How Politics Has Poisoned Islam

By Akyol, Mustafa | International New York Times, February 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

How Politics Has Poisoned Islam


Akyol, Mustafa, International New York Times


Since its earliest days, Islam has been used as a tool in power struggles. It's time for that to change.

We Muslims like to believe that ours is "a religion of peace," but today Islam looks more like a religion of conflict and bloodshed. From the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to internal tensions in Lebanon and Bahrain, to the dangerous rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is plagued by intra-Muslim strife that seems to go back to the ancient Sunni-Shiite rivalry.

Religion is not actually at the heart of these conflicts -- invariably, politics is to blame. But the misuse of Islam and its history makes these political conflicts much worse as parties, governments and militias claim that they are fighting not over power or territory but on behalf of God. And when enemies are viewed as heretics rather than just opponents, peace becomes much harder to achieve.

This conflation of religion and politics poisons Islam itself, too, by overshadowing all the religion's theological and moral teachings. The Quran's emphasis on humility and compassion is sidelined by the arrogance and aggressiveness of conflicting groups.

This is not a new problem in Islam. During the seventh-century leadership of the Prophet Muhammad, whose authority was accepted by all believers, Muslims were a united community. But soon after the prophet's death, a tension arose that escalated to bloodshed. The issue was not how to interpret the Quran or how to understand the prophet's lessons. It was about political power: Who -- as the caliph, or successor to the prophet -- had the right to rule?

This political question even pit the prophet's widow Aisha against his son-in-law Ali. Their followers killed one another by the thousands in the infamous Battle of the Camel in 656. The next year, they fought the even bloodier Battle of Siffin, where followers of Ali and Muawiyah, the governor of Damascus, crossed swords, deepening the divisions that became the Sunni-Shiite split that persists today.

Unlike the early Christians, who were divided into sects primarily through theological disputes about the nature of Christ, early Muslims were divided into sects over political disputes about who should rule them.

It is time to undo this conflation of religion and politics. Instead of seeing this politicization of religion as natural -- or even, as some Muslims do, something to be proud of -- we should see it as a problem that requires a solution.

This solution should start with a paradigm shift about the very concept of the "caliphate." It's not just that the savage Islamic State has hijacked this concept for its own brutal purposes. The problem goes deeper: Traditional Muslim thought regarded the caliphate as an inherent part of Islam, unintentionally politicizing the faith for centuries. …

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