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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What is the view of the relationship between religion and politics?

by John Kaltner

Muslims 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.

Consequently, 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.

This 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.

Political 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.

But 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.

Some 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.

In 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.

An 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.

One 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.


Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John 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 (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts 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.


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