The Quran mentions Prophet Ibrahim’s debate with a person whom Allah had given sovereignty (Al-Baqarah, 258). The debate was concerning Ibrahim’s Lord.
According to most commentators of the Quran, that person was Namrud, a Babylonian king. The debate took place, most probably, following Ibrahim’s destruction of the idols and before he was cast into the fire (Al-Anbiya’, 51-70).
The following are some observations on the event.
Allah is the Owner of All Sovereignty
About Namrud, the Quran says that it was Allah who had given him sovereignty (al-mulk). Here an important message is presented, namely that Allah is the Owner of all sovereignty, authority and power.
He gives sovereignty to whom He wills and takes it away from whom He wills (Al ‘Imran, 26).
Sovereignty is a test from Allah which is loaded with heavy responsibilities. Allah tests certain people with it, just as He tests others with the lack of it. As a double-edged sword, sovereignty is intrinsically neither a privilege nor a source of pride. Nor is it a sign that Allah loves a person, or favours him over others.
In the same vein as everything else, sovereignty can be a cause of a person’s success or failure in his earthly assignments.
Certainly, Namrud belonged to the latter category. He was so blinded by his authority and power that he not only became a hard-core nonbeliever and tyrant, but also he regarded himself as a living god.
The debate between Namrud and Ibrahim occurred because Ibrahim rejected Namrud and his nonsensical claims. He believed in Almighty Allah alone and was inviting his people to do the same. With the debate, Namrud challenged both Almighty Allah and Ibrahim as His messenger.
The Genesis of Absolutism and the Divine-Right Theory
Namrud was the first ruler in history who combined absolutism – which was rooted in unlimited absolute sovereignty – with the notion of the divine rights of kings. He initiated the idea and instantaneously became its most extreme manifestation. The trend signified the culmination of mankind’s deviation from the path of monotheism (tawhid) to the abyss of polytheism (shirk).
As a result, rulers were held as absolute sovereigns. They wielded supreme dictatorial authority, residing above the jurisdiction of every regulation, law, legislature and tradition. They derived their authority directly from god(s), ruling through the Mandate of Heaven.
Every now and then, a ruler – like Namrud – would elevate himself to the level of divinity. This proved a good and effective way to impose individual programs and to control the masses. Ordinary people’s rights were denied and manipulated. They were mere subjects (subordinates, multitudes and mortal servants).
Hence, such rulers were sovereign deities on earth, operating either on behalf or independently from god(s) in Heaven. At times, they were also seen as direct descendants of god(s).
After Namrud, monarchical absolutism by divine right became very popular and widespread. It was a common practice in ancient Egypt (Pharaohs), Mesopotamia, India and China. Later, to varying degrees, most European monarchs also followed suit. For example, Louis XIV of France (d. 1715) is said to have proclaimed: “I am the State.”
It was held that God had bestowed temporal power on political rulers. They were free to do as they pleased, engendering unprecedented genres of cruelty and despotism. Opposing the practice – coupled with opposing the fixed and irrational dogmas of the Church – was the main goal of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe.
The aim was to overthrow absolute monarchies and replace them with republics and the forms of government that would promote popular sovereignty, such as liberal democracies.
The French Revolution was the most significant milestone in that evolutionary process. That explains why freedom and equality constitute the mantra of the modern civilization.
Needless to say that since day one, Islam opposed absolute hereditary monarchies. It is likewise noteworthy that whenever the true Islamic spirit weakened, Muslim rulers became inclined to monarchical absolutism.
Every so often, some of them yet resorted to the divine-right theory, while desperately trying to secure an acceptable level of legitimacy for their rule. Both the Umayyads and Abbasids were in part guilty of this development.
Indeed, all forms of political and religious absolutism are, at the same time, forms of Namrud-ism.
The Strength of Ibrahim’s Argument
In the debate, Ibrahim, apparently answering a question or an objection, says to Namrud that his Lord is the one who gives life and causes death, to which Namrud replied that he gives life and causes death.
The question that immediately imposes itself is why Ibrahim mentioned “giving life” before “causing death” when in another context he mentioned “causing me to die” before “bringing me to life” (Al-Shu’ara’, 81).