'The Vicegerent of God, from Him We Expect Rain': the Incorporation of the Pre-Islamic State in Early Islamic Political Culture.

AuthorDarling, Linda T.

The Umayyads (Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) and his two successors were among the Islamic caliphs commonly expected to bring rain. This ancient attribute of kingship symbolized the ruler's responsibility to provide prosperity to his people so that they could provide revenue to the state. The interdependence between kings and peoples was a characteristic feature of Middle Eastern states throughout millennia and across changes of religion and language. The provision of water and bountiful crops was only the beginning. Rulers also had to supply protection and justice, while the people offered submission and economic support in the form of taxes. This political relationship, and the state structures that embodied it, were articulated and summarized in the ninth-century saying quoted by Ibn Qutayba and known as the Circle of Justice: "There can be no government without men, no men without money, no money without prosperity, and no prosperity without justice and good government."

This paper traces the political concept of the Circle of Justice from its pre-Islamic beginnings through the ancient empires and the culture of the Arabs to its articulation by Ibn Qutayba. The stereotype in most Western literature holds that the Circle was a Persian idea, alien to Islamic concepts of state, a "kernel of derangement," as H. A. R. Gibb insisted. (2) The Persians, however, did not originate it, nor were they the first to transmit it. Its elements appear together in still older Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian texts, and the Persians themselves appear to have adopted their political ideas from the Median and Babylonian empires they conquered.3 Although many ulema condemned the Circle as a foreign concept, the monarchy it described was known in Arabia before the rise of Islam and the growth of Perso-Islamic political culture. Its "foreignness" has been suggested as the reason that Muslims did not embrace monarchy thoroughly enough to create a workable Islamic politics; however, religious thought in Islam--based, as Marshall Hodgson showed, on populist and anti-aristocratic principles--initially wrote off all government as a priori unjust.4 The concepts of the Circle coexisted with this judgment and eventually modified it.

Muslim ideology posited a sharp break between the era of the revelation of Islam and everything that came before it, so direct textual links between ancient and Islamic ideas of kingship and uses of the Circle of Justice cannot be traced. Nevertheless, the conquest inaugurated a civilizational process in which Arabs and non-Arabs together reconceptualized and reworked the legacy of the past within the framework of Islam.(5) This process gave Islamicate civilization a universal appeal it might not otherwise have had, although the mere fact that this argument must be made reveals the extent of Arab-Islamic cultural hegemony. (6) The conquest was less a destruction and replacement of Mesopotamian civilization than an incorporation of the existing cultures into a new Arabic and Islamic framework. It has been treated as a unique event, and in some respects it was, but in many ways it followed the pattern of prior conquests in the region. Viewed from the Fertile Crescent, one more largely pastoral group from a peripheral society invaded Mesopotamia with a new faith and set of customs to begin the process of acculturation yet again. Like other ancient Mesopotamian conquerors, the new invaders took advantage of the disruption of a longstanding stable territorial division (this time by the Roman-Persian wars) and the fortuitous devastation of the plague to gain control of revenue sources and trade routes. (7) The resulting economic, ethnic, and ideological changes became permanent features of the region.

The relationship between pre-Islamic cultures and the tenets of Islam changed over time. At first, measures taken by the early community in line with ancient concepts of state were assimilated into Islamic law as part of the normative practice (sunna) of the early Muslims. When the Muslims redefined the sunna to mean only the practice of the Prophet, existing governmental practices began to be seen as conflicting with political values derived from Muhammad's reported behavior and regarded as more authentically Islamic. (8) The Muslims then ascribed the reappearance of ancient Mesopotamian ideals of governance in Islamic political thought to the conquest of Persia and its imperial system, the emergence of a scribal class of Persian origin, and the creation of a Persian-influenced Arabic literature. Maintaining its Persian cultural trappings allowed proponents of imperial government to endow it with the aura of success and permanence associated with the Sasanian empire, but permitted opponents to stigmatize it as foreign to Islam, which verdict must have owed a great deal to the vehemence with which the community rejected the claim attributed to (Uthman b. (Afran, that the caliphs possessed such a characteristic feature of Mesopotamian kingship as divine appointment. (9) Ancient political traditions did, however, appear in early Arabic writings unattributed to Persian precedents and treated as common knowledge, as already part of Arabic culture. Even in pre-Islamic poetry the concept of justice had already shifted from tribal egalitarianism to a restoration dispensed by authorities. (10) This is clearly the Circle's concept of justice, too; unlike those who see the "Iranian" tradition as an influence from "outside" Islam, I see this important part of it as already "inside." Explicitly Persian political ideas overlaid an existing Arabic conceptual base and were easily adapted to Islamic purposes, however strongly Islamic ideology may have protested such adaptations.

Earlier studies of the Circle of Justice have referred to Hammurabi's inscriptions, (11) but this paper consults a wider range of sources and traces the concept's history farther back and in greater detail, providing the context that allowed the Circle to form an integral part of the culture rather than an exotic import, despite its association with rejected ideas such as divine kingship. The study also examines how this concept was expressed in early Islamic political culture, in court poetry and advice to rulers, and in the behavior of kings and subjects. It brings together recent scholarship (and some not so recent) on the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods, joining other publications that challenge the standard Islamic narrative of origins by placing the rise of Islam in a wider context than the Hijaz.' (12)t posits that ancient political concepts provided a degree of continuity for a people undergoing great religious and cultural changes, a continuity obscured by the Muslim community's arguments around the establishment of the caliphate, and it traces that continuity through governmental practices and literary development. For the sake of brevity it focuses largely on one aspect of the Circle, the ruler's responsibility to provide prosperity and justice, notably in the form of the provision of water in a dry climate.


Among the most ancient texts of the Middle East we can find royal inscriptions that acknowledge the king's responsibility to contribute to the prosperity and flourishing of his land; they often represented him as the sun or the rain, the sources of fertility. 13 This imperial ideology can be seen in Sumerian royal inscriptions as early as ca. 2350 B.C.E. Lugalzagesi, king of the city-state of Uruk, emphasized both the ruler's domination of the land and his responsibility for the people:

When Enlil, king [god] of all lands, gave to Lugalzagesi the kingship of the nation, directed all the eyes of the land obediently toward him, put all the lands at his feet, and from east to west made them subject to him; then, from the Lower Sea, along the Tigris and Euphrates to the Upper Sea, he put their routes in good order for him. From east to west, Enlil permitted him no rival; under him the lands rested contentedly, the people made merry, and the suzerains of Sumer and rulers of other lands conceded sovereignty to him at Uruk. [...] Under me, may the lands rest contentedly, may the populace become as widespread as the grass, may the nipples of heaven function properly, and the people experience prosperity [...] may I always be the leading shepherd. (14) Divine favor and right leadership led to military victory, and victory to the fruitfulness of the land and the prosperity of the people under the ruler's shepherding care.

The provision of welfare did not mean merely satisfying material needs but also granting justice for the ruled, as shown in the inscriptions of Lugalzagesi's contemporary, Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2350), who "made a binding agreement with the god Ningirsu that he would never subject the orphan or widow to the powerful." (15) The texts describing Urukagina's reforms became classic works of statecraft and were recopied many times in later centuries. (16) Sumerian kings were divinely chosen and given power in order to bring unity, order, justice, and provision to the people so that they in turn would worship, provide for, and obey the gods. (17) Such concepts were not visible in the inscriptions left by the Akkadian invaders of 2334-2154 B.C.E., but they reappeared after the restoration of Sumerian rule under Gudea, king of Lagash (r. 2143-2124), whose recorded activities built on the sense of a causal connection among the righteousness of king and people, the gods' favor, prosperity, and justice affirmed earlier by Urukagina. (18) During the Ur III dynasty (2112-2006 B.c.E.), a period of wealth and power, the rulers followed Gudea's model; Shulgi (r. 2095-2047), for example, stated that he was born of a goddess to bring prosperity, "to fill the granaries of the Land with barley, to stock the treasuries of the Land with goods [...] To let justice never come to an end. (19)

The collapse of the Ur III...

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