Published by Forum on 3 August 2009.
This piece explains why secularism is key to Islam.
Secularism, as an ideal and a political assertion, has not had an easy ride in traditional Muslim history. But contrary to popular belief, secularist philosophy is not alien to Islam. In fact, a close reading of classical and modern Islamic history exposes an ongoing tension between the forces of secularism and theocracy since the medieval age.
Unfortunately, secularism and democracy have not fared much better in modern times for Muslim-majority societies either. Repressive state-sponsored secular fundamentalism has kept Muslims largely ambivalent, and in many cases wholly hostile, to the idea of secularism. The institutions of Islamic orthodoxy misunderstand, often wilfully, secularism to mean a Western recalibration of the religious and cultural norms of Muslim societies.
This need not be the case if secularism is understood to mean, first and foremost, a secular state not a secularised society.
To put it simply, secularism is the separation of state institutions and policies from religious institutions and beliefs. Unfortunately, this simple assertion has aroused, amongst Muslim thinkers, an undertone of paranoia which equates secularism with Westernisation.
In particular, the Enlightenment ideals of individual liberty and freedom, taken for granted in Western societies, are seen as anathema to Muslim societies which elevates the concept of community or Jama’ah to paramount importance. Absolute freedom of the individual is secondary to public interest and the concerns of the religious community in Muslim-majority societies.
Today a number of Islamist organisations exist, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) and Jamaat-e-Islami, whose ultimate aim is the re-establishment of the Caliphate or the Khilafa which was abolished in 1924. The Khilafah movement to which all these organisations subscribe, to a lesser or greater extent, supports the creation of a single totalitarian state encompassing the entire globe under the rule of one Caliph, whose function is to impose one interpretation of Shari’a as law, as opposed to a traditional understanding of Shari’a as a body of ethics. For the advocates of this ideology, the creation of the Khilafah is nothing less than a religious duty (fard).
The claim that Islam and the Khilafah, or religion and state, are inseparable is a debunked fallacy but this has not stopped Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami elevating it to the level of a dogmatic axiom. However the struggle to separate religion from politics is not alien to Islamic history, rather it is a fundamental part of its historical narrative which began some two hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the eighth century a school of thought, founded by the philosopher al-Kindi, emerged in the Arab world known as the Mutazilites, or the Rationalists. This was a group of scientists, philosophers, and poets who stood against a legalistic dogma based solely on the Shari’a which was encroaching into Muslim societies.
The most well-known Mutazilites were Ibn Sina and al-Farabi who had come to be known as the Islamic Hellenistic philosophers because they had incorporated Aristotelian metaphysics and cosmology into their philosophy. The Mutazilites argued that it was possible to act morally with the use of rational thought alone. By corollary, they refuted the need to combine religion with the state.
The Mutazilites were opposed by another school of thought called the Asharites which was founded by the tenth century theologian, Ashari. The Asharites rejected rationalism, and argued that the human mind was not capable of understanding the nature and attributes of God. By extension, they maintained that the discernment of morality was beyond rational thought. The Asharites rejected this Hellenistic philosophy because they regarded it as alien and dangerous
The Asharites also argued that the state was representative of God’s power on Earth as well as the sole adjudicator of the morality of its citizens. The Asharites represented the intellectual force which pulled the institutions of the Caliphate towards the institutions of religion. It boasted such giants as the polymath al-Ghazali, the mathematician Faqr-al-din Razi, and the formidable figure of the fourteenth century historian and sociologist, Ibn Khaldun.
For the next four hundred years the intellectual battle that waged between the Mutazilites and Asharites could be likened to a conceptual football match: the Scientists vs. the Theologians. The intellectual and philosophical history of this period was dominated by this contest: to find the exact point where the sovereignty of God (huquq Allah) ended and where the sovereignty of man (huquq ibaad) began. The greatest minds of the time were drafted into either one or the other side.
Al Ghazali was intimately adept in the nuances of both philosophical positions, but his conservative nature compelled him to side with the Asharites. He went on to write many treatises condemning the philosophers and scientists and went as far as accusing them with the charge of heresy. This did not stop him, however, from embedding Aristotelian logic into the principles of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).
Ultimately the Asharites, the theologians, won the day, the legacy of which affects us to this day. Traditional Muslim societies would henceforth place less spiritual value on philosophy, rational thought, and free thinking, and, perhaps most unfortunately of all, the forces of absolute power began to regard religion and state as inseparable entities. Ironically, the orthodoxy of today reject the ideals of the Enlightenment such as personal liberty and freedom of speech in a kind of perverse echo of the Asharite position of medieval times.
Over the past two centuries, the Islamic world’s stagnation was compounded by the rapid advance of post-Enlightenment Europe and, to add insult to injury, followed by the humiliation of colonisation. For the first time Muslims were politically subjugated by the European empires of Russia, Holland, Britain, and France. The weakened power-bases and the moribund institutions of the Caliphate was outmatched for a battle against the forces of colonisation. Islamic educational, legal, and economic institutions, not to mention the Islamic faith itself, was challenged by Christian missionaries and European imperialism. After WWII colonialism began to recede, but Islamic nation states were too weak to challenge the secular autocratic military regimes, which filled the vacuum left by Europeans.
Possibly the greatest disservice done to the concept of secularism in the post-colonial Muslim-majority world has not been through Western actors, and certainly not by Islamists, but at the hands of home-grown military regimes that emerged after the end of colonisation.
The concept of secularism is now not only misunderstood, but is increasingly abhorred by many Muslims worldwide. This is perhaps unsurprising, as recent post-colonial histories have seen the creation of brutal dictatorships ruled by so-called secular leaders who could be just as extremist and dogmatic as their unctuous religious counterparts.
In Egypt, Gamal Abdal Nasser’s secular regime tortured and executed members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But his tactics backfired with horrendous consequences. Nasser’s actions can arguably be held responsible for the popularisation of the extremist reactionary Islamist outfit which he so brutally repressed.
In the 1960s, the secular, nominally socialist Ba’athist regimes of Iraq and Syria were even more barbaric than Nasser’s. Meanwhile in Algeria, the National Liberation Front, a secular political party, enjoyed massive support. But its secular mandate turned ugly when it stepped up a campaign of persecution of anyone who identified with Islam. It is no wonder that Islamist parties, in spite of their threatening totalitarianism, began to appeal to the Muslim peoples as a reaction to the corruption and viciousness of pseudo-liberal “secular” regimes.
Ironically, the greatest damage inflicted on secularism in the Islamic world was perpetrated by the Turkish despot Kemal Ataturk, who was probably the most successful leader to embark on a tyrannical campaign to overhaul the social norms of a Muslim society. Ataturk unilaterally abolished the Ottoman Empire, Europeanised schools and colleges, retracted the power and influence granted to religious institutions, and closed down all Sufi orders. He aligned Turkish society to his personal perception of European society by banning beards, turbans, hijab, even chappals. He made the Turkish military the enforcers of his secularism to ensure every Turkish man and woman at every level of society was turned out in ill-fitting Western clothing. Turkey was transformed but only at the cost of an unrelenting social engineering campaign, shoe-horned into public space by a slavish emulation of Western norms. What Ataturk got away with in 1927 cannot and should not be attempted in the 21st century.
However, there is a change in the air as more Muslim thinkers begin to re-evaluate democracy and secularism, pushing forward the idea that the two must go hand in hand in order for individuals to live freely and without persecution in their countries. The recent mass protests in Iran, the democratic electorates voting out Islamist parties in Bangladesh and Indonesia signal a desire for change. Muslim attitudes are, once again, coming round to revisiting the ideas originally argued and proposed by the Mutazilites. As Ziauddin Sardar, a prominent Muslim thinker in the West, says:
“Writers and thinkers in Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey began to argue that secularism had a role to play in Muslim societies. But if Muslims were to accept secularism, both secularism and religion had to be reformulated.”
Some of these “reformulators,” academic and political philosophers, include Sardar himself but also Abdul Wahab al-Effendi, Hamza Yusuf, Abdul Hakim Murad, Javed Ghamdi, and Abdullahi An-Na’im, to name a few. It is worth noting that these thinkers have all largely arrived at a similar conclusion on the efficacy of a secular state in spite of coming from diverse academic, theological, and religious backgrounds.
Modern Muslim secularist thinkers are agreed that secularism is not an ideology or a belief that can be injected into society like a “displaced” alternative belief system. Or in other words, a pseudo-religious doctrine applied, usually by force, into the public space, as Ataturk tried to do. Instead, they advocate secularism as a pragmatic social and political philosophy which influences democratic process along with other normative ideas such as pluralism and human rights. All of these underpin the ideals of the liberal, democratic state.
Notably, it is the Sudanese Muslim scholar, Abdullahi an-Na’im whose deep understanding of the dynamics of nominally “Islamic states” has demonstrated how secularism can inform aspects of law and governance in the Islamic context. In the social sense, an-Na’im argues for “public reason,” a notion based on the liberal philosophy of John Rawls.
“Public reason” is applied to public decisions forcing public policy to be based on evidence and fact and free from religious influence. For example, if Bangladesh were legislating for equal inheritance rights for women, as is currently the case, secularism would ensure that the decision would be subjected to input from public debates, empirical data, social factors, anecdotal evidence, the opinions of non-Muslim minorities, as well as other forms of “public reason” and secular ethics, and not solely upon the reliance on divine law.
Secularism is simply a prescription of how the state conducts itself in relation to the individual. The state is a political institution not a breathing life form. Which is why it cannot be “Islamic” — a quality peculiar to personal faith. The same applies to a “community.” Neither the state nor a community can believe in God or practice a religion. Logically, it is the individual who believes and practices a faith and can only do so freely when the state is secular.
In this sense, the state must be neutral towards religious belief so as to ensure that the individual has complete free will to believe in religion or not. Coercion by the state does not guarantee that the individual would believe in a religion or not, which is why the state must in all cases maintain neutrality in order for religious pluralism and practice to develop and mature.
Secularism in Bangladesh, as in many other Muslim-majority nations, is misunderstood both by its supporters and its detractors. Far from being anti-religion, secularism is actually necessary for religions to thrive, facilitating the freedom to practice religion without persecution. Secularism explains why diverse Islamic creeds flourish in places like Britain and North America. The failure to adopt secularist principles also explains why Sufi shrines, like that of Shah Jalal, are bombed in places like Sylhet and Pakistan.
If democracy is to succeed in Bangladesh, secularism must become a non-negotiable principle of a healthy and thriving liberal democracy.