Europe News

Make Sense of Nation-State: Born from Religion, Bred by Politics

Secular European rulers needed to create institutions to collect taxes and have an institutional base for fighting wars and negotiating peace on a fragmented continent. As a result, the church withdrew from politics. In the Muslim world, the state still relies on the religious orthodoxy to legitimize itself.
Anna Grzymala-Busse

Anna Grzymala-Busse © FSI/

May 16, 2023 22:29 EDT

Think that the modern nation-state originated with the emergence of the 17th-century beginnings of the era of science and reason? Think again.

In a recently published book, political scientist Anna Gryzmala-Busse traces the origins of the modern state to medieval Europe when religion and the church played a powerful role rather than the 16th-century beginnings of the modern era.

Gryzmala-Busse’s analysis is not simply academic and historical. It puts in a different light notions of Christian religiosity and heritage in Central and Eastern Europe that have strained relations in the European Union between Western European states and former Communist countries like Hungary as well as secular Europe’s struggle to come to grips with the religiosity of their Muslim minorities, nowhere more so than in France.

Although Gryzmala-Busse’s focus is on Christianity and Europe, her analysis helps explain why the Sunni Muslim world took a different path and why the concept of a caliphate remains a hot-button issue in Islam.

Religion and Politics in the Christian World

Gryzmala-Busse asserted that secular European rulers needed to create institutions to collect taxes and have an institutional base for fighting wars and negotiating peace on a fragmented continent. To do so, monarchs adopted administrative policies and approaches developed by a wealthy church that was Europe’s single largest landowner. It levied taxes on its land holdings. In addition, the church boasted a highly educated elite, commanded authority, and held out the prospect of salvation.

As a result, “the church was an essential source of legal, administrative, and conciliar innovations… The church showed rulers how to collect taxes more efficiently, request and answer a flood of petitions, keep records and accounts, interpret the law, and hold counsels that could provide valuable consent,” Gryzmala-Busse wrote.

“Concepts such as representation, binding consent, and even majority rules relied on ecclesiastical precedents,” she said. In short, “the medieval church was so influential because it was armed with superior organizational reach, human capital, and spiritual authority,” Gryzmala-Busse concluded. Implicitly, she acknowledged that the Muslim world traveled down a different path when she noted that there were no governance models in Asia and the Middle East that medieval European leaders could emulate.

Gryzmala-Busse was likely referring to Islam scholar Ahmed Kuru’s ground-breaking analysis of what he called the state-ulema alliance. That alliance precluded an arrangement similar to that between the church and rulers as portrayed by political scientist Jonathan Laurence. This arrangement involved rulers successfully deploying what they had learnt from clerics to curtail and sideline the church.

In his award-winning book, Laurence noted that ultimately the church could no longer prevail and accepted temporal jurisdiction over what became the tiny Vatican state while reaching a modus vivendi with European governments that ensured its continued existence and enabled it to thrive.

“European nations strong-armed, expropriated, violated, and humiliated the Catholic hierarchy,” forcing it to “relinquish its 1,000-year claim to political rule and focus instead on advocacy, global spiritual influence, and its evangelizing mission,” Laurence wrote. The political scientist argued further that European efforts to undermine the Ottoman caliphate that was abolished in 1924 in the wake of the emergence of a modern Turkish state fueled theological differences in the Sunni Muslim world.

Religion and Politics in the Muslim World

While that may have been a contributing factor, Kuru’s analysis suggested that the evolution of relations between the state and religious scholars in the Sunni Muslim world would have prevented it from adopting the European model irrespective of external attitudes towards the caliphate. So did the absence in Islam of a central authority like the pope.

Kuru traced the modern-day state template in many Muslim-majority countries to the 11th century. This is when Islamic scholars who until then had, by and large, refused to surrender their independence to the state were co-opted by Muslim rulers. The transition coincided with the rise of the military state legitimized by religious scholars who had little choice but to join its employ. They helped the state develop Sunni Muslim orthodoxy based on text rather than reason- or tradition-based interpretations of Islam.

It is an orthodoxy that prevails until today even though various states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have adopted far-reaching social change as part of economic reform efforts and as a regime survival strategy. The orthodoxy is reflected in reticence with few exceptions to reform outdated religious legal tenets, particularly when it comes to notions of the state.

In a bold move in February, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest, Indonesia-based Muslim civil society movement argued that Islamic jurisprudence needs to be updated to introduce the notion of the nation-state and a United Nations that groups these states.

The movement contended that this would involve abolishing the notion of the caliphate as a legal concept. “It is neither feasible nor desirable to re-establish a universal caliphate that would unite Muslims throughout the world in opposition to non-Muslims…. Attempts to do so will inevitably be disastrous and contrary to the purposes of Sharia (Islamic law): i.e., the protection of religion, human life, sound reasoning, family, and property,” the group said in a declaration on its centennial according to the Hijra calendar.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s reforms of Islamic jurisprudence do not bind others in a Muslim world where religious authority is decentralized. However, they lay down a marker that other Muslim legal authorities will ultimately be unable to ignore in their bid to garner recognition as proponents of a genuinely moderate Islam. As a result, politics rather than morality or spirituality will determine Nahdlatul Ulama’s impact beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous and largest Muslim-majority democracy.

The importance of politics is reinforced by the implicit agreement between scholars Gryzmala-Busse , Laurence and Kuru that the state has successfully subjugated religious power in Europe as well as much of the Sunni Muslim world.

However, the difference is that in Europe the church withdrew from politics and retreated to the spiritual realm while in the Muslim world religious figures retain some clout with rulers wanting them to legitimize their authoritarian or autocratic rule.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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