Geneology of Political Crises in early Islam

The Crisis of Muslim History: Roots of Political Crisis in Muslim History
Mahmoud M. Ayoub
262 pp

In the course of Indonesian history, the political relationship between Islam and the state has not always been one of harmony.

This relationship has even shown a tendency to antagonism, apart from being one that is fraught with mutual suspicion. One of the reasons for this disharmony is a fundamental difference in an understanding about Islam.

For one group, Islam is the national foundation because it is holistic in nature and also because it is the chosen faith of the majority of Indonesians. This group understands the holistic nature of Islam organically, in the sense that legally and formally, Islam must be present in every aspect of their lives.

Meanwhile, to the other group, it is Pancasila — the five-point national ideology — that must be the foundation of the state, in view of the pluralistic nature of the Indonesian social construct. This group believes that Islam is indeed holistic in nature but, to them, making it the national foundation shows a lack of wisdom in viewing the pluralism of the social, cultural and religious aspects of the Indonesian people. This group tends to interpret the holistic nature of Islam substantially, in the sense that Islam need not be built into a legal and formal system, but still, its substance and essence must be present in every aspect of life.

The root of this debate is the understanding of Islam and politics — or the state. Some people place religion and politics as a single unit while to others, these must be viewed as separate elements. The focus of this debate is whether Prophet Muhammad actually established a foundation for political Islam or whether he only established religious principles without any intention of building an Islamic state.

This debate is an ongoing one, even today, and its import is such that it requires further discussion. Ayoub’s The Crisis of Muslim History gives a fresh interpretation of the political history of Islam during the period of Muhammad and khulafa’ al-rasyidin — the four leaders who followed Muhammad.

According to Ayoub, when the prophet died, he did not leave a a model or an apparatus of political order as a legacy for Muslims. His legacy was only the Koran and Sunna, both of which serve as the main references on how to set up the socio-political order of an Islamic community.

Historians usually view past events, particularly Islamic history, from a peripheral and central perspective.

In Crisis, Ayoub, a professor of Comparative Religious Studies at Temple University in the United States, analyses the history of Muslims from a central stance.

From a peripheral viewpoint, the history of Islam is focused on individuals or small social groups spread across a vast territory and are not well integrated. They spoke different tongues and developed into a mixed legacy of social, cultural and religious traditions. This history of Islam as viewed from “the edge” provides an explanation about non-Arabic Muslims; therefore, “the edge” or peripheral perspective cannot lend geographical significance.

Meanwhile, a central perspective provides a narration of the history of Islam starting with the lives of the Arabs — or Middle Eastern communities — the history of Muhammad and khulafa’ al-rasyidin. The direction of this historical perspective tends to be Arabic-oriented or overly Middle Eastern-oriented; it is obviously politically oriented. History books that analyze Islamic history from this perspective are numerous, including Crisis.

The history of Muslims, which is marked with many changes and ups-and-downs, actually did not start until the demise of Prophet Muhammad. This period was marked with a series of political and religious experiments to build an actual Islamic territory (Dar el-Islam) upon the foundations that the prophet himself had laid. These historical Muslims, who were still unstable and developing, began with the emergence of four khulafa’ al-rasyidin, whose deeds and conduct are the focus of this book.

Crisis offers a fresh interpretation of the most crucial period in the history of Islam. Through an extensive study of primary library sources, both from the Sunni and Shiite sects, the author attempts to unravel and interpret important events, key figures and structural conditions that served as the backdrop for various events that eventually led to a leadership crisis and the schism among Muslims into its two great Islamic schools.

Ayoub highlights two things as important characteristics of the history of Muslims, particularly as regards khulafa’ al-rasyidin: First, an institutional crisis combined with a succession crisis — the transition of power in every leadership of the chalifat, or caliph; and second, a crisis in the process of succession in connection with the syura — an advisory council — the implementation of which was a failure.

Ayoub studies these two political crises in the early period of Islamic administration in light of the stories as told by the Prophet’s friends.

He carefully and intelligently uses and examines sources of early Islamic history to obtain and reveal historical reliable and academically accountable facts.

A close reading of the book will reveal that the author offers an interpretation from the center-out: Ayoub describes in great detail the history of Islam in its infancy, particularly in the post-Prophet Muhammad period. He focuses his discussion on a brief critical review and study of the political, social and religious crises in the period of khulafa’ al-rasyidin, namely Abu Bakar al-Shiddiq, Umar bin Khattah, Ustman and Ali. [Hatim Gazali]



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