Islam as a Spectrum

The Western tendency to essentialize any entity or ideology as “the other” has functioned as the myopic apparatus through which it has viewed the outside world since the dawn of its global predominance. In the modern era, this inclination has focused on no other subject as fixedly as it has on the ‘Muslim’ world. “Otherizing” Islam has stripped the religion of its vast jurisprudential divergences and Muslims of their cultural and societal diversity. To even pursue a research question that deals with the entirety of Islam is presupposing that Islam can be boiled down to an essential element which can be studied across many Muslim-majority nations, all functioning under independent political systems. Those political systems in particular are a subject of constant analysis by Western media, governments, and various knowledge-producing businesses, as we endeavor to etch a picture of the “Islamic World” as separate and even counter to our own world order. In the Western eye, such political systems are embroiled in religious sentiments that we see as inappropriate, characteristically unique to Islam. But how accurate is that claim, and how relevant is it to the actuality of how the interplay between Islam and politics functions in reality? In the pursuit of such knowledge, the following research questions are posited to elucidate a more nuanced approach in understanding religion and politics in Muslim-majority countries:

Is the understanding of Islam as a religion a Western hegemonic construction? To what extent can we generalize about Islam and politics? Does Islam have a particular/peculiar relationship with politics?

Through incorporating these questions into a broader claim, I argue that Islam, while variating and unique across nations, sects, and cultures, does generally have a special interest in state-building, and therefore does have an interest in interacting with and influencing “secular” politics. This interest is rooted in the very foundation of Islam’s nascence in the 7th century, and was cemented through the political rivalries that cropped up in the immediate period after the Prophet’s death amongst his companions.

Understanding Islam as a religion, rather than as a basis for policy formulation, is a function of Western sensibilities which seek to separate political bodies from religious institutions. Furthermore, understanding Islam as the total body of a non-deviating community of believers is a function of centuries of pop-culture Orientalism — which, instead of noting and studying the varieties of jurisprudential school and beliefs as Orientalist scholars did in the past, instead characterizes the religion as essentially of one type of believer who holds one type of belief, a la Bernard Lewis. While I argue that Islam does generally have an interest in involving religion as a mechanism through which societies can evaluate the morality of their created laws, the level of religious involvement each community, nation, and school specifically wants to see is completely dependant on local contexts. Peter Mandaville warns students of Middle Eastern or Islamic affairs not to fall into the trap of excessive generalization, as it distorts the true reality of how Islam is practiced around the world today. All of Islam has a common history in the original community of the Prophet, but different opinions about how to properly follow the word and meaning of his revelation divided as soon as he could not guide them to his specific knowledge. This is partially because, unlike Christianity, Islam has no formal religious hierarchy and so the concept of “orthodoxy” is highly contestable and far from codified across all Muslim communities. The different opinions that have developed over time in response to this institutional flexibility came to be preserved through different exegetical laws, some of which were co-opted into becoming societal laws for the different empires, and eventually nations, that followed. As time went on, and the nature of societies and the challenges they had to overcome changed, so did those laws. New philosophies evolved to address modern questions, such as Wahhabism and kalam, which sought highly different methodologies to implement God’s edicts. The presumption that Islam can only be considered a religion, which is required to have no proper interaction with the secular world, could only be assumed through the ignorance of how Islam has always had an eye on the political affairs of its adherents, since the question of whether Abu Bakr or ‘Ali should succeed the leadership of the Prophet. That being said, the diversity of opinions regarding how religion should be applied to the public behavior of citizens could not be more contrary, as seen through the contrasting examples of the methods employed by Saudi Arabia and used by Syria. That the West can only understand Islam as a singular, ahistorical entity is a function of the dominating power relations that prioritizes the Western perspective over the Eastern reality. Islam is not merely a religion and its adherents are not hegemonic; as with all other areas of the world, different people want and believe different things. Therefore, it would be impossible to generalize the hugely vast and frequently conflicting desires of the community of Muslims; rather it can be seen that Islam merely has a general prerogative to be involved in politics. In order to be circumspect, it must be acknowledged however that its adherents do not always desire it to be the focal point of their political institutions.

As similarly as Islam has evolved into having an interest in molding the interior world of the spirituality of its followers, public politics (particularly in the Middle East) have evolved upon the ancient backdrop of the Islamic civilizations, which encouraged various Qur’anic sciences that were aimed at reinforcing their world view. Among those were sciences that incorporated the Qur’an and the Sunna into community law, which in the millennia since have been incorporated into the various empires and nations that have followed. For example, in the empires after the end of the rashidun era, rulers became increasingly interested in establishing tax revenues. Some of the methods of taxation were derived directly from the holy works themselves, but other laws were based on innovative interpretation of the texts. For example, “people of the book” (those communities who followed the other Abrahamic traditions), had been given special rights under the Prophet’s empire, and that was conveyed through special taxation statuses from the Umayyad Empire and onwards. While this functions as an example of Islam influencing a secular process, the legal status of Christians and Jews under the Muslim Empires also showcases an example of Islam’s interest in supervising or participating politics, while not necessarily functioning as a direct arbiter in their affairs. When the Golden Age of Islam saw the conquering of great swaths of land, the Abbasids mostly left the local governing structures intact, rather than supplant them with their own systems. More contemporarily, the Ottoman Empire applied a system of millets that allowed various communities to proceed within their own courts and (to a certain extent) allowed them to function with their own local laws, and simply made them answerable to a tiered tax status. Today, we can see the legacy of such a practice in the nation-states that exist now; some of the laws by which states govern can be traced through a historical genealogy to the very beginning of Islam. Through these examples, we can see how Islam and secular governing structures have interacted while not necessarily dominating or controlling the other. Yet, no two Muslim-majority nations govern the same way, due to global and local secular and religious factors that encouraged unique developments amongst the nations. Among the most influential motivators for the growth of more Marxist-secular or more conservative-orthodox forces were resource factors, the level of homogeneity in each population, power relations, war, and so many factors molded a highly diverse region that is difficult to usefully generalize.

Perhaps no scholar understood this phenomenon more acutely than Edward Said. In all his works, he notes that Western Orientalists analyze the religion as if “‘Islam’ denotes a simple thing to which one can refer to immediately, as one refers to ‘democracy,’ or to a person, or to an institution like the Catholic church.” He understood and condemned the Western idea that all practitioners of Islam were homogenous, and that they posed a direct threat to the dominance and safety of the West. He also recognized that West only notices Eastern affairs when it seems to be encroaching on businesses, activities, or other ventures that encroach on the West’s “territory,” or otherwise disrupt the West’s pace of living (such as when Eastern activities affect the prices or availability of oil). When such events happen, Western attempts to understand Eastern motivations usually leads to writers, reporters, and the like to distilling the East into one framework: usually Islamic, usually angry or barbaric, and always having a simple aversion or jealousy to the West’s opulence. But generalizing Islam into the polar opposite to the traditions of the West, the East is characterized as perverting the use of religion by inserting it into th political sphere. The again ignores the complexity of the religion, its relationship with politics, and how this changes over time in reaction to internal and external factors. Islam does have a relationship with politics, but that relationship could be limited or expansive and requires a good deal of context to understand. Politics and Islam are no more homogenous in the Middle East than are the people themselves.