The Pathos of Politics (7) Islam


Tribal peoples inhabited the Arabian peninsula for millennia without forming a state, even as they lived on the borders of state-level societies, including Egypt, Persia, and Rome/Byzantium. The Arabs were never conquered, owing to the harshness of the desert in which they lived: largely unsuited for agriculture, and so incapable of supporting an invading army. (The inhospitable environment owed to deforestation millennia earlier. The Arabs were the flinty people who stayed put.) As such, Arabs felt no military pressure to consolidate into a centralized state. They operated as merchants and intermediaries between nearby societies.

The situation changed dramatically in the early 7th century with Muhammad. He received his first divine revelation in his 40th year and began preaching to tribes in his native Mecca.

Persecution ensued, so Muhammad and his followers moved to Medina in 622. Asked to mediate among the bickering Medinin tribes, Muhammad ended up drafting a constitution which defined a belief system that transcended tribal loyalties.

The new Muslim polity gained adherents, conquered Mecca, and unified Arabia into a single state-level society.

Arabia was insignificant in world history until that time. It was only through Muhammad’s charismatic authority and his homebrew religion that afforded unity, and thereafter to project power throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Unable to succor surpluses, ascendant Islam had no economic base. The interweaving of religious belief and military organization garnered economic power through conquest of agricultural societies that did produce surpluses.

Arab states were never able to overcome tribal politics. This forced Arab and Turkish dynasties to resort to extraordinary measures to shake loose of tribal ties: through slave armies and foreign administrators.

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The rise of Islam had a political impact on western civilization, but it was physical, not cerebral. Islam as a creed could have no consequence on Christian Europe, nor did its politics impress; but the presence of Islamic states in North Africa and the Near East colored European politics from the 8th century on.

In conquered territories, those who were neither Jew nor Christian were offered the stark choice of converting to Islam or death. As “peoples of the book,” Jews and Christians were tolerated, provided they accepted Islamic political authority, and paid extra taxes in recognition of their inferior status.

Medieval Islamic rulers allowed their non-Muslim subjects considerable community autonomy. Jews were much safer under Islam than in Christian Europe. This cross-cultural tolerance in the Middle Ages was exemplary and would only slowly dawn upon Europeans many centuries later.

Like their Arabic counterparts, Jewish scholars contributed nothing to political discourse. Doomed to live as outcasts under governments under which they had no sway, silence was golden. But Jewish transmissions of medical, mathematical, and technical knowledge in medieval times were immeasurable. Some of those contributions came by way of Islamic scholars, before taqlid sapped Islam of its vitality.


While the founding of the Arab state is a striking illustration of the political potency of religion, virtually every other state has relied upon religion to legitimize itself after the fact. The founding myths of Chinese, Hindu, Greek and Roman states all traced rulers’ ancestry toward divinity; but it was the God fashioned by the Jews that had created the crucible upon which European political ideals were forged.