What is the view of the relationship between religion and
by John Kaltner
believe religion is an essential aspect of a person’s identity
that influences every part of one’s life. Faith is not something
someone draws upon solely in moments of need or celebrates only
on a particular day of the week. Islam is a total way of life that
affects how Muslims think and behave whether they are in the mosque,
the home, or the marketplace. Every area of human existence comes
under the authority of Islam.
there is no separation between religion and politics in Islam.
The close connection between the two was established in the earliest
days of the faith, when the Prophet Muhammad was considered to be
both a religious guide and a political leader. When he migrated
from Mecca to Medina in 622 to serve as a judge for the people there,
Muhammad insisted that the local population acknowledge him as both
a mediator who would settle their disputes and a prophet who had
been chosen by God. Similarly, members of his own community considered
him to be a model of piety who was the supreme authority in matters
of faith, as well as a statesman whose political leadership played
a key role in shaping the nascent Muslim ummah.
paradigm was adopted by the early successors who assumed the mantle
of authority over the Islamic community. The four Rightly Guided
Caliphs, who ruled between 632 and 661, also functioned as religious
and political leaders who enjoyed special status by virtue of their
having been Muhammad’s companions. As the Islamic Empire grew,
however, the demands and challenges of governing a community that
was spread over a vast geographic area led to changes in how leadership
was conceived and exercised.
and religious authority were eventually separated and no longer
identified with the same individual. Various religiously
based positions and offices—like lawyer, judge, and theologian—emerged,
and these individuals became the de facto authorities on
issues related to faith. This arrangement has continued into the
present day, and there is currently no Islamic country that gives
complete religious and political authority to one person.
that division of labor does not mean there is a separation between
the two spheres. Just the opposite is the case.
In Islam, religion is supposed to inform and influence the political
arena. There is no clear agreement on what the ideal
Islamic state should look like, but it is consistently held that
Muslim principles and values must be at its core.
maintain that Islamic law, or shariah, must be fully implemented
as the law of the land so that all can come under the authority
of God and fully submit themselves to the divine will. Others prefer
a modified version of this that would reserve Islamic law for only
certain areas of life like marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Still
others believe it is only necessary that the state and its representatives
not hold views or engage in activities that go against the teachings
and spirit of Islam.
the present day Islamic involvement in the political process takes
various forms. The Iranian
Revolution of 1979 led to the establishment of an Islamic Republic
that remains the fullest example of that form of government in the
world. The Council of Guardians, comprised of a
group of religious scholars who are led by the Grand Ayatollah,
ensures that all actions of the President and the Parliament are
in accordance with Islamic law and principles. In other countries,
like Saudi Arabia and the Sudan, Islamic law governs most areas
of life, and the political process is strongly influenced by religious
beliefs and rulings. Elsewhere, as in Tunisia, Morocco, and Malaysia,
a more secular model is in place with a wider separation of religion
and politics, not unlike what is found in the West.
interesting development in recent years is the growing presence
of Islamic groups that seek to operate within the system in order
to influence the shape and direction of the government. In many
cases, these organizations believe the ruling party is not Islamic
enough, and they attempt to rectify that situation. One of the most
important of these movements is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian
organization founded in 1928 that various Egyptian leaders have
sought to marginalize, and at times outlaw, throughout its history.
It is a popular group that has been allowed to operate more openly
in recent years, but it is still forbidden to function as an official
political party. Nonetheless, in the most recent Egyptian elections,
a significant number of candidates associated with the Muslim Brotherhood
were elected to parliament, which suggests it is becoming a force
to be reckoned with in Egyptian politics.
of the most hotly debated topics today concerns the compatibility
between Islam and democracy. It is true that democracy
remains an unrealized ideal within the Islamic world, but many observers—Muslim
and non-Muslim alike—maintain that this is due to a variety
of historical, cultural, and political factors rather than to an
inherent opposition to democracy within the religion. Many argue
that certain concepts central to Islam—like consultation,
consensus, and the use of independent reasoning—can aid in
the formation of a distinctly Islamic form of democracy.
©2006 John Kaltner
Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies
at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses
in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam:
What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring
of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.