Muslim-Christian Encounters: Governments under God

by Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 2, 1992, pps. 1103-1106. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There is a large body of material in both Muslim and Christian sources that supports a public role for religion without making territoriality a condition of faith. Westerners must keep abreast of moderate Muslim counsels.

Islam has always conceived a political role for religion, a fact that has increasingly become apparent to Westerners faced with Muslims in their midst. Westerners are caught in a bind in the face of Muslim demands: the logic of religious toleration, not to say of hospitality, requires making concessions to Muslims, while the logic of privatizing Christianity, of taking religion out of the public arena, disqualifies Westerners from dealing effectively with Muslim theocratic demands. Is a meeting between these two positions possible and if so, on what grounds and to what end? The answer depends in part on what led Westerners to reject a territorial and theocratic role for religion, and whether those reasons are valid and relevant to Muslim demands.

The church was never more involved in politics than during the era of the Holy Roman Empire when faith and territory were joined as a principle of membership in church and state. Under the empire Christianity became "Christendom," and the political ruler was seen as God’s appointed agent, the earthly counterpart to the heavenly sovereign. In that scheme political affairs and religious matters were two aspects of one and the same reality. Church and state were united for the same purpose, even though as institutions they represented different functions. While the church held custody of the absolute moral law, the state was concerned with enforcing the rules that gave practical expression to the higher spiritual law. Conformity rather than personal persuasion was the chief end of religious activity.

Such an arrangement would work only if there was a more or less homogenous, cohesive society apportioned into more or less stable social classes. Cohesion became increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of growing pluralism and social mobility. Finally, with the rise of national ethnic consciousness fueled by the drive for religious freedom, the formal structures of the religious empire collapsed and Christendom dissolved.

Leading Christian thinkers of the time devoutly wished for such a demise, because it allowed religion to become a matter of personal experience rather than of membership in a divinely designated race or church. The church was transformed from territoriality to voluntarism. As John Locke forcefully and perhaps excessively expressed it in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Christians as members of a "voluntary society" were those who came together for "the public worshipping of God in such a manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the. salvation of their souls." The overriding concerns of such a society, he felt, ought to be spiritual and moral, "and nothing ought nor can be transacted in this society relating to the possession of civil and worldly goods."

Locke drew a neat distinction between religion and state. He gave civil government the responsibility for ordering our material well-being, including "life, liberty, health, and indolence of body," as well as "possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like." Just as the church should not amass wealth or material possessions, so the government should not try to save souls.

Locke recognized that this was not entirely a satisfactory distinction either in detail or in principle, however, as is clear from his further observation that government should not be given authority over religion because "it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion." For Locke, as for many Puritan divines, religion was incompatible with state coercion not simply because the state was too blunt and oppressive an instrument to use in delicate matters of faith, but because "though the rigor of laws and the force of penalties were capable to convince and change men’s minds, yet would not that help at all to the salvation of their souls." Locke reasoned that a soul that was compelled was a soul that had lost its religious worth and was therefore unfit for spiritual regeneration. Similarly, the political commonwealth would be a tyranny if nothing beyond compulsion held it together. Such a religious conception of the moral integrity of individuals was integral to Locke’s conceptions of the tool-making character of civil government. In other words, religion as a voluntary society made possible the theory of limited state authority. In this complementarity of church and state we find the "good life" wherein "lies the safety both of men’s souls and of the commonwealth." Religion and civil government have an overlapping legitimate interest in "moral actions" that belong "to the jurisdiction both of the outward and the inward court."

The Muslim challenge was not far from Locke’s mind, and he considered how Muslims and others might be integrated into a society where religion was not enforced or enforceable. That form of Islam, he said, that departed from the tradition of voluntarism would be difficult if not impossible to assimilate. Atheism would present a no less troubling challenge. "Those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretense of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of toleration." Locke was aware that the argument for religious toleration itself rests on a religious idea, and that it is contradictory for people to repudiate religion while supporting tolerance and inclusiveness. That is why he insisted that neither atheist nor Muslim or any other "ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion."

Countless other Western religious thinkers have given similar attention to the proper relation of religion and politics. They have separated the two by repudiating territoriality without jettisoning the religious ground of the repudiation. One 17th-century theologian insisted that religious persons of conscience cannot allow "a secular sword [to] cut in sunder those knots in religion which [it] cannot untie by a theological resolution." The reason for this is that "to employ the [civil] magistrate in this kind of compulsion is a prejudice to the Lord Jesus, and the provision he has made of the propagation of the Church and truth." Such teachings are the foundation on which we have built the modern ideas of democratic pluralism and religious freedom. They also explain why religious territoriality became unacceptable to Christian thinkers, and why many Westerners who grapple with Islam’s claims of territoriality nevertheless are encouraged by Islam’s witness to divine sovereignty in human affairs.

The late Ayâtullâh Khumaynî of Iran once complained that Muslims have been robbed of their heritage through Western connivance. Western agents, he charged, "have completely separated [Islam] from politics. They cut off its head and gave the rest to us." The reference is to the creation in Muslim countries of the secular national state as the successor to the transnational Islamic caliphate. A similar complaint was made by Sâdiq al-Mahdî, the Sudanese political leader who pilloried the secular national state by declaring: "The concepts of secularism, humanism, nationalism, materialism and rationalism, which are all based on partial truths, became deities in their own right: one-eyed superbeings. They are responsible for the present Euro-American spiritual crisis. The partial truths in all these powerful ideas can be satisfied by Islam." It was in respect to such sentiments that Kenneth Cragg wrote: "The renewed and effective politicization of Islam is the most important single fact of the new [Islamic] century [which opened in 1979]."

All these views have their roots in the Prophet’s own personal legacy in Medina and Mecca where he established territoriality, dâr al-Islâm, as the handmaid of religious faith. It was not long before the early Muslims were rallying round the political standard "no government except under God." The words have echoed down to our day, mediated by the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), as a stringent theocratic credo. It is from Ibn Taymiyya, among others, that modernist Muslim reformers in the last 200 years have received their marching orders, from Jalâl al-Dîn Afghânî to Sayyid Qutb and Ayâtullâh Khumaynî.

Ibn Taymiyya spoke about the indispensability of God and the Prophet in political affairs, what he calls "divine government and prophetic viceregency." He contended:

To govern the affairs of men is one of the most important requirements of religion, nay, without it religion cannot endure ... The duty of commanding the good and forbidding the evil cannot be completely discharged without power and authority. The same applies to all religious duties (holy war, pilgrimage, prayer, fast, almsgiving), to helping those who are wronged, and to meting out punishment in accordance with the legal penalties ... The purpose of public office is to further the religion and the worldly affairs of men ... When the pastor exerts himself in proportion to his ability to further both, he is one of the most excellent fighters on the path of God.

"The exercise of authority," he concluded, "is a religious function and a good work which brings [one] near to God, and drawing near to God means obeying God and his Prophet."

These are uncompromising words that impute territoriality to religious orthodoxy, words that would make Muslims dissatisfied with a merely utilitarian political ethic. Yet they are words that also make it difficult to coexist in a pluralist society. One way out of the confines of Ibn Taymiyya’s thought is to make "the duty of commanding the good and forbidding the evil" a condition of the religious interest in politics rather than the justification for a theocracy, especially when a theocratic state may itself flout the divine law.

A similar consideration has led many Muslims to question whether even under Islamic territoriality it is wise to employ force and coercion to propagate religion. Caliph al-Ma’mûn, for example, agonized over the safety of religious truth when upheld by the instruments of the state. He declared in a public meeting in 830 that although many under his rule had converted to Islam for purely religious reasons, many others had done so from less honorable motives. "They belong to a class who embrace Islam, not from any love for this our religion, but thinking thereby to gain access to my Court, and share in the honour, wealth, and power of the Realm; they have no inward persuasion of that which they outwardly profess." His words are forerunners of Locke’s notion of the jurisdiction of the outward and inward, and his sense that territoriality is as repugnant to conscience as it is inimical to democratic pluralism. When religion looks to political power for its ultimate defense, it will soon find in the same source its sole vindication and reward. We would, like the agonized caliph, be unable to distinguish the true from the spurious, sincerity from self-interest, or commitment from opportunism.

Identical issues surface in a debate between two Muslim scholars on the need for a theocratic state. Muhammad al-Kanemî (d. 1838), the ruler of Kanem-Bornu in West Africa, challenged the jihâd leader ‘Uthmân dan Fodio (d. 1817) with regard to the use of the sword for religious ends. Al-Kanemî said the sword is too rough-and-ready a weapon to use in settling religious questions, especially questions between Muslims themselves. It represents an attempt to resolve by force what might be substantial matters of theology, or even only differences of opinion. He insisted that Muslims either settle for tolerance and mutual acceptance or else unleash a permanent war that would exempt, in his words, not even "Egypt, Syria and all the cities of Islam ... in which acts of disobedience without number have long been committed." "No age and country," al-Kanemi’ cautioned, "is free from its share of heresy and sin," and any rigid notion of Muslim territoriality that flies in the face of this reality would reduce to ashes all sincere but inadequate attempts at truth and obedience. We cannot find revealed truth in the blinding flames of fanaticism.

A whole religious vocation has developed among certain groups of Muslim West Africans around rejecting political and military means for spreading and maintaining religious faith and institutions. The people, the Jakhanké, have clean roots in medieval Africa through a cleric called al-Hâjj Sâlim Suwaré (hence the appellation "Suwarians" in some sources). Al-Hâjj Sâlim handed down teachings that represent a scrupulous disavowal of political and military coercion in religious matters and that repudiated secular political office for the professional cleric—an astonishing position given the unambiguous rulings of the Qur’ân and the jurists. Equally astonishing is the durability of this pacific strain in Muslim West Africa, whose antiquity and dispersed, mobile character have led scholars to devise a Semitic hypothesis for its origin. Indeed, Jakhanké chronicles identify them as Banî Isrâ’ila ("children of Israel"), which appears to lend at least a conjectural credence to the Semitic theory. At any rate, as professional clerics the Jakhanké established education centers as cells of influence among diverse ethnic groups. So distinctive was their tradition that religious militants who defied it found themselves opposed on principle by the community for whom a theocratic dispensation was more disconcerting than the prospects of continuing pluralism.

This clerical pacifism gradually undermined the extreme program of a corporate theocratic state. Every attempt to create a theocratic government in Muslim West Africa failed. Even European colonial efforts to co-opt clerics by giving them chieftaincies foundered on the same pacific rock. The clerics offered their sympathy and even cooperation but stopped short of becoming collaborators. In the era of total political mobilization that some colonial regimes preferred, such clerical independence was deemed an affront, and it brought on the collision it was designed to avert, forcing the clerics to reassess their heritage in the light of new realities.

An example of one such stocktaking in 1911 involved a clerical leader who, along with his followers, was arrested, exiled and imprisoned. This man spoke eloquently of clerical pacifism not simply in terms of personal survival but in terms of a vocation. French scholar Paul Marty, who saw the relevant document, was impressed by the argument. Marty said the cleric "formulated conclusions, stamped with the indelible mark of loyalty, and remarked that his fidelity, had it not been born of natural sympathy, would have been for him a necessity of the logic of history." Marty described the attack on the pacific clerics as akin to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Such conflicts were clearly painful personal setbacks, but scarcely a fatal loss for pacific credibility or mobility since the clerics conducted themselves with dignified restraint under violent provocation and then subsequently emigrated as haven-seekers.

I myself was present when the Mâlikî muftî of the Republic of Senegal, a seasoned child of the Jakhanké peripatetic tradition, was invited by the president to travel from his country retreat in Casamance to the capital to meet the king of Saudia. He refused because he had in principle avoided political sponsorship and was unwilling to place himself at secular disposal. When he finally yielded it was as a courtesy to the royal visitor rather than as a collaboration with political office. He and clerics like him are happy to make their peace with political territoriality, but are less willing to collapse religion into such territoriality. Admittedly religious withdrawal, even with the clerical pacific principle at its heart, may not deal well enough with the problem of the doctrinaire ideological secular state, but it does sustain the moderate pacific counsels by which Muslim Africans have extended and deepened the tradition of pluralism.

There is thus a large body of material in both Muslim and Christian sources that supports a public role for religion without making territoriality a condition of faith. Sufyân Thaurî, a classical Muslim writer, once wrote, "The best of the rulers is he who keeps company with men of [religious] learning, and the worst of the learned men is he who keeps the society of the king." That is to say, religion and worldly affairs prosper together when political rules are qualified by moral principles, and they suffer when moral principles are qualified by political expedience.

This Muslim tradition challenges us to examine how the Western understanding of the limits of territoriality may complement or alter demands of political immunity for religious groups that have entered the West. It is important, therefore, to recognize the new context in which Muslims have encountered the West, not as a subjugated people of a colonial empire but as immigrants looking for opportunities. Westerners must keep abreast of moderate Muslim counsels concerning the dangers of territoriality, and both sides need to come to an agreement about freedom of religion. Westerners cannot preserve religious toleration by conceding the extreme Muslim case for territoriality; a house constructed on that foundation would have no room in it for the pluralist principle that has made the West hospitable to Muslims and others in the first place. The fact that these religious groups have grown and thrived in the West at a time when religious minorities in Islamic societies have continued to suffer civil disabilities reveals the unevenness of the two traditions.

We risk perpetuating such a split-level structure in our relationship unless we take moral responsibility for the West’s heritage, including religious tolerance. Such tolerance must rest not on the arguments of public utility but rather on the firm religious rock of the absolute moral law with which our Creator and Judge has fashioned us. Ibn Taymiyya is right that "the exercise of authority is a religious function" in the sense of accountability and subordination to the higher moral law, but mistaken when he makes this the territorial principle of orthodox rectitude. Similarly, Locke is right when he argues for the "outward" and "inward" jurisdiction, with religion at the center, but mistaken if his separation removes religion from the political economy. A theocratic state is no better than an ideological secular state, for in both God and obedience to him are reduced to tools of authority. In view of mounting Muslim pressure for religious territoriality (not to mention the sterile utilitarian ethic of the secular national state), Westerners must recover responsibility for the gospel as public truth, and reconstitute by it the original foundations on which the West built its ample view of the world.