 to learn the "sciences and arts of that glamorous city". Tahtawi, a graduate of the traditional Azhar University in Cairo, had been chosen by the Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali as the prayer leader and supervisor of a group of around forty students who were to spend the next ten years in France.

With this mission, which was unique until then, Mohammed Ali was pursuing one thing above all else: He wanted to catch up on the knowledge advantage that the West had over the Islamic world and that had enabled Napoleon to penetrate as far as Egypt in 1799. When Rifaa al-Tahtawi returned to Cairo in 1831, he had almost nothing to say about it. In France, according to Tahtawi, justice prevails, not least because the people rule themselves and even create their own laws. "If the Muslims weren't supported by God's omnipotence," Tahtawi wrote in his travelogue, "The superiority of the Franks. A Muslim discovers Europe," "they would be nothing in relation to the power, property, wealth, and brilliant ability of Europeans . "

But this unbiased view of the West was lost to the Muslims in the course of the 19th century. The further European colonialism advanced, the more they began to identify with their beliefs - not primarily for religious reasons, but to create a cultural counterbalance against foreign invaders. The political dominance of the Europeans went hand in hand with intellectual tutelage: the colonial rulers ascribed various negative qualities to the Muslims and denied them the ability to participate in the progress of modernity. According to the stereotypes widespread in Europe, Islam is a religion that educates its followers to be passive and devoted to God, and which also does not allow rational thinking. This negative stereotyping was ideally suited to justify the conquest of foreign territory.

It inevitably cornered Muslim societies. These came under pressure to explain to the Europeans, which continues to this day. In the 19th century, Muslim intellectuals reacted to this challenge in two ways: some, the so-called reformers, insisted that Islam was very compatible with modernity. Democracy, freedom of expression, scientific rationalism, the principle of equality for all people - all these things are anchored in Islam, one just has to reinterpret the Islamic sources in the spirit of the present day.

Other Muslim intellectuals, such as the Egyptian Rashid Rida (1865–1935), on the other hand, insisted on the peculiarities of Islam and defended them against the supposedly higher values ​​of Western civilization.

In general, it can be said that colonialism brought about a politicization of Islam in the 19th century, which, however, did not develop fully until a few years later. The Persian Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838 / 39-1897) developed the concept of pan-Islamism, according to which all Muslims should unite under one roof in order to ward off the onslaught of Europeans. This community does not necessarily have to be political, but a "unity of heart" is sufficient. At the same time, Afghani believed that Muslims could learn a lot from Europe in order to achieve its scientific and social level and thus reduce the political influence of the West in the Islamic world.