By Jesse Wheeler
“Among the many characterizations and sweeping generalizations which flourish in the realm of the study of the relationship between Islam and Christianity, one of the most persistent is the statement that goes something like this: Christianity is not essentially concerned with earthly matters like politics and the state but concentrates rather on spiritual matters, while Islam on the other hand is integrally bound up with the affairs of this world, politics and state included.” 
With the above statement, historian of religion Hugh Goddard challenges the popular and widespread assumption that ‘Islam’ and ‘Christianity’ represent two distinct, even contradictory approaches to the question of faith and politics.
Polemicists and apologists from both ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ communities have repeatedly built upon this assumption to attack the other, with arguments ranging from the “monastic and otherworldly worthlessness” of Christianity to the “bloody hands and this-worldly dirtiness” of Islam. Even well-meaning commentators, Christian and Muslim alike, build upon this assumption to develop their theological positions. In writing about Qur’anic interpreter Yusuf Ali, Dudley Woodberry writes,
“Yusuf Ali, in his notes on the Qur’an, contrasts Islam with what he considers the ‘monastic’ tendencies of the Sermon on the Mount with its emphasis on ‘the poor in spirit, those who mourn and the meek, noting that ‘Allah’s kingdom requires also courage, resistance to evil…firmness, law and discipline which will enhance justice.’ God does not mean that believers should have ‘gloomy lives!” 
The problem is that these popular assumptions, when viewed from both an historical and theological vantage point, are blatantly false. While each tradition approaches the intersection of faith and politics in unique ways, I am convinced that BOTH Islam and Christianity offer deeply political visions for state and society. And, this distinction has important consequences for both interfaith cooperation and Christ-centered witness.
As I follow current events in Egypt, I encounter numerous popular assumptions about the intersection of faith and politics. For example, with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, many have been asking the question, “What future is there for ‘Political Islam?’”
Egyptian evangelical blogger Ramez Atallah calls the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, “The greatest blow to political Islam in history.” For his part, Robert Fisk recently stated that “Many are those who see [the Brotherhood’s] defeat as the beginning of the end of the Islamist ‘ideology,’ the idea that Islam alone can right the wrongs of the world if only it was allied to political power.”
I assert, however, that politics has always occupied a central place in the theology and practice of Islam, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Yet, I ALSO assert that Christianity is, has been, and in-fact should be every bit as political as Islam!
As an historian of comparative religion, Goddard traces the development of political thought in both Christianity and Islam from their origins to the present. He observed that such popular assumptions as presented above “neither accord with the historical evidence for the development of the two traditions nor take account of the diversity” inherent within.
In actuality, Christian political expression has been as diverse as that of persecuted (and vociferously pacifist) minority in the early Roman Empire to the fully theocratic visions of Emperor Justinian’s Byzantium or Calvin’s Geneva. At times, the intersection between faith and politics has had disastrous consequences, particularly the medieval crusades, the Spanish inquisition, and the American religious right. Other times, however, this intersection has proven quite fruitful, as with the efforts of William Wilberforce in the abolishment of the English slave trade, Rev. Martin Luther King’s leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the collapse of South African apartheid.
In many respects, medieval asceticism, modern-era evangelical pietism, and an early misapprehension of Christ’s teachings (to be explored in part 2) have been largely to blame for Christianity’s otherworldly reputation. In reference to the modern missionary movement, Goddard writes,
“Many missionaries [to the Muslim world] came from a Pietist background, where it was indeed assumed that the faith had nothing to do with politics, and this claim formed part of their preaching on the superiority of Christianity to Islam. In the context of Christian-Muslim polemic, however, the statement was taken up by Muslim apologists and turned on its head as a means of demonstrating the superiority of Islam.”
In reference to the union of faith and politics, what Christians took centuries to achieve, Muslims took 20 years. Political and religious authority combined in the person of Muhammad and, in subsequent generations, Muhammad’s life and rule became the model upon which the Islamic faith was built, leading IMES Director Martin Accad to speak of Islam (ideally) as “an institutionalized religious phenomenon par excellence, [with] Islamic law, Shari’a, as the most authentic manifestation of Islam.”
Within 30 years after the death of Muhammad, however, such an integration of faith and politics was never again to be achieved in the history of Islamic societies. As with historically Christian societies, any attempt to make it so nearly always produced mixed results. As a result, Muslim societies have been as every bit as politically diverse as Christian ones, from Islam’s theocratic origins in 7th century Medina to life as a religious minority in non-Muslim majority contexts.
Yet, “the norm in the Islamic world,” Goddard writes, “has been for there to be separate religious and political institutions” very much similar to that seen in large segments of Christian history, “where political and religious authorities seek some kind of partnership, but remain distinct, and thus have ample opportunity for conflict and confrontation.”
Outside of a few select historical moments, the reality is that religious authority has always existed side by side in a complex and tenuous relationship with political authority, be it Christian or Muslim. One critical distinction nevertheless remains, leading Goddard to conclude:
“My suggestion therefore, as a generalization, is that Christianity, as a religion, is certainly interested in politics, even if it is less concerned with the intricate details of the state; in the Islamic tradition, by contrast, the state itself is conceived as a religious institution, and religious authority has therefore had a more intimate involvement in the institutions of the state. This, I suggest, is far more true to the realities of the two traditions.”
Once again, while each approach the intersection of faith and politics in different ways, I am convinced that BOTH Islam and Christianity offer deeply political visions for state and society. And, this distinction has important consequences for both interfaith cooperation and Christ-centered witness…to be explored in Part 2.
 Hugh Goddard, “Some Reflections on Christian and Islamic Political Though” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (vol 1, no. 1, 1990).
 J. Dudley Woodberry, “The Kingdom of God in Islam and the Gospel” in The World of Islam: Resources for Understanding, (GMI: 2000).