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How Islam Is Different from Other Religions

2 minute read

We want to believe we’re all basically the same and want the same things, but what if we’re not?

Islam, in both theory and practice, is exceptional in how it relates to politics. Because of its outsize role in law and governance, Islam has been–and will continue to be–resistant to secularization.

I am a bit uncomfortable making this claim, especially now, with anti-Muslim bigotry on the rise. But Islamic exceptionalism is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand and respect that.

Two factors are worth emphasizing: First, the founding moment of Islam looms large. Unlike Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad was a theologian, a preacher, a warrior and a politician, all at once. He was also the leader and builder of a new state, capturing, holding and governing new territory. Religious and political functions, at least for the believer, were no accident. They were meant to be intertwined in the leadership of one man.

Second, for Muslims the Quran is God’s direct and literal speech, more than merely the word of God. It is difficult to overstate the centrality of divine authorship. This does not mean Muslims are literalists; most are not. But it does mean the text cannot easily be dismissed as irrelevant.

What does this mean for everyone else? Western observers will need to do something uncomfortable and difficult. They will need to accept Islam’s vital and varied role in politics and formulate policies with that in mind, rather than hope for secularizing outcomes that are unlikely anytime soon, if ever.

Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World

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