What is the role of Islam in Muslim society? Is it just a religion to be practiced privately, as Christianity is understood in the West? Or does it call for theocracy—governance according to the laws derived from it, also known as Sharia?
Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb—currently Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar University and former Grand Mufti of Egypt—recently discussed this question on his television program. He did so in the context of discussing the efforts of Dr. Ali Abdel Raziq, a onetime professor at Al Azhar who wrote a highly popular but controversial book in 1925—one year after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate. Titled, in translation, Islam and the Roots of Governance, Raziq argued against the idea of a caliphate, saying that Islam is a religion that should not be mixed with politics or governance.
While Raziq had his supporters among those Westward leaning Muslims, he was strongly criticized by many clerics, and even fired from Al Azhar. As Tayeb confirmed:
Al Azhar’s position was to reject what he said, saying he forfeited his credentials and his creed. A great many ulema—in and out of Egypt and in Al Azhar—rejected his work and its claim, that Islam is a religion but not a polity. Instead, they reaffirmed that Islam is both a religion and a polity.
The problem with this assertion is self-evident: to say that Islam demands theocratic rule, is to say that Islam demands rule according to Sharia, a body of rules and regulations that are fundamentally at odds with modernity—for example, by punishing apostates with death, as Tayeb himself recently made clear—and the source of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims the world over.