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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)

The Relationship between Religion and Politics

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.