Is Islam ‘Exceptional’?
How events from 14 centuries ago still shape the religion’s relationship to politics, and what that means for the future of the Middle East
To understand the Middle East’s seemingly intractable conﬂicts, we need to go back to at least 1924, the year the last caliphate was formally abolished. Animating the caliphate—the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition—was the idea that, in the words of the historian Reza Pankhurst, the “spiritual unity of the Muslim community requires political expression.” For the better part of 13 centuries, there had been a continuous lineage of widely accepted “Islamic” politics. Even where caliphates were ineffectual, they still offered resonance and reassurance. Things were as they had always been and perhaps always would be.
Since the Ottoman Caliphate’s dissolution, the struggle to establish a legitimate political order has raged on in the Middle East, with varying levels of intensity. At its center is the problem of religion and its role in politics. In this sense, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, is only the latest iteration of the inability to resolve the most basic questions over what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a state.
It is both an old and new question, one that used to have an answer but no longer does. Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics—and this distinctiveness can be traced back to the religion’s founding moment in the seventh century. Islam is different. This difference has profound implications for the future of the Middle East and, by extension, for the world in which we all live, whether we happen to be American, French, British, or anything else. To say that Islam—as creed, theology, and practice—says something that other religions don’t quite say is admittedly a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and Europe. As a Muslim-American, it’s personal for me: Donald Trump’s dangerous comments on Islam and Muslims make me fear for my country. Yet “Islamic exceptionalism” is neither good nor bad. It just is.
Because of this exceptionalism, a Middle Eastern replay of the Western model—Reformation followed by an Enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm—is unlikely. That Islam—a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution—should follow a course similar to that of Christianity is itself an odd presumption. We aren’t all the same, but, more importantly, why should we be?
That the Christian tradition seems ambivalent about law, governance, and power is no accident. Islam and Christianity are, after all, meant to do different things. Law, at least in part, is about exposing and punishing sin. Yet, when Jesus died on the cross, he in effect released man from the burdens of sin, and therefore from the burdens of the law.
Christianity’s salvation story, then, is one of progression, with humanity passing though different stages of spiritual development. Jewish or Mosaic law was provisional, meant for a particular place and time, and for a chosen people, where Christianity was universal and everlasting. As the theologian Joshua Ralston notes, reflecting on the writing of the early Christian theologian Justin Martyr: “Christ is the new and final law, and thus the Law of Moses is abrogated. ... Justin argues that the God of Israel had promised the Israelites a new and everlasting covenant. The Mosaic Law was never intended to be either universal or eternally binding.”
If salvation is through Christ and Christ alone, then there is little need for the state to regulate private and public behavior beyond providing a conducive environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and become more faithful to Christ. The punishment of sins is no longer a priority, since Jesus died for them. In stark contrast, where theologians like Martin Luther famously fashioned a dialectic between faith and good works, these two things are inextricably tied together in Islam. Faith is often expressed through the observance of the law. The failure to follow Islamic law is a reflection of the believer’s lack of faith and unwillingness to submit to God. Salvation is impossible without law. This has implications for the nature of the Islamic state. If following the sharia—for example, refraining from alcohol and adultery, observing the fast, and praying five times a day—is a precondition for salvation, then political leaders and clerics alike have a role in encouraging the good and forbidding evil, a role they played, to various degrees, for the entirety of the pre-modern period.
But could events that took place 14 centuries ago really matter all that much to a modern predicament? At a recent Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, I was struck by how much they still did. There were eight of us, all Muslims, from assorted backgrounds and levels of religious commitment. Over generous helpings of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and stufﬁng, we found ourselves talking about the scourge of terrorism and the responsibility of Muslims to say and do something about it. Soon enough, we were talking about Yazid, the second caliph of the Umayyad Empire, killing and beheading the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, at the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century. It was like an open wound, and here we were once again, as so many had before us, trying to make sense of how and why something so unspeakable could have happened. This was the prophet’s family, his ﬂesh and blood. And yet Hussein and all of his men were slaughtered, their bodies left to rot for 40 days.
It wasn’t dissimilar from the other questions we were asking ourselves that day about the rise of the Islamic State, civil war, and the seemingly endless shedding of blood: How could Muslims do this to each other? The Battle of Karbala is only one story. We could have talked about Omar, Abu Bakr, Uthman, and Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s closest companions and his successors as leaders of the Muslim community, revered by Muslims for their piety and uprightness of character.The ﬁrst caliph, Abu Bakr, died of old age, but his three successors were each assassinated by fellow Muslims. When we were growing up and going to Sunday school (yes, Muslim Americans have Sunday school, too), Abu Bakr, Omar, and Ali didn’t feel like historical ﬁgures but, rather, people who were a part of our lives, reminders of both a glorious history and the internecine killing that threatened to undo it.
The era of the so-called righteously guided caliphs didn’t last long, but it was superseded by any number of other Islamic “golden ages,” which ﬂourished for far longer. The Abbasid caliphate, with Baghdad as its bustling center, was one of the most successful empires the world had ever seen. From the eighth to 13th centuries, the empire prospered, with unprecedented advancements in science, medicine, and philosophy. Students from Europe ﬂocked to Muslim universities, hoping to study with the world’s greatest doctors, thinkers, and theologians. Muslims today, particularly in the Arab world, enter into tortured debates over what went wrong, with this history as subtext.
The dismal state of the Middle East is all the more difﬁcult to accept knowing that, for much of the past 14 centuries, there was a great deal for Arabs and Muslims to be proud of. This dissonance is unsettling. Perceptions of decline were often overlaid with a kind of theological determinism. Was the decline some sort of divine retribution? After centuries of dominance, the various Islamic empires were gradually eclipsed by a rising Europe.
Then came the trauma of colonialism, when much of the Muslim world fell under direct, and often brutal, European control. Hard-won independence offered a gleam of hope in the 20th century, but the promise of secular nationalism ultimately disappointed, with young nations descending into dictatorship. Perhaps God had forsaken the Muslims, punishing them for straying from the straight path. After all, God had promised glad tidings for those who followed his commands, and he had, seemingly, delivered for centuries. The most devout—the prophet, his companions, and their earliest followers—had enjoyed unimaginable success, conquering the entirety of North Africa, then spreading out through Spain and into France within a hundred years of the prophet’s passing. This must have been evidence of their righteousness. That, though, could only mean that the territorial contraction of once-great empires must have been evidence of sin and decadence.
The Ottoman Empire, hoping to stave off decline in the 19th century, launched a series of internal reforms, known as the tanzimat. Though this wasn’t the intent, the tanzimat hastened what Wael Hallaq, a scholar of Islamic law, calls the “evisceration” of the sharia. In an attempt to codify and control what had been an organic and constantly evolving body of law, the state was strengthened and centralized, its authoritarian tendencies exacerbated, and the clerics weakened. Secularists, meanwhile, believed that the Islamic state couldn’t be reformed and that holding on to religious foundations would only stand in the way of progress. If embracing secular nationalism had led to Europe’s ascendance, they argued, then why shouldn’t it do the same for the Middle East? Among elites, assorted secular ideologies—Marxism, socialism, fascism, and liberalism—gained currency. Islamic modernists, the precursors to modern-day Islamists, interpreted events quite differently, viewing the deteriorating state of the region as yet more evidence of God’s displeasure. To regain his pleasure would require returning to the unblemished purity of Islam’s founding. This notion of return, novel in the late 19th century, would, in mere decades, become ubiquitous to the point of cliché.
Born in 1929, the Islamist writer Muhammad Galak Kishk saw the triumph of religion nearly everywhere, even in the most unlikely of places. In 1967, Israel handily defeated the Arab nations not simply because of its military prowess, he argued, but because it had something that the Arabs didn’t: the certainty and clarity of religious devotion. As Fouad Ajami wrote in his first book The Arab Predicament, “In Kishk’s account there is grudging admiration for the clarity with which the Israelis saw the war, for the fact that young Israeli soldiers prayed behind their rabbis at the Wailing Wall after their capture of Jerusalem.” Kishk’s may not have been the most accurate reading of Israeli society, but it was one of the more telling.
If this clarity—this purity of vision—had been lost, then where better to regain it than at the beginning? This is what the various revivalist movements hoped to do. The Islamic modernists hoped to recapture the spirit and intent of that ﬁrst generation of Muslims, while those who would come to be known as Salaﬁs believed not just in the “spirit” but in the “letter” of the law. They wanted to imitate the particular habits of the ﬁrst Muslims, whether that meant dressing like the prophet (by cufﬁng their trousers at the ankle) or brushing their teeth like the prophet (with a teeth-cleaning twig called a miswak). Oddly enough, for these various Islamist strains, more recent Islamic history has grown more remote. Outside Turkey, most Muslims would have trouble citing even one Ottoman-era scholar. The Abbasid caliphate is remembered fondly, but its memory doesn’t necessarily inspire ﬁghting and dying for the cause. In contrast, there is a closeness about the prophet and his companions that belies fourteen hundred years of the passing of time. It is an odd, unusual effect—the further one goes back in history, the more intimate it feels.
Muslims are, of course, not bound to Islam’s founding moment, but neither can they fully escape it. The prophet Muhammad was a theologian, a politician, a warrior, a preacher, and a merchant, all at once. Importantly, he was also the builder of a new state. It is difﬁcult to know when he was acting in one role rather than the other (which has led to endless debates over whether some of the prophet’s actions in certain domains were, in fact, prophetic). Some religious thinkers—including Sudan’s Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and, later, his student Abdullahi an-Na’im—have tried to separate these different prophetic legacies, arguing that the Quran contains two messages. The ﬁrst message, based on the verses revealed while the prophet was establishing a new political community in Medina, includes particulars of Islamic law that may have been appropriate for seventh-century Arabia but are not applicable outside that context. The second message of Islam, revealed in Mecca before the prophet’s emigration to Medina, encompasses the eternal principles of Islam, which are meant to be updated according to the demands of time and place.
Taha was executed by the Jaafar al-Nimeiry regime in 1985 and his theories largely forgotten. But the basic idea of extracting general principles while emphasizing the historicity of their application has, in less explicit form, been advocated by a growing number of “progressive” Muslim scholars, many of whom live in the West. There are reasons, though, that these theories have struggled to gain adherents in the Muslim world. First of all, they’re not very easily explained to those without a background in Islamic law. For many Muslims, the point of Islam is that it is accessible and straightforward, at least in its broad outlines. The notion that the Quran contains two distinct messages is not straightforward and makes a “simple” religion rather complex. Why would a believing Muslim take a chance on a controversial and heterodox interpretation of scripture when he or she can fall back on safer, mainstream approaches that enjoy the backing of the vast majority of scholars?
One could go further and advocate not only for a progressive interpretation of Islamic law but also for its basic irrelevance to public life—that the separation of religion from politics forms the foundation of any pluralistic post-Enlightenment liberal society. The heavy weight of Islamic history, however, makes such a path as difﬁcult as it is unlikely.
With the twin challenges of colonialism and secularism and the advent of “modernity,” the state had become the nation-state—centralized, elaborate, and overbearing. There were the massive bureaucracies, the large weaponized armies, and the technology (and desire) to monitor citizens, all things that the far-flung empires of the past could never claim. How could Islamic law, designed for a pre-modern era, remain relevant in a time where subjects became citizens and when religious allegiances were to be replaced with national loyalties? This is a question that hasn’t found an answer, at least not yet.
This article has been adapted from Shadi Hamid’s new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.