A history blog written by Seaford College A level student Tom Hennessy. The primary focus is modern European history, but the blog encompasses an increasingly large geographical and chronological sweep. My Content includes articles about areas of interest, historical debates, autobiographical travel accounts, book reviews and pieces applying history to current affairs.
The divinity of the state
who speculate about the origins of politics tend to be biased in favour of materialistic
explanations like environment and level of technology, rather than cultural factors
like religion, simply because we owe more about the material environment of early
societies. But it seems extremely likely that religious ideas were critical to
early state formation, since economic motives alone could not legitimate the
transition to hierarchy and loss of freedom enjoyed by tribal societies.
authority and military prowess go hand in hand. Religious authority allows a particular tribal leader to solve the large-scale collective action problem of
uniting a group of autonomous tribes. To a much larger degree than economic
benefits, religious authority can explain why a tribal people would be willing
to make a permanent delegation of authority to a single individual and that
individual's kin group. The leader can then use that authority to create a
centralised military machine that can conquer enemy tribes as well as ensure
domestic peace and security, which then reinforces the leader's religious
authority in a positive-feedback loop.
concrete historical case of this process unfolding, which was the rise of the first
Arab state under the Patriarchal and Umayyad caliphates. Tribal peoples
inhabited the Arabian peninsula for many centuries, living on the borders of
state-level societies like Egypt, Persia, and Rome/ Byzantium. The harshness of
their environment and its unsuitability for agriculture explained why they were
never conquered, and thus why they never felt military pressure to arrange
themselves into a centralised state to mobilise massive force against a common
enemy. They operated as merchants and intermediaries between nearby settled
societies but were incapable of producing a substantial surplus on their own.
dramatically, however, with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 570 in the
Arabian town of Mecca. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad received his first
revelation from God in his fortieth year and began preaching to the Meccan
tribes. He and his followers were persecuted in Mecca, so they moved to Medina
in 622. He was asked to mediate among the squabbling Medinan tribes, and did so
by drawing up the so-called Constitution of Medina that created a universal
umma, or community of believers, that transcended tribal loyalties. Muhammad's
polity did not yet have the characteristics of a true state, but it made a
break with kinship-based systems not on the basis of conquest, but through the
writing of a social contract underpinned bythe prophet’s charismatic authority. After several years of fighting,
the new Muslim polity gained adherents and conquered Mecca, uniting central
Arabia into a single state-level society.
Depiction of the Prophet
conquest, the lineage of the victorious tribal leader evolves into the ruling dynasty.
This didn't happen in Muhammad's case because he had only a daughter, Fatima,
and no sons. Leadership of the new state thus passed to one of Muhammad's
companions in the Umaad clan, a parallel segment in Muhammad's Quraysh tribe. The
Umayyads did evolve into a dynasty, and the Umayyad state under Uthman and
Mu'awiya quickly went on to conquer Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, imposing Arab rule
over these preexisting state-level societies.
Furthest extent of the Arabic/ Ottoman Empire
There is no
clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence
of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad. The Arab tribes played an utterly
marginal role in world history until that point; it was only Muhammad's
charismatic authority that allowed them to unite and project their power
throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The tribes had no economic base to
speak of; they gained economic power through the interaction of religious ideas
and military organisation, and then were able to take over agricultural societies
that did produce surpluses.
While the founding
of the first Arab state is a particularly striking illustration of the
political power of religious ideas, virtually every other state has relied on
religion to legitimate itself. The founding myths of the Greek, Roman, Hindu,
and Chinese states all trace the regime's ancestry back to a divinity, or at
least to a semi-divine hero. Political power in early states cannot be understood
apart from the religious rituals that the ruler controlled and used to legitimate
'The Origins of Political Order' - Francis Fukuyama