Replacing the Leader - Islam's Struggle with Authority

Shortly before his death, the Prophet Mohammad made a final speech to his people. Reminding them that all Muslims are united by piety, Mohammad instructed them to abide by authority, and asserted that they would never go astray if they followed the two things he left behind. The first of these two things was universally recognized as the single miracle performed by the Prophet: the Holy Qur'an. But disagreement over the identity of Mohammad's second legacy lies at the heart of the struggle for Islamic leadership that has persisted for 1400 years.

During Mohammad's lifetime, the Umma (Muslim community) lived in an ideal Islamic setting where governmental and spiritual questions were referred to the single highest authority, the Prophet. When he died without clearly designating who would assume his dual roles as political and religious leader, his followers were immediately divided. A majority of people believed that the appropriate successor was Abu Bakr (the first person outside Mohammad's family to convert to Islam), interpreting the Prophet's second legacy as the Sunna, a collection of hadiths (sayings) about the Prophet that would enable the Umma to confidently elect their own leader. The people of this majority eventually came to be called "Sunni." A smaller number of people felt that the second legacy was meant to be Mohammad's bloodline, and that his son-in-law, Ali, and Ali’s descendents, were the legitimate successors. These supporters of Ali became known as "Shi’is” (or “Shi’ites” in the west). Also at this time, individuals exploring a personal, esoteric form of the faith began to appear across the spectrum of Islam, collectively referred to as "Sufis."

In the wake of the Prophet's death, the Sunni and Shi'ite factions struggled passionately to fill the void of leadership. Ali initially conceded defeat to Abu Bakr, who became the first "caliph", and promoted religious unity by producing the first transcribed Qur'an, which Ali and his faction acknowledged as genuine. After Bakr's death, two other men elected to the caliphate were assassinated. When Ali became the fourth caliph, any hope for restored harmony was dashed when tensions escalated into civil war and Ali was also murdered. The martyrdom of Ali's son, Husayn, permanently divided Sunnis from Shiites, who withdrew recognition of future caliphs, preferring to look to their own spiritual guide (the Imam) for unofficial political authority. Some years later, the Shiites were divided amongst themselves when the current Imam died without designating an heir. When both possible bloodlines died out, Shiites reunited to a degree (at least philosophically), in their belief that imamate leadership had temporarily passed from this world, and will one day return.

The civil war ended when Ali's adversary, Muawiya, assumed official political leadership and became the next caliph, marking the beginning of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750), a decidedly secular dynasty whose leaders ruled from Damascus until they were overthrown by the theocractic descendents of Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, an uncle of the Prophet Mohammad. The Abassid caliphate ruled (sometimes in name only) from Baghdad for almost 500 years.
Throughout these centuries, Islam spread outward in all directions, encountering (and even creating) new complications regarding the integration of religious and political leadership. Mohammad himself sent missions into Africa and the Near East. On camelback and aboard ships, Muslims carried word of their faith as they extended trade routes into distant lands, such as India. When piracy began to threaten commerce along the Indus Valley, the Islamic world responded. First, Turkish (11th/12th centuries), and then Mughal invaders descended into northwestern India, conquering territories and seizing power. The local Hindu powerhouse – In Muslim terms called the sultanate – became populated with Muslim executive leaders, and their authority was met with surprising indifference. Because the Muslim invaders did not deprive the Hindus of their lands or livelihood, the local populace simply "substituted one group of revenue receivers and military chiefs for another, changing the men at the top of the social pyramid without dislodging the pyramid itself” (Embree, 388).

The political rulers of India inexorably integrated Muslim and Hindu identity. Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan, imbued the founding of his dynasty with a mythic aura. Around 1570, Babur’s grandson, Akbar, highly influenced by the mystical Sufis, married women of every district and faith with the intention of creating a single, syncretistic religion, centered in Fatehpur Sikri. He extended his empire throughout northern India, and his toleration of Hindus encouraged recognition of his authority. Babur’s great-great-grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal, perhaps the greatest icon of Indian identity.

The interaction of Muslim traders within the community, and the power exerted by Muslim leaders from above, illustrates the multiple directions from which Islam permeated the country of India, resulting in large-scale conversions from Hinduism. As Richard M. Eaton delineates in his book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier: 1204-1760, the "Islamization" of India is often attributed to four factors: immigration, forced conversions, people seeking favor from the ruling class, and people in search of social liberation. It is likely that a combination of political and religious influences worked together to establish Islamic roots in the country. Eaton defines the process of Islamization as three distinct (but overlapping) aspects: the inclusion of Muslim divinities; identification, whereby associations are drawn between Hindu and Islamic mythologies; and the eventual displacement of the local cosmology. In this process, the Sufi influence should not be overlooked, as the mystic qualities of their faith, and the charisma of the Sufi Shaykh, attracted many Hindus to the faith, effectively extending the reach of the sultanate from Delhi, and stimulating an increased flow of tax revenue.

The writer Roy P. Mottahedeh observes that "Islam allowed little room for the compartmentalization or separation of life into sacred and secular spheres," which has certainly been evident throughout the entire history of Islam in India, including the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947. Although Church and State ultimately proved to be irreconcilable, each has been profoundly affected by the other. The story of Islam in India provides a microcosmic example of the Muslim people’s overall struggle to define supreme leadership and establish an ideal community. Throughout the world, the faithful continue striving to inherit the second legacy of the Prophet.

Works Cited

Eaton, Richard M. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier: 1204-1760. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Embree, Ainslee T., Ed. Sources of Indian tradition, Vol. 1. Second edition. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. "The Foundations of State and Society." Islam: The Religions and Political Life of a World Community. Ed. Marjorie Kelly. New York: Praeger, 1984.

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