Islam and Politics: Crash Course World History 216

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
World History and today we’re going to talk about the Islamic state. A story ripped from
the headlines! Mr. Green? Wait. No, no, no, no this
is not history this is news and also for me it’s not even news – it’s the future.
Yeah, Me from the Past, it turns out that history is a continuous process, and that
even current events have a history. All right, let’s begin with the headlines. In 2014 ISIS – the Islamic State In Iraq
and Syria, also known as ISIL and Islamic State, and many other things. Anyway, they
declared a caliphate in the territory that the group controls, prompting many Americans
to wonder what a Caliphate is. Well, if you’ve seen our episode on the
emergence of Islam, the caliphate is an Islamic state, modeled on the original Islamic community
that was founded by the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.
Now Muhammad was not a caliph, because the word means successor and they were the successors
to Muhammad. But the first four political leaders who led
the community and turned it into an empire have come to be known as the Four Rightly
Guided caliphs. And when groups like ISIS that are trying
to reestablish this kind of government look back on it they see it as being kind of the
golden age. That this was a time of not just of growth
for the Islamic empire but also of political stability and unity. Which as it happens it really wasn’t. Like
even under the Four Rightly Guided caliphs the Islamic world was tremendously diverse
and had huge disagreements. I mean of the Four Rightly Guided caliphs,
three were assassinated. But anyway, the ideal version of that type
of state is what ISIS and some other Islamists mean when they talk about reconstructing a
caliphate although what the boundaries of a modern-day Caliphate might be are far from
clear. I mean are you going to try to include Indonesia,
but anyway, according to historian Michael Cook, “the restoration of the caliphate
is a political ideal for many Islamists – and for some a political project,”
But I want to be clear, that is not the case for the vast majority of Muslims.
So when I use the term Islamism I mean something very specific. For me, Islamism is the idea
that Islam can be the basis of government; it’s not the same as fundamentalism, although
it’s often related to it. And it’s certainly not the same thing as
Islam – which is a diverse and complicated and world wide religious tradition.
Now, Islamism is a potent political force, but it’s a relatively recent one, and in
many ways it developed as a response to our old friend, Western-style nationalism.
That said, the idea that Islam can guide nation states or new kinds of states is much older
than, you know, 2001. But it became much more relevant to Americans then with the terrorist
attacks in New York and Washington. Since then there has been more and more attention
paid to the argument that Islam and Western civilization were at-best incompatible and
at-worst locked in a mortal clash of civilizations. That clash of civilizations idea has become
so ingrained that even though I don’t really agree with it i think we need to at least
acknowledge what we’re talking about when we talk about us and them.
Us, usually refers to European style nation states such as those which became dominant
in the 19th century. These states tend to value democracy or at least pluralism, and,
to varying degrees, they espouse political values such as egalitarianism and individualism.
National identity in these states has at least traditionally been in a sense ethnic – based
on some sense of shared language and culture if not exactly kinship – and it’s secular
rather than religious. And then the arguments goes that the Islamic
world is the opposite of this, but I am not convinced that that’s accurate.
For instance, there are lots of religious connections in European style nation states and
there are lots of conversations about strengthening those religious connections or even making
laws according to religious dictates. And in the Islamic world there are lots and
lots of nation states. But let’s start with the idea that the Islamists
are out of step with the modern political reality of the nation state. Let’s go to
the Thought Bubble. So Islam is a universal religion that is supposed
to transcend ethnic identity. According to the Quran, “The believers indeed are brothers.”
(Q49:10) The universal nature of Islam didn’t mean
that ethnicity didn’t matter at all of course; it did. Early on and for a long time Arab
ethnicity was privileged in the Islamic world and this was especially true during the period
of conquest. This was despite Muhammad saying “Truly the Arab has no superiority over
the non-Arab, nor the non-Arab over the Arab, nor the black over the white, nor the white
over the black, except in piety.” But their amazingly rapid and far reaching
conquest granted the Arabs huge prestige that lasted until the 18th century. Now, from the beginning being a Muslim meant
being part of a political community, because unlike Jesus or the Buddha, Muhammad was also
a political leader in addition being a religious one. But at least to an extent the tight connection
between political and religious identity really ended with the assassination of the Fourth
Rightly Guided Caliph Ali. According to the writer Tamim Ansary, “After Ali’s death,
the khalifate was just an empire.” But as the empire grew and became more diverse, it became
impossible to hold it together as a political unit. So, even though the idea of a caliphate doesn’t
square so well with western notions of ethnically homogenous nation states, ethnicity has always
mattered in the Islamic world, as we can see if we go to Turkey, or Egypt, or Pakistan.
In each of those places, the experience of being a Muslim is affected by the experience
of one’s ethnicity. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So this idea that the
Islamic empire wasn’t always a caliphate for much of its history, was just an empire
is really important. Because it gets to how not-different ways
of organizing people are when it comes to like us and them.
Now I’m not trying to make a false equivalence or say that all people are the same or whatever
But like let’s look at a defining western political value – egalitarianism. In its earliest
incarnations, Islam was unusually egalitarian, especially for its time.
The religion structurally avoids hierarchy except perhaps based on piety. The Quran (49:13)
states: “the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most godfearing of you,” and
there’s a quote from Muhammad that “people are equals like the teeth of a comb.”
To which I say. What’s a comb? Also, Islamic law, unlike, say Hammurabi’s
code, doesn’t make class distinctions among Muslims, only between Muslims and non-Muslims,
and Muhammad is quoted as saying that the blood of believers is always of equal value.
In fact, that Islam lacks caste and formal aristocracy was noted by many Europeans, who
thought it was weird. Now this canonical idea egalitarianism is
not the same thing as equality – at least the equality that we’ve come to think about
in the present day. Like in the Quran, and in the sayings of Muhammad
called Hadiths, Women and men are alike in the performance of prayer and their obligation
to pay the alms tax and their expectations of eternal life in paradise
And women did have some inheritance rights in the early Islamic community that they did
not enjoy in pre-Islamic Arabic communities. And that they also wouldn’t have had in
Byzantium or, god forbid, Rome. And then there’s the inequality between
Muslims and ‘unbelievers’ which is pretty well known; like other “peoples of the book”
Christians and Jews, could live and work in Muslim empires provided they paid a special
tax called the jizya. Which was far better than the life of a Muslim
under Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain. And then there’s the issue of slavery, which
the Quran accepts. In general Muslims have avoided enslaving other Muslims, showing that
there is a sense of brotherhood and solidarity among believers, but overall to quote a historian
“Islamic egalitarianism was … limited to free Muslim males.”
Of course, if you’ve watched our US History series you may remember that early American
egalitarianism was limited to like land-owning Christian males.
My point here, is that if you look for historical precedents, you can generally find them. That’s
true in the Islamic world, it’s also true in the rest of the world. Now today, in Europe and the United States,
most citizens expect their states to be, in at least some degree, democratic, and republican,
and constitutional. So when people in the west look at the early
Islamic empire we have a way of imaging Caliphs as kings because, like, you know, we had kings.
But Caliphs were important in different ways, for starters, they were the successor to the
prophet. Now, maybe that’s similar to what the Roman
Catholic papacy became over time but it’s not like a king – except for the king of England.
King Henry VIII, founder of my church, who was like “I need to be the head of the church
so that I can get divorced.” But this combination of religious and political
authority is important as is, at least initially, there was no hereditary succession of caliphs.
And then there’s the concept of bay’a which is a kind of political allegiance, like
according to Michael Cook, “an agreement is made between the future caliph and the
future subject whereby each party is to have specified rights and duties.”
A closely related theme is shura, “the duty of the caliph to consult with others before
making his decision.” Like, according to tradition, when Abu Bakr
accepted the role of the first Caliph he claimed that Muslims had no duty to obey him if he
disobeyed God and the Prophet. Now that’s not democracy, but it is limited
rule and it gives people some participation in the government.
And then there’s another Western value that is often bandied about as something that isn’t
part of the Islamic world – freedom. Islam, as you may know, means “submission.”
And a Muslim is a person who submits to God. And to some Westerns that seems like the opposite
of freedom. But the tradition within Islam, is that by
releasing people from domination by other people, and making them servants of God – there
is freedom. Freedom is a famously abstract concept, but
if we think of it as the opposite of slavery, then being free from having to serve other
people is freedom. That said, in contemporary Islamism, political freedom
is not generally held in particularly high esteem. Which is one of the reasons why Islamists
were less relevant in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 than people tend to think.
But in at least one way, the caliphate can be thought of as enshrining republican (with
a little “r”) values; Islamism emphasizes the rule of law and that even the caliph is
subject to it. Since ultimate sovereignty belongs only to God, men to quote Michael
Cook, “are not entitled to exercise lordship over each other.”
And the much talked about Shari’a law, coming from a source outside the political process
(whether that’s God or religious scholars) acts as a huge check on rulers becoming dictators.
Right. like Iran’s government has many problems, but its president is not a dictator.
But that same complete sovereignty of God over the people makes it difficult for Islamists
to embrace democracy, because it’s based on the idea that the people themselves are
sovereign. And the most radical Islamists, like Ayman
al Zawahiri of Al-Qaeda really do hate democracy. He called democracy, “a new religion that
deifies the masses.” And the completely extreme and absolutely horrifying Boko Haram
in Nigeria have exclaimed that they, “will never accept any system of government apart
from one stipulated by Islam,” and will, “keep on fighting against democracy, capitalism,
socialism and whatever.” Yes, the “and whatever” is a quote. If
you belong to a group that is fighting blank, blank, blank, and whatever – you need to leave
that group. So it’s easy and relatively common for people
in the West to say that Islam is inimical to political values like freedom, equality
and democracy. And when we talk about certain groups of radical
Islamists, that’s true. But in the West we also really, really struggle
to see the other complexely, and to understand the incredible diversity in response to the
revelation of the Quran. In my opinion, the clash of civilizations model
oversimplifies the world into this group and that group, and imagines that this group sees
the world only that way and that group sees the world only this way. In fact, it’s complicated.
For one thing, modern Islamism itself, is a very recent phenomenon, and in large part
it’s a reaction to western imperialism and nationalism, and it doesn’t always reflect
the ideas of Islam OR Islamic history. Humans have a storied tradition of calling
upon certain facets of our history to inspire us toward what we already kind of want.
And those seeking to recreate the caliphate want a more powerful and unified Arab world,
if not, an Islamic world. And so they look toward history for inspiration,
taking parts and leaving many others. What really happened, is that for the most
part European style nationalism took hold in the Islamic world at the same time it rose
in Europe, as the creation of Turkey shows quite clearly.
But in trying to understand the allure of the caliphate it’s important to understand
that Islam is not just a religion. From the beginning, it was a civilization.
As the historian Tamim Ansary wrote: “Islam might just as validly be considered as one
item in a class whose other items include communism, parliamentary democracy, fascism,
and the like, because Islam is a social project like those others, an idea for how politics
and the economy ought to be managed, a complete system of civil and criminal law.”
But it’s also a very diverse system shaped by everything around it and everything inside
of it – like any civilization. So when we try to discuss a topic as complex
and charged as contemporary Islamic thought and practice and political worldviews, we
don’t just need to be sure that we have some sense of history. We also need to be
sure that we’re all talking about the same thing.
There is nothing bright about the lines between politics and religion and history and nation.
Thank you for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is filmed in the Chad and Stacey Emigholz studio here in Indianapolis. It’s
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