Islam’s roots and early significance lie in the changing conditions of 7th and 8th century Arabia. Not united by a single ethnic-religious formation prior to its development, through its pronouncements on religion, social and legal philosophy, early Islam sought and succeeded in creating a trans-tribal authority and source of identity through which later Arab and Middle Eastern empires could be built. Early Islam’s significance is that it was the guiding philosophy under which a series of large, precedent tributary socio-political orders were organized.
Samir Amin, an Egyptian-born Marxist associated with world-systems, dependency and unequal exchange theories, has described pre-modern history as the transition from communal societies to tributary ones, the latter of which have “witnessed the crystallization of social power in a statist-ideological-metaphysical form.” Under a tributary system, taxes and other fees collected by agents of a central power and the dominance of the social-religious-state power over economic affairs distinguishes it from later system of capitalism, which was defined in regards to the ascendancy of economic actors over metaphysical political power. (Amin 14) In the Arabian peninsula and outward, Islam provided the ideological basis under which power was assigned within such a tributary society.
The Qu’ran, the sacred text of Islam and its most important document, provides both a history of the region and lays down social and legal mores for future, ‘righteous’ rule. Unlike philosophical doctrines such as Confucianism, which grew out of a China’s Warring States period and resulted from the practice of previous large-scale tributary societies, Islam rose out of a period in which many religious-social doctrines and groups existed yet absent one doctrine’s hegemony. In this manner, Islam was part of an effort to fuse the loose patchwork of existing ethnic, religious, economic and tribal groups into a single Muslim identity and allegiance, incorporating all into a single tributary society.
Like the Christianity of the Roman empire and later European tributary states, Islam preached piety, reverence and faith before god and the unknown. Muslims are informed by the Qu’ran that, “worldly riches are transitory, but God’s reward is everlasting.” (16:95) As with Christianity, god is depicted as ultimately merciful towards believers and neglectful and ‘the enemy’ of disbelievers and ‘hypocrites.’ (2:98) The fatalistic humbling of worldly aspirations and inclinations embodied by the teachings of Islam, so common in religions which form among peoples developing out of simple tribalism, must have helped psychologically justify additional responsibilities and stresses which came with living in an integrated large-scale class society. As is commonly understood, Islam means submission, both before god and its worldly authority.
During the time of Islam’s development, various communities of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, monotheist and ‘pagan’ tribes settled into a pattern of regular trade and interaction across the Arabian peninsula. (Esposito 4-5) Muhammad designated Allah, one of the more popular gods amongst the pre-Qu’ranic tribes as the singular god of monotheistic tradition. As well, Jewish and Christian scriptures were incorporated in Muhammad’s telling of the Qu’ran. According to the Qu’ran, these groups had been given divine inspiration through figures such as Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus, yet had since strayed from the path. Compulsory conversion to Islam was forbidden, and various monotheist people were allowed to live as “protected” people under Muslim authority. (2:236) Thus, the remarkable spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th century resulted not only from armed conquest but through consensual subordination as well. (Esposito 35) Whereas Western scholars have since “marveled” at the rapid ascendancy of Islam during the 7th and 8th centuries, its earlier practitioners saw Islam’s rapidly growing influence as a sign of its efficacy and truth. (Esposito 33) Rather than dominating its neighbors and various people in the region through brute force and coercion, early Islam melded the previously existing patchwork of tribal identities and affiliations into a single Arab ethnic and religious identity as part of a singular, paternalistic, tributary society. However, early attempts to reject the new pan-tribal identity of cohesion were ruthlessly suppressed by Islam’s first leaders. (Esposito 36)
Along with admonishments to not look for fulfillment in the material world, the Qu’ran instructed that social justice and welfare be carried out as part of one’s religious duty. Orphans are to be treated kindly and as ‘brothers.’ (2:220) Exploitation of the weak, orphans and women, false contracts and hoarding of wealth is condemned. Muslims are directed by the Qu’ran to give alms for the poor, indebted and travelers among them. Such measures, while they may have been motivated by a genuine desire for social justice on the part of Islam’s founders, helped create the social welfare and cohesion necessary for the development of large-scale tributary states.
Not only did the Islamic faith develop uniform codes of social conduct, such that were necessary for the construction of a unified political, economic and social organization, the Qu’ran states Islam is in part a project to build a tributary system. According to the Qu’ran, Muslim supremacy in the eyes of god is to be enacted by Muslims. (2:98) Muslims are exhorted not only to uphold the basic tenant of Islam but to ‘fight’ non-Muslims and force their ‘tribute.’ (2:136) (17:78) (9:29)
In regards to gender relations, as with many large societies at the time and those immediately preceding the first Muslim state, the Qu’ran plainly denotes the subordination of women to men, yet grants them ‘rights similar to those exercised against men.’ (2:228) As well, pronouncements on legalities in divorce are given. (2:229, et al) The Qu’ran states that women should ‘guard their modesty’ and ‘veil their breasts and display their beauty only to their husbands:’ a fairly libertarian stance on gender norms compared to the 19th century Victorian Era Atlantic states. (24:31) Unlike Christianity, the Qu’ran states that the first man and woman were equally responsible for their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Nonetheless, the Qu’ran codified aspects of second-class status that women of 7th century Arabia were likely accustomed to.
The Qu’ran and Islamic faith emerged as part of immense changes in Arabia, such that brought together different ethnic, tribal, religious and trade affiliations under a single religious-political umbrella. In part due to the codification and incorporation of various aspects of Arabian societies and as well through its own militant calls to build Islamic authority, the Qu’ran and the religious, social and legal philosophy it espoused became the dominating ideology of a series of tributary states thereafter.
-Malcolm Amin is a student in the United States, a Marxist anti-imperialist and social justice activist.
Amin, Samir. Global History a View from the South. Chicago: Pambazuka Press, 2010.
Dawood, N. J.. The Koran. 5th rev. ed. London, England: Penguin Books, 2003.
Esposito, John L.. Islam: the straight path. Rev. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.