In most Muslim-majority countries, there are severe restrictions on religious dissent. In such cases, the problem is associated with the alliance between religious and political authorities. I argue that the alliance between Islamic scholars (the ulema) and state authorities was historically constructed rather than a feature of Islam. Hence, the essentialist idea that Islam inherently rejects the separation of religion and state, while Christianity supports it, is misleading. Instead, this article shows that the ulema-state alliance in the Muslim world was built after the mid-11th century, and reveals that church-state separation in Western Europe was also historically institutionalised during this period. Using comparative history methods, the article explains the political and socio-economic background to these epochal transformations, paying particular attention to the relations between the religious, political, intellectual and economic classes.

By Ahmet T. Kuru, Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University.

The 11th century reformation, or papal revolution

In the second half of the 11th century, various members of the Catholic Church claimed superiority over kings, while some kings tried to dominate the Church. Neither side had a clear purpose to affect a separation of church and state. The struggles between clergy and royal authority provoked not only doctrinal debates, but also military conflicts. Cardinal Humbert – who also played a prominent role in the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054 – was a leading advocate of the supremacy of the Church over royal authority. He argued that “just as the soul supersedes the body and commands it, so priestly dignity supersedes royal dignity”.

The Catholic Church established some rules to limit the interventions of lay rulers in ecclesiastical appointments. In 1059, a papal decree was issued on the election of the pope by cardinals. However, Henry IV (r. 1054-1105), King of Germany and later Holy Roman Emperor, insisted on having the authority to appoint bishops. In response, in 1075, Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085) issued 27 dictates, which affirmed not only the Church’s institutional independence, but also its supreme status. The dictates include the following: “That the pope alone is the only one whose feet must be kissed by all princes”, “That he alone can depose or reinstate bishops” and “That he can depose emperors”. Consequently, Henry deposed Gregory, while Gregory excommunicated Henry. The struggles between various popes and monarchs continued in the early 12th century. For example, King Henry V, son of Henry IV, imprisoned the pope of his time. Despite this royal resistance, the decisions of the Catholic Church during this revolutionary period created its institutional autonomy and have had lasting effects. Hence, they have been called the “11th century reform” or the “Gregorian reform”.

According to Bloch, before the Gregorian Reformation “the sacred and the profane were almost inextricably mixed” in Western Europe. The reformation marked a break by the separation “between the spiritual and the temporal”, which would later be celebrated as “one of the greatest innovations introduced by Christianity.” Bloch stresses that the aim of Church leaders in “separating the two powers so completely” was to “humble the rulers of men’s bodies before the rulers of their souls.” Brian Tierney also explains that during the struggles of the 11th century, the kings tried to establish a “royal theocracy”, while the popes tried to establish a “papal theocracy”. Neither side was willing to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. However, neither side succeeded in subduing the other. However, neither side succeeded in subduing the other. As an unintended consequence of this mutual failure, the separation between Church and royal authority became institutionalised.

Harold Berman goes even further than Bloch and Tierney and calls the reforms during this investiture conflict, which took place between 1075 and 1122, the “papal revolution”. Prior to this revolution, the Catholic clergy largely supported the royal authority in a way that resembled Caesaropapism, the Byzantine system in which the clergy, recognised the royal authority as supreme and which combined secular and religious powers:

Before the end of the 11th century, the clergy of Western Christendom – bishops, priests and monks – were, as a rule, much more subject to the authority of emperors, kings and major feudal lords than to that of the popes…In addition to its politico-economic subordination, the church was also subject in its internal structure to the control of lay princes…. At the same time, bishops and other prominent clerics sat in the organs of government – local, baronial and royal or imperial… The system was similar to that which prevailed in the Eastern Roman Empire, and which was later denounced in the West as Caesaropapism.

Berman also gives figures to support his description of church-state relations before the end of the eleventh century: “Of the twenty-five popes who held office during the hundred years before 1059 (when an ecclesiastical synod first forbade lay investiture), twenty-one were appointed directly by the [German] emperors and five were dismissed by emperors.

Thus, there was no separation of church and state in either Western or Eastern Christianity. The Orthodox Church never experienced a separation from the Byzantine state nor, later, from the Russian state. The Catholic Church, however, was transformed during the Papal Revolution. According to Berman, the Church ‘established itself as a visible, corporate and legal entity, independent of imperial, royal, feudal and urban authorities’. Berman even argues that this revolution was not only chronologically earlier than later epochal changes, such as the Renaissance and the Reformation, but also more important than them for the formation of the Western legal tradition.

More recently, Jan Luiten van Zanden reiterated the importance of the Papal Revolution. He stresses that with this revolution “power within the Latin West would be divided between the Pope and the Emperor” and this division was subsequently deepened by the rise of cities and other entities. As a result, Western Europe became increasingly distinct from other parts of the world where there was no such religion-state separation and thus power was, at least in theory, “one and undivided”. The reformation of the 11th century had long-term consequences. Lord Acton (1877) noted that conflicts between spiritual and temporal power continued in later centuries and this led to the rise of civil liberty in Western Europe. In his words, if the two powers had been unified, or if one of them had subdued the other, “the whole of Europe would have sunk under Byzantine or Muscovite despotism”.

In short, the institutionalisation of church-state separation in the 11th century became an important inflection point in the history of Western Europe. In the centuries that followed, Western Europe experienced the establishment of new institutions, in particular universities and corporations, as bases for the rising intellectual and bourgeois classes. With these institutional and class transformations, this area of Europe eventually surpassed the Muslim world in terms of scientific and economic development, as well as religious and philosophical diversity.


This article analyses the existence of a certain separation between religious and political authorities in the Muslim world between the 8th and mid-11th centuries. Obviously, the separation between the two was not absolute: there were many exceptions and disagreements. However, the separation of religion and state was not absolute in post-11th century Catholicism either. From the Gregorian reforms to the modern West, church-state relations have always had contested boundaries and reflected exceptions (Kuru, 2009: Ch. 4).

After the mid-11th century, even this relative separation between religious and political authorities ended in the Muslim world. Instead, an ulema-state alliance emerged in the Seljuk Empire and was later adapted and adopted by subsequent Muslim sultanates, including the Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals.

Hence, the post-11th century Muslim world resembled early medieval Western Europe in terms of the relationship between religion and state. In both cases, clerical and military elites dominated society and prevented intellectuals and merchants from flourishing. From the mid-11th century onwards, however, Western Europe changed, mainly due to the struggle between clergy and royal authority. This and other institutional transformations had a lasting impact on the rise of intellectual creativity, economic dynamism and religious diversity.

My analysis reveals the weaknesses of the essentialist claim about Islam and Christianity: that Christianity essentially embraces the religion-state separation, while Islam rejects it. In both Muslim and Christian countries, religion-state relations are changeable and determined by political actors and conditions. The alliance between the ulema and the state was not an essential part of Islam, but was historically constructed. Similarly, church-state separation in Western Europe was also the result of a historical process. The Orthodox Church had a different historical experience and therefore never had a separation from the state. This also shows that the separation between the Catholic Church and the State is not a simple result of biblical teaching.

One may still well ask why Western Europe managed to institutionalise the separation of religion and state while the Muslim world did not after the 11th century. Answering this question fully requires a lengthy analysis, as I have attempted in my recent book (Kuru 2019). Here I can only briefly mention two points. First, the alliance between clergy and state has been the ‘norm’ throughout world history. What Muslims achieved from the eighth to the eleventh century and what Western Europeans have achieved after the eleventh century (and particularly after the eighteenth century), in terms of religion-state separation, are rare experiences. Muslim countries lost that valuable achievement and Western countries still have it. Second, since the mid-11th century, the ulema have declared their alliance with the state as a religious necessity, even a Koranic injunction. Hence, it has been very difficult to challenge it in the Muslim world. While Islam does not inherently reject the separation of religion and state, a particular interpretation of Islam reached by the post-11th century ulema does.

In general, when religious institutions are separated from the state, they contribute to increasing socio-political diversity and decentralisation. They legitimise opposition to government and contribute to a balance of power between the state and other institutions. However, when religious institutions establish an alliance with or subordinate themselves to the state, they contribute to increasing socio-political centralisation. They delegitimise the opposition and sacralise the government. They also lead to the violation of religious freedom and the oppression of religious dissent. In the case of the Muslim world, the ulema-state alliance has imposed religious restrictions not only on non-Muslims but also on dissident Muslims.

This article does not promote a pessimistic view of the future of religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries. In fact, it argues that Islam is not an inherently monistic religion and shows that early Islamic history included examples of a certain religion-state separation. It therefore, in fact, promotes optimism. If Muslims decide to separate their religious and governmental institutions, they do not have to look exclusively to the West for models. They can find inspiring examples in their own early history.

Translated from English by David Meléndez Tormen


1 Ahmet T. Kuru,PhD, Professor, San Diego State University, California, United States.E-mail:

Kuru is the author of Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison (Cambridge University Press, 2019). This series of 4 essays stems from his longer article entitled ‘Islam, Catholicism, and Religion-State Separation: An Essential or Historical Difference?’ International Journal of Religion, Vol. 1, No. 1 (

2 Research for this article was funded by the Institute for Religious Freedom under the Freedom of Religious Institutions in Society Project, a three-year initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Portions of this article are adapted from Kuru 2019; used with permission.

3 Eighteen of the twenty-two cases with the most restrictive laws and policies are from Muslim-majority countries. Pew Research Center, 2019. See also Philpott, 2019; Fox, 2020.

4 Shafii was a judge in his youth, although he later regretted doing so.

5 Other occupations, such as doctor, lawyer, porter, muleteer and hairdresser, make up the remaining 8%. Cohen, 1970: 36 (Table A-I). The biographies of these scholars and their families reveal 410 different occupations, of which only 56 (less than 15%) were “related to official services”. Cohen, 1970: 17, 45-61. See also Bulliet, 2009: 1-5, 43-44.

6 The case of John of Damascus (675-753) shows how a Christian could become a world-renowned theologian under Umayyad Muslim rule. Similarly, in Baghdad under the Abbasids, Yahya ibn Adi (893-974) became a famous Christian theologian, philosopher and translator. Fakhry, 2004:197-207.

7 According to Mutazilis, depicting the Qur’an as timeless and uncreated was similar to the way Christians depicted Jesus. Corbin, 1986:160; Melchert, 2006:10.

8 In the words of Steven Runciman (1977, 4), ‘by contrasting church and state we are making a distinction that would not have made sense to the Byzantines’. According to Francis Fukuyama (2011, 391-392), the “Byzantine Empire from which Russia took its model of church-state relations was Caesaropapist; the Eastern emperor appointed the patriarch of Constantinople and intervened in matters of doctrine.” And this was never reformed: “The equivalent of the investiture conflict and Gregorian reform never had a place in the Byzantine world.” See also Møller 2017.

9 Lord Acton (1877) also sees this as an unintended consequence, since neither the Church nor the royal authority strove for separation or freedom. The “aim of both contending parties” was, in fact, “absolute authority”.

10 The number of universities in Western Europe was twenty in 1300, rose to forty-four in 1400 and reached sixty-six in 1500. Buringh and Van Zanden, 2009: 431. See also Collins, 2000: 516.