Secularism: Differences among academics, radicals and Orientalists

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

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No concept has been distorted by Arabs and Muslims as much as secularism. It all began with the poor translation of the term and which did not end with explaining what it means. The explanation “the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions” remained common even among academics and intellectuals. However, secularism is more than that and carries several interpretations, dimensions, and multiple implementations. Thus, we cannot confine ourselves to just one political model as a basis to judge the difference between true and false secularism.

The aim of the concept is to establish a more earthly atmosphere, to keep religion impartial and spare it from the conflicts between the masses or between different individuals in the one state. Secularism is a concept that can be refined, built, expressed and repeated like any other political concept. All the tense and quick interpretations of secularism were met with outrage by scholars and thinkers alike, as was the case when Abdul Rahman Badawi attacked Fuad Zakaria and said he was advocating secularization. Another example is Mohammed al-Jabri who criticized secularism, thus provoking Tarabishi who compared him to Yusuf Qaradawi who said in a television program: “I am amazed that secularists have not been subjected to the punishment for apostasy.” In any way, al-Jabri's understanding of secularism was one of his weakest political analyses he ever made.

Islam and secularism

In his book Heresies, specifically in the chapter entitled “The seeds of secularism in Islam,” George Tarabishi debated Islamic arguments as well as academic and orientalist ones. He mentioned Bernard Lewis who said that Christianity separated the church from the state but Islam did not and it’s thus not possible for Islamic societies to develop within a typical analysis. This strengthened the idea that secularism is impossible in Islamic countries. In this sense, Tarabishi comments: “There are orientalists and specialists in Islamic studies, who are sustained by local professionals to defend Islam, who confirm with outmost certainty that Islam did not know the principle of separation between religion and politics, as Christianity did in the differentiation between the spiritual and temporal powers between the popes and the tsars, or the popes and the emperors during the reigns of the sacred Roman, Byzantine and Germanic empires and then between the popes and the kings until modernity came along and the nationalist state was established.”

But is it possible for Tarabishi to present an example of a “secularization” tendency in Islamic history?

Tarabishi says: “When foreigners whether Turks, Daylamites and Seljuks began controlling the state around the third century AH onwards, the history of Islam went through the same stages as that of Christianity; starting from the distribution of power between the popes and emperors or between the popes and the kings. A Buyid Prince or a Seljuk Sultan emerged alongside the Abbasid caliph and seized the actual political power from him, leaving him with nothing but a mere symbolic religious authority. They controlled him (the caliph) to a great extent, much more than emperors controlled popes, by taking his throne, killing him or plucking out his eyes if necessary for entertainment purposes as was the case with the caliphs Al-Qahir, Al-Muttaqi and Al-Mustakfi.”

Therefore, this refutes Islamic thinkers’ and some clerics’ and orientalists’ argument pertaining to the secular model that’s characterized with certain separations between the religious institution, the politics and reality. There is thus no point of repeating that naïve saying that it’s impossible to imagine the secularization of a Muslim society, or an entire country with a Muslim majority.

Conceptual misunderstanding

In his book The Impossible State, Wael Hallaq makes the same argument against those who claim that it is impossible to have models that separate between authorities or between the functions of the state. He says: “The famous Lebanese Orientalist Émile Tyan argued, and his argument enjoyed authority for many decades, that one ‘consequence of the concept of delegation was the complete lack of separation between the judicial and executive powers.’ This view is ill informed and entirely erroneous.” According Hallaq, Tyan is wrong due to several factors such as “the mitigating executive-judicial collusion, namely the paradigmatic moral force of the Sharia, which, as a rule, compelled judges and rulers alike to respect judicial independence.” Hallaq adds: “Put differently, judicial independence was integral to culture.”

At the end, the goal is to put an end to confusion that has lasted for over a century, since interpretations, results and patterns of secularism and Muslim societies’ relations with it are still being discussed. This confusion is due to not discussing the history of the concept and the history of states. This is in addition to issues which justify this sensitivity from the concept including ideological ones and the false claims of some tyrannical states that they follow a secular regime, as in the case of the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria.

The bet now is on the true understanding of the concept in order to find a way to explain it and to reassure societies about it.

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, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

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