Alexis de Tocqueville, 1839

Wishing all my readers a blessed Ramadan. The following is a series of notes that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the Islamic religion. They were written in 1839 during the ongoing French colonization of Algeria, and describe Tocqueville’s attempts to understand Islam from a western-european perspective. These notes were originally published by Gallimard in Tome III, Volume I of Tocqueville’s Œuvres complètes, and have not previously been translated into English. [read more]

Why there is no priesthood among the Muslims.

Mohammed preached his religion to peoples who were not very advanced, nomads and warriors; this religion itself had war as its goal; hence the lack of rituals and the simplicity of the religion. A complicated religion full of ritual presupposes temples, a sedentary population and fairly peaceful habits.

Since worship was almost non-existent, there was little need for a priest. But there is a more powerful reason to explain the almost complete absence of a regular priesthood among Muslims, a fact which in itself seems at first sight very singular, for all religions, and especially the great religions of mankind, have acquired or preserved their influence with the help of a priestly body very separate from the rest of the nation and very strongly constituted.

Islam is the religion that has most completely combined and intermingled political and religious power, so that the high priest is necessarily the prince, and the prince the high priest, and all acts of civil and political life are more or less regulated by religious law.

Because of this, the existence of a separate body placed, as in Catholicism for example, alongside civil and political society to direct religious society, was not needed.

This is a credit to Islam. For a priestly body is in itself the source of much social unrest, and when religion can be powerful without the help of such a means, it is to be praised.

But if this combination and concentration established by Mohammed between political and religious power has produced this particular good, it has also been the primary cause of despotism and above all of the social immobility which has almost always been the character of the Muslim nations, and which has finally caused them all to succumb before the nations which have embraced a different system.

As the Quran is the common source from which religious law, civil law and even, in part, secular science are derived, the same education is given to those who wish to become ministers of religion, doctors of the law, judges and even scholars. The sovereign takes indiscriminately from this class of scholars the ministers of religion or imams, the doctors of the law or muftis and the judges or qadis. These different professions do not give any indelible character to the person wearing them. So there is a religion, but there is no priesthood. This is all the more true because the Algerian population is more like the Arabs of the Prophet, more nomadic and more tribal. It seems that, in the Arab tribes of Algeria, the trace of a clerical body is barely visible, whereas in Constantinople there is something more akin to a religious hierarchy.

The very word “clergy” does not exist in Arabic. The temporal influence that religion gives to certain men, for this always happens wherever you go, is exercised by the marabouts, an indefinite and irregular power, quite similar to that exercised by the saints and anchorites at the end of the Roman Empire and in the midst of the Barbarian invasion. The only difference is that among the Arabs this sanctity is often hereditary, a bizarre combination of the power that an individual can incidentally acquire through his virtues or by aristocratic birth.

Islamic worship.

The ceremonies are very straightforward; they consist of prayers and sermons.

The khutbah, which is both a profession of faith and a prayer for the leader of the faithful, is recited every Friday.

Mosques are only built in the midst of a large population.

A number of religious leaders, sheiks, khatibs, imams, and muezzins1 are attached to each mosque. At the head of all this staff is the mufti.

Expenses are covered by donations, which are gently collected by the imams.

Outside of the cities, Islamic worship is not formalized. There is no mosque, nor religious ministers. The population is abandoned to the marabouts […], personages of ill-defined role beyond what is attributed to them by the multitude.

Constitution of justice in Muslim countries and particularly in Algiers.

Religion and justice have always been intertwined in Muslim countries, just as the ecclesiastical courts had tried to do in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Justice is not a regalian right; it is dispensed in the name of God rather than that of the prince. Its rules are not contained in civil law, but in the Quran and its commentaries. This is why, whenever the parties agree to go before a foreign judge, the judgement is rendered and valid.

It is the same body that provides: 1° imams (ministers of religion); 2° muftis (doctors of the law); 3° qadis or judges. This body is that of the ulema, which is only entered after certain studies and examinations.

The mufti has a recognised superiority over the other two orders. In Algiers, there are several qadis and a qadi for each outan or canton.

The qadi’s court is composed of a single judge, who pronounces without appeal and enforces the judgement, except in criminal cases where he hands the offender over to the secular authorities.

Since justice and religion are intertwined, it follows that Muslims obey rulings with a religious respect that is not found elsewhere.

The qadis were instituted in Algiers by the dey. They are now appointed by us. But I believe that we subject their judgement to appeal, which is profoundly contrary to the spirit of the institution.2

Guarantees of Islamic law.

Strangely, at the same time that the French were being stripped of the guarantees of French law, the Muslims were also being stripped of the guarantees of Islamic law.

In Algiers, as in all Islamic countries, it was the head of the government who made appointments to the judiciary and even to all the high religious offices. But he was obliged to select his appointees only from certain categories and after they had passed certain examinations and received a certain education. Now it is the French governor who also appoints the qadis and the muftis, but he takes whoever comes along, so that not only have we not brought our liberal institutions to Africa, but we have taken away from the natives the only things that resemble institutions of this kind.

In short, either by crude instinct or error of reasoning, we have replicated in Africa the same mistakes we have made elsewhere.

1 Sheiks are community leaders, generally the head of a family or tribe. Khatibs lead the khutbah, or Friday prayers. Muezzins loudly proclaim the call to prayer from a minaret five times a day. -translator

2 This amalgam of Muslim and indigenous justice was made by the ordinance of 4 August 1834