Islam and secularism
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and other religions
The principle of secularism in Islam means favoring a secular state and secular society with a separation between Islam and public life. Secularism in the Muslim countries refers to the ideology of promoting the secular political and social values as opposed to Islamism. It is often used to describe the separation of public life and civil/government matters from religious teachings and commandments.
Many Muslim-majority countries are secular. Secular states had existed in the Muslim world since the Middle Ages. The quest for Secularism has inspired some Muslim scholars who argue that secular government is the best way to observe sharia; "enforcing [sharia] through coercive power of the state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law of the state and not freely performing their religious obligation as Muslims," says Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a professor of law at Emory University and author of a book on the future of sharia. A majority of Muslim countries have a dual system in which the government is secular but Muslims can choose to bring familial and financial disputes to sharia courts. The exact jurisdiction of these courts varies from country to country, but usually includes marriage, divorce, inheritance, and guardianship. Secularism is condemned by some Muslims who do not feel that religious influence should be removed from the public sphere."
- 1 Definition
- 2 Overview
- 3 History
- 4 Influences
- 5 Secular states with majority Muslim populations
- 6 Opposition and critique
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
The etymology of the Arabic word for secularism can be controversial in itself. While some refer to ‘almaniyya which is derived from the word alam, suggesting that secularism is wordly, others prefer to think of ilmanniyya relating the word for secularism to the Arab word ilm (science, or knowledge). Some writers suggest another Arabic term ‘alamaniyya to avoid the confusion while others prefer dunyawiyya, meaning temporal, in contrast to dini (religious).
Many Muslims argue that, unlike Christianity, Islam does not separate religion from state and a majority of Muslims around the world welcome a significant role for Islam in their countries' political life. It is apolitical Islam, not political Islam, that requires explanation and that is an historical fluke of the "shortlived heyday of secular Arab nationalism between 1945 and 1970."
In contrast, scholar Olivier Roy argues that "a defacto separation between political power" of sultans and emirs and religious power of the caliph was "created and institutionalized ... as early as the end of the first century of the hegira" and what has been lacking in the Muslim world is "political thought regarding the autonomy of this space." No positive law was developed outside of sharia. The sovereign's religious function was to defend the Islamic community against its enemies, institute the sharia, ensure the public good (maslaha). The state was an instrument to enable Muslims to live as good Muslims and Muslims were to obey the sultan if he did so. The legitimacy of the ruler was "symbolized by the right to coin money and to have the Friday prayer (Jumu'ah khutba) said in his name."
The concept of Secularism in Islam has been claimed to have religious sanction too. The Sahih of Imam Muslim, the second most authentic book on Hadith, dating from the 2nd century Hijrah, contains a chapter headed as follows: “Whatever the Prophet has said in matters of religion must be followed, but this does not apply to worldly affairs.”
The Hadith is as follows: Once Prophet Muhammad came across some people doing artificial pollination of palm trees. Due to some reason he disliked the idea and commented that it would be better not to do any pollination at all. However for the following year the harvest was poor. When he came to know about this Prophet Muhammad admitted his limitation of knowledge regarding secular affairs and said: “If a question relates to your worldly matters you would know better about it, but if it relates to your religion then to me it belongs.”
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the prominent Indian Muslim scholar, comments on this Hadith: “Islam separated religious knowledge from physical knowledge. The source of religious knowledge which came into general acceptance was divine revelation (the authentic version of which is preserved in the form of the Quran), while full freedom was given to enquiry into physical phenomena, so that individuals could arrive at their own conclusions independently”.
He further says: “According to this hadith, Islam separates religious matters from scientific research. In religious affairs, there has to be strict adherence to divine guidance. But in scientific research, the work must proceed according to human experience. 
Secular governments had existed in the Muslim world since the 10th century. According to the scholar Ira M. Lapidus:
In fact, religious and political life developed distinct spheres of experience, with independent values, leaders, and organizations. From the middle of the tenth century effective control of the Arab-Muslim empire had passed into the hands of generals, administrators, governors, and local provincial lords; the Caliphs had lost all effective political power. Governments in Islamic lands were henceforth secular regimes - Sultanates - in theory authorized by the Caliphs, but actually legitimized by the need for public order. Henceforth, Muslim states were fully differentiated political bodies without any intrinsic religious character, though they were officially loyal to Islam and committed to its defense.
In the same period, religious communities developed independently of the states or empires that ruled them. The ulama regulated local communal and religious life by serving as judges, administrators, teachers, and religious advisers to Muslims. The religious elites were organized according to religious affiliation into Sunni schools of law, Shi'ite sects, or Sufi tariqas. [...] In the wide range of matters arising from the Shari'a - the Muslim law - the 'ulama' of the schools formed a local administrative and social elite whose authority was based upon religion. Thus though the Muslim madhahib were not organized in the same way as Christian churches, they had many of the religious and social functions we associate with churches. But whether or not we wish to speak of churches, religious organizations, institutions, personnel and activities were clearly separate from the ruling regimes.
As long as two decades ago, Sir Hamilton Gibb, in his essay 'Constitutional Organization', showed that Muslim political thinkers themselves had become aware of the separation of state and religion and recognized the emergence of an autonomous sphere of religious activity and organization. For example, Ibn Taymiyya held that apart from the Caliphate, the ulama constituted the true umma of Islam, and that ruling regimes were 'Muslim' regimes not by any intrinsic quality but by virtue of the support they lent the Muslim religion and religious communities.
In early Islamic philosophy, Averroes presented an argument in The Decisive Treatise providing a justification for the emancipation of science and philosophy from official Ash'ari theology, thus Averroism has been considered a precursor to modern secularism.
Many of the early supporters of Secularist principles in Middle Eastern countries were Baathist and non-Muslim Arabs, seeking a solution to a multi-confessional population and an ongoing drive to modernism.
The most controversial work is that of Ali abd al-Raziq, an Islamic Scholar and Shari’a judge who caused a sensation with his work "Islam and the Foundations of Governance" (Al-Islam Wa Usul Al-Hukm) in 1925. For the first time in Muslim history, he argued there was nothing in the texts that made it obligatory that Muslims had to have the Caliphate form of religious government and that they can choose a system that suits them. This publication caused a fierce debate especially as he recommended that religion can be separated from government and politics. He was later removed from his position. Rosenthall commented on him saying:
"we meet for the first time a consistent, unequivocal theoretical assertion of the purely and exclusively religious character of Islam".
Fauzi Najjar considers the secularization in Turkey as "anti-religious" and claims that
"The term ‘almaniyya acquired a bad connotation and was associated with irreligion in the Muslim world after the establishment of an anti-religious political system, but portrayed as secular, in Turkey in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk".
When colonial rule was established, the process of secularization began to expand into Muslim lands. Secularism thus came as the European colonialists dominated the region and supplanted rule with their own processes and procedures.
"Modernisation was seen as a legacy of European colonialism perpetuated by western-oriented elites who imposed and fostered the twin processes of westernization and secularization."
Colonial powers in many cases replaced indigenous political, social, economic, legal, and educational institutions. For instance, in many former colonised Middle East countries, the Kuttab or the madrassas (the Quranic schools) were moved to the western format. The French colonial government in the protectorates of the Maghreb changed the education system into a secular model closely modeled on their own. The colonialists firmly believed that their secular system was more modern, efficient, and progressive than the incumbent practices. Naturally, these changes had far-reaching social consequences and laid the foundation of Arab Secularism by separating the Islam from government affairs, education, and justice.
In consequence, "perception of the public, political, and social domain through the prism of religion became marginal and was replaced by a new perception, a perception that was modern, temporal, ideological, ethical, evolutionary, and political." This provided a challenge to some governments, which had no choice but to change in the face of overwhelming force. It is from this experience that secularism gained also its perceived foreign identity.
In the 1920s the formation of the first communist parties in the Middle East started playing a key role in the anti-colonial struggle and promoting their ethos regarding workers rights. During the Second World War they also played a role fighting against fascism and participating in the international peace movement.
A key element of the Communism movement was the well organized network of parties in different countries that provided support to each other and enabled communist organizations to become an effective outlet against oppression.
Communism went on to become one of the key components of Arab Nationalism and was particularly prominent during the rule of Gamel Abdel Nasser in Egypt in which Egyptian communists stood aside. And even though communism was often a prominent supporter of Arab nationalism, the international relationships which allowed it to be such a potent force were also used by opposition regimes, and to some extent third parties during the Cold War.
Secular states with majority Muslim populations
- State of Palestine - West Bank
Secularism in Turkey was both dramatic and far reaching as it filled the vacuum of the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. With the country getting down Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led a political and cultural revolution. "Official Turkish modernity took shape basically through a negation of the Islamic Ottoman system and the adoption of a west-oriented mode of modernization."
- The abolition of the Caliphate.
- Religious lodges and Sufi orders were banned.
- A secular civil code was adopted to replace the previous codes based on Islamic law (shari’a) outlawing all forms of polygamy, annulled religious marriages, granted equal rights to men and women, in matters of inheritance, marriage and divorce.
- The religious court system and institutions of religious education were abolished.
- The use of religion for political purposes was banned.
- The article that defined the Turkish state as Islamic was removed from the constitution.
- The alphabet was changed from Arabic to Roman.
- A portion of religious activity was moved to the Turkish language, including the Adhan (call to prayer) which lasted until 1950.
Throughout the 20th century the authoritarian secular Turkish nationalism was continuously challenged by Islamists. Finally at the end of 20th century and beginning of 21st century, political Islamists and Islamic democrats such as the Welfare Party and Justice and Development Party (Turkey) gained enough power through democratic process to gradually convert extremely secular and authoritarian state of Turkey into an softly Islamic and relatively much more liberal state. These groups oppose laws that limit the freedom of Islam or forbid the external display of religious symbols, including the headscarf in public spheres.
Following the military coup of 21 February 1921, Reza Khan had established himself as the dominant political personality in the country. Fearing that their influence might be diminished, the clergy of Iran proposed their support and persuaded him to assume the role of the Shah.
1925-1941: Reza Shah began to make some dramatic changes to Iranian society with the specific intention of westernization and removing religion from public sphere. He changed religious schools to secular schools, built Iran’s first secular university and banned the hijab in public. Nevertheless, the regime became totally undemocratic and authoritarian with the removal of Majles power (the first parliament in 1906) and the clampdown on free speech.
1951-1953: During the early 1950s the Prime Minister Dr Mossadeq was again forming a pro secularization government with a socialist agenda with the specific aim of reducing the power held by the clergy. However his plans for nationalization the oil industry were a step too far for Britain. So with the help of the CIA they supported a coup which replaced the government with Mohammad Reza Shah.
1962-1963: Using the mandate of westernization, Mohammad Reza Shah introduced White Revolution. During this time a number of changes were made to put Iran on the path to become a westernized secularist capitalist country.
1963-1973: Radically authoritarian secular changes alienated many of Mohammad Reza Shah's political opponents and majority of Iranian masses and any dissent was crushed by the brutal secret police of Shah. Opposition rallied untied behind Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and by the end of the 1970s the Shah was overthrown in an Islamic Revolution (1979).
Bourguiba, who has Been one of the most avowedly secularist political strategies in the Arab world, modified laws regarding habous (religious endowments), secularized education and unified the legal system so that all Tunisians, regardless of religion, were subject to the state courts. He restricted the influence of the religious University of Ez-Zitouna and replaced it with a faculty of theology integrated into the University of Tunis, banned the headscarf for women, made members of the religious hierarchy state employees and ordered that the expenses for the upkeep of mosques and the salaries of preachers to be regulated.
Moreover, his best known legal innovations was the ‘Code du Statut Personel’ (CSP) the laws governs issues related to the family: marriage, guardianship of children, inheritance and most importantly the abolishing of polygamy and making divorce subject to judicial review.
Bourguiba clearly wanted to undercut the religious establishment’s ability to prevent his secularization program, and although he was careful to locate these changes within the framework of a modernist reading of Islam and presented them as the product of ijtihad (independent interpretation) and not a break with Islam, he became well known for his secularism. John Esposito says that "For Bourguiba, Islam represented the past; the west was Tunisia's only hope for a modern future, but he was mistaken, Islam is modernization"
Following increasing economic problems, Islamist movements came about in 1970 with the revival of religious teaching in Ez-Zitouna University and the influence which came from Arab religious leaders like Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods. There is also influence by Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose members issue a magazine in Tunis named Azeytouna. In the aftermath, the struggle between Bourguiba and Islamists became uncontrolled and in order to repress the opposition the Islamist leaderships were exiled, arrested and interrogated.
Ennahda Movement, also known as Renaissance Party or simply Ennahda, is a moderate Islamist political party in Tunisia. On 1 March 2011, after the secularist dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali collapsed in the wake of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, Tunisia's interim government granted the group permission to form a political party. Since then it has become the biggest and most well-organized party in Tunisia, so far outdistancing its more secular competitors. In the Tunisian Constituent Assembly election, 2011, the first honest election in the country's history with a turn out of 51.1% of all eligible voters, the party won 37.04% of the popular vote and 89 (41%) of the 217 assembly seats, far more than any other party.
Secularism in Egypt has had a very important role to play in both the history of Egypt and that of the Middle East. Egypt’s first experience of Secularism started with the British Occupation (1882–1952), the atmosphere which allowed propagation of western ideas. In this environment, pro-secularist intellectuals like Ya'qub Sarruf, Faris Nimr, Nicola Haddad who sought political asylum from Ottoman Rule were able to publish their work. This debate had then became a burning issue with the work of Egyptian Shaykh Ali abd al-Raziq (1888–1966), "The most momentous document in the crucial intellectual and religious debate of modern Islamic history"
By 1919 Egypt had its first political secular entity called the Hizb 'Almani (Secular Party) this name was later changed to the Wafd party. It combined secular policies with a nationalist agenda and had the majority support in the following years against both the rule of the king and the British influence. The Wafd party supported the allies during World War II and then proceeded to win the 1952 parliamentary elections, following these elections the prime minister was overthrown by the King leading to riots. These riots precipitated a military coup after which all political parties were banned including the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Secularist-Nationalist dictatorship: No religious or other political movements allowed to impact government.
- Modernization, Industrialization and Nationalization; Socialist economy
- Concentration on Arab values, identity and nationalism rather than Muslim values, identity and nationalism .
Secular legacy of Nasser's dictatorship influenced dictatorial periods of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak and secularists ruled Egypt until 2011 Egyptian revolution. Despite continuous secularist oppression, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has become one of the most influential movements in the Islamic world, particularly in the Arab world. For many years it was described as "semi-legal" and was the only opposition group in Egypt able to field candidates during elections. In the Egyptian parliamentary election, 2011–2012, the political parties identified as "Islamist" (the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Salafi Al-Nour Party and liberal Islamist Al-Wasat Party) won 75% of the total seats. Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist democrat of Muslim Brotherhood is first democratically elected president of Egypt. Nowadays, most Egyptian proponents of secularism emphasize the link between secularism and ‘national unity’ between Coptic Christians and Muslims.
The process of secularization in Syria began under the French mandate in the 1920s and went on continuously under different governments since the independence. Syria has been governed by the Arab nationalist Baath Party since 1963. The Baath regime combined Arab Socialism with secular ideology and an authoritarian political system. The constitution guarantees religious freedom for every recognized religious communities, including many Christian denominations. All schools are government-run and non-sectarian, although there is mandatory religious instruction, provided in Islam and/or Christianity. Political forms of Islam are not tolerated by the government. The Syrian legal system is primarily based on civil law, and was heavily influenced by the period of French rule. It is also drawn in part from Egyptian law of Abdel Nasser, quite from the Ottoman Millet system and very little from Sharia. Syria has separate secular and religious courts. Civil and criminal cases are heard in secular courts, while the Sharia courts handle personal, family, and religious matters in cases between Muslims or between Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslim communities have their own religious courts using their own religious law.
Muslim Brotherhood of Syria is Sunni Islamist force in Syria and very loosely affiliated to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It has also been called the "dominant group" or "dominant force" in the Arab Spring uprising in Syria. The group's stated political positions are moderate and in its most recent April 2012 manifesto it "pledges to respect individual rights", to promote pluralism and democracy.
Early in the history of the state of Pakistan (12 March 1949), a parliamentary resolution (the Objectives Resolution) was adopted, just a year after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in accordance with the vision of other founding fathers of Pakistan (Muhammad Iqbal, Liaquat Ali Khan). proclaiming:
- The State shall exercise its powers and authority through the elected representatives of the people.
- The principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed.
- Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings of Islam as set out in the Quran and Sunnah.
- Provision shall be made for the religious minorities to freely profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures.
This Objective Resolution differed from the Muhammad Ali Jinnah's 11th August Speech that he made in the Constitutive Assembly, but however, this resolution was passed by the rest of members in the assembly after Muhammad Ali Jinnah's death in 1948. This resolution later became key source of inspiration for writers of Constitution of Pakistan and is included in constitution as preamble. However, Pakistan is still an semi-secular state and Islamists and Islamic democratic parties in Pakistan are relatively less influential then democratic Islamists of other Muslim democracies.
Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy within the overall framework of Confessionalism, a form of consociationalism in which the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from certain religious communities.
A growing number of Lebanese, however, have organized against the confessionalist system, advocating for an installation of laïcité in the national government. The most recent expression of this secularist advocacy was the Laïque Pride march held in Beirut on April 26, 2010, as a response to Hizb ut-Tahrir's growing appeal in Beirut and its call to re-establish the Islamic caliphate.
Opposition and critique
Secularism and religion
Islamists believe that Islam fuses religion and politics, with normative political values determined by the divine texts. It is argued that this has historically been the case and the secularist/modernist efforts at secularizing politics are little more than jahiliyyah (ignorance), kafir (unbelief), irtidad (apostasy) and atheism. "Those who participated in secular politics were raising the flag of revolt against Allah and his messenger."
Saudi scholars denounce secularism as strictly prohibited in Islamic tradition. The Saudi Arabian Directorate of Ifta', Preaching and Guidance, has issued a directive decreeing that whoever believes that there is a guidance (huda) more perfect than that of the Prophet, or that someone else's rule is better than his is a kafir.
It lists a number of specific tenets which would be regarded as a serious departure from the precepts of Islam, punishable according to Islamic law. For example:
- The belief that human made laws and constitutions are superior to the Shari'a.
- The opinion that Islam is limited to one's relation with God, and has nothing to do with the daily affairs of life.
- To disapprove of the application of the hudud (legal punishments decreed by God) that they are incompatible in the modern age.
- And whoever allows what God has prohibited is a kafir.
In the words of Tariq al-Bishri, "secularism and Islam cannot agree except by means of talfiq [combining the doctrines of more than one school, i.e., falsification], or by each turning away from its true meaning."
There is a direct relationship between secularism and oppression in the Middle East. Spread of Islamism and Islamic revival made secular leaders more repressive and authoritarian in order to protect secularism. At the same time the more repression from the government made society opposed to secularism and this opposition made Islamists more popular in the Middle East.
Authoritarianism has left in many countries the mosque as the only place to voice political opposition. Scholars like Vali Nasr argue that the secular elites in the Muslim world were imposed by colonial powers to maintain hegemony.
Secularism is also associated with military regimes, such as those in Turkey and Algeria. Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) succeeded in December 1991 elections in Algeria and Welfare Party succeeded in 1995 elections in Turkey. Both of these parties are example of relatively democratic minded Islamic parties. However, both of these parties were eliminated through military coups in order to protect secularism. While Welfare Party government in Turkey was forced to resign from the office by Turkish military in February 1997 with a military intervention which is called as "post modern coup", FIS in Algeria lived an austere military coup which carried the country in to a civil war in 1992. Military forces in those countries could use their power in undemocratic ways in order to ‘protect secularism’.
In some countries, the fear of Islamist takeover via democratic processes has led to authoritarian measures against Islamist political parties. "The Syrian regime was able to capitalize on the fear of Islamist coming to power to justify the massive clampdown on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood." When American diplomats asked Hosni Mubarak to give more rights to the press and stop arresting the intellectuals, Mubarak rejected it and said, "If I do what you ask, the "fundamentalists" will take over the government in Egypt. Do you want that?" Or when President Bill Clinton asked Yasser Arafat to establish democracy in Palestine in 2001, Yasser Arafat also replied similarly. "He said that in a democratic system Islamist Hamas will surely take control of the government in Palestine". Most of the Middle Eastern secularist autocrats drew upon the risk of Islamism in order to justify their autocratic rule of government in the international arena.
- Application of sharia by country
- Democracy in the Middle East
- Secular Education
- Talal Asad
- Sadik Al-Azm
- Progressive British Muslims
- Muslim Wake Up!
- M. A. Muqtedar Khan
- Irshad Manji
- Khaleel Mohammed
- Jaringan Islam Liberal
- List of Muslim reformers
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