The purpose of this article is to briefly address and resolve the following misconceptions:
1. that secularism necessarily leads to and champions Atheism;
2. that the best way to realise God’s will is by focusing on Allah’s as opposed to humanity’s rights; and
3. that Islam’s intellectual heritage makes it impossible to develop and realise an Islamic rationale for secularism.
Secularism simply advocates the separation of church and state, and that religions and their adherents should be treated equally before the law, no particular religion being allowed to monopolise legislative power or enjoy unique privileges. In theory, this should be a non-issue in Islam as there is no centralised and universal body of authority that would monopolise political institutions. The case can be made that eliminating religion from the public sphere is in actual fact a betrayal of secularism, as it requires that we avoid discriminating on the basis of religious/irreligious affiliation, and also that aggressive proselytisation and coerced conversion into/ out of religion be avoided in duly respecting people’s freedom of choice and to ensure they live a dignified life in a tolerant society. As such, the rights of adherents to live according to their convictions (peacefully) are uncompromisable and unchallengeable.
Based on authentic and informed readings of Islamic sources, what are the Islamic justifications (if any) of political despotism and imposing Islam’s demands on non-Muslims? Limited scope for despotism can be gleaned from Allah’s attributes (listed in the Qur’an: Al-Aziz [the mighty one]- 3:6, 4:158, 9:40, 9:71, 48:7, 59:23, 61:1; Al-Malik [the king/master]- 20:114, 23:116, 59:23, 62:1, 114:2; Al-Matin [the authoritative one] 51:58; Al-Muntaqim [the avenger]- 32:22, 43:41, 44:16; Al-Muqtadir [the powerful one] 18:45, 54:42, 54:55; Al-Qawiyy [the strongest one] 22:40, 22:74, 42:19, 57:25, 58:21, Al-Mudhil [the humiliator] 3:26; Al-Qahhar [the subduing one] 13:16, 14:48, 38:65,39:4, 40:16), and in the Prophet’s governance and early Caliphate. The latter were necessarily mitigated by Shura/ consultation, which further delegitimises absolute despotism from some Islamic perspectives; rather, limited absolutism should be recognised largely as a right only Allah and its messenger(s) are entitled to. The Prophet’s unique role was a responsibility only prophets could have been charged with, Caliphs being entitled to even less absolute power. Perfect imitations of the Prophet’s model of governance, therefore, are theologically illegitimate usurpations of the power that Allah temporarily granted a particular human being.
Support of this claim seems evidenced in that the vast majority of Allah’s attributes and commands provide more justification for optional worship and allegiance than unquestioning acceptance of Allah’s absolute authority (Al Gaffar/Gafur [the forgiver/forgiving]- Qur’an 2:173, 8:69, 16:110, 41:32, 60:7; Al-Waliyy [the protector] 3:68, 4:45, 7:196, 42:28, 45:19; Al-Tawwab [giver and accepter of repentance] 2:37, 2:128, 4:64, 49:12, 110:3; Qur’an 2:256). Verses 112:1-14, 14:8 and 3:97 in the Qur’an (cited in Mol, Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform, 2009:173) question the legitimacy of human despotism; given that such absolute rights are denied Allah, what gives humans claiming to act according to Allah’s will the right to appropriate these rights?
There is a sense in which secularism coincides with the Qur’anic objective of securing social justice on Earth and encouraging each individual Muslim to be a Muslihoon, or beneficiary of society (Qur’an 13:17, 42.38-43 in Mol, 2009:174,178), by perfecting humanity through seeking co-operation and mutual benefit; this goal is primary, individual acts of worship being secondary (Qur’an 18:30, 18:46, 19:76, 11.116-7, cited in 2009:176-77), as a true believer (Mu’min) is ultimately judged based on co-operative social conduct and not private worship (Qur’an 16:97, 42.38, and 6.132 respectively, 2009:181). Arguably, if Allah only asserts its rights for the benefit of humanity, this implies that it is not so much the democratic promoting of Islamic values with voluntary assent/dissent, but the authoritarian imposition of Islamic values that goes against the central Qur’anic message of promoting social justice (Khaled Abou El Fadl, in Does Human Rights Need God?, 2005:91).
Adding to this, key thinkers in Islam’s intellectual heritage advanced arguments in favour of consultative modes of governance based on religious scripture (Ibn Qayyim and Ghazali, cited in Fadl, 2005:81-2), stressing the need for ruler-ruled engagement in governing and the legitimate right to rebel against abusers of power who fail to enjoin the good and forbid evil (al-Baqillani drawing on Qur’an 3:110, cited in Fadl 2005:70), the value of creatively exerting mental effort in practically searching for God’s intended path for humanity (al-Juwayni cited in Fadl, 2005:101), some- like Ibn Khaldun- only championing the caliphate precisely because in theory, shari’ah limits arbitrary rule by man’s selfishness by prioritising God’s rule and will for humanity (Fadl, 2005:59). This provided that shari’ah is itself limited by the precedence of human rights over Huquq Allah, or Allah’s rights (Fadl, 2005:89-91). Based on such insights, it has been stressed that the realisation of Islamic justice is being impaired through attempts to suppress the human diversity granted by Allah, and the exploration of such diversity that Allah implores in the Qur’an (49:13), and the high estimation of knowledge in Hadith literature (Sunan At-Tirmidhi, 2687; note: this is considered a Da’if or weak narration, however that is not to say it is completely valueless as a principle to live by).
In considering all abovementioned points, it seems that post-colonial/anti-western- rather than pre-modern thought- impairs development of tolerant political practices in Muslim-majority countries and cultures; thus it seems safe to conclude that Islam has both the textual and jurisprudential resources for renewal and for further developing a rationale for secularism which, far from compromising Islam, is a more authentic rendering of its teachings that remains more faithful to the essential message of Islam- of justice and mercy- than the prevalent puritanical narratives and thus, better honours God’s will for humanity in today’s context.
Fadl, K., ‘Islam and the Issue of Democratic Commitment in Modern Islam’ in Barnett, B. & E. Bucar (eds), (2005) Does Human Rights Need God?, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co, pp58-103
Jami at-Tirmidhi, English Translation Vol.1, Book 39, Hadith 2687. Available at: http://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/41 (Accessed: 10/10/2014)
Mol, Y., ‘The Humanistic Approach vs the Religious Approach’ in Mol, A., Peru, F., & E. Yuksel (eds) (2009) Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform, USA: Brainbow Press, pp172-185.
Also available electronically on: https://www.academia.edu/1765083/Critical_Thinkers_for_Islamic_Reform_A_Collection_of_Articles_from_Contemporary_Thinkers_on_Islam (Accessed 24/10/2014)