Religion and Politics
Each of the Middle Eastern religions has a distinctive relationship with the political order. Judaism, as understood today in its rabbinic form, had not yet developed at the time of the Israelite monarchy, but its forerunner in the Jewish Temple cult was the faith of the Israelite kingdom from roughly 1000 BCE until the time of the Babylonian Exile (sixth century BCE). A few small kingdoms in Palestine in the centuries around the beginning of the Common Era were ruled by Jewish dynasties, but through much of subsequent history, Judaism was not the dominant faith of any state until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 CE. Zoroastrianism came to be the official religion of the Iranian monarchy, particularly under the Sasanian dynasty (224–651 CE). The Sasanian Shahs (kings) were supported by the Zoroastrian clergy, who helped affirm the hierarchical order of Iranian society by maintaining separate fire-temples for different social classes. With the demise of the Sasanians in 651 CE and the gradual conversion of most of the population of Iran to Islam between the seventh and tenth centuries, Zoroastrianism dwindled in numbers and no longer represented the dominant faith of any state. Christianity has had a long and complex relationship to political power; although it first developed and spread independent of the Roman state, it eventually came to dominate the later Roman (Byzantine) empire, whose emperor was considered the protector of the Orthodox form of Christianity. In Western Europe, meanwhile, many rulers adopted Christianity as the official doctrine of the state, and the idea of a universal monotheism was fused with the notion of a universal Roman empire in the concept of the “Holy Roman Empire.” Islam, which first developed through a movement that was at once a monotheistic reform and the establishment of a new political order, has the closest relationship between religion and politics of all the monotheistic traditions, since the leaders of the community of Believers after Muhammad’s death in 632, who were called “Commanders of the Believers” or “caliphs,” were also the political heads of the early Islamic state, and Islamic law presents this fusion of religion and political leadership as the ideal form of government in principle, although it was only seldom realized in fact.
It has been suggested that the universal claims of monotheism lend it to both religious intolerance and to large-scale political integration; however, the relationship between monotheism and the political order is complex and not readily reduced to simplistic formulae. For example, the monotheistic tradition with the closest connection between religion and the state, Islam, also provided in its religious law a recognized and secure place in Islamic society for non-Muslim monotheists, such as Jews and Christians. The notion of “separation of church and state” is a relatively recent phenomenon in Western history, arising in reaction to the horrors of the European “wars of religion” in the 16th century.
Elazar, Daniel J. “Judaism and Democracy: The Reality.” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: Daniel Elazar Papers Index. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
Esposito, John L. and John O. Vol. l. “Islam and Democracy.” National Endowment for the Humanities. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
“Religion & Politics.” The Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life: Issues. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
Fred M. Donner
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
1. What is the relationship between religious faith and politics with regard to the growth of particular religions? Why is this relationship so complex—why does Donner state that it cannot easily be reduced to simple formulae?
2. Using a simple ordinal scale (more complex – complex – less complex), rate the relationship each monotheistic faith has to the political order mentioned above and briefly explain what you believe allows each particular faith to enjoy that more simple or more complex relationship."