The art of separation
Comparing Islam and Christianity
November 29, 2004
To explain the level of difference between Muslim societies and
the West, many refer to religious sources as if Christianity caused
modern development; and Islam all present misfortunes. This paper
challenges this common view of religious determinism arguing that
rather than Christianity or Islam per se, it is the variation in
social, historical, and ecological conditions that led to the persistence
of integration of religion and state hence underdevelopment in
many Muslim countries.
Neither the realm of Islam was always behind
nor was the land of Christianity always at the forefront. Major
characteristics such as violence and sexism have been common
in Islam and Christianity as well as other religions. That Islam
in violence and Christianity against state violence does not
represent the entire history of these religions. Jihad in Islam
in Christianity justify massive violence in favor of their interests.
Despite violent resistance of the church against modern reforms,
Western societies succeeded in achieving a new civilization
and forced the church into its domain of faith, rituals, and moral
responsibilities, while Muslim societies have not succeeded
in achieving similar developments needed to reform Islam.
unlike the West, religion in Muslim societies still continues
to play its traditional roles, including exertion of political
that prevents structural and institutional changes and,
most notably, the recognition of individuals' rights needed for
reforms, including separation from the state as a requirement
for modern development and democracy in the Muslim world, must
with multidimensional societal changes with the engagement
of the global community.
article with notes]
Why Does Theocracy Persist in the Islamic World?
There is little disagreement among social scientists that the
integration of statel and religion, which usually results in a
theocracy or semi-theocracy, is a serious hindrance to socioeconomic
development and progress. This is clearly evident in the experiences
of many Islamic societies where religious states have hindered
overall development of society.
Such a hindrance has not been
endemic to Muslim or Islamic societies. The stagnation of Western
civilization for a long period of time (between the fifth and thirteenth
centuries) too, was due to the integration of church and state
power. Joseph Stayer believes that the Church contained
some characteristics of a state. The Church was a permanent institution,
and organized as a judicial system. Bernard Lewis writes
that "the conversion of Christianity in the early fourth century
and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion" enabled
Christians to have "access to the coercive power of the state"
the ninth century and expansion of its territory the church proclaimed
the Pope as the absolute ruler of the world. However, with the
emergence of city-states in France and Italy in the fourteenth
century, and intellectual development (e.g.,
Niccolo Machiavelli's book, The Prince in the sixteenth
century) in favor of secularization of state, absolute authority
Pope and the religious law were seriously questioned and created
a situation for institutional change.
time of secularization in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these
responsibilities were transferred to a secular state. This change
occurred only through "the bloody religious wars of the sixteen
and seventeen centuries, which almost compelled Christians to secularize
their states and societies to escape from the vicious circle of
persecution and conflict" (Lewis).
Despite the common perception, however, development in the West
was not due to the separation of the church and state; on the contrary,
certain changes in society -- primarily the emergence of industrial
capitalism -- resulted in this separation. What caused the emergence
of industrial capitalism?
Many social scientists believe that
rationalism was the main factor behind capitalist development
in the West. As rationalism opened the path to capitalism,
progress, modernity, and industrialization in the Christian West,
the continuation of the predominance of religiosity of power
in the Islamic East (the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid state)
it lagging behind.
Was this contrast in the course of development
between the two the result of some essential differences between
Christianity and Islam, rendering the former open to, but the
latter incompatible with, rationalism and modernity? As Lapidus
while there is consensus over the role of rationalism in capitalist
development, there is no commonly accepted explanation as to
what caused the prevalence of rationalism in the first place.
Focusing on the case of Iran as a predominantly Muslim society,
this paper attempts to challenge religious determinism in general
and Islamic determinism in particular. This paper does not deal
specifically with "under-development," but rather with
the question of why socioeconomic development has differed in
the (Christian) West and the (Islamic) East, and why the integration
of religion and state has been so persistent in the Islamic world
but not in the Christian (Western) world.
Rather than perceiving
the role of Islam in socioeconomic development as essentially different
from that of
Christianity, this study emphasizes the role of broader societal
and historical differences rooted in the objective and material
conditions of the societies in which Islam and Christianity were
born or fostered.
This paper will argue that rather than Religion
per se, it is the variations in societal, historical, and ecological
conditions that led to the persistence of integration of religion
and state and underdevelopment in many Muslim countries. For example,
the Quran and hadith (sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad) provide
the foundations of Islamic "laws" (fiqh).
of religious law is not unique to Muslim societies but also can
be found in many places in the East, so that Max Weber was amazed
at how the entire history of the East was the history of religion.
Roman law, the foundation of laws in the West, was secular. Laws
in the Middle East originated in religion and
This pattern, interestingly,
has had its basis in the land tenure system so that invisible
religious laws have run even the secular states in the Middle
East. In Islam, sovereignty belongs to God. This
is illustrated in the Constitutional Revolution of Iran
(1905-1909) where, in the absence of a secular native legal system,
were adopted from the West (Belgium) in order to construct
To protect Islam, however, an article was added
to the constitutional laws in order to create a watchdog group
of five mojtaheds (high clerics) to monitor the Majlis bills
and prevent passage of any law contradicting the Shari'a. Religious
opponents of the constitutional laws, such as Sheikh Fazlollah
Nuri, opposed the secular laws as an innovation of those
societies lacking divine laws.
The integration of religion and state in the historical process
of Iran is one of the most important factors in the slow development
of the country. This has been a product of the subsistence mode
of production governing Iran.
In order to analyze the role of religion
in the development or underdevelopment of Iranian society and
its comparison with the West, a number of assumptions or questions
should be addressed first. Is there a causal relationship between
Christianity and development in the West, and a likewise relationship
between Islam and underdevelopment in Iran as has been assumed
by some scholars?
The second question
is whether the role of Christianity in the state power of Western
societies is identical to the role of Islam in the state power
of Islamic Societies. In other words, is there a difference
between Islam and Christianity as far as integration of religion
is concerned? A brief explanation of these questions is offered
in the forthcoming section.
By integration of religion and state, or a religious state, I
mean a theocratic society. In a theocratic society, social regulations
that ought to be based on rational, relative, changeable, and collective
agreements are based on religious principles; hence they are absolute,
unchangeable, and autocratic. In
such a society, the government gains its legitimacy not from
people's consent but from God's will.
In a society in which a
religious government rules, freedom of expression is limited
and human creativity
is repressed. The integration of religion and state leads to
a more centralized and a more absolutist power, and this, in
turn, leads to the creation of obstacles to rationalism, secularization,
and pluralism, for instance, the three fundamental elements
modern civilization in the West. I will briefly expound the
various views on the difference between Islam and Christianity.
Three Perspectives on Religion and State
With regard to the integration of religion
and state within Islam and Christianity, three perspectives can be
identified. I will
describe each perspective, and then add my critique and alternative
I. The dominant perspective is that the relationship between
religion and state in Islam is different from that in Christianity.
While in Christianity, the church and the state establishment had
separate identities at the beginning, in Islam these two were the
Bernard Lewis is perhaps the most renowned historian of Islam
who believes in the existence of a fundamental difference between
Islam and Christianity. To him this very difference (secularism
in Christianity and absence of secularism in Islam) is responsible
for the West's development and the Islamic World's underdevelopment.
In Islam, "there is from the begin-ning an
interpenetration, almost an identification, of cult and power,
or religion and the state: Mohammed was not only a prophet, but
a ruler". Elsewhere he writes:
In classic Islam there was no distinction between Church and
state. In Christendom the existence of two authorities goes back
to the founder, who enjoined his followers to render unto Caesar
the things which are Caesar's, and to God the things which are
God's. Throughout the history of Christendom there have been
two powers: God and Caesar, represented in this world by sacerdotium
and regnum, or, in modern terms, church and state.
They may be
associated, they may be separated; they may be in harmony, they
may be in conflict; one may dominate, the other may dominate;
one may interfere, other may protest, as we are now learning again.
But always there are two, the spiritual and the temporal powers,
each with its own laws and jurisdictions, its own structure and
In pre-Westernized Islam, there were not two powers
but one, and the question of separation, therefore, could not
The distinction between church and state, so deeply rooted
in Christendom, did not exist in Islam, and in classical Arabic,
well as in
other languages which derive their intellectual and political
vocabulary from classical Arabic, there were no pairs of words
to spiritual and temporal, lay and ecclesiastical, religious
It was not ntil the nineteen and twentieth centuries, and then
under the influence of Western ideas and institutions, that new
found, first in Turkish and then in Arabic, to express the
idea of secular. Even in modern usage, there is no Muslim equivalent
to 'the Church', meaning 'ecclesiastical organization'. All
different words for mosque denote only a building, which
is a place of worship, not an abstraction, an authority, or an
institution. (Lewis 1988: 2-3)
D. Other scholars also underscore the difference
between Christianity and Islam, but emphasize the role of socioeconomic
religion, in the development of the society.
These include Ira Lapidus (1975), Arkoun (1988), Sami Zubaida
(1989), Nazih Ayubi (1991) and Nikki Keddie (1995). Nikki Keddie
(1995) has a realistic and reasonable position about the points
of qualitative differences between Islam and Christianity in classic
and pre-modern eras, and believes that the main difference appeared
in the era of modernism.
She points to the relationship between the state and religion
in the Orthodox church of Eastern Europe and the relationship between
religion and politics in the Western world prior to the era of
modernization; she argues that the present differences on the issue
of separation of religion and state in the West and their unity
in the Islamic world is a new phenomenon that appeared in the era
Reinhard Bendix takes a more cautious approach in his support
of Max Weber's perspective about the relationship between the state
and the church and argues that Christianity is not a unified or
homogeneous phenomenon. He writes: "Some religions -- Lutheranism
and Islam, for example -- reject or neglect a separate church
While "on the other hand, Catholicism and Calvinism
clearly favor a separate church organization".
What is known
as the Byzantine Empire was more similar to the culture of the
Islamic caliph than was the Western kingdom. The idea of the unity
of religion and state originated in the belief that all eartWy
powers represented evil as they were
only concerned with their own power, which stood in opposition
to the divine power. Governments ought to be ready to serve the
objectives of the church (religion).
St. Augustine (354-430), the first Christian political theorist,
political power was man-made and evil, while the Church was designed
to bring mankind salvation. Of course, Augustinian thought was
a "brilliant synthesis of Greco-Roman classicism and Christianity".
However, in the thirteen century, Thomas Aquinas recognized the
legitimacy of Christian polity. What I conclude
from these ideas is that if the drastic change of modernity in
the West forced the Church out of the domain of political rule,
so will it occur in Muslim societies as modernization prevails.
ID. A third argument is that in early Islam,
like Christianity, religion and state were separate. Mohammad Arkoun
during the era of
the Prophet Mohammad, there was no sign of an established state,
and the states of Umayyads and the Abbasids were secular. We may
consider Arkoun's view as the third theory, as he considers the separation of
state and religion in early Islam a
I believe, contrary to this claim that the integration of religion
and state existed during the era of the Islamic caliphates, when
the caliphs issued both religious and government decrees, religious
rulers assigned the judges, the judiciary system was based on shari'a,
and the regional rulers praised the caliphs in their lectures and
Although the newly established Islamic state was challenged
by tribal wars during the time of the Prophet, Arabia unified
itself during the rule of Abu-Baker (632-634) under one state,
to remain unified during the four orthodox (rashidun) caliphs.
Addressing the issue of integration of religion and state, Ira
Lapidus states that this unity existed in the era of the Prophet
because the prophet of Islam was said to have expressed God's
wishes, and the political trust he enjoyed emanated from his religious
status. After Muhammad's death, the caliphs preserved the same
This tradition persisted in the tribal relations of
the Arabs and was later abused by personal interests. This
trend continued even after the Islamic caliphs deviated from the
of Islam, but eventually a new challenge and
competition emerged within the Muslim world. While the caliphs
religion to legitimize their political rule, the Shi'ite sect
originated in the rejection of the caliph's legitimacy.
Shiites were in conflict with the caliphs trying to seize
the ruling power as the heirs of the prophet Mohammad. As I discuss
Shi'ites also integrated state and religion when they seized
political power. In following pages, I explain how the integration
and religion began in Islam.
The differences perceived by Bernard Lewis do not prove that
Islam is incompatible with development or modernization; neither
do they confirm that Christianity was responsible for the emergence
of the modern civilization. Socioeconomic factors influenced the
identities of both Christianity and Islam in the early stages.
An ongoing conflict, of various degrees, has existed between modernization
and religion in both Islam and Christianity.
That Islam was less
rooted in urban culture made it more resistant to modern civilization.
Modern development in the West, including secularism was the result
of capitalism, not Christianity. The passage "render unto
Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and to God the things which
are God's" used by Lewis to show the separate coexistence
of two authorities, is from one of the authors of the Bible, Matthew,
who was a Roman citizen with a Greek culture. Lewis himself calls
this influence "the Romanization of Christ".
in the scriptures Jesus is quoted as saying: "All
authority has been given me in heaven and on
and, further: "Go therefore and make disciples of people of
all the nations". This Biblical statement
was used by the Church to establish its own rule after the collapse
of the Roman Empire, and to subordinate the monarch during the
medieval era as the Church would argue the soul should rule over
the body (the monarch).
Before the fall of Roman Empire, Christianity
emerged in the territory of the Roman Empire and proposed to
share power with the dominant state, while Islam emerged as an
central power, introduced a monotheistic religion, and pushed
for the unity of Arabs (I add details in the following pages).
The Muslim societies with these characteristics developed into
the center of world civilization, while the Christian world lagged
Samuel Huntington emphasizes the unity of religion and politics
in Islam versus the Western Christian concept of the separate realms
of God and Caesar, but he does not ignore the similarities between
the two. As he notes, both are monotheistic, universalistic, missionary
religions, with theological views of history: "From its origins
Islam expanded by conquest and when the opportunity existed Christianity
did also. The parallel concepts of jihad and crusade not only resemble
each other but distinguish these two faiths from other major world
religions". Bernard Lewis stresses
the similarities in the Muslim and Christian approach to war:
If one looks at the historical record, the Muslim approach
to war does not differ greatly from that of Christians, or
Jews in the very ancient and very modern periods when the option
was open to them. While Muslims, perhaps more frequently than
Christians, made war against the followers of other faiths
to bring them within
the scope of Islam, Christians -- with the notable exception
of the Crusades, which were themselves an imitation of Muslim
practice -- were
more prone to fight internal religious war against
those whom they saw as schematics or heretics.
Principally, war is launched by the state as the institution
of power and violence, not religion as "a social institution
involving beliefs and practices based on a conception of the sacred".
When religion integrates with state power then war becomes part
of its duties, as was the case with Islam in its inception,
or the Roman Catholic Church after the demise of the Roman Empire.
According to Huntington, the level of violent conflict between
Islam and Christianity over time has been influenced by demographic
change, economic developments, technological growth, and intensity
of religious commitment.
This point signifies the
impact of the socioeconomic development of society on religion,
not the reverse, as Huntington and Bernard Lewis conclude. Religion
is part of a society, not the reverse. That is why Christianity,
in a politically repressive situation in Central America, unlike
the West, developed into a "liberation theology." This
is where I begin to distinguish between Muslim societies and the
I believe Western civilization infused
into Christianity Greek and Roman values, which were absent in
Muslim societies. Otherwise, there were many similarities between
the two religions. Islam, also, can be defined based on modern
demands as society develops into new stages. The modernist point
of view was first espoused by Muslim intellectual elites such
as Sayyed Jamal aI-Din Afghani (1839-1897), and by the Young
Ottomans in the 1860s and 1870s and unsuccessfully continued by others during
the twentieth century.
Different factors -- not only religion -- have played a role
in the formation of contemporary Western civilization. These factors
the Hellenic culture and the Greek official logic, the Roman laws,
the emergence of Christianity and the Catholic system with the
Papacy, the City-government, the Renaissance, the Reformation,
the Enlightenment movement, and the various bourgeois revolutions.
If these characteristics have been absent in the East, some of
the reasons must be beyond human control, such as
The growth of Christianity,
different from Eastern religions, has been closely linked to
the trend of growth in Western civilization. That the Bible was
in Greek inevitably put Christianity under the influence of Hellenic
culture and, further, the authors (Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke,
John, Peter) were socialized in Greco-Roman values. Judea had given
Christianity ethics, Greece had given it theology, and Rome gave
With regard to the argument of each perspective and my critique,
I offer my own alternative analysis, which is a synthesis of the
first and the second theories.
Although Ira Lapidus comments upon the unique nature of Christianity,
he believes that modern civilization developed as the result of
the downfall of the agrarian economy and the growth of industry
and commerce in the West. According to one theory, "science
rebelled against the Church; the bourgeoisie could not do without
science, and, therefore, had to join in the rebellion". Or "the
development of the middle class, the bourgeoisie, became incompatible
with the maintenance of the
feudal system; the feudal system, therefore, had to fall. But the
great international center of feudalism was the Roman Catholic
The Catholic Church was
united in alliance with feudal lords; therefore, "every struggle
against feudalism, at that time, had to take on a religious disguise,
had to be directed against the Church in the first instance".
The middle class, the bourgeoisie, forced the separation of political
power from the church. Lapidus writes that
in the West, "not only were church and state separate institutions,
but Christian and secular societies had separate foundations".
He further argues that Christianity's fundamental
values stress the importance of individual will, and secularist
forces defend individualism, which is an essential element in
the classical culture of the West.
In short, Christianity
fostered and developed within the institutional structure of Western
society in which these characteristics were present. The Roman
Empire had a concept of citizenship, and Roman citizens had certain
rights. Islam, on the other hand, ignores individualism or citizenry: "The
Qur'an recognises Man (insan), irrespective of his beliefs
and political standing, but has no word for citizen. That is why
in modern times have had to invent new terms for the concept: muwatin in Arabic, shahrvand in Persian, and vatanda~, in Turkish, are
According to Bendix, the early Christian Church was a "typically
urban institution," which was supported by Roman traditions.
Rationalism, including religious action, was more closely linked
to urban life as opposed to rural life, which
was threatened by natural disasters . Weber writes
that the rational tendency in Christianity is attributed to the
inherent rationalism of commerce and industry as contrasted with
agricultural pursuits. Weber (1964) emphasizes that
cities were regarded as the carriers of the development of modern
rationalism, and "Christianity as an ethical religion of salvation
and as personal piety found their real nurture in the urban environment".
Islam emerged in a backward society under the
adverse conditions of desert life and tribal relations to meet
the needs and interests of Arab tribes that predominantly led
a nomadic life. The
ecological influence was so deep that even "the settled
population in cities such as Hijaz and Najd did not leave any form
of ancient culture behind". Abdul Rahman
al-Bazzaz (1964) writes: "many of the principles that Islam
has asserted, and have become part of it, are ancient Arab traditions
which were refined by Islam, and invested with a fresh character.
The veneration of, and paying pilgrimage to, the Ka'bah, are
an ancient Arab tradition, and so are many of the rituals of
itself". But this situation
changed when Islam merged with other cultures. Arab populations
became familiar with, and were influenced by, the neighboring cultures
from Byzantine to Sumeria and Persia because of the existence of
trade relations with these civilizations. However, non-urban experiences
became the basis of the religious principles of Islam.
In short, it can be argued that Islam, primarily rooted in nomadic
life, adapted itself to the norms of an agricultural society in
the new territories it conquered later. But Christianity, quite
to the contrary, entered other territories and became kneaded with
the culture of the middle class in urban areas: "Judaism and
Christianity were specifically civic and urban religions, but the
city had only political importance for Islam". Therefore,
I conclude that religion has been a product of different modes
of subsistence. What is emphasized here is that
the degree of the relationship between religion
and state in Christianity and Islam has not been the same.
Christianity, Islam carries an organization of economic laws,
philosophy of life, and social and governmental order.
Western civilization has been based on secular Roman laws, whereas
Muslim societies in the absence of secular laws have had to rely
on religious "laws" mainly rooted from the tribal traditions.
The Western laws, as human products, were dynamic and changeable;
the religious "laws" were presumed divine, therefore
static and unchangeable.
Muslim societies have to adopt secular laws for their modem development.
Many contemporary experts in Islam or "virtually all of the
Islamist authors writing about Islam and democracy, or about the
ideal 'Islamic order', subscribe to the view that Islam is religion
and state (ai-Islam din wa-dawla) or religion and world
And, to use Weber's words, this is "the most consistent
religious expression of the organic view of society".
to this view, when the realms of religion and politics became
distinct, a constant struggle between the power
of the caliphs and that of the Sultan resulted. This traditional
interpretation of Islam will continue unless society starts to
require a different religion, a religion that serves a new way
of life in industrialized and developed society. In short, it
is not religion that creates human society; rather, human beings
construct religion to meet their needs.
Integration of State and Religion in Islam
One of Islam's distinguishing characteristics from other great
and global religions is that Islam, unlike other religions, not
only laid the foundation of a new religion, but for the first time
it was also able to pave the way for the establishment of an Arab
state and to bring ethnic unity to the Arab people.
At the time Islam emerged, Arabia had no centralized state. Tribes
were still governed by regional, primitive, and headstrong governments
who resisted Islam. Islam united the people of Arabia
and gave them a powerful centralized state. The mechanism that
motivated this change was a revolutionary force that used violence
and eventually brought a great wealth to ruling Arabs.
made Islam, from the beginning, a state religion. This development,
in turn, played a very important role in the development of Islam
as a global religion. But during the process of its development,
Islam gradually turned into a tool to justify the policies of the
government it supported. From this point on, Islam began a violent
history, all under the pretext of defending the "true" religion
against religious deviations.
Reinhard Bendix writes that
Islam, like the Lutheran Church, has been an easy victim of dictatorial
rule because it "was tied from the beginning to the expansionist
drive of the Arabs and consequently espoused the idea of forceful
subjugation of infidels". This made it easier for
the rulers to suppress their political opponents, as has been the
case in the history of all religions up to the present time. In
to politics, religion helped powerful religious figures accumulate
wealth, to the point that "some of the caliphsespecially
those that ruled after Osman -- used religion as a tool to transfer
the caliphate into a kingdom".
For this reason, the revolutionary message of Islam during the
prophet's lifetime, for instance, equality and equity, was gradually
forgotten. What remained of Islam was state power and competition
among different groups and religious sects, not for the sake of
the religion but so they could gain power and wealth: "The
principle of equality among all the Muslims was officially recognized,
but in fact, even at that time it was a term with no significance,
a bubble with no depth".
Non-Arab governments, such as the Turks and Persians, secured
their own political interests and mercilessly destroyed their dissidents;
claiming that they were the enemies of Islam and not the enemies
of the government. In the beginning, the Shi'ite sect unsuccessfully
made attempts to separate religion from the Caliphate. However,
in 909 the Shi'ite sect founded its own Caliphate, the Fatimid
dynasty which ruled Tunisia and Egypt for two centuries.
the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722) united all Iranian tribes after
some nine centuries of fragmented rule. Shah Isma'il declared
Shi'ism the state religion. It was a political medium to keep Iranians
separate from the rest of the Islamic world, particularly from
State as the institution of power naturally generates violence.
When religion is associated with state or when they are integrated,
the state's violence becomes part of the religion. This has happened
in both Islam and Christianity in various forms. In such circumstances,
the unity of religion and state acted as an inhibiting and even
destructive force to block the development of society. Will Durant
points to the varying degree of the unity of religion and state
in different Islamic countries in different
eras, and stresses emphatically the role of the government in supervising
the observance of religious rites and laws in the societies of
the Middle East.
Furthermore, at the time of the emergence of Islam, two neighboring
states, Persia and Byzantine were religious. Apart from the Arabs'
socio-economic situation that made Islam emerge as a state religion,
the Arabs learned the methods of government from the Persians,
whose experience with the unity of religion and state (Zoroastrianism
and empire) was transferred to the Arabs and became one of their
Ardeshir Babakan, the founder of the Sasanian
dynasty (224 A.D.), was a Zoroastrian clergyman and Zoroastrianism
was the official religion of the government. In this era, religion
and state were considered the main columns supporting this dynasty
in Iran, and no tension or contradiction existed between the
two. Such an experience was not unique to Iranians. The unity of
and religion or divine rule had a
long history in the entire region prior to Islam.'
In addition to this, as I stated before, unlike Christianity,
which emerged in opposition to the Roman Empire,s Islam emerged
in unity with the polity to form a national government replacing
tribal rules, whereas Christianity formed using different cultural
components of Roman civilization:
Christianity was created in
the intercultural conflict of the Roman Empire's conquest of
the ancient Middle East; and Islam came
into being amidst warring Bedouin tribes and the growing materialism
of the merchant class. Those varied social contexts and intercultural
conflicts provided the soil in which the beliefs, rituals,
and institutions of each tradition were cultivated.
(Kurts 1995: 49)
Following the unity of Arab tribes, Islam expanded its power
the Arab lands, encompassing more advanced civilizations such
as Iran, Byzantine, and Egypt, and forming an Islamic Empire which
always engaged in political power. Was such a concept foreign to
How did State and Religious Integration Begin in the
Toward this end, the Church took three steps: the formation of
a scriptural canon, the determination of doctrine, and the organization
of authority. As Durant explains:
The Roman gift was above all a vast framework of government,
which, as secular authority failed, became the structure of ecclesiastical
rule. Soon the bishops, rather than the Roman prefects, would be
the source of order and the seat of power in the cities; the metropolitans,
or archbishops would support, if not supplant, the provincial governors;
and the synod of bishops would succeed the provincial assembly.
The Roman Church followed in the footsteps of the Roman state;
it conquered the provinces, beautified the capital, and established
discipline and unity from frontier to frontier. Rome died in giving
birth to the Church; the Church matured by inheriting and accepting
the responsibilities of Rome. (Durant 1944: 618-619)
In the third period, after the Renaissance, the downfall of feudalism,
change of the mode of subsistence, and the emergence of capitalism
forced the Church out of the state power. From the very beginning,
state/church relations in the West were influenced by the fundamental
elements of the Greco-Roman world and, later on, modern civilization,
for instance, rationalism, secularization, and pluralism in the
The roots of these elements lie in Greek rational philosophy,
Roman laws, feudalistic relations, and the ethics of commerce, "each
of which constituted a world of values independent of Christian
beliefs". Lapidus, however, adds: "The
potentiality for secularization was already implicit in the nature
of the Christian Church". This potential should be
included when analyzing the role of Christianity in modern civilization
in the West.
Separation of State and Religion in the West
Islam led to a centralized government and a religious empire.
In comparison, Christianity, influenced by the Greek-Roman culture,
created a non-centralized organization. Even during the Middle
Ages, the church, as an independent political force, existed alongside
other institutions to the point that sometimes it supported the
kings, sometimes the feudal lords, and sometimes even the urban
Church and state were also linked in the West during
certain periods of history. The integration of religion
and state emerged
after the demise of the Roman Empire. Will Durant writes that the
Church inherited the responsibilities of the Roman Empire after
it declined. Western history can be categorized into
three periods: the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the Modern.
While the first and the third periods developed into major civilizations,
in the Middle Ages Europe remained backward.
In the first and the
third periods political power was out of the domain of the Church,
whereas during the Middle Ages, either religion integrated into
the state or the Church became a rival political power that challenged
both monarchs and feudal authorities. When Christianity became
intertwined with the state it acted as a religion of warriors,
much like Islam. Christianity emerged as a secular institution,
which resisted state violence, but later merged into a state
power. In modern times, once again, the growth of capitalism
separation of church and state.
The First Roman emperor who converted to Christianity was Emperor
Constantine in 312 A.D. Theodosius (ruled 379-395)
and Justinian (ruled 527-566) imposed their divine rules over
the east and west parts of the Roman Empire and, at this point,
Eastern and Western Christendom went separate ways: "In
the East, church and state were linked; both civil and religious
matters were directed by the emperor".
Bernard Lewis, who
argues about the peculiarity of Christian secularism, cannot
deny this fact.
He states: "The conversion
of Constantine in the early fourth century and the establishment
of Christianity as the state religion initiated a double change;
the Christianization of Rome and -- some would add -- the Romanization
By the middle of the third century,
the position and resources of the papacy were so strong that
Decius vowed he would rather have a rival emperor in Rome than
a pope. After the demise of the Roman Empire, however, the capital
of the Empire naturally became the capital of the Church.
The link to the state power structure led Christianity into a new
phase, which continued until the
end of the Middle Ages.
The change moved Christianity from the
egalitarian teachings of Jesus to an authoritarian power: "By
the eleventh century, Christianity had shifted from being a pacifist
to a warrior religion". Antonio
Gramsci rejects the popular view of seeing the expansion
of Christianity in the world without using violence. He adds it
true only before Christianity developed into a state religion.
Thereafter, the history of Christianity has not been different
from any other ruling power.
Islam, initially as state religion,
had clear legitimacy for acts of violence. During the Crusades,
Christianity was used as a theological justification for the mobilization
of Europe using violence in the war against Muslims. During the
Middle Ages, the East, the worlds of Islam and China in particular,
were technologically more advanced than Europe.
This fact can be justified as the East continued its "natural" development
during the Middle Ages, while the process of development was interrupted
by the integration of religion and state in the West.
If the integration of religion and state hindered further development
in the West, how did development take place in the Muslim societies
of the medieval era? Briefly we may refer to the silent force behind
the rise of medieval Islamic civilization.
With the expulsion of
the Byzantines and the destruction of the Sasanids, the political
barrier that had hitherto divided the Near
East into two separate blocks ceased to exist. The transformation
of the vast western and eastern regions into a "common market" under
the same political and ideological regime meant that the Dar al-Islam,
enjoying relative internal stability and an expanding economy,
became the most lucrative area to serve the needs of investors
and merchants engaged in long distance trade linking the Far East
with Western Europe, the Indian Ocean with the Atlantic, and the
Baltic regions with Africa. Adding to this,
the integration of state and religion hindered development when
industrial capitalism replaced the agrarian system.
Summary and Conclusion
With regard to all of these factors, one can
conclude that the ultimate separation of religion and state in the
West was the
result of the growth of a force outside of these institutions,
i.e. commerce and rational philosophy in Greek-Roman civilization
in ancient times and the growth of bourgeoisie in modern times
which badly needed these two establishments to be separate.
The existence of the conditions that allowed the separation of
the realms of power in Christianity no doubt helped the separation
of religion and state in the West, and that such conditions did
not exist in Islam added to the increasing difficulty of the separation
of religion and state in Muslim societies, including Iranian society.
The separation of religion and state in Islam can become a reality
only through the development of competitive relations in economics,
politics, and religion.
To end the unity of state and religion
(theocracy) as the main obstacle to development in some Muslim
societies, the domination of political religion must be terminated
and the monopoly of religious interpretation must be replaced
by a fair competition among theologians and believers.
After a century of various attempts to adopt modern elements
into Muslim societies, new theoretical and political challenges
finally have begun to undermine the traditional authorities
in Muslim societies, particularly in Iran. But the success of
process depends on the development of the industrial economy,
the growth of the middle class, and the formation of civil society.
Capitalism appeared in the West, and the fruit it yielded was
the separation of religion and state, paving the way for the development
of society in all directions. In the East, including Iran, industrial
capitalism did not prevail; therefore, there was no reason for
the separation of religion and state in a system that was based
on an agrarian economy. Historically, the unity of these two institutions
was an enormous obstacle to Iran's development.
Let me emphasize
again that this unity was not exclusively and merely the result
of the difference in the natures of Christianity and Islam, but
chiefly was the result of a third factor: the growth of capitalism
in modern times. In the West, despite its differences from Islam,
Christianity played no direct role in creating capitalism, in
the same way that Islam played no direct role in inhibiting its
This point takes us to the present situation. Indeed, Muslim
societies should be able to produce the characteristics of modernity
when similar factors are present. The socioeconomic development
of industrial capitalism, which leads into an industrial middle
class, will promote a democratic religion as well. Currently, the
most effective mechanism of such change is globalization.
I would like to thank Valentine
M. Moghadam for her helpful comments
and suggestions on the earlier draft of this article.
Kazem Alamdari is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at California
State University in Los Angeles.Dr Alamdari received his PhD from
the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has taught at
several institutions, including University of Tehran, and University
of California, Los Angeles. See homepage.