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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

What's So Political About 'Political Islam'?


David DiPasquale, professor of the practice of political science at Boston College, studies the intersection between Islamic law and political thought in pre-modern and contemporary contexts. In a September 12 lunch lecture at the Boisi Center, he brought this focus to bear on the question: “What do we mean when we call Islam ‘political’?”  He contended that placing the word ‘political’ in front of Islam is an unhelpful and distorting Western bias.

DiPasquale highlighted how in Islam man is seen as inherently political. However, with the beginning of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, writers such as Benedict de Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes began to articulate worldviews that cast ‘political’ as an unnatural concept. DiPasquale then argued that when ‘political’ is used to describe Islam, it is used to distance Islam from this Western post-Enlightenment view. If politics are somehow unnatural to society, then politics are certainly unnatural to religious belief and practice. 

This, DiPasquale outlined, contributes to how the West understands the “public” versus “private” sphere. In Islam, there is no private sphere; “God is closer to you than your jugular.” Indeed, Sharia, an Islamic legal code introduced in the seventh century, seeks to manage the everyday lives of Muslims in a manner that is widely seen as ‘political’ today. So, DiPasquale concluded, when Western understandings of Islam take on the language of “Islamism,” Islam becomes a monolithic human ideology in the same vein as communism, and must be “cured” by liberal ideals.  

In the question and answer session that followed, audience members wondered about the implicit and explicit contributions of political thought on religious teaching across religious traditions.