The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought

By Gerhard Bowering | Go to book overview

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oath of allegiance

In classical thought, the oath of allegiance (bay’a or mubāya’a) derives from the oaths taken by the Prophet Muhammad from his followers. The six Qur’anic occurrences of the verb bāya’a (Q. 9:111; Q. 48:10 [in two places]; Q. 48.18; Q. 60:12 [in two places]) are understood to refer to these pledges. The general obligation to honor covenants also applies to oaths of allegiance (Q. 5:1; 16:91).

Bāya’a is the reciprocal form of bā’a, “to buy or sell,” whence “to make a bargain” and “to give the oath of allegiance.” Although alternative etymologies have been proposed, the bay’a probably was understood in these terms in early seventh-century West Arabia. Thus, the oath of allegiance is one of many religiopolitical relationships expressed in commercial language in the Qur’an, as they sometimes are in other Near Eastern religiopolitical traditions.

In the ancient and late antique Near East, oaths of allegiance entailed the recognition of a religious or political leader under the sanction of deities—or, as in this case, a deity—recognized by all parties to the agreement. The cultural form is an ancient one, of which Assyrian vassal oaths (late second millennium to first millennium bce) are an early instance. The biblical berīt (Hebrew, “covenant”), which can denote both God’s relationship with man and the related contract between a leader and his followers, is another important precedent.

After Muhammad’s death, bay‘a quickly became the name for the oath of allegiance to a new caliph and a synecdoche for the accession ritual. Bay‘a also denoted the oath taken to the caliph’s designated successor and oaths taken to other leaders. An early strand of Islamic thought emphasized the bay‘a’s soteriological character: “Whoever dies without a bay‘a upon his neck, dies a pagan death [mītatan jāhiliyyatan]” was attributed to the Prophet. For the Umayyad caliphs (661–750), the oath recognized their claim to represent God’s covenant on Earth; the Abbasids (750–1258) adopted similar rhetoric. Prevalent ideas about the bay’a’s voluntary and reciprocal nature, however, are reflected in eighth-century traditions invalidating oaths sworn under duress and justifying rebellion against an impious ruler.

Sanctions for perjury of Umayyad oaths of allegiance varied but sometimes included loss of property and wives. From the early Abbasid period, these latter two penalties became common, together with a third sanction of expiatory pilgrimages. Such penalties perhaps reflect a traitor’s loss of his rights as a Muslim (that the perjurer becomes an infidel is sometimes made explicit in Abbasid texts). Although classical legal theorists argued that religiously motivated Muslim rebels should not be executed, the caliphs often killed those who broke their oath and sometimes justified this with reference to the Qur’an (Q. 5:33). Capital punishment finds numerous precedents in ancient and late antique religiopolitical practice.

For the Imami Shi’is, who emphasized designation (naṣṣ) of legitimate authority, the oath of allegiance diminished in importance. In contrast, the Sunni theologian Abu Bakr Muhammad b. al-Tayyib al-Baqillani (d. 1013) held that the bay’a was constitutive of the caliphate, expressing the “choice” (ikhtiyār) of the “people of loosing and binding” (ahl al-ḥall wa-l-‘aqd). Accepting the realities of a caliphate long dominated by military commanders, he asserted that the election of a qualified candidate by just one legitimate elector was a contract (‘aqd) binding all Muslims, as was a “testamentary designation” (‘ahd) by the previous incumbent. The contractual form of the oath, which resembled both commercial and marriage contracts, implied reciprocity, and the caliph had a minimum obligation to uphold Islam. Subsequent Sunni consensus on the oath of allegiance resembled Baqillani’s formulation, although theorists debated the minimum number of electors.

The Prophetic bay’a continued, and continues, to be widely invoked in the election or recognition of caliphs and other leaders. In premodern times, practice varied according to circumstance. For example, in some cases written documents were required; other bay’as were entirely oral. In the modern Islamic world the new term yamīn al-walā(lit. “oath of allegiance”) is often used of oaths taken by government representatives or the people to one or more of the nation, the constitution, and the head of state. Some states founded on more traditional principles, such as Kuwait and Morocco, retain some classical features of the bay’a, and the term itself. Some 20th-century theorists have argued that the elective dimension of the classical bay’a is equivalent to the democratic process. For political Islamists, the bay’a often determines membership in the organization.

See also authority; leadership; obedience


Further Reading

Patricia Crone, Medieval Islamic Political Thought, 2004; Ella Landau-Tasseron, “The Religious Foundations of the Bay’a in Premodern Islam,” Research Monographs on the Muslim World, series no. 2, paper no. 4, May 2010; Andrew Marsham, Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: Accession and Succession in the First Muslim Empire, 2009; Roy Mottahedeh, Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society, 2001.

ANDREW MARSHAM

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