Is there a version of Islam recognizable to most Muslims that ethically bears resemblance to the principles of Christian Realism?  Christian Realists desire societies defined by pluralism, democracy, and capitalism, not only out of positive affirmation for such ideas, but also out of recognition that such societies are the least bad in a fallen world where perfection is impossible and utopianism dangerous.  Christians and Muslims constitute nearly half the world’s population, so it is crucial to ask how an “Islamic Realism” might recognize these same attributes of a good society.  Let us examine the capacity for a democratic Islamic Realism in three dimensions:  interpretation, mosque-state separation, and in war and peace. 


Reinhold Niebuhr claimed we must “take the Bible seriously, not literally.”  Texts may be inspired and inspirational, but the humans who enact religious laws are beneath infallibility or perfection. Therefore, Christian Realists believe that concentrations of power, which democracy seeks to avoid, are dangerous.  In Islam, however, the Qur’an has been taken to justify particular political strictures that have caused reactionaries to eschew democracy, thinking that by mixing in secular politics they are perilously lowering the Quranic tradition. 

Some scholars have seen room for change, however.  Hans Küng in Islam Past, Present, and Future once argued that Islam “need not maintain the uncreatedness and therefore the perfection, infallibility, and immutability of the seventy-eight thousand words of the Qur’an.”  If Küng is correct, that would allow Muslims some latitude for bringing very high expectations of justice specified by the Qur’an down to Earth.  An Islamic theology that sees the Qur’an as compatible and even comparable to non-Islamic theologies would go a long way towards establishing a common idea of realism binding traditions together. 

As written previously, there have been difficulties getting Islamic democracy off the ground in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan.  Yet even here, where the Taliban have flourished, there have been pluralist, democratic religious reformers.  Take the little-known “Frontier Gandhi,” Abdul Ghaffar Khan:  a man who was an inspiration to Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, the young girl shot in the face by the Taliban for going to school.  Abdul Ghaffar Khan said, “It is my inmost conviction that Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabat [work, faith, and love] and without these the name Muslim is sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.”   Had Khan’s views been more prominent, and not the Taliban’s, Afghanistan and Pakistan might be very different. 

There are Muslims willing to live alongside non-Muslims in democratic freedom.  But much of this depends upon their interpretation of Islam and the place of Muslims in a globalized, pluralist world.  For as long as any text remains an infallible standard that must be mimicked by worldly practice, this will impose a burdensome and unrealistic ideal on its people.  Viewing our texts and traditions as strongly imbued with divine inspiration, but ourselves as imperfect interpreters and practitioners of faith, will go a long way to making Islam or indeed any religion consonant with a more democratic practice.  The fundamental fear and tension, of course, is that by lowering the expectations of our traditions we will collapse them into a meaningless secular view; a view which, as Niebuhr cautioned, would have no good counsel to elevate the moral standards of the world about it. 

Mosque-State Separation and Democracy 

Islam can be democratic.  One of the shortest, most frequently cited verses in the Qur’an is that “There should be no compulsion of religion.” (Surah 2:256)  Though the religious conscience should be free in Islam, there have been Islamic states, such as Sudan, which have tried to enforce apostasy laws, and denied this basic free right.  Proper interpretation of a religion is as important the religion itself.  Islam can however come to affirm the idea of democracy and even mosque-state separation.  Muslim states have often erred on the side of trying to enforce an Islamic worldview, despite the very Quranic injunction which specifies otherwise.  Nonetheless, it is far wiser to foster a state where people and their religion are truly free, than one where they insincerely puppet the theology or ideology of the state out of fear. 

Realism in War and Peace 

If a doctrine is not just, it cannot be realistic.  If a doctrine is not inherently realistic, it is probably unworkable and not very just.  A Christian Realist doctrine understands this, and an “Islamic Realism” should do the same.  Moderates, and universalists who believe in love, justice and the promotion of peace exist.  But what is realism?  And how does one evaluate it? 

No one must proclaim to have the last word on realism.  As Niebuhr skillfully argued:  

“We must not claim too much for our knowledge of God and His judgments.  When we do, we merely make God the ally of our interested position in the scheme of things.  Christian faith must contritely admit that the Christian, as well as every other religion, has frequently accentuated the fury of party conflict and increased the measure of human pretensions.”   

This is the very root of the need for a democratic Christianity or Islam:  because our sinful and self-interested positions need correction which only an open democracy can leverage. 

Realism is found in any viewpoint where there is a just and healthy ideal held over a resistant and trenchant political reality.  In Christianity, the principle of loving God and neighbor, the command of double-love (Matthew 22:38-40), is a prime example of the “ideal.”  Yet it can never be fully realized because it is pitted against the “real” sinfulness of the human self, which is ever mired in a “law of my members.” (Romans 7:23) If it were not so we would have already realized a perfect, sinless society long ago.  As long as sinfulness remains, so does Christ’s command. 

In Islam, the Qur’an commands an ideal to love not so different from the double-love command.  Surah 4:36 reads “Serve God and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the Companion by your side … for God does not love the arrogant, the vain.” Elsewhere the Qur’an instructs “I ask you only to love your kindred.  He that does a good deed shall be repaid many times over.  God is forgiving and bountiful in His rewards.” (4:23).  A good ideal may be found in the Qur’an, but also a realism about trenchant injustice.  Fighting for justice may be necessary, as the Qur’an reads: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and you dislike it.  But it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and that you love a thing which is bad for you.  But God knows, and you know not.” (Surah 2:216).  Yet in Islam fighting must be done defensively according to Surah 2:190: “Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first.  God does not love aggressors.” 

Christianity and Islam both are religions that can be very realist in outlook, but corrupt theologies and political ideologies often inhibit this.   Even in traditions accepting the “Just War” idea, a realist balance can be eroded.  For example, Pope Francis recently made remarks dismissing or minimizing the significance of Just War Theory for Roman Catholicism, illustrating how the practice of religious doctrine can deviate from the best moral precepts.  Islamic countries will need every bit of help and encouragement from their Christian counterparts if we are together to navigate the often-slim channel to peace, realism, democracy, and justice.