Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics

Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics

Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics

Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics


If Westerners know a single Islamic term, it is likely to be jihad, the Arabic word for "holy war." The image of Islam as an inherently aggressive and xenophobic religion has long prevailed in the West and can at times appear to be substantiated by current events. L. Carl Brown challenges this conventional wisdom with a fascinating historical overview of the relationship between religious and political life in the Muslim world ranging from Islam's early centuries to the present day. Religion and State examines the commonplace notion -- held by both radical Muslim ideologues and various Western observers alike -- that in Islam there is no separation between religion and politics. By placing this assertion in a broad historical context, the book reveals both the continuities between premodern and modern Islamic political thought as well as the distinctive dimensions of modern Muslim experiences. Brown shows that both the modern-day fundamentalists and their critics have it wrong when they posit an eternally militant, unchanging Islam outside of history. "They are conflating theology and history. They are confusing the oughtand the is," he writes. As the historical record shows, mainstream Muslim political thought in premodern times tended toward political quietism. Brown maintains that we can better understand present-day politics among Muslims by accepting the reality of their historical diversity while at the same time seeking to identify what may be distinctive in Muslim thought and action. In order to illuminate the distinguishing characteristics of Islam in relation to politics, Brown compares this religion with its two Semitic sisters, Judaism and Christianity, drawing striking comparisons between Islam today and Christianity during the Reformation. With a wealth of evidence, he recreates a tradition of Islamic diversity every bit as rich as that of Judaism and Christianity.


Most Muslims and most Christians have for centuries lived as majority communities ruled by governments that are at least nominally of the same faith. Even the religio-political struggles within Christendom and Islamdom have usually been intrafaith, such as Protestant versus Catholic or Sunni versus Shi'i.

Not so for the Jews. Throughout most of their history Jews have lived as tiny vulnerable minorities. Under such circumstances there was little practical need for a specifically Jewish political theory. Questions concerning the extent to which government, or the political community, should be guided by Jewish religious teachings simply had little relevance to the worldly situation of Jews. Indeed, only with Zionism and the creation of Israel did the need arise for defining the interaction of religious and political life in a state with a Jewish majority.

What, however, should the believer render unto Caesar when the particular caesar in question is of the same religious faith? Even more, what if this caesar presumes to be the defender of the faith, to seek religious legitimation for his rule? Such has been the lot of most Christians and most Muslims throughout the centuries, and it follows that Christian and Muslim thinkers have been obliged to address the questions of religion and the state in a way that Jewish thinkers have not.

From the historical perspective Jesus's instruction to “render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21) represented the political wisdom of a tiny minority seeking protection against government and the larger society by pru-

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