Anarchism is not solely a western idea; in the east, Islamic thinkers have also theorized about life without a state.
Anarchism is usually studied as an exclusively western ideology and phenomenon, especially in popular discourse. When we think of anarchists, we typically think of Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Emma Goldman, and Murray Rothbard. Anarchism is, indeed, an incredibly unorthodox idea that has not been globally popular. However, two non‐Western cultural traditions seem to have produced anarchist thinkers, in the broadest sense: Taoist and Islamic.
Anarchists believe in the dispensability of government. Anarchists come in many colors and shapes. Broadly speaking, what unites them is their call for the abolition of the state, an involuntary coercive form of hierarchy, because they believe it is undesirable, unnecessary, harmful or all of the above. Comparatively, early Muslim Anarchists thought that it is not religiously obligatory, and sometimes even sinful, to establish a government (with a head of state) to administer justice. Although anarchism is often incorrectly associated with chaos, it is crucial to keep in mind that it does not mean, according to these Muslim scholars, letting anyone do whatever they want. Anarchists simply think that people can govern themselves more effectively without the state. In the Islamic context, anarchists were not always categorically anti‐state, but state‐skeptic. They were only supportive of establishing a state if justice can be guaranteed; but otherwise, they would have preferred that no state be established at all.
Anarchism in the Muslim Thought
I don’t want to misrepresent Islamic thought as though it was mainly sympathetic to anarchism. Anarchism has been an unpopular political ideology within every tradition. However, I do intend to explore anarchism themes in Islamic thought to correct historical misconceptions and benefit from the insights of these great thinkers, whether or not I agree with their conclusions.
According to most Muslims, the establishment of the state is a Fardh Kifayah, a communal obligation, with certain conditions to maintain its legitimacy.Sunnis, who make over 80% of Muslims today, view the state as an obligatory institution, necessary to the administration of Islamic Law. They believe it is obligatory because the companions of the Prophet Muhammad had agreed to establisha state, and subsequent generations agreed to maintain it, and because it was a tool to protect human welfare. The Sunni position can be studied in detail in The Ordinances of Government or Al‐Ahkaam Al‐Sultaniyyah by the famous Islamic jurist, Al‐Mawardi. Sunnis regard just administration of Islamic Law as incredibly important, however not a condition for legitimacy. Most of the early non‐Sunni sects, namely the Shi’a, Mutazilites, and Kharijites, in the middle of the 8th century, agreed that government is a necessary institution; however, they required that it rule justly to be legitimate. Among the Shi’a, Mutazilites, and Kharijites were scholars who went a step further and embracedIslamic Anarchism. Despite their different initial assumptions, they reached the same conclusion that the government is unnecessary altogether.
Early Shi’a Anarchists
Unfortunately, we do not have many authentic documents regarding how earlyTwelver Shi’a applied their anarchism in real life. However, we know they rejected the legitimacy of any state that builds itself before the reappearance of their awaited ruler, who will return to establish justice before the end of time, theMahdi. Unlike theirZaydi Shi’a counterparts, who engaged in extensive political activism, Shi’a Anarchists practiced political quietism, the belief that it is inappropriate for laypeople to involve themselves or interfere in the political process, for moral or religious reasons. They were ideological anarchists who, based on their reading of Islamic text, believed that nobody has the right to build a state, and doing so is a grave sin. Specifically, the used to quote a tradition they attribute to one of theirImams: “every [political movement] that rises before the [Mahdi], is a tyrant being worshipped without God.“1 Basically, associating starting a political movement with polytheism or idol worship.
The Kharijite Anarchists:
In general,Kharijites were an incredibly politically active and violent group. They initially formed in an attempted revolution against Ali because they believed he was too lenient against his opponents and in his application of Islamic Law. In their attempted rebellion against Ali, they massacred their opponents and possibly murdered pregnant women as well. However, a Kharijite group called theNajdites, who were disillusioned by their ex-leader’s excessively violent practices, became the first Muslims to deny the necessity of government institutions. This happened between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th. The Najdites, or followers ofNajdah Al‐Hanafi, split with the larger group of Kharijites when their leader, Nāfi’ ibn Al‐Azraq, ruled that it was lawful to kill the children of those who were opposed to him. The Najdites then migrated to Yamamah, now Eastern Saudi Arabia, where their community was founded. Najdah’s views were unique in that he permitted non‐participation in community defense, and his followers eventually developed an Islamic political ideology of anarchism.
They justified their rejection of the necessity of government using two arguments. Their first argument was that they did not believe it was obligatory as per Islamic Law. Since it was not obligatory by Islamic Law, it would only be ethical (Islamically permissible) to establish a state if it can be ensured that no blood would be shed unjustly. Otherwise, it is better for every man to take care of his and his community’s affairs. Their second argument, which makes them quite unique, starts with affirming that an Imam (head of state) must be amujtahid (authoritative scholar of Islam). And a mujtahid cannot have authority over another mujtahid. All Najdites, a supposedly highly educated religious group, were equally authoritative. Their equal authoritativeness meant “no imam could compel them to defer to his authority, nor could the collective body compel them to defer to an alleged consensus, past or present… Every Najdite of sound mind was responsible for his own religion.”2 Their egalitarian views make them the first bona fide anarchist group and rejectors of intellectual hierarchy in Muslim history. Barring serious epistemological differences between the Najdites, given they were traditional Muslims who based their reasoning on Islamic text, the Najdites’ conclusions were similar to Western Anarchists in the tradition of Spooner, Tucker, and Rothbard.
The Mutazilite Anarchists:
TheMutazilites are commonly considered the rational school of Islam for their extensive reliance on reason as a tool for substantiating their religious beliefs. They were highly concentrated in Iraq between the 9th to 12th centuries AD. As mentioned before, they believed the government is only legitimate if it rules justly and in accordance with Islamic Law. Otherwise, a revolution to substitute the incumbent government becomes permissible or even obligatory. Perhaps due to disillusionment with the political scene at the time,many famous Mutazilite scholars became theoretical anarchists, including Abu Bakr Al‐Assam, Hisham Al‐Fuwati, Abbad bin Sulaiman, and possibly3 evenIbrahim Al‐Nazzam.
All of them agreed that the government (Imamate) was unnecessary by rejecting that it was made mandatory by Islamic Law. There is no explicit text on it like there is for praying five times a day or fasting Ramadan. Al‐Assam believed that if everyone acted virtuously the government would be redundant. Since we can imagine a situation where people do act virtuously and government would be redundant, then one could not prove that government is an unconditionally necessary institution. Likewise, since justice is a condition for a government’s legitimacy, if the government cannot operate justly, statelessness and local administration are preferable.Patricia Crone, a Danish‐Americanhistorian, specializing in early Islamic history, explains Al-Assam’s preference by narrating the state of affairs when he was writing:
The distribution of power in the ninth‐century caliphate was, in fact, extremely lopsided. The ‘Abbasids tended to recruit their soldiers and governors in one province, eastern Iran, and their bureaucrats in another, lower Iraq; by and large, all others were excluded from decision‐making at a central level, however influential, wealthy or meritorious they might be in local terms. This was to get worse, for instead of broadening their power base the caliphs decided, from the mid‐ninth century onwards, to import Turkish tribesmen as slaves and to train them as soldiers and government servants, so that central government came to have even less anchorage in Muslim society than before.
Perhaps Al‐Assam saw the localization of power as a means to counteract this trend. Other Mutazilite Anarchists also seemed to support more local participation.
Hisham Al‐Fuwati seemed to favor community‐led law enforcement. He “recommended straightforward recourse to self‐help”4 where Muslims would take the law into their own hands when they could. In plain English, he recommended self‐governance. Others speculated that the leaders of households, districts, and tribes are better fit to govern their subjects and maintain the law. In other words, the Abbasid Empire could disband and leave local leaders to manage their affairs. Overall, Mutazilite Anarchists were regretful anarchists. They would have preferred to have just government. However, their observations of the Muslim political scene led them to believe that their hopes are no longer viable, and statelessness would likely provide better socioeconomic outcomes. ‘Abbad ibn Sulayman went as far as to say that there could never be an Imam (head of state) again.5
NinthCentury Baghdad: A Mutazilite Anarchist Experiment!
In 817 AD,6Baghdad experienced a severe power vacuum due to theCaliph’s continuous absence and his occupancy with a civil war inMerv. During the absence of the Caliph, a Mutazilite ascetic by the name of Sahl bin Salamah was able to free Baghdad from the Abbasid governor, exiling the ‘Abbasid representative, without substituting him with a new team of state officials. By doing that, Sahl effectively made Baghdad, the capital city of the Abbasid empire, stateless. He did not apparently see himself as worthy of being the leader of Baghdad. Instead, he attempted to invite a pious and experienced scholar, Abdullah bin Musa Al‐Hasani, to become Baghdad’s leader. Since Al‐Hasani did not accept the offer, Baghdad remained practically stateless for 12 months. Within these twelve months, he substituted the Abbasid government with a group of loyal vigilante activists. They protected the city from outlaws as a community service.Al‐Jahiz, a Mutazilite polymath and historian reports:
At a time when government disintegrated, and the plebs and ruffians took over… we saw a small number of people of integrity and standing get up in their district, tribe, street, and quarter to… subdue the… ruffians so that the weak could once more move freely… and so that merchants could go around again.7
At first glance, this may not seem like a positive assessment of anarchism. However, the point is not to highlight the ruffians’ takeover after the state crumbled, but to emphasize the new form of governance that emerged after the disintegration of the state that was not centralized, but communitarian. A new order emerged to protect the city from the ruffians that was likely more favorable in the eyes of many inhabitants due to its grassroots nature. Sahl bin Salamah’s vigilante movement was composed of multiple decision‐making units that naturally allow for a smoother flow of knowledge and customizes security practices in different localities. Sahl was able to secure safety and revived Baghdad’s economy for 12 months until the Abbasid military regained control of the capital. After this incident, Mutazilite anarchists discovered that when people are forced to rely on themselves, they find out talents they did not know they had. Mutazilites learned aboutspontaneous order.
As the Muslim Anarchists were forming their ideas, the Muslim world was becoming more and more politically fragmented. It is quite possible that their support for anarchy or localization was a form of realism given the political trends at the time. A century after Al-Assam’s death, two new Muslim empires formed, which challenged Abbasid hegemony: the Fatimids and Buyids. And several statelets formed in between these three competing empires, usually governing by their tribal rules, the school of jurisprudence their intellectual elite adopted, and frequently a mix of both. The latter because rules‐in‐play ought to match rules‐in‐form.
Whether or not anarchism is ideal, there are many valuable insights early Muslim anarchists can offer us. A study of their history presents anarchism, in its broadest sense, as more universal than previously thought. Also, we learn that making government legitimacy contingent on the appropriate administration of justice is a universal concept, as Islamic as it is a Lockean. Moreover, we learn that the benefits of decentralization were recognized universally, on both moral and efficiency grounds. Finally, their history of thought and their 9th-century experiment with anarchy provides an interesting historical example of the effectiveness of community rules. Islamic history is frequently overlooked when looking for case studies of spontaneous order and decentralized regulation. It is about time for academics to take the rich history of the Muslim world more seriously.
1. Muhammad Baqir Al‐Majlisi, Bihar Al‐Anwar, Volume 52, Dar Ihya Al‐Turath Al‐Arabi (Beirut, Lebanon), p. 143.
2. Crone, P. (1998). A Statement by the Najdiyya Khārijites on the Dispensability of the Imamate. Studia Islamica, (88), p. 70. DOI:10.2307/1595697
3. Josef van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3, Volume 3, Fahrhundert Hidschra, (Berlin, 1991–7), p. 416.
4. Crone, Patricia. (2004). The Mu’tazilites. In Medieval Islamic Political Thought (pp. 65–69). Edinburgh University Press.
5. Al-Ash’ari, Maqalat Al‐Islamiyyin, ed. Helmut Ritter (Istanbul, 1929–33), p. 451.
6. Wilfred Madelung, “The Vigilante Movement of Sahl b. Salama Al‐Khurasani and the Origins of Hanbalism Reconsidered,” Journal of Turkish Studies, vol. 14, (1990), p. 331–337.
7. Al‐Jahiz, “Jawabat fi‘l-imama,” in his Rasa’il, ed. ‘Abd al‐Sallam Muhammad Harun, (Cairo, 1964–79), vol. 4, p. 285 ff.