Theoretically, in the generation after Mohammed, Islam was a democratic republic in the ancient sense: all free adult males were to share in choosing the ruler and determining policy. Actually the Commander of the Faithful was chosen, and policy was decided, by a small group of notables in Medina. This was to be expected; men being by nature unequal in intelligence and scruple, democracy must at best be relative; and in communities with poor communication and limited schooling some form of oligarchy is inevitable. Since war and democracy are enemies, the expansion of Islam promoted one-man rule; unity of command and quickness of decision were required by a martial and imperialist policy. Under the Umayyads the government became frankly monarchical, and the caliphate was transmitted by succession or trial of arms.

Again theoretically, the caliphate was a religious rather than a political office; the caliph was first of all the head of a religious group, Islam; and his primary duty was to defend the faith; in theory the caliphate was a theocracy, a government by God through religion. The caliph, however, was not a pope or a priest, nor could he issuè new decrees of the faith. In practice he enjoyed nearly absolute power, limited by no parliament, no hereditary aristocracy, no priesthood, but only by the Koran—which his paid pundits could interpret at his will. Under this despotism there was some democracy of opportunity: any man might rise to high office unless both his parents were slaves.

The Arabs, recognizing that they had conquered decadent but well-organized societies, took over in Syria the Byzantine, in Persia the Sasanian, administrative system; essentially the old order of life in the Near East continued, and even the Hellenic-Oriental culture, overleaping the barrier of language, revived in Moslem science and philosophy. Under the Abbasids a complex system of central, provincial, and local government took form, operated by a bureaucracy that suffered little interruption from royal assassinations and palace revolutions. At the head of the administrative structure was the hajib or chamberlain, who in theory merely managed ceremony, but in practice accumulated power by controlling entry to the caliph. Next in rank, but (after Mansur) superior in power, was the vizier, who appointed and supervised the officials of the government, and guided the policy of the state. The leading bureaus were those of taxation, accounts, correspondence, police, post, and a department of grievances, which became a court of appeal from judicial or administrative decisions. Next to the army in the caliph’s affections was the bureau of revenue; here all the pervasive pertinacity of the Byzantine tax collectors was emulated, and great sums were sluiced from the nation’s economy to maintain the government and the governors. The annual revenue of the caliphate under Harun al-Rashid exceeded 530,000,000 dirhems ($42,400,000) in money, to which were added now incalculable taxes in kind.72 There was no national debt; on the contrary, the treasury in 786 had a balance of 900,000,000 dirhems.

The public post, as under the Persians and Romans, served only the government and very important persons; its chief use was to transmit intelligence and directives between the provinces and the capital, but it served also as a vehicle of espionage by the vizier upon local officers. The system issued itineraries, available to merchants and pilgrims, giving the names of the various stations, and the distances between them; these itineraries were the basis of Arabic geography. Pigeons were trained and used as letter carriers—the first such use known to history (837). Additional “intelligence” was provided by travelers and merchants, and in Baghdad 1700 “aged women” served as spies. No amount of surveillance, however, could check the Oriental-Occidental appetite for “squeeze” or “graft.” The provincial governors, as in Roman days, expected their tenure of office to reimburse them for the expenses of their climb and the tribulations of their descent. The caliphs occasionally forced them to disgorge their accumulations, or sold this right of squeezing to the newly appointed government; so Yusuf ibn Omar extracted 76,000,000 dirhems from his predecessors in the government of Iraq. Judges were well paid, yet they too could be influenced by the generous; and Mohammed (says a tradition) was convinced that out of three judges at least two would go to hell.73

The law by which the great realm was ruled claimed to deduce itself from the Koran. In Islam, as in Judaism, law and religion were one; every crime was a sin, every sin a crime; and jurisprudence was a branch of theology. As conquest extended the reach and responsibilities of Mohammed’s impromptu legislation, and puzzled it with cases unforeseen in the Koran, the Moslem jurists invented traditions that implicitly or explicitly met their need; hence the Hadith became a second source of Mohammedan law. By strange but repeated coincidence these useful traditions echoed the principles and judgments of Roman and Byzantine law, and still more of the Mishna or Gemara of the Jews.74 The growing mass and complexity of legal traditions gave sustenance and high status to the legal profession in Islam; the jurists (faqihs) who expounded or applied the law acquired by the tenth century almost the power and sanctity of a priestly class. As in twelfth-century France, they allied themselves with the monarchy, supported the absolutism of the Abbasids, and reaped rich rewards.

Four famous schools of law took form in orthodox Islam. Abu Hanifa ibn Thabit (d. 767) revolutionized Koranic law by his principle of analogical interpretation. A law originally enacted for a desert community, he argued, must be interpreted analogously, not literally, when applied to an industrial or urban society; on this basis he sanctioned mortgage loans and interest (forbidden in the Koran), much as Hillel had done in Palestine eight centuries before. “The legal rule,” said Hanifa, “is not the same as the rules of grammar and logic. It expresses a general custom, and changes with the circumstances that produced it.”75 Against this liberal philosophy of progressive law the conservatives of Medina put forth a strong defender in Malik ibn Anas (715–95). Basing his system on a study of 1700 juridical Hadith, Malik proposed that since most of these traditions had arisen in Medina, the consensus of opinion in Medina should be the criterion of interpretation of both the Hadith and the Koran. Muhammad al-Shafii (767–820), living in Baghdad and Cairo, thought that infallibility should have a wider base than Medina, and found in the general consensus of the whole Moslem community the final test of legality, orthodoxy, and truth. His pupil Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855) considered this criterion too wide and vague, and founded a fourth school on the principle that law should be determined exclusively by the Koran and the traditions. He denounced the rationalism of the Mutazilites in philosophy, was jailed for orthodoxy by al-Mamun, but held so valiantly to his conservative position that when he died almost the entire population of Baghdad attended his funeral.

Despite this century-long debate, the four schools of law recognized by orthodox Islam agreed in detail as much as they differed in principle. They all assumed the divine origin of the Moslem law, and the necessity of divine origin for any law adequate to control a naturally lawless mankind. They all entered into such minute regulation of conduct and ritual as only Judaism could equal; they prescribed the correct use of toothpicks and matrimonial rights, the proper dress of the sexes, and the moral arrangement of the hair. One legist never ate watermelon because he could not find, in either the Koran or the Hadith, the canonical method for such an operation.76 The multiplicity of enactments would have stifled human development; but legal fictions and condoned evasions reconciled the rigor of the law with the flow and vigor of life. Even so, and despite the wide acceptance of the liberalizing Hanafite code, Mohammedan law tended to be too conservative, too inflexibly mortised in orthodoxy to allow a free evolution of economy, morals, and thought.

With these provisos we must concede that the early caliphs, from Abu Bekr to al-Mamun, gave successful organization to human life over a wide area, and may be counted among the ablest rulers in history. They might have devastated or confiscated everything, like the Mongols or the Magyars or the raiding Norse; instead they merely taxed. When Omar conquered Egypt he rejected the advice of Zobeir to divide the land among his followers, and the Caliph confirmed his judgment: “Leave it,” said Omar, “in the people’s hands to nurse and fructify.”77 Under the caliphal government lands were measured, records were systematically kept, roads and canals were multiplied or maintained, rivers were banked to prevent floods; Iraq, now half desert, was again a garden of Eden; Palestine, recently so rich in sand and stones, was fertile, wealthy, and populous.78 Doubtless the exploitation of simplicity and weakness by cleverness and strength went on under this system as under all governments; but the caliphs gave reasonable protection to life and labor, kept career open to talent, promoted for three to six centuries the prosperity of areas never so prosperous again, and stimulated and supported such a flourishing of education, literature, science, philosophy, and art as made western Asia, for five centuries, the most civilized region in the world.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!