Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations


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

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.