Should Islam be involved in politics?

Well, between the Rapture in the US and the Queen speaking Irish over here, it’s been a pretty slow news week for weird-stuff-people-write-about-Islam, so I’m at a bit of a loss for this update, but someone found my blog by googling this question, and it seems like a good one: should Islam be involved in politics?

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that it’s always going to be tough to tell people that they shouldn’t use a system of belief in politics, especially religious belief, as religions are generally systems of belief that include issues of morality, ethics, conflict resolution, and lots of other things that seem relevant to politics.  Also, it’s just really hard to segment off your mind and not use parts of your brain.  (Sort of like what happens when I tell you not to think of elephants.  Obviously you think of Miley Cyrus.)

But recently there have been more and more people arguing that politics and religion should be segregated as much as possible, so it is worth talking about various religious traditions and their connection to politics and governance.  In the case of Islam, there is a very close connection; indeed, ‘Islam’ for much of history was both a religious community with thousands, and eventually millions, of members worldwide and an empire that spanned from Afghanistan to Spain.

And really, it all has to do with the structure of Islamic theology.  Much of early Islamic theology was based around the concept of ‘khilafa’, or the divinely-appointed inheritance of rule.  Khilafa, in turn, develops out of the Qur’anic conception of God’s connection to humanity, in which God directs humanity by providing them with Prophets, who serve as both bearers of a divine message, as well as leaders of the community that adheres to that message.  The example par excellence in the Qur’an is Moses (peace be upon him) and the Children of Israel – the Children of Israel were saved because they followed Moses (s’lm), who, in turn, was both their Prophet and their leader.  A parallel relationship is established between Muhammad (s’lm) and the early community of Muslims, so that allegiance to Muhammad (s’lm) was a marker for membership to the religious community of Islam that rejected Arabian polytheism, as well as to the political state that rebelled against the existing Meccan authority.

This system was expanded and developed in the centuries that followed – although Muhammad (s’lm) was the seal of the Prophets, with no more to follow after him, certain aspects of his rule were understood to have passed to the caliphs (the active participle of the same verb ‘khalafa’ as ‘khilafa’ comes from, so literally ‘one who inherits rule’).  Wadad al-Qadi, at the University of Chicago, has argued that there were four roles in particular that the early caliphs stressed as their inheritance – bringing people to Islam, defending orthodox Islam, codifying Islamic law, and defending Islam from her enemies, most importantly the Byzantines.  It was the performance of these tasks that made them fit rulers – indeed, the first caliphal dynasty, the Umayyads, was overthrown in part because of claims that they had failed to perform their duties as caliphs, and were instead simply kings (‘muluk,’ a term that carries with it a connotation of ownership or slave-holding in Arabic).

Thus, from its inception, Islamic thought presented a clear link between religious community and political community.  One of the on-going debates among Islamicists today is the role of non-Muslims in this system – it is possible to understand early Islamic constructions of allegiance as allowing non-Muslims to be part of the Muslim community, so long as they swear allegiance to the caliph, to Muhammad (s’lm) and his God, an oath that presumably would have been acceptable to Jews and Christians.  This is the argument put forward by Fred Donner in his most recent book, Muhammad and the Believers, and it has also been defended by Malise Ruthven and Hugh Kennedy.  However, there has been a contrary view that draws of things like the head-tax (jizya) paid by non-Muslims to argue that these communities, although they survived in the Muslim world, were never really integrated into the Islamic state.

The relationship between Islam and politics is more complicated now because there is no universal caliphate.  Some of the roles of authority have passed to individual heads of state and rulers, but more have passed to the ‘ulamat, the clerics and scholars of Islam, who are understood to inherit authority from the early community through their education and knowledge of Islamic law and custom.  Unfortunately there is rarely complete agreement between all of the ‘ulamat of the world, and with no overarching authority by which variation can be addressed and diffused, the whole system gets a bit complicated.  However, there has never really been any doubt that aspects of Islamic practice require an involvement in politics (or at the very least, an involvement in the collective actions of a whole bunch of people who all consider themselves connected to one another, which is sort of what politics is) – the Hajj, the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, for example, takes a tremendous amount of organizing and directing, a job that has traditionally fallen to one authority or another, as has the collecting of zakat, the poor-due, which I have talked about before.

What remains to be seen is how Islam will work in modern political systems, which is the process going on right now in Muslim countries around the world.  This is obviously something of a new thing, not because Islam is new or isn’t normally involved in politics, but because representative democracy is a fairly new concept, and really, it’s still in beta.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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