Islamic Imperialism: Politics, Religion, Minorities and War in the

Muslim World.

paper presented at World 2000 Conference, Austin, TX, Feb 12, 2000.

By Clinton Bennett, Ph.D.

My choice of sub-title indicates some of the issues I intend to cover in this brief overview of Islamic imperialism. Almost every book on Islam makes the point, at an early stage, that Islam recognizes no distinction between religion and politics, indeed between religion and any other aspect of life. In practice, there are secular spheres in Islam but in theory these remain under religious control. The separation of Church and State, or perhaps I ought to say of Mosque and State, so fundamental to the Constitution and history of the United States, is alien - at least in theory - to Islamic thought. In fact, post-Imperial Turkey did separate religion from politics, although this was controversial. Muslims themselves tend to associate the word "imperialism" with Europe and the U.S.A, rather than with the Islamic world. This is perhaps especially true today, when Muslims complain that the West dominates international institutions and systems and tries to impose these on the rest of the world, together with McDonalds and Coca-Cola. Also, much of the Muslim world is still wrestling with post-colonial legacies, after centuries under European powers. The words "imperial" and "empire" assume a large geographical territory with a human ruler, an Emperor at its helm, probably with most of the power invested in his own person. In theory, this is not how Islam has understood its own exercise of government, or of control over the vast areas that have formed part of Dar-al-Islam,the House of Islam.

Islam swept onto the world stage in the 7th century, when Muhammad (570 - 632) started not only to preach his message of submission to the will of God, but also to extend his own political control throughout the Saudi peninsula. His immediate successors, between 632 and 661, continued this expansion, spreading into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa. In 711, Islam entered Spain. Muhammad claimed no title apart from that of "Prophet", and believed himself God's representative on earth. What he left behind, the Qur'an, Islam's scripture, and his own Sunnah (example, acts and words) was a God not a man made code of ethical, legal, religious and social instructions. This later developed into the Shari‘ah, a comprehensive legal system. For Muhammad, sovereignty lay with God, not man. This remains a central, fundamental Muslim conviction. Abul Mawdudi, one of the 20th century's most influential Muslim thinkers, wrote, "In Western democracies, the people are sovereign; in Islam sovereignty vests in God and the people are His Caliphs or representatives. In the former, the people make their own laws … in the latter they have to follow and obey the laws … given by God through His Prophet" (1977 p 44).

The Qur'an describes humankind in Chapter 2, v 30, as God's Khalif. This was also the title used for Muhammad's successors as leaders of the Muslims after his death. Technically, all people are Khalifs but one man can be chosen as a symbolic head. After Muhammad's death, Sunni Muslims believe that the ultimate responsibility to interpret Islam belonged corporately to the whole community, not to any single, privileged individual. That was the Shi‘a position. In other words, consensus (ijma) was required to validate as Islamic any initiative or development. The Khalifs who succeeded Muhammad lacked his special authority as a Prophet, as they lacked his divine inspiration. If what he said had been infallible, what they said was fallible. Yet someone was needed to command the army, to enforce discipline, even to provide a spiritual point of reference. That was the Khalif's job description. His authority, in one sense, was derived directly from God - as the protector of the Shari‘ah, as the guardian of Islamic faith and practice, he was answerable upwards. Yet, in another sense, his authority was delegated from below, for this was actually the corporate responsibility of all Muslims; should he fail in his duty, he forfeited the right to wear the Prophet's mantle.

In practice, as the geographical expanse, wealth, prestige, ambitions of the Khalifate grew, lets call it an Empire for linguistic convenience, the Khalifs arrogated to themselves more and more power, and who could prevent them? The ulama, or religious scholars, didn't like this at all but as they did not control the army, they were powerless to intervene. If son succeeds father, what happens if a godless son succeeds? For the sake of stability and unity, most Muslims turned a blind eye. Regulations, which the Khalifs claimed were needed to ensure the proper application of Shari'ah, began to substitute for many of its ordinances, and the religious jurists found themselves handling only domestic and Mosque-related matters while courts set up by the Khalif handled civil and criminal law. Islam remained the glue that held the huge territory together, at least in theory. The office of the Khalif, too, was always shrouded with religious mystique, which actually increased as real political authority passed into the hands of others. What I want to look at in the rest of this paper is the extent of the Islamic empire, how it spread, what happened to the people whose lands were conquered, how Muslims understood this whole enterprise, what issues were debated. I can not hope to cover all this in any detail. Two books I recommend, both by Muslim scholars, are Rafiq Zakaria's The Struggle Within Islam: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics (1988) and Akbar Ahmed's Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society, also 1988. Ahmed's video series, Living Islam covers all the great Islamic empires, conquests, setbacks and triumphs, and is equally useful. Both scholars represent Islamic history as a struggle between precept and practice, between high ideals and actual experience.

The first four Khalifs, 532 to 661, were all close companions of Muhammad, selected for their piety, competency and statesmanship. Ahmed says that the relationship between the ideal and the actual, under these four, was as close as humanly possible. This period is known as the Patriarchal, or Rightly Guided, Khalifate. Then, from 661 until 749, the Umayyads wore the prophet's mantle. They turned the Khalifate into an hereditary dynasty, always opposed by the ulama, but how else could the Khalif be appointed? Critics of the Umayyads say they turned the Khalifate into a personal possession, becoming Emperors in all but name. Throughout much of this period, although some religious scholars were employed directly by the Khalif, most were supported by independent religious foundations. This arrangement was meant to leave the ulama free to police the temporal leaders exercise of authority, to ensure the centrality of Islamic law. Unfortunately, in the end, the ulama were sidelined. The Umayyads privileged themselves first, then Arabs over all others. The ideal of Islamic equality was severely strained. The beginning of what many Muslims see as a long decline had started. The Muslim writer, Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1406) says that the religious feeling (‘asabiyya) that had knit the early community together was now replaced by blood and kin-loyalties. What emerged ceased to be Khalifate, becoming mulk, a dynastic state instead (see 1958). This is exactly what did happen; when the Umayyads lost control of the Khalifate to the ‘Abbasids in 749, they continued to control Moorish Spain until 1031, still calling themselves Khalifs. So, right from the start of their Khalifate, the ‘Abbasids had a rival claimant, and the theoretically one and indivisible Dar-al-Islam, was divided into two. Later, from 969 until 1171, they faced rival claimants in Egypt, the Shi‘a Fatimids. Nor could they keep effective power over their huge territory as local Sultans began to wield de facto authority. De jure, until the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, the ‘Abbasid Khalif's authority was final but by then he was little more than a religious symbol and the issuer of certificates of legitimacy to local Amirs. The ‘Abbasids fled to Egypt, where they continued to enjoy some recognition, even to legitimate others' authority. In 1517, the last ‘Abbasid is said to have ceded the Khalifate to the Ottoman Sultan, although the Ottomans did not begin to use this title until 1774, when they were negotiating certain religious matters with Russia. I should also mention the Moghul Empire in India, which ruled large tracts of the Sub-Continent from 1483 until 1858.

There is no doubt that the distinction between the World of Islam and the World of War, or of Rebellion, is an early one. Muhammad, after 622, used military means to defeat his enemies. He also entered into peace accords with many tribes. The Qur'an says that if your enemy sues for peace, hostilities must cease (Q 8: 61). The concept of jihad, as a military struggle, endorsed by Muhammad, was regarded as a fundamental duty of Islam, the bringing of territory and of people under divine rule. This is, after all, what God wants. The object is to establish universal peace, even if war is a means to this end. Also at an early stage, rules governing war emerge that forbid the damaging of crops, animals, places of worship, and the harming of civilians. The rules also stipulate that only if an offensive has a good chance of success, establishes peace or rights a wrong, can jihad be attempted. Jihad against a Muslim is never permitted. Otherwise, it is the Khalif's duty not to engage in war (see Doi, 1984, chapter 25). The first flush of confidence and success, together with pride in Islam and a sense of God's blessing, resulted in early and impressive territorial expansion. However, what expanded was Islamic rule; the Qur'an stipulates that the conquered are to be given a choice between converting to Islam, or paying tribute to their new rulers (see Q9: 5). This is not to say that zealous soldiers never forced conversion but as a matter of fact large numbers of the conquered populations remained Christian and Jewish for a considerable period. Under Islamic rule, religious minorities (sometimes actually majorities) were called Dhimmis, protected communities. In return for a poll tax, the Dhimmis could practice their religion, maintain their own legal systems but could not bear arms, or aggressively evangelize Muslims. Debates and dialogues, though, did take place. Jews and Christians also occupied significant positions within the Civil Service. Dhimmis (or millets under the Ottomans) were members of what was called the "protective-security-undertaking" (Watt, 1968 p 50). Meanwhile, in many parts of Africa, and as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia, Islam spread through evangelism without the aid of any Muslim army.

I think that the Islamic Khalifate, to some degree, modeled itself on the Byzantine Empire, with which it shared an uneasy border for centuries, eventually capturing Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantines actually claimed more political and religious authority than the Khalifs did but they clearly provided a model of a state in which religion and politics were inseparably linked. In 732, Islam clashed with Charles Martel on the battlefield of Tours, and its northwards advance into Europe from Spain was curtailed. In 800, Martel's grandson became Holy Roman Emperor. Between 1095 and 1244, Europe's Holy Roman Empire and Dar-al-Islam clashed for possession of Palestine. It is from this period that Muslims as aggressors, as anti-Christian, really entered the European mindset. When Sulayman the Magnificent almost took Vienna in 1529, it seemed to Luther that a devilish retribution was about to overtake Europe. Terror was struck into the cultural heart of Europe, repeated in 1683. For many Europeans, the Turks were barbaric, a threat to European civilization, values, religion. William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, described them as "scarcely human monsters", and holding up the Qur'an in Parliament said, "while there is this book in the world, there will be no peace in the world" (Zakaria, 1991 p 59). In fact, Istanbul was an urbane and cosmopolitan city where Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 found refuge, and prospered. What was really at stake was indignation that so much territory could be controlled by a non-European power, when Europeans had the god-given right to civilize the whole world! There are strong opinions on all sides about what life was like for minorities. In my view, extreme positions represent anti or pro Islamic factions and the reality was probable somewhere between the two, at times better, at times worse although arguably consistently better than if you were a Jew living in Europe, or someone who dared to question accepted Church dogma (Bat Ye'or , 1996 disagrees).

What issues were debated? Rights of non-Muslims was certainly on the agenda, especially when Islam entered India, where Hindus appeared to be idolators, against whom jihad could be justified. Technically, the idolater must convert, die in battle, or accept expulsion. Enforced conversions did occur. Hindu Temples were destroyed to make way for Mosques, although all of this is hugely controversial. Yet Islam tends to be pragmatic. Hindus were in the majority, and despite obvious problems, they were extended dhimmi status. After the loss of power to the British, Muslims in India asked, are we now living in Dar-al-Harb? Should we rebel, or trek back into Dar-al-Islam, which some Muslims advocated. Again, pragmatism won, and a new category of Dar-al-Aman (House of Safety) was coined, territory not controlled by Muslims but where Muslims were free to practice Islam. However, not all Islamic laws could be applied, which raised the question - is there a minimum or a maximum level of Islamic practice that qualifies a state to be considered Dar-al-Aman? The question of democracy and Islam does not really relate to the Imperial period under review. It only arose after the end of European colonial domination over most of the Muslim word. What was debated, though, were issues such as whether a bad ruler could be removed? Who was the real guardian of the Shari‘ah, the Khalif or the ulama? Should ulama work for the Khalif, or maintain their financial independence? Could women rule? was also addressed. As Fatima Mernissi shows in her brilliant The Forgotten Queen's of Islam (1993) some Shi‘a women did. Since Shi‘a rulers must all trace themselves to Muhammad through his daughter, authority is clearly passed through women as well as men! Finally, also discussed in India and in Egypt during the British rule was, is Shari‘ah capable of dynamic, progressive re-interpretation, or must 7th century penalties remain on the statute books? Some of these questions, as well as debate on Islam and democracy, are covered in Voices of Resurgent Islam (1983), edited by John L Esposito, and in my own In Search of Muhammad (1998) which traces the dynamic between religion and politics in Islam from Muhammad until the modern period. Firestone (1999) looks at the origin of jihad in Islam.


Akbar, Ahmed (1988) Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. London, Routledge

Akbar, Ahmed (1993) Living Islam London, BBC

Bennett, Clinton (1998) In Search of MuhammadLondon & New York, Cassell

Doi, I Abdur Rahman (1984) Shari‘ah: The Islamic LawLondon, Ta Ha Publishers

Esposito, John L (ed) (1983) Voices of Resurgent Islam New York & Oxford, O.U.P.

Fiero, Gloria K (1998) The Humanistic Tradition (Book 2 chapter 10) New York, McGraw Hill

Firestone, Reuven (1999) Jihad: The Origins of Holy War in Islam Oxford, O.U.P.

Khaldun, Ibn (1958) The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to Islamic History translated by Frank Rosenthal (3 Vols), New York, Pantheon Books

Mernissi, Fatimah (1993) The Forgotten Queens of Islam Cambridge, Polity Press

Watt, W. M (1968) Islamic Political Thought Edinburgh, E.U.P

Ye'Or, Bat (1996) The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude Cranbury, NJ, Associated University Presses

Zakaria, Rafiq (1988) The Struggle Within Islam: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics London Penguin

Zakaria, Rafiq (1991) Muhammad and the Quran London, Penguin.

The Qur'an: many English renderings available, such as the Everyman edition (translated by J. M Rodwell, revised J. M Dent, 1994. I prefer Yusuf Islam's The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an available from various publishers, for example Amana Publications, 1989 Arabic and English. Muslims believe that the Qur'an is only truly God's word when read in Arabic

For extracts from many of the classical texts, including Ibn Khaldun and others relevant to the topics covered in this paper, see F. E Peters (1994) Reader on Classical Islam Princeton, NJ, P.U.P.


© 2000 Clinton Bennett


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