Patricia Crone on 9th Century Muslim Anarchists

Patricia Crone (1945-2015) was an academic historian with a focus on the history of early Islam. In her article, “Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists,” Past and Present, No. 167 (May, 2000), pp. 3-28, Patricia Crone describes two 9th century Muslim groups as anarchist libertarians.

The first group that she describes as being religious and political “libertarians” were the Najdiyya. They believed that everyone “was responsible for his own road to salvation,” and therefore should “have no master apart from God.” [“Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists,” Past and Present, No. 167 (May, 2000), pp. 3-28, p. 26] In their support for freedom of thought, the Najdiyya included the freedom to make honest mistakes, “for God would not punish [someone] for a mistaken conclusion reached in ignorance.” [“A Statement by the Najdiyya Kharijites on the Dispensability of the Imamate,” Studia Islamica, No. 88 (1998), pp. 55-76, p. 70] The only legitimate polity would be one with a chief “elected by the community, supervised by it and deposed by it if he was found to stray: he would merely be the community’s agent.” [“Ninth-Century,” p. 25]

Crone sees the Najdiyya ideal “as an Islamic restatement of the small face-to-face society of the tribal past in which no free man had been subjected to another in either political or religious terms.” [“Statement,” p. 76]The Najdiyya reclamation of a more egalitarian tribal past is similar to early Daoists harkening back to the perceived virtues of prehierarchical societies in China.

The “religious” anarchism of the Najdiyya is comparable to the 1st century Jewish Fourth Philosophy’s and Zealots’ rejection of any master other than God. However, the scope of Najdiyya “libertarianism” was very limited. The only people free to follow their own road were the Najdiyya themselves, the only true Muslims: “All others were infidels who could in principle be enslaved, dispossessed and exterminated by the Najdiyya, should the latter choose” to do so. [“Ninth Century,” p. 26] Najdiyya “anarchism,” like that of the early Stoics, was limited to the initiates.

Crone describes another 9th century CE Muslim group, the Mu‘tazilites, as “anarchist,” but the resemblance to modern anarchism is even more tenuous than that of the Najdiyya. To begin with, the Mu‘tazilites did not seek to transform their existing “inegalitarian society;” rather, they sought to free that society from the tutelage of the state. They thought that “wrongful government made property immoral, not that property engendered wrongful government.” Do “away with the head of state and, implicitly, his army and bureaucracy,” and “society would be fine,” despite continuing disparities in wealth and power.

Like modern-day laissez-faire capitalists who like to call themselves “libertarians,” the Mu‘tazilites did not object to “the existence of coercive power but rather its distribution,” preferring to see it more dispersed and decentralized. [“Ninth Century,” p. 22] They believed “in the dispensability of government,” not in the abolition of hierarchy, domination and exploitation. [“Ninth-Century,” p. 5] At best they were what would be described today as “philosophical anarchists” who disputed the legitimacy of even their own Muslim rulers, but who did not believe that government could or should be abolished “altogether.” [Ninth Century,” p. 21]

The comparison between the Mu‘tazilites and modern day capitalist “libertarians” is apt considering the former’s acceptance and endorsement of corporal and capital punishment for violations of Islamic law, much like capitalist “libertarians” endorse carceral punishment for property crimes through private police forces and courts. The Islamic punishments of “amputation of thieving hands” and “the execution of murderers” would still be meted out, but by individuals on an ad hoc basis, rather than by a state apparatus. [“Ninth Century,” p. 17] Some “Mu‘tazilites proposed that trustworthy and learned leaders of households, districts, tribes and towns should apply the law within their jurisdiction,” with power thereby reverting “to patriarchs and local leaders – domestic tyrants and local thugs in modern parlance.” [“Ninth Century,” p. 17]

For Crone then to describe the Mu‘tazilites as anarchists simply illustrates her own misunderstanding of anarchism, which is based on her very narrow definition of anarchism as any “belief in the dispensability of government.” [“Ninth Century,” p. 5] For Crone to claim further that the modern anarchist “alternative to the state is more often than not authoritarianism of another, and frequently more thoroughgoing, kind,” is completely insupportable [“Ninth Century,” p. 21] You will search long and hard before finding any modern anarchists who endorse carceral, corporal, or capital punishment, or authoritarianism of any kind. A thoroughgoing anti-authoritarianism has been a central theme of modern anarchism from its very beginnings. I hope that Mohamed Abdou’s recently published book, Islam and Anarchism, presents a more sophisticated analysis.

Robert Graham

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Published in: on December 2, 2022 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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