When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads, theology had been only lightly involved, just enough to get most Shi’ite sympathizers on their side while actually shifting power to Persians. These dynasties had been about pragmatic balance of power and maximizing tax revenue. The Fatimids were of a different nature.
All religions go through cycles of purity, pragmatism, mainstreamism, and reformation—which leads to a similar cycle again. During the Middle Ages, each cycle of this type among Christians created a new order of monks, since each one intended to really get it right and never go mainstream. The rise of the Fatimids was the first significant movement like this in Islam. It had many of the same underlying motives: the status quo rulers gradually compromise with strict rules in order to have a “big tent,” and this way they also get richer. Along comes a “have not” to criticize the “haves,” and the first line of criticism is always: they’ve made too many compromises. They shouldn’t be respected for their wealth and power, which are signs of corruption.
At the same time that the Fatimids were overthrowing the Abbasids, the French and German kings were struggling to control the Pope. Both of these were long-term struggles over how the power of religion should work with or against the power of a king’s military and economic rule. Christians began with an independent but fairly helpless Pope, who allied with first Charlemagne and then various of his descendants. The presumption was that the church and state were separate, but various kings and Popes tried to bring them together. It was pragmatically better for church and state to be allied at times, but they were always fighting against the words of Jesus, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Reform movements tried to break the church away from state power.
It went the other way in Islam. Mohammed had been both prophet and military ruler, so his heirs presumed they could be both. When the Umayyads took control of Damascus, they could not claim to be spiritual heirs of Mohammed. Among the people, a tradition of spiritual leadership continued, separate from the Caliph’s power. The Abbasid dynasty temporarily united them again by claiming descent from a Mohammedan family member, but in reality their rule was secular and pragmatic too.
Because the presumption was that the ruler *could* or even *should* be both Imam and Caliph, the purest forms of Islam always insisted on unity of church and state. Reform movements sought to restore religious power to the state, instead of taking it away. The same tug of war occurred, but the attractors and repellers were exactly opposite.
It’s no wonder that Islamic regions of our time still have a different idea of church and state power. In order to understand why they don’t share our baseline ideas of a good church/state balance, I want to look at Shi’ite theology in a few essays. The Fatimid dynasty is the best time to look at the philosophical and theological side of Islam because it came in with missionary fervor. Muslims within the Umma converted to the new faction and then traveled to new regions to preach the gospel of Shi’ite Ismailism. Although any secular rule has pragmatic concerns, the Fatimid dynasty was chiefly ideological.