Kadhim traces history of rebellion in Islam

Feb. 23, 2012, 2:52 a.m.

Revolution, rebellion and justice in Islam were the central themes of a Wednesday evening lecture by Abbas Kadhim, an expert on Islamic theology. Kadhim is a visiting scholar at Stanford and assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.


Kadhim approached the subject historically, starting with the birth of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula in the early seventh century.


“If we were to look at Islam at the very essence of it, it was a form of rebellion,” Kadhim said. “[The prophet] Muhammad was not so much interested in making people worship God. The main goal was to fight the injustice of the cutthroat society that was established … when Muhammad began to disseminate his message of Islam.”


During the early ages of Islam, particularly during the life of Muhammad, politics and religion were held in one hand.


“Islam is a religion that was built on the idea of rendering authority to God and to those who would represent God in the Muslim society,” Kadhim said. “It represented itself as a state and as a religion.”


He explained how the structure of authority evolved in the Muslim state following the death of Muhammad.


“Muslims were accustomed to the idea that Muhammad was the head of the state and the religion and was divinely designated,” Kadhim said.


This distinction was not accorded his successors, the four caliphs who ruled until the late seventh century and the leaders of Islam’s Imperial period.


Rebellions during this phase are “not looked upon kindly by Islamic history,” according to Kadhim.


“The history of Islam looked at … rebellion [under the first caliph] as 100 percent wrong and very severe,” Kadhim said.


Kadhim went on to explain the move toward legitimization of rebellion in the Islamic tradition throughout the following century, noting the reign and death of the fourth Caliph Ali and the Battle of Karbala as main turning points.


“[Under the caliphs] there was religion and politics in one hand with the idea that there is ijtihad — someone who does his very best to come up with the best answer, but all second best to the Prophet,” he said. “With the death of Ali, [we] started seeing for the first time in Islam a separation of religion and state.”


Kadhim emphasized that separation in this context is not the European understanding of the separation of church and state.


“There was a religious authority that did not meddle in politics and a state authority that did not pretend to know anything about religion,” he said.


This split gave rise to tensions between the religious and the political authority, which escalated during the Imperial period of Islam.


Kadhim deemed the battle of Karbala the defining moment of Islam’s position toward rebellion. The battle, which took place in 680 A.D. between rulers of the Umayyad empire and Hussein, a descendant of Muhammad, resulted in the victory of the former.


“Up to the moment of Karbala, you had a consensus among the intellectuals … that you were not allowed to rebel against the rulers. That was the going jurisprudence up to that point,” Kadhim said. The complications introduced by the fact that the rebels were descendants of the prophet forced a revision, ultimately legitimizing rebellion.


“Hussein is the father of legitimate revolution in Islam,” he noted.


Moving into the modern era, Kadhim stressed that the problems of the legitimacy of rebellion in the Islamic faith remain a central issue.


He drew a distinction between Sunni and Shiite understandings of rebellion. Shiite Muslims, he said, do not grant any one ruler absolute legitimacy, thus allowing for rebellion.


“For Sunni groups, the only qualification for a ruler is to be a Muslim … to defend the land of Islam and to administer the laws,” he said. “The simple solution [for a rebellion against a ruler] is to declare him a non-Muslim and then fight him.”


“The problem is in the methodology of the jurisprudence and the idea of the sacred,” Kadhim said.


He closed his lecture with a call for a renewal of the Islamic theological debate.


“Muslims are the only nation on earth who think that their best days are behind them, that the best generation was the generation of the Prophet,” he said. “Why do we close our mind at the seventh or eighth century? Why are [theologians] more authoritative than us? The moment you say that our best days are behind us … you are in the shackles of that old jurisprudence, and you have to deal with it in a way that doesn’t make much sense in the 21st Century.”


Members of the audience posed questions on the effect of the colonial era on Islamic thought, particular rebellions during the era of the caliphs and the relationship between Islam and democracy.


“The essential difference between Islam and democracy is that democracy gives sovereignty to the people while Islam gives sovereignty to God,” Kadhim said. “Islam is good governance, but good governance is not necessarily democracy.”


The event was co-sponsored by the Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN) and the Islamic Society of Stanford University (ISSU) as part of the 2012 “Islam and Revolutions” Islam Awareness Series.

Marwa Farag is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she was the managing editor of news, managing editor of the former features section, a features desk editor and a news writer.

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