Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

21
State and Society
under Islam 21

Christendom and Islam are in many ways sister civilizations, both drawing on the shared heritage of Jewish revelation and prophecy and Greek philosophy and science, and both nourished by the immemorial traditions of Middle Eastern antiquity. For most of their joint history, they have been locked in combat, in an endless series of attacks and counter-attacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests. But even in struggle and polemic they reveal their essential kinship and the common features which link them to each other and set them apart from the remoter civilizations of Asia.

As well as resemblances, there are, of course, profound disparities between the two, and these go beyond the obvious differences in dogma and worship. Nowhere are these differences more profound—and more obvious—than in the attitudes of these two religions, and of their authorized exponents, to the relations among government, religion, and society. The founder of Christianity bade his followers “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things which are God’s”—and for centuries Christianity grew and developed as a religion of the downtrodden, until Caesar himself became a Christian and inaugurated a series of changes by which the new faith captured the Roman Empire and-—some would add—was captured by it.

The founder of Islam was his own Constantine and founded his own empire. He did not therefore create—or need to create—a church. The dichotomy of regnum and sacerdotium, so crucial in the history of Western Christendom, had no equivalent in Islam. During Muhammad’s lifetime, the Muslims became at once a political and a religious community, with the Prophet as head of state. As such, he governed a

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