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Muslim Scholar: No Separation of Church and State in Islam

A prominent American Muslim scholar has argued that differences between Islam and other faiths run deeper than most suspect, and extend even to the question of separation of church and state.

Writing in Friday’s LA Times, Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, states that Western suppositions that all religions are basically the same and want the same things is fundamentally wrong.

These differences, Hamid contends, run all the way from views of the sacred text (Muslims believe that every single word of the Qur’an comes directly from Allah) to an understanding of the nature of the state and its relationship to religion.

Hamid declares that the difference between Christianity and Islam regarding the state stem from the differences in each faith’s central figure. Whereas Jesus preached giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, Muhammad united faith and the state in his own person.

“Unlike Jesus,” Hamid states, “Muhammad was both prophet and politician. And more than just any politician, he was a state-builder as well as a head of state. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined.”

“To argue for the separation of religion from politics, then, is to argue against the model of the very man Muslims most admire and seek to emulate,” Hamid argues.

Because of this, Hamid concludes, Islam “doesn’t lend itself as easily to modern liberalism,” the model of democracy adopted by the Judeo-Christian West.

For Islam, Allah only truly reigns where Muslim law—sharia—is practiced as the law of the land.

“I realize that some of my fellow American Muslims will view such arguments as inconvenient, portraying Islam in a not-so-positive light,” Hamid writes.

“But it is not my job to make Islam look good, and it helps no one to maintain fictions that make us feel better but don’t truly reflect the power and relevance of religion.”

Hamid’s blunt assertions about Islam, in fact, dovetail with what other scholars have been saying for years, and oblige Westerners to look more closely at the relationship between liberal democracies and a faith that rejects some of the foundational tenets that make it possible—such as the separation of church and state.

A case in point are the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, who reflected extensively about church-state relations.

In his 1996 book Salt of the Earth, Ratzinger wrote that the “interplay of society, politics, and religion has a completely different structure in Islam” than it does in the West. He went on to say that much of today’s discussion in the West regarding Islam “presupposes that all religions have basically the same structure, that they all fit into a democratic system with its regulations and the possibilities provided by these regulations.”

Yet this is not consistent with the facts, he continued, but rather, it “contradicts the essence of Islam, which simply does not have the separation of the political and the religious sphere that Christianity has had from the beginning.”

Unlike Christianity, Islam assigns to religion a broader role, encompassing political or social life as well as what is religious, spiritual or moral.

“Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything,” Ratzinger wrote. “There is a very marked subordination of woman to man; there is a very tightly knit criminal law, indeed, a law regulating all areas of life, that is opposed to our modern ideas about society.”

The conclusion he reached was sobering. He warned that we must have a clear understanding that Islam “is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.”

As Hamid suggests in his LA Times article, discourse about Islam must begin with an honest acknowledgement about what it teaches and what Muslims believe.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter 

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