Religious Inquisition as Social Policy: The Persecution of the 'Zanadiqa' in the Early Abbasid Caliphate

By Ibrahim, Mahmood | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Religious Inquisition as Social Policy: The Persecution of the 'Zanadiqa' in the Early Abbasid Caliphate


Ibrahim, Mahmood, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


INTRODUCTION

IT IS COMMONLY SAID THAT ISLAM IS "DIN WA DAWLA" to convey the statement that in Islam theology and politics are inextricably intertwined. (Din is translated as theology in order to avoid the restrictive meaning the term religion conveys in the modern West where religion is clearly always distinct from politics.) According to an accepted interpretation of this connection, Islam provides a set of rules, regulations, ethics, and laws which govern the Umma's social, economic and political processes. The Shari'a (Islamic law) is divided into 'Ibadat (matters related to worship or religion) and Mu'amalat (matters related to transactions or politics). This relationship implies that politics is always influenced by theology. To put it differently, Islam is conceptually the strictly defined context which determines the interplay between politics and theology. At least two indisputable facts in Islamic history shed a different light on the nature of this connection: 1.) Islamic law, theology, and political institutions are not static. They evolved through history as Islamic society developed and acquired needs and addressed issues that were not present or were not considered pressing for earlier generations of Muslims. Not only conflicting views of political power emerged, but also dogmas underwent a definable development when many theological questions were raised without a consensus as to their answers. 2.) Certain political and economic institutions developed outside of the bounds of religion, such as the office of Sultan as a governing military position, and the practice of Iqta' (land-grants) as a politico-economic system. Having emerged to address "secular" needs, religious scholars, Ulama', established religious bases for them. Islamic political theory, as expounded by al-Mawardi, for example, often appears as a justification of a de facto practice.(1) These observations compel us to reexamine the interactive relations between theology and Islamic politics by clarifying the determining factors in, and the social forces behind, their relationship. Such clarification will aid us in our endeavor for a more accurate reading of Islamic history. It will also hopefully provide the conceptual framework within which issues that challenge Muslim societies today can be effectively tackled.

It is within the larger context of the connection between theology and historical development that I approach my study of early Islamic history. For example, Islam's immediate background was greatly influenced by merchants who were socially dominant and by commerce as the main economic activity. Born in a mercantile society, Islam provided solutions to problems that Meccan merchants faced at the turn of the Seventh Century A.D. Thanks to the supportive ideological and institutional structure provided by Islam, merchants prospered economically and politically and commerce expanded throughout the Caliphate.(2)

After nearly a century of Umayyad rule, the Abbasids took over the state as the former were unable to adapt it to the changing realities of Islamic society. The first Abbasid century saw an even greater expansion of commerce. Yet, by the Third Century A.H/9th A.D. merchants lost their political predominance in favor of a revived landed class as the Caliphate began to use Iqta' in a more systematic fashion in the administration of its domain. Henceforward, the society, the office of the Caliph, and many of the institutions and practices acquired different characteristics. New institutions and offices were introduced. This also suggests a new periodization of Islamic history. Two main periods seem to stand out: a commercially based capitalistic period leading to an agrarian based semi-feudal one beginning with the Caliphate of al-Mutawakkil (847 A.D.) who inaugurated the use of administrative iqta' and relied on a land-based bureaucracy.(3)

The transition from one dominant elite to another as a significant feature of this periodization did not proceed without much controversy as the two sides (merchants vs.

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