When it comes to religion and politics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims find themselves in the same predicament. Both of these religions adhere to a particularly strong concept of sacred tradition. This tradition is distinct from revelation itself, but revelation can only be properly interpreted through this tradition. Theological thought, detailed practices of corporate worship, and ascetic disciplines of individual spiritual striving are the key components of both faiths- and crucially, all of these key components must be understood using the words written by their religious ancestors. Moreover, because both communities are globally decentralized—neither of these faiths has a single person to whom all believers look for authoritative guidance—this concept of tradition is absolutely crucial for keeping the integrity of the faith itself, especially in the tumultuous modern context.
This means that both faiths have an historically rich and consistent tradition of belief and practice, and have both conveyed immense spiritual riches across the sometimes-harrowing journey of modernity. But this concept of tradition has one major drawback: the premodern political and social context, during which all of the texts through which we understand the core of our faith were written, was radically different from our own. This is a dilemma common to all religious believers, but I believe it is especially serious in the case of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, given just how strong and all-encompassing our notion of tradition is. When it comes to politics, the contours of the dilemma are particularly clear: nearly all of the central texts of our authoritative and interpretive traditions were written in the context of empire.
The large majority of the theologians, commentators, jurists, and spiritual masters who authored the authoritative texts that constitute Eastern Orthodox and Sunni Muslim tradition lived in a world that presupposed the political and social supremacy of their respective faith community. Moreover, this supremacy was believed to be the will of God. Over the many centuries of textual development of these two sacred traditions, immense social changes did occur, and the supremacy of these faiths was at times gravely threatened (such as the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 or Constantinople in 1204 and 1453). But in the end, God’s holy empire always found ways to endure, even if it was forced to transfer its sacred political charism to a new dynasty (such as the Russians or the Ottomans). To state the problem bluntly: because of our concept of tradition, we are constantly reading our religion through political conditions that no longer exist. We are nailing the theses of our faith to the doors of ruined imperial citadels.
This situation is quite unlike Western societies, who are still at the apex of their imperial peak. Indeed, as with nearly every other society on earth, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims often analyze their own identity through Western concepts which have become the global intellectual lingua franca. Casting their own imperial politics as bearers of enlightened liberation, Western writers since at least the 18th century have accused both Eastern Orthodox and Sunni Muslim imperial societies of backward, irrational, and stagnant “oriental despotism.” This conceit argues that Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam are uniquely prone to tyranny because they are inherently theocratic. Eastern Orthodoxy is caricatured as “caesaropapism,” while Sunni Islam is accused of possessing no distinction between religion and politics at all. The frame of “oriental despotism” persists well into the present, as Western empire is still very convinced of the rightness of its power. Samuel Huntington famously argued that the dividing line between democracy and tyranny was the line on the European continent that separated Western Christians from Orthodox Christians and Muslims (1993, p. 10).
Ironically, contemporary Orthodox sources themselves often utilize this misguided discourse when discussing Islam, thus unwittingly perpetuating the Western stereotypes that contribute to misunderstandings of both of our traditions. For instance, the Orthodox Church in America provides an online version of the revised edition of the popular educational series, “The Orthodox Faith.” The section on church history mentions Islam, where it is asserted that the word “Islam” means “subjugation.” This deeply erroneous rendering equates Islam itself with tyranny. But the term “Islam” has never referred to political power—it can only refer to the act of the individual entering into relationship with God. It is often translated as “submission,” but it may more literally be translated as “putting oneself at peace with God,” because it derives from the Arabic root that produces all terms relating to “peace.” The word “Islam” signifies the precise opposite of submission to earthly authority. It specifically means submission to the only One deserving of unconditional worship- God.
In other words, both Eastern Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam contain the same basic politico-theological insight: put not your faith in princes and sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. Contra the Western stereotypes, neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Sunni Islam are oriental theocratic despotisms. The actual theological content of their textual traditions is clearly distinct from the political conditions in which they were produced. In fact, if we are able to discern the crucial difference between theology and imperialism in both our textual traditions, we will have the key to tackling the problems of our contemporary political theologies. Modern authoritarianism and tyranny in the name of Eastern Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam are terribly real: but they flow from the perpetuation of the political ethos of empire, not the essential theological content of our traditions. Recognizing this crucial distinction within both of our faiths, and seeing in them shared purpose and common cause in pursuit of new forms of justice, is a faithful form of service to the authentic core of our sacred traditions in the modern world.
Phil Dorroll is Associate Professor of Religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.