WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ‘POLITICAL ISLAM’ AND HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM OTHER KINDS OF ISLAM?
I hope we’ve all got past the stage of speaking about ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and begun to get used to ‘Islamism’, ‘political Islam’ or ‘radical Islam.’ We’re talking about Muslims who have a clear political agenda of one kind or another. But it’s important to recognize that Islamists are not all the same. Some believe in democracy, pluralism and human rights, while others do not. Some believe that violence is sometimes justified in pursuing an Islamic agenda, while others reject the use of violence. They all want to see Islamic principles applied in the public sphere; but they recognize the huge differences in the political make-up of states all over the world and have different ideas about how a particular state could be more Islamic.
Political Islam is therefore different from what we might call ‘Traditionalist’ or ‘Orthodox Islam’, in which Muslims want to conserve Islam as far as possible as it has been practiced for centuries and with the minimum of concessions to modernity, and have little desire to change the political status quo in the countries where they are living.
It’s very different from the Folk Islam or Popular Islam which is practised all over the world. We’re grateful to people like Paul Hiebert and Bill Musk who have explained how Islam is often mixed up with primal religion which includes a great deal of magic and superstition. These Muslims are not so interested in politics, and their main concern is to find a source of power to deal with all the evil forces in spiritual world around us and with all the problems of daily life.
And political Islam is different from Liberal or Modernist Islam. These Muslims believe that Islam can and must change as society changes. They want to be free in their interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition and flexible in the way they interpret Islamic law in the modern world.
So when we’re talking about political Islam, we’re thinking about Muslims who want to change the world by making their communities and their countries more Islamic and by ordering them more consistently in accordance with divinely revealed law.
IS ISLAM ESSENTIALLY MORE POLITICAL THAN CHRISTIANITY?
This is a difficult question, and before I give my own answer, I want to point out the danger of ‘essentialism’, the idea that we can easily describe the essence or the essential nature of something. We make generalizations like ‘Islam is essentially this or that;’ ‘Islam is by its very nature like this.’ And of course it’s tempting for non-Muslims – and especially Christians – looking in from outside and from what we think is a neutral, objective vantage point, to believe that we know better than Muslims do what is Islam really is.
I’m hesitant therefore to use words like ‘essentially’ and become more and more cautious about sweeping generalizations and sentence that begin ‘Islam is …’. I find myself speaking more about Muslims in all their variety and diversity than about Islam as something that is monolithic and unchanging.
So if I can answer the question in my own words, I would want to say, ‘Yes, I believe there are several reasons why Muslims tend to be more politically-minded than Christians; but even this sentence needs to be qualified by several “buts”.’
We would have to begin by pointing out the obvious difference between the lives of Jesus and Muhammad: Jesus died on a cross, while Muhammad in the Hijra moved from being the persecuted prophet in Mecca to become (using the title of Montgomery-Watt’s classic) both ‘prophet and statesman.’ When Muhammad received the invitation from the Muslim converts in Medina to become the leader of the whole city, he probably saw it as an opportunity to establish a truly Islamic community living under the law of God. This why one Muslim scholar can write. ‘The basic emphasis of Islamic salvation lies … in … the establishment of the ideal religio-political order with a worldwide membership of all those who believe in God and His revelation through Muhammad …’ (Abdulaziz A. Sachadenia).
By 732 AD, a hundred years after the death of the Prophet, a vast Islamic empire stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West to the borders of China and India in the East.
Because of the example of the Prophet and centuries of Islamic history, therefore, – in spite of what I’ve said about the danger of generalizations – I believe Kenneth Cragg summed up a very fundamental conviction in the mind of most well-taught Muslims in this memorable sentence ‘Islam must rule’. A few thousand Muslim Arabs were ruling over a population which for about three centuries was largely Christian. So there’s a very obvious contrast between the first 300 years of Islamic history and the first 300 years of Christian history in which the Christians were a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire.
So yes, there are some very strong historical and theological reasons why many Muslims have been concerned about politics. But then we have to add a series of ‘buts’:
– Firstly, there have been several examples of political Christianity in the past. 300 years before the birth of Muhammad, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman state. The capital of the empire moved to Byzantium in 324 and Muhammad must have been aware of this powerful Christian empire to the north-west of Arabia. The popes filled the power vacuum after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, and the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 was a significant date in the development of Christendom. Didn’t John Calvin want to make Geneva a thoroughly Christian city? And wasn’t Christianity spread partly by the sword in Latin America?
– Secondly, Muslims believe that they can see examples of political Christianity at the present time. Islamists constantly claim that the world of Islam is under attack from ‘the Zionist-Crusader alliance’ of the West, and while we can challenge this kind of rhetoric, we must recognize that this is how we are perceived. Muslims might have more justification in seeing the alliance between evangelical Christianity and the political right in the USA as an example of political Christianity. And they would have every justification for seeing Christian Zionism as a very obvious kind of political Christianity, because it uses Christians beliefs to support a very clear political agenda related to the state of Israel.
– Thirdly, about a third of Muslims all over the world live in minority situations where they are not in a position of political power. They don’t all look back to the first Islamic state in Medina as a Golden Age that they want to recreate. Some of them compare their situation to that of the first group of Muslims in Mecca, while others see themselves as being in a similar situation to the Muslims sent by Muhammad to seek asylum in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. So we can never say that all Muslims are likely to have a political agenda.
In answer to this question, therefore, we can never get away from the contrast between the lives of Jesus and Muhammad. One of the temptations during the 40 days in the wilderness (‘all the kingdoms of the world in their glory … I will give you, if you will only fall down and do me homage.’ (Matt 4:8-9 REB) may have been the temptation to seek political power. But if the kingdom of God, the kingly rule of God, means anything, it can’t simply be about me and my relationship with God. Jesus said to Pilate ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world’ (John 18:30). But if his followers are called to be salt and light in the world, how are the values of the kingdom to be expressed in communities and in society as a whole? If we are critical of the political agendas of some Muslims, we dare not abandon the public sphere to secularists and Muslims. Christians must have a clear vision of the kind of just and caring society we want to live in. And this must have something to do with public life and politics.
 William Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, Oxford University Press, 1975
 Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, ‘The Creation of a Just Social Order in Islam,’ in Mumtaz Ahmad, State, Politics and Islam, American Publications, 1986, p 116
 Kenneth Cragg, Islam and the Muslim, Open University Press, 1978, p 78.
This is an excerpt from a paper presented by Colin Chapman at the Global Connections conference in London, England June 16, 2015. The full paper titled The Rise of Political Islam can be read in the research section.