Parts IV and V: Islam: Religion Plus

I wrote this a while ago, but have not yet published it on the blog, and I think it is quite helpful for understanding Islam. It is, of course, simplified and lacking in some of the nuance and specificity a longer work would contain, but it is meant to be only a crude and simple introduction and corrective to the Western understanding that Islam is a religion and nothing more.

Enjoy. As always comments are welcome:

Islam: Religion Plus (Part IV)

There are two central aspects of Islam that folks in the West tend to misunderstand. Because of these two flaws in our understanding we continue to make decisions and take actions that are ineffective or counterproductive in the Dar al Islam.

The second thing is the relation of power to grace. But the first thing, which is related to the second, is that Islam, properly speaking, is not simply a religion, but an entire civilization. Islam is a holistic and organic system of life that includes very specific regulations and laws regarding everything from inheritance to divorce, investing to commerce, and—here is sticking point—regulations regarding government.

Muhammad was the civil and religious ruler of the Umma (the Islamic nation) at the time of his death. Since a prophet gains immunity against sin once he has been called by God, he can do no wrong. This certainly gets around the messiness of dividing and distributing power, which the founders of the USA attempted to do. But there is a problem: original sin. For all have sinned! There is not one righteous, no not one!

Christianity has flirted with the union of all civil and religious power under one person, specifically in the idea of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was considered by some to be rex et sacerdos—King and Priest. But overall we have tended to separate the two spheres in some way or another.

For traditionally-minded Muslims, the idea of separating the two kinds of authority is unnatural and an affront to the human person, who is at once a political and religious being. Before you dismiss this insight, let me point out that the so-called alternative (secularism) is running into great problems nowadays. The reason for this is that it is very difficult to figure out where to draw the line between the religious person and the political person—as Islam rightly argues. Does the line exclude a prayer before Congress meets? Does the line exclude students from bringing Bibles into public schools? Does the line exclude atheists from holding public office? What about Satan worshippers? My point is simply that Islam has a good point here: the human being is at once political and religious, reflecting the unity (tawheed, wahda) within God. So any attempt to divide the two spheres must be, to some extent, artificial, mutable, and provisional.

But what is a religion? This might seem like a simple question, but in fact it is very difficult to answer. Christians in the USA these days like to say that Christianity is a relationship (with Christ), not a religion. I appreciate the sentiment behind that statement, but it is in reality totally false. A religion, speaking generally, is any system of beliefs and practices that teach people(s) how to relate to Ultimate Reality (what we call God). So the very idea that Christianity is relational is a very religious idea: we should relate to God personally, not impersonally; or personally, and not communally. Some people say they are spiritual and not religious—I used to say that. Now I say I am very religious. Let people draw their own conclusions.

Islam teaches that part of the relationship between the political ruler and the religious ruler is all encompassed within the submission, yielding, sublimination, or surrender (various translations of the Arabic word islam) that must characterize the community and person before God and his Prophet. So to those who say that Christianity is a personal relationship, not a religion, the traditional Muslim replies that Islam is a political relationship, not just a religion.

Islam: Religion Plus (Part V)

In Part IV of this series I established that Islam is more than just a religion, according to Western standards, which allow for a separation of religion and state. Islam contains within its teaching regarding the relations and duties of man before God a very specific political order. What is it?

It is the caliphate. The Arabic word xalifa (caliph) means “successor [of the Prophet].” When God appointed Mohammad to be the Prophet who would bring the incorrupt and incorruptible revelation from God, he also chose him to be a ruler over the Umma. The caliphate existed in one form or another through the 20th century (1924), lastly within the Ottoman Empire (whose successor is Turkey). Devout Muslims therefore long for and must work for the restoration of the caliphate. This was precisely the desire of Abu Mussab al Zaraqawi (a Jordanian mujahid), recently deceased. He was a devout and good Muslim. This may seem like a troubling statement, but in reality his devotion to his religion extended far beyond my own devotion to my religion, and probably yours as well. He was working to restore the caliphate, to unite all Muslim people into one Umma that would unite all the nation states of Islam. In his willingness to use violence as a means of ushering in God's gracious and righteous reign he was following Muhammad's pattern of life (sunna).

In fact, the existence of nation states is reprehensible to devout Muslims. They run against a central tenet of Islam: that there are only two religious-political entities in the world: Dar al Islam (House of Islam) and Dar al Harb (House of War). The vision of conservative Muslims (it is an error to call them fundametalists) is to bring all Muslim peoples into one entity. The combined power would be capable of completing the effort (jihad) of making the peoples of the world submitters (muslims) to God’s rule.

In other words, God’s grace is manifest not in bread and wine and water and oil (as in our religion), but in political rule. Political-religious rule is how God reveals his grace and goodness to the world. It is how he works to restore justice and peace and order to the world. Until that rule of God is completely restored, the Ummah must continue to exert effort (jihad) to work for that restoration and submission and surrender.

This is the good and glorious vision of Islam for the world. I do not agree with it, of course, which is why my family is devoted to evangelizing Muslims. My family and I want then to understand that true submission (islam) to God means submission to his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the image (iconos, in Greek) of the glory of God, as Paul said. If one rejects the Son, how can one say he accepts the Father? "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father."


Ben A said…
This is a vitally important elucidation on the nature of Islam. I commend its clarity and forthrightness.

A thought occurs to me, however (since we're dealing so closely in this series with the meanings--even etymologies--of words). I myself have often used the term "political Islam" to distinguish that face temporarily from cultural Islam and theological Islam for the benefit of Westerners, though of course Muslims make no such distinctions. But now I wonder if it's quite the correct term. "Political" is of course rooted in polis, the Greek term for an independent city-state like Athens or Sparta. Politics thus was concerned with the proper ordering of the city for the good of the inhabitants (or at least of the patricians).

I don't know myself, so I pose the question: Is "political Islam" an accurate term? It seems to me that the right ordering of society with a view towards prosperity and happiness and general order is not really the end goal of "political" Islam. Nor (if my understanding is correct) are discrete cities of the same historical importance to the Arab mindset as they were to the Greek. Possibly I'm putting too fine a point on all this, but I think it's worth asking whether we might find a better adjective: "judicial" maybe, or "authoritarian" or even "theocratic"....
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Ben,

I have no idea how long ago you posted this question, and I'm sorry for not answering earlier. You do raise an excellent point though. Yes, political comes from polis, meaning city--not village or empire or 'nation state', a concept which didn't even exist until a few centuries ago.

That having been said, I think the adjective political has expanded to mean any system or form of ordering a society, not a city, per se.

I would say though that in my opinion you are emphasizing the wrong side of the matter. Islam is always political. If you find a non-political form of Islam, then that is the exception, and would thus require the clarifying phrase 'non-political Islam' much like we would say 'non-Trinitarian Christianity'.

If you respond I will be glad to keep up this conversation much more punctually!


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