Friday, April 2, 2010

A Growing Tendency to Reduce Islam to a Political Ideology

Imam Zaid Shakir

…The following is part of an effort by this writer to warn Muslims against allowing the reduction of our religion by similar political imperatives. We should never hope to see the day when, if possessing the requisite firepower, Muslims would visit upon the civilian population of Israel the sort of savage violence we see decimating the innocent civilians of Gaza and Lebanon. God has imposed limits on our behavior, even in times of war, and we should never transgress those limits. Our failure to observe those limits not only threatens to destroy the moral foundations of our religion, it will also add to the suffering of innocent human beings.

At a recently concluded convention of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), I mentioned during one of my presentations that the verse quoted below should be understood as a religious—not a political— statement:

It is He who has sent His Messenger with Guidance and the Religion of Truth in order that He shows its superiority over all other religion, even if the idolaters detest it. [Al-Qur’an 9:33, 61:9]

In doing so, my purpose was to challenge one of the principal texts offered as a proof to support the idea that Islam advances a scheme of global domination, and as such there is no basis in Islamic teaching for peaceful coexistence with other faiths and communities.

Left unsaid, however, was the greater issue that informs the popular understanding of the verse, which is the growing tendency among Muslims to read many of our foundational texts politically and not theologically. Such a reading shifts the emphasis of our religion away from the Hereafter and creates a distorted focus on the world.

Islam is one of the world’s great religions. As such, it concerns itself with the principal issues that dominate the discourse surrounding any faith. These issues include identifying, believing in, worshipping, and obeying the Divine in anticipation of other worldly rewards, or the avoidance of otherworldly punishments. At the heart of these issues is a deep concern for the eventual salvation of the human being. Islam shares these religious concerns, God mentions in the Qur’an:

Every soul will experience death, and you will be given
your recompense in full on the Day of Resurrection. The
one who is saved from Hellfire and admitted into
Paradise will be truly victorious. And what is the life of
this world except a deceptive enjoyment. [Al-Qur’an

Like all other religions in their respective milieus, Islam also has profound and far-reaching political implications. It has shaped law, government, commerce, social relations, and virtually every other sphere of life in the Muslim world. However, its political implications are subordinate to its religious teachings. Hence, for example, a Muslim individual or polity may succeed politically, while being damned religiously, because basic injunctions of the religion have been sacrificed to unsanctioned political imperatives, or unacceptable motives. A vivid illustration of this result is given to us in the well-known prophetic tradition that mentions a great Mujahid (warrior) who achieved the epitome of worldly success, but lost his soul because of the corrupt intention motivating his efforts.

Politicized readings of our texts can be seen as part of the growing tendency to reduce Islam to a political ideology. The implications of this reduction are grave. Perhaps the gravest of those implications is turning the primary focus of Islam away from the spirit or soul and orienting it towards the world, thereby reducing the sacred understanding to the level of the mundane.

The noted political philosopher, Roger Scruton, defines an ideology as:
Any systematic and all-embracing political doctrine, which claims to give a complete and universally applicable theory of man and society, and to derive there from a programme of political action.

A Muslim might read this definition and opine that Islam is indeed an ideology as it presents a “complete and universally applicable theory of man and society.” However, the relevant realm of action and thought for an ideology is the political, as Scruton points out. This limitation to the political realm marks where Islam parts with ideology. Islam is not simply concerned with man’s political condition; it is also concerned with his spiritual condition, and at the heart of the Islamic call is a normative program for spiritual salvation.

Scruton continues with his definition:
An ideology in this sense seeks to embrace everything that is relevant to man’s political condition, and to issue doctrine whenever doctrine would be influential in forming or changing that condition.

Hence, doctrine issuing from a particular ideology is marshaled based on its efficacy in advancing the cause, not on the basis of any preexisting moral or ethical standard. Such a formulation is at complete odds with Islam and, thus, largely alien to its classical tradition. However, when Islam is reduced to an ideology, it is inevitably relegated to the realm of political expediency.

This argument is not meant to imply that Islam is a pacifist religion. As Muslims we believe in the concept of justified warfare. God mentions in the Qur’an:

Permission [to fight] is given to those who are unjustly
fought against, and God is most capable of assisting them.
Those who have been wrongfully expelled from their
homes [for no reason] except their saying, “Our Lord is
Allah (God)…” [Al-Qur’an 22:39-40]


Fight in the Way of God those who fight you, but do not
transgress. God loves not those who transgress. [Al-Qur’an

Hence, Islam has instituted fighting to defend life, honor, property, to restore usurped rights, and to protect the integrity of the religion and the community of the faithful. However, that fighting is governed by well-established laws and principles that articulate rules, regulations, and limitations that outline for Muslims when, where, how, and against whom it is permissible to fight. Those laws and principles have never sanctioned anarchist terrorism, wanton murder, tumult, and mayhem.

Read full paper:

Related Quote: "The Caliph’s first task will be to flog those who call Islam an ideology" Abdul Hakim Murad (Timothy J. Winters)

Biography Imam Zaid Shakir

Imam Zaid Shakir was born in Berkeley, California in 1956, the second of seven children. He subsequently entered the US Air Force in 1976, where he resumed his university education, and accepted Islam in 1977. Upon completing his military service, he enrolled at American University, Washington, DC, where he obtained a BA in International Relations with honors in 1983. In 1986 he obtained an MA in Political Science from Rutgers University. After spending a year in Cairo, he became a lecturer in Political Science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut, a position he held until 1994 when he bade farewell to academia and left for Syria to study Arabic and Islamic Sciences.

Imam Zaid also studied the traditional sciences of Islam in Morocco. He served as the Imam of Masjid al-Islam in New Haven, Connecticut from 1988 until 1994. He has lectured extensively on Islam, Middle East Politics, and issues related to African Americas. He has written for numerous Islamic publications.

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