Cherishing One Another, Against the Odds

Lamin Sanneh

I recently finished a study of the ummah, the faith community in Sunni Islam, and in the process was struck by the emphasis in the sources on the necessity of a religious society as opposed to the idea of a religious state – the state is needed to avert anarchy, but it cannot substitute for religion as the heartbeat of civil society.1

This viewpoint is so pervasive in the sources over the centuries that I suffer something of a whiplash when I turn to the proliferating accounts in today’s media about Islam and the politics of violence. But I am not the only one surprised and impressed by this viewpoint and its contrast with the current political interpretation of Islam. Many scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, have long noted this early history of Islam’s religious heritage, but their voices have been drowned in the strident politics of radical Islam.

Faith v. State

As the preponderance of historical sources shows, Muslim scholars set out very early to make the Islamic ummah far more important in promoting the spiritual teachings of Islam than the maintenance of mulk, the worldly kingdom. God’s sovereignty in revelation and law is at the core of Islam’s spiritual heritage, and the scholars insisted that that heritage could not be subsumed or overtaken by considerations of mulk.

Ibn Isháq, the early biographer of Muhammad, has him setting down the moral terms of the community he would entrust with his values: “Out of everything that God creates He chooses and selects; the actions He chooses he calls khíra; the people He chooses He calls mustafá ; and the speech He chooses He calls sálih.” When we speak, as we often do, about the political failure of Islam we tend to miss the implicit point that in its nature religion is not a political craft, so that to reduce it to politics merely is to violate what it means to be religious. The founders of classical Shari‘ah law, for example, were to a person pursued and persecuted by Islamic political authorities for refusing to surrender their conscience and give in to the rulers’ wishes, enduring physical torture in the process. It is highly ironic and a reversal of history to speak today of Shari‘ah as state law when the state at the time was threatened by the profound influence the code and its guardians exercised on society independent of the state.

Answerable to God

Thus the scholars asked: What is the religious code’s relationship to civil society? The question impinges on Muslim ideas of the ummah as a pillar of civil society and on the necessary but limited role of the state in it. Political sovereignty in Islam – the jurisdiction of government – may not repeal or replace the divine law. Islam’s religious code is such by virtue of its revealed status, not by reason of political will or legislative authority.

The code is vested in the ummah, with the ‘ulama, religious scholars, as its guardians and interpreters – not the sultan or caliph except as caretaker. No one is above being answerable to God, and the religious code exempts no one on the basis of nationality, geography, rank, status, race, color, or wealth. One 19th-century African Muslim scholar says that ordering right and forbidding wrong, what is known as hisbah, is the prerogative of religion in matters such as washing and ablution, almsgiving and fasting, buying and selling, teaching about what is exemplary, approved, or forbidden, “and how to be mindful of purpose in all these things.”2 The state is ill-suited to that task.

Ancient Moral Impulse

Voltaire’s tongue-in-cheek view that governments must have both shepherds and butchers, one for moral guidance and the other for self-serving ends, camouflages the issue – that of the unique role of religion in forming the civil character of society. Despite the fact that the Western version of the separation of church and state failed to take root in Islamic history, religious sources across the centuries have been clear about the place of religion in civil society. The seeds of separate jurisdiction thus litter the field to indicate a genuine and autonomous moral impulse in Muslim society.

Thus I came upon a centuries-long pacifist tradition, originating in the Mali Empire, that made it a principle to focus primarily on religious life and practice, with rejection of jihad and of political involvement for the sake of religious freedom. Suffused with Sufi ideas and the ethical teachings of the jurists, and exercising a radiating influence on surrounding populations, these pacifist communities committed themselves to promoting Islam’s spiritual heritage in contradistinction to the religion’s moribund political heritage. The pacifist cleric was the quintessential anti-sultan, his turban the boundary against overreach by the ruler. We have documented cases of rulers forced to their knees before determined learned clerics who resisted their orders.

Pacifist Passion

The pacifist premise claims that obedience to the ruler should not compete or conflict with the moral obligation to God and to one another. In fact, religion forbids the obsequious pursuit of favors from rulers, and scholars who tried to ingratiate themselves with rulers were denounced as venal – ‘ulamá al-sú’i – and held to public ridicule. An outspoken defender of this defiant view was the classical legal scholar Ibn Hanbal, as was Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, the influential Egyptian scholar-jurist. The sentiment is well expressed by Shakespeare to the effect that “every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.” (Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1.)

We find these ancient religious distinctions captured in the debates of early America. James Madison draws on the principle of the two distinct sovereignties, the religious and the political, as a safeguard of the conditions necessary for a strong democratic society. He says he is convinced that “before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.”3 We are equally subjects and citizens, with both feet planted in time and eternity.

An American Talent

Tocqueville picks up the theme when he asks: “And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?”4 For Tocqueville, religion in America is the leaven of democratic politics: The two are mutually reinforcing. Political obligation has its roots in the life and liberty of the Creator’s prerogative, and if you don’t believe in that, you must make political obligation the right of the state to exact without heed of the moral conscience – and that spells tyranny by reducing citizens to the status of political animals. As John Stuart Mill warned, a state that dwarfs its people in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small people no great thing can be accomplished. Thus “despotism may govern without faith,” Tocqueville contends, “but liberty cannot.” Tocqueville supports the middle course between the two extremes of totalitarian state control and sectarian repudiation of society. It shows, Tocqueville notes, the American talent for politics and for religion as a catalyst of freedom.

With some variation, these ideas are echoed in Islamic thought. As such, scholars of Islam have understood the faith community in terms of the ummatan wasatan (Qur’an 2: 137), “a middle community of moderation” that accommodates difference. Jefferson once observed in his Notes on the State of Virginia that difference is advantageous in religion: Acknowledgement of difference enlarges the bounds of tolerance and sensibility. It is reminiscent of a hadith saying of Muhammad that difference found within the ummah is a sign of mercy from God, an idea that has a Qur’anic basis, thus: “If God had willed, He would have made you one nation; but that He may try you in what has come to you.” (Qur’an 5: 53.) Difference respects what is unique, and thus is a safeguard of diversity.

As it developed, Muslim religious pacifism remained within the ummah rather than turning sectarian, and as such helped steer civil society through the stress and disruptions of 19th-century jihad outbreaks as well as against encroaching colonial rule and its nationalist sequel. It helped the clerics promote their reputation for moderation as a centuries long witness against extremism and intolerance, a contribution of religion in an unsettled world.

All this discussion points to the place of religious moderation in the making of civil society as a bulwark of peace and accommodation, and since critics find it handy to claim that Islam has no place in a democratic society, it is not too soon to offer a correction. It is faulty procedure to judge religion, any religion, by objectionable specimens of its protagonists or of its critics, for that procedure would exempt nothing ever touched by human hands. It tempts us to try fighting fire, and the rumors of fire, with fire, with disproportionate negative fallout. Hobbes prescribed such action in his Behemoth when he asked rhetorically, “Had it not been much better that those seditious preachers, which were not perhaps 1,000, had been all killed before they had preached? It had been, I confess, a great massacre, but the killing of 100,000 [in the English civil wars] is a greater.”

Amid Deserts of Greed

Philip Toynbee, son of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, offered a counternarrative to the constant note of contemporary suspicion of religion, saying amidst the desert of greed and triviality there are many and increasing signs of a new thirst for the waters of the Spirit, the pure waters of the love of God and of our fellow human beings. The secular dream for humanity’s freest possible self-development connects also with the Christian vision, yet what for the humanist is the visible end of the human story is for the Christian only a stage on the pilgrimage of eternal life. We know, says Toynbee, what terrible crimes have been committed in the name of Christianity, but the world that faithful people have served far transcends the vision of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill.5

With declining religious attendance in the West, it might be tempting to think the dire arithmetic in the pew will eventually kill the virus of intolerance that religion allegedly feeds, but that demise would remove the wall of separation that has been a bulwark against the octopus-like encroachments of the organic state.

On the long cross-country drive a few years ago from Harare to Mutare in Zimbabwe, I was struck by the spectacle of large worshipping crowds clogging the fields. In response to my inquiry, my taxi driver bestirred himself to explain how the religious resurgence had filled the churches, spilling over into fields and neighborhoods. He proceeded to reflect on the religious impact of Christianity on the country’s civic life, saying, “thanks to a repressive state, Zimbabwe would be mired in unimaginable bloodbath but for the faith communities that minister to the people.” His comments profoundly evoked the religious mediation that helped resolve the political tension that once prevailed in many African countries. The tragedies subsequently averted in these countries, or, as in Rwanda, the reconciliation that followed tragedy, should, however, make us grateful for the rays of hope that religion inspires in the hearts of people, helping them to embark on a new divine relationship by forgiving and cherishing one another against the odds. It is not an insignificant asset in the cause of global peace and understanding.

Lamin Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity at YDS. He was raised in an Islamic family in the Gambia and was educated on four continents. He later became a Roman Catholic. He is the author of several books, including The Crown and the Turban: Muslims and West African Pluralism (Westview, 1996) and Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Harvard, 2000). His latest book, Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African History, will be released this summer by Oxford University Press. For his academic work, he was made Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Lion, Senegal’s highest national honor.


1 Lamin Sanneh, Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African History (Oxford University Press, July 2016).

2 ‘Abdullah dan Fodio, Tazyín al-Waraqát, 1963, 100, Arabic text 43.

3 The Papers of James Madison, edited by Robert Rutland (University of Chicago Press, 1973), vol. VIII, June 20, 1785, p. 299.

4 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (Vintage, 1990), p. 307.

5 Philip Toynbee, Christians, Then and Now, Essex Hall Lecture for 1979.