The Relationship between Religion and Politics

A group of girls dance to celebrate the birth of the prophet Mohammed in Citadeel, Amman, Jordan.  (hazy_jenius/flickr)
A group of girls dance to celebrate the birth of the prophet Mohammed in Citadeel, Amman, Jordan. (hazy_jenius/flickr)

Prophet Muhammad died in 632. The day after his death, three of his associates (Sahabah) met at Madinah in response to the meetings of other groups in the city, and at the end of their deliberations, one of the Makkan migrants (Muhajirun) was chosen as the first khalifah.


Khalifah (Arabic) or Caliph (English) contains various ideas, but the most important historical fact about the word "khalifah" is that it was not a commonplace political term for people in Arabia at that time. In fact, it may have been unprecedented. We must recognize that khalifah was a choice of vocabulary not familiar to people of that time-it was not shaykh, or malik nor imperator, all familiar terms for authority figures at the time.

The fact that it was a new word, denotes that the situation created after the death of Muhammad was a new situation that needed a new concept of leadership. When Muhammad died, the new political situation emerged because:

• Everyone who followed Muhammad at that time accepted the idea that he was a messenger of God

• They also accepted that he was the last Rasul Allah (the last)-(Rasul Allah was a transmitter of books - someone who was under the influence of WAHY, transmitting God's word directly to humankind, which meant that at any time what Muhammad said might be revelation, and hence normative, prescriptive, law.

• It was understood that no one else could succeed him in that capacity; no one after him would be able to make that claim. The Qur'an stated that clearly.

    In Arabic, the term khalifah means in a mundane sense "one who comes after," even as in the people who inhabited a campground after another group.

    The political institution of the khilafah (institutional form of khalifah) that emerged was thus a successor to Muhammad, but not to wahy (meaning the state of receiving revelation from God). The concept of khilafah was an empty vessel that became filled over time. The rights and duties of the khalifah evolved over time. The minimum definition that evolved was (although others developed more elaborate views):

    1. the khalifah was the protector of the Muslim community; as its protector, he can command armed forces and distribute the revenues that came to the state. He is the head of state but not the head of a religion in the sense that he cannot define what the religion is, and will never receive a revelation

    2. the khalifah does not have the power to legislate or innovate in the law.

    An important distinction to remember is that Islam did not begin as a political entity, but rather, a political entity began within Islam, or more properly, Muslim history. Islam is not the khilafah, nor is the caliphate synonymous with Islam.

    Imam and the Imamate
    Muslims conquered lands from the Atlantic in North Africa to Pakistan, but the majority of people living under Muslim rule were not Muslim. The spread of Islam to majority status took from 200- 400 years to achieve. Most people in the land from Spain to Pakistan never saw an Arab. At most 1 million Arabs came out of Arabia to conquer and administer the empire.

    Another concept emerged: Imam and imamah, or imamate.

    Imam is another concept important to the idea of religion and politics in Islam. At a minimum, he is a leader of the Muslim community. It has two meanings at least:

    1. Imam is a person who stands before the Muslims in prayer, sometimes the head of a mosque. There are many Imams.

    2. Imam is also a religious leader who stands at the head of the entire Muslim community; a greater leadership question arose, whether the Imam is the same person as the Khalifah. Some agreed he is the same, while others felt he is not the same-Ali ibn Abi Talib was the Imam and the Khalifah, for example, for the Shi'i, but not other caliphs. Historical evidence has it that the khalifah led the prayer & gave the sermon on Friday, as Muhammad did, and heard religious disputes, as Muhammad had done. Those who dissented that the khalifah and the imam are not the same, focussed on Ali ibn Abi Talib and his descendants and claimed that the imamate was not the same as the khalifate.

      Sunni and Shi'i
      Sunni believes that the assent of community brings forth a khalifah who is also imam, through a process of selection and confirmation, though many tended not to emphasize the imamate as a necessary category of spiritual leadership after the Umayyad's rise to the caliphate.

      Shi'i believes the Imam is not necessarily the political leader, but he is the religious leader of the community. Imam is designated by God, therefore holds unquestioned leadership but is identified in human society in different ways.

      There are twelve Shi'i hereditary Imams, but none except Ali ever held political power, commanded armies or collected taxes, but they were leaders of the religious society. Shiis would use this claim as source of political legitimacy.

      According to Sunni leaders, the Khalifah was the leader of political society. Every effort on the part of Sunni khalifahs to dictate what Islam was failed. Ultimately (by the 800s), the khilafah itself failed. The khilafah in its primary expression ended in 1258. From the 800s on they ruled over a shrinking realm, from the height of their power they lost power, and in the process of losing power, the concept of political authority became reified in the Arabic word for power or authority.

      Sultan was an attribute of the khilafah (use: "he has sultan," or legitimate authority). It is based on the use of the term in the Qur'an with reference to the duty of believers to obey the prophet and those in authority.

      By the year 1000 CE, people had taken the name Sultan itself as at title. It became an institution or office dispersing political power that was supposed to belong to the khalifah. A separation of power and authority thus took place as part of the leadership crisis of the khilafah. The ideal was that the khilafah, imamate can legitimize power of others. The reality was that the sultan wielded the power of the caliphate on behalf of the khalifah. Sultans pointedly did not take the title khalifah.

      Al-Mawardi (d. 1058) - most important political theorist in Islam, wrote a famous work on the concept of sultan. He described two types of sultan, both derived from the power of the khalifah - one in which the khalifah designates sultan, and another type in which the sultan seizes power, then is hopefully recognized after the fact. In the century before the Mongols, the khilafah declined. Decline of the khilafah began before, to the point that they became mere ceremonial leaders, receiving delegations, holding processions, but not wielding real power. The Mongol invasion of Baghdad in1258 was the turning point. A member of the Abbasid family was later set up in Cairo by a sultan as the khalifah, but he was not generally recognized as legitimate, and was seen as a mere puppet.

      An interesting social and religious phenomenon accompanying the decline of the khilafah after 1258 was that the hajj (pilgrimage) to Makkah began to take on much more prominence in Islamic social life. Ulama' and their donors established more religious institutions at Makkah and other prominent cities, and it became more common for people to learn and study for a time at Makkah, and they became very important places for people to stay and learn about Islam. The experience of Muslims was becoming more important than the khilafah as the center of Islam. Pilgrimage and study was an example of the re-centering of Islam. Thus controlling and facilitating access to the pilgrimage became an important source of power and legitimacy for local rulers of the Hijaz and the pilgrimage routes. A modern example is use of the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" by the Saudi monarchy as legitimizing its own actions, or drawing legitimacy from their possession, control and service to the holy places of Makkah and Madinah.

      Another source of re-centering was that Islam had developed a body of law in lieu of a Church, clergy; ulama' were practitioners, a group not centralized but distributed across the Muslim world. The ulama' were defined as those who possess religious knowledge and training.

      Mongol Rule of Law
      The Mongols introduced an important political and legal element that is not much recognized by historians. The Mongols were not initially Muslim - their rise to power was extremely traumatic for the Muslims. They were known among Muslims to adhere to another law system: Yasa, not Shari'ah. Muslim writers exemplified the Mongols' Otherness by how they slaughtered meat, and the fact that this method did not render the meat halal. Their retention of the blood in the carcass is an example of a horror story that corresponds to what Westerners bring out as the horrors of Islamic law in the media today.

      Mongol law codes--yasa--were a collection of yasas, or edicts. Shari'ah, or Islamic law, in contrast, is a system of logic by which a jurist derives instances from texts. It is a flexible philosophy and system of thinking about law. Muslims made a clear distinction between shari'ah and yasa. They equated yasa with qanun, or the Church law among the Christians. Muslim writers used the term yasa as if it were qanun, or a body of law, distinguished from the Islamic religious law. So Muslims made peace with Mongol law by equating Yasa with Qanun, but recognized that it could not be melded with Islamic law, though it could exist alongside it.

      The impact of the Mongols on law and politics in Muslim history was enormous, and so it brought about the issuing of edicts or Qanun, which because of the Mongols' power set the precedent for the ruler to issue laws. (Ex: revenue edicts - before the Mongols, each Muslim ruler would cancel the edicts of the former, as they had no permanent legitimacy.) With recognition of yasa, Muslim rulers began to issue edicts that had force like no former khalifah could ever do, they ruled by fiat, or edict. The Ottoman Empire benefited from this legitimizing of lawgiving by the Mongols.

      Ottoman leader Sultan Suleiman became "the Qanuni," or "Law-Giver" (while writers in the West referred to him as Suleiman the Magnificent). It was inconceivable that medieval khalifahs could have been given the title of Lawgivers. In contrast, all the Sultans began to issue a de facto law by fiat, pretty much doing what they pleased. However, there was a constraint on their ability to legislate. They recognized the Shari'ah as superior, and acknowledged that they were subordinate to it, and that they could be judged by the ulama' and must recognize that judgment. The bargain that emerged between the ulama' and the sultans was generally, that as long as the sultan remained subordinate to the Shari'ah and recognized the independence of the jurists, and as long as the Shari'ah was enforced in certain particulars-not all by any means-then the sultan could do as he pleased in the secular sphere. Ulama' clearly had no independent enforcement powers or armies, and they were increasingly hired by the Sultans, but still many remained outside of government, as an independent force that drew its legitimacy and strength from belief in Islam among the rulers and the ruled.] The highest power in the Ottoman state, was thus recognized as a source of power that was not in the sultan's own sphere. It was a potential system of countervailing powers (division of authority) that brought considerable stability over a long period of time.

      Ulama and the State
      The Sultan knew his place; the ulama' know their place as an independent group. It was a balancing act between anarchy (no government) and tyranny, a state which the ulama' also equated with tyranny. We see a spectrum of power from legitimacy to tyranny, with the political rulers tending toward tyranny, and the ulama' saw themselves as the brake on the tyranny of the state, and they served to a significant extent as that brake. The authority of the law (and legitimacy) was fragmented between the state and the judiciary.

      Contrast this with Western history, in which the countervailing influence on tyranny was often the fiscal power, or power of the purse exemplified in the cry "no taxation without representation".

      It is important to understand that we in a different system in the West should recognize the call for implementation of Shari'ah as a functional brake on tyranny, rather than thinking of it as tyrannical application of specific punishments or details. The meaning calls for implementing Islamic law today should be seen as an expression of opposition against tyranny. Muslims are using Shari'ah law as a call for a countervailing influence against the power of the state rather than as an impulse to see the detailed enforcement of specific aspects. It is the institution over against state power that is most important. They are using the concept of Islamic law in the same sense as in the West no taxation without representation represents-a philosophy in opposition to and restraining on the tyranny of the state.

      Western Influences
      The system in the Muslim world of qanun and shari'ah worked quite well for a long time; state was despotic, and the ulama' were largely controlled, but it was a force for stability. The 19th century was a watershed in that it broke down religious law in imitation of anti-clerical actions taken in Europe after the French Revolution, showing that it was possible to dispense with the religious law and the clergy alike, as in the maximization by Napoleon of personal tyranny. The Egyptians and Ottomans imitated Napoleonic practices, trying to build strong armies on the European model. In the 1830s they tried to destroy or diminish the power of the ulama', which they could not kill off, since they were lynchpins of society. See 19th century steps to overcome the power of the ulama'; Western law codes & reduction of waqf control (just as Reformation monarchs seized Church lands).

      Islamic law broke down because of influences from the West. Napoleon showed that it was possible to dispense with religious law entirely, as Napoleon did with the French clergy. In imitating Napoleon's policy, the later Ottomans also nearly dispensed with Shari'ah law by edict, separating it from power, introducing new systems of law like the Belgian commercial code rather than Shari'ah commercial law, under European instigation. They could not get rid of the ulama' by edict, but they could make them odious to the people, and they could render them useless by removing their sources of independence, using their power to rule by edict, for example to adopt Belgian commercial code, Napoleonic law instead of Islamic commercial law by edict. The colonial powers and the European advisers to these rulers were instrumental in encouraging this trend. Thus, the ulama' were increasingly marginalized in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Schools with Western-style, colonial curricula also helped destroy traditional power structure and aided in the formation of elites without Islamic knowledge, new groups who possessed other allegiances. These educational systems marginalized the ulama' by taking away their influence over education, and especially by putting the awqaf, or religious charitable foundations, in the hands of the state. This was a major way of diminishing the power of the ulama' to put charitable and educational foundations under state control.

      Over the course of the second half of the 19th and early part of the 20th ulama' saw their power drastically reduced, their traditional role ignored. The old bargain between the state and the ulama' had broken down. The prediction of the system had been that if the ulama' ceased to be a viable countervailing force and the state no longer submitted to Shari'ah law, then the state would become increasingly tyrannical. That has proven to be a correct prediction, if you look at the tyrannical states in the Muslim world. By the 1950s-60s you have the biggest group of tyrannies in the world in the Muslim countries, in the name of secularism. Would the Shari'ah have prevented such tyranny? It is hard to tell, but I would argue that the re-appearance of Islam in the 1960s and 1970s is a classic response to tyranny and proposal of a countervailing political system. This is what is reflected in the saying that "Islam is the answer," "Shari'ah is the answer," or the call to implement Shari'ah is to ask that the state submit to limitation of its power. It is a response to tyranny.

      We tend to focus on Islamic politics as though treat Islam and politics as if it did not have a context. We tend not to focus on the fact that the states in which these revivals have emerged are police state tyrannies, which if they happened in Europe, we would consider them fascist dictatorships. The Muslim revival does not come from nowhere, but it is part of a very long-term system that strives for balance on a basis that is very different, and we have not recognized it.

      The West, however, has tended to side with the state against the ulama' in Muslim countries, and in favor of tyranny. We have praised them for secularization, Westernization, modernization. We have regarded the dismissal of the ulama' as natural and normal as a necessity of modernization, following a Western model. In a very broad structural sense, Shari'ah is intended to curb tyranny rather than to impose a religious tyranny. People interpret Shari'ah as imposing a religious tyranny, but that is not entirely the point. It is rather the intended to curb tyranny. It is in a very broad structural sense, it action of countervailing powers in a system that has endured over centuries.

      See Bernard Lewis' new book, What Went Wrong: Lewis looks at the Muslim world and says that something else was supposed to happen other than what did happen, a statement that assumes the Muslims would necessarily have to follow the course that the West took in modernization. This allows him to ask why did it not happen in a normative way, that this what happened was somehow erroneous and abnormal.

      Breakdown of Secular and Religious Authority
      In contrast, one can look at certain things which conditioned how the breakdown of the secular and religious authority in Muslim states has worked out in the past decades:

      The first factor is marginalization of the ulama': Traditional authorities came to be less and less heard in Muslim societies, until contemporary descendants of the ulama' class themselves have recognized that they do not have a future in the sense that it used to be.

      The last third of the 19th century brought the advent of printing in the Muslim religious field. The outcome can be compared to Gutenberg and the print revolution in Europe, though it has come along with a host of other media such as TV, radio, cassettes, etc., but the politicization and dissemination of many different viewpoints is similar to what happened in Protestant Europe. The same general response and impact happened in the Muslim regions. Up to that point, for centuries, reproduction of the traditional ulama' as a group,and their method of exerting influence had been in the classroom, all male, person-to-person. After printing, the text became the authority in Muslim society, without centralized control by any authority as, for example, the Catholic Church's Index of books. Anybody could print an opinion. Islamic resurgence and modernism is most associated with printing of books, magazines and newspapers, as well as other media. Starting with Paris publication of magazines by Jamaluddin Afghani & Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Abul 'Ala Maududi, there have been scores if not hundreds of Islamic magazines and newspapers that published "authoritative" religious opinions on various matters.

      The process of disseminating authoritative Muslim opinions on Islamic matters left the traditional channels and began to correspond to what we do in the West nowadays; namely, we don't check an author's credentials as much as we look at the evidence and arguments in a published work.

      The second factor is that as the old ulama were de-legitimized, new authorities arose in Islam who did not have training as traditional ulama' -instead, they were doctors, engineers, pharmacists, lawyers turned out by the one-sided education advocated for new modernizing elites in Muslim countries-many are self-trained people. In some ways this is very exciting, and some in the past several generations brought phenomenally original and creative interpretations of Islamic matters. A common element is the lack of scholarly background or adherence to its methods in comparison to earlier ulama', and so they give the impression that they "wing it." There is a range from Jeffersonian to Hitlerian ideas among such contemporary Muslim writings, which cannot be said to be "Islam." This corresponds to the Protestant tradition in the West, including fundamentalism in the US today. Probably more religious fanatics exported by the US today than Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries export to the US. But because of the separation of Church & state, it is not mentioned by the government. Laicism is the marginalization of the clergy and to try to control the clergy by the laity.

      Characterized by empowerment of new authorities by print and electronic media in places where they were trying to marginalize the traditional ulama'.

      The Islamic resurgence of the 20th century is a young discourse; eventually, Islam will re-center. Secularism in the Muslim world is not a neutral or benign separation of "church" and state, rather, secularism has been anti-religious, anti-clericalism.

      The third factor is the creation of universal public education, mass literacy with minimal education about religion. At the same time Islamic publications are being churned out by presses with all sorts of new ideas, both horrible and promising. Creation of a mass market for these publications by un-credentialed authorities comes by universal education.

      The history of Islamic law is viewed by as a grab bag--you can pick what you want because no one knows the whole structure anymore. Salafi and political radicals using an Islamic discourse have different views than the traditional, though they reach back into historical groups in their political opposition. There are myriad views of Islam in politics now, none of which commands allegiance on the basis of a structure of authority such as the traditional ulama' made up. The structure of authority is now fragmented--secular authority lacks legitimacy. People follow by voting with their feet, going to be following what most appeals to them. A marketplace of ideas is there, in which no one can say what is right and what is wrong. Under these circumstances, Islam is currently in a crisis of authority (like earlier ones over khilafah and imamate, etc.). Islam has weathered such crises before, and found bases for re-centering itself (been re-centered by the Muslim community.) & will do so again. It's going to take a while.

      Muslims and the Post-September 11 World
      What has happened since Sept 11th, this crisis of authority has been building for 100 years has become salient. Now people throughout the Muslim world are trying to persuade others what Islam should be, but no one can go back to 200 years ago and defer to the tradition of the ulama,' read that tradition and know what the right answer is--that has been taken apart over last 150 years. Where Islam will go from here no one knows, but you can't go back to put together what is no longer there.

      However, the worst thing to do in the Western world would be to first portray this process of fragmentation as something utterly alien from Western experience. We have had periods of fragmentation in religious communities in the past as well, and those communities have survived.

      Second, to portray Islam as the cause of the problem, as opposed to being something that is embedded in a system, and the system itself has collapsed or been destroyed-largely at the hands of the state, not at the hands of the Muslims. That puts an enormous burden on those people who try to speak for Islam, to solve the problem. In other words, to collect a bunch of statements by Muslim authorities and to file through them, categorizing them according to what is good and bad, without looking at the role of the state system, which has produced a series of really vile tyrannies, and see that these two things are related to one another, and that the solution has to be part of that relationship. It can't simply be a solution in which the Muslims change their ways in ways that Americans like, and in the same process, let the tyrants rule us forever. So it is a very difficult situation that will require patience, and it will also require loving sympathy for a community that is going through that time. We are not going to solve it by in effect saying that dictators are good and Muslims are bad.

      Authors: Richard Bulliet and Susan Douglass.