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The Radical Shift In Sunni Thought in Face Of Mongol Invasion – Analysis


The Mongol invasion of the Muslim lands presented not only a physical threat to Muslims; it became an important factor behind the radical change in the jurisprudence of Sunni Islamic thought. Before the invasion of Islamic lands by the Mongol armies, Muslims had already confronted the Crusaders.

But the confrontation between Muslims and Crusaders did not force Muslims to reconsider the understanding of their classic Islamic jurisprudence taught at the traditional institutes. My paper will attempt to shed light on the radical shift in the understanding of Sunni Islamic Jurisprudence after the invasion of Muslim lands by the Mongol Army. The classic Islamic Jurisprudence throughout its history has two schools of thought: the Sunni and Shia denominational thought. My paper will attempt to argue that the Mongol invasion brought about a change in the Sunni jurisprudence. The challenge presented by the Mongols enabled Sunni theologians to reconfigure their political thought.

Born into an educated family in modern day Turkey in 1263, Ibn-e-Taimiyah remains the single most important theologian in the Sunni school of thought. He was forced to leave his hometown, Harran, early in his childhood after the Mongol forces marched into city and destroyed most part of the city. Ibn-e-Taimiyah migrated to Damascus and lived his whole life under the Mumluk regime. Studied at a traditional institute that offered legal education, Ibn-e-Taimiyah became a prominent figure in his early childhood.

Dubbed as an iconoclast, Ibn-e-Taimiyah was critical of the patterns on which Islamic jurisprudence was taught at the traditional institutes. He was the first among the Muslim theologians to have produced a systemic and comprehensive critique of Christianity. He was jailed on a number of occasions owing to his anti-regime pronouncements. He even fought against Mongols in multiple battles and is also known to have rebuked Ghazan Khan over his mistreatment of Muslim prisoners in one of his encounters.

The Mongols had already toppled the Islamic empire of Iran (Khawarezmian Empire) and the Abbasid dynasty by the end of the 13th century. The Khawarezmian Empire was dismantled under the leadership of Chenggis Khan, whereas the forces that sacked the city of Baghdad and eventually brought an end to the Abbasid dynasty were led by Hulagu Khan. Though lost most of its Eastern lands to Mongols, Muslims still had control over vast areas. The Sultanate of Rum in the modern day Turkey was still intact. The Mamluk Sultanate with its capital in Cairo had its territorial compass reaching till Anatolia. The Mamluk Sultanate came into being after the demise of Ayyubid Empire and lasted until defeated at the hands of Ottomans. It is “credited in the Islamic historiography to have defeated the Mongols” and halted their march (Black, 99).

The Mamluk Sultanate was a Sunni Empire with its legal system based on the codified legal codes prepared by Sunni theologians and legalists over the course of past centuries. In contrast, the Fatimid dynasty that lasted for two centuries before the Mamluk Sultanate was a Shia Empire. The legal system put into place in the Mamluk Sultanate was Islamic for its reliance on the classic jurisprudence that remained the core legal texts.

The Islamicity of an Empire was based on the legal system that was put into place. The Mongols had already established Ilkhanid in the region that covers modern day Iran and Central Asia. Mongols were constantly engaged in battles with the Mamluk Sultanate. Though Mongols were defeated in 1260 at the Battle of Ain Jalut, numerous other battles were fought between them in the latter part of the 13th century. Ibn-e-Taimiyah also famously fought in some of the battles” between Mongols and Mamluks.

As the debate among Muslims intensified as whether to fight the Mongols who were also Muslims or not, Ibn-e-Taimiyah in the third Mongol invasion in 1303 gave “his fatwa that it was not only permissible for the Muslims of Mamluk Sultanate to fight against the Mongols”, it was mandatory in the light of Islamic injunctions. Fatwa is a legal opinion offered by a scholar” who has expertise on Islamic law. The fatwa of Ibn-e-Taimiyah redefined the role of fatwa and its implications in the years to come. Not only did his views bring about a radical change in the legal interpretations of Sunni school of thought, it politicized Islam as a force that binds Muslims to politically engage in a battle for the acquisition of certain political goals.

Never before did any theologian in the Islamic history made it compulsory upon Muslims to engage themselves in a political fight as a religious duty. The decision to fight a war was “always taken by the state” and religion was used only as a legal system that could only endorse such a program of action.

Ibn-e-Taimiyah redefined Islam as a political force that needs to spread across the globe in order to establish a political order that will use Islamic rulings as the source of its legal system. The IIkhanid was a Muslim empire that had a Muslim ruler. Ghazan Khan, the ruler of IIkhanid during the time of Ibn-e-Taimiyah, was a Muslim. Ibn-e-Taimiyah argued that the empire remains an infidel even if the ruler himself is a Muslim unless the legal system is rooted in Islamic scriptures. Added to it, Ibn-e-Taimiyah made it compulsory for Muslims to fight against any regime that does not use Islamic laws as the source of judicial decisions.

How different was Ibn-e-Taimiyah’s opinion and legal modus operandi from the former Sunni legal and political thought? In order to better understand the difference, one has to dig deep into history. The historical and the theological evolution of Shias and Sunnis are instrumental in the understanding the significance of Ibn-e-Taimiyah’s fatwa.

The Sunnis are the largest body of Muslims in the Islamic community that constitute more than 80 percent of Islamic membership. The Shias emerged as a distinctive group early in the Islamic history over the disagreement of political leadership. Soon after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the elites of Medina, a city in modern Saudi Arabia, gathered and held a session in order to decide the political heir to the prophet. Majority of the elites agreed that the decision should be made democratically by asking the general masses. In a tribal setting, every clan and tribe has its own chieftain who represents the masses. If a chieftain agrees to a proposal or signs a contract, everyone in the clan or in the tribe also shows her/his consent.

But among the elites, a small yet politically powerful group questioned the democratic procedure to elect the political leader of Muslims. They argued that the political vacuum that is left behind after the demise of the prophet can only by filled by someone who is from the family of prophet. The logic predicated on the presumption that the family of the prophet has the prophetic wisdom and political intuition which are the most important ingredients required in any political leadership. Those elected by the masses will always be at a disadvantage of yielding to the exigencies of political expediency.

The impasse led to the rift in the ranks of elites who gathered soon after the demise of the prophet. The majority elected their leader and obeyed all his decisions. Those who disagreed remained loyal to the state, but did not cooperate in the formation of state structures. As the years passed on, those in opposition to the state who were in favor of leader from the family of the prophet grew in numbers.

A number of clashes occurred between these two camps and ultimately led to their two distinctive identities with their own jurisprudence, theology and political ideology. Those who wedded with the majority opinion and remained loyal to the state called themselves Sunnis and those who sided with the family of the prophet in their claim to the political power and remained opposed to the state called themselves Shias.

Intimately tied to their historical roots, Shias developed a jurisprudence that was highly centralized and esoteric in nature. A certain class of educated scholars in the absence of the family members of the prophet was entrusted with the responsibility to guide the members of the community.

This class of scholars derived its legitimacy to interpret the texts and keep a monopoly on the political leadership from the fact that the family of prophet was no more in this world, but could communicate with these scholars. In the absence of the prophet and his family, the selected number of scholars who were taught in a certain traditional institute could perform the role of conduits. Like the institution of papacy in Catholicism, an institution of Marjia developed in the Shia jurisprudence. This institution was further refined in the writings of Ayotullah Khomeini who brought about the Iranian revolution in 1979.

The Sunnis remained loyal to the state-sanctioned legal pronouncements and independent of any subscription to a scholarly class. Unlike Shias who had delegated their power of interpreting the religious text to the chosen scholars, a Sunni Muslim had before him the state structure which is responsible for either validating or invalidating an action.

Every Sunni Empire had its own network of traditional seminaries where Classic Sunni jurisprudence was taught. Those who would graduate from these institutes would become judges and chief judges in the judiciary. The Judiciary of every Sunni Empire was in the hands of those scholars who graduated from these traditional institutes. The Quran and the Sunnah were the sources of law for the judges. These religious scholars were always at the mercy of the civilian rulers who had the actual political power to stamp their authority. Any judge who would not agree to the decree of a ruler would have been sacked immediately with someone else replacing his position. As a result, the sunni scholars were always under the direct control of their rulers. The sunni masses were under the sway of the state since religious scholars would make it compulsory for the sunnis to remain loyal to the state.

In contrast, the shia scholarly class was in direct contact with the shia masses. A shia Muslim could walk up to a scholar and inquire about any of his private or public-related problem. Since these shia religious scholars had the divine right in the absence of the Prophet and his Family, a shia Muslim was always religiously bound to act upon their rulings.

The writings of Ibn-e-Taimiyah echoed the same pattern of relationship between an ordinary sunni and a religious scholar. Ibn-e-Taimiyah, as mentioned, had his documented differences with the political regime of Mamluk Sultanate. Therefore, he could not become a judge or a chief judge for his views to gain political sanction. His views were merely a set of opinions that had only academic significance unless they would become the state policy. The fatwa of Ibn-e-Taimiyah that mandated Muslims to fight as a religious compulsion, not as a political compulsion redefined the role of a scholar in a sunni polity.

Unlike in the past, after the fatwa of Ibn-e-Taimiyah any sunni scholar could pass a verdict and would mandate sunni Muslims to act accordingly. Sunni scholars for the first time attempted to assert their role as independent agents without the help of the state. As a result, sunni scholars across the sunni world expanded their constituency of followers. These scholars on multiple occasions had differences with the state as a well. Still unlike the shia scholarly class, the sunni scholars did not claim to have the divine right. But the long tradition among the sunni masses to remain loyal to the state was reversed after Ibn-e-Taimiyah.

Ibn-e-Taimiyah acted as a judge (although he did not hold any office) in his writings and gave several fatwas mandating sunnis to act in accordance of its rulings. The fatwa against the Mongols was a personal opinion that asked every Muslim to fight the war as a religious duty, not only as a political duty.

This practice has reverberating consequences upon modern sunni political thought. Unlike the sunni scholars who were always under the control of the state the rulings of Ibn-e-Taimiyah, the sunni scholars gained control over the period of time. As a result, a sunni state or a government even today has become weak. Those who are civilians in a sunni state also follow a religious scholar who might or might not agree with the regime. Any scholar can call for an action against the government as a religious duty which can jeopardize the survival of the state.

Osama bin Laden refused to remain loyal to the state of Saudi Arabia after his disagreement over the presence of US forces near the holy lands. Since Osama bin Laden was allied to Abudul Azaam who was a religious scholar, he argued using his alliance with the religious scholar that the Saudi regime is acting against the injunctions of Islamic Scriptures by offering its soil to the American forces. Using religious language with reference to the student of Ibn-e-Taimiyah in some of his speeches, he gathered a large group of sunni Muslims and founded Al-Qaeda. It is a classic example of state being dubbed as Un-Islamic for having contradicted the injunctions of Islamic scriptures.

Similarly, Abdus Salaam Faraj in his book al-Farīdah ahl-Ghā’ibah called for the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President, for not using Islamic legal codes as the source of law in Egypt. The sunni Islam underwent a drastic change after the Mongol invasion by virtue of Ibn-e-Taimiyah’s polemics. His writings and polemics still remain a reference for most of the Islamists who are waging a war against the states in the Middle East. Sunni Muslim theologians need to come up with comprehensive answer to those who find answers in the writings of Islamists like Abdus Salam Faraj, up till then, the writings of Ibn-e-Taimiyah reign supreme especially in the Middle East.

*Rehan Khan is a Graduate of New York University (Majored in History and Philosophy) and in addition, is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan is a Graduate of New York University (Majored in History and Philosophy) and in addition, is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

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