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The Relationship between Religion and Politics

A group of girls dance to celebrate the birth of the prophet Mohammed in Citadeel, Amman, Jordan.  (hazy_jenius/flickr)

A group of girls dance to celebrate the birth of the prophet Mohammed in Citadeel, Amman, Jordan. (hazy_jenius/flickr)

The Relationship between Religion and Politics

Mongol Rule of Law
The Mongols introduced an important political and legal element that is not much recognized by historians. The Mongols were not initially Muslim - their rise to power was extremely traumatic for the Muslims. They were known among Muslims to adhere to another law system: Yasa, not Shari'ah. Muslim writers exemplified the Mongols' Otherness by how they slaughtered meat, and the fact that this method did not render the meat halal. Their retention of the blood in the carcass is an example of a horror story that corresponds to what Westerners bring out as the horrors of Islamic law in the media today.

Mongol law codes--yasa--were a collection of yasas, or edicts. Shari'ah, or Islamic law, in contrast, is a system of logic by which a jurist derives instances from texts. It is a flexible philosophy and system of thinking about law. Muslims made a clear distinction between shari'ah and yasa. They equated yasa with qanun, or the Church law among the Christians. Muslim writers used the term yasa as if it were qanun, or a body of law, distinguished from the Islamic religious law. So Muslims made peace with Mongol law by equating Yasa with Qanun, but recognized that it could not be melded with Islamic law, though it could exist alongside it.

The impact of the Mongols on law and politics in Muslim history was enormous, and so it brought about the issuing of edicts or Qanun, which because of the Mongols' power set the precedent for the ruler to issue laws. (Ex: revenue edicts - before the Mongols, each Muslim ruler would cancel the edicts of the former, as they had no permanent legitimacy.) With recognition of yasa, Muslim rulers began to issue edicts that had force like no former khalifah could ever do, they ruled by fiat, or edict. The Ottoman Empire benefited from this legitimizing of lawgiving by the Mongols.

Ottoman leader Sultan Suleiman became "the Qanuni," or "Law-Giver" (while writers in the West referred to him as Suleiman the Magnificent). It was inconceivable that medieval khalifahs could have been given the title of Lawgivers. In contrast, all the Sultans began to issue a de facto law by fiat, pretty much doing what they pleased. However, there was a constraint on their ability to legislate. They recognized the Shari'ah as superior, and acknowledged that they were subordinate to it, and that they could be judged by the ulama' and must recognize that judgment. The bargain that emerged between the ulama' and the sultans was generally, that as long as the sultan remained subordinate to the Shari'ah and recognized the independence of the jurists, and as long as the Shari'ah was enforced in certain particulars-not all by any means-then the sultan could do as he pleased in the secular sphere. Ulama' clearly had no independent enforcement powers or armies, and they were increasingly hired by the Sultans, but still many remained outside of government, as an independent force that drew its legitimacy and strength from belief in Islam among the rulers and the ruled.] The highest power in the Ottoman state, was thus recognized as a source of power that was not in the sultan's own sphere. It was a potential system of countervailing powers (division of authority) that brought considerable stability over a long period of time.