Guillaume Dye

title.none: Crone, God's Rule (Guillaume Dye)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.006 06.01.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Guillaume Dye,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Crone, Patricia. God's Rule: Government and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 462. $40.00 0-231-13290-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.06

Crone, Patricia. God's Rule: Government and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 462. $40.00 0-231-13290-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Guillaume Dye

In this book, Patricia Crone presents a historical study of Medieval Islamic political thought from the rise of Muhammad to the Mongol invasions which put an end to the caliphate in Baghdad in 1258. She wants her book to be both accessible and entertaining to a general readership, and useful and informative for the specialist, be it student or scholar of Islamic history, or of the Ancient and Medieval Western eras. On the whole, there are good reasons to think that she has largely succeeded: God's Rule is an excellent book, which combines erudition, acuteness in analyses, and pedagogical talent. Crone offers here a very useful synthesis of the most recent research (to which she has elsewhere substantially contributed [1]). Of course, one can have some reservations on minor points or dispute some of her claims [2]: the field under examination is huge (six centuries) and diverse (works by Islamic jurists, political advisors, religious scholars, philosophers, or historians, are taken into account). But Crone's achievement is very impressive: the present book will without doubt appear as a first-order reference tool for the years to come. The only real weakness of God's Rule, if it is one, is that it stops at the middle of the thirteenth century. Of course, the book had to stop somewhere, and the date chosen by Crone doesn't lack justification. But to take only two examples, a very significant thinker (not only for the understanding of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism), such as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), sadly falls outside the scope of this book; and the same goes for Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who is probably one of the greatest (if not the greatest) political thinkers of Medieval Islam. It would be perfectly ridiculous to blame Crone for remaining silent about things which were not meant to be included in her work. However, the unbalance in the scholarly literature between the intellectual history of the first centuries of Islam and that of the later ones should be rectified, and it is to be hoped that the path pioneered by Crone will soon be followed by specialists of Late Medieval and Early Modern Islamic thought [3].

One of the main strengths of this work is the way it manages to keep together the texts (its main subject matter, since it is political thought which is examined here) and the social and political facts that constitute their context. When what is at stake is Islamic civilization [4], there is a bad habit (even sometimes among some specialists) to attach too much significance to the texts, and not enough to the social and political practices. This may give the impression that there is a sort of Islamic thought and norms which are independent of the various times, places and cultural traditions where Islam takes place. But claiming that there exists a kind of reifed, ahistorical, Islam, that would hence be immutable, is simply false. As a religion (and in this respect it doesn't differ from other ones), Islam is always the specific ideology of a particular society, or rather the specific ideology of one or several groups of a particular society. And it is a civilization as diverse as other cultural eras: if one should draw one lesson from Crone's book, it would probably be that "religious" (that is, arguments drawn from the various religious sources of authority, such as the Qur'an, the Hadith or the Sunna) and profane arguments can be found, inside Islamic thought, for an almost endless multiplicity of positions.

The book is divided into four parts, each being divided in turn into various chapters. The main text is followed by eleven charts (including a very useful chronology), a substantial bibliography, and an index and glossary (399-462).

The first part ("The Beginnings," 1-47) addresses, as its title indicates, the origins of Islamic civilization. The first chapter ("The Origins of Government," 3-16) paves the way for the whole discussion in the book: it shows how early Muslims tacitly assumed humans to have originated in a politically organized society based on revealed law. The other two chapters discuss, firstly, the first civil war and the development of various sects it gave rise to (17-32), and secondly, the Ummayyads (33-47). This part, on the whole, pertains less to intellectual history than the remaining ones, but it gives the reader the factual background required for understanding the ulterior intellectual developments. Crone judiciously uses a long-drawn-out metaphor (21): one may say that early Muslims saw their community (umma) as a caravan; life was thus a perilous journey in a desert full of traps and dangers, and to survive, one needed to band together under the leadership of a guide, who knew the right paths, namely the right things to do (often called the paths of guidance). So the crucial problem was both political and spiritual: everything turned around the choice (and the criteria of such a choice) of the good man who would lead the community.

The real stake of the book comes in the second part, entitled "The Waning of the Tribal Tradition. C. 700-900" (49-141). Crone shows convincingly how the political tradition of that period was dominated by the tribal traditions of the conquerors, and how it fashioned the political life at this time. Crone uses two concepts, those of "rightly guided government" (imama) and of "communal solidarity" (jama'a), which appear to be often mutually exclusive. Those who prefer rightly guided government (the Kharijites, some Shi'ites) insist on the dangers of tyranny and consider that one may pursue such a goal while running the risk to destroy the community as it is. Those who prefer communal solidarity will be less sanguine on the choice of the imam, trying to find a practical way to keep the community in order (the Sunnis, on this point, are jama'is). This pair of concepts has a real explanatory power. Crone thus addresses in turn the Kharijites (54-64), the Mu'tazilites (65-69), the Shi'ites of the Umayyad Period (70-86), the 'Abbassids and Shi'ism (87-98), the Zaydis (99-109), Imamism (110-124) -- which only acquired its classical form of Twelver Shi'ism in the tenth and the early eleventh centuries -- and the Hadith Party (125-141).

By the tenth century the political context had completely changed. With the rise of the Islam Empire, and with the Abbassid revolution, the main topics of debates altered. In the first two centuries, the key issue in political thought was tyranny and how to avoid it (by reduction of the imam's power or by sanctifying it). By the tenth century, it was clear that, for many reasons, the ruler was an uncontrollable figure: military and political powers were handed to outsiders. Moreover, whereas in the early days the Arabs were the conquerors who set the natural tone, the other native traditions, most notably the Greek and the Persian, acquired a dominant role. This gave rise to a transformation in the field of political thought, which is aptly discussed by Crone in the third part of her book ("Coping with a fragmented world," 143-255).

The Persian tradition, to which Crone devotes one chapter (148-164) had much to say on the subject of moral and political advice (many "mirrors for princes," though not all, have a Persian origin). Concerning political thought, the influence of Greek philosophy is quite difficult to assess. Apart from al-Farabi (c. 872-950), who is the concern of more than a half (170-187) of the chapter dedicated to Greek philosophy (165-196), it is fair to say that Arabic philosophy didn't focus on political matters. However, the political thought of falsafa ("philosophy") contributed to a greater or lesser extent to the works of secretaries and courtiers, in mirrors for princes, and in the work of a theologian such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (c. 1150-1209).

The remaining chapters of this part discuss respectively Ismailism (197-218) and Sunnism (219-255). The chapter on Ismailism focuses on the Fatimid dynasty, and the questions raised by its existence, namely (205): why the imamate and law were still necessary even though the Mahdi was to put an end to both? And why are the Fatimids specially entitled to exercise it?

The long chapter on Sunnism complements the examination of the holders of jama'a set out in the second part. As jama'is, Sunnis believed that compromise was better than conflict (255), and they reacted to power by trying to tame it: if it was necessary for saving the umma, moral principles could be softened, so as to make acceptable the rulership of a sinful ruler (provided, of course, he was not an infidel). Three thinkers are much discussed in this chapter: al-Mawardi (972-1058), al-Juwayni (1028-1085), whose contribution to political thought appears remarkable, and his pupil al-Ghazali (1058-1111).

In the last part of her book ("Government and Society," 257-398), Crone adopts a thematic approach, which gives her discussion a more synthetic tone. Chapter 17 ("The Nature of Government," 259-285) has much to say about the ins and outs of the assumption, already discussed in the first chapter, that humans must live in a society ruled by a God-given law. The following chapter ("The Functions of Government," 286-314) studies the functions medieval Muslims expected from the state. Above all, it is not security (internal order and external defence) which appears as the first and obvious answer (even if it was a desirable goal the state should try to achieve -- but rarely did), but the maintenance of a moral order -- in other words, the revealed law. So the state has, first, the shari' duties (validation of the umma, of public worship, application of the law and its penalties, preservation of the religion, commanding jihad when necessary, levying of taxes, and so on); and second, non-shar'i duties, such as security, constructions of infrastructure, poor help, famine relief, disability pensions, medical services...

Chapter 19 ("Visions of Freedom," 315-331) turns to the topic of freedom. As noted by Crone (315), government was often weak and oppressive: not much could be done, and rulers frequently sacrificed the lives and property of their subjects. But the desire for freedom remained, even if it was not claimed as such. When what is at stake is the coupled oppression/freedom, one may note that scholars, if they speak of political oppression as enslavement, don't call the opposite "freedom." Rather, the choice is between slavery to other human beings and submission to God [5].

The two following chapters examine various aspects of the social order of Muslim societies: among the subjects surveyed in the first one (332-357), there are the justification of socio-political inequality, the statute of slaves, women, and animals; while the second one (358-392) focuses on the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. The book closes with a brief epilogue (393-398) which takes stock of the whole discussion.

In short, this volume will probably render Medieval Islamic political thought intelligible to non-specialists, and be a stimulating source of insights for specialists.


[1] See for example P. Crone and M. Hinds, God's Caliph. Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[2] For example, her examination of the imamate clearly owes a great deal to the disputed thesis of her book co-authored with M. Hinds (see the preceding note), according to which the Shi'ite concept of the imamate is not a deviant development, but rather an archaism preserving the concept of religious authority with which all Muslims began.

[3] Of course, I don't mean that nothing significant has been written on Islamic Medieval political thought before Crone (see, among others, Erwin Rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1958). I don't mean either that the scholarly literature on later periods is nonexistent. On the contrary, there are very valuable studies, such as those of Jocelyne Dakhlia, Le divan des rois. Le politique et le religieux dans l'islam, Paris, Aubier, 1998 (a book focused on the Maghreb in the modern era), and L'empire des passions. L'arbitraire des passions en Islam, Paris, Aubier, 2005 (a good complement to God's Rule's second part).

[4] A brief lexicographical remark may be in order here. English (and French, too) distinguish "Christendom" and "Christianity", whereas there is only one word, namely "Islam," that refers to a civilization and a religion. Yet the contrary is true for the adjectives: "Islamic" and "Muslim" refer respectively to a civilization and a religion, whereas "Christian" remains ambiguous on this point.

[5] Concerning this chapter, one should note the suggestive reflections about the basic ways (called "Judaic" and "Buddhist" by Crone) of relating a universal truth to a particular socio-political order (329-331). With regard to the topic of freethinkers in Medieval Islam, a topic briefly alluded on p. 328, one should add the following bibliographical reference: Dominique Urvoy, Les penseurs libres dans l'Islam classique, Paris, Champs Flammarion, 1996.