There is much controversy on the role of religion in politics in the United States. Many Evangelical Christians fervently support while others, equally emphatic, reject it. Many Muslims are also confused on this subject.
There is a huge amount of literature available on the subject of Islam and politics. Among the contemporary Western scholars is John Esposito, the professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. He is editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islam and of the Oxford History of Islam and author of more than 35 books on various aspects of Islam and Muslims. He also carried out a Gallup survey in Muslim countries and the results are presented in “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think”, 2007.
The interested reader is asked to check on some of the above books. A comprehensive discussion on this topic appears in Esposito’s “Future of Islam”, 2010. This chapter gives a short account of the Islamic understanding of religion and politics.
Islamic Basis of Politics
A Muslim’s vision of religion and politics is based upon the Qur’an and the example of Prophet Muhammad sallil Allahu aleyhe wasallam, along with an Islamic understanding that the spiritual belief and action are intimately related.
In quite contrast to the New Testament injunction “to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”, which prescribes a separation of church and state, Muslims believe that their primary responsibility is to implement God’s Will both in their private and public life.
Throughout Islamic history, being a Muslim has meant not only belonging to a community of fellow believers but also living in a state governed by Islamic laws. A believer’s responsibility to Islam and to his Islamic community overrides all other tribal, ethnic and national considerations. Thus politics is central since it provides the means to carry out Islamic principles to the public sphere.
Islam is a “total way of life”, since it informs on all aspects of a human life. The Qur’an emphasizes a relationship of religion to society and state. Such as humans have been given the role of God’s representatives on earth: "Behold, your Lord said to angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth”… “And if, as is sure, there comes to you guidance from Me, whosoever follows My Guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" (Al Baqarah 2:30,38). And as God’s trustees on earth, they are answerable to God in carrying out this trust responsibly: “We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; But they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: But Man undertook it – he was indeed unjust and
foolish” (Al-Ahzab 33:72). Furthermore, Muslims have a divine mandate to establish a just society, and serve as an example to other nations by creating a moral social order: "Thus We have made of you an Ummah justly balanced, that you might be witnesses over the nations" (Al Baqarah 2:143). The Qur’an also informs them: "You are the best community evolved for humankind, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong and believing in God" (Al Imran 3: 110).
As such Qur’anic verses guide a Muslim’s political and moral activism. Further exemplified by the conduct of Prophet Muhammad Sallil Allahu aleyhe wasallm and his companions in how they lived their lives and developed the first Muslim community. These early examples serve as a blueprint for an Islamically just social system that Muslims have taken for guidance throughout their history.
Islamic Polity Though History
After migration from Mecca, the Prophet established an Islamic polity in Medina, circa 622 A.D. A major priority undertaken by him at this time was to draw a Medinan Covenant (also called the Constitution of Medina) between its Muslim and non-Muslim inhabitants (including Jews), and establish it on the principles of social harmony, justice and equality. It stipulated that Muslims and non-Muslims will support each other against any outside aggression and an aggression against one will be treated as aggression all.
During the Prophet’s lifetime almost all of Arabian peninsula came under the domination of Islamic political system and his successors expanded it across North Africa, and through the Middle East into Asia and Europe.
Islam was the guiding principle for a number of great Muslim empires in history, extending from Umayyad (661-750), Abbasid (750-1258), Ottoman (1281-1924), Safavid (1501-1722) to Mughal (1526-1857). For these empires and other sultanates, Islam provided guidance for their legal, political, educational and social institutions.
In an ideal Islamic state the purpose of political authority is to implement the divine message. It is not a theocratic state ruled by clergy – but is a state based on laws that conform to Islamic requirements. This state should come into existence through the common consultation (shura) of its people and should provide security and order so that they could carry out their responsibilities, particularly “doing good and preventing evil.” There should be a balance between executive, legislative and judiciary.
Fall and Degradation of Muslim Societies
However, after being a great world power for about a century, by the end of 19th century most Muslims countries suffered from a state of internal rot and consequent decline. They became vulnerable to foreign aggression, and were defeated one after another by the European colonizers.
At independence in the mid- 20th century the departing colonial rulers gave the reins of powers to puppet regimes who would continue serving their interests. As a result, some rebelled and took over the rule through military coups. However, these dictatorships also coopted with the powers of the day in order that they could continue ruling their countries.
A result of the mad land grab by colonial powers was an artificial creation of new states without having much in common: This resulted in a great deal disharmony within a state. Such is the case within most West African countries. And after the fall of Ottoman Caliphate there was a deliberate attempt in creating petty states, such as the existing city-states of the Persian/Arabian Gulf.
As such, it is unbelievable that in this enlightened age there still exist anachronistic absolute monarchies in the Middle East that claim entire countries with their rich resources as their personal property to be passed on as inheritance among their family members while their people are held in perpetual serfdom. This is the situation at its worst with no political representation in Saudi Arabia, followed by United Arab Emirates and Qatar: and with limited representation in Kuwait, Morocco and Jordan.
A similar mindset prevails among dictators, who hold on to power at any cost, deny people their basic human rights, and tolerate no opposition whatever. This situation persists in the previous Soviet-colonized Muslim republics and in the deep state of Algeria, and in Syria with its ongoing struggle for liberation.
The ruling regimes in different Muslim countries practiced various combinations of nationalism, socialism and communism, etc., such as by Gaddafi in Libya, Soekarno in Indonesia and Nasser and his successors in Egypt.
Thus post-independence most Muslim societies experienced a widespread feeling of failure and loss of self-esteem. And modernization rather than leading for a better quality of life, caused a breakdown of traditional family, religious and social values. Muslim masses rightly blamed the imported Western models of political and economic development for their sad state of
Muslims Respond to the Status Quo
The inevitable answer to their recurrent problems, along with the rampant corruption of ruling and administrative elites, by Muslim masses was that they have strayed away from the straight path of Islam that had led them to glorious development and success in history. Therefore, the answer lay in returning where politics is governed by Islam.
Islamic renewal movements have existed throughout its history. The roots of modern Islamic movements can be traced to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), and his disciples Muhammad Abdu (1849-1906) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935). For a more detailed discussion of the mainstream Islamic movements see “Muslims At The Crossroads,” 2012.
There was a proliferation of a variety of Islamic groups after the Iranian revolution in the 1970s, and they became a powerful force in politics. The status quo governments responded with their own fake slogans. The militant Islamic groups came into being due to absence of legal outlets; they wanted to overthrow the existing political system and impose their version of Islamic state. All appealed to religion for their legitimacy and public mobilization.
A passing reference may be added regarding the Salafists mainly comprised of traditional Islamic scholars who support the status quo rulers. Previously they shunned any involvement, but became a substantial political force post-Arab Spring in North Africa. Currently they are responsible for much of the violence and other troubles in Tunisia. In Egypt they are currently supporting the rule under General el-Sisi. However, because of their support of the untenable corrupt systems and their extremist views on Islamic laws, there is not much future for them.
The mainstream Islamic parties have continued their work for reform in all Muslim countries through ballots not bullets. And where permitted, won various elected positions from local municipalities to parliamentary seats, held cabinet and other senior positions in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and of president in Indonesia.
These parties comprise of highly qualified members who have been elected as leaders of professional associations – physicians, lawyers, engineers, as well as journalists’ guild and trade unions. Many Islamist NGOs and groups provide a variety of social services such as schools, clinics, hospitals, day care, legal aid and youth centers. So much so that the existing government systems would fail without the support of their essential services.
An outstanding example of Islamists success is provided by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, generally known by its Turkish abbreviation AKP. It was formed from the Virtue Party headed by Professor Necmettin Erbakan, who was pressured by the Turkish generals to step down in 1997 and then banned from politics. The party was reconstituted in 2001 under the leadership of Tayyip Erdogan and in the 2007 general elections it gained 47% of votes, which increased to about 50% in 2011.
AKP is held as model by most mainstream Islamists worldwide.
Unfortunately, the Western governments have failed in their perception to distinguish between the mainstream and extremists. They have continued their support or looked the other way when autocratic rulers in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere intimidated and suppressed the mainstream Islamists or worked to reverse their electoral successes. With the onset of Arab Spring there was some welcome change noticed, but there has been no substantial change in policy towards the Muslims. This is happening despite their great rhetoric for democracy in the Muslim lands and its actual advocacy and practice in their own countries.
It must be realized that following the Arab spring, it is changed world for Muslims everywhere. They have seen through the prevailing faade, and would not tolerate any of the policies that subjugates them. Therefore, all fictitious assumptions of colonial era are no longer valid. This was apparent during the recent upheaval in Egypt, since no one wanted to be associated with the U.S.; Even General el-Sisi who receives substantial U.S. handouts and consulted with Washington in every step of his move, was quick to hypocritically criticize the U.S. administration publicly. America has lost its esteem and anti-Americanism is rife among Muslims worldwide. Therefore for its own sake, it is essential that America overhaul its deleterious policies towards the 1.7 billion world Muslims. Muslims don’t need any of its handouts – all they want is to live in peace and dignity as equal world citizens.
It needs to be pointed out that mainstream Islamists are not against the legitimate interests of the West, including the United States, but are mainly concerned about reforming their own societies for the better. They stand for genuine democratic principles, defending their freedoms and human rights, and for the Muslim right to live in honor and dignity among the comity of nations.
Apparently, the propaganda of status quo rulers and their protgs has infected a substantial number of Muslims, it is therefore important to clarify their position.
Mainstream Islamists in the Arab world originate from the Muslim brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928; the Brotherhood became the first mass-based political revivalist organization of the 20th century. Its members represent the only group within the Middle East that not only advocate but also practically demonstrate the working of a true democratic system within their ranks. They are very much aware of example set by the early Islamic leaders, and followed by the God-conscious through Islamic history. Here the leadership is not sought after but is considered a great responsibility. As such, there is no candidacy for positions in these parties but leadership for different positions is bestowed upon the most deserving among them in secret balloting. Their decisions are arrived at by common consultations; and the leadership is openly subjected to criticism in their meetings. They follow these practices honestly and sincerely that are set from the beginning in Islam through the pious Islamic tradition.
As such, the Islamic parties ranging from Morocco to Indonesia have taken an unequivocal stand for democracy, and human rights and against the prevalent corruption.
These organizations regularly train their members and imbue them in the ideals of Islamic faith and practice through a vast amount of literature written by respected Islamic intellectuals. As alluded to in the above, they are involved in a variety of social services to help their community and are the first responders as a party in case of emergencies. Wherever they are in power, they have proved themselves honest, sincere and incorruptible.
These parties have the experience of several generations and have grown and matured over the years. Unlike most traditional Islamic scholars who depend for their livelihood on the status quo system, they are led by self-supporting highly qualified intellectuals who are pragmatic and adept at coming up with innovative strategies. They are in tune with the public aspirations to revalidate and re-exert their historic past, insha Allah.
Following is a list of books referred to in the text of this chapter.
1. Siraj Islam Mufti, Muslims At The Crossroads, CreateSpace Publishing Platform, Amazon.com, 2012.
2. John Esposito, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islam, 4 volumes, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
3. John Esposito, ed., The Oxford History of Islam, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.
4. John Esposito & Dalia Mojahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, Gallup Press, New York, 2007.
5. John Esposito, The Future of Islam, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010.
6. John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010.
7. John Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.
1. Graham Fuller, The Future of Political Islam, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004.
2. Tariq Ramadan, Islam and the Arab Awakening, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012.
Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D. is a journalist and author. This article is taken from his forthcoming book “Islamic Dynamics” to be published in October, 2013. His other book "Muslims At The Crossroads", 2012 is available from Amazon.