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Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: What is Islamic Political Theology?

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Vincent Lloyd is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford, 2011) and Law and Transcendence: On the Unfinished Project of Gillian Rose (Palgrave, 2009). His has also authored and edited a number of articles and special volumes. For a full biography please see: http://vwlloyd.mysite.syr.edu/

The revival of interest in political theology at the turn of the millennium began with Islam, then moved to Christianity. In the wake of September 11, 2001, it became clear that not all religion was fading away, nor was all religion confined to the private sphere. The evidence: radical Islam. But the obvious risk of Islamophobia that accompanied a focus on Islam as anomalously growing and anomalously public prompted some scholars to explore how Christianity itself was neither fading away nor thoroughly privatized. Instead of focusing on Islam as anomaly, political theology provided a framework for complicating the West’s story of itself, for probing the complex and continuing relations between religious and political ideas.

This dialectic between anomalous Islam and normalized political theology is important to keep in mind as the scholarly conversation about political theology broadens, as it moves from Christian Western Europe to the United States, to Eastern Europe and Latin America, to Judaism, to Islam again, and beyond. If political theology came into vogue as an antidote to representations of Islam as anomalous, can there be talk of Islamic political theology that does not normalize Islam, that does not Christianize and Westernize Islam?

Anomalous Islam is theocratic. The exotic and irrational religious other conjured by reactionary Americans was less a religion than a group psychosis, a belief in God commanding man to hate rather than love his fellows. Or, slightly less extravagantly, anomalous Islam depends on a cohort of psychotics who impose their will on the masses, whose pre-modern thirst for authority is thereby quenched. Theocracy is incompatible with political theology because theocracy involves the direct rule of the divine; political theology depends on analogy. Political theology concerns a constellation of religious ideas mapping onto a constellation of political ideas; theocracy involves direct obedience to the voice of God.

Anomalous Islam is, of course, a myth, as mythical as the purported secularism of the West. The two go hand in hand. Political theology demythologizes by acknowledging the complexity and diversity of both religious and political spheres – not only diversity of ideas but of practices, institutions, values, and, indeed, governing myths. But isn’t this division between religious and political spheres already invested in a Western, modern, perhaps even secularist framework? In other words, is the shift from anomalous Islam to political theology really just a shift from Christian fantasy of Islam to Christian fantasy of itself?


When thinking about politics, however, we must consider the political systems we have, not those we want or imagine. This means thinking about the empire, thinking about the nation-state, and thinking about colonialism. Distinct political and religious spheres may not have developed naturally, through gradual secularization, in much of the world; they often developed violently, accompanying the ravages and exploitation of colonialism. But the story of colonialism is more complicated, for the political framework of colonialism is not religiously neutral. Colonialism itself is a political theological endeavor, animated by the analogy between religious and political ideas – between Christian and European ideas. When broadening discussions of political theology, we must account for these complications. It is not just a religious-political analogy that matters, but an analogy between the Christian ideas of colonizers and the political ideas of colonial (or post-colonial) administration paired with an analogy between the political ideas of colonial administration and the religious ideas of the colonized. Moreover, analogy is too pacific a term for these sorts of relationships. They are contested, sometimes brutally and sometimes insidiously. In other words, political theology, when its remit is not limited to the West, names a site of struggle. Perhaps this would be true of political theology in the West as well, if class, racial, and ethnic difference were a larger part of political theological inquiries.

An Islamic political theology, then, cannot simply be an exploration of how Islamic ideas do or should influence the political realm. Given the inextricability of the colonial legacy from Islamic religious and political formations, Islamic political theology must necessarily probe – and push, and pull – the relationship between three domains: the Islamic tradition, regnant political structures, and the Christian religious ideas that shape post-colonial political structures. Historical investigation of the relationship between pre-colonial religious and political spheres is relevant only for refining our understanding of religious tradition; it is the political sphere of today that matters.

It might be objected that the language of colonialism is imprecise, not applicable across the Muslim world. But the elasticity of the language of colonialism is a virtue, for it points to the variety of asymmetric relationships that peoples around the world have been subjected to at the hands of European nations and America. Some of those relationships involve indirect rule, others military occupation, others settlement, others involve cultural colonialism, others involve linguistic colonialism. All of those relationships are political, and all are political theological: all involve the entwinement of religious and political ideas. These are the relevant relationships for talking about the Muslim world – obviously in cases like Pakistan or Palestine, but even in cases like Turkey, Western ideals and ideas have been transformative.


It is tempting, at moments when colonialism seems to be at an end, to repress the depths of influence of colonial control. It is tempting to imagine a return. There cannot be a return to the nation, for the nation is a product of the colonial encounter. There cannot be a return to the idea of a people, for colonialism irreversibly confounded the idea of a people. So religion appears to be the only option: a return to religion as it once was, a return that will inform a new, post-colonial politics. Such a return is the simulacrum of political theology. It is an attempted restoration of the analogies between religious and political concepts based on the appearance, rather than the reality, of religion and politics. For political theology deals not with ideas in the abstract, but with ideas that hold sway, ideas that have a pull on the lives of individuals.

Religion, and Islam in particular, does provide an important resource, and an important constellation of concepts that have a pull on people. And that constellation of concepts can be powerful. Exposing what is repressed can have dramatic critical force. But it is the shock of exposure that brings critical force, not the precision with which the repressed is excavated. Indeed, excessive interest in precision recovery mitigates the shock of the repressed – which is also the shock of the transcendent, the shock of the presence of the unimaginable. Carl Schmitt’s recovery of Christian political theology in the European context was powerful not for its precision but for the enticing, compelling schema he sketched. Sketching such possibilities of Islamic concepts with political relevance, without forgetting the overshadowing colonial-Christian context, is a prime task of Islamic political theology.

In the representations of political upheavals in the Muslim world of late, from Tunisia and Egypt to Turkey and Syria, we find simulacra of political theology. We find anomalous Islam, opportunistically substituting blind faith in God for idolatrous faith in dictators. We find secularist refusals of any role for religious ideas in political discussions. We find the continuing violence of colonialism forgotten in the interest of establishing too-easy connections between the religious and the political. We find efforts at retrieval of an imaged past, imagined with a vividness that distracts from its difference, from its critical potential.


Islamic political theology presents a constructive framework and poses critical questions. It invites reflections on the entanglement between colonial-Christian legacies, contemporary political function, or dysfunction, and Islamic thought, recognizing the distinction between each of these domains. Further, it calls out simplistic attempts to collapse the distinction between these domains or to overlook any of them, and it moderates the temptation to look for hard answers where soft schema are necessary. The sight of popular protest excites. It excites those who would reject a political theological framework, and it excites those who would embrace it. But political theology is best, descriptively and normatively, when it is not motivated by excitement but by careful reflection on the complexities, and uncertainties, of both the political and the theological.

As political theology matures, as it is no longer solely the reactive introspection of the post-Christian West, its usefulness will depend on its ability to account for the complex and dynamic features of religion and politics in the shadow of power – the power of colonialism, the power of popular protest, and the power of religious scapegoating. The critical tools that are sharpened as political theology expands outwards, to address Islam, or to become Islamic, are tools that will inevitably help political theology at its core, as it tells a story about post-Christian Europe that accounts for class, ethnic, and gender difference, differences just as salient at the center as at the periphery.

(4) Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Vincent! Among the many interesting points is the distinction you draw btw analogy and struggle:

    “It is not just a religious-political analogy that matters, but an analogy between the Christian ideas of colonizers and the political ideas of colonial (or post-colonial) administration paired with an analogy between the political ideas of colonial administration and the religious ideas of the colonized. Moreover, analogy is too pacific a term for these sorts of relationships. They are contested, sometimes brutally and sometimes insidiously. In other words, political theology, when its remit is not limited to the West, names a site of struggle. Perhaps this would be true of political theology in the West as well, if class, racial, and ethnic difference were a larger part of political theological inquiries.”

    The last sentence is especially interesting to me as I tend to think that much of political theology reads as the US were homogeneous. I welcome any additional thoughts you may have on this. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for this. Given what I’ve understood if your point, I was wondering what you might say about the following. Do you see a potential problem here, the more the colonialism legacy is highlighted the easier it becomes for some analysts to shift the blame away from the Islam-component of Muslim post-colonial governance? There is, I think, within the field of Islamic Studies a tendency to shift blame from “Islam” to the “modern West” for whatever ills are being discussed. How would you propose moving beyond that bind?

  3. Many thanks for these thoughts. I very much appreciate the way you describe political theology generating concepts of Islam along a deeper axis of analogy and anomaly — each operating in tandem to a single colonial logic, because analogy and anomaly are surely grammatically coherent. And this is an absolutely necessary corrective to the intellectual habits that political theology seems precisely to foster, in its incessant movement back to and away from Schmitt and others (its recourses and returns and fervent claims to continuity or discontinuity). But I have two open comments about the note the post leaves us on — questions i’ve been wrestling with for awhile.

    First, if I am reading it correctly, its answer to this logic of analogy and anomaly, of colonialism and conversion, seems to be “texture”. As political theology “matures,” as it turns to “soft schema” in place of “hard answers”, it learns to better reflect on uncertainties and complexities. In other words, it discovers the relations it now takes to be analogical or anomalous may in fact be rife with gaps, specifically and historically or rather genealogically constituted, teeming with other potentialities, etc. But I don’t quite understand what this promise secures differently, because the effort to unsettle the immunity of theologico-political categories seems constitutive of the field. There is of course analytic benefit in greater texture, with regard to Islam no less than anything else. But the pervasiveness of the grammar of analogy and anomaly, Agrama’s post here last month indicated, relies no less on soft schema than it does hard answers. The work of Dan Barber and others insists that political theology learn to think by differential rather than analogical/anomalous relations. But learning how to un-inherit this frame, as they note, may involve more than deciding to abandon it…

    Second, a related comment perhaps building off Omar’s question below. As political theology “becomes Islamic,” the post notes, it will sharpen critical tools to address political theology at its core. I read this to mean that as political theology “becomes Islamic”, as it folds over anomalous Islam from the periphery into the center, the logic of analogy and anomaly collapses. This will certainly serve to tell a better story about post-Christian Europe. But what kind of story does this help us tell about Islam? This isn’t yet clear to me. That may be the wrong question, as of course it would reprise all the many Islamic translations of that grammar. But I’m still working out ways to think the ‘Islamic’ in the becoming-Islamic of political theology that do not finally replicate it. Hopefully this PT symposium will help me do so. Thanks again.

  4. Thanks for all this great feedback! It’s exciting to see this forum on Islam and political theology unfold.

    @tidemeover:disqus : My sense is that conversations about political theology are unfolding on two tracks. One track grows out of recent Continental theory, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Carl Schmitt’s work, John Milbank’s work, and other resources that tend to skew towards high culture, and to sideline questions of difference. Another track, which more often comes from theology- or church-informed discussions that are interested in politics, and particularly social justice, does take a broader remit and address questions of difference, but has less access to university presses and high level academic infrastructure.

    @omarshaukat:disqus : Yes, I agree this is a worry. I suppose the view I tried to express, that Islamic political theology would need to keep in mind the relationship between three fields, adding the Christian-colonial to the political and the theological examined at the place/time in question, is meant to mitigate this problem.

    @basitiqbal:disqus : I’m not sure if I quite understand the question, but I suppose I would think it less important to say something about Islam than to address a particular place and time – one where certain religious and political concepts have a hold in the social imagination.

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