In Why Nations Fail we discussed how King Shyaam took a major step in the process of state building in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, founding the Kuba Kingdom. Though we do not know the details fully, we know that this was not an easy process, necessitating King Shyaam and his men to build new institutions, defeat rivals and increase their domination. Though this was mostly a political process, it did have a religious component also. King Shyaam, like many chiefs at the time, was also a medicine man (magician).
In fact, religion and state building are often intertwined. We also saw in an earlier post how the emergence of sedentary societies preceding the Neolithic Revolution was not only a major institutional innovation but also closely associated with the emergence of a religious elite class and new elaborate religious rituals.
Looked at through these lenses, Muhammed’s huge success in spreading Islam in Medina and Mecca, and then more broadly, can also be seen as a political process. Perhaps Muhammed was as much a state builder as a prophet (as Montgomery Watt also argues in Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman), and Islam developed as part of a complex of institutional innovations necessary for initiating and maintaining the process of state centralization.
To agree with this perspective, one need not go as far as the 19th-century French religious scholar Ernest Renan who claimed in Studies of Religious History that: the Muslim “movement was produced almost without religious faith”. Instead, it is sufficient to observe that before Muhammed, the Arabian Peninsula consisted of diverse tribes with no centralized authority and its polytheism was but a reflection of this diversity of authorities and traditions. It seems plausible that a successful attempt at political centralization must also centralize beliefs, a task in which Muhammed was very successful. But what Muhammed built wasn’t just a centralized, monotheistic religion but also, by the standards of the time, a centralized state which became the basis of the later expansions of Islam out of Arabia.
Nor is the interplay between religion and state building just confined to Islam. It is plausible that one of the main objectives of Emperor Constantine in adopting Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was one of increasing the — by then dwindling — authority of the state over the vast territories of the empire. Constantine’s objectives were not so different than his equally illustrious predecessor, Diocletian, who also made great strides in further building Roman state institutions and stemming the tide of decline, though in the process also ruthlessly persecuting Christians. Constantine, like many emperors of this era, was another usurper and would-be centralizer. And, in contrast to Diocletian, he was able to rule as the sole emperor of Rome — and for quite a while.
None of this is to argue that Constantine did not really believe in Christianity (he probably did, but he was also probably less than fully monotheistic) or to agree with Renan that the movement that Muhammed led was almost without faith (almost without doubt, his early followers were devoted believers). Rather, it is to suggest that religion — just like culture more broadly —both needs to be understood in the context of institutions and the politics of the time in the place, and plays a major role in the political dynamics of its era.