Spiritual and Secular Power in Christianity and Islam
It cannot be denied that religion is an important factor in the conflicts between people and nations in our world. Religious wars determine the course of history, both for the past and for the present. It is anticipated that they will also have a significant impact in the future.
As long as people experience and confess their faith within the walls of their dwellings or their houses of prayer, there is no significant issue. It is a different scenario when the adherents of a religion deem that their specific conviction also has a message and meaning for public life. Such belief has consequences also for the relationships between nations.
In this article we want to pay attention to the manner in which Christians and Muslims have framed their profession that, respectively, God or Allah is King over all of life.
This includes in particular the relationship between church and government on the one side, and on the other side, mosque and government. A key question here is whether the government has a calling to ensure the divine commandments are upheld in public life.
When this question is answered in the affirmative, what will be the consequences for the relationship between church and mosque on the one side, and the government on the other?
It will be useful to include a historical review here as well. For that reason we provide a brief survey of the processes of both Christianization and Islamization. With both terms are indicated those forms of the spread of religion where the government played a significant role.
When Emperor Constantine the Great became a Christian in 312 A.D., this brought about significant changes for the Christians at that time. The constitution of Milan, 313, decreed that Christians were to receive the same rights as the adherents of other religions.
Some years later, in 380, Emperor Theodosius raised Christianity to a state religion. Paganism was criminalized and each citizen was obligated to believe the doctrine of the holy Trinity. Every citizen who held an office had to be a member of the state church, otherwise it was impossible to hold an office.
This Christianization of life had the advantage that finally the church could do its work in peace. The big disadvantages were that the church lost its independence and the emperor became the de facto head of the church (caesaropapism). The emperors involved themselves extensively at various councils with matters of the church. The church became a bulwark of power. In this condition the principle of carrying the cross, following the example of the Lord Jesus, disappeared.
In later years the roles were reversed at times. Not every pope was happy with being in second place. In 1077, Pope Gregory VII managed to force Emperor Henry IV to make his journey to Canossa. Also, the edict of Worms, 1122, failed to keep pope and emperor in their own spheres of sovereignty. In the year 1200 the pope possessed more power than any who had come before. In the end, the pope was victorious in the power struggle.
In the Crusades we see a serious outgrowth of this mixing of spiritual and secular powers. With the pope’s support Peter of Amiens travelled throughout the country to organize a crusader army. The people flocked to it under the slogan: God wills it.
These crusades have done a great disservice to the Christian church. People acted in a very unchristian way toward other peoples. Muslims and Jews were given the choice: bow before the cross of Christ, or die.
For present-day Christians these crusades are something of a far, distant past. But when you hear Muslims talk about these crusades you may get the impression that they only finished a few years ago. This became clear when President George W. Bush, on the eve of the war against Iraq, used the word “crusade.” To many Muslims this was proof that he intended to start a religious war.
The history of Western Christianity shows us another example of the mixing of state and church. I am thinking of the principle cuius regio, eius religio as it was in practiced in Germany at the time of the Reformation. If the ruler was Roman Catholic, then the subjects were supposed to be Roman Catholic as well. The same held true for a Protestant ruler and his citizens.
Closer to home we can also point to some examples of blurring the borders between church and state. A portion of the Protestant population of the Netherlands still uses the Statenvertaling, a translation of the Bible authorized by the States-General of the United Netherlands. This well-loved and eminent translation dates back to the time when city mayors were responsible for the appointments of the preachers. Since 1618/19 the same regents have prevented that the churches would meet as a national synod. More examples could be mentioned that show how the lines were blurred.
All of these examples are sufficient to show that the separation between church and state was not as evident as how we experience it in our day. It also makes clear that the interference of government in ecclesiastical matters did not always have dramatic consequences.
When we now turn our attention to Islam we notice a similar struggle in the relation of mosque and state.
When Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina he changed from persecuted prophet to celebrated statesman. In Medina he wrote the Constitution of Medina. The peculiar aspect of this constitution was that he reckoned all citizens of the town as belonging to the umma, the community of faith. This also included the Jews. Together with the Muslims they were supposed to contribute to the cost of the wars led by Mohammed. In doing so the Jews maintained their right to freely exercise their religion. In actual fact, however, the constitution functioned only in theory, as there was a drastic change in the relationships through conflicts with the Jews in Medina.
In later times the concept of umma would be exclusive to Muslims only. Jews and Christians received a separate position, the status of dhimmi, which means “protégé” or protected one. In return for payment of a head tax and property taxes they could make use of the land and could practice their religion. In this way, Jews and Christians became second-rate citizens because of their faith. In all the various changes of the regulations, in general it was expected that a dhimmi would show respect and submissiveness.
In fact this established the blueprint for a striving that we see coming back time and again in later years: to make the religious laws, the sharia, to be the constitution of the state.
In connection with our topic it is important to know that the Muslim world was divided into two areas: the dar al-islam and the dar al-harb. Where Muslims form the majority of the population and where they are in charge, there is the dar al-islam. The dar al-harb is where they are (as yet) in the minority and need to conquer the region, the “area of war.”
History shows us that it was not always difficult for minorities to live under Muslim rule. It differed from place to place, from time to time.
We can also make a distinction between Muslim countries and Islamic countries. In Muslim countries the majority of the inhabitants are Muslim, but the laws of Islam does not shape public life. However, that is the case in Islamic countries. In these societies there is a striving for acceptance of the religious law (sharia) to be the constitution of the country. We can think of countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Nigeria. In various other countries, fundamentalist Muslims try to reach the same objective.
It is not only Christians who try to flee such countries and to ask for asylum in the West. There are also Muslims who cannot reconcile themselves to the spiritual dictatorship of their country of origin.
The fact that also Muslims are fleeing from Islamic countries is telling. It shows the most threatening aspect of Islam: the striving to make the religious law into the constitution for the state. The realization of this ideal leaves little or no room for the spiritual freedom of those who think or believe differently.
In his booklet Against the Islamization of our Culture (1997), Dutch statesman Pim Fortuyn clearly warned about this aspect. On page 33 he writes, “In a oriented society, the perspectives on society or religious views are totalitarian, which means they extend to all areas of life, whether these are public or private, and against which there is no appeal possible to a judge who is independent from the perspectives of society or religious views.”
Brother and Sister?
Can we conclude from the examples of history that there is a strong connection between Christianity and Islam as far as the relationship between church and mosque on the one side and the state on the other side? A case of two sides of the same coin? Are Islamization and Christianization brother and sister?
Such a position is untenable.
Let it be clear that the Crusades were a derailment in the history of Christianity. The spread of Christianity through force and violence is contrary to the norms of the gospel. That holds true as well for all sorts of other, subtler forms of Christianization of society where the government can be manipulated to become a servant of the church.
What about Islam? Does the practice of Islamization flow from the norms of Islam? I will argue that this is indeed the case, and will clarify both the one and the other position.
The King and the Priest
As far as Christianity is concerned I want to go back to the Old Testament. It is striking that the kings of Israel did not at the same time function as high priest, even though David and Solomon participated in priestly tasks. In that regard Israel had a unique position compared to the peoples surrounding it, where the king functioned simultaneously as high priest. It is interesting to question why the Lord determined things this way. In any case it is a rule that expresses divine wisdom. Check it out: where priestly and royal powers are in the hand of one person, it paves the way for a spiritual dictatorship.
It is not difficult to give some examples.
In Israel the kings were to abstain from any priestly work. They had to concern themselves with their own task as outlined in the laws for the king, as these are noted in 1 Samuel 10:25, “Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord.”
In the Old Testament we do meet Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He was both priest and king. Under his rule peace was apparently safe. In that he was a clear type of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, priest in the order of Melchizedek. Just the fact that Melchizedek is an unparalleled exception (see the letter to the Hebrews) shows that the separation of offices is a rule for the protection of spiritual freedom and peace.
Along the lines of the Old Testament we see how Jesus calls upon his disciples to give Caesar what belongs to him (Luke 20:25). And the apostle Paul writes to the congregation at Rome about the unique and proper task of the government. A whole chapter is dedicated to this topic (Rom. 13).
All of this does not take away the fact that throughout the centuries the church has wrestled with the question regarding the boundaries between the “offices” of church and state. What does it mean when the government as servant of God is expected to adhere to God’s commandments in public life? Does this mean that soccer matches on Sundays should be prohibited, and the swimming pools remain closed? Can the government give permission to build mosques? Much thought and much writing have occurred about such questions. The answers were and are not always similar.
A clear proof of this is the decision of General Synod Utrecht (1905) to remove the following words from article 36 of the Belgic Confession: “…(in order that) all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of the antichrist may be destroyed.”
In spite of all the differences of opinion in determining the boundaries, there has always been general agreement in the conviction that the Lord teaches us a separation of church and state. In principle this was already the case in the Old Testament, and it becomes more explicit in the New Testament. This separation of powers is a safety mechanism against the spiritual dictatorship that ensues when the sword of the government becomes an extension of the churchly office. The manner in which the relationship between church and state functioned has seen different forms throughout the ages. Changing political and social circumstances necessitated continuous reflection and thought.
For us today it is especially the confrontation with Islam that challenges us to reflect on this issue in the context of the 21st century.
The Caliph and the Imam
What is the situation when once again we concern ourselves with Islam? Does Islam make no distinction between both offices? It certainly does. The Islamic world has known the caliphate until 1923. (Translator’s note: this article was written prior to the proclamation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a worldwide caliphate in June 2014.) The caliph’s task was to bring order to society and to look after the worldly needs of the community, no more and no less. The fact that several caliphs did not keep to this mandate is another problem. Their behavior can be compared to Christian emperors who could not resist to concern themselves with theological matters and who forced decisions through violence.
Wherein, then, lies the distinction with Christianity, viewed not from a practical but a normative perspective?
The decisive difference is that Islam views the religious law, the sharia, as the constitution for the society within the dar al-islam. The caliph needs to see to it that the religious law is observed and executed.
There is a distinction between the offices, yet one law for church and society. To say it in a few words, the spiritual discipline is in force also for public life. And that leads to spiritual oppression, of which history has shown several examples. Islamists who are strong proponents of this situation have strong claims when they declare that this is in line with the “pure” Islam.
What kind of society do the Islamists envision? What is their ideal? It is worth our while to reacquaint ourselves with a booklet written by Dr. H. Kraemer in 1938: Islam as a Religious and Missionary Problem. He considers the question why Islam has such fanatic adherents. In answering this question, he points out that the core of Islam consists of the ambition to achieve a secularized theocracy.
In order to make this even more clear I will approach this matter from the Christian prayer about the coming of God’s kingdom. The Lord Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples, even as they heard him say also that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). This means: King Jesus is present and gives notice of his lordship. He has subjects in this world (Phil. 3:20), but the earth is not yet liberated territory. When Christians pray for the coming of the kingdom, they pray for the earth to be delivered from all evil and opposition.
In our Christian speaking of the kingdom we need to always realize a certain tension. The kingdom is already here, but not yet in perfection. That state of perfection will never be achieved in the time before the return of the Lord Jesus.
This tension does not exist in the Islamic idea of the dar al-Islam, the area where people live under sharia law. Hendrik Kraemer identifies Islam as the most resolute and longest sustained effort to realize a theocracy on earth, worked out in all its details. With this, the sense of superiority has become a religious principle. Kraemer says, “That which brings together the true unity and brotherhood is not the one truth and the one love for the same Lord, but consists of everyone belonging to the same chosen umma.” The developments in the world of Islam have given his words a renewed sense of actuality. And are those words not confirmed by recent developments?
Legal Order and Religious Order
In what has been written thus far we have seen how the task of government in Christianity has a different content and scope than within the world of Islam. At the same time history shows us that in this regard there are many variations. As far as Christianity is concerned we need to conclude that the government has often assumed a position that can be compared to the Islamic principle of the caliphate.
Now that the world of Islam is busy revitalizing itself, it urges ever more the need to define a Christian perspective on the task of government. It is self-evident that this need is felt especially in the area of actual politics. Dr. R. Kuiper wrote a booklet with the title, Subservient government. Christian-political Vision on Politics and Government, published by the scientific institute of the Christen-Unie (a Christian political party in the Netherlands). He writes that the government has the duty to promote a legal order and not a religious order. He writes: “We shall have to take into account that a government that wants to work toward a social consensus should always do so within the bounds of justice. It does not establish a moral or a religious order, but a legal order. Herein lies the difference with all theocratic considerations that would encourage the government to maintain moral and religious order.”
The distinction that Dr. R. Kuiper identifies is very useful for the confrontation with Islam. Islam wants the government to promote a religious order, while Christianity expects a government-established legal order.
It is not my intention to endorse or argue for a neutral government. According to Romans 13:4, the government is and remains “God’s servant,” which needs to hold itself accountable to God’s commandments as the foundation for legal order. In the direction of the church this implies an express protection. And for the public life it needs to guard against gross violation of God’s law, also when there are no third-party victims. We can think for instance of profanity. The church in turn has the task to convince the citizens that the rules given by God are wholesome for all of life. This will then have its consequences in the arena of politics.
Government and church both face the challenge to give shape to their own “office” in an ever-changing society. Within that framework, the rise and influence of Islam in our traditionally Christian society presents one of the biggest challenges of our time.
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.