The rapid rise of Islam marks an unseen unity between the tribes of Arabia in the 7th century. Islam serves as an instrument for mass social cohesion. As a result, all tribal divisions in the Arabian desert are unified under Allah and his charismatic messenger, Muhammad.
This causes a level of mass social cohesion unheard of among tribes in the Arabian desert. For instance, taxes are collected and Islamic jurisprudence begins to slowly form.
The Muslim population that was once divided among tribal and religious lines now have a common Islamic identity. In other words, they live under one unified community (Ummah).
This unity quickly decay’s due to problems with succession, the lack of a central authority in Islam and differing approaches in forming Islamic jurisprudence. After the death of Muhammad in 632, the problem of who will succeed him quickly arises.
Abu Bakr, a father in law of Muhammad, becomes caliph. Many of Muhammad’s companions believe that Ali, a father in law and cousin of Muhammad, is his rightful successor. This schism causes the Shi’i branch of Islam to slowly form.
“Shi’is, or the party of Ali, believe that Muhammad ‘s religious leadership, spiritual authority, and divine guidance were passed on to his descendants, beginning with his son-in-law and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, his daughter, Fatimah, and their sons, Hasan and Husayn.
The defining event of Shiism was the martyrdom of Husayn, his male family members, and many companions at Karbala (Iraq) in 681 by the Umayyads, granting an element of passion and pathos to Shiism” (Oxford Islamic Studies, Shii Islam).
This passage tells us that the Fitna’s (civil wars) of the time are in part due to the lack of a clear and cohesive succession mechanism in determining who will become caliph after Muhammad’s death. This lack of an organized system in determining caliphs leads to deep sectarian divisions that can be mapped on to the present day Sunni-Shia conflict.
The formation of Shi’ism marks the beginning of a major ideological schism in Islam. Notably, when Ali finally becomes Caliphate, a group of Shi’is known as the Khawarij rebel against Ali after his arbitration with his rival, Muawiyah I, over issues of succession.
In 661, A Kharijite assassinates Ali. Again, Ali’s arbitration with Muawiyah along with the rise of radical elements in Islam tells us that the Fitna’s we see after Muhammad’s death are caused by a lack of an organized succession system.
After the Prophet’s death, there is no true central authority to derive the laws of governance and jurisprudence for the Ummah. Only the Quran and Hadith serve as remnants of the prophet’s vision for an Ummah.
Mechanism’s such as the Quran and Hadith are subjective. They can be interpreted a number of ways. With the subjective nature of such texts, common consensus among Muslims on issues of jurisprudence and succession can never be reached.
This leads to a lack of social consensus on issues such as tax collection and law codes, leading to a fragmented Ummah.
Next, lets discuss the role of different schools of Islamic Jurisprudence in dividing the Ummah. There are four different schools of Islamic Jurisprudence: Malaki, Hanafi, Shafi’i and Hanbali.
At first, the formation of Islamic Jurisprudence was a positive step towards forming strong institution’s within the Islamic world, since scholars debated their differing approaches.
Scholars of law forced the caliphate to “give up all claims to legislative power and to resign itself to being the instrument of implementation of the law of scholars, the law of books” (Weiss, Formation of Islamic Law).
Despite civility and independence in legal reasoning, there is still a lack of legal consensus. Varying schools of thought clash on how we should interpret legal rulings.
The most dangerous of the four schools, Hanbali, perfectly symbolizes the lack of consensus in interpreting Islam. The Hanbali school of thought postulates that only the Quran and Hadith can be sources of islamic jurisprudence.
Radical literalist factions such as the Khawarij and Hanbali’s rebel against any independent institutions that don’t relate to a literalist interpretation of Islam. This hinders progress within the Ummah, since these groups use methods such as Takfir, which involves the excommunication of one Muslim as a non-believer by another. This stagnates intellectual and societal developments.
Furthermore, the decline of the Golden Age of Islamic culture under the Abbasid Empire (750 -1258) symbolizes that scholars and artists had no powerful central Islamic authority to challenge.
The potential for an Islamic enlightenment dwindles since scholars cannot directly challenge one central institution like in the European Enlightenment.
In the Islamic Golden Age many mathematical, scientific, artistic and secular achievements arise, but the potential of these achievements is never truly released due to the lack of a central authority to challenge.
In the European Enlightenment, great thinkers challenged the Pope and the Church in bringing about Enlightenment ideas such as reason, useful knowledge and the separation between church and state. There is no central authority, such as the Pope or Church in Islam. There is the Ulama, which are the interpreters of Islamic doctrine and law.
The closest things to a central authority in Islam would be Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Al-Azhar was founded by the Fatimids in 970 and was later converted to Sunnism by Saladin.
The authority of Al-Azhar is weak compared to that Vatican. Again, Internal divisions in Islam make Al-Azhar only useful to one sect, Sunni’s. This diminishes any common census on vital issues in the Ummah.
The great philosophers, artists and scientists of the Islamic Golden Age never truly flourish like those in the European Enlightenment for three reasons.
First, scholars cannot challenge a central authority in Islam, so there is no war of ideas, therefore scholars cannot win and belief’s cannot become common culture like in the European case. Secondly, the subjective nature of texts such as the Hadith and Quran makes it hard for scholars (Ulama) to have a common consensus on vital issues of law and governance. Lastly, political schisms within Islam make it truly impossible to unite the Islamic Ummah under a common framework of scientific progress and a secular law code.