Theorizing Modernities article

A Spurned Bride? Religion and Religious Community in the Absence of a Caliph

The populace pays allegiance to the new Abbasid Caliph, al-Ma’mun. ca. 1593. Image Credit: The San Diego Museum.

There are many possible points of departure for a discussion of this important book. In this piece, I would like to focus on al-Juwaynī’s concern for the constitutive features of the Muslim community (most importantly, certain religious knowledge), and for its continued existence, that aspect of his project where the certainty-continuity dialectic is most visible. I am especially interested in the Muslim community as a polity, that is, as a community of belief organized along necessarily political lines. In light of this interest, I ask: To what extent is this political organization dispensable to al-Juwaynī, and how does he compare to other theologians who speculated on the absence of a Caliph?

In his Irshād, al-Juwaynī explores the question of whether it is possible to appoint two Caliphs to rule over the Muslim community (326–27). He notes that previous Ashʿarī authorities (aṣḥābunā) had pronounced against this view, likening the rule of two Caliphs to the marrying off of a single woman by two marriage-guardians to two different grooms without the latters’ perceiving it: an absurdity. Al-Juwaynī concedes the point, while making an exception for the possibility of a multiplicity of Caliphs in disparate lands. This claim attracted much attention in the commentary literature. In his explanation of the text, Abū Bakr b. Maymūn al-Qurṭubī (d. 567/1172) notes that it is unlawful for two Caliphs to govern simultaneously in adjacent territories, just as a woman cannot be married to two men at the same time: given the conflict of wills, corruption (fasād) would inevitably ensue (662–63). In this curiously gendered analogy, the Umma is a bride, and the Caliph is her groom.

But there were others who held, to extend the analogy, that the Umma did not need to marry at all, or that it could contract marriages of convenience whenever the need arose. In Siddiqui’s illuminating account of the Ghiyāth al-umam, which occupies the final two chapters of her book, al-Juwaynī insists on the obligation of the Caliphate, based on revelation (sharʿ) and the precedent of the Companions (243), reiterating the Sunni consensus. In the absence of a suitably qualified candidate, he prioritizes the claim of those who possess “competence to lead independently,” or kifāya (247). In other words, what matters perhaps more than anything else is the ability to wield actual power: an occulted imām is thus no ruler at all. The purpose of the Caliphate is the flourishing of religious life, and the preservation of the latter is dependent on this-worldly concerns that only a Caliph can properly secure. In some sense, then, rule by a single such sovereign (or multiple sovereigns, in the case of disparate lands) is a constitutive feature of religious life.

Al-Juwaynī goes further, exploring what religious life might look like in the absence of any kind of Caliph. In effect, that authority devolves to the ʿulamāʾ, the guarantors of the continued transmission of Islamic knowledge, and therefore of religion. They are the “guardians of the believers (wulāt al-ʿibād)” (258), stand-ins for the Caliph. In a number of premodern Muslim societies deprived of Caliphal oversight (or its functional equivalent), this is how the ʿulamāʾ functioned, as Kathryn A. Miller has observed in her aptly titled monograph on Iberian Muslims under Christian rule, Guardians of Islam. Jurists in non-Muslim administered Aragon served as “critical intermediaries between Christian rulers, officials, laws, and Islamic legal practices” (176). In a society devoid of Muslim sovereignty, they were the leaders of the Muslim community.

In the absence of ʿulamāʾ, lay believers are left to fend for themselves. In place of the ʿulamāʾ, sanctioned interpreters of religion, there are the vestiges of religious knowledge itself or “ingrained legal practices” (al-umūr al-kullī, 263), such as ritual prayer. Once even these are forgotten, the community reverts to a state where it is no longer culpable for its actions (270–72). The “Muslim anarchists” of Patricia Crone did not, in this vein, idealize the absence of government, but they theorized in the absence of its ideal form (9). For some of them, no Caliph at all was preferable to a tyrannical one; for others, such as the idiosyncratic al-Naẓẓām, (d. between 220/835 and 230/845), the institution itself lacked an adequate legal basis. How, I want to ask, does this vision of the Muslim community diverge from al-Juwaynī’s, and what if anything does this teach us about the place of political authority and community in his thought? In the absence of properly constituted authority, some Muʿtazila held, self-help was encouraged: “trustworthy and learned leaders of households, districts, tribes and towns” could enact the canonical punishments (ḥudūd), or imāms could be elected on a temporary basis to enforce them. Al-Aṣamm (d. 200/816 or 201/817) even argued that, in practice, governors appointed by the Prophet had functioned as autonomous rulers, setting a precedent for future divisions of labor (17–18). Thus, as in al-Juwaynī, the community itself serves as the ultimate repository of religious norms, and in the absence of proper leadership, representatives of the community emerge to ensure they are upheld.

Certain fictions, if widely entertained, possess ontology. That the Caliph’s writ could hardly be said to extend beyond his palace walls mattered less than the fact that the institution itself was the source of tremendous symbolic power.

Siddiqui affirms that leadership of the community is one case where al-Juwaynī attempts to reconcile the need for certainty of religious norms with the need to guarantee continuity, before finally conceding that it is conceivable that there are situations where neither obtains. Like his student al-Ghazālī, al-Juwaynī sought to maintain the fig-leaf of the Caliphate to preserve the underlying fictive unity of the Umma. Even in later centuries, when the institution continued in diminished form under the watchful eye of the Mamluks, as Mustafa Banister has recently pointed out, “the symbolic value of the institution . . . [meant that] unrest could be stoked across all social groupings if ever the office or the man holding it was disturbed or perceived to have been insulted” (423). Certain fictions, if widely entertained, possess ontology. That the Caliph’s writ could hardly be said to extend beyond his palace walls mattered less than the fact that the institution itself was the source of tremendous symbolic power.

In her conclusion, Siddiqui contemplates whether al-Juwaynī and his project properly belong to the archives, the prey of antiquarians, or if his voice speaks to us through the mists of time. Stripped of contingent details, she holds, “we can transcend the temporal constraints binding his thought to fifth-/eleventh-century Nishapur, allowing him to contribute to the increasingly prevalent conversations regarding the future of Muslim societies” (289). This book is an antiquarian’s delight, the product of hours of toilsome philological exactitude, but it also poses fundamental questions that continue to resonate today: questions of religious authority, community, and legitimate leadership. I can only commend it to potential readers.

Omar Anchassi
Omar Anchassi is an Early Career Fellow in Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on Islamic law, theology, and Qurʾānic Studies.

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