ThE government and orthodoxy

The scholarly discourses generated the content of theological orthodoxy: only the 'ulamaa' were recognised as possessing the competence to make authoritative statements about matters of religion. Attempts by rulers to overrule the consensus of the majority of scholars and to impose a minority theological position by force - such as Ma'muan's infamous Inquisition (mihna) - were generally unsuccessful when confronted by determined opposition from the scholarly establishment. However, executive power played a crucial role in promoting and enforcing favoured theological ideas, and in suppressing rival doctrines.

A crucial vehicle for this influence was the government's right to appoint judges and other public officials who could wield considerable power. Beyond the basic requirement that appointees be recognised scholars and meet the minimum qualifications for office, rulers could select officials based on their school and doctrinal affiliations, and personal beliefs and characteristics, as well as social connections. For instance, the ninth-century governor of Egypt, Ahmad ibn Tualuan, chose to appoint a Shafi'i scholar - a representative of a minority school - as the first teacher in the central mosque of his newly built capital city, even granting him the unprecedented support of an annual stipend.

As the Shafi'is were linked neither with the central Abbasid government nor with the indigenous Egyptian aristocracy, this appointment served to bolster Ibn TUlUn's drive for greater independence from the Abbasid empire.

Similar considerations applied in the appointment of teachers for madrasas that were sponsored by state officials in a nominally private capacity. The eleventh-century Abbasid vizier Nizam al-Mulk founded the prestigious network of Nizamiyya madrasas at a time when Ash'arite theology was struggling to establish itself. In a successful effort to support the spread of Ash'arism, he staffed the new institutions only with scholars who were favourably inclined towards its doctrines. In general, any waqf benefactor was entitled to select the personnel for the new institution. Thus, the setting up of awqaf for the purpose of founding and financing madrasas and, to a lesser extent, Sufi lodges permitted government officials to exercise significant but indirect influence on the composition and fortunes of the scholarly class.

Going beyond the fulfilment of individual judiciary and teaching appointments, the Ottoman government exerted an unprecedented degree of control over the scholarly establishment via the creation of the centralised madrasa network described earlier and via the position of the seyhülislam (from the Arabic shaykh al-islam). The seyhülislam was the highest religious authority in the empire; he was appointed by the government and his edicts were backed up by state power. Like the government-controlled madrasa system, this post was an Ottoman invention. The seyhülislam was a mufti, that is, he could respond authoritatively to legal questions, whether asked by the ordinary man or woman on the street or by the sultan, by issuing a fatwa, a legal opinion. These questions were collected from around the empire, rephrased, and brought to the seyhülislam by an army of assistants, who also collated his replies for later reference. What in the early centuries of Islam had been an informal phenomenon, consisting simply of a questioner submitting a legal dilemma to someone whom he considered knowledgeable, had under the influence of the centralising Ottoman state become a formal state institution.

On occasion, the state employed violence in the enforcement of acceptable limits on heterodoxy. The state held the sole authority to carry out executions of heretics, though the sentence itself had to be handed down by a qualified judge. The ruler could ban the public airing of certain ideas, and - through the government-appointed judiciary -persecute those who violated the ban. A dramatic illustration of such state action is the Abbasids' ninth-century mihna, which sought to impose by force the minority theological doctrine of the createdness of the Qur'an throughout the judicial system. In Egypt, for example, the Abbasid-appointed chief judge of Egypt banned scholars of the Maliki and Shafi'i schools who refused to endorse the doctrine from teaching in the central mosque. The judge had the text of the doctrine inscribed over the entrance of the mosque and sentenced those who dared show their disagreement to public whipping and humiliation.

The mihna eventually foundered due to sustained resistance by the majority of the 'ulama'. However, the much more radical project of the sixteenth-century ruler of the Safavid empire, Shah Isma'll, to force the overwhelmingly Sunni population of Iran to embrace Shi'ism was successful. This was in part due to the determination and military strength of Shah Isma'al, who imported a contingent of prominent Twelver scholars from Lebanon, equipped his army with firearms, and declared adherence to Sunnism within his realm a capital offence. A second crucial factor in this momentous development lay in the lack of effective opposition from the Sunna 'ulama', whose numbers and vigour had not recovered from the severe social dislocation and depopulation that followed the Mongol invasion of the region in the thirteenth century.

The motive for the state's intervention in the arena of theological scholarship was often the need to defuse perceived political threats. This need was underpinned by the frequent intertwining of state legitimacy with religious authority: the state bolstered its domestic sovereignty by portraying itself as the guardian of orthodoxy. As a result, political opposition to the ruling regime easily acquired an air of heresy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, political rebellions often appeared in alliance with heterodox movements. An example is the revolt led by the tribal chief Muhammad ibn Sa'uad and the religious scholar Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab against the Ottomans in the Arabian region of Najd in the eighteenth century. Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhaab contested the status of the Ottomans as defenders of Sunna Islam, claiming that the Ottomans' principle of religious tolerance had allowed heresy to flourish in the empire. This theological challenge was harnessed by Ibn Sa'uad to legitimise his plans of territorial expansion, and it infused his fighters with the iconoclastic zeal that led to the wholesale destruction of Sufi shrines, the bloody sacking of the Sha'ite town of Karbala' in 1801, and the occupation of Mecca from 1803 to 1812.14 The Ottomans succeeded in countering the politico-religious threat posed by Ibn Sa'uad and Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's movement. Only after the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War could Ibn Sa'uad's descendants, still armed with Wahhaabai ideology, make a successful bid for power on the peninsula, leading to the eventual establishment of modern Saudi Arabia.

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