That dilemma is a fundamental hermeneutic disconnect about the meaning and connotation of the term secularism. In the eyes of the zealous faithful it is a stealthy way of infiltrating the citadel of faith, to spread atheism, hedonism and immorality
Absolutely yes; in the face of secularism, mundane morality, consumerism, crime, and hedonism, the three monotheistic faiths have great influence in relieving our moral dilemma.[i]
Can any Muslim community afford to hesitate in participating in the establishment of a secular democratic system if it is unable to establish an Islamic democratic one? The answer is no. It is the religious duty of Muslims, as individuals and as communities, to contribute to the efforts to establish such a system [ii]
The above illustrated quotes reflect the polarization in the Muslim discourses around the world about the topic of secularism. We have scholars and intellectuals decrying secularism as the root of atheism, moral decadence and spiritual crises, on the other hand we have thinkers and intellectuals rooting for secularism. Why is there so much polarization, so much divergence?
The root this polarization is that there is a vacuum in the Muslims discourses about the nature of secularism. Certain religious leaders equivocate secularism with atheism, however the history and development of secularism is much more complex than that when viewed against its formative European backdrop. The great Arab American intellectual Edward Said, famously said that, “One of the major failures of most Arab and Western intellectuals today is that they have accepted without debate or rigorous scrutiny terms like secularism and democracy, as if everyone knew what these words mean.’’
There is a fundamental problem with the discourse about secularism across Muslim societies especially when we view this in the Pakistani context. That dilemma is a fundamental hermeneutic disconnect about the meaning and connotation of the term secularism. In the eyes of the zealous faithful it is a stealthy way of infiltrating the citadel of faith, to spread atheism, hedonism and immorality. For the educated elite and fairly westernized section of Pakistani society, who have little or no connection with the religious intellectual discourse within their country and across the Muslim World, secularism is a by word for universal justice, establishing human rights and good governance. Herein lies the problem, and essentially it is a communicative and hermeneutic problem, what on earth does secularism mean? The answer to that question is there is no ‘’normative secularism’’, just like there is no one ‘’normative’’ reading and interpretation of Islam.
Hence the conflict, Muslims who believe Islam in itself is a political system and that Islam constitutes a political ideology will forever always see secularism as a competing ideology and will see it as a threat. Muslims who see Islam as primarily a spiritual, mystical experience will see secularism as a way of safeguarding this mystic purity of religion from the scruples of power politics which is seen to embody greed and the worst of human nature. The third option can seek reconciliation in seeing Islam as inspiring a particular way of life and ethical framework which can be consistent with public life in a liberal democracy. This is the reformist approach of constructing an Islamic ethos of liberalism. The liberal structures of the State remain intact with foundations that resonate with religious values.
Different flowers of secularism
Furthermore, there are many secularisms, the French anti-clerical and anti-religion secularism with its focus on mitigating the presence of religious symbols and indeed ‘’religious reason’’ in the public sphere. Religious convictions should have no place in the administration of political affairs. In other countries such as Britain there is an indifference towards religion, a benign secularism is what is present in British politics. The common factor in both cases Britain and France is that secularism has precipitated into the marginalization of religion as a cultural, metaphysical and philosophical powerhouse. Religion does not define the political or indeed social conscience of the French and British publics, public observance of faith has reached historical lows.
However, in America secularism is fairly objective rather than subjective.
Meaning there is a clear and definitive divide institutionally between religious and political offices and bodies. The legislative process is not subject to religious dictates and customs which are mediated through formal religious institutions but nevertheless America is a firmly religious society and conviction plays a part in the political process in issues such as abortion. As well as the fact church attendance is still going strong in America hence religion and religious morality still dominates sections of American society.
Of course this an incredibly simplistic picture, and the multiple narratives of the varieties of European and American secularisms, and the subsequent relationships between these different secularisms and the participating varieties of religiosity which act in these diverse contexts is a complex one which requires more analysis. The point however is that secularism is a diverse concept, evoking different emotions, fears and hopes in different people. It is not monolithic and there is no normative standard, but core themes can be identified.
In the context of Muslim societies there are many secularisms and many displays of religiosity (Islams).
We should take note of the Islamic Iranian reformist philosopher AbdolKarim Soroush[iii], who makes a difference between ‘’political secularism’’ and ‘’philosophical secularism’’, or perhaps that of the Iranian sociologist Mahmoud Sadri[iv]who makes a distinction between ‘’objective secularism’’ an institutional divide between religion and politics, and ‘’subjective secularism’’ which is the social and psychological decimation of religion from the public conscience. Political secularism is indeed something one should welcome, it prevents discrimination, it prevents injustice and it fosters equality and a healthy pluralism which is consistent with the traditional Islamic ideals of many societies such as Pakistan which has historically been part of a pluralistic Indo-Islamic civilization.
Subjective secularism is something which the religious should rightly protest about since it is a phenomenon which deals with the public sphere, the conscience of society, philosophy, morality and metaphysics. Hence in this respect there should be a clear distinction between the objective and subjective.
Furthermore, it is my contention that the clash between ‘’secularists’’ and ‘’Islamists’’ is over emphasized, in a recent Dawn editorial, the author makes clear there is an overlapping consensus between these two political narratives.[v] In that article too, the author defines the apparent conflict as a “confusion over the terms of the debate’’
The complexity of the secular-sacred debate
Once there is some clarity shed on this debate we see that in actual there are multiple issues and concerns involved here and not just a solitary issue over which binary positions can be taken. There are first the political, institutional and constitutional debates about the role of religion. Then there is the concern about the social and public expression of religion, and the influence religion has over the psychology and conscience of the nation.
There are metaphysical and philosophical concerns which are more abstract but generate just as much controversy. There are also discussions about moral philosophy and ethics, whether religion hinders or fosters ethical and moral behaviour, and what effect the absence of religion from the public sphere will have on morality. Whether ethics are to be solely determined by religious authorities and clerics, or are there are other means to have access to great ethical truths? Is religion a predicate for moral behaviour for instance? These are the sorts of questions which can get mixed up and confused with the political disputes.
The fact of the matter is that all these issues are distinct and discrete discourses in their own right, we cannot conflate ethical and moral issues with that of political theory though I admit there is some link, we have to distinguish between the fields of political theory and moral philosophy as areas of human inquiry and debate.
Besides political theory and moral philosophy the other issue of importance is that of law. By what criteria should the legislative process take place? This issue is perhaps one of the most important, as it touches upon the issue of Islamic Law (Sharia). What is lacking in the Pakistani religious discourses is the topic of Sharia and how it should operate in the new context of a modern nation state. For instance the scope of ijtihad, who can perform it, what is the criteria for it and cannot it be used to mediate conflicts between competing secular and religious rationalities? Indeed one can argue there has been a great appetite for citing ijtihad as evidence for the flexibility and pragmatism of Islamic Law but there is little discussion on the nature of it. Here religious hermeneutics and jurisprudence are the domains of contention and argument.
However, what should be undertaken on all sides of the debate is a willingness to engage and not to demonize the other, a person who calls for a greater role for religion is by no means a theocrat and a person who calls for the public sphere to be free from an assertive and populist religiosity is by no means an atheist or anti-Islam. The differing shades of grey have to be appreciated in these complex debates. What’s more dialogue can reveal that there are more similarities between the differing narratives on political theory and moral philosophy than there are differences, and this building of a reasoned consensus is the best way to mitigate any tension and promote cohesion.
What is needed is greater intellectual clarity, to define the respective parameters for these debates so the participants in these discourses agree about the concepts and complex issues at stake, rather than generating controversy due to a hermeneutic disconnect.
Modern Muslim models of secularism
Abdullahi An Naim’s book ‘’Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia’’, is a modern classic in the current discussion. An Naim painstakingly uses his vast knowledge of the social sciences, human rights philosophy and political theory to come up with a simple formulation which is strong, short but powerful:
In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By as secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine ,one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Sharia—the religious law of Islam—simply because compliance with Sharia cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.
Indeed, An Naim’s work though immense suffers from severe problems characteristic of the secular proponents in the Muslim World. These are aptly summarized:
What is interesting about these arguments is that they ground the case for the secular state not in the Quran, not in claims about the presence of the imago Dei in the person or in some other source of the person’s intrinsic dignity, not in natural law, some closely similar type of practical reason, or universal moral precepts, but rather in what might be called “second order” observations about the phenomenology of belief, the character of government, the lessons of history, and the like. To be sure, good reasons for the secular state lie therein. But are these arguments sufficient to ground an Islamic case for constitutionalism, human rights, and the secular state? I doubt it.
An Naim’s work is eminently logical and rational – but does it appeal to a religious constituency? No. We need clear cut moral arguments for secularism from within the Islamic tradition.
An Naim’s work was rare in being very nuanced and thought- out, but it was not original. Other Muslim thinkers have made a case for the secular state, but these thinkers utilise materials from within the Islamic tradition, whether it be constructing a new framework for Quranic interpretation or using philosophical and legal concepts (Maqasid Al Sharia, the philosophy of Ibn Rushd are good examples).
We think of Abdelwahab El-Affendi’s “Who Needs an Islamic State’’ .The Azharite scholar and perhaps the father of Muslim secularism in its intellectual dimensions, the 20th century Al Azhar sheikh Ali Abdel Raziq. Raziq’s work is perhaps the most potent, in his book, “Islam & the Foundations of Political Power’’. Raziq deconstructs all the Quranic and hadith arguments put forward by proponents of the Islamic State by revisiting the work of classical scholars, Quranic interpretation and Islamic history.
Both Raziq and El Affendi describe the historical experience of the Prophet PBUH in Medina as one borne out of historical necessity, rather than an actual example for political theory. They cite the historical conditions of the Prophet PBUH society and how the model that is proposed by advocates of the Islamic State is woefully out of touch. The reason for the Prophet PBUH’s success was the perfection of his ethics and character as a wise leader ; no other human being can hope to match this, hence for mere human beings to attempt to rule as the Prophet PBUH did is illogical.
The Prophet PBUH did not advocate the model of the ‘’nation-state’’, the Prophet PBUH simply argued for values, the values of justice, kindness and mercy when leadership is thrust upon you. We need the separation of powers, secularism and constitutionalism to keep mere fallible human beings in check. Moreover, Raziq and Affendi use the Quran and the Prophet PBUH example as the foundations for their democratic secular theory. Such potent arguments are powerful enough to challenge the monopoly conservatives have over religious interpretation. Religious reformists in Iran are also a good example, such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar and Mojtahed Shabestari.
Religious authority and the nation state
In this post, I am concerned with just religious authority. What is to be the nature of religious authority in a modern nation state? Can religious authority be democratic? We need a discussion on the relationship between religious authority and the nation state.
The nation state marks a paradigm shift for Muslim societies who have traditionally been ruled by sultanates, self proclaimed caliphs and monarchs. The concept of the nation state itself arguably borne out of the experiences of the French and American Revolutions, which gave rise to the phenomenon of constitutionalism, codification of a positivist law and separation of powers, has presented unique challenges to Muslim societies. Indeed the modern era has perhaps plunged Muslim societies into a crisis of legal authority.
The ﬁrst Shari’a-based modern code of law which sets the pattern for all future codiﬁcations of the Shari’a, was not in the medieval age, but in the age of modernity initiated by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteen books of the Mecelle (subsumed under the Tanzimat Reforms) during the decade just preceding the drafting of the Ottoman Constitution, 1869–1876, which can be seen as an attempt to create an ‘’Islamic Constitutionalism’’ in response to the perceived encroaching juridical-political hegemony of the Europeans.
Religious authority can assume a number of functions from establishing orthodox and orthopraxy normative to establishing a canon of authorative texts and interpretations. But defining and constructing religious authority in a nation state presents unique challenges.
Challenges of traditional sharia
This question is even more pertinent given the recent changes made to the Council of Islamic Ideology and the appointment of a new head who some say is unrepresentative of the religiosity of the general public and regressive. Senator Shirani the new appointed head belongs to the Jamat-e-Islami party, a party which is one of the worst performing at elections and achieves a small percentage of the vote. Hence the question which is rightly asked by many is how can such an unrepresentative political agent be given such an influence on legislative authority? Is it simply because this is ‘’religious legislation’’, and hence democratic principles are suspended when constructing religious authority in a legislative context? Why is there this ‘’religious exceptionalism’’?
Should not the bodies and organizations which have influence on the legislation of a nation state be held to account, and scrutiny, even if they be religious. After all religion is divine and infallible but the musings and reasoning of no particular cleric progressive or regressive is infallible, and human knowledge whether religious or secular should not be treated as Divine.
But was religious authority always so coercive and authoritarian? The picture is different, historically speaking; religious authority in classical Islam was pluralistic and tolerant of divergent view points:
“By codification and state promulgation, the movements that aim to reintroduce Islamic law through the political power of the state end up changing radically the nature of Islamic law, which was traditionally epistemically [the structure and theory of knowledge] grounded and contained a variety of equally valid and orthodox viewpoints.’’
The history of religious authority in the Islamic traditions is too expansive a topic to tackle here, though we can safely say religious authority in Muslim societies never had full control of political power and usually religious authority was subordinated or independent of the sultanate etc. Historian Mubarak Ali in a recent interview said:
“Almost all the rulers in Muslim history applied the model of secularism during their rule. During the Abbasid period, ulema were not allowed to interfere in the political affairs of state and the caliph was not allowed to meddle in religious affairs.’’
Which Islam represents the state?
The concern today is how to reconcile the authoritarian and coercive structures of religious authority present in Pakistan with the country’s stated allegiance to democratic principles. With the rise of the new and unprecedented political construct of the Islamic State (or Islamic Republic) in the post colonial era, questions about the role of Sharia in this new political reality and how and who is to determine it have become more important. We are faced with a flood of questions:
- Who speaks for Islam?
- Who has the right to interpret the foundational religious texts?
- Can there be a ‘’State Islam’’, a state sponsored religiosity which all have to abide by?
- Furthermore, even more tricky questions arise as to the nature of ‘’true’’ ijtihad, who performs ijtihad, who defines it, what is its scope?
Does Islamic law stop becoming the will of God and the political will of rulers when the State enforces it? Professor An Naim seems to think so, in his book ‘’Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Sharia (pg 261):
“Any Sharia principle that is enforced by the state only represents the view of the ruling elite and becomes the political will of the state rather than the religious law of Muslims’’
All these questions arise when we try and merge republicanism, with a legal discourse which spans over many centuries and many schools of thought with immense complexity and diversity. In effect a clash of mindsets arises, a democratic psychology when it comes to determining temporal authority, but a more subdued, devotion based psychology when it comes to religious authority. It marks a dissonance and the conflict and challenges modernity brings to the dynamics of the Islamic traditions.
The innate pluralism, flexibility and diversity of Sharia it seems is only quashed and repressed in the new political reality of the nation state. Historically speaking:
“Throughout the development of Islamic legal theory, there has been widespread divergence in the interpretations of the Muslim jurists qualified to expound God’s sharia. This captures the tension between unity and diversity in Islamic legal doctrine which goes to the very core of Muslim jurisprudence."
In an effort to codify and centralise the dispensation of Sharia the pluralism, complexities and subtleties of the legal tradition are being cast aside. One wonders whether merging the political structures of modernity in the manifestation of the nation state with the dynamics of such a vast and tradition based legal discourse as Sharia is a wise decision. Who does the State turn to in the absence of a divinely ordained clergy and ‘’church’’ as in the case with Roman Catholicism to determine these religiously based legislative norms?
Iqbal too was keenly aware of adapting notions of religious authority in a legislative context with the new political paradigm, in a lecture in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam:
‘’The growth of republican spirit and the gradual formation of legislative assemblies in Muslim lands constitute a great step in advance. The transfer of the power of Ijtihad from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only possible form Ijma can take in modern times, will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs.’’
Iqbal was keenly aware of the challenges of the nation state argued for a modernization of the Islamic legal tradition:
“The only effective remedy for the possibilities of erroneous interpretations is to reform the present system of legal education in [Islamic] countries, to extend its sphere, and to combine it with an intelligent study of modern jurisprudence.’’
Indeed in the editor’s introduction in a particular edition of the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, the following remarks are revealing:
“In a press interview, a little before the second Round Table Conference, the Allama expressed his intention of writing a book on ‘the system of fiqh in the light of modern knowledge’, another ‘work of reconstruction’ on the legal aspect of Islam, much more important than its purely theological aspect. To this second work of reconstruction, his present work of reconstruction on the philosophical aspect of Islam, he added with his usual modesty, was ‘necessary as a prelude’. The much cherished book: ‘The Reconstruction of Legal Thought in Islam’ was, however, not written: but the bare fact that the Allama wanted to write it and the great importance that he attached to the writing of it, signifies, perhaps, his will to posterity.’’
Reconstruction of the Sharia – Challenging traditional powers
The rupture of the juridical tradition of ‘’classical Islam’’ in seeing the determination of Sharia as a matter for a class of individual scholars, compared to the need of legal centralisation in the context of a modern nation state is a critical clash . This conflict and rupture will continue to take place until serious questions about the nature, legitimacy and scope of religious authority is once again robustly discussed.
In a way the birth of Pakistan was due to the synthesis of liberal republicanism and Islamic values but it was because of this modernist and progressive conception of Islam that Pakistan rose and Pakistan failed. It is because Jinnah’s vision was indeed part of the wider modernist Muslim project, and for this reason Pakistan was born but it was because Jinnah was a modernist and not a traditionalist that his vision failed to take root. All the religious institutions in Pakistan after Independence have stayed relatively the same and have become immune to Jinnah’s proclamation for liberal ijtihad.
At the end of the day as always the question is about power and it is about authority. The fact is the real centres of power in Pakistan do not reside in the vestiges of the democratic state but in the loose conglomeration of alliances and linkages between the clergy, tribes, clans, ethnic groupings and increasingly informal enterprises of criminality in the urban cities. To challenge the fundamentalism in Pakistan today is for each Pakistani to be critical of his or her own traditional structures of power. That means to question these traditional centres of power.
This post is an attempt to highlight the complexity of this sensitive debate and suggest overall that the modernization and democratization of Muslim societies so badly needed will come if democratic and liberal activists and reformists reach out to like minded individuals working within the Islamic tradition. As Jinnah's experience has shown, having a reformist framework is not enough, it has to be accompanied by reform of the traditional institutions and from building bridges with like minded religious scholars. Without institutionalising the reformist project it will never mount a serious challenge to the powerful institutionalism and legal force of the opposing theocratic project.
[i] Reading Islam, Ask About Islam, Should World Religions Unite Against Immorality?,
AboutIslamE/AskAboutIslamE&cid=1173695384292 (last visited June 20, 2009).
[ii] Rachid Ghannouchi, Participation in Non-Islamic Government, in LIBERAL ISLAM: A
SOURCEBOOK 89, 92 (Charles Kurzman ed., 1998)
[iii] (2000). The Sense and Essence of Secularism. In A. Soroush, Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam (pp. 54-68). New York: Oxford University Press.
[iv] Sadri, M. (Winter 2001). Sacred Defense of Secularism. International Journalof Politics,Culture and Society,Vol.15,No.2 , 257-270. (http://www.drsoroush.com/PDF/E-CMO-200110_Sacral_Defense_of_Secularism.pdf)
[v] Secularism vs Islamism By Iqbal Akhund
Monday, 22 Feb, 2010 http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/editorial/16-secularism-vs-islamism-hs-04