Popes and Caliphs

On BBC News 24 this morning, Peter Sissons asked Sir Iqbal Sacranie (leader of the Moslem Council of Britain) if the lack of a figurehead, equivalent to the Pope for Catholics, made it more difficult for leaders of the Moslem faith to state authoritatively that extremist views were heretical. Sir Iqbal replied that he was referring to a Caliph. Interestingly, one of Al-Qaeda's most fundamental ambitions is restoration of a Caliphate encompassing all Moslems and Moslem nations.

Whilst there can be no doubt that what Mr Sacranie means by a Caliph is different to what Osama bin-Laden means, this highlights the paucity of vocabulary within Islam to describe the relationship between the religion, its leaders, its followers and their governments. A Caliph is fundamentally different to a Pope, because a Caliph exercises absolute temporal as well as spiritual powers over followers of the faith. But there is no title available in the Moslem lexicon to descrbe a supreme spiritual leader distnct from the temporal leadership.

The Christian religion has had two thousand years to define the relationship between Church and State. There were very few points in that history when the leadership of both estates was combined. Some might point to the claims of most medieval monarchs to rule as God's annointed representative. This would chime with the views espoused by some, that Islam is a less mature religion that has not yet undergone its Reformation. But even before the Reformation in Europe, there were clear dividing lines between the spiritual and temporal authorities. Think of Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, or Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. The strict delineation between the State's authority over temporal affairs and the Church's authority over spiritual affairs is now deeply embedded in Western civilisation.

Islam does not accept, indeed does not even allow this delineation. All law is the law of Allah, so how can there be any distinction between spiritual and temporal governance? No wonder there is no Moslem equivalent of a Pope. The system of governance in Iran, or the adoption of Sharia law in Northern Nigeria, or the Caliphate that Osama bin Laden wants to reestablish are logical conclusions of this philosophy. A democratic Moslem state is probably an oxymoron. Allah is not a democrat.

That begs the fundamental question of whether Western-style capitalist democracy can be reconciled with the teachings of Islam. I suspect that the two are incompatible. Moslems in the Western world face a difficult conflict between their faith and their country. Not all of them will choose to compromise their faith. If we are not to see more atrocities such as happened in London last week, we need to abandon the illusion that Islam is just another religion amongst the many that enrich our multicultural societies. Islam belongs in a separate category.