Soon after the death of the Abbasid Caliph Harun-ar-Rasheed, his sons Amin and Mam’ un vied for the greater political authority. Backed up by the bureaucratic class, Amin wielded political clout and stamped his authority over a vast territory of the Abbasid Empire. Mam’ un was only the governor of Khurasan but enjoyed a respected following in the military cadres. To the chagrin of Amin, the military forces grew in strength and size and played into the hands of Mam’ un. A duel ensued between the military and the bureaucratic class. Finally, in 813, Mam’ un marched against Amin, dethroned him, and assumed the caliphal authority. The army was poised to play a significant role in the politics of Abbasid dynasty after the regicide of Amin.

 Few years after, the tenth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty Al-Mutawakkil ended the Islamic Inquisition and restored orthodoxy. He aimed at cementing ties with the scholarly class and reining in the military class. Upset by the recent developments, the military top brass comprising mostly of Turkish generals called on an assembly. The rendezvous ended with the plan to dethrone the sitting caliph. As planned, a clique of assassins in 861 entered the royal palace and stabbed al-Mutawakkil to death. The British historian High Kennedy in his book ‘When Baghdad ruled the World’ notes that it was for the first time that a popular caliph was deposed and killed by the military establishment. It turned out to be the “first military coup” in Islam. The death of al-Mutawakkil led to a bout of unrest commonly known in history as the “Anarchy at Samarra”.

The rising clout and influence of the military class in the political affairs left an indelible mark on the Classic Islamic Political Thought. The abrupt and illegal military take-overs were legitimised and sanctioned by great Muslim thinkers to fend off civil strife. The fear of sliding into anarchy led Muslim political theorists to not only legitimise the involvement of the military in the affairs of politics but also provided a reliable mechanism to justify their active participation in the civilian make-up. Mawardi was one such political theorist. Abul Hassan al-Mawardi was an exceptional jurist of the Abbasid dynasty. His book “Ahkam-al-Sultaniyah” was classic on the political administration. Mawardi wrote his magnum opus to address the legal status of the Buwayhid dynasty.

The Buwayhids challenged the writ of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad and seized the Abbasid territories. Instead of deposing the caliph, the Buwayhids continued to rule as governors under the direction of the caliphate. Was the seizure of land by the Buwayhids justified? Mawardi, in his book, contended that the seizure of Abbasid territory by force was justified to prevent anarchy. He held that the Abbasid dynasty subsequently legitimised the right of Buwayhids to rule as the governors under the caliphal authority. As pointed out by Hamilton Gibb, Mawardi in his book “legally justified” the seizure of territory by force. His justification continued to be invoked by all the great Muslim scholars in the years to come.

Following in the footsteps of Mawardi, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali in his book “al-Mustazhir” also provided the grounds for the justification of usurpation. Ghazali developed a theory of sultanate and rooted his argument in a legal framework. He held that the institution of caliphate was obligated by the religion of Islam. He maintained that the caliphate was the most advanced political system that was geared towards safeguarding the tenets of Islamic legal system. Ghazali further held that all the legal contracts were invalid in the absence of the caliphate. But how should the caliph be elected? Ghazali argued that the caliph should be elected by the electoral college. The electors should be those who “loosen and bind” that included civil servants, ulama, tribal chiefs and other key stakeholders.

Ghazali was the rector of the Nizamiyah-e-Baghdad institute, and an official advisor to the Seljuk Empire and the Abbasid dynasty. The Seljuk rulers assumed the title of sultan and posed a threat to the authority of the Abbasid dynasty. How should the forceful seizure of power by the Seljuks be justified? Ghazali elucidated that authority and power were two different entities: the former being “legal” and the latter being “expedient”. The caliph represented the authority and the sultans represented the power. The “shawka” or “power” was required for the political administration to function effectively. This “shawka” or “power”, Ghazali maintained, was embodied by the institution of the sultanate. Hence, the sultanate was also a legitimate component of political structure. In his book “Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology”, Frank Griffel explained that Ghazali had envisioned a tripartite division of power: caliph, sultan, and the ulama. The caliph wielded political authority, the sultan exercised administrative power, and the ulama acted as advisors. Considering sultanate a necessary component of the political system, Ghazali justified the usurpation of power by the Seljuk empire.

Two centuries later, the Mamluk dynasty took over the levers of power in Egypt. The Mamluk dynasty was a slave-empire that ruled from 1250 to 1517 in Egypt. The Abbasid dynasty was run down by the marauding hordes of Hulagu Khan in 1258. The caliphate was dismantled, and only the sultanate remained intact. The great Mamluk scholar Jalaluddin Suyuti argued in ‘History of the Caliphs’ that the caliphate ceased to exist for three long years. Soon the Mamluks of Egypt reinstated a nominal Abbasid caliph, and continued to rule as the masters of the empire. One of the jurists of Mamluk dynasty Ibn Jamaah built on the edifice already laid by Ghazali and held that “sultan” was also the “caliph”. Sensitive to the political reality of his time, he argued that the sultan could also pose as the caliph and could effectively run the business of the empire. The sheer “military power” of the sultan granted him the right to pose as the rightful caliph.

The justification of usurpation by force became a leitmotif of classic Islamic Political Thought by the 18th century. Shah Wali-Ullah, in his book ‘The Conclusive Argument from God’, also discussed the process required for the election of the caliph. Shah Wali-Ullah held that the caliph could be selected by the former caliph or by those who “loosen and bind”. He proceeded further and argued that a military ruler who usurped political authority and acted as the caliph should also be considered a legitimate ruler. Though not desirable, his stint would remain legal and his pronouncements would have a bearing on the administrative functioning of the caliphate.

As established in the cases cited above, military adventurism has been justified and legitimised by the political thinkers of Islamic intellectual history. Citing political expediency, scholars all the way from Mawardi to Shah Wali-Ullah justified military adventurism. To quote Hamilton Gibb, “Islamic Political Thought is but a series of concessions to brute force.” The military coups in Pakistan or in other Islamic countries like Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia were the manifestations of traditional Islamic political norms. They were not aberrations but were the continuation(s) of a pattern already set in place by Turkish generals in Baghdad in 861. This begs the question: will the recent judgment handed down by the special court in Pakistan have an impact on our traditional Islamic thought on military adventurism? The answer is up in the air.