Overall trends

I have argued above that the social construction of theological orthodoxy took place at the intersection of three primary societal arenas, comprising the scholars, the ordinary believers and the government. To conclude, I will briefly summarise some broad historical trends that can be observed in these arenas during the millennium between the ninth and the nineteenth centuries.

The history of the 'ulama' is marked by the progressive professionalisation of scholarly activity: while early scholars enjoyed no formal distinction and made their living through trade or industry, most later scholars were career academics who dedicated their time to research, teaching and writing and vied for lucrative positions at well-endowed madrasas. This development permitted the increased sophistication and explosive growth of the Islamic sciences and their literatures, but it also left the scholarly class dependent on society's capacity to produce a sufficient surplus to support its scholars. The consequent vulnerability of scholarship was demonstrated by the decline in scholarly activity and output that accompanied the economic crises experienced by Muslim countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The nature of the umma, the community of believers, underwent constant change due to successive waves of conversion to Islam. In the year 700, most ordinary Muslims were Arabs with strong tribal identities and a shared language and culture, living as tiny, close-knit minorities among non-Muslims. Two centuries later, the majority of Muslims were non-Arabs, representing a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds and thus bringing to the community a range of different preconceptions regarding God and the nature of religion. The geographical spread and cultural diversification of Islam supported the proliferation of localised forms of popular religion, even as the unification of the Islamic realm enabled the diffusion of official orthodoxy to all corners of the Muslim world.

Finally, the role played by the state in the construction of orthodoxy depended on the nature and strength of the government. From 750 until roughly 950 the early Abbasids ruled over an empire that was in medieval terms both powerful and highly centralised. The middle period between 950 and 1450, on the other hand, was characterised by small, often ephemeral states or statelets, frequently ruled by foreigners with slave backgrounds. Consequently, while an Abbasid caliph such as Ma'mun could hope to refashion the definition of orthodoxy by fiat, the later rulers could realistically cherish no such ambitions. The latter were constrained by an acute need to gain and maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the population and thus were compelled to present themselves as guardians of the theological status quo, leaving the definition of orthodoxy in the hands of the 'ulama'. Following the appearance in the fifteenth century of the mighty gunpowder empires ruled by firmly established ruling dynasties, executive power began to gain the upper hand in relation to the scholars. The dynasties claimed the role of defenders of Islam and thus succeeded in intertwining religious orthodoxy with their own legitimacy. With the coming of the modern era and the rise of nationalism as the primary legitimising discourse of the nation-state, the question of religious orthodoxy was eventually pushed out of the centre of the political arena.

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