Chapter 39: Al-Ghazali
The structures of political authority in Islam are by no means as simple as it seems at first glance. In the legalistic theory of the caliphate expounded by the Sunni jurists the Shari‘ah is quite obviously the source of all authority, including political authority as well. As a body of more or less concrete law, the Shari‘ah itself must be authorized from some source, which is presumably qualified to judge right from wrong.
Theoretically, the Shari‘ah is changeable from time to time, i.e. from prophet to prophet, but the Shari‘ah of a prophet is the best law for the time for which it is laid down. It is claimed that the Islamic law is laid down for all times to come. It is elastic only in the sense that some parts of one of its sources (the Qur’an) are given in such general terms as are capable of different interpretations at different times, and the validity of some parts of another source (Hadith) depends upon historical authenticity. Human beings may not change the laws laid down by the Shari‘ah but they my know them or not know them, interpret them or not interpret them, obey them or disobey them. The pre-requisite for the knowledge of the Shari‘ah is acknowledgement of the established sources of the Shari‘ah, i.e. usul al-din. The pre-requisite for obedience is belief.
The ultimate source is authority is God. It is only the good that God commands and only the evil that He forbids. The principal difference between the Sunni and later Shi‘ite persuasions is the Sunni doctrine that the last and definitive revelation is the Qur’an, and Mohammad is the last human being to be endorsed with revealed knowledge of right and wrong. The successors of Mohammad may only know the Shari‘ah by reference to the Qur’an, to the behaviour of Mohammad, and, wherever these sources are not explicit, to the consensus of Muslims – or indeed by reference to analogical judgment. Thus, the proximate sources of authority are the Qur’an, the Sunnah, Ijma‘ and qiyas.
The immediate source of authority is somewhat more difficult to ascertain. Learning, or ‘ilm, is necessary for the discovery of what the Shari‘ah is, and this qualification is the source of the title ‘ulama’. The Sunni ‘ulma’ are distinguished from others by their acknowledgement of the “canonical” sources of the Shari‘ah. However, since there is no priesthood in Islam, the ‘ulama’ form an undefined and unwieldy body. The business of discovering the law is at times very much like legislation, but the non-officialised body of the ‘ulama’ tend to convert their function to that of a huge, unwieldy board of judicial review.
Obviously such action as might be undertaken by such a group must come after the political fact, and because of the nature of the institution the time-lapse between deed and decision might be generations. It would be wrong to deny the ‘ulama’ any authority at all, for the ‘Abbasid dynasty went to great lengths to secure the support of the ‘ulama’ and to display respect for their judgments. The pattern of political behaviour thus was carried on by subsequent Islamic rulers. Nevertheless, it was characteristic of the Caliphs to claim the more remote authority for their government.
In a sense the Muslim community, because of its intimate connection with the principle of ijma‘, may be reckoned a source of authority. However, since ijma‘ is a source of the Shari‘ah, and since it is a process rather than an institution, it cannot satisfy the requirement of an immediate source of authority. As a source of the Shari‘ah it is theoretically anterior to it, and, thus, a more remote source of authority. In any case, it is still subject to “discovery” and interpretation by the ‘ulama’. As a process, its legislative efficacy is similar to that of custom in Roman and Canon Law, so the time-lapse is necessarily great.
The Muslim community is not only the Islamic Church, but it is also the personal sphere of validity of Islamic government. Membership in the community is the result of belief, and belief is the basis of obedience to the Shari‘ah. The purpose of Islamic government is to see to it that the Shari‘ah is obeyed. In other words, the part the community plays in political affairs is primarily passive, although Islamic government is clearly established for the benefit of the Muslims.
Regardless of the degree and kind of authority attributed to the ‘ulama’ and the community, neither group ever wielded real political power to transform their political function to that of an institution authorizing the day-to-day acts of government. Theoretically, the Muslim system all but disregards the question of power, practically, it is another question. Ibn Khaldun is the most outstanding Islamic theorist of those few who dealt with the problem of power. He asserts that power and authority were joined in the Orthodox Caliphate.1 Ideally, of course, power should reside with the immediate source of authority in the community.
The relation of the caliphate to the Shari‘ah is more difficult to define than that of the ‘ulama’ or the community. During the whole of the Umayyad and the early part of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, the Caliph is much more the exponent of power than of authority. In the last centuries of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate the Caliph could hardly be considered the exponent of power either. Was he then the most immediate representative of authority?
With the exception of the Qur’anic Law, the caliphate and the Shari‘ah developed pari passu. The Sunnah of the Prophet did not become constitutive until treated as such by the successors of the Prophet. Ijma‘ and qiyas are certainly later accretions. This historical fact has tended to complicate the relationship of the Caliph and the Shari‘ah. In the main, the Caliph is the executive of the Shari‘ah, the commander-in-chief of the Muslim army, and the leader in formal religious observances prescribed by the Shari‘ah.
Above all, the Caliph is the head of the religious institution in Islam, only of the formalized part of it. Since religion was an all-inclusive concept, he was also the political institution. The sub-ordination of the Caliph to the Shari‘ah was most clearly expressed as a by-product of early political controversy in the attacks on the piety and personal behaviour of the Umayyad Caliphs.2 That the political behaviour of the caliph must be in accordance with the Shari‘ah, was implicit in ‘Abbasid religious policy. The theoretical implications of this policy were limited only to the function of the Caliph once appointed and as a consequence fail to define the authority for the appointment of a particular Caliph, or the authority for the institution itself.
The circumstantial authority arising out of the contention that the Caliphs were properly executing the function of the Caliphate did not exhaust the ‘Abbasid theory. Their personal claim to the office itself was based both on agnate descent from the Prophet and the action of divine Providence. This theory of constitutive authority was never denied by Sunni theorists, but it was certainly omitted in the heavy casuistical overlay which attempted to camouflage the fact of dynastic succession.
In time the Sunni theory of the constitutional process came to be a composite of the actual circumstances of the historical appointment of various Caliphs. These various circumstances were codified in detail, and with some juridical expansion by al-Mawardi,3 but the Shari‘ah nature of the constitutional process had already been established.
Thus, the Shari‘ah was recognized as authority for the acts of the caliph and for the manner of appointment of a particular Caliph, but there remains the problem of the authority for the institution itself. Al-Baghdadi’s answer that the Caliphate is required because there are certain explicit Shar‘i duties incumbent upon the Caliph merely begs the question.4 We must be satisfied then with the conclusion that the authority of the Caliph is primarily circumstantial, i.e. he has authority for what he does rather than for what he is.
What the Caliph is depends rather upon historical events, and this is not surprising since the institution developed along with the Shari‘ah. History has a legislative character in Sunni Islam, and the Caliphate is the prime example of the legislative efficacy of history. On the other hand, the effect of historical legislation is primarily retrospective. As a result, we are told what the Caliph was and what he should not be. Clearly, Sunni theories of the Caliphate are not slavish descriptions of the obtaining conditions, but in so far as they deviate from the merely descriptive, they also concentrate on the function rather than the institution of the Caliphate.
So long as sufficient measure of power was attached to the Caliphate, this question did not agitate Muslim theorists. We might say the institution of the Caliphate was almost taken for granted. However, when the Caliphs lost control of affairs, circumstantial authority had no longer applied to the Caliphate. Al-Mawardi was very much aware of this problem, but his treatment of it was entirely inadequate. He insists on the legitimacy of the Caliph who is constrained by one of his military sides, even though he expressly states that the “obligatory” character of the Caliphate is derived from the Caliph’s duties as executor of the Shari‘ah.5 Nevertheless, al-Mawardi has not necessarily contradicted himself – he has simply failed to state explicitly the source of Caliphal authority.
It was this omission which permitted theorists of the post-‘Abbasid period to apply the criteria of circumstantial authority to the actual but “unconstitutional” holders of power. The inevitable corollary was the establishment of power as the constitutive authority of the Caliph. Regarding the theory of al-Mawardi, our inference is that he considered the constrained Caliph legitimate because of the validity of the constitutional process by which he was appointed. The resulting situation is pure anomaly, the authority of the Caliph is his “constitutionality,” while the authority of his constrainer is circumstantial (derived from his ruling in accordance with the Shari‘ah), and the sum total is legitimate government.
Al-Ghazālī’s attempt to solve this problem is much more serious than that of the preceding theorists. In many important respects his theory departs from the well-established pattern of Sunni theory. On the other hand, these divergences are carefully couched in terms calculated to maintain the essentials of traditional Sunni theory. While remembering that the classification of authority as functional, constitutional, and institutional is only an analytical construction, which finds no place in Islamic theory, we may find his classification helpful in analyzing al-Ghazālī’s theory.6
In referring to Islamic government al-Ghazālī uses the same term as his predecessors. However, it is almost immediately clear that he has something else in mind, and not the traditional Caliphate of even al-Mawardi. He follows the prejudice in favour of a one-man government, but his implication is clearly that of a multi-lateral rather a unitary government. Most important of all is his association of the Caliph with the Sultan. We shall return to this problem, but it is necessary to realize that he assumes the co-operation of the Caliph and the actual holder of power in his discussion of the obligatory character of the Caliphate.
In keeping with the then traditional treatment of the question of the obligatory character of the Caliphate, al-Ghazālī first directs his argument against those who deny the Caliphate, and then against those who deny its obligations altogether.7 The first argument is a positive one, and concerns the institutional authority for the Caliphate. The second is a negative argument, and sheds light on the nature of the Caliphate and the duties attached thereto. After dealing with these two arguments we shall discuss his treatment of the constitutive process with special reference to the qualifications of the Caliph and the constituent power.
The Mu‘tazilah asserted that the obligatory character of the Caliphate was based on “reason” and not upon the Shari‘ah. The Sunni jurists insisted upon the Shari‘ah as the basis of the Caliphate. Al-Ghazālī follows the accepted Sunni line, but he develops his argument in a more logical fashion, adding new elements. First, he states that the Caliphate does indeed have utility, but he traces the proof of the Shar‘i obligation of appointing an Imam first to ijma‘ and, second and more importantly, to the deduced will of the Prophet. He contends that the will of the Prophet was the source of the consensus of the community. His argument is that the prophet’s purpose was the formal establishment of the religion of Islam. To secure this end both life and livelihood must be protected. The appointment of an imam is, therefore, obligatory. He also indicates that only through the performance of formal religious observances may the bliss of the hereafter be achieved.
We have found the usual Sunni insistence upon the Shar‘i character of the Caliphate inadequate for the definition of the institutional authority of that office. In supporting this view, the Sunni theorists point to no specific provisions of the Shari‘ah. Instead, they reason from the prescribed duties, deducing the executive institution.8 The weakness of their argument is manifest, for as we have seen, the Caliphate existed in fact before any of its duties were defined. By the addition of new elements to this argument, al-Ghazālī goes much further towards a definition of the institutional authority of the Caliphate. The most important innovation is his reference to the consensus of the community, which is no less than the historical practice of the community. Evidently, this is historically legislation.
Technically, the consensus by which the community has authorized the institution of the Caliphate has reference to the consent of the Companions of the Prophet to the establishment of the Orthodox Caliphate. The phrase “consensus of the community” is sufficiently vague to include the consensus of other generations as well. However, the consensus of the community is not actually a legislative process, but merely evidence of the fact that what has been approved by the community is actually provided for in the Shari‘ah. Despite this legal detail, we must conclude that the authority for the institution of the Caliphate is derived from the community of the Muslims.
By the time al-Ghazālī wrote, the consensus of the community had become a source of the Shari‘ah in its own right. The community at large has been endowed by the grace of God with a special character, summed up in the words of the Prophet, “My community will never agree in error.” The important thing to note is the consensus implies unanimity, or very nearly that. The community as a source of authority is then considered collectively. Ijma‘ is, as has been said, primarily a conservative principle, tending to approve and perpetuate existing phenomena. But it is correlatively a dynamic principle, expressing in a way the historical continuity of the Islamic community. The institution of the Caliphate is intimately bound up with the collective unity of the community, as well as with its historical continuity.
Al-Ghazālī’s logical bent of mind will not allow to be satisfied with the mere evidential fact of ijma‘. Clearly, ijma‘ itself contains no logic, while al-Ghazālī’s intention is to frame the requirements of the Shari‘ah in a manner best calculated to convince the protagonists of reason. Therefore, he goes back to the source of the ijma‘ which is, he says, the intention of the Prophet to organize the establishment of Islam.9 Primarily, he is referring to the establishment of external observances of the religion such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage, the execution of the hudud punishments for such transgressions as drinking and adultery, the maintenance of the Shari‘ah Law in such matters as marriage and inheritance, and the administration of Islamic justice by means of the Qadis.
Under these headings come the collection of taxes and the government administration, for these are included either directly or indirectly in the Shar‘i requirements concerning them. The Prophet may have desired to accomplish other, less concrete things as well, but here the main point is his purpose of organizing the administration of the (Sunni) religion. Although it is here presented in slightly different terms, this is the same old argument leading to the functional or circumstantial authority of the Caliphate. Al-Ghazālī’s argument goes on to show that the requirements of the Shari‘ah imply the requirement of an institution of some sort to execute them. That institution, the form of which has been authorized by the consensus of the community, is the Caliphate.
Though al-Ghazālī rejected the argument of the Mu‘tazilah that the obligatory character of the Caliphate is based upon reason, he agrees with them that it does have utility. Utility is a concept with a minimum of religious connotation. We have seen that the Shari‘ah contains very many material provisions, but none of these could be classified by a Muslim as merely utilitarian. Obviously, al-Ghazālī is referring to governmental functions common to all centralized coercive orders, such as the maintenance of order and the security of life and property. This utility can only exist where power is present.
The subject of utilitarian power comes into al-Ghazālī’s argument again when he attempts to prove that the Imamate is necessary for the realization of the Prophet’s goal. It enters when he says that material security is a pre-requisite for the carrying out of the Shari‘ah.10 The concrete character of so many of the Shari‘ah provisions necessitates, in the establishment of the Shari‘ah in the setting of a civic religious institution.
Obviously, this implies the existence of a favourable disposed political power. This is provided by the Sultanate. His conclusion is that the Caliphate (execution of the Shari‘ah because of its relationship with the Sultanate (coercive power) is required as a result of the objective of the Prophet (the establishment and institutionalization of the Shari‘ah). In the progress of this argument the Sultanate is brought in without any explanation of the relationship of the bearer of power to the Caliph; we only know that the function of the Sultanate is an essential element of the authorized Caliphate.
In a later argument al-Ghazālī opposes those who deny the obligatory character of the Caliphate altogether. Here we get into some confusion of terms. The contention of al-Ghazālī’s opponents is that the Caliphate has lapsed because there is no qualified person to serve in that capacity.11 The implication of their statement is that the Caliphate is not, therefore, a rigid requirement of the Shari‘ah. At least this is in some measure the way in which al-Ghazālī chooses to understand their argument. In his own approach al-Ghazālī definitely confuses the terms obligatory (moral) and necessary (natural).
The argument is simple: there ought to be a Caliph, therefore, there must be a Caliph, therefore, there is a Caliph. From this we are probably justified in deducing that the opposing argument runs, there is no Caliph, therefore, there need not be a Caliph, and therefore there is no obligation to appoint a Caliph.
Al-Ghazālī’s final argument on this question is his asking what would become of all those religious, social, economic, and political phenomena which are regulated by the Shari‘ah if there were no Caliph.12 He contends that without the existence of the Caliphate no judgment of a Qadi, no contract, no testament would be valid. In other words, the power of all Qadis and government officials is derived from the Caliph. In theory, Islamic government is perfectly centralized. The authority which any individual Qadi has is completely derived from the Caliph, and not from the task he performs, as is the case of the Caliph’s own authority. It is inconsistent, but there is no circumstantial authority for sub-ordinate officials, their authority is only constitutive (derived from the manner in which they were appointed). Thus, the absence of the Caliphate would turn every normal human relationship into sin, and lead to disorder and strife. He does not say what effect such social disintegration might have on the chances of the individual Muslim for salvation, but from other indications we may conclude that they would be considerably reduced.
We are not much clearer on the nature of the Caliphate in al-Ghazālī’s theory: (a) The Caliphate comprehends the necessary power to accomplish the maintenance of order. (b) It represents or symbolizes the collective unity of the Muslim community and its historical continuity. (c) Deriving its functional and institutional authority from the Shari‘ah in the community as well as the symbol of the divine guidance of the Sunni community by virtue of its obedience to the Shari‘ah. It is not coincidental that these three aspects of the Caliphate correspond to al-Ghazālī’s three sources for the obligatory character of the Caliphate: (a) utility, (b) ijma‘, and (c) the objective of the Prophet.
So much for the Caliphate, what about the Caliph himself? Al-Ghazālī joins the earlier theorists in giving a long list of qualifications required of for the office. Ideally, al-Ghazālī’s qualifications are the same as those of al-Mawardi’s. The Caliph must be without physical as well as mental defects. He must be honourable, courageous, wise, and so on. It must not be thought that these qualifications are mere words. They do not represent abstract qualities, but rather their concrete equivalents. Thus, he must be able to defend the Muslims against their enemies and maintain internal order. He must be able to make judgments in accordance with the Shari‘ah. He must be able to administer the affairs of the State. Finally, he must be of Quraishite descent. Al-Ghazālī adds that he must be an ‘Abbasid.13
These requirements are very great, and it is not surprising that they were, in reality, never completely fulfilled. The only stipulation which had been fulfilled was that the Quraishite lineage, and for 300 and more years before al-Ghazālī, the Quraishite Caliph, had been an ‘Abbasid. This fact, more than anything else, represented the unity and historical continuity of the Sunni community.
The inconsistency in al-Mawardi’s theory stems from the fact that he insisted upon these qualifications in the Caliph, while permitting the Caliph to be inactive. On the Caliph’s inactivity he clearly contradicts his own words. At one point, al-Mawardi insists on the personal activity of the Caliph, while at another he validates his being constrained by one of his military sides. The reasons which might have justified al-Mawardi’s equivocation were no longer effective in al-Ghazālī’s time. We find al-Ghazālī facing the problem of the inactivity of the Caliph, and the related problem of his qualifications.14
To understand al-Ghazālī’s treatment of this problem we must bear in mind his insistence upon the obligatory, even necessary, character of the Imamate. We are not concerned with “an irresistible force” and an “immovable object.” Al-Ghazālī tells us frankly that the necessity of having an Imam is so great that it compels the alteration of the qualifications when there is no other way out.15 The licence of duress had, indeed, been applied previously by al-Mawardi to validate the rule of “Amirs by Conquest,”16 but he does not seem to have been able to bring himself to do the same for the constrainer of the Caliph.
At any rate, al-Mawardi did not permit, even in a case of duress, the lowering of the qualifications of the Imamate. Perhaps al-Mustazhir was obviously unqualified, or it might be that al-Ghazālī was more honest than al-Mawardi; anyway al-Ghazālī is willing to concede many of the qualifications in order to maintain the Caliphate. About the only concrete thing that he insists upon is that the Caliph be of Quraishite lineage. As a result, the personal qualifications of the Caliph are hardly applicable to the nature of the Caliphate. On the other hand, the symbolic character of the Caliph could not be more sharply drawn. In other words, the Caliph himself represents only one of the three major aspects of the Caliphate.
The qualifications of the Caliph are probably the well-developed part of the constitutive process in the hands of Islamic theorists. But they are very vague in their description of the constituent power. Al-Ghazālī says there are three ways in which one of those who is qualified for the Caliphate may be chosen: by designation of the Prophet, by designation of the ruling Caliph or by designation of the holder of actual power. Al-Ghazālī tells us that only the last alternative applies to his time.17 Designation alone is not sufficient for appointment, for there must be the bai‘ah as well. The bai‘ah must be performed by the great man and the people of “loosening and binding” (ahl al-hall w-al-‘aqd).18
It is not easy to ascertain who these people are, but we take the great men to be those with some measure of power; and the people of loosening and binding to be the ‘ulama’; in concrete terms, this means that the most powerful Saljuq leader appoints the Caliph, then the appointee is recognized by the less Saljuqs, local princes, and the chiefs of the bureaucracy, and finally the appointment receives the consent of the ‘ulama’. There is probably a fourth stage in which the appointment is announced in the mosques, and the people accept the decision handed down from above. In view of al-Ghazālī’s statement to the effect we must look upon the holder of power, or the Sultan, as the constituent power. The whole of the constitutive process beyond the bare fact of appointment by the Sultan is a formality.
Al-Ghazālī’s treatment of the constitutive process by no means contravenes the accepted requirements of the Shari‘ah in this matter. It is true that al-Mawardi sets up special qualifications for those who choose the Caliph, as Mawardi sets up special qualifications for those who choose the Caliph, as well as for the Caliph himself. But, generally speaking, the Sunni theorists are sufficiently vague about the question of selectors to allow al-Ghazālī’s theory to meet their standards, particularly since some of them at least insist that their need not be more than one selector.
On the other hand, it is quite possible that he belittles the importance of the bai‘ah of the ‘ulama’ too much. His reason for this is probably that the important question for him was whether or not the Sultan would choose anyone at all. But, of course, the Sultan’s primary concern was that his choice should be acceptable to the ‘uluma’ and the people. Were he not concerned with the attitude of these groups, and perhaps his own salvation, the Sultan might dispense with choosing a Caliph altogether. Having chosen a Caliph, he has gone so far towards preserving law and order and the “establishment of Islam” that al-Ghazālī cannot conceive the repudiation of his choice by the ‘uluma’ or the people.
The constitutive process is, then, loosely speaking, a Shar‘i process, but the constituent power is the Sultan. The limitations upon the Sultan’s choice are real, as is the importance of the general bai‘ih , but since these have much greater reference to the functional and institutional authority of the Caliphate, we shall do no more than make a mental note of them here. Our conclusion is that the constituent authority for the appointment of the Caliph is the Sultan.
There is no contradiction between this conclusion and our previous statement that the source of all authority in Islam is the Shari‘ah, for the Shari‘ah has a tendency to recognize existing power in the constitutive process. Besides, as long as the Caliph had no power to do anything, the most important aspect of Shari‘ah authority, i.e., functional authority, does not become operative. As a result, the constituent authority of the Sultan is the critical political factor. One might argue that the Sultan derives this authority from the Shari‘ah, but that would not be what al-Ghazālī himself has argued.
From the foregoing, we can see that the Caliph is different from the Caliphate, and that the authority for one differs from the authority for the other. We must now examine the relationship of the Caliph to the Caliphate, and of the Sultan to them both.
If the Caliph does not satisfy all the requirements of the Caliphate in him, it is at least clear that he is its principal personal representative. We have already established that the Caliph has a special connection with the authoritative source of ijma‘. On the other hand, we know that he cannot possibly be the personal subject of functional authority, since he has no power. Contrarily, no governmental act, unless performed directly or indirectly by the Caliph, has any validity.
We have already seen the Sultan is, in some measure, the authority for the Caliphate. However, the actual government in the world of Islam is carried out by the Sultan. Circumstantial authority is not considered sufficient to legitimize the government of the Sultan even if it is not a conformity with the Shari‘ah.19 The only way in which the government of the Sultan is valid and authorized is through its recognition of the Caliph. As we have already stated, no government, other than that of the Caliph, is valid under the Shari‘ah, and sub-ordinate officials have only delegated authority, not functional. Thus, the validity of the government of the Sultan is established only upon the Sultan’s oath of allegiance to the Caliph, and the Caliph’s appointment of the Sultan. By his exercise of the constitutive authority, the Sultan recognizes the Islamic Sunni community, and in theory, the functional authority which rests with the Shari‘ah proper.
The fact that al-Ghazālī accepts this compromise sheds some light on the political objectives of Sunni theorists. The total achievement of this arrangement is the recognition by the holder of power that the Shari‘ah is the organizing principle of the Sunni community, and, in more concrete fashion, the establishment of Sunni Islam. The element of compromise enters when al-Ghazālī argues for the legitimacy of this arrangement, even though the Sultan actually ignores many provisions of the Shari‘ah. Recognition of the Shari‘ah by the Sultan with obedience to its provisions is form without content. This leads us to the second objective of the Sunni theorists, that is, the establishment of order and maintenance of discipline.
The governmental scope of the Sultanate included very few of the interests which concern modern governments. By the establishment of order and the maintenance of discipline the Sultanate merely provided a favourable field for the activity of the established Islamic institution. Al-Ghazālī, therefore, felt justified in validating the government of such a Sultan. He was willing to make concessions regarding a limited number of Shari‘ah regulations in order to preserve the religious life of the community.
Just as the Caliphate comprehends the function of the Sultan, so does it also comprehend the religious and legal duties imposed by the Shari‘ah. As we have said, the Caliphate is a religious as well as a political institution of Islam. We have also seen that al-Ghazālī does not insist upon the qualifications which the Caliph must have in order to carry out his religious duties. If necessary, the Caliph may enlist the aid of the most outstanding learned people of the day.20 The principal political function of the ‘ulma’ is the interpretation of the Shair‘ah in terms of the problems facing the community. In short, by their approval of the Sultan’s choices of the Caliph (bai‘ah) and by their fatwas, the ‘ulama’ express the functional authority of the Shari‘ah.
The term caliphate stands for the whole of Islamic government. Although al-Ghazālī seems to follow the traditional prejudices in favour of autocracy, it is obvious that his is a multi-lateral conception of the caliphate. In it there are three main elements: the Caliph, the Sultan ad the ‘ulama’, each corresponding in some aspect of the authority behind Islamic government and each performing a function required by the authority. The greatest virtue of al-Ghazālī’s theory is its political realism, and yet he has maintained the essentials of the traditional theory. Each of the parts of the Caliphate represents not only an aspect of authority and a function of Islamic government, but also one of the major elements of political power in the Sunni community.
Was al-Ghazālī’s theory an accurate description of the government of his time? Such a development of the caliphate was the result of many diverse and fortuitous events. Nevertheless, the roots of this development may be traced back to the calculated policy of the early ‘Abbasids. The early ‘Abbasids based their government upon the power of troops imported from Khurasan, and not upon local Iraqi levies. They asserted their own legitimacy upon the circumstantial fact, that they were ruling in accordance with the Shari‘ah. They went out of their way to honour the ‘ulama’ and give them a place at Court.
Ultimately, the success of the system depended upon the maintenance of delicate balance of power, and upon the continued co-operation of those forces. The fact of the matter was that when the relative power of each element of the government changed it was not supported by the others. Al-Ghazālī argued for the independence of the ’ulama’ and he urged them to resist the blandishments of the Sultan. When the Sultan was powerful he interfered with the succession to the Caliphate in a manner calculated to lower the influence and prestige of that office. When the Sultan grew somewhat weaker, the Caliph was eager to exercise local power himself. Al-Ghazālī’s theory notwithstanding, the existence of the Caliph alongside the Caliphate was an ever-present temptation to re-establish the old order.
The multi-lateral conception of the Caliphate was not opposed to al-Mawardi’s ideal construction. Al-Ghazālī did not reject the traditional Sunni theory. In fact, al-Ghazālī sought only to explain the political conditions of his own time in terms acceptable to traditional Sunni thought. If he ground any axe at all, it was for the Sunni ‘ulama’, who were certainly a most conservative body. Nevertheless, once the Caliphate could be resolved into its component parts, it became possible for the rest of the parts to hobble along without the Caliph himself. In this sense al-Ghazālī paved the way for the post-‘Abbasid development of the Sunni political theory.
The original inspiration for al-Ghazālī’s theory of the Caliphate seems to have come from his interest in Hellenistic thought. We find an interesting statement of the same principle in no less an exponent of the opposing “philosopher-king” theory than Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Al-Tusi says that the second possible variation of the supreme government of the Virtuous City arises when all the qualities required of a philosopher-king do not exist in one man, but are produced in several men collectively.21
More significant than the parallel passage in Akhlaq-i Nasiri is the reflection of al-Ghazālī’s theory in the writings of ibn Taimiyyah. If anything, ibn Taimiyyah was more enamoured of the past than al-Mawardi, but by the time he wrote the ‘Abbasid Caliphate was no more. Ibn Taimiyyah argued that legitimate Islamic government in his days was composed of the Amirs and the ‘uluma’ acting in co-operation with one another. Ibn Taimiyyah’s principle of “co-operation’ leads him to repeat al-Ghazālī’s theory of divided authority in accordance with the qualifications of various persons in opposition to the theory which accorded complete authority to the ruling war-lord.22
The origin and development of this principle present many difficulties, but Laoust tells that ibn Taimiyyah was influenced rather by the Arab Neo-Platonists, such as the Ikhwan al-Safa, than by al-Ghazālī.23 It is unlikely that the idea itself originated with al-Ghazālī who was himself deeply influenced in his youth by the Hellenistic movement in Islam. Nevertheless, his application of it is to the Sunni caliphate was certainly an innovation, and all the more noteworthy for its reappearance two centuries later in the works of ibn Taimiyyah. It need hardly be added that the ‘ulama’ did in fact assume a special position of political authority as well as a part of the “original” Caliphal functions in the ottoman State, and to a lesser extent, perhaps, in the Mughul Empire in India.
Al-Ghazālī, al-Iqtisad fi al-l‘tiqad, Cairo, n.d.; Ihya’ ‘Ulam al-Din; al-Mawardi, al-Akhum al-Sultaniyyah; ‘Abd al-Qahir ibn Tahir al-Baghdadi, Usul al-Din, Istanbul, 1928; al-Baqillani, al-Tamhid, Cairo, 1947; ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Beirut, 1900, Nasir al-Din Tusi, Akhlaq-i Nasiri; Goldziher, Muhammedanische Studien, vol. 2; Streitschrift des Ghazālī gogen die Batinijia-Sekte, Leiden, 1916; Henry Laust, essai sur les doctrines socials et politiques d’Ibn Taimiya, Cairo, 1939.
- 1. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Beirut, 1900, pp. 2-3ff.
- 2. Goldziher has set forth the arguments of the early political factions in Volume 2 of his Mohammedanicsche Studies.
- 3. Al-Mawardi, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah, Cairo, 1909, Chapter 1.
- 4. ‘Abd al-Qahir ibn Tahir al-Baghdadi, Usul al-Din, Istanbul, 1928, p. 272.
- 5. Al-Mawardi, op. cit., p. 16
- 6. Functional authority is that which authorizes each separate act of the Caliph, without regard to the manner of his appointment. Institutional authority is that which provides that there shall be such an institution as the Caliphate. Logically, institutional authority must precede functional authority, though the office and its duties are conceptually joined. Constitutional authority provides for the manner in which a Caliph should be appointed. It will usually be found that the question of legitimacy in Islamic political theory relates to the constitutive process, while functional lapses are regarded as disqualifying and not illegitimating.
- 7. Al-Ghazālī al-Iqtizad fi al-I‘tigad, Cairo, n,d., pp. 104 – 09.
- 8. Al-Baghdadi, loc. cit,; al-Mawardi, op. cit., p. 3; see also al-Baqillani, al-Tamhid, Cairo, 1947, pp. 185 – 86 “Concerning the Purpose for which the Imamate is Established.”
- 9. Al-Ghazālī, op., cit., p. 105.
- 10. Ibid.
- 11. Ibid., p. 107.
- 12. Ibid.
- 13. Al-Ghazālī, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, Vol. 2; al-Haram w-al-Halal, p. 124.
- 14. See Goldziher, Streitechrift des Gazali gegen die Batinijja-Sekte, Leiden, 1916, pp. 80ff., for analysis and pp. 58ff. text for al-Ghazālī’s early, detailed views, referred to in both Iqtisad and the much later Ihya’.
- 15. Iqtisad, p. 107; Ihya’, loc. cit.
- 16. Al-Mawardi, op. cit., Chapter 3, pp. 27 – 28.
- 17. Ihya’, loc.cit.
- 18. Iqtisad, p. 107. The bai‘ah is important, even essential, but not constitutive. Thus, according to al-Ghazālī, it a qualified Quraishite is an actual holder of power, he may be appointed himself as Imam. (This denied by al-Baqillani, al-Tamhid, p.180, and so may not be taken as a generally accepted Sunni theory). Nevertheless, the bai‘’h remains necessary, having only a declarative effect.
- 19. Ihya’, loc. cit.
- 20. Iqtipad, p. 107.
- 21. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Akhlaq-i Nasiri, treatise 3, Chapter 3, p. 309.
- 22. Henri Laoust, Esai sur les doctrines socials at politiques d’Ibn Taimiya, Cairo, 1939, pp., 282, 294, 307, 315, 317.
- 23. Ibid., p. 100, note 1.