Islamic Imperialism

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Muslim WomenPhoto Credit: “Momento… (Projeto retratos)”, © 2005 Daniel Zanini H., Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

As I continue my study of Islam (which began over two decades ago when I first began conversations with Muslim students at Utah State University shortly after I had become a Christian), I’ve recently turned my attention to the history of things: tribes, empires, nations. Recently my attention was brought to Efraim Karsh’s study of Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2007, 2013).

Much in this volume has not only informed me but given me pause to reflect on the convictions and history of the grand Christian tradition. And is there ever much to learn about and from history. One can at times feel so very small against a growing knowledge of historical episodes and eras. Alas, it is so. Yet we must not pale before the task of knowing ourselves in the mirror of history. There is no other way to know ourselves. 

In the introduction to this volume, Karsh writes two paragraphs that are not as transparent as they might be, but which nevertheless have caused me to wonder and ponder certain things anew and often. Here he contrasts Islam and Christianity in ways that I find simultaneously deeply troubling and radically liberating. It is almost like losing one’s home but finding one’s place. I’ll comment further following the paragraphs. They will warrant a couple of different readings, mind you. They could have been written in a more transparent fashion. Permit me to introduce a couple of things by way of preface.

By “Islamic empire” Karsh means to point up the original and essential expansionist vision and impetus of Islam. This was so from the days of Muhammad himself, even in Muhammad himself and not merely from his time. Hence it is original. It is found in the core Islamic texts: the Qur’an, the Hadith, even the early biographies of Muhammad. Thus it is essential. And it has been enacted throughout history, more or less, in various ways, showing that it is of and from Islam itself: indeed, it is Islam.

By “localism” he means to point to peoples, families, tribes, cities, and such, who, when enveloped within Islamic empire, yet find themselves wanting to retain something of self, something of their identities and histories; something of their independence. And thus the tensions between Islamic universalism (expansionism, empire) and localism.

In the long history of Islamic empire, the wide gap between delusions of grandeur and the centrifugal forces of localism would be bridged time and again by force of arms, making violence a key element of Islamic political culture to date. No sooner had Muhammad died that his successor, Abu Bakr, had to suppress a widespread revolt among the Arabian tribes. Twenty-three years later, the head of the umma, the caliph Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered by disgruntled rebels; his successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was confronted for most of his reign with armed insurrections, most notably by the governor of Syria, Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufian, who went on to establish the Umayyad dynasty after Ali’s assassination. Mu’awiya’s successors managed to hang on to power mainly by relying on physical force, and were consumed for most of their reign with preventing or quelling revolts in the diverse corners of their empire. The same was true for the Abbasids during the long centuries of their sovereignty, and this process gained rapid momentum during the last phases of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in its disastrous decision to enter World War I on the losing side, as well as the creation of an imperialist dream that would survive the Ottoman era to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics to the present day.

It is true that this pattern of historical development is not uniquely Middle Eastern or Islamic. Other parts of the word, Europe in particular, have had their share of imperial powers and imperialist expansion, while Christianity’s universal vision is no less sweeping than that of Islam. The worlds of Christianity and Islam, however, have developed differently in one fundamental respect. The Christian faith won over an existing empire in an extremely slow and painful process and its universalism was originally conceived in purely spiritual terms that made a clear distinction between God and Caesar. By the time it was embraced by the Byzantine emperors as a tool for buttressing their imperial claims, three centuries after its foundation, Christianity had in place a countervailing ecclesiastical institution with an abiding authority over the wills and actions of all believers. The birth of Islam, by contrast, was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers, which were combined in the person of Muhammad, who derived his authority directly from Allah and acted at one and the same time as head of state and head of the church. This allowed the prophet to cloak his political ambitions with a religious aura and to channel Islam’s energies into “its instrument of aggressive expansion, there [being] no internal organism of equal force to counterbalance it.” (p. 6 of the 2007 edition)

Whew. Those are two sweeping paragraphs. A massive tour of histories and convictions in the span of a few hundred words. And we need not detain our attention to object to Karsh’s use of “church” in closing sentences of the final paragraph; the analogy is clear enough. And while we could, and perhaps should, tend to his ambiguous use of “purely spiritual” in the middle of that second paragraph, perhaps we can simply note that we could agree or disagree, and in various ways, depending on how we parse the term “spiritual.” Perhaps we’ll return to this a bit later.

Now, as for two robust paragraphs, these are, to my mind, extremely provocative, highly instructive, and deeply disturbing. On the one hand, the inherent imperialism of Islam is not controversial. Those familiar with the Qur’an, the Hadith, Muhammad’s life, and the history of Islamic conquest, will be able to see that imperialism has been a constituent element of Islam from the time of Muhammad. Additionally, anyone even vaguely familiar with the New Testament will see that, yes, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” is a saying of our Lord Jesus that most definitely contrasts core Christian convictions with imperialist aspirations. In other words, one may be a faithful member of the kingdom of God without ever desiring or seeking to overthrow earthly kingdoms.

There are some important implications to draw from Karsh’s observations. One is that the current attempt to divorce the religious and the political in Islam — to “reform Islam,” as the saying goes — appears to be a dream to divorce what Muhammad birthed as one: the religious and the political. As such, to divide these is simply to divide Islam, to make it less than the political ideology that it originally and inherently is. Now, this can be done, mind you (the divorcing of the political and the religious in Islam), and it can even go by the name “Islam.” But this derivative is a divergent species, if it is not merely a temporary and pragmatic posturing so as not to cause friction while living in infidel lands.

By contrast, to speak of a reformation of Christianity, wherein the political and ecclesiastical were untwined, may be more of a restoration or release of the church from the bonds of the empire or state, bonds that were not original to the Christian faith. (Yes, I write as a Protestant, though I suspect this observation need not arise from a Protestant mind, nor has it always been in the minds of Protestants. Nor need this be seen as a finger pointing at imperial Rome, for it also points at imperial Byzantium and imperial Britain, and could be pointed at others as well.)

As for the claim that Christian universalism (meaning how Christianity sees itself as applicable to all people in all places at all times; see the great commission in Matthew 28:18ff.) is rightly conceived of “in purely spiritual terms,” I think some clarification is in order. Yes, Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, but that does not mean that it has no bearing on or in this world. Do recall that he proclaimed he had “all authority in heaven and on earth.” And, yes, we Christians have long muddle our way in attempting to see God’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Also, while the Christian faith was birthed under a mongrel political relationship between Israel and imperial Rome, its origin was as a Jewish faith — or, rather, the faith of Abraham. Even so, many early Christians resided, and ever continued to reside, well outside the promised land of Israel, and, whether they were Jewish or gentile Christians, they thus shared a varied, mixed, and distanced identities with Israel as a nation. Nevertheless, their faith was a Jewish faith in that it was birthed from, and thus tethered to, the Messiah, the king of the Jews, who himself was Jewish. And this implied a reliance on the older Scriptures and an identity shared with God’s people throughout history. And these realities have implications.

I imagine that some ancient Christians, rather accustomed to life in the diaspora, were not interested in life otherwise. They did not want to migrate toward Jerusalem, and they didn’t particularly want to be bothered by the Romans. They simply wanted to live quiet and productive lives as they struggled for existence and as they sought to be faithful to our Lord Jesus. Others might naturally be more inclined to visions of the restoration of the Israelite nation, as well as its independence from Rome, if not its eventual domination of Rome. Still other early Christians, particularly perhaps Roman Christians, might have often had in their minds visions of Rome as a Christian empire. Or they may have at least wondered what life would be like if Caesar were enlightened as Nebuchadnezzar had been.

Different perspectives on — different applications of, and visions for — the Christian faith quite naturally would have existed from the beginning. The relevance of Jesus as lord and savior is experienced differently if one is a Jewish man who was a tax collector for Roman authorities; or if one is a Jewish woman who has made a profession of prostitution due to any number of unfortunate factors in life; or if one is a student of philosophy at the Areopagus hearing Paul’s speech regarding the transcendence of God and his universal sovereignty and coming judgment; or if one is a Roman soldier who is called to allegiance to Jesus, repentance from injustice, and yet told neither to leave your soldiering nor recant your allegiance to Caesar; or if one is a Pharisee who seeks the broader purity of your fellow Jews in the hopes of attracting divine favor by removing any grounds for divine curse; or if one is a Jewish priest who also happens to be well aware of the various factions among your people, and who may sympathize with some of them, but who desires more to revere God and not entangle your family in the political machinations of your relatives, friends, and even fellow priests. Oh, and there could be so many more and very different early Christians who stand in such a way, and in such a place, as to see the world from quite different angles, and thus see the lordship of Jesus as having quite different (and perhaps not diametrically opposed) implications and applications.

But back to the Karsh material for just one more moment. To describe the Christian faith as originally concerned only with the “purely spiritual” is to suggest to my mind its disembodiment, even its dismemberment. Even if one means non-political, this might be to overlook the vocal criticisms by early Christians (including Jesus and John the Baptist) of governing authorities, and perhaps also to overlook that the calling of Christ is to governing authorities as well, and perhaps to overlook the scope of Jesus’s authority as king of kings and lord of lords. Then you have to face the question of how one could be a faithful follower of Jesus as a governing authority. Ah, perhaps there is the rub.

Enough for now, except the following, from a very different book.

Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of the converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. The countries can be easily set on the boil. —V.S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples, xi.


2 thoughts on “Islamic Imperialism

  1. Interesting thoughts, Kevin. In a way, it seems, from what little I know of the history of Christianity, to be a stretch to believe that there’s any possibility of establishing a unified Kingdom of Christ on earth before His return and likewise a stretch to believe that Islam isn’t all about establishing a worldwide kingdom on earth. It seems pretty clear that the recent emergence of an American movement that believes it’s possible to create a world of Christians before Christ’s return is very much amiss, while to disbelieve that Muslims are not without reason to actively pursue a worldwide caliphate is likewise, turning a blind eye toward their history and teachings. I do find it hard to try and imagine what my own world view would look like had I been raised in a Muslim household vs the traditional protestant American farming community.

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