What secularism and why secularism?

Published: June 28, 2010

The recent upheavals in Muslim societies generally and Pakistani society particularly has dragged religion itself, which is considered to be the very ideological basis of Pakistan, on cross roads of time. To reconcile religious tenets with modern principles of Secularism and Liberalism seems to be the most critical demand of the hour.

In a society that is, on one side, afflicted with poverty, illiteracy, cultural and religious prejudices and on the other, crushed under the vicious exploitation by the prevailing system of feudalism, in close association with the political arena and thoroughly sanctioned by religious authorities – status quo seems impossible to wither away. However, the recent turbulent wave of religious extremism has increased the craving for the reconstruction of religious thought, in harmony with the modernistic principles.

Religion, whether one admits it or not, is the most efficient tool to delude the masses and utilize and direct them for attainment of petty gains and vested interests. This is true for even the educated class, reason being the unsound education system and the lack of knowledge about their religion. Ignorance always breeds blind following, and the case of religious following by the supposedly educated people is a classic case. The very reason for the mass following of the supposedly educated people is that they consider it a service to their religion, when in fact they are smiting an irreparable damage to religion and through it, to society. An ordinary person in our society, well equipped with modern technical education, would support the “Islam system” and “Khilafah” when as a matter of fact, he has no real idea about what an Islamic political and economic system is and what “Khilafah” actually means. He merely considers this the measure of his love and devotion to his faith to support any voice that ascents in favor of these theological arrangements of politics and economics, while utterly failing to analyze these precepts rationally.

Secularism is one of those principles that have been ravished unremittingly by religious authorities, so much so that the very name is akin to being the enemy of religion, hence the enemy of the state created in the name of religion. Thus, any advocate of secularism in our society is deemed as an advocate for a “godless state” or a state averse to religion and religious practices. Although, secularism taken in it’s accepted and prevailing form, is not in clash with religion per se; the only thing it demands is that religion be a personal matter and the affairs of the state be liberated from religious influences, thereof triggering a severe clash with the supporters of political Islam, an ideology though deeply rooted in history, has emerged and intensified as a backlash against the colonial occupation of the Muslim world by the West.

A theocracy intrinsically is bound to discriminate people on the basis of their religion. Even if it treats the minorities humanely, at some point it is bound to discriminate in favor of the people following the religion of the state. Throughout history, this has been proven without an exception and is still favored by the present proposed system of a theocratic state. Interestingly, the proponents of a theocratic state aim at running the affairs of such a state in more or less similar manner as was run in the Islamic society more than a thousand years ago. In other words, the followers of the religion that stresses upon the utilization of human knowledge and abilities of intellect more than any other faith refuse to come to terms with the eternities of milestones crossed by human understanding during the last thousand years, which they are actually instructed to do through a phenomenon within religion: Ijtihaad. The lack of any such process has degenerated the religious mindset into a rigid cognition, sticking its head in the sands of devoted yet blind following.

This is not what Islam teaches

Islam teaches a system of governance, based on justice, tolerance, respect and brotherhood. “Khilafah” was just a political system interpreted by the humans of old times according to their understanding and the cultural and political requirements of their age. We are not bound to follow the same pattern of political and social infrastructure. We need to follow the underlying principles of humanity, and upon it built a system in harmony with modern age. That’s the beauty of a faith that is destined for all times and places. Hence, the principles of secularism are in no way with clash with the tenets of religion. Secularism is not based on rigid principles, or religious prejudices, or social biases. It seeks the harmony of society through freedom of religion for all citizens, without regard to their creed. Isn’t that what religion teaches? It aims at treating people equally without any bias on the basis of their caste or color. Isn’t that what the prophet (PBUH) preached about?

Throughout history, Muslim states that can be termed pseudo-secular, according to modern standards, have existed, and whenever they have, they have proved to be far more prosperous as compared to the theocracies. A theocracy, on the other hand, that concentrated the power in the hands of a single “Khalifah”, has mostly tended to degenerate into worse forms of fascism. That’s quite natural. The immediate time after the prophet (PBUH) was an exception, but after that, whenever such a system has existed that sought to concentrate power in the hands of a single person, has proven to be disastrous.  It was akin to the ancient kingdoms of Rome and Persia. On the other hand, under a more tolerant and pluralistic state, human intellect has always flourished. The medieval Islamic societies that produced philosophers and scientists like Ibn-e-Sina, Ibn-e-Rushd, al Ghazali and al Farabi are striking instances of this historical fact. It was Muslims who preserved the Greek philosophy and then transferred it to the Europe of the Renaissance. It was Muslims who not only translated the Greek philosophy, but also openly debated and discussed it in their intellectual discourses. Ibn-e-Rushd, a highly revered philosopher and jurist in the West, is actually considered to be among the fathers of Secularism. Only this highly tolerant and liberal social and political attitude managed to bring about what we can boast off as the golden period of Islam history. No doubt, the power in those societies resided with the kings and Khilafas, but the system and society overall was more tolerant and tended to embrace diversification.

Associating Secularism with atheism or godlessness is narrowing it down to an extremely biased interpretation. Secularism does not seek to demolish religion. It does not aim at curbing religious freedom and practices. Religion has and can co-exist, and not only co-exist, but also actually flourish, in a secular society. It only directs towards an individual life and a collective society of peace and harmony. It only seeks equality based on the universal principle of humanity. A principle that needs to be learned and revived more than any other lesson today.


Umer Latif

A student of telecommunication engineering, a cinema fanatic and a blogger.

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

  • S.A.R.A

    Its Westernization which confuses us with Modernization most of the time. Secularism is not westernization, but rather a modern adjustment with the global village.Recommend

  • arsalan abro

    in our country if anyone says i am secular,immediately he is considered an atheist,infidel who is then deserving of death.Our ppl have no concept of seperation of religion & state at all & this includes our educated class also.Though they are academically educated,they are mentally averse to any alternative discourse.Recommend

  • Masood

    Even if consider for a moment that theocratic state was an ideal solution, which religion or sect would that state follow? Islam has so many sects which are diagonally opposed to each other in their interpretation of Islam, it is practically impossible to come up with an unbiased theocratic state. The freedom of religion guaranteed in the Holy Quran is for all and not just for a select group of self-proclaimed Muslims. Hence we are left with no other choice but to separate religion and state for the functioning of a civilized society that maintains social harmony and freedom for all to practice their faith and interpretation of their religion without the fear of state persecution.Recommend

  • Rahim

    i mean what is the pointe here, lets say that secularism is not taking us away from our religion than why are we asking for a secular state, i mean secularism is affiliated with islam not islam is affiliated with secularism concept, why are we affraid of accepting islamic principles? how can we compare a man made way of life or the way how state works with the GOD made rules, there must be some thing good for muslims in that rules what we need is to study our religion. its the most appropriate way that GOD has shown us to follow.Recommend

  • Muhammed Babar Uddin

    As far Islamic System is concern there is no confilict between all muslims sect. This issue is already seloved in 1955 jointly by all sect. An other important point I would like to mention Khalifh has to obey System i.e Khilifat System he is not only athority to make decissions, that why Hazrat Omer (R.A) face court when he was Khalifa. Third issue is related to muslims who don’t accept truth after knowing it. Recommend

  • Rabia Khawaja

    well if we want Pakistan to look like, feel like, and appear like secularist USA then yes we should support secularism for Pakistan. But do we really want Muslims to have same life in Pakistan but Muslims have in USA?… In USA, Many Muslims drink, eat Haram food, have physical relationships before marriage, marry Non-muslims and their coming … See Moregenerations end up being Christain or Athiest. I have friends whose fathers came from Pakistan, married Non-Muslims girls, and the kids chose to follow their mother’s religion and are Christians. this doesn’t mean all Muslims do it, but majority of them do forget Islam after coming to USA simply because everyday life, their jobs, their schools, their hospitals, their national celebrations, all religion-less per say and secularist. There is no state, no state law to remind them that they are Muslims and they are supposed to follow certain rules. Some people still follow the rules and are most amazing Muslims you will ever meet but unfortunately most of them don’t. So like main question is, are we willing to risk the existence of religion to achieve social and political freedom?Recommend

  • imran

    i cannt understand what secularism offer that islam doesnt…… what can we achive by being secular and not by calling our self muslims or being muslims….. what values does secularism strives for that islam dont support….and if u want to librate urself fm confusion answer these questions…and to those who think that by following secularism muslims will start drinking, eat Haram food, have physical relationships before marriage, marry Non-muslims these things r happening in pak and those ppl r not secular by any means…..but for those ppl who think that by being muslims we cannt achive anything r in delusion… islam is 1000 time better than secularism…. only if u r not hypocrite then…. WE SHOULD BE PROUD TO BE “GOOD MUSLIMS” WE DONT NEED TO CALL OURSELVES SECULAR….Recommend

  • Umer

    @Rabia Khawaja:

    You are making too many assumptions here. I know many people who are very religious in their personal lives but they support secularism. Secularism does not stop you from following your religion; all it does is to stop people from FORCING their views on others. And I think that’s a very good thing.


    I think people who support systems like “shariah” and “Khilafah” are far more confused compared to those who support secularism.

    No one said that you can’t “achieve anything” by being Muslims, or are you assuming that being secular means that you’re no longer a Muslim? You can be a PROUD MUSLIMS and at the SAME TIME you can be a secular person.Recommend

  • imran

    @umer…thats what i cannt understand….why not only proud muslims….why we hv to lable ourselves as secular….does not islam during khilafath provided the non-muslims,minorities with the same rites that secularism want to give….the one thing i can think of is being khalifa it self only that can not be a non-muslim…rest is the same….so we should call our self muslims not secular…..Recommend

  • Umer


    The system of “Khilafah” that has been developed by the religious scholars throughout centuries (actually it was developed in ancient times and was never changed) does NOT give equal rights to the non-Muslims. Do you know these important facts:

    1- Non-Muslims are not allowed to build their temples/places of worship according the to shariah law?

    2- Non-Muslims are not allowed to preach their religion according to the same shariah law?

    3- About the tax known as “jizya” for the non-Muslims known as dhimmis? (that might be justified on some grounds but still it’s a discrimination on the basis of religion)

    The secular system of governance was also developed by the Muslim scholars but as the majority chose to follow the prevailing norms blindly, it was ignored. If you discriminate people on the basis of religion (read the above points again), you should not protest when such things happen with the Muslims in non-Muslim states.Recommend

  • Anoop

    After 63 years and the Creation of Bangladesh, Pakistanis are still questioning Secularism!

    The 1st step for a Secular Constitution and throwing out the bigoted piece of document. Pakistan will do well to be inspired from the Indian Constitution. Hope this happens.Recommend

  • Usman

    @ imran:
    If you can dig out a few Ahadees youl find that anyone claiming to be a Muslim just because of fear or laws of the country is clearly a Munafiq.
    I will be a Muslim only because I want to not because i am forced to, I also want the freedom to do all the unholy things mentioned above because it is business between me and God, not you.

    Can you guarrantee that I wont go to Dozakh if I follow the “Islamic” rules that you define? How many schools of thought does Islam have? Which one is right and should be the basis for law in Pakistan? Should we go for Hanafi, Wahabi, Deobandi, Sunni, Shia, Brelvi,Shafi , Maliki ,Salafi, Ashari, Zahiri? the list goes on. If our renowned Scholars cant agree on one thing then how can common people. The result is clear when you look at Pakistan. Which style of Islam do you want in Pakistan?

    The answer my friend is secularism where everyone is free to practise according to his belief, it is not the states duty to tell him what is right or wrong because the state cant guarrantee your afterlife.

    @ Rabia Khawaja
    Why dont you go to Saudi Arabia, the followers of the “purest” Islamic Model, why are you destroying your EEMAN is a secular and atheist state?Recommend

  • Usman

    @ Anoop
    Can all the Indians please stop asking us to follow there model? India is many times better than us, but they are no brightly shining model of tolerance either.

    We would be better off adopting a proper secular model like Malaysias or Turkeys.Recommend

  • Anoop


    Maybe Malaysia but Pakistan can never adopt Turkey like secularism.

    Even adopting Malaysia like model is very tough. But, I hope it happens.

    My brain says Pakistan’s status quo regarding its structure will continue, lets hope I am wrong.Recommend