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Secularism Debate: A fallacious binary – by Saqlain Imam

The word secularism seems to be the most contentious one in the Pakistani political culture. Anything that is anti-religion or non-religious is dubbed secular; it is understood as a Western concept with no direct connection with Islam; for example, some people might find some Christian or Judaic values or practices secular. The word is used in its smallest possible definition to the widest and wildest interpretations. But in all kinds of debates, one thing is common — anti-secular groups use religion to justify non-democratic disposition of the state.

Although when we normally talk about secularism, it means governance that should stand separately from religion or religious beliefs, in the context of the Pakistani state, and indeed Pakistani society, the concept of secularism is widely, and perhaps deliberately, misconstrued.

It must be clearly understood right from the very beginning that religion, or in this case Islam, is not the only source to justify non-democratic governance. It depends on the peculiar circumstances of a nation and which forces are trying to use religion or secularism to support its non-democratic concepts of governance. Among Muslim states for instance, Turkey’s army uses secularism to support its non-democratic role, so did Pakistan’s Army in the 1960s. Currently, the Algerian government and Palestinian Authority are using secularism to strengthen their non-democratic role in their own systems of governance.

In Pakistan’s case, the dominant argument for the non-democratic actors to influence the country’s politics and governance is religion. This is not a suitable place to go into the details of how religion’s narration replaced the secular narration in Pakistani politics, or whether there was ever a secular narration at all in the history of the people of South Asia. But the fact is that currently seculars are supporting democratic forces, while the religious forces are bent upon undermining the democratic disposition of the state, constitution and society.

Take the role of Pakistan Army; it is now known as a ‘Jihadi’ institution, its official motto is “Jihad Fi Sabil Lillah” (Jihad for the cause of Allah). Pakistan’s Supreme Court’s recent verdict on the NRO amply and loudly speaks that it wants to re-write the constitution where democracy should be subordinate to the injunctions of Quran and Sunnah. Few people have realised that it’s a step to advance General Zia-ul-Haq’s doctrine in a much bolder manner. General Zia made the “amended” Objective Resolution an operational part of the constitution through undemocratic means.

How did that happen to the extent that today we are constrained to believe that everything here in this land of pure is Islamic is not the subject of this article. Right now, the issue is not how the idea of Pakistan was conceived or what Quaid-e-Azam had actually thought about what Pakistan was meant to be. Currently, the issue is what we have been led to believe and by what means. This is not an occasion to analyse how the history has been constructed. Some great writers and historians have already done some tremendously impressive work, which, unfortunately, is rarely read by our discussants and young writers.

This is the time to suggest that the binary construction of secularism versus Islam itself is a flawed one. Relying on a very common concept of secularism — according to which the government should exist separately from religion or religious beliefs — Kosmin, Barry A writes in “Contemporary Secularity and Secularism”: “In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. In another sense, it refers to the view that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact unbiased by religious influence.”

If we look at the practice of the first state of the Muslims, we would starkly notice that this sort of binary construction on secularism and Islam did not exist, though both, apparently opposite, concepts were the basis of the State of Medina founded by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). The state was founded by Muhammad, not as a man but as a prophet; his dominant authority as an arbiter was established because he was a prophet, but at the same time non-Muslims were given equal rights. If we take the state that existed during the days of the prophet then the Charter of Medina should be the guiding document for the Muslims. This document, however, is very rarely quoted by our religious scholars as it could possibly be termed the first secular document of Muslims’ history.

The issue of secularism entered our parlance when we encountered modern Western discourses where church’s political power was constrained to the church only and it was made to accept the limited power of the monarch; not to rule the state with his divine rights. Instead of this, the West took up a clear concept of reasoning to govern the issues of the state. Hence, the emergence of secularism in Western politics was a victory of reasoning, and that changed the whole power structure across the world. However, the oriental societies remained anchored with their traditional wisdom; the direct consequence of this anti-secularism was their backward in all sciences.

Now the choice for the Pakistani state and diaspora is not whether Islam is our identity or raison d’être. It’s a decision about whether Pakistan needs to progress or not. The choice is between facing the world or a dead-end. One can keep Muslim identity while choosing a secular system of governance, because this would ensure the society to open ways of reasoning and progress in all fields including sciences, technology, politics, economics and the modern day challenges of futuristic technology.

With a dictatorship, even if it’s Islamic, we cannot progress, because with dictatorship the power of reasoning is doomed. In Pakistan’s context, dictatorship and reasoning cannot go together.

Some Muslims believe that by accepting the dominance of reasoning over their plethora of knowledge of Islam, they would be accepting the defeat of the Quran! It’s one of the fundamental fallacies which cropped up as a result of the fallacious binary construction (secularism vs. religion). The Quran itself asks on more than one occasion to think, apply mind and reason out. So the Quran doesn’t cap a Muslim’s mind; it’s the dictatorial undercurrents in Muslim societies which project reason and secularism as antithetical to Islam or religion. Turkey’s change towards secularism was not a revolt against Islam; it was rather against the anti-reasoning of the Ottoman Empire in the previous decades which made Ataturk and his fellows to remove the Islamic identity that had become a synonym to anti-reasoning.

Now is the time for Pakistan to make a choice, not between secularism and Islam, but between progress which comes with reasoning and secularism, and religion which is anchored in anti-reasoning concepts and dictatorial concepts of governance. Pakistanis will not discard Islam or their Muslim identity when they choose secularism; instead they would discard dictatorial undercurrents once they are secular. Their religion, Islam, will never be in danger. The decision for secularism will be made by Muslim Pakistanis, so there would be a new kind of secularism, not the one which is practiced in the West.

A hostile approach to secularism has reduced Islam to rituals and hard core system of beliefs in which reasoning and free thinking are considered anathemas. This has also placed Islam as an equivalent of several irrational systems of beliefs where human being, who is considered “Ashrafal Makhluqat” (best of the creations) in Islam, is sacrificed at the altar of the church of Islam, an institution that does not exist in the Islam of Muhammad (PBUH). However, if a friendly approach is made towards secularism, Islam can discover its potentials hidden in its practices. For instance, Hajj, currently a big ritual where millions of Muslims get together every year ends up with no concrete results for humanity!

One wonders if Muslims could hold seminars, debates and speeches on the real issues confronting them on the occasion of Hajj at Mecca, this would open up the power of reasoning and will also help Muslims across the world to contribute positively in the affairs of the world. This would not only be a fusion of secularism and religion, a logical evolution, but will also help abridge the gaps between different faiths, communities and sects at the same time. But since that fusion of secularism and Islam can possibly deprive the non-democratic forces in the Muslim societies of the power to suppress free thinking and reasoning, therefore, they would never allow it.

So if anyone wants to fight for the progress of Muslim societies, he or she will have no choice but to fight against dictators and discard the binary concept of the secularism versus religion in order to ensure the victory of reasoning.

The writer is a senior journalist.

About the author

Ali Arqam


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  • Well written Saqlain sahib. You are absolutely correct. I would add that one crucial step in achieving this forward progress is to get past the notion that some “scholar” or the other (usually in the pay of some ruler or the other) has the final word on Islam and if that word is challenged then the next step is for free-lance hoodlums (also usually in the pay of this or that power) to kill the challenger. People need to get comfortable with the existence of varying interpretations and versions of all ideologies and religions.

  • Islamic “secularism”? Reframing the Issue
    November 16th, 2011 | Add a Comment
    By Yasser Latif Hamdani

    PTH Exclusive

    The definition of modernity expressed in political science terms is a system of state and society whereby social justice is aspired to, freedom of belief, ideology and conscience is fully protected and where rule of law reigns supreme. As the Islamic World increasingly finds itself confronted with modernity in these terms, there are two responses that have been recorded as two opposing currents – first response is to accept modernity without any discounting for Islamic principles or any attempt to reconcile the Islamic identity of the Muslims world -wide and the second response is to reject it so completely that the room for negotiation between this response and modernity ceases to exist. Both these responses ignore one basic fundamental contention that most Muslims have i.e. Islamic principles are universal in so much as that they can be adapted to the time and age through the internal process of Ijtehad. Therefore the standoff between Islam and modernity that seems to preoccupy the intelligentsia of the Islamic world need not be a zero-sum game. Indeed there is enough room to incorporate the fundamental perimeters of modernity within an Islamicate culture without compromising either.

    Unfortunately no real attempt has been made to formulate Islamic jurisprudence as a code of public conduct where jurists not clerics cull universal principles from Quran and Sunnah, classify them and expound them as a civil law or a criminal code. The efforts of the imams in the 8th and 9th century have over time ossified and have been cast in stone as the final word. Where attempts have been made at codification, these have been limited by an orthodox approach which has been too dogmatic to evolve a practical system. The consequence has more often than not been regressive laws such as the blasphemy laws and hudood laws in Pakistan. In Iran, the other ideological Islamic Republic, reactionary straitjacket interpretations of Sharia has crept into the penal code primarily due to the influence of Qom based officially sanctioned Shia clergy. One notable exception in this regard is the Pakistan’s Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 which has played an important part in codifying principles to family affairs to There has not been however any instance anywhere in the Islamic world to evolve a modern universal code applicable equally to every citizen of a state without discrimination. The main reason for this of course is the inability of scholars and jurists studying Islam to distinguish between Islamic Law and Islamic jurisprudence as a system governing secular conduct between human beings, all equal before law, and Islam as a faith and pillar of spiritual strength for the believer. The former requires that Islamicate as a whole be viewed as a social and civilisational construct which is both evolving and dynamic.

    For this to happen of course scholars and practitioners of Islamic jurisprudence and law would have to make clear distinction between their field as being limited to the secular/temporal sphere alone and not applicable to the spiritual plane which should be recognized as inviolable personal space of an individual. Therefore having created the distinction between legal principles applicable to society and religious principles applicable to the individual, Islamic Jurisprudence may be applied to criminal law, civil law and the law of contract. Once the spiritual is taken out of the picture, regulation of private conduct is taken off the table. It may be remembered that Islam endorses this separation of spiritual from the secular. For example the punishment for adultery i.e. stoning to death requires evidence of four pious and righteous individuals who have seen the deed by their own eyes. Needless to say no pious and righteous individual will breach privacy of a home which Islam recognizes as sacred. In other words, while allowing this pre-Islamic punishment, Islam was raising the bar of the evidence to make conviction impossible. If we were to then apply analogical reasoning, it would be fair to say that the punishment of rajm or stoning to death does form an essential part of the Islamic law which seeks not to regulate personal conduct but public morality.

    Having thus separated the spiritual from the secular, it may become possible for one to conceive the possibility for a non-Muslim to be an equal citizen of an Islamic state in all possible ways. Perhaps an oxymoron, this is the logical extension of the idea that Islam is a civilisational construct and not a religion in the ordinary sense of the word. If it is a construct that purports to govern human conduct and not just Muslim conduct, it must treat human conduct in the non-spiritual and temporal sense equally and without distinction of religious beliefs of the individuals. Once these positions are conceded, it becomes easy to conceive of another oxymoron i.e. Islamic Secularism or the extraction of those universally applicable humane principles from Islamic tradition for guidance in conduct between human beings at large. In other words, perhaps less shocking to our established perimeters of mental activity, this would mean a secular system that draws its inspiration from Islamic traditions, principles and civlisational experience of the last 1400 odd years.

    So what are those features of human conduct that such a state might govern? Economics might be one. The idea of Islamic finance and banking – as already mentioned- has been well developed by jurists and scholars both in the west and in the Islamic world itself. The State Bank of Pakistan has often applied key Islamic principles of finance and banking through its circulars, albeit selectively and under influence of orthodoxy, emphasizing instead on form instead of substance, often limited to merely effecting changes to nomenclature. An interest-bearing account thus becomes a “profit and loss account” and interest is termed “mark-up”. There is of course another word in the English language that might apply more precisely to this situation: hypocrisy. Instead of developing a fair and just economic system in modern conditions, as was the spirit behind Islamic regulation of economy, in Pakistan at least we have sought to put the old wine in new bottle. The alternative to this might have been allowing conventional banking with all its “offensive” nomenclature to continue side by side a more honest Islamic banking system and letting them compete in an open market. In the process both streams would have tried to modify their practices to ensure a competitive banking industry which caters to the needs of the common consumer.

    Other spheres of public life that such a state might impact would perhaps include public morality. Presumably such a state will not allow public acts of sexuality as this would be hit directly by the Islamic criminal code. Beyond this however regulation of the individual conduct should fall out of the purview of state authority.

    Finally we must address the question as to why is this exercise necessary? For one thing Islam is such a substantial part of the Muslim landscape that there seems to be no escape from the question of a harmonious construction of faith with modernity and secularism. Islam, it may be remembered, continues to define people and inform their world view and it is unlikely that this hold is going to recede any time soon. All the same it is important to reconcile modernity – as aforesaid-with Islam which is for most people the central feature of their identity. As a deep structure of identity the Islamic identity defines even those who are not particularly religious. At other times in the Islamic History, non-Muslims associated themselves with the idea of Islam as a civilisational construct instead of religious one. To give an example, the two most reviled of the Muslim kings in South Asian history, Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb Alamgir, both had as their leading generals Hindus who fought often against their co-religionists for their Muslim king respectively, who in both cases thought that they were forwarding the mission of Islam. Similarly the Islamic civilization has produced several non-Muslim writers, philosophers and men of science. Some of the most celebrated of the Muslim scientists from the golden age of Islam were openly atheist and still considered part and parcel of the Islamic whole. In the strictly temporal sense an Islamic state thus is distinguishable from a normal democratic state in so much as that it would be bound by a basic structure given to it by universal principles extracted as aforesaid from the Islamic tradition, history, culture and civilization. Beyond this, the state would have to be a perfectly democratic state that would elect representatives from within its people without distinction or bar.

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