In order to understand why Islam has not developed beyond the logic of the clan society, we have to study the society where Islam emerged
By Kenneth Karlsson
Islam emerged in a hard and barren desert landscape characterized by endless strife between tribes, clans and families. The fight between the Hashemite and Umayyad clans took place in the area around Mecca, a fight that the orphan Mohammed was born into in or around the year 570.
According to canonical historical accounts of the life of Mohammed – accounts that have been called into question, but for the sake of simplicity I shall stick to here – Mohammed had his first ‘revelations’ when he was about 40 years old, revelations that slowly came to constitute the core of the religion was eventually called ‘Islam’.
His preaching was first met with scorn and resistance, according to those who adhered to the prophet and his new teachings. Clans that used to protect Mohammed removed their protective hand, which eventually made it dangerous for him to show himself in Mecca. But new protection was offered by other clans in Yathrib, a town where the monotheistic idea – that there is only one god – was also well established, in great part due to the large Jewish population there.
When Mohammed had made his move to Yathrib – later renamed Medina – in AD 622, along with a small band of followers, more or less a gang of outcasts from Mecca, he was able to consolidate his troops and his visions, which in that place hardened into a more aggressive form. Through successful raids of trade caravans and deadly fights with competing tribes, including Jewish ones, Mohammed strengthened his power. At his return to Mecca in (probably) AD 630, he was able to take the town without a fight.
He then established Islam as the dominant religion. The Kaaba shrine was cleansed of idols, and during the last two years of his life, Mohammed spread Islam to the entire Arabian peninsula and further afield. But in AD 632, while in Medina, Mohammed fell ill. The old clan conflicts, which Mohammed had temporarily subdued, came back to life.
The weakness of the clan society is that power can usually only be set right by means of intrigue and violence. This is how the author David Pryce-Jones describes the process in a typical Arab clan:
”No such correction is possible for the Arab rulers, or their rivals, whose miscalculations and selfish mistakes have to be suffered to the bitter end, which usually means getting killed. This inclination to violence has a constant corrupting effect on the rulers and their rivals. … The stakes increase until one either is defeated or, as victor, signs one’s own death sentence.”
The new religion Islam was integrated relatively soon into the expressions and ideas of the clan culture, something that the sinologist, and before that the diplomat, Rutger Palmstierna also demonstrates in his exploratory text ”How the clan society is strengthened”. Another consequence of Islam was that the mentality and the feuds were carried further out into the world, far away from the original geographical and family-related reach, something that even today we experience the consequences of.
In order to better understand how this came about, we have to turn back to the year AD 632.
As Mohammed did not have a son, and had not left an explicit will appointing a possible successor, the way was open for a fight over who would be best suited to carry on the lifework of the prophet.
That fight was won by Abu Bakr, who became what is called the First Caliph. Abu Bakr was the father of Aisha, the child bride of Mohammed, and thus not directly related to the prophet by bloodline. Ali was, in contrast, the nearest male relative due to his being Mohammed’s cousin, and furthermore married to Fatimah, the favorite daughter of Mohammed. Those who considered Ali the natural choice came to call themselves “Shiat Ali” (“Followers of Ali”), later abbreviated to “Shiites”. The Shiites lost the power struggle. Those who took over eventually became known as “Sunnis”.
What then happened, shortly after the death of the prophet, was that the followers of Ali, the Shiites, were persecuted. Their imams were killed, as well as Ali himself. And then came the really big defeat, when Hussain, the son of Ali (and thus the grandson of Mohammed), was killed at the battle of Karbala in AD 680, what today is commemorated around the world in the passion play known as ‘Ashura’, the day where Shiites voluntarily cut their scalps with knives and swords to let the blood flow, hailing the first martyr. This procession is meant to express sorrow, but also ancient hatred, for, as Hazem Sagheih expresses it, “to strengthen the feeling of being distinct from the Sunnis”.
The essay by Kenneth Karlsson about the Islamic contradiction continues in the next issue.