Faith & Politics: The Reign of God in Christianity and Islam (Part 1)

By Jesse Wheeler

“Among the many characterizations and sweeping generalizations which flourish in the realm of the study of the relationship between Islam and Christianity, one of the most persistent is the statement that goes something like this: Christianity is not essentially concerned with earthly matters like politics and the state but concentrates rather on spiritual matters, while Islam on the other hand is integrally bound up with the affairs of this world, politics and state included.” [1]

With the above statement, historian of religion Hugh Goddard challenges the popular and widespread assumption that ‘Islam’ and ‘Christianity’ represent two distinct, even contradictory approaches to the question of faith and politics.

Polemicists and apologists from both ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ communities have repeatedly built upon this assumption to attack the other, with arguments ranging from the “monastic and otherworldly worthlessness” of Christianity to the “bloody hands and this-worldly dirtiness” of Islam. Even well-meaning commentators, Christian and Muslim alike, build upon this assumption to develop their theological positions. In writing about Qur’anic interpreter Yusuf Ali, Dudley Woodberry writes,

“Yusuf Ali, in his notes on the Qur’an, contrasts Islam with what he considers the ‘monastic’ tendencies of the Sermon on the Mount with its emphasis on ‘the poor in spirit, those who mourn and the meek, noting that ‘Allah’s kingdom requires also courage, resistance to evil…firmness, law and discipline which will enhance justice.’ God does not mean that believers should have ‘gloomy lives!” [2]

The problem is that these popular assumptions, when viewed from both an historical and theological vantage point, are blatantly false. While each tradition approaches the intersection of faith and politics in unique ways, I am convinced that BOTH Islam and Christianity offer deeply political visions for state and society. And, this distinction has important consequences for both interfaith cooperation and Christ-centered witness.

As I follow current events in Egypt, I encounter numerous popular assumptions about the intersection of faith and politics. For example, with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, many have been asking the question, “What future is there for ‘Political Islam?’”
Egyptian evangelical blogger Ramez Atallah calls the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, “The greatest blow to political Islam in history.” For his part, Robert Fisk recently stated that “Many are those who see [the Brotherhood’s] defeat as the beginning of the end of the Islamist ‘ideology,’ the idea that Islam alone can right the wrongs of the world if only it was allied to political power.”

I assert, however, that politics has always occupied a central place in the theology and practice of Islam, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Yet, I ALSO assert that Christianity is, has been, and in-fact should be every bit as political as Islam!

History

As an historian of comparative religion, Goddard traces the development of political thought in both Christianity and Islam from their origins to the present. He observed that such popular assumptions as presented above “neither accord with the historical evidence for the development of the two traditions nor take account of the diversity” inherent within.

In actuality, Christian political expression has been as diverse as that of persecuted (and vociferously pacifist) minority in the early Roman Empire to the fully theocratic visions of Emperor Justinian’s Byzantium or Calvin’s Geneva. At times, the intersection between faith and politics has had disastrous consequences, particularly the medieval crusades, the Spanish inquisition, and the American religious right. Other times, however, this intersection has proven quite fruitful, as with the efforts of William Wilberforce in the abolishment of the English slave trade, Rev. Martin Luther King’s leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the collapse of South African apartheid.

In many respects, medieval asceticism, modern-era evangelical pietism, and an early misapprehension of Christ’s teachings (to be explored in part 2) have been largely to blame for Christianity’s otherworldly reputation. In reference to the modern missionary movement, Goddard writes,

“Many missionaries [to the Muslim world] came from a Pietist background, where it was indeed assumed that the faith had nothing to do with politics, and this claim formed part of their preaching on the superiority of Christianity to Islam. In the context of Christian-Muslim polemic, however, the statement was taken up by Muslim apologists and turned on its head as a means of demonstrating the superiority of Islam.”

In reference to the union of faith and politics, what Christians took centuries to achieve, Muslims took 20 years. Political and religious authority combined in the person of Muhammad and, in subsequent generations, Muhammad’s life and rule became the model upon which the Islamic faith was built, leading IMES Director Martin Accad to speak of Islam (ideally) as “an institutionalized religious phenomenon par excellence, [with] Islamic law, Shari’a, as the most authentic manifestation of Islam.”

Within 30 years after the death of Muhammad, however, such an integration of faith and politics was never again to be achieved in the history of Islamic societies. As with historically Christian societies, any attempt to make it so nearly always produced mixed results. As a result, Muslim societies have been as every bit as politically diverse as Christian ones, from Islam’s theocratic origins in 7th century Medina to life as a religious minority in non-Muslim majority contexts.

Yet, “the norm in the Islamic world,” Goddard writes, “has been for there to be separate religious and political institutions” very much similar to that seen in large segments of Christian history, “where political and religious authorities seek some kind of partnership, but remain distinct, and thus have ample opportunity for conflict and confrontation.”

Outside of a few select historical moments, the reality is that religious authority has always existed side by side in a complex and tenuous relationship with political authority, be it Christian or MuslimOne critical distinction nevertheless remains, leading Goddard to conclude:

“My suggestion therefore, as a generalization, is that Christianity, as a religion, is certainly interested in politics, even if it is less concerned with the intricate details of the state; in the Islamic tradition, by contrast, the state itself is conceived as a religious institution, and religious authority has therefore had a more intimate involvement in the institutions of the state. This, I suggest, is far more true to the realities of the two traditions.”

Once again, while each approach the intersection of faith and politics in different ways, I am convinced that BOTH Islam and Christianity offer deeply political visions for state and society. And, this distinction has important consequences for both interfaith cooperation and Christ-centered witness…to be explored in Part 2.

————————————————

[1] Hugh Goddard, “Some Reflections on Christian and Islamic Political Though” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (vol 1, no. 1, 1990).

[2] J. Dudley Woodberry, “The Kingdom of God in Islam and the Gospel” in The World of Islam: Resources for Understanding, (GMI: 2000).

4 thoughts on “Faith & Politics: The Reign of God in Christianity and Islam (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for this article, dear Jesse. I appreciate your effort and diligence in exploring this topic.

    The most puzzling statement for me is: “I ALSO assert that Christianity is, has been, and in-fact should be every bit as political as Islam!” Using the present tense “is” reflects, as far as I understand, your belief that this is a tenet in Christianity (otherwise we violate a fundamental teaching), while using “should be” affirms a calling for today’s Christian community to adopt political views as does Islam.

    While I have several important points to make, i will try to be concise. First, regarding “popular assumptions,” it seems you disagree with or dismiss some of them. In my opinion, they reflect current understandings of the interpretation of ancient sacred texts of both sides. These understandings cannot be dismissed, as they establish what the current society really understands about politics.

    Second, by stating that “While each tradition approaches the intersection of faith and politics in unique ways,” I assume you mean the earliest extant tradition of both faiths, which, accordingly, reflect the basic understanding of the mainstream community of believers of each system regarding “faith and politics.” I do not see how you deduced/concluded that Christianity and Islam, in their earliest basic texts, have “offer[ed] deeply political visions for state and society.” Were you relying on Jesus’ statements, or Paul’s, or others regarding treating/viewing Ceasar; and were you considering the Quranic concepts of a unified believing umma under the leadership of a political leader?

    Third, in fact, your choice of the fall the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, seems to refute the basic thesis of this article as far as I could discern. While “Christian” modern/contemporary thought has often made a clear distinction between faith and politics (though regularly violated by politicians and religious leaders alike, I believe, based on a correct understanding of New Testament passages), “Islam” was clearer from day one: faith/politics are in one pot—no separation. In fact, MB’s slogan/credo is: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” Thus, I am not sure what Muslim views you argue that Christians should adopt regarding politics, and whether you are more concerned with Christian ethics or contemporary interpretation.

    Fourth, there are some statements that I couldn’t match together, believing they represent a discrepancy: “In reference to the union of faith and politics, what Christians took centuries to achieve, Muslims took 20 years” and “Within 30 years after the death of Muhammad, however, such an integration of faith and politics was never again to be achieved in the history of Islamic societies.” I disagree with both statements, and much more with Goddard’s statement: “the norm in the Islamic world has been for there to be separate religious and political institutions.” Elaborating on these statements requires an article in itself.

    Well, brother, I just thought to reflect on your valuable article, and look forward to the second part. Loads of appreciation and love in Christ.

  2. Very interesting blog. I am one that had the tendency to think that religion should not be political, but then you brought up Martin Luther King, Jr. So I started asking myself, what is meant by political? Not know a vast amount about MLK, I turned to my co-worker who lived through that era. He helped me flush out that I see what MLK did was not partake in something political, rather it was social justice. Then he asked me the key question: is Gay marriage (big topic today in the USA) political or social justice? My response: Depends on who is bring it up, if it is someone trying to gain power over others and see that as a great way to get support, it is political. If it is someone that is denied access to the person they have been committed to for many years, then it is social justice. This made me realize that the way I filter the statement: both Islam and Christianity offer deeply political visions for state and society, I interpret that to be endorsing the using of religious views to have power over people with of other faiths. I have a feeling this is NOT what you are saying, so could you clarify?

    • Thanks for your comments. You make some excellent points which do indeed need clarification. I hope Part 2 will clarify some of your concerns where I explore the topic from a more theological, as opposed to historical vantage point. To your concerns, I personally don’t distinquish between politics and social justice. I consider issues of social justice to be deeply political, as they concern the misuse of power by one person or group of people over another. Also, I absolutely DO NOT endorse to use of using political power to force my religious views upon others, unless of course those views are justice, peace, etc. I am making a case that the Christian religion is a holistic religion that doesn’t ignore issues typically viewed as political, and is every bit concerned with “this worldly” issues as Islam. How one uses power, particularly state power, is indeed a major point of distinction.

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