Original Articles

Secularism: A concept most misunderstood! – by Dur-e-Aden

It is almost a sin to mention the word secularism in Pakistan. Suddenly you are bombarded with labels of being pro-western, anti-Islam, ashamed of your values, threat to identity of the nation, as a result of which you are not a true Pakistani or a good Muslim. People associate secularism with the images of clubbing, partying, drinking, promiscuity, prostitution, broken family structure, mental diseases and all other ills that are associated with western culture. The idea being that when these societies moved away from religion, they became materialistic and lost their sense of morality, as a result of which they are suffering from these social disasters today.

It is very true that religion is an important source of morality. Some of our basic senses of right and wrong come from religious teachings whether it’s respect for human life, caring for the poor, modesty and respect in personal relationships or refraining from materialistic pursuits of the world; these are very important and valuable concepts that help to build up the character of a person.  The misguided idea however, is that to build such a character among people, religion has to be a part of the state structure and imposed on people forcefully. Muslims who demand a religious state forget to notice that it is actually Muslims who prove this idea wrong that secularism is a threat to your religious values. For example, there is a large number of Muslims who live in secular western societies where Islam is not part of the state, yet they don’t do any of the things that are common place in those countries and which we think are not “our values.” Even though Islam is not a part of western governmental structure, this doesn’t mean that it is a threat to the beliefs of Muslims living in those countries.

This is a very important point that people need to understand. Secularism merely means separation of church/mosque and the state. In other words, your state and its institutions don’t adhere to a religion. It certainly doesn’t mean that you yourself have to leave your religion. In fact, in a secular society, you will have more freedom to practice your particular interpretation of a religion which is very much limited in a state where anyone ideological religion interpretation is part of the state apparatus.

Let’s talk about Pakistan. Here we have Brelvies, Deobandis, Imamis, Ismaelis, Zikris, mystic Sufis, Wahabis and Ahmadis. Now if we want to make Pakistan an “Islamic” country, this means that Islam has to be a part of the state and all its functions, from education, to laws, to foreign policy, to treatment of minorities etc. Now which version are we going to adopt? (Especially when even within one version, there are disagreements. Not all Hanafis agree on everything, neither all Shafi’s). Moreover, what gives one particular version the right to impose itself on others? (I am not even talking about non-Muslim minorities here, just talking about divisions within Muslims). May be if we agreed on what “Islam” is, the argument to make Pakistan an “Islamic” country would be stronger, but considering the diversity that we have within Islam, incorporation of religion with the state is only going to increase resentment among the groups who would be left out, and sectarian violence by those who would consider their version right and others’ wrong.  We have already experimented with this bloody business during Zia years when one ideological interpretation of religion became part of the state and now that cancer has engulfed our society.

Secondly, the moral degradation of western societies is not a result of secularism. It’s a result of abandonment of religion or other sources of moral ethics in their personal sphere as well, something that we don’t have to worry about. It is because in our society, along with all the modernity, religion is still and will continue to be a very important part of our everyday lives. That is why I think that secularism would be perfect for our society as even though we may differ on complex matters regarding interpretations, there are a lot of commonalities that we take pride in by calling them “our values.” Moreover, if you look at Pakistan today, it’s not an “Islamic” country in the full sense of the word (whatever that means in the first place?). Despite the inclusion of certain religious clauses, our laws are largely secular and so is our society in their everyday lives. We have people wearing niqabs and people wearing jeans, we have women running for Parliament and stay at home mothers, we have people with beards and those who are clean-shaven, we have people listening and performing music and those who tend to refrain from such activities.  Now I am pretty sure none of these classes of society would want their way of life to be banned, and that can only happen in a secular society.  Otherwise, if you have one religious interpretation guiding the lives of people who come from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, result will be chaotic. People don’t really like much interference in their personal lives and state should be concerned with matters that affect the society as a whole.

Now getting back to “our values” which are always so threatened, I just want to give one example, let’s take drinking. Majority of the Muslims don’t like the idea of legalizing alcohol as it is clearly prohibited by Islam. However, if you want to make a law regarding its prohibition in the country, you can and should make other logical/valid arguments as to why it is harmful, because it causes addiction, drunk driving accidents, can be a cause of increase in domestic violence/abusive families etc. Moreover, other countries ban drugs too depending on how much harm they will cause to a society so there is no clear cut line as to what drugs should and shouldn’t be legalised. As far as minorities are concerned, if they are not discriminated on other more important basic rights, they probably won’t mind as they also understand that sometimes majority considerations are important in order to avoid conflicts. For example, when Muslims live in other countries that do sell alcohol, they might not fully agree with it they have to accept the decision of what the majority wants.

My point here is certainly not to say that minority voices are not important or that they should be ignored at the expense of majority. I just want to point out a political reality. Even the most liberal/modern/secular societies haven’t been able to completely remove the influence of religion on their political decisions. It is a thing that people take seriously and you cannot completely erase its influence in the public sphere especially when adherents of one particular faith have such a vast majority (97% Muslims in case of Pakistan). The point that I want to emphasize is that when majority won’t see their values being compromised, they won’t see minorities as a threat and this will stop strong anti-minority feelings to be developed.  As a result, more important issues of minorities can be brought to forefront and resolved. Moreover, generally I have observed that minorities in Pakistan don’t have a huge list of demands and I think that they do understand that being in a Muslim majority country, certain practices of Muslims will affect their public life. Still, all minorities want is to be treated equally with regards to other citizens and not discriminated in their day to day affairs on the basis of their identity.

This thing can be seen in the West as well that when certain Muslim practices are suddenly seen as a threat to modern, liberal values, it only ends up increasing discrimination against them; whereas Muslims normally just want to have the freedom to go about their everyday lives without being hunted on the basis of their identity. There are certain policies in the west that clearly run against Islamic principles/values, but even if those Muslims disagree with them, changing them at the state level is not a part of their agenda. Politics is a business of compromises as you can never make everyone happy. Using this analogy, I think that minorities in Pakistan would prefer that we give them complete freedom in their private sphere and treat them as equal citizens with regards to fundamental rights that everybody should be entitled to including the right to vote and run for office and have a voice in making of policies. As a result they would also accept and realize that sometimes national policies might be more influenced by majority demands than that of minorities, even when minority voices are listened to and accounted for.

A secular, democratic state is what our founders thought Pakistan would grow up to be when this country was born. When our grandparents migrated from across the border leaving everything behind, they came to be a part of the country where in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Hindus, not in a religious sense, because that’s everyone’s private matter, but in the political sense, as citizens of the state. A country where everything is being blown into pieces and whose countrymen are always so ready to be at each other’s throat is not the land of pure that was formed after years of struggles. Just as people were united for the formation of this country despite many different ethnic and religious identities, that unity is now needed more than ever to sustain it which belongs to us, all of us, irrespective of our religion, caste or creed. That was the Pakistan that Jinnah gifted us, and that is the Pakistan that we have to get back. It’s ours and God willing, it will remain ours.

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  • And those who ask for implementation of Islamic system, Islamic law or Khilafa are branded as terrorists, bigots, fundamentalists, taliban and God knows what!

  • And how many times you people will use that particular statement of Jinnah even knowing that Jinnah has also asked for implementation of laws of Quran in Pakistan. Why you forget that part? Why you forget his interview to VOA or his address to lawyers after indpendence?

  • This was the point that I was trying to make, if you want Khilafat, which one? which type of Khalifa do you want? Which school of Islamic law will he follow? What about Shias and their concepts of Imam? What if they don’t want to live by the rules of Sunni Khalifa? It is due to the divisions within Islam that any one form of Islam is only going to cause more violence than good. And I said before Islam is not going to disappear in a secular state, Jinnah wanted Islamic principles of equality, social justice, and peace to prevail in Pakistan which definitly come from Quran and Sunnah for Muslims. Moreover, even if we assume for a moment that Jinnah wanted an “Islamic” state the way you describe it, considering he was an Ismaeli Shia, shouldn’t we have that interpretation at state level then? After all, he is the one who made this country, How come Sunnis want their laws to be followed by everyone? A secular democratic Pakistan was what Jinnah wanted because he didn’t thought these concepts goes against Islamic values that Muslims hold so dear.

  • @Aden

    All this can be sorted with dialogue. And what law should be implemented is through consensus of majority, isnt that democracy is about? And yeah, khalifa is also selected through consensus of people (and khilafa will be implemented but not now, it will take time, democracy is the solution for now). Jinnah is not the God! People will decide which Islamic law to follow. Jinnah is an extremely important figure in our history, but you cannot decide the system that this country would have followed only on basis of one quote of Jinnah. And how can Jinnah be the only one who made this country? This is a gross generalization!

    Yes, Jinnah was a shiite, but did when he was asked which school of thought he belongs to, what was his reply? I AM A MUSLIM! Jinnah talked about implementing laws of Quran etc.

    Scholars can sit down and discuss what laws to implement. If you think that scholars of today are this and that, then open the Quran yourself, study the Islamic history and you can reach the conclusion yourself.

    Secularism do go against Islamic values. You can go through times of first four Caliphs, did they implemented Secularism? Definitely no! And dont tell me that at that time there were no disputes or no non-Muslim existed in Islamic dominion.

  • Secularism is the only system of progress for any nation,the secret of Europe’s progress was the were wise enough to separate religion and politics.Jinnah never claimed to make Pakistan a hard line Islamic state like saudi arabia,his concept of two nation theory was based on ethnic not religious theory of india,Jinnah was a moderate who drank,smoked cigar and ate pork,there is nothing wrong with religion but the problem as we see in Pakistan the misuse of religion.I can see anti-secular on this forum jumping to their guns but unfortunately they are living in denial,I would like to ask them how much they honestly practice religion?Don’t be hypocrite,look into mirror and ask your self that you really follow ISLAM yourself???

  • ”Secularism is not against religion; it is the message of humanity.”
    A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary.Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” –Albert Einstein !!!

  • I completely agree with the article. All I gotta say (to those who want to impose shariah /khilafat) is that it’s funny how they (muslims) need to be told what Islam is. If you didn’t know your religion how do you even call yourself a follower? And if you do know your religion then why do you demand that the state makes the laws to force you to follow your religion? Each follower can decide better for him/herself, especially if that follower is an elected member who was chosen by the muslim majority to represent them. Now if the Khilafat argument had any support in Pakistan, then the religious parties (whose manifesto is khilafat) would win a lot more seats than they normally do in Pakistani elections.

  • @moderate

    read islamic history and tell me if anything was ever sorted out, 1400 years of islamic jurisprudence and still there is no consensus from a number of small to big issues. If there was one way to practice Islam, we would have figured it out by now. and I am all for learning Quran and reaching conclusion myself but I don’t want to impose my conclusions on others, just like I don’t want others to impose their conclusions on mine. This can only happen in a secular state. and I agree with Jinnah’s response, just be a Muslim in your everyday life, no need to bring religious divisions in matters of state. God should be the judge of people’s beliefs and that’s why we believe in a day of judgment. Again to reitrate, when he talked about Islam, he meant bigger principles of Islam like social justice and equality which should be the main concerns of all progressive societies. Not to mention we don’t have people like righteous caliphs so even if their time was great,it is a thing of the past. Moroever, before caliphs when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established a polity in Medina, that was a secular society. You can read constitution/charter of Medina.

  • @Aden

    I am talking about the laws mentioned in Quran to be implemented in the society. They include crimes, social justice, equality etc. You are saying that Prophet implemented secularism but Caliphs didnt? Obviously it is not true. Caliphs followed the teaching of Prophet. The Medina pact was between Muslims and non-Muslims of Arab, especially jews. And we all know what happened when Jews tried to kill Prophet after signing this pact.

    As for Islamic jurisprudence, I am not talking about matters of how much the size of your beard should be etc etc. I am talking about principles on which there is consensus in different schools of thoughts. Yes, there are many matters. Again if you think not, then lets all study Quran and Hadith and try to sort them out through dialogue.

    Religion is part of state in a sense that there are number of laws that are mentioned in Quran and Haidth that relates to affairs of state like punishment for crimes, what a ruler should do, equality, justice, etc. Islam is a way of life; not bunch of rituals, and it dictates every aspect of it.

    And please dont talk about imposing conclusion thing, if that is the way then I dont want others to impose secularism either.

    Again, the only solution is asking people what they want. One statement of Jinnah that is related to secularism (even though it can be said that he didnt meant secularism just like you say ‘when he talked about Islam, he meant bigger principles of Islam like social justice and equality’) dosnt make us all Seculars. If people want to live their lives by according to that of their Prophet and his followers so be it.


    Thanks to Allah, my life is pretty much according to Islam. And for those who are stuck in ‘khilafat’, get over it. Like I said before, democracy is the solution for now, even Caliphs is selected democratically. But the difference between your democracy and my democracy is that the laws told in Quran and Hadith dont need approval from selected people.

  • @moderate
    the society that Prophet Muhammad founded in Medina was different than the one founded by the caliphs. First of all, to implement Islamic law, it is very important that your society is also Islamic, Prophet Muhammad first reformed the social and political structure of the society which was living in a time of jahiliya and the laws came down gradually by God as people accepted Islam and were reforming themselves spiritually. Moreover, Islamic law started getting codified and interpreted properly the death of Prophet, and it was applied differently under each Caliph and then under each empire. For example, Ummayads, Abbasids, Ottomans and then Mughals, all interpreted laws depending on the situation where they were. even during the time of first four caliphs, Hazrat Abubakar (ra) had different problems to face, Hazrat Umar (ra) increased the punishment for drinking I think but also removed cutting of hand during famine. Islamic law is not a static concept and it has always been interpreted by scholars depending on time and place where they were.
    You mention laws in Quran, I give you one example that we studied in class. Surah 8 verse 37 talks about rules of prisoners of wars, we just studied hanafi jurisprudence and discovered that 8th century hanafis had a different interpretation, 16 century hanafis had a different interpretation (specifically due to the effects of mihna carried out by Abbasid empire) and than modern day hanafis have a different interpretation. This is what I am talking about. Scholars always talk about that there is consensus as you are talking about, there is no consensus in any thing. it’s a myth that can be broken if you study any school of law overtime. There have never been consensus in one school, how can there be among all 4. Not to mention your Khalifa system doesn’t seem to include Shias whose concept of imam is totally different, not only that, there interpretation of history of first 4 caliphs is also different.

  • @moderate

    Then secularism is not imposition on anyone, it is a barrier against imposition of any one kind of religious law on those who don’t agree with it or even those who don’t have a religion. In a secular society, state laws would be make by people in the parliament (where religious people are more than welcome to share their point of views) and can also be changed when situations change.
    Moreover, in Pakistan today where people don’t even pray behing people of a different sect, I don’t really see the possibility of a dialogue where people would agree on laws regarding state.
    Third, Jinnah’s secularism has been appreciated by even his opponents from time and time again.it’s not just one statement. He didn’t even support the khilafat movement even when Gandhi did specifically due to the fact that he knew bringing religion into politics divides people, not unite them.For the very same reason he was called kafir-e-azam by very same people who today want to make Pakistan an Islamic republic. He always talked about Muslim identitiy as a political one, not a religious one as that differs along sects. You can read Stanly Wolpert and Ian bryant wells biographies on him as well as sole spokesman by Ayesha Jalal. Then he specifically said that we won’t become a state ruled by divinly priests. Here is a good article to read
    Again since he was an Ismaeli Shia, I don’t see why Sunnis should take over matters of state since he was the one who gave us this country, its only fair that if we want to make Islam and Sharia part of state, we follow his school of law as I am assuming even if he wanted that, it would be Ismaeli one since I am not aware that he was particularly impressed by any specific sunni school of law.
    As far secularism in Islam is concerned, you can read up on Al-farabi who is a very famous Muslim philosopher of the 9-10 century. two very good pieces are “The just ruler” and “Political Regimes” where he lays out principles of how a virtuos or just society can work and it doesn’t necessarily have to be Islamic. He is given the title of “Al-mualim as saani” i-e second teacher after Aristotle.
    Not to mention the famous quote of Hazrat Ali that a society based on kufr can survive, but a society based on injustice can’t. It’s time that we stop letting people abuse religion in the names of politics and work towards things that affect the society as a whole as opposed to make religious interpretation part of state because that just ends in increasing sectarianism. 1400 years of Muslim history shows that. 3 out of first 4 caliphs were killed by their fellow Muslims.

  • In my first comment i meant to say that Islamic law started getting interpreted and codified after* the death of the Prophet.

  • @Aden

    Excellent points raised. Just like law is interpreted by judges, so Islamic law can be interpreted too. You say Islamic law is not static, agree but core concepts remain valid. Hazrat Umar stopped the punishment of cutting hand in famine because it is the first thing of Islamic state to provide people with basic rights like food, water, justice etc. You can see this in that context.

    I dont agree with your secularism version because it wont include any Islamic laws even those that have little disagreements like drinking wine, rape, consensual sex, prostitution, zakat, interest etc.

    Again you quoted Jinnah’s sect and I have mentioned it earlier that it DOSNT matter which sect he belonged too. People will decide which law to implement. Jinnah never mentioned his sect (I am a Muslim when asked) and thats how things should be.

    For your khilafat movement argument, any sane person can see that there was no Caliph, it was just a title, his actions, his ways etc were in no way according to status of Caliph and Turkey was destined to doom so Jinnah was wise to not participate in that matter. I dont think distancing from Khilaphet movement had anything to do with his dislikning of religion in politics as you put it.

    You talk about forming Islamic society, then lets come forward make it one. Again there are number of things that unite different sects, like interest thing. I have never heard of any sect that says interest is lawful. You can start from here.

    Yes we are a mess but that dosnt justify anything. We rather work on building society etc. You have talked again and again about sects, do you know which sect will be accepted as told by Prophet? One who follows Him (Prophet) and his followers. That Hadith is an eye opener for all ‘my-sect-is-better-than-yours’ people.

    You mentioned quote of Ali regarding injustice and kufr, why did you forgot all the quotes of Hazrat Ali regarding upholding Islamic laws and implementing them? Even in your article you mentioned only 11 August quote of Jinnah but completely forgot about quotes where Jinnah asked for implementation of Shariah and laws of Quran.

    You talk about interpretation, let me start from cutting hand punishment: isnt the punishment of robbery cutting of hand? Has any scholar differed from it? NO! There are cases like famine you mentioned or one or two where it donst apply but in all other circumstances it is that punishment. Why afraid of implementing it? World will consider us barbaric?

  • A guy called ‘Moderate’ wants to start cutting peoples hands off for theft!

    With Moderates like this who needs Fanatics?

    In 2012 the world is going forwards but the ‘Moderate’s on a liberal Pakistani website are talking about implementing hand-chopping.

    Yes, Mr so-called Moderate (actually an extremist fanatic) it is barbaric and backwards. Islam is barbaric and backwards too….

    A religion that declares war on all humanity “I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah’” and that was “made victorious with terror” and who’s ‘Holy Book’ preaches crucification and cutting off hands and feet is bloody barbaric and the source of the terrorism blighting your unfortunate population whilst you blindly believe the nonsense your religion teachs.

    5:33 Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot or banishment from the land: a disgrace for them in this world, and then a terrible punishment in the Hereafter

  • @moderate

    no even core concepts are not valid, you give example of cutting of hand, modern scholars interpret it not literally but metaphorically, saying that since hand is an important part of body, cutting hand can signify cutting connection with the person. in other words, community should cut ties with him so that he would realize that he has done wrong. Similarly, the verse that prescribes death penalty or blood money for murders has different interpretations as to when death is applied depending on conditions, niyyat of person, whether cause was proximate or not, was person acting outside his limits or within? So even though we always hear that quran has some clear punishments, reading the verses, their various translations and tafseer breaks this myth as well.
    Secondly, you bring in Jinnah when you talk that he wanted Islam yet you completely disregard his sect by saying that it DOESN’T matter, what matters is what people want. that’s kind of unfair, he is the man due to whom we have this country today and his vision needs to be taken into account. even though I think he was secular but if you still want Sharia, then his particular sect DOES matter.
    This just shows that how easy it is for people to say that this or that sect DOESN’T matter when making laws? what makes one sect more closer to God or more Islamic than others? even though you said that one that follows Quran and Prophet properly, but doesn’t every sect claims that? nobody says that we don’t follow Islam properly, for each person, their sect is the best that’s why they are following it. To refrain from bringing such division in matters of state, we need secularism. I said before that even if we agreed on what Islam is, maybe the argument to make Pakistan an Islamic nation would be stronger but in current scenario, its very unlikely.
    Then you say that people will decide, so that would happen in the parliament, where religious people can present their points, secular people can present theirs, and whoever gets more favour, that law gets passed. Scholars don’t seem to care what people want as they associate God’s wrath and azab with every concept and make people feel guilty instead of actually looking at practical problems that the whole country is facing.

  • @moderate

    and then you say any sane person can see that that wasn’t a real caliph. well clearly it means that Muslims who were supporting it were insane, and if that’s true, there was a lot of insane people at that time then. you seem to be thinking that that was insane movement, but clearly those people didn’t think that who were supporting it.
    As far as I have read Hazrat Ali or Islam for that matter, justice is a central concept for governance, and purpose of any punishment is deterrance, not to inflict unnecessary pain on anyone. So even if a particular punishment is abolished to uphold greater principle of justice, it doesn’t make you a less of a Muslim. you can still believe in it, just don’t apply it at a state level if it will cause more harm than good.
    I am not afraid of what world would call us, we are not that respected even today either. I am afraid of people who are the reason for this, people who use religion to incite emotions in people without giving them proper knowledge about its implications as well as historical development of Islamic law.
    Not to mention the concept of Caliph applies to the whole Islamic empire as far as I have read, I am not aware of any scholars who said that modern nation states should have a caliphate. If in some times, borders are removed and all Muslim nations constitute one empire, may be the argument for caliphate would be stronger but not from country to country.

  • Being a religious minded person I have carefully gone through the above article,and arguments following it.my humble opinion is that points mentioned therein are 100% valid and the only remedy for curing the ills Pakistan is suffering from.Religious extremism has become the bane of our society,and bloodletting is rampant.The only solution to remedy this situation is to follow Jinnah’s advice in toto.

  • This article is intelligent. I can think of no better word to describe it. I stand in agreement with many points mentioned in this article. That’s likely because this writer seems to think like me.