Secularism: Protecting the sacred from the profane

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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The concept of secularism gives little scope for researchers to fully comprehend its successes and failures even after the several secular experiences in resolving the issue of state identity. Hence, it remains a problematic concept, which is subject to criticism.

To date, many books are published by philosophers and thinkers on the topic and its understanding, relations, renewal of its application and approaches.

The most notable of such contributions is Talal Asad’s book Formations of the Secular, which raised major questions surrounding different relations between state, religion, nationalism and society. This explains why Asad’s opinions have become a basis for speculation and commentary.

In this context, two examples can be cited. The first one is the book The Impossible State by Wael Hallaq, a professor from Columbia University. Hallaq, an expert in Islamic theology and its evolution who published several books on the matter, was inspired by the pertinent insights of Talal Asad.

The other example is the book Why Politics Can't Be Freed From Religion by Ivan Strenski, a professor at the University of California. Strenski addresses what he called myths surrounding the relation between religion and politics and opposes the linking of religion to war and debates “atheists’ rants.”

Strenski discusses Talel Asad and others by investigating six assumptions. He criticizes Asad saying: “As such, in its essence, religion is, sixth and finally, separate from powers and politics, since they are typically public, embodied, and external. Talal Asad goes so far as to claim that the separation of religion from power is a modern Western norm. Religion is a matter of something called ‘spirits’; it is the very essence of the ‘spiritual dimension of life, after all.

Muslims need to be reassured that secularism as a concept is subject to expansion, development and interpretation

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

As a result, religion is not naturally something that trucks with power.” In the beginning, Ivan begins by mentioning Iran’s events in 2009. He sought to unveil all the problems and differences between religions and how they received secularism. He then proceeds into attacking all public releases on religion from Luther to Hitchens.

Consequently, the renewed view of the concept of secularism has taken comfortable formulas towards religious models in contrast with the early hot blooded attitudes and linkages of church to violence, murder and injustice.

The advancement of centuries has contributed into the separation of the relationship of power to religion as well as the relations of believers to power. This has led religious institutions to be the subject of profound reverence but without repeating the experience of interference with power since it can turn into a tyrannical entity that surpasses “religious spiritualism.”

Religion and violence

Within this context, I’ve also read a book by William T. Cavanaugh, professor of theology at DePaul University, entitled The Myth of Religious Violence – Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. The book discusses the relationship between violence with religion as well as between power and society and criticizes the “secularist ideology” and its general provisions on religion.

For instance, in chapter 2, he says: “The term civil religion was introduced by Rousseau in the eighteenth century. In the last chapter of The Social Contract, Rousseau proposes an explicit civil religion as a cure for the divisive influence of Christianity, which had divided people’s loyalties between church and state. Rousseau does not wish to erase Christianity entirely, but to reduce it to ‘a religion of man’ that had to do with the purely inward worship of Alight God and the eternal obligations of morality, and nothing more.”

Cavanaugh’s mission is to dispel the myth of religious violence, especially if it is intended to distinguish between religions, cultures and civilizations, to thus embarrass traditional statements about the faults of the followers of one religion or another.

He adds: “Abandoning the myth of religious violence would also help us to see that Western-style secularism is a contingent and local set of social arrangements and not the universal solution to the universal problem of religion. The range of options available to any given society, including our own, is not exhausted by a choice between theocracy on the one hand and militant secularism on the other.”

Islam no obstacle to secularism

A lot of examples speak of secularism in different colors from monotheistic interpretations and encourage Muslims to remove anxiety over this concept since they often assimilate it to its early explanation often linked to civil wars and their aftermath.

Moreover, the delusion surrounding the presence of a conflict between secularism and religion is but the result of a lack of Islamic criticism to the nature of the concept of state in Islam on the one hand and the expansion of the role of Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) to go as far as to involve what lies beyond its expertise on the other hand.

There is no room to mention other insights of thinkers such as Moran or Olivier Roy who in his important work Islam and Secularism rejects all claims contending that the Islamic doctrine can be an obstacle to secularism.

Similarly, writer and researcher Vali Nasr has devoted a whole chapter about the obstacles confronting secularism in his book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World.

Expanding the meaning of secular

Therefore, it is extremely important to go beyond a singular understanding of secularism in order to reassure Muslims that we are dealing with a concept that is subject to expansion, development and interpretation. In fact, it adapts itself to any society that has decisively defined the identity of its state to be secular, and that respects religion and protects it from the profanity of politics.

The previous criticism comes from intellectuals who believe in the role of secularism in purifying reality, and who also contribute to further understanding the concept beyond the traditional explanations as it’s a rich and deep concept that will always produce endless debates and critiques.

For instance, Mohamed Arkoun’s critique of “extremist secularism” does not entail his rejection of the necessary vision of secularizing the state but aims to enrich the concept in the first place and enlighten its future by affirming that all formulas used to govern reality, including secularism must be constantly criticized.

However, this does not mean that there exists an alternative no matter how different are the appellations between civic, civilizational and developmental. All roads lead to a necessary neutralization between power and religion in order to protect the sacred from the filth of the profane.

This article is also available in Arabic.


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,, 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.
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