Last week, King Abdullah of Jordan met a prominent Muslim scholar from Yemen, al-Habib Umar bin Hafez, alongside another renowned Muslim leader, al-Habib Ali al-Jifry. All three men are descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. Their meeting had a special significance for ordinary Muslims, and reminded Jordan and young Arabs that Islam and secular government need not be at odds.
Islam is a religion—not a protest movement. I was always struck by far-left activists in Europe who became Muslim in order to join a “resistance community” against “global capitalism.” Until recently, in the modern Middle East, Islamist political parties that claim to be organized and motivated by religion wallowed in victimhood and blamed the West for most of their ills. For decades, their raison d’être was to oppose governments. Now, several Islamist movements find themselves in government and seem unsure how to respond to traditional Muslim scholarship that accepted secular rule. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has had a fractured relationship with the Sunni al-Azhar seminary for more than five decades. What will happen now?
Traditionally, Muslim scholars of sharia were close advisers to a caliph or monarch. While the theologian’s advice was rarely binding, Muslim ulema were in the patronage and care of the sultan. The relationship between organized religion and the state was not one that was based on inherent animosity and constant friction. The Abbasid, Ottoman, and Moghul courts were a home for scholars. Following in that tradition, after the end of the Turkish caliphate, al-Azhar and traditional Muslim Sunni theologians such as those who visited King Adbullah did not oppose secular governments as “non-Muslim rule,” or kufr—the accusation levied by extreme Islamists.
Contemporary Muslim leaders such as Habib Umar and others have an important pastoral and spiritual role to play. Politics and the temporal is not their realm. The king’s meetings with them are a model for others in the region. Muslim scholarly support for secular governments is one option. There is no fixed, rigid “Islamic politics” that young Arabs must chase.