Alana Barrington Dye: Collaboration Between Religion and Politics in the Early Muslim World

It is inherently impossible to separate the religious aspects of early Islam from the politics of the region. Throughout its history, the religious elements of Islam have been directly linked to politics, international or otherwise. This trend can be traced all the way back to the time of Muhammad and the founding of Islam as a religion. With the founding of the religion, came a political theory that stemmed from religious values, expanding on the innate connection between politics and religion in the early Muslim world. Early Muslim political philosophy was established due to the immediate connection between early Islam and politics, partially caused by Muhammad’s political status as well as the rapid proliferation of Islam and the fall of the surrounding empires. These elements allowed for the continued connection between religion and politics as Islam spread throughout the world.

The connection between the religious and political aspects of Islam began with Muhammad himself. Muhammad’s political power prior to the founding of Islam manifested in his position as a mediator and peacemaker,[i] and with the establishment of Islam as a religion, Muhammad gained religious power in the community while maintaining, and even expanding, his political prevalence. With the expansion of Islam throughout his lifetime, Muhammad’s political power became linked to his religious power, so that, as W. Montgomery Watt explains, “Muhammad’s contemporaries in particular saw that his claim to be the bearer of divine truth was a potential basis for political interference, since the ordinary citizen was likely to think that Muhammad knew better than those who had no access to such a source of wisdom.”[ii] The classification of Muhammad by his contemporaries as a possible political threat reveals the amount of influence that he had in the communities throughout the Arabian peninsula due to his newfound religious power and expanding political power. Muhammad’s position as both a political and religious leader was the start of the connection between religion and politics in early Muslim political philosophy. It is in this capacity that Muhammad was asked to mediate between the tribes of Medina, leading to the creation of the Medina Constitution.

The Constitution of Medina, written in 622, was the first social and universal contract.[iii] The first essential point of the Medina Constitution, according to Watt, states: “The believers and their dependents constitute a single community (umma).”[iv] This is crucial in the political theory of the early Muslim world, because it established the sense of a nation centered on religious beliefs. In this way, Islam became a uniting factor throughout the expanding Muslim world. This unifying trait allowed for cooperation between the various groups that lived in the area around Medina as well as the tribes that were to be brought into the Muslim world. As Watt explains, “the agreements into which [Muhammad] entered with the clans of Medina meant the establishment of a new body politic, and within this body there was scope for realizing the political potentials of the Qur’anic ideas.”[v] Under this new body politic, umma, or the religious community to which the Constitution pertained, was a political notion. But by politicizing the concept of umma, defined by its religious affiliations, The Medina Constitution formalized the connection between religion and politics. This connection redefined the political order to be one in which different groups could unite under shared established religious values. Under this new relgio-political philosophy, justice, knowledge, and power became the most important criteria for determining who should rule.[vi] Values with a foundation in religion (such as this) would affect the politics of the Islamic empires to come.

The initial spread of Islam established a “federation of tribes in alliance with Muhammad.”[vii] The proliferation of Islam continued as such a fast pace that by Muhammad’s death in 632, he and his followers controlled most of the Arabian peninsula.[viii] Vast empires fell to the early Muslims in a matter of decades.[ix] This expansion was so miraculous that people took it to be a sign from God. It seemed as if the expansion of Islam to all parts of the world was God’s plan for history.[x] This belief led to an even stronger connection between religious and political thinking. If God’s plan is a political one, then religion could be fully reinterpreted for politics. In this way, the term “jihad” no longer refers to moral refinement as it once did, but rather to a physical war with a religious purpose.[xi] With this political interpretation of religion, it became less internalized. Religion had expanded passed the public sphere and was now at the center of international politics in the Muslim world.

The connection between religion and politics in Islam has existed since the start of Muslim political philosophy. As Carl L. Brown states: “the new Muslim community—the umma—developed from a worldview that perceived religion and politics as a seamless web”[xii] In other words, Muslim political philosophy development hand-in-hand with Islam itself. As the direct connection between Islam and politics became more firmly established, the changing political atmosphere could sway interpretations of the religious elements of Islam, or vice versa. Brown continues: “The early Muslim community developed in a way that facilitated the compartmentalization, isolation, and, thus, nonresolution of potentially explosive issues involving religion and politics.”[xiii] The way that the community of Muhammad’s early followers was set up influenced the foundations of Islam as it spread. The specific organization of Islam as a religious institution kept the Islamic community from experiencing an event similar to the Christian Protestant Reformation, in which reformers rearticulated the desire for a separation between organized religion and the state. Throughout the history of early Muslim political theory, there was no call for a separation of religion and politics. To this day, what scholar Jacques Maritain refers to as the “necessary cooperation between the Church and the body politic” remains strong in Muslim political philosophy.[xiv]

With the founding of the Islamic religion by Muhammad, a new political philosophy was established. The immediate and inherent association between religion and politics in the early Muslim world created a new world order, most clearly shown through the Constitution of Medina. The social and political contexts before the founding of Islam and in the early Muslim world created an atmosphere that promoted the strengthening connection between religion and politics in the early Muslim political philosophy.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Brown, Carl L. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Political Islam Misinterpreted.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. August 31, 2016.

——-. “Roots of ‘Church Government,’ a Comparative Perspective.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 7, 2016.

——-. “The Formation of the State and Medieval Muslim Political Theories.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 9, 2016.

Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Political Thought. Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1968.

 

 

[i] M. Jafar Mahallati, “Political Islam Misinterpreted.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. August 31, 2016.

[ii] W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1968), 3.

[iii] M. Jafar Mahallati, “Roots of ‘Church Government,’ a Comparative Perspective.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 7, 2016.

[iv] Watt, 5.

[v] Ibid, 4.

[vi] M. Jafar Mahallati, “The Formation of the State and Medieval Muslim Political Theories.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 9, 2016.

[vii] Watt, 13.

[viii] Ibid, 4.

[ix] Mahallati, “Roots of ‘Church Government,” 9/7/16.

[x] Mahallati, “The Formation of the State and Medieval Muslim Political Theories,” 9/9/16.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Carl L. Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 46.

[xiii] Ibid, 53.

[xiv] Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 154.