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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 does religion play such a big role in Muslim politics?

Islam is an Arabic word meaning “submission.” A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God, one who is responsible not only for obeying God's will but also implementing it on earth in his or her private and public world. Being a Muslim means belonging to a worldwide community of believers (ummah). The responsibility of the believer to Islam and to the Muslim community overrides all other social ties and responsibilities to family, tribe, ethnicity, or nation. Politics is therefore central, since it represents the means used to carry out Islamic principles in the public sphere.

Quranic verses have been used to guide Muslim political and moral activism throughout the centuries. Twenty-first-century Islamic reformers who believe that Islam, as a comprehensive way of life, should play a central role in politics support their arguments with Quranic verses as well as the example of how Muhammad and his Companions led their lives and developed the first Muslim community. They see these primary sources and examples as a blueprint for an Islamically guided and socially just state and society.

Islam's involvement with politics dates back to its beginnings with the founding of a community-state by Muhammad in the seventh century. According to Muslim tradition, several Arab tribes challenged Abu Bakr, Muhammad's first successor, who argued that the death of Muhammad represented the end of their political allegiance to the broader Muslim community. However, Abu Bakr reminded the Arab tribes of the overarching message of Islam—that membership in and loyalty to the Muslim community transcended all tribal bonds, customs, and traditions. Abu Bakr did not accept the argument of the Arab tribes that religion and politics were two separate and unrelated entities. Rather, he said, religion was intended to guide political decisions and to provide legitimacy to a political system. All Muslims belong to a single community whose unity is based upon the interconnection of religion and the state, where faith and politics are inseparable.

Under the political leadership of Muhammad and his successors, Islam expanded from what is now Saudi Arabia into Islamic empires and cultures that stretch across North Africa, through the Middle East and into Asia and Europe. Historically Islam has served as the religious ideology for the foundation of a variety of Muslim states, including the great Islamic empires: Umayyad (661–750), Abbasid (750–1258), Ottoman (1281–1924), Safavid (1501–1722), and Mughal (1526–1857). In each of these empires and other sultanate states, Islam informed the state's legal, political, educational, and social institutions.

Today, Islam's connection with politics varies by country and region, but there are several common reasons why religion is intimately connected to the state. First of all, by the nineteenth century most Muslim countries were in a state of internal decline, and they were vulnerable to European imperialism. Muslims experienced the defeats of their societies at the hands of Christian Europe as a religious as well as political and cultural crisis. This crisis was deepened by Christian missionaries who attributed their conquests not only to superior military technology and economic power but also to the superiority of Western Christian civilization and religion. Because religion took on these political overtones on the part of Western colonialists, it is not surprising that some Muslims looked to the combination of religion and politics for a solution. Muslim responses to European colonialism ranged from resistance or struggle, justified as jihad in the defense of Islam in the face of the Christian onslaught, to accommodation and/or assimilation with the West.

Second, in the twentieth century many Muslim societies experienced a widespread feeling of failure and loss of self-esteem. The achievement of independence from colonial rulers in the mid-twentieth century created high expectations that have not been realized. Muslims have suffered from failed political systems and economies and the negative effects of modernization: overcrowded cities lacking social support systems, high unemployment, government corruption, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Rather than leading to a better quality of life, modernization has been associated with a breakdown of traditional family, religious, and social values. Many Muslims blame Western models of political and economic development as sources of moral decline and spiritual malaise.

Third, when Muslims ask themselves what went wrong, for many the inevitable answer is that their societies have strayed from the straight path of Islam that had led them to great development and success historically. Therefore future success depends upon returning to a society whose politics are governed by Islam.

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