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On changing the understanding of political secularism

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Published: Updated:

The concept of the state in Islamic heritage has been one of the most contentious issues greatly preoccupying the minds of our thinkers.

However, this concern has not led to the development of an alternative model of state different from the modern nation state concept, such as the secularizing European nation-state systems.

Secularism isn’t anti-religion

Islamic radical movements have based their political ideology on the concept of the state, either by dreaming about the establishment of an Islamic state or restoring the caliphate and rule of imams. We cannot overlook Muslim concerns about the modern state which was established following the English Revolution and the French Revolution which came a century later.

Back then, the concept of secularizing the state emerged within a Christian religious context, but it later turned into an important governing principle that made political administration more capable of implementing the law and controlling differences among people.

The same circumstance applies to the concept of separation of powers which the modern state adopts today – it’s actually an old system that was inspired by the practice of Germanic tribes.

Each state simply develops its own secular system according to its own society as well as cultural and economic circumstances

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

In this context, we should refer to Mohammed Arkoun’s who in his book Liberating Islamic Awareness, which analyzed the French revolution since it marked the beginning of modernization with the conflict between the Church and the bourgeoisie or between the secularists and the fundamentalists.

He cites historian Emile Poulat and refers to his books Church against Bourgeoisie and Modernist times within Catholicism. Arkoun warned of replacing religion with secularism. He states: “Secularism does not at all mean the radical elimination of religion as some or most people think. On the contrary, religions only prosper under secularism.”

Therefore, the concept of secularism must not be viewed as something that is exclusive to European experiences or that is just a ‘Christian’ precedent. It has actually developed throughout history. The secular experience in the 21st century is different than what it was three centuries ago. Each state has its own secular system.

Take France, Britain and Germany as examples. Differences between their systems are clear. The same applies to Turkey, India and Japan. Each state simply develops its own secular system according to its own society as well as cultural and economic circumstances.

A different take on liberalism

It is thus important for Muslim thinkers to engage in a wider analysis regarding the stance on secularism. In his book The Nation, Group And Power: Studies In Arab And Muslim Political Thought, Radwan al Sayed discusses legitimacy within the political and social systems. He says: “Constitutive legitimacy existed within the nation and not within the political system. It has three pillars which are the unity of the group, of the society and of the authority.”

The stance of Muslim leaders, whether muftis and Islamic thinkers, on secularism and the concept of the state can be found in Charles Kurzman’s book Liberal Islam which is a collection of researches, statements and speeches. Over 700 pages long, Kurzman discusses in the book the problematic choice of its title as many of the Islamic figures he quotes are not liberals and are rather closer to extremism.

However, they have ideas that go beyond what’s known as Islamic tradition. Their revolutionist approach urges them to go beyond the bounds of doctrinal jurisprudence. This is where confusion happens in terms of describing them as enlightening or liberals.

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Those cited in the book are diverse as Ali Abdel Raziq from Egypt, Taleghani from Iran, Mohammed Naser from Indonesia and Sadek Jawad Sulaiman from Oman.

In addition to addressing the problem of the concept of the state, the book addresses democracy, women and non-Muslims’ rights and freedom of belief. The book cautiously tackles these matters but some parts clearly veer towards accountability.

The book is valuable because the researcher addresses the problems which obstruct Islamists from accepting the meaning of secularism although it’s been more than 50 years since Ali Abdel Raziq, a judge at Al-Azhar University, published his book Islam And The Foundations Of Political Power, in which he considered Islam a message and a religion and not a state.

There’s now an opportunity to understand the concept and to overcome the conspiracy theories pertaining to the West and its concepts, particularly regarding secularism and its applications. Yahya ibn Adi (364 hijri) was quoted as saying: “People follow bad morals and despicable lusts, this is why there is poor reliance on good laws and policies.”

This article is also available in Arabic.
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Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.