Catherine Lytle: The influence of religion and politics on early Muslim political philosophy

The word ‘Muslim’ is not an adjective: it is an action. It pertains to someone who submitted themselves to the laws of God. There are two kinds relationships: first and foremost a personal relationship with God and secondly personal relationships with other humans. Muslim self-image gave preeminent importance to the ideals of unity and community rather than linking Islam with politics1. While there is no church to reconcile differences between religious tenet and political practice that is not to say that religion does not influence political theory nor in a way become synonymous with political philosophy.

Soon after the demise of Prophet Muhammad his successors, the four rightly guided caliphs, began competing for neighboring lands which lead to the thunder like expansion of Islam.  Islam spread to the Persian Empire between 631-51, Syria between 634-38, North Africa 639-98 and passed through Gibraltar in 711. The Arabs also conquered much of the Iberian peninsula, where they would stay entrenched until the Reconquista. They would have expanded further into Europe (modern day France) if they hadn’t been beaten at the Battle of Tours by the franks. During this time the Byzantine Empire had been defending its land on all fronts and their history at that time was fluctuating in success and devastation. However, the status quo was thrown out the window again when Islam rose and cities such as Alexandria and Jerusalem, historically European and Christian, got taken by the Arabs in 638 (only 6 years after Mohammed’s death). The Arabian peninsula’s loss of centrality and the spread of Islam as east as India and China, and as west as Spain, serves as a clear indicator of religion and political (military strategy) philosophy working in tandem.

So what made Islam so successful? Was it because in Islam there is no original sin and according everyone is born innocent? A person should commit a sin before asking for forgiveness. This is very different to the Christian perspective that preaches atonement of Original Sin through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, piety is the main motivator behind the pillars, even with acts of altruism such as Zakat of Islam, and encapsulates all Five Pillars of orthopraxy. As Islam is a direct vertical human-God relationship, there is nothing that stands in the way of a person’s relationship with God. Therefore there is no systematic hierarchy because the poor as well as the nobility are even in the eyes of God. One is able to deviate in their religious beliefs as long as they didn’t openly challenge the government2.

The confluence of religion and society is also seen in Zakat, one of the Pillars of Islam, that dictates that all Muslims  must pay tax to their Mosque, if they live under a secular or non-christian government, or Islamic government of their country. While this is one of the Pillars of Islam it filters into the socio-economic aspect of the people and demonstrates the synthesis of state and religion because the government directly carries out religious matters3. There are many communal festivals such as Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Mawlid an-Nabi and the process of Hajj. These festivals are an indicator of religious values transcending society and becoming communal. Notably, an example of Islamic society being inherently equal and communal is the way that before entering Mecca, all Muslims put on Ihram clothing, which is all white and reflects the way that despite the fact that the pilgrims are coming from different places and having different skin colors, their faith unites them in a world of equality. Society and religion become one4. Since society is an amalgamation of Islamic values it naturally filters further into politics and statehood.

The influence of religion on politics can further be seen during the election of the caliph. While religion cannot dictate who will ruler it can set forth the qualities that the character of the ruler must possess. During the election of the caliph there is a disagreement between the Sunni majority and Shi’i minority concerning the legitimacy of a caliph and what qualities are necessary. Is justice and knowledge or power more important when considering who will be appointed? The caliph should be the most just character however, should they be more knowledgable or more powerful? Paradoxically, caliphs are legitimized because they have been put in place due to divine support therefore how can there be any question about if their power, knowledge or justice is more important if they have been divinely chosen? Since they don’t have political power they have become figureheads representing religion and politics because the Ulama, religious specialists,  ordained that the caliphs should not interfere with Sharia and leave that to them5.

Another interesting way that society, religion and politics have come together can be seen in mosques. One interpretation of the definition of politics is the art of living together6 and can really be seen in mosques. A mosque is a union of a city hall and a shrine that becomes a place where communal problems may be solved and people may pray together.

It comes back to the cycle if humans influence society or if humans are influenced by society. Conversely was it people that influenced religion or religion that influenced people and in extension political philosophy? Even though we can see religion in politics and the two have become very much akin, there are branches, such as the Ulama and the caliphs, that are distinct.


1. L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 54.

2. Ibid 53.

3. Ibid 31.

4. Ibid 42.

5. Ibid 31.

6.This idea can be traced back to the Greek word ‘polis’ meaning city.  This means that ‘politics’ refers to the way that the city and therefore the communal affairs should be handled.