The primary difference between Christian and Islamic theories of statehood lies in the relationship between temporal and spiritual duties and by extension, temporal and spiritual authorities. Christian political theory has left open the possibility for separation between these two authorities, based on an understanding of the primary end of the Christian and his temporal and spiritual duties. As Augustine points out, Christians are pilgrims while they are on earth and, as such, they should be primarily concerned with glorifying God and preparing to be with Him for eternity; they must be careful lest the pleasures of the world distract them from worshipping God. The primary function of the Christian is not to redeem the world or to correct its failings. There certainly is room for the Christian to be involved in the power structures of the world, striving for just government and seeking for society to be run by laws that reflect the divine order; nevertheless, there is a recognition that society cannot be perfected until all men are either removed from society (eternally punished in hell) or else redeemed and made new by God’s grace.

Islamic political theory on the other hand leaves little or no room for separation between temporal and spiritual authority, at least in the ideal Muslim community (umma). As mentioned earlier, unity is a key concept in Islam—specifically the unity of the believers. The umma is a single community that is separated from the rest of world by its identification as the people who are submitted to God; the umma are the believers mentioned in the Qur’an, the ones who obey God and look forward to receiving His blessings. The ideal Islamic society is one in which all men are willingly submitted to God.

The theory of statehood with the khalifa at its head is the ideal towards which Muslims strive. This ideal state is ruled by the deputy of God who ensures that the society operates within the guidelines laid out in Islamic law (shari’a) and that its citizens fulfill all their duties and obligations. The umma has the duty of bringing glory to God and to His Word. That this duty includes bringing men into dar al-islam and may involve war is found among the collected sayings of Mohammed, or hadith, stating, “He who fights that Allah’s word (i.e. Allah’s religion of Islamic monotheism) be superior, fights in Allah’s cause” and, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they say: ‘There is no God but Allah.’” The duty of the umma is both temporal and spiritual; in fact it is difficult to even understand this distinction within Islam. The religious duty of Muslims is combined with their identity as a community or state. In order for this duty to be fulfilled, the state must spread its control until the world is brought into submission to God and His shari’a (law).

If you’ve stuck with me this far, the payoff is just around the corner.  Check back next week to see why Islamic just war theory is incompatible with Western values.

Other posts in the Jihad and Justice series:

Islamic and Christian Theories of War

Christian Just War Theory, Part 1

Christian Just War Theory, Part 2

The Islamic Conception

The Islamic Context

Islamic Just War Theory, Part 1

Islamic Just War Theory, Part 2

The Two Cities

Augustine’s Citizens

The Two Territories

Posted by Tex

  • beth

    One question – given this drive to unite the world under shari’a and incorporate all men into the umma, why did the early Islamic Empire allow for a certain amount of religious freedom in the countries it conquered? Jews and Christians still kept their faith and were, in some cases, better off under Islamic rule than Byzantium rule. They were, of course, taxed which proved to be a reason to convert, but they were not made to be Muslims. How was that possible under Islamic orthodoxy?

  • Tex


    Good question, and one that I still don’t have a fool-proof answer to just yet. Still, I’ll give it a shot.

    The best way to understand this issue is by remembering what the goal of Islamic eschatology is…complete dominance of the world, this world, under the laws and teachings of God as revealed in the Qur’an and the Sunna of Mohammed. There are three ways to bring about this dominance in a way that is congruent with Muslim teaching. First, conversion. Second, subjugation. Third, destruction.

    Obviously, for most Muslims, the first option is the most preferable because it means that other people are finally living life as God intended them to. They’ll argue that this is the way to be truly happy and whole.

    Interestingly, though, the second option is also considered a very good option, and at times many Arab Muslims preferred for outsiders to accept it, rather than convert. Historically, this was seen as the Arabs moved outwards from the Arabian peninsula and into other cultures. They didn’t want to allow the newly conquered peoples to have equal status with them and were happier to let them remain subjects with their own culture and way of life; it was easier to use them for the task of empire-building this way, rather than having to share the fruits of the empire with hordes of new Muslim brothers.

    Paying the tax was tantamount to declaring that Islam’s God was more powerful than your own; you were placing yourself as a subject under the leadership of the khalifa. This is commensurate with the expansion of the umma…there are more ways than one to be a part of the house of Islam.

    Death, the third option, makes it more clear just what the tax on the Christian and Jew really meant. It is the only other way to deal with those who will not submit to Islam.

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