POWER IN ISLAM


Islam, like any religious system, rests on certain philosophical and psychological suppositions. Included among these is a certain attitude towards power.

Power is important to us because we are finite and in need of many things. Some of these are determined by nature, such as our need for food. Others we seek by free choice, such as the luxuries of life and God himself.

To get what we are looking for, we need outside power to assist us. This includes every kind of power: physical, political, economic, intellectual and spiritual. Power, therefore is the number-one commodity in the world, but especially in countries like our own which are undergoing economic, political and social crises.

For some, the search for power focuses on preserving bodily health; they believe that if they follow a certain diet or take certain medicines they will be well. Others focus on friendship or connections that give them political influence. For some, power is a means of their own well-being; for others it is a means of building up the kingdom of God.

Religion stands out as a most important and unique channel of power. But the manner in which religion mediates power is very different from one religion to another:

1) Pantheistic religions, such as many Asian religions, Hari Krishna, Rosacrucianism, Ekankar, the Grail Movement and so many others, present man as a divine spark fallen into matter. He must purify himself by guarding his passions and putting himself in a state of peace where he can see the inside of his soul and tap the volcano of cosmic power that is latent there. In this way he can emerge from his weakness, have wondrous knowledge and do wonders, achieving success in everything he desires.

These religions do not ask for submission to any superior being, but teach one how to manage one's own power, which is a single infinite power common to all.

2) Polytheistic religions present man as a creature of a supreme being (God), but this God cannot or will not control the crowd of spiritual beings intermediate between himself and men. These creatures are in intermittent conflict with God and with one another. Man accordingly, is not preoccupied with worshipping the Deus otiosus but with conciliating these spirits by diplomacy and pacification, according to the instruction of their priests.

In this case, controlling and utilizing these spirits for our own purposes is a form of manipulation, which really puts us in the superior position, without our really submitting to any spirit or even to God.

3) Monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, preach a transcendent all-powerful God, to whom man owes submission. The way in which man can benefit from divine power is different according to each of these monotheistic religions:

3a) Judaism presents a transcendent, sovereign and jealous God, who does not tolerate any competition of inferior divinities. He takes the initiative with regard to man, and binds him to himself by an eternal covenant. Even if he has to punish man for his going astray, God never abandons him, but pursues him as a tireless lover, presenting himself (especially in the Yahwist tradition) as a Father, a Shepherd or a Spouse.

Man prospers by his fidelity. Even if God permits him sometimes to suffer, he protects him, and at the end he will bring him to glory.

3b) Christianity inherited this same perspective from Judaism and pushed it further, by the idea of the Incarnation, the gift of the Holy Spirit with all his gifts, and the indwelling of the Trinity in man.

Man remains distinct from God, submitted to him, but he also becomes his friend, participating in all his treasures of wisdom and power.

3c) Islam goes back to the sacerdotal tradition of the Pentateuch, insisting on the absolute transcendence of God and rejecting all anthropomorphism and every image of familiarity between God and man. The oneness of God implies his omnipotence, excluding any rivals, whether so-called divinities or man or nature. Since God is sovereign over all, his law (the SharÓ`a, which is found in the Qur'‚n and HadÓth) is comprehensive and extends, in principle, to every detail of life.

Man has only to submit to his law and to the hidden decrees of his Providence. One may pray for what one wants, but in the last analysis it is God who takes care of everything and he will accomplish what he has planned. Fidelity to God is the surest means of benefiting from his good will.

Fidelity implies struggle (jih‚d) to made the law and kingdom of God prevail in one's own life and in society. The believer is the instrument of God in imposing the prescriptions of SharÓ`a.

Why say "impose"? The Qur'‚n is the "word of God made book", more comparable to the Christian incarnation than to the Bible. But most Muslims take the coming of the word of God as book in a monophysite sense, that is, that the Qur'‚n has only a divine nature, leaving no place for the contribution of a human author. There is not, as in Christian orthodoxy, a marriage between the divine and the human, but the divine replaces the human. Thus the Qur'‚n imposes itself on the human.

This way of looking on the Qur'‚n comes, as I have shown in my article "Islamic montheism, principles and consequences", from a concept of analogy that is strictly one of attribution and not of proportionality. When two things are compared by way of analogy of attribution, one of them is the fully real, original archetype, while the other is an irreal or semi-real copy or shadow of the original. Analogy of attribution is an affirmation of some correspondence in the way two different realities are related to comparable attributes. For example, God's relationship to infinite intelligence is (faintly) comparable to man's relationship to finite intelligence; in this case all the terms of comparison are seen as fully real.

Most Muslims do not admit that the Qur'‚n could in any way be a product of Arab culture. They take it as having descended from God completely formed, a blueprint of the kingdom of God on earth; therefore everything that does not belong to this plan is suppressed. There is no possibility of inculturation, because culture must give way to revelation. There is no possibility of human legislation, such as a constitution or laws that are other than the SharÓ`a, for the same reason.

Thus the Muslim world has the tendency not only forcibly to suppress whatever is not Islamic, but also to leave a political void, since the SharÓ`a has in fact very little to say about political institutions. It provides for no system of government, no division of powers, and no term of office for those in charge. Everything is left to the discretion of whoever succeeds in imposing himself as head of state.

Nevertheless, a state cannot function well without political institutions which are both stable and supple and supported by an evolving tradition. These institutions are exactly what SharÓ`a prohibits, since it pretends to be a once-and-for-all answer to every question of life. It does not have an answer to new questions, yet it cannot permit the creation of another system which would supply what it lacks.

That is why unlimited political power is the norm in many Muslim societies. A strongman imposes his will on the others by giving them favours or threatening them with punishment.

On the other hand, many Muslims realize that the power of their leaders is worldly and has nothing to do with religion. They withdraw from the circles of political power and devote themselves to practices of piety. Gaining a reputation for holiness, they attract people who look for their counsel, prayer and miracles. Thus a division of power emerges. Religious and moral authority goes over to people separated from the political world, while the heads of state speak respectfully of the SharÓ`a, but act like secular rulers.

Thus in Islam we see two very different forms of power, each having its own attraction: a worldly power and a spiritual one. The disparity and lack of integration of the two come, in my opinion, from the monophysite theology prevalent in Islam.