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Islamic Shariah and the Kingdom of God

In some places, non-Muslims are experiencing enormous restrictions on their human rights in countries where Islamic Sharia law forms the basis of the constitution. It is part of the self-image of such countries to protect and promote Islam, while members of other religions are tolerated, but their rights are often significantly restricted in comparison to the rights of their Muslim fellow citizens.[i] This concerns dress codes, the practice of religion, the possibility of passing on one’s own faith in a missionary capacity, and the right to leave Islam or convert to another religion. The latter is justified by the fact that apostasy from Islam is seen as treason against the Islamic state and would undermine it.[ii]

While traditionalist Muslims often denounce the numerous human rights violations committed by secular democracies, many non-Muslims find their approach to fundamental rights equally offensive. These traditionalist Muslims will often claim that there is an objective moral standard in an Islamic community through Sharia law. However, this standard goes against the understanding of basic human rights as laid down in fundamental texts such as the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One of the greatest difficulties with the position of Sharia as an objective moral standard and legislative authority is that there has been no universally recognized Muslim ruler since the reign of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed (632-661). Instead, the Islamic community splintered into several subgroups, some who had very different views of theology and Islamic law.[iii] Even the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, who remained in power for around 650 years and ruled large parts of the Islamic world, were never recognized by many Arab scholars as legitimate rulers of the Islamic world. From a Muslim point of view, however, the legitimacy of the respective earthly head of the Islamic state plays a decisive role. Muslims can only be sure that they can lead their life according to the standards of divine law within the Islamic community.[iv] However, even among Muslims, there has never been consensus concerning the correct application of Sharia law nor the legitimacy of Islamic rulers.

Concerning the application of Shariah law, Muslims often presuppose a reliable historical consensus among their religious scholars (Ulema). It is also assumed that this consensus was free from corruption due to the separation of powers between the jurists and the caliphate throughout history. However, the integrity and neutrality of this so-called consensus are questionable. In theory, it was the task of the caliph and his representatives to implement the Sharia regulations in the way the Ulema unbiasedly agreed upon. However, to secure the Ulema’s support, Islamic rulers often granted them and their followers high positions and land ownership as incentives.[v] In practice, the Islamic rulers did not allow the jurists to be completely outside their influence and the courts to act independently. In addition, it was risky to replace local traditions and laws of the subjugated with Islamic laws. As a result, the Sharia was often contextualized with competing local practices of the non-Muslims.

The authoritative character of Sharia law is not questioned in established Islamic theology. Still, even here, there are always different views on the correct interpretation and application of Sharia law in individual cases. Thus, for all the objectivity of Islamic law postulated by traditionalist Muslims in general, it cannot be regarded as a collection of clearly defined laws. It can be interpreted differently to a certain extent, which is reflected in the conflicting views that prevail both between the four Sunni schools of law and within the schools themselves.[vi] In practical matters of life, this repeatedly leads to Muslims following the school of law whose view is most favorable to them on a case-by-case basis. Even in early Islamic history, “the” Sharia never existed in the form of a formal code that could claim to be universally valid.[vii] Nevertheless, despite all the differences in the understanding of how the Sharia is to be interpreted or the legitimacy of the respective Islamic rulers, the theocratic principles of Islam remain intact. The aim is to bring this world closer to the divinely ordained state in all areas until the entire world professes Islam and has the commandments and prohibitions given by Allah himself as its standard.[viii]

This starkly contrasts biblical statements about the Kingdom of God and the ethics demanded by God, as can be seen, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount. According to the traditional Christian understanding, this Kingdom of God is only visible in the individual followers of Jesus, who should strive to live according to God’s will and represent Him in this way. From this Christian self-understanding of personal discipleship and voluntariness, it follows that it is not the task of states to guarantee the discipleship of Christ nor to legislate a biblical ethic. This results in an understanding that within a community, people live with varying degrees of willingness to implement the demands of Christian ethics together. Reflecting on the church’s self-image, this understanding becomes clear at various points. For example, when the apostle Paul calls on the Christians in Rome to submit to the state authorities and understand them as God’s servants (Romans 13:1-5). He does this in the knowledge that their civil servants are not made up of believing Christians. Even if rulers often justified their claims to power in Christian theological terms, their understanding differed from that of an Islamic caliphate.

From Augustine onwards, via Thomas Aquinas and numerous medieval authors, we find the understanding that ecclesiastical authorities could certainly influence matters of secular power. However, a state on this side could never be in a position to be the highest, most perfect form of polity. Contemporary Christian philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and others, have also emphasized the importance of a transcendent, metaphysical foundation as a necessity for objective morality. Nevertheless, like the many Christian thinkers, they come to different conclusions regarding the principles for coexistence in society. From a traditional biblical-theological perspective, the Kingdom of God is being realized “now” and “not yet.” As mentioned, this understanding has been evident throughout church history. Within the framework of Christian orthodoxy, there is no theocratic conviction comparable to that of an Islamic caliphate.

This article is adapted from a research paper “Islamic Influencers and Secularism.

[i] Schirrmacher 2003:106

[ii] Schirrmacher 2003:104

[iii] Schirrmacher 2015:90

[iv] Nagel 2001:255-256

[v] Robinson 1988:39

[vi] Nagel 2014:200

[vii] Robinson 1988:30

[viii] Nagel 2014:160

Works Cited

Nagel, Tilman (2001). Islam. RGG4 . 255-256.

Nagel, Tillmann (2014). Angst vor Allah?: Auseinandersetzungen mit dem Islam. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Robinson, Francis (1988). Weltatlas der alten Kulturen: Der Islam. 3. Edition. München: Christian Verlag GmbH.

Schirrmacher, Christine (2003). Der Islam: Geschichte – Lehre. Unterschiede zum Christentum. Band 1. Holzgerlingen: SCM-Verlag GmbH & Co. KG.

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