The Riddle of Power and Religious Reform

There is a famous riddle about the dynamics of power in George R. R. Martin's novel A Clash of Kings. Let me post it for the benefit of those who are unaware of it:

“May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?” He did not wait for an answer. “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?” Bowing deeply, the eunuch hurried from the common room on soft slippered feet.


"Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?"

"It has crossed my mind a time or two," Tyrion admitted. "The king, the priest, the rich man - who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It's a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword."
"And yet he is no one," Varys said. "He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel."
"That piece of steel is the power of life and death."
"Just so ... yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like our own Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?"
"Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords."
"Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey?" Varys smiled. "Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law.


Tyrion cocked his head sideways. "Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?"
Varys smiled. "Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less."
"So power is a mummer's trick?"
"A shadow on the wall," Varys murmured, "yet shadows can kill. And oft times a very small man can cast a very large shadow."


The conclusion is startling, despite being so very obvious: Power resides where men believe it resides. This applies not just to political power, but power dynamics of other sorts as well. The one which is in my mind at the moment is that of religion: The power of who gets to decide what God ordains.

Imagine a Muslim man in anguish; he has uttered the three baneful words 'Talaq, Talaq, Talaq' (I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you) to his wife in a burst of anger. He is now full of regret and seeks council. Before him are three scholars. The first one tells him 'Your marriage is null and void. Leave your wife instantly.' The second one tells him 'Your marriage is intact. You said the words three times together but they will still count as one.' The third one tells him 'Your words are inconsequential. Your marriage was a written pact. It can only be broken in writing.'

Which of these three speaks the law of God? Who decides whether his marriage is valid or not? Just like in the riddle of power, it all depends on the man. Power resides where men believe it resides. The man will decide on whom to confer religious authority... and yet he is just a man, without knowledge of law or revelation.

This becomes acutely relevant when we ponder over the question of reform in religion. Liberal versions of theology are not terribly difficult to come up with in theory. If we consider Islam, there are numerous scholars who have worked out a number of different approaches. Yet, all that work remains academic, with little acceptance and following at large. Religious authority resides where men believe it resides. No attempt at reformation will succeed in practice unless and until men believe it to be true. In this fact lies the practical success or failure of religious reform.

And what controls what men choose to believe?


Salman Arshad said…

The best answer to your question is: "Allah knows best" :D

but if i believe i know better, the answer is: Economics
nuclearbattery said…
Brilliant post. The riddle was too good... will be quoting it in the future...

Tangential but.. I wonder if you think the same power dynamics apply to relationships as well. Do I react a certain way because I think you hold a certain power over me? (I mean relationships of love, not the same master/slave dynamic) ... if that makes sense. and I suppose the answer is yes, our treatment of one another has much to do with our assumptions of one another.
Sadia Khaf said…
It was brilliant I think the same applies to the relationships too. One accepts the authority of the other. One keeps giving orders because the other keeps following. It is a matter of your own beliefs.
F. said…
But who lives and who dies? :<

I think it's this realization of individual power that underscored my thinking in politics, religion...even learning. I may only have been an ordinary child, but it still placed on other people the burden of appealing to me with their laws, morals and 'facts'. I realized I didn't owe anyone my belief. Good for nurturing skepticism, bad for 'getting with the program' as they say.
naeem iqbal said…
As far as the power is concerened it is definately resides where men believe it resides.but if they have a strong stance on it.swinging swords for once or twice would also neither owe all powers to the men it needs consistency as the opponents are equally strong.As far as the religious issues are concerned power resides to QURAN AND SUNNAH and then it comes to SAHABA ,scholars and at last it comes to the men.its unfair to say that in religious issues power resides to the men.its a totally a different issue what stance a men takes on a special issue but it can't be interlinked with its power and can't be considered as his authority rather it comes under the obedience or disobedience. you may argue that different sects differ on a particular issue but NAOUZBILLAH some sects say that HAZRAT MUHAMMAD (PBUH) was not the last prophet so then what you will say that power resides to men or its a case of disobedience and KUFR.In minor issues n which ISLAM does not defines a clear cut path the string of power (as mentioned earlier) should be followed rather the sects or the own will for acceptance or denial.
Komal said…
I'm not sure I'm entirely with you in your analogy. The Muslim man scenario involves an interpretation of text, it's not a question of who has power. You made the switch from 'power resides where men believe in resides', to 'the truth is whatever we interpret', or something of that nature. I feel that's an unjustified switch, since the two have different meaning.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Komal

No, I am not talking about Truth. At least, not in any metaphysical sense. I am considering theology to be analogous to politics here. What is a political 'truth'? There is none, apart from the context of accepted customs and traditions. I think theological 'truth', especially its legal aspects, is of a similar nature.