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A Critical Reaction to Grunebaum - Caliphate

Having observed the decline of the authority of the Caliphate, Grunebaum says that the Muslim state failed to achieve the expectations its members had during the golden age. However, what about the religion of Islam, as intended by the Prophet, demands that it evolve as a nation state, a complete societal umbrella for the whole Muslim community to live under?

The tone of his article indicates that he was not very happy about the failure he describes. But what exactly was the great failure? One argument is that Grunebaum was speaking of the use of religion as a positive, unifying force among all nations. He was discouraged because this use of the religion was abused by the leadership of the period. Perhaps this is the source of his frustration.

He goes to great length in discussing the way in which the Islamic legal framework evolved, explaining that jurisprudence is considered by Muslims to be “knowledge of the practical rules of religion.” Because the lives of individuals throughout the Muslim changed greatly over time, various methods of defining rules came about, such as Quias, Ijma, and Ijtihad.

He outlines all of these evolutions in the religion, with an apparent inclination towards highlighting how these modifications progressively led Islam further away from its original intent. For example, in the context of Mawardi’s efforts to deal with the circumstance of multiple Caliphs, Grunebaum emphasized that Islam had “acquiesced for more than a hundred years in a multiplicity of caliphates.” With this terminology, the author implies the weakness of the religious structure to allow such an evolution. He is certainly not of the perspective that this was a natural progression necessary to cope with the extreme distances separating provincial structures.

The article ignores many important successes of the expansion of Islam throughout the region. After our class discussion, I was of the belief that Grunebaum in fact ignored the reality that the mission of the ‘Muslim project’ was indeed an enormous undertaking. At a closer analysis, this does not appear to be the case but he certainly comes from a different perspective than my background of explicit separation of religious authority from control over the people. The Caliphate and its associated hierarchy were intended to serve as not only the religious, but also the legal, political, economic, and moral authority for what became a vast empire.

The author also mentions the relative lack of actual authority held be the Caliph, relative to the apparent expectations of Mawardi and others many centuries before. Rather than the extensive responsibilities such as protecting the religion, maintaining justice, guarding the borders, levying taxes, regulating public expenditure, etc, the Caliph’s power was much more limited. However, is there anything necessarily wrong with this? Was it not the goal of the Prophet for the Muslim community to live good, honest lives? It appears to me that contemporaries should have acknowledged the success of having so many millions sharing a religion, a basic tenet of beliefs. Frankly, who cares whether or not the leadership still holds all of its ‘power’?

In discussing the growth of the Mazalim court, he mentioned that this innovation “fatally wounds the ideal of uniform administration of divinely ordained justice among the Muslims.” Again, he uses dramatic language in describing the failure, while acknowledging that the initial administration was perhaps unrealistic in using the term ‘ideal.’

Grunebaum uses harsh terminology in his discussion of the outcome of this project. He stated that “The law of God failed because it neglected the factor of change to which Allah had subjected his creatures.” In discussing the rise in the use of legal theory to deal with Muslim society’s changing needs, Grunebaum states that the religion had “unwittingly perhaps, relinquished that grandiose dream of a social body operating perpetually under the immutable law which God had revealed in the fullness of time.” Again, he is discouraged by the ‘failure’ but he does recognize the ‘grandiosity’ of the goal itself.

Toward the end of the article, he discusses the Muslims being misgoverned under a system of theocratic authoritarianism that was ineffective. He goes on to say that “nowhere were the faithful to experience more bitter disappointment; nowhere did they have to acknowledge defeat more openly and with less saving grace.” This all seems so very dramatic to me. By the 11 th century, he writes, the “discrepancy between reality and ideal had become so flagrant it could no longer be overlooked by the body of the believers.” In the end, the “civitas Dei had failed, and the Muslim community had accepted its failure.”

Where in the article does Grunebaum praise the successes of spreading notions of dignity, brotherhood, and holiness throughout the world? This perspective of religion and its necessarily intrinsic relationship with government is so unusual to me and it seems to have caused Grunebaum to overlook the essence of religion and how it impacts the ‘goodness’ of its believers.

Can the people not follow the sharia under a different form? Why can we not appreciate Islam’s successes while recognizing that perhaps the initial aspirations were rendered unmanageable by the many geographical, political, and economic factors challenging the region?

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