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Comparative Essay: The Church and The Caliphate

Essay by review  •  November 18, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  2,580 Words (11 Pages)  •  1,409 Views

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Every day, all over the world, billions of people strive to embody the legacies of two of histories most influential men; Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad. The death of these prominent religious leaders was devastating to their respective groups of followers, leaving them in the dark and in dire need of leadership, resulting in the formation of two very similar yet profoundly different institutions known as the Church and the Caliphate, respectively. Without divine leadership, and as each grew almost exponentially in size, both religions suffered from division and widespread disunity among the ever-increasing numbers of sects, each applying different interpretations on various aspects of faith. In Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church is the longest standing and most visible symbol of the Christian faith, while in Islam; the Sunni majority and the major (or most accepted as legitimate) dynasties of the Caliphate will be explored. Essentially parallel in purpose, not only have both of these institutions attempted to embody and eternalize the legacies of their founders, but have also played monumental roles in the development of human history; each of which has in its time, controlled vast empires wielding both military and economic dominance. While in their earlier stages with smaller populations, it may have been appropriate for the community to have one 'multi-purpose' leader, it has become necessary to separate the fields of politics and faith as religious communities rapidly expanded and grew in power. This separation of church (in this context referring to any religious institution) and state has, over time resulted in gradual diminishing of the authority of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Sunni Caliphate. Stemming from corruption of authority, historical developments, and gradual deviation from founding principals, the decline of both of these institutions is seen in today's contexts as 'modernization', but whether or not this phenomenon is moving society in a positive direction has yet to be seen.

Be it religious, political, or even rebellious, individuals and/or institutions in positions of leadership have a task that is, put simply, to lead. Leaders of divine guidance, such as Muhammad and Jesus, have been said to characterize the 'perfect leaders' of their people, with their deaths testifying that they too are in fact, only human. The succession of these apparently perfect men opens seemingly unfillable holes in their communities, and weakness of future leadership routinely comes as result of greed or corruption that often accompanies power.

In the case of Islam, Muhammad, according to the Encyclopedia of Religion, was the "governor of the Ummah, an arbitrator of disputes within it, commander of military its forces, and its principal strategist." His death in 632 CE left the Ummah in a situation it had never envisioned, and the loss of their chief seemed to present the insurmountable problem in the near future as well as leadership in the long term. Quickly, those closest to Muhammad elected his closest friend and one of the earliest Muslims, Abu Bakr, as his successor, giving him the title of Caliph. For thirty years thereafter, the Islamic community was headed by four successive men known as the Rashidun, or 'rightly guided' leaders, all of whom were close companions of the Prophet and learned in Islamic traditions. After the death of the fourth Caliph, Ali, the title of the Prophet's successor was earned by a man named Mu'awiah, who established the Umayyad Dynasty and introduced the precedent of hereditary leadership, nominating his son as his successor. It was just before this that the Sunni Muslim community declared the necessity to officially separate the leadership of the Ummah in areas of religion and politics (Muir, Sir William). This act confirmed the popular belief that without true divine guidance, no single human being is capable of leading a community in all respects, thereby justifying the separation of church and state throughout the Muslim domain. It was under this system of leadership that the Muslim Empire conquered and came in control of vast expanses of land in Europe, Asia and Africa, including much of the deposed Roman and Persian Empires; amassing great wealth and a supremacy felt throughout the world, but slowly moving away from traditions and teachings of the Prophet in doing so. Sir Thomas W. Arnold states that, "for understanding the status of the Caliph, it is important therefore to recognize that he is pre-eminently a political functionary, and though he may perform religious functions, these functions do not imply the possession of any spiritual powers setting him thereby apart from the rest of the faithful" (16). Furthermore, he affirms, "it is true that the Muslim Ulama have often denounced the unrighteous ways of the Caliph and his government, and have demanded for the religious law as extensive operation which the officers of government have generally refused to grant; but these have been matters of dispute, not between priesthood and civil authorities, but between laymen and other laymen" (17). While generally working in conjunction for the people, what started initially as one entity, the church and state are now visibly differentiated, and gradually move in opposite directions, often in conflict as the 'politicians' slowly move away from the Islamic fundamentals on which they were founded. Concluding the matter, Arnold argues, "the theory of the Caliphate is still cherished by theological students who shut their eyes to the altered circumstances of the political world, and expound the doctrine of the Caliphate as though they were still living in the ninth century"(19). Theoretically (or in the circumstances in which it was created), the true, original form of the Caliphate would be an incredibly effective method of governance, but in more modern times, and lacking direct divine inspiration of a prophetic figure, the idea appears unfeasible and counterproductive. Ira A. Lapidus comments on one of the later Caliphs, noting that, "Mu'awiyah, with his genius for administration, and his skill and tact in dealing with the haughty aristocracy out of which he himself sprung, was laying the foundation of a great empire" (268). A typical politician, Mu'awiyah was looking above all to increase his own might, and in his greed kept the title within his family. He and his successors slowly deviated from their job description in favour of more materialistic aspirations, gradually degrading the integrity of the original Caliphate, thus widening the gap between religious and political affairs. Taking over after the Umayyad's, the Abbasid's demonstrated further digression from the founding principals the Caliphate, as was evident in several customs brought into practice

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