Scholars over Kings

“The hadith scholars argued that the Prophet’s legacy was his practice, the sunna, as preserved in the hadith and that the caliphs’ pretensions to be God’s deputies on earth were an irreligious innovation introduced by the godless Ummayyads. Ultimately, the victory went to the scholars.”

As I read these lines from Amira Bennnison’s The Great Caliphs, I was struck by the sudden truth in these words and the fact that this ‘victory’ is still palpable in the 21st century. Then, another thought entered my mind.

Abu Hanifa, Malik, Al Gazali etc, all of these are household names. The names of the companions, Ali, Umar, Abu Bakar, Uthman, all of these are house hold names. But what about Al Mansur? What about the great Al Mamun? What about the heroic lion, Alp Arslan? Or the impressive Abbasid Caliph Harun Al Rashid? These are not household names and do not stir the hearts of the average Muslim. Why?

Every nation adores their kings. If we look at Europe, its history is immortalized in fantastical fiction, in cinema and art and more recently in video games. We love hearing the stories of William the Conquer and the great battle at Hastings, our hearts over flow with epicness when we learn about King Henry and his valor during the 100 years war. The unique European affinity to the story of past kings are so pronounced that even the great Shakespeare immortalized England’s greatest king in Henry V. Even in the modern era, we love our leaders. We are proud of the head of our states and we look on the stories and deeds of past kings with a sort of nostalgia, wishing we could be marching in the great armies or keeping empires at by, wishing we were tactical genius like Themistocles, or chivalrous Emperors like Richard the Lion heart.

But then something strange happens as we go East, as we come across a people who identify themselves as Muslims. Their hearts are infused with an almost unnatural love of the great saints of the past, not of Kings.

In order to understand the reason behind this paradigm, it is enough to look at the spirit of consistency in Islam, the religion of the Muslims, and it is enough to marvel at this consistency as Islam lacks any formal clergy or a unanimous jurisprudence. No single source in the Islamic world defines its doctrine. In Christendom, the Pope hold sway over doctrine (or used to), in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is the Patriarch, in the Protestant Church … well there are too many denominations so I won’t get into that.

It does not stop there. Kings in Christendom were also seen as God chosen and they potentially had the power to change doctrine on a whim. No one would complain of course. The Kings were acquainted with the divine and what they did, they did with God’s authority.

The point is clear. Christendom was authoritarian in doctrine and the masses would turn to these authorities for spiritual guidance. No such system existed (nor exists) in the Muslim world in the present nor in the past. No Pope and no King. Coupled with this is an intense, almost unending love for the Prophet of Islam and his companions and his family which obviously translated to a vicious love for the people who held the knowledge of the Prophet – his sayings, his traditions and his actions. The Islamic world is a product of Religion while the Christian world (although ironic) is a product of the lack thereof. One incident in Islamic history drives this point home.

When the great Abbasid Caliph Al – Mamun came into power, his intellectual leanings drove into the direction of the Mu’tazila school of Islamic theology which at the time was considered near heretic by a vast number of the scholars of the prophetic tradition. Troubled by the fact that the Islamic world lacked any clear or unified code of jurisprudence or theology, Al-Mamun initiated the Mihna (inquisition), a policy of adopting the Mu’tazila school of theology as final and representative of all Islam. He would gather the scholars of hadith and Islamic Jurisprudence and force them to adhere to the beliefs of the Mu’tazila (the belief in question was the creed that the Quran is created, and not the uncreated word of an uncreated God).

Though most (if not all) disagreed with the heresy of Al-Mamun the great Caliph (who was now apparently trying to be a King or a Pope by enforcing a particular doctrine on the Muslims, evoking Henry VI’s split from the Catholic church), few resisted fearing death or imprisonment.

One of those who stood firm to Al-Mamun was the great Imam, Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, an ascetic man with very little interest in political power or even his own safety. It is reported that Al-Mamun brought him before the grand council and asked him about the createdness of the Quran. Imam Ahmed simply replied ‘I don’t know.’

After getting the same answer over and  over again, Al-Mamun lost himself and drove Imam Ahmed to the ground with a fist to the face. This was a Caliph asserting his authority physically over a scholar loved by his people. Eventually, Al-Mamun had Imam Ahmed tortured and lashed until his back was covered with the blood from his broken skin. The Caliph’s antiques would fall short however. He died after taking a drink from a river while on an expedition – a fitting end to a man who hits a scholar.

It is said when Imam Ahmed entered his home city years later, he was limping like a broken man – the effects of the brutal torture would never go away. But he received a hero’s welcome and his mosque would flood with the seekers of knowledge when he sat to deliver it. Imam Ahmed’s opposition to Al-Mamun further stresses the great consistency of the faith of Islam. No macho ruler could suddenly transform himself into the Prophet incarnate or the Muslim Pope. No person of authority had the right to impose his/her views on the masses. Islam is essentially libertarian in this respect, that our Kings are not the most important part of our past and standing firm in the face of their oppression have crafted our hero’s.

We love our scholars over our Kings, and this is a significant point because we love the Prophet (peace be upon him). We love those who learn about him and emulate him and teach us about him. We love his legacy, and if anyone claims it for his own and tries to fiddle and twiddle with it’s great consistency and superiority, we become imbued with holy outrage like Imam Ahmed.

And this is why ‘ultimately, the victory went to the scholars’.


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