Islamic Territory?

Along with the growing skepticism about the compatibility of Islam and the nation state, I’m starting to hear mummers about the degree to which we can speak of Islamic territory. Of course, states regularly call themselves Islamic. Morocco, where I study, claims its land as an Islamic territory. As they would not hesitate to admit, those who curl their lips at the idea that of Islamic territories and states do so with a degree of normativity. They put together their arguments from the vast archive that constitutes pre-modern Muslim legal, ethical, and political thought.Tibesti_tributaries

Most scholars agree that the closest analog to territory in that archive is the Muslim jurists’ bifocal vision of the Abode of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the Abode of War (dar al-harb). (Some allowed for the Abode of Truce (dar al-sulh)). Modern jurists, including the mid-20th century Moroccan ‘ulama, insist that this way of carving up the world is proof that Islam is humane in its concern for the government of people, not land. Many of these same scholars link this idea of the government of people to a jurist-centered model of law. Here, an informal network of jurists holds the power to interpret ethics, not the (potentially abusive) state. This is what the American scholar of Islam, Ovamir Anjum, calls a community-centered vision of the law.

The idea of finding an analog to territory in pre-modern Muslim thought is an interesting experiment, one that I engage in here. But if we think that the lack of a direct analogy is proof of Islam’s deficiency or superiority in this regard, we’d be mistaken. The geographer, Stuart Elden, shows that in European thought, territory took a very long time to develop. He sees an important moment in the Treaties of Westphalia of 1648. The treaties, Elden shows, put significant power in the hands of individual kingdoms within the Holy Roman Empire. He writes, “The Westphalia treaties had various clauses that allowed [individual units within the Empire] to have standing armies, raise taxes, make laws and new fortifications, and have an independent negotiation and alliance policy (Elden. The Birth of Territory: 314).”

What is interesting is that the great (though maligned) Muslim political thinker and ambassador, Abu Hassan al-Mawardi (d. 1058) had a similar task when he set out to balance power between the Abbasid Caliph and the Buyid emirates that were already starting to siphon real power from the caliphate. Mawardi wanted to preserve the caliphate, which he thought was a duty of the Muslim community. But he was also a realist. He was only legitimating the status quo when he wrote, “The Caliph delegates the emirate of a country [balad] or province [iqlīm, literally: climate] to the person appointed for this task and accords the right of governance over all its people together with jurisdiction over the customary acts of his office.” Mawardi assigned a set of duties to individual emirates that sound surprisingly similar to those granted to princedoms under Westphalia. Of course, they were not exactly the same. One important difference is that Mawardi placed “application of the law,” rather than creation of the law, in the hands of the princes. Still, one wonders if a global history of territory would find this to be a significant contribution to the development of the concept.

Anjum believes that Mawardi represents a lamentable development, a turn towards leader-centered politics. But it seems clear that he was just reacting to the times. The reshaping of power within different regions was part of that. Of course, one can’t draw a straight line from Mawardian “climates” to modern territory, and certainly not the nation state. That history is far more global. But Mawardi’s gambit does show us that the way power and space were coordinated in the Islamic past changed over time. Mawardi acknowledged the pluralization of the Muslim polity while keeping alive the ideal of the universal caliphate. He used Islamic legal theory to faithfully accommodate that change.

To be sure, most Islamic states and territories today are not without their problems. All kinds of attacks could be mounted against them–by Muslim jurists and defenders of human rights alike. But this pluralization of power is preferable to the darker side of the coin: a singular Islamic state that aims to close off all other interpretive possibilities inside and outside of its borders.

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