A broader understanding of Muslim political culture is needed to garner the support of Muslim peoples to various forms of democratic participation for their better future. Political constitutionalism is a key element in getting Islam to become a partner to universal notions of democracy, pluralism, and human rights. Muslim political culture is informed by certain religious beliefs about political participation that support or reject a political sphere dominated by the regimes and the traditionalist leadership that has rationalized or legitimized the existing order. There is a correlation between religious and cultural aspects that intersect various forms of political participation in Muslim societies. These aspects have influenced the ways in which Muslims have conceived of their political space and their participation in them. And, although the Muslim world has increasingly blurred the line between religion and politics with major implications for political consciousness and participation in modern times, some sort of functional secularity has always predominated in negotiations about political space independent of religious presuppositions about its management.

The core problem in admitting traditionalist interpretations of Islam as having a legitimate place in the public forum is that various religious considerations of public discussions about political activity -- ranging from individual Muslims on religious grounds publicly condemning such acts as homosexuality or collective Muslim denial of women's right to marry outside the community in accordance with the religious duties in the Shari'a -- deny the public discourse an integrity of its own. This secular presupposition about independent public discourse is founded on the premise of universal reason, which actually excludes making moral and metaphysical claims bearing on political choices in terms understandable only in the context of religious guidance. Traditional Muslim leaders, who exercise enormous influence in the public sphere, have a problem with the position that rejects the right of the people to decide political questions by what they regard as the best reasons rooted in a transcendent sphere of Islamic scriptures. The issue of proper public discourse and choice is of concern for all religious communities who must share a public forum with other religious groups, without insisting on the idea of whole truth connected with their own truth claims. It is in this connection that the religious perspectives of Muslim traditionalists become critical in assessing the future of Islam. 

The problem with individual political action informed by religious commitments and desiderata is the potential for the entanglement of these commitments with public discourse and public choice that affect other individuals, whether religious or not. There are certainly boundaries in the public sphere that must be recognized, without insisting others agree with particular choices made, individually or in a group, on the basis of religious reasons that necessarily apply to only those who have declared their commitment to abide by its dicta. Thus far, the attitude of hostility, intolerance, and militancy against those who reject a particular response to the political issues has been the main source of conflict in Muslim societies.

There is something in the public theology of Islam that can mitigate this hostile attitude by clearly demonstrating the classical heritage that recognizes the existence of a private realm separate from the public one to allow for ethical pluralism to determine interhuman relationship without diminishing the role of religious commitments in developing a social democratic constitutional polity. The future of Islam will certainly be determined by its traditionalist interpreters: they can stifle any chances for Islam to become a source of universal ethical reflection in forging a global community, maintaining the narrow vision of the Shari'a-oriented public order that divides the world into believer and non-believer, thereby rejecting the inclusiveness of human associations. This inclusiveness is the vision of the future global community in which a religion like Islam with its experience in forging a pluralistic religious and cultural society has a lot to contribute for the common good of humankind.


Abdulaziz Sachedina is the Frances Myers Ball Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He has been conducting research and writing in the field of Islamic Law, Ethics, and Theology (Sunni and Shiite) for more than two decades. Dr. Sachedina has studied and written extensively on social and political ethics, including inter- and intrafaith relations, Islamic biomedical ethics, and human rights. His publications include Islamic Messianism (SUNY, 1980); The Just Ruler in Shiite Islam (Oxford University Press, 1988); The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2002); Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Theory and Application (Oxford University Press, February 2009); and Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, September 2009), in addition to numerous articles in academic journals. He is currently conducting research in Iraq and Iran on the role of reason in classical formulations of Islamic ethics.