Render Unto Caesar
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
A brother from Damascus, Syria, has asked me to comment on the reply that the Prophet ‘Isa, ‘alayhi salam, made when people wanted to trick him into making a treasonous statement by showing him a coin with the face of the Roman emperor engraved upon it. His words were: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is God’s.”
This famous saying can be addressed from the perspective of Christian moral theologians, who use it as a basis for their theories on “separation of Church and State.” This Christian doctrine will be addressed at great length, in sha’a Allah, in my prospective five-volume comparison of classical American and classical Islamic thought.
The meaning of this saying strictly from the perspective of Islamic jurisprudence, specifically the maqsud of the maqasid al shari’ah known as haqq al hurriah, is subject to four possible interpretations, ranging from the strictest to the most liberal.
The first is the standard meaning that one should let the political power do its thing (like minting coins) but let religious people do their thing in private, thus separating religion from public life.
The second meaning calls for religious people to stay away from the Pharaoh.
The third merely warns one to beware of becoming part of the political establishment.
The fourth position, a variant of the third, is that every person should be active “in the public square” in order to fill what otherwise would be a vacuum filled by relativists and immoral people. One cannot separate morality from public life without thereby supporting immorality by default.
The danger, as I have pointed out in Chapter Six, entitled “Political Action: Keeping it Principled,” of my book, Shaping the Future: Challenge and Response, Tapestry Press, 1997, is that becoming active in the political process may lead one away from the Agenda of Allah, a term coined by Imam Jamil al Amin at the founding conference of the American Muslim Council in 1989, into the compromises that promote one’s own political power. The seven dangers of political involvement, summarized in this chapter from the teachings of Imam Zaid Shakir, are compromise, narrowed agenda, pragmatism over principle, diversion of funds, brain-drain, personality deformation, and extra-systemic action. These seven warning signals can serve as guidance in determining whether oneself or other individuals or the Muslim community is in danger of becoming unprincipled. If one cannot remain principled following the Agenda of Allah then one should stay out of politics. This, in turn, might mean that the majority of Muslims active in politics should stay out of it.
This warning, which I made in 1994 at Rutgers University, when I was head of the legal office of the American Muslim Council, and later reproduced as Chapter Six of my 1997 book, was misunderstood by some AMC board members present, who then successfully demanded that I be fired. Subsequent events have proven that the founding of the American Muslim Council by Abdul Rahman Alamoudy, a master con-man who is now in prison for accepting a million dollars to assassinate the present king of Saudi Arabia, was a tragedy in the history of Islam in America.
The Prophet, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, has provided some basic guidelines for activism in public life. He said that whoever tolerates a tyrant is guilty of tyranny. Cooperation with a tyrant can amount to toleration. But, maintaining one’s independence from an immoral government does not mean that one must stay out of politics, as long as one can maintain one’s independence and always pursue only the Agenda of Allah.
Each person must judge what the risks are for oneself personally. One must constantly ask to what extent can one safely make the compromises that sincere people may urge one to take in order to be “pragmatic” and “effective” in doing the Will of Allah. I am one of those who should stay out of the political arena, and I intend to do so, in sha’a Allah.
The Prophet said that those in the deepest part of hell are the scholars who did not use their knowledge fi sabil Allah. This applies doubly to those who have been given the gifts of both knowledge and power, such as the Shaitan himself.
My advice in answer to the brother in Syria is simply to stay away from people who one thinks may be worshipping themselves, because one otherwise will start to participate in their own polytheism, which is the one unforgivable sin.
by courtesy & 2005 The American Muslim republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.