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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
Why don't Muslims practice a separation of church and state?

The Muslim vision of religion and politics is based upon a reading or interpretation of the Quran as well as the example of Muhammad and the early Muslim community, in tandem with the Islamic tenet that spiritual belief and action are two sides of the same coin.

Christians often cite the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God as prescribing a separation of church and state. In contrast, Muslims believe that their primary act of faith is to strive to implement God's will in both their private and public life. Throughout history, being a Muslim has meant not only belonging to a religious community of fellow believers but also living in an Islamic state governed by Islamic law (in theory if not always in practice).

Many Muslims describe Islam as a “total way of life.” They believe that religion cannot be separated from social and political life, since religion informs every action that a person takes. The Quran provides many passages that emphasize the relationship of religion to state and society. It teaches that God has given the earth as a trust to humankind (2:30, 6:165). Muslims see themselves as God's representatives with a divine mandate to establish God's rule on earth in order to create a just society. The Muslim community is seen as a political entity as proclaimed in Quran 49:13, which teaches that God “made you into nations and tribes.” Like Jews and Christians before them, Muslims have been called into a covenant relationship with God, making them a community of believers who must serve as an example to other nations (2:143) by creating a moral social order. “You are the best community evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong” (3:110).

In an ideal vision of the Islamic state, the purpose of the political authority is to implement the divine message. Thus the ideal Islamic state is a community governed by God's law rather than a theocracy or autocracy that gives power to the clergy or ruler. The state should provide security and order so that Muslims can carry out their religious duties, particularly doing good and preventing evil. Legal processes implement rules and judgments from the Shariah, rather than creating new legislation. A sense of balance should exist among three groups: the caliph, who serves as the guardian of both the faith and the community; the ulama (religious scholars), who provide religious and legal advice; and the qadis (judges), who resolve disputes in accordance with Islamic law. Over time, many Muslims came to believe that this ideal blueprint and perfect state had actually existed and should be returned to. Contemporary militant movements particularly look back to this utopia as an example to be emulated today.

While a minority of Muslims today believe that modernity requires the separation of religion and the state, many Muslims continue to maintain that religion should be integral to state and society. However, there is no clear agreement—indeed, there is considerable difference of opinion—on the precise nature of the relationship of Islam to the state. For some, it is enough to say that Islam is the official state religion and that the ruler (and perhaps those who fill most senior government positions) should be Muslim. Others call for the creation of an Islamic state. But even here, there is no single agreed-upon model of government, as attested to by the diverse examples of Saudi Arabia's conservative monarchy, Iran's clergy-run state, Sudan's and Pakistan's experiments with military-imposed Islamic governments, and the Taliban's Afghanistan. And still others reject all these experiments as un-Islamic authoritarian regimes and subscribe to more secular or Islamic democratic forms of governance.

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