Political Islam: Questions 1, 2 & 3


A presentation by Colin Chapman took place at a meeting in London, England, on June 16, 2015,  when the main speaker was David Garrison, author of A Wind in the House of Islam'. Colin Chapman has worked in Egypt and Lebanon for 18 years in three different spells, and is now enjoying semi-retirement in Cambridge, England. In his last full-time post he was teaching Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, and he is at present a visiting professor in the master's program at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. His books include Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenges of Islam (IVP) and Whose Promised Land? (Lion Hudson UK, with a new edition to be published in October this year).
The questions that he addressed in his presentation are important and basic.
1. What do we mean by 'Political Islam' and how does it differ from other kinds of Islam?
2. Is Islam essentially more political than Christianity?
3. Why has political Islam become so significant in recent years?
4. Where has ISIS (ISIL) come from?
5. Is it true to say 'ISIS has nothing to do with Islam' or to say 'ISIS is nearest to real Islam than moderate Islam?'
6. Some say that the root of the problem is Islamic scripture and dogma, while others say it's a matter of history and politics. Is it either/or or both/and?
7. Is political Islam always likely to tend towards violence?
8. What are the other faces of political Islam today?
9. What are the most appropriate responses to political Islam?
10. What are the most appropriate Christian responses to political Islam?
Here is how Colin Chapman addressed the first three questions. 
Is it strange that we’re addressing the question of political Islam at a meeting where the main focus is on the many movements of Muslims all over the world turning to Christ? Were the organisers of this meeting aware of the dangers of triumphalism, and did they perhaps want us at the same time to face up to the enormous challenges that are raised at the present time by political Islam – especially in the shape of ISIS with its apparent determination to wipe out Christianity in the Middle East?
Are we thinking about two completely different subjects which are not related to each other, or is there some connection between them? Are Muslims coming to faith in spite of all the political turmoil? Or are they coming to faith because of all the upheavals in the Middle East and other parts of the world? Are these movements evidence of the failure of political Islam, and is disillusionment with political Islam a major factor in Muslims turning to Christ?
I want to address this subject by asking ten questions – all of which demand some kind of answer. I’m very conscious that in what follows I’m trying to cover far too much ground. But I’m doing it because I believe it’s important to see the big picture – which includes the many faces of Islam and quite a lot of history -  before we focus on something as specific as ISIS [ISIL].
I hope we’ve all got past the stage of speaking about ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and begun to get used to ‘Islamism’, ‘political Islam’ or ‘radical Islam.’ We’re talking about Muslims who have a clear political agenda of one kind or another. But it’s important to recognise that Islamists are not all the same. Some believe in democracy, pluralism and human rights, while others do not. Some believe that violence is sometimes justified in pursuing an Islamic agenda, while others reject the use of violence. They all want to see Islamic principles applied in the public sphere; but they recognise the huge differences in the political make-up of states all over the world and have different ideas about how a particular state could be more Islamic.
Political Islam is therefore different from what we might call ‘Traditionalist’ or ‘Orthodox Islam’, in which Muslims want to conserve Islam as far as possible as it has been practised for centuries and with the minimum of concessions to modernity, and have little desire to change the political status quo in the countries where they are living.
It’s very different from the Folk Islam or Popular Islam which is practised all over the world. We’re grateful to people like Paul Hiebert and Bill Musk who have explained how Islam is often mixed up with primal religion which includes a great deal of  magic and superstition. These Muslims are not so interested in politics, and their main concern is to find a source of power to deal with all the evil forces in spiritual world around us and with all the problems of daily life.
And political Islam is different from Liberal or Modernist Islam. These Muslims believe that Islam can and must change as society changes. They want to be free in their interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition and flexible in the way they interpret Islamic law in the modern world. 
So when we’re talking about political Islam, we’re thinking about Muslims who want to change the world by making their communities and their countries more Islamic and by ordering them more consistently in accordance with divinely revealed law.
This is a difficult question, and before I give my own answer, I want to point out the danger of ‘essentialism’, the idea that we can easily describe the essence or the essential nature of something. We make generalisations like ‘Islam is essentially this or that;’ ‘Islam is by its very nature like this.’ And of course it’s tempting for non-Muslims – and especially Christians – looking in from outside and from what we think is a neutral, objective vantage point, to believe that we know better than Muslims do what is Islam really is.
I’m hesitant therefore to use words like ‘essentially’ and become more and more cautious about sweeping generalisations and sentence that begin ‘Islam is …’. I find myself speaking more about Muslims in all their variety and diversity than about Islam as something that is monolithic and unchanging.
So if I can answer the question in my own words, I would want to say, ‘Yes, I believe there are several reasons why Muslims tend to be more politically-minded than Christians; but even this sentence needs to be qualified by several “buts”.’
We would have to begin by pointing out the obvious difference between the lives of Jesus and Muhammad: Jesus died on a cross, while Muhammad in the Hijra moved from being the persecuted prophet in Mecca to become (using the title of Montgomery-Watt’s classic[i]) both ‘prophet and statesman’ [in Medina]. When Muhammad received the invitation from the Muslim converts in Medina to become the leader of the whole city, he probably saw it as an opportunity to establish a truly Islamic community living under the law of God. This is why one Muslim scholar can write. ‘The basic emphasis of Islamic salvation lies … in … the establishment of the ideal religio-political order with a worldwide membership of all those who believe in God and His revelation through Muhammad …’ (Abdulaziz A. Sachadenia[ii]).
By 732 AD, a hundred years after the death of the Prophet, a vast Islamic empire stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West to the borders of China and India in the East.
Because of the example of the Prophet and centuries of Islamic history, therefore, - in spite of what I’ve said about the danger of generalisations - I believe Kenneth Cragg summed up a very fundamental conviction in the mind of most well-taught Muslims in this memorable sentence ‘Islam must rule’[iii]. A few thousand Muslim Arabs were ruling over a population which for about three centuries was largely Christian. So there’s a very obvious contrast between the first 300 years of Islamic history and the first 300 years of Christian history in which the Christians were a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire.
So yes, there are some very strong historical and theological reasons why many Muslims have been concerned about politics. But then we have to add a series of ‘buts’:
- Firstly, there have been several examples of political Christianity in the past. 300 years before the birth of Muhammad, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman state. The capital of the empire moved to Byzantium in 324 and Muhammad must have been aware of this powerful Christian empire to the north-west of Arabia. The popes filled the power vacuum after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, and the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 was a significant date in the development of Christendom. Didn’t John Calvin want to make Geneva a thoroughly Christian city? And wasn’t Christianity spread partly by the sword in Latin America?
- Secondly, Muslims believe that they can see examples of political Christianity at the present time. Islamists constantly claim that the world of Islam is under attack from ‘the Zionist-Crusader alliance’ of the West, and while we can challenge this kind of rhetoric, we must recognise that this is how we are perceived. Muslims might have more justification in seeing the alliance between evangelical Christianity and the political right in the USA as an example of political Christianity. And they would have every justification for seeing Christian Zionism as a very obvious kind of political Christianity, because it uses Christians beliefs to support a very clear political agenda related to the state of Israel.
- Thirdly, about a third of Muslims all over the world live in minority situations where they are not in a position of political power. They don’t all look back to the first Islamic state in Medina as a Golden Age that they want to recreate. Some of them compare their situation to that of the first group of Muslims in Mecca, while others see themselves as being in a similar situation to the Muslims sent by Muhammad to seek asylum in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. So we can never say that all Muslims are likely to have a political agenda.
In answer to this question, therefore, we can never get away from the contrast between the lives of Jesus and Muhammad. One of the temptations during the 40 days in the wilderness (‘all the kingdoms of the world in their glory … I will give you, if you will only fall down and do me homage’ (Matt 4:8-9 REB) may have been the temptation to seek political power. But if the kingdom of God, the kingly rule of God, means anything, it can’t simply be about me and my relationship with God. Jesus said to Pilate ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world’ (John 18:30). But if his followers are called to be salt and light in the world, how are the values of the kingdom to be expressed in communities and in society as a whole? If we are critical of the political agendas of some Muslims, we dare not abandon the public sphere to secularists and Muslims. Christians must have a clear vision of the kind of just and caring society we want to live in. And this must have something to do with public life and politics.
Clearly it was the rapid spread of ISIS [ISIL] in Iraq and the capture of Mosul in June last year which made us all sit up and take notice. But we might not have been so surprised if we had known or remembered the history of the last 150 years and the last 40 years in particular, in which there have been so many different expressions of political Islam.
Have we forgotten the 58 tourists who were gunned down at Luxor in Upper Egypt in 1997, and how in Algeria in 1989 the army seized power after FIS, the Islamist party, had won a democratic election? We’ve had Muhammad Morsi attempting to impose a Muslim Brotherhood agenda on Egypt while he was in power from 2012 to 2013. We’ve had Ayatollah Khomeini creating the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and his Islamist AKP have turned the tide after decades of secularism imposed by Ataturk and brought Islam back into public life. Hizbullah was created in 1986 as a resistance movement against Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon. Similarly Hamas came into existence in 1986 as a response to 40 years of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. If we go back further to the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, we find that Hassan al-Banna was driven by two clear goals – the revival of Islam and the ending of the British occupation of Egypt. And if we go back further still we find that in India Muslims played a significant role in the 19th C in opposing the British Raj[iv].
Are there any common factors in all these different expressions of political Islam? In every one there are two main drives – the desire to see the public sphere ordered by Islamic principles and the refusal to be ruled by foreigners. As we shall see shortly, context is all-important. In every case there has been something specific in the context – a perceived injustice – which has driven Muslim to take action and often to resort to violence.
So we could argue, for example, that if Israel in 1967 had complied with UN Security Resolution 242 and withdrawn from the territories it had occupied in the Six Day War, Hamas might never have come into existence. If Israel had not invaded Lebanon in 1982 and stayed on as a occupying power in the south for 28 years, there might have been no Hezbollah. And if the US and its allies had not invaded Iraq in 2003, there probably would be no ISIS.
In all these expressions of political Islam there is a real zeal for God, a passion to ‘strive in the way of God’ – to use a common Qur’anic expression. And of course the basic meaning of the word jihad is ‘to strive’, and has little to do with the idea of ‘holy war’. But it’s not just a passion to fight injustice and to create a just society that has motivated Muslims. I am tempted to relate all this to Kenneth Cragg’s simple sentence ‘Islam must rule’, since this is exactly how Sayid Qutb, one of the most influential Islamist ideologues who was imprisoned and tortured by Nasser’s government, summed up this Islamist conviction in the sentence la budda li-‘l-islam an yahkum (‘Inevitably Islam shall rule’[v]).
In the light of the example of the Prophet and in the context of 1400 years of Islamic history, it probably seemed very natural for Muslims to be ruling over non-Muslims – and especially over Christians and Jews who were treated as dhimmis, protected communities living under Islamic rule. But it’s not so natural and acceptable for Muslims to be ruled by non-Muslims. I suspect therefore that there is something uniquely Islamic about this, because I doubt if Hindus, Buddhists or Confucianists can find in their scriptures and history the same kind of clear, strong motivation to engage in political activity.
Once again, however, I would point out the danger of generalisation. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain and Europe would probably be shocked if you said to them, ‘We know that in your heart of hearts you Muslims want to rule the world.’ Islam is a missionary religion just as much as Christianity is, and for some Muslims  jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam. But it simply isn’t true that all Muslims all over the world have clear political agenda and want the world to come under Islamic rule.
So why has political Islam become so significant in recent years? It’s partly because Muslims have faced so many situations of what they perceive to be injustice and oppression, and so many situations in which they feel that their own Muslim rulers are not running their countries in accordance with Islamic principles.

[i] William Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, Oxford University Press, 1975[ii] Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, ‘The Creation of a Just Social Order in Islam,’ in Mumtaz Ahmad, State, Politics and Islam, American Publications, 1986, p 116[iii] Kenneth Cragg, Islam and the Muslim, Open University Press, 1978, p 78.[iv] See Charles Allen, God’s Terrorists: the Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, De Capo Press, 2006   [v] Sayyid Qutb, Ma‘rakat al-Islam wa’-l-Ra’smaliyya, 7th edn, Cairo, 1980, p 55, quoted in Johannes J.G. Jansen, The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, Hurst, 1997, p 5.

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour