Book Discussion Series 6

Politics, Law and Community in Islamic Thought

Ovamir Anjum


The presenter began his discussion with an overview of the main groups of scholars, jurists, leaders, and thinkers that played an important role in shaping attitudes and approaches toward politics and law during the early classical period of Islam. The first part of the book goes into much detail about the lineage and impact of these groups on later history, and contextualizes the development of Sunni theology within the particular political conditions of the time. The second part of the book introduces readers to a stream of thought—embodied in the life and work of Ibn Taymiyyah—that notably diverges from the trends and developments of the early classical period. Unlike certain figures before him, it could be said that Ibn Taymiyyah viewed politics not simply as the banality of necessities, but rather “the art of the possible” (p. 241). To better understand this, the book asks readers to reorient their understanding of the political. Rather than a self-interested, self-serving system that often yields to corruption and power for its own sake, readers are asked to consider the Taymiyyan understanding of politics, which is “the highest activity of envisioning and enabling the collective pursuit of the good of the community” (p. 9). In other words, there is a fundamentally moral endeavor at its core. Ibn Taymiyyah’s unique contribution was closing the space between a fitra-based conception of politics, and the explicit justice of the Sharia as codified by the Quran and the Sunna. There is, in his view, no contradiction between the two.

By: Riad Alarian (CIGA Research Associate)

Caliphate Redefined: The Mystical Turn in Ottoman Political Thought

Hüseyin Yılmaz

Huseyin Yilmaz’s book stands out in a field of Ottoman studies which has been dominated by entrenched ideas of leadership and statecraft found in classical works by Erwin Rosenthal, Ann Lambton, and Patricia Crone. According to Yilmaz’s literature survey, these works present a one dimensional view of more complex picture. One of the strongest aspects of Caliphate Redefined is its novel yet clear introduction to the sources of Islamic political thought found in the first chapter. Yilmaz’s focus on the multidimensional sources of Islamic conceptions of authority, especially his reliance on Sufi and philosophical ideas, opens the way to move beyond a juridico-political scheme. In methodology Yilmaz seems to agree with Shahab Ahmed’s recent plea to move away from what he calls ‘shariamindedness’ in the study of Islam. This trend is joined by the work of Cornell Fleischer, Kathryn Babayan, Mercedes Garcia-Arenal, and Azfar Moin. These scholars, alongside Yilmaz, show how rulers after the destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate began to experiment with new modes of legitimation. This included depicting themselves as saintly, mystical, revivalist, millenarian and cosmological. The most informative part of the book is chapters three and four. There, Yilmaz reads a plethora of archival sources and shows in fine-toothed detail how Ottoman scholars were constructing the image of Ottoman rule in mystical terms. Much of the argument relies on how imperial language and symbols borrowed their meaning from Sufi literature of the time. The work of Idris-i Bitlisi (1452-1520), a Kurdish scholar and Ottoman statesman, undergirds much of the theoretical framing for Yilmaz’s argument. Yilmaz’s work brings forward many such authors long ignored in classical writing on political authority. Students and scholars will have to contend with the massive original sources and documentation in Caliphate Redefined before jumping to any serious conclusion. The book is a rich resource for students of Ottoman political thought and Islamic political thought in general.

By: Owais Khan (CIGA Senior Research Associate)