Islam and secularism: imagining new realities

Published: October 22, 2010

Another wave of terror attacks has Pakistan questioning the relationship between religion and the state.

Given the recent attacks on the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, questions about the nature of our society, politics and religiosity are being raised again. A rallying cry for secularism is being raised-and rightly so.

Secularism and Secularisation

Secularism is often confused with multiple concepts. The term ‘secularism’, in its semantic journey, has grown in association with ideas of modernity, humanism, rationalism and democracy. It has acquired diverse meanings in this process.

Let’s make some basic distinctions. Secularism, as a political paradigm about the relation between political and religious institutions, is a valid and healthy discussion, especially in religious societies like Pakistan. The basic premise of political secularism is that there should be a division between religious and political institutions.

Secularisation, on the other hand, refers to a social process. Secularisation is distinctly a concept from the social sciences:

the seminal social thinkers of the nineteenth century– Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx ,and Sigmund Freud – all believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society’ – (Inglehart et al.)

Secularisation is a social phenomenon, with the advent of modern science, industrialisation and the “disenchantment’’ the modern world brings, where people ‘’rationally lose’’ their faith and experience a loss of purpose and spirituality. Hence, societies of highly industrialized countries have a tendency towards being non-religious.

Needless to say, the traditional ‘’secularisation thesis’’ has failed. Religion is stronger than ever and is set to grow across the world. But the political arrangement of secularism as an idea is fairly strong.

Secularisms and Islams

A psychological shift needs to occur in Pakistan. We need to realize historically there have been multiple expressions and interpretations of Islam and multiple applications of secularism. Hence, our discussion topic should change from Secularism and Islam’ towards Secularisms and Islams’. In this way we can achieve a synergy and synthesis between a novel conception of Islam and an innovative framework of secularism.

Types of Secularism

In recent years, new studies in political theory have been made into the nature of secular states. The most comprehensive study by the academic Jonathan Fox, in his book, A World Survey of Religion and the State, and the two points Fox makes in the books are ground breaking.

These findings contradict the predictions of religion’s reduced public significance found in modernization and secularization theory. The findings also demonstrate that state religious monopolies are linked to reduced religious participation.

Fox’s work is one of the most thorough statistical and empirical analyses on secularism, and his work shatters the myth of ‘’Religious states protect religious observance,’’ put forward by the proponents of those who wish to see a State enforcing religion and giving it undue privileges by having a monopoly over interpretation.

Hard and Soft Secularism

Another distinction which is equally helpful is between soft and hard secularism.

Hard secularism, which is the laicite French model, not only separates political and religious institutions but seeks to marginalize religious voices and identities from the public sphere (civil society). We must note the difference between civil society and the State. In soft secularism, however, there is still a recognition that religious and political institutions have to be divided, but that religion should have a voice in the public sphere. People can use religion as the basis for their ethical, legal and social principles and beliefs in public discussions (on the proviso that they should be prepared for criticism and robust debate). This can also be seen as “assertive’’ and “passive’’ secularism. Assertive secularism is militant and authoritarian, as it tries to stifle religious voices and opinions in public debate, but passive secularism whilst protecting the equality of all citizens, and prevents justification on religious grounds allows religious citizens to participate fully and robustly in public debate.

Radical secularism (The concept proposed by Tariq Modood, the British sociologist) tries to shun religion actively from public life and tries to impose ‘’secular’’ identities. Indeed Modood makes the point that such a secularism uses “illiberal measures’’. Authoritarianism is authoritarianism, whether secular or religious.

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.

What model works for Pakistan?

So what type of secularism is suitable for Pakistani society and what’s the best way to justify it? It must be ‘’soft secularism’’, the secularism that religious liberals propose on moral and ethical grounds. Indeed the arguments of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the UK are attractive. The Archbishop argued that the best arrangement to have in a diverse society is “procedural secularism’’, which promises that different religious groups can have open dialogue, debate and discussion over critical questions of values and public policy in the public sphere. Procedural secularism means that religion should be public, but there should be no state religion. To be truly religious then means to live in a secular state. Public Islam is desirable, but State Islam is inevitably poisonous.

But we need to move beyond “secularisms’’, and towards deeper discussions about liberty, human rights, pluralism and other social issues, like education and gender relations. We need a broader discussion, because secularism is not a political ideology but just one question among many which we need to seriously consider.

A project of religious liberalism which endorses rationalism, pluralism and diversity, tied in with soft/passive/procedural secularism, seems to be best course for Pakistan, as it accommodates religious sensibility and basic political rights. In this way, we can stop the surrender of religious interpretation to reactionary forces and present an alternative narrative.


Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • parvez

    Secularism has been branded as a dirty, evil word by the mullah brigade and those behind it in order to propagate their agenda. I have heard the Friday sermon coming from a mosque at New Clifton. Where the Imam was spewing hell and damnation on this one word.
    Trying to present an alternative narrative will require a cataclysmic event, scholarly debate will not do the trick. Recommend

  • Humanity

    Good write up. Keep it up!

    By attending sermons of imams who spew hell and damnations one validates the messages and helps in keeping such imams in business .I would rather not offer my prayers behind an Imam who breeds ignorance and spreads intolerance.

    While waiting for a cataclysmic to events take place, people should consider marginalizing the hate mongers by shunning their gatherings. There must be a few imams who speak on meaningful topics that are worth one’s while. I would be at peace with myself by offering my prayer behind an imam who believes in Islam being a message of peace and benevolence and who guides mankind towards that path.Recommend

  • faraz

    I agree with Pervez. The problem is more of political nature; the clerygy fears that it will lose its dominant role in the society as the sole arbiter in socio-religious disputes. Modern scholars of religion aren’t portrayed favourably by traditional scholors because traditionals want to maintain their monopoly over interpretation of religion; thats why most of traditional clerics ask people not to read Quran in urdu. In Ottoman empire, when the Sultan Selim III tried to dismantle the Janissaries, the clergy fiercely resisted the change and brought religious arguments against modernisation of the army. Sheikh-ul-Islam issued fatwas against reforms. The sultan was later killed in a Janissary revolt fully backed by the clergy. Only a series of major military disasters and national humiliations enabled the next Sultan to finally crush the Janissaries.

    In case of Pakistan, no mullah dared to oppose Jinnah when he appointed an Ahmadi as foreign minister and a hindu as Law Minister. It was because of the legitimacy that Jinnah had acquired as father of the nation. Religion/secularism debate wont work in a society where the politics is defined by religion, where state claims legitimacy using religion and army considers itself the guardian of citadel of islam. Here known murderes are heading the most influential madrassas of the country, dont we know which famous clerics are involved in terrorism and sectarianism? Debates like the classic Mutazali-Ashari debates cant be held in such political environment. Seriously, even medieval clerics were more tolerant of each others views, nobody issued death fatws against each other. Murder and exile resulted only when the Caliph adopted the role of implementing a certain interpretation of religion. Recommend

  • Deen

    Secularism and its idealogical ways, have been stereotyped in Pakistan as essentially Anti-Islamic or Anti-Religon, what needs to be done is first hand create wider public awareness of the consequence to everyday life is state level Islamisation takes place. A lot of people have also been brainwashed by the mullah’s into believing that the rule and law of God (Sharia) is the only way for man kind not just in Pakistan, and the Muslim world, but for the whole world. People have been brainwashed into believing that this is that living under the Shariah is the only way of life acceptable to the Almighty and that state level secularism, even if it is soft secularism as so accurately describe it, is shirk, haram and will lead to eventual decline of the human race and condemn us all to Hell.I am all in favour of state level secularism, this soft secularism that you speak off and the application of a procedural secularism as your example of the Archbishop of Canterbury was.
    I just hope you dont get a lot of heat and attacks from those arrogant, brainwashed, youth extremists from Pakistani Intellectuals (Google it), who write frequent articles about the Evils of Secularism, why the State level Shariah is the solution to man kind. Hell these people even organise rallies from Lahore to London, demanding the re establishment of the Khilafat and implementation of the Islamic law.Recommend

  • bold

    Groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir needs to be watched closely.. their numbers are growing quite fast and most of the people who are involved in this ridiculous organizations are young, brainwashed kidsRecommend

  • Zain

    Soft secularism won’t work for Pakistan, in my opinion. Religion and politics don’t go hand in hand especially in a state which has a preset “western” based legal system over an Islamic one.

    Religion in my opinion should be state controlled as it is in some North African states and some middle eastern states. This way the state has an eye on who is spreading religious intolerance. Unfortunately anyone is allowed to open a madrassah and preach hate against other sects and the government as was the issue with Lal Masjid, but that is a different issue.

    Religious parties should not be allowed to enter the political frame, parties like JUI, MMA or Sunni Tehrik shouldn’t be brought into the political limelight (also the case in Middle Eastern and North African countries). I agree with the author that, religion should more or less be personal life and shouldn’t be taught even in schools. I know thats harsh to say, but there are people from different sects who take offence to particular teachings regardless of how secular they are. Madrassas as I stated before should be state operated and anyone caught of hate mongering should be duly punished.

    We are still living in the Zia-ul-Haq times, where religion is still playing a parallel role to the constitutional and judicial system. I think we should start by not calling ourselves an Islamic Republic because we are he furthest away from it. It should just be Republic of Pakistan.

    Rather than writing here and reaching a limited audience, we should organise debates and invite religious scholars from all sects for a series of lectures that slowly clear the differences. Recommend

  • http://na prasad

    Great suggestions mentioned here including not attending mosques where Imams preach hatred and organising public debates on issues of relgion and state.

    However the biggest road block for any reform in any religion is the belief that the text is revealed.

    The moment Manu and his Manusmriti were identified for what they were – works of human beings – reform was possible after many painful sacrifices in Hinduism.

    I suppose the start would come with regarding the Bukhari Hadeeths compiled 200 years after the prophet passed away as far from an infallible source. And anything that contradicts human rights should be boldly discarded. One step forward is to have a civil code that is based on universal human rights – so a citizen of pakistan has the choice between shariah and the civil courts. Recommend

  • Ahsan

    I want to quote Syed Ameer Ali here, he says, “to suppose that the greatest Reformer the world has ever produced, the greatest upholder of the sovereignty of reason, ever contemplated that those injuctions which were called forth by the passing necessities of a semi-civilised people should become immutable, is doing an injustice to the Prophet of Islam,”
    We need to realize that we were told to be dynamic. We are doing grave injustice to our teachers by insisting to live in the past.

    One more point,
    Time for our so-called ‘Secular’ and ‘Liberal’ parties to come out of their supposed progressive ‘ideas’ and propagate true secular and liberal values.
    Sorry to say our constitution too is sadly a highly contradictory piece. One article guarantees every citizen’s right to practice and yes PROPAGATE his/her faith but the question is, “IS EVERYBODY HERE ALLOWED TO PRACTICE AND PROPAGATE HIS/HER FAITH?”

    I want to see if our ‘SECULAR’ parties have the nerve to challenge the religiously discriminatory sections of our constitution. Recommend

  • Ahsanullah Mehsud

    Our tragedy is, we think what Mullah says in Islam and never bother to pick up the Quran and read it. Its translation is available in different languages easy to read and understand.

    A portion of humans has desired Separation of religion from politics since centuries but has miserably failed to achieve this goal wholly. Even American president Bush refereed to God while justifying the invasion Iraq. As God has ordained him to invade Iraq and American forces having Bible in their hands makes every thing quite obvious.Recommend

  • Ahsanullah Mehsud

    To attempt to separate the two in our society is mere invitation of more resistance from the religious section. Our focus should be on how to evolve a strategy to keep the different sects together in peace.Recommend

  • Masroor

    @Ahmad Ali
    If an argument holds water, it can very easily convince a rational mind.
    If there is a flaw, it would be sooner or later discovered by the rational mind, and an improvement would be made.

    But the question is (and I would love to read your typically structured answer), how to win the “emotional mind”, which is unfortunately the most dominant player in the public discourse of this country. My apology, but yours is a hopeless mission. Before the reason has an effect on the people, first people must be converted to rationality.

    But I am not arguing in favour of leaving an open field. Questions should be loudly asked, skepticism must be forced to creep in, and authority must be dented.Recommend

  • Angelos

    Islamic system is the best. Anyone with knowledge of history can see how things were during the times of Prophet PBUH and Four Caliphs. We need to model our laws according to Quran and Hadith. Thinking Islam teaches intolerance or injustice etc is completely absurd. Recommend

  • parvez

    @Humanity: You are absolutely right. It’s my fault I should have explained that I was in the car passing the mosque and hearing this tirade I stopped for a minute to confirm what I was hearing and then moved on.
    I have narrated this incident as I believe that a lot of the misconceptions that prevail originate from this platform and that it is premeditated and agenda based.Recommend

  • anisqureshi

    Can you explain what is the islamic system. Islam only teaches about justice and adl to everyone in other words secularism( dont get me wrong here it means seperation of state from religion only)There is no specific mention of any system.Recommend