Is Islam a Religion, or a Political Ideology?
It has become commonplace on anti-Muslim blogs, and on the lips of politicians like Allen West who assert that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology that controls every facet of the lives of its followers. I want to look at this assertion a little more deeply, and try to understand whether it is true or not.
First, the word used by Muslims to describe Islam is din, which is often translated to mean “a way of life.” This in itself isn’t very remarkable. Virtually all religions claim to be more than just a few beliefs and rituals carried out one day a week. Christians talk about being Christian seven days a week. Jews try to live according to the entire Torah, which is much more than just worship and belief. The Dharma that Buddhists use to guide their lives includes much more than meditation. And of course Hinduism’s Laws of Manu embrace every part of human living.
So where we really need to focus our attention isn’t on the claim of religion to inform all of human life, all religions do that. The question is how. Explicit in the accusation by West (and Newt Gingrich among others) that Islam is a political ideology and not a religion is the idea that Islam prescribes certain political systems. Is that true?
As is often the case it is a kind of strange half-truth. The first comprehensive Islamic work on politics was written in the 11th century by Mawardi. This was more than 300 years after the time of Muhammad, and after the Muslim community had seen several different political systems come and go. That work, Statutes of Government, sought to describe an authentically Muslim government, primarily in terms of the character of the Muslim ruler. After Mawardi Muslim governments honored his vision very little, and most Muslims continued to be ruled by both borrowed and ad hoc political systems. The last cohesive Muslim empire, the Ottomans, represented the most developed Islamic polity. But they didn’t control more than a fraction of the Muslim world at the time. And their empire ended officially in 1924.
This said, in response to colonialism, and the imposition of what Muslims saw as Christian governments on Muslim lands from Morocco to Indonesia, Muslims in the 19th century began to ask if there wasn’t an Islamic alternative to Western political systems. The result was a great deal of ferment and discussion, with various answers arising. Three of these are particularly important to our current debate. The first said that Islam was in fact a religious way of life that could be lived under any type of government. Islam was a religion, not a state, according to the early 20th century Muslim writer Ali ‘abd al-Raziq. In fact, such scholars argued, modern, European styles of government were both effective and consistent with Islamic values. Those advocating this position were called “modernists.”
Another group were traditionalists. They believed that over a period of centuries Muslim rulers and scholars had come up with a truly Islamic way of governing society (summarized in Mawardi’s work), and that modern societies simply needed to reproduce these older forms. In the event moving backward in history proved impossible, and not one contemporary Muslim government is based on Mawardi’s work.
Finally there were so-called “Reformers.” This group believed that old forms of Islamic governance would no longer work in the modern world. But they believed that certain Islamic principles of government should be maintained in truly Muslim societies. So, for example, they believed that Islam should have a Caliph, or commander of the faithful, but that it should also have what were called “consultative councils” or “shura councils” to provide legislation. These would be based on the principle of “consultation” found in early Islamic law and were thus said to be democratic. If you want to see a modern example of an effort to implement this kind of reformed Islamic government you can look at the Constitution of Iran. It isn’t like the old Persian Muslim monarchy. It is structured like the U.S. Constitution. But it isn’t a modern western style government either. And of course it is a Shi’ite state, which means that it has a whole different basis for political authority than Sunni states.
This debate about how Muslims should govern themselves goes on today, but of course there have been further developments.
By the middle of the 20th century Muslim intellectuals had fully realized that Western governments were not actually Christian governments. Rather, they were driven by a number of different political and economic ideologies that were also forcefully making their way into the Muslim world. These included democracy as an ideology, fascism, Marxism, communism, socialism, capitalism, and secularism.
Moreover Muslims became aware of the concept of “secularism,” particularly in France where many Muslim scholars went in exile, or to study. They understood secularism to be the major ideology of the West, and that secularism excluded religion from any role in public life. This seemed to be directly opposed to the idea that religion should inform all of life, including political and economic structures. Two reactions emerged. First, Muslims began to develop Islamic political and economic ideologies to compete with existing Western ideologies. Secondly, some Muslim scholars asserted that Islam itself should be seen as an ideology, and thus a direct competitor to these other ideologies. By the 1980’s this was a matter being debated intensely across the Muslim world. Was Islam an ideology? Was there such a thing as an Islamic form of government beyond the old traditional Muslim monarchies? Was there such a thing as Islamic economic theory?
I emphasize that Islam as an ideology was being debated because many Muslims didn’t feel that their religion was an ideology. They just didn’t think it played the same role in human society as democracy, or fascism, or Marxism. And let me explain why. All these ideologies were based on the human observation of human behavior and social progress. They had nothing to do with Divine revelation. For many Muslims calling Islam an ideology was demeaning, as it would have been to call Christianity or Judaism ideologies. Religion, in their mind, was supposed to play a higher, more exalted role in human life than just a political and economic ideology.
Still, Muslim debates about Islam as an ideology set the stage for modern accusations that Islam is an ideology and not a religion, because you can certainly find Muslims who assert that it is an ideology, not “just” a religion. It is easy to find books on Islamic government and Islamic economics and Islamic family theory and Islamic human rights theory, Islamic international law theory, and even Islamic theories of knowledge and science! All of these are efforts by some Muslims to assert that in every aspect of modern society their religion is relevant. They want to assert that Muslims don’t need to borrow anything from the West.
But are they the true representatives of Islam? Probably not. For over a thousand years Muslims didn’t think of Islam as anything other than a religion just like Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism and Buddhism. Yes, it informed all aspects of life – as did every other religion. But it also borrowed a lot. Muslim governments were structured in ways borrowed from Greeks and Persians. Islamic theology, pursued by the falsafa or philosophers, borrowed heavily from Greek philosophical thinking. Indeed Islam preserved and transmitted to the West much of the Greek political and metaphysical philosophy that had been lost. A lot of supposedly Islamic law about government was simply ratifying existing forms of local government and translating Greek and Persian names into Arabic.
What we need to recognize is that modern Muslims do not agree on whether Islam should be considered an ideology, just as they do not agree on what constitutes and Islamic government or even whether there should be Islamic governments! Islam is a complex and multi-faceted religion, and realizing this is the first step to understanding the truth about Islam.
And…It is a religion, not a political ideology.