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Why Secularism Fails in the Muslim World

In 1799, an Indian Muslim named Mirza Abu Talib, who worked as a tax collector, went on a visit to London in order to learn more about the country of the people who were soon to become the rulers of India. His book counts among the first descriptions offered by a Muslim about the operation of governmental institutions in a Western democracy.

Amongst the venues he visited was the British House of Commons. While describing the role and responsibilities of this house, he observed that it had three principal functions: the collection of taxes, the supervision of contractors, and the general supervision of the affairs of government. However, later on in the text, at another point, he adds another function of this body that had probably escaped his notice up until that point. He wrote, with extreme bewilderment, that one of the functions of this House of Commons was also to make laws and to explain this extraordinary phenomenon to his Muslim readers, he points out that the English, unlike the Muslims, had not accepted an immutable divine law, and were therefore reduced to the expedient of making their own laws, which they did following the needs of the time and circumstances and the general state of affairs.

His tone may seem a bit condescending, but in his description, Mirza had laid his finger on an essential difference between Christianity and Islam. In the Muslim perception, which Mirza shared, there is no human legislative power. There is only a single law, the sharia, accepted by Muslims as of divine origin and regulating all aspects of human life: civil, commercial, criminal, constitutional, as well as matters concerned with religion. Distinctions between canon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, which remain so ubiquitous throughout Christian history, have never existed in Islam. As a matter of fact, the very notion that any part of human life can be outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought. According to the Iranian-American philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr:

“Islam does not even accept the validity of a domain outside the realm of religion (or the sacred), and refuses to accord any reality to the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane (or the spiritual and the temporal).”

This is a critical difference, one which would prove crucial to the success of secularism in Western Christendom, and its failure in the Muslim world.

The distinction between the Secular and the Religious

Today we take for granted the notion that there exists in societies two distinct realms, one that of the secular (Latin: “Saeculum”), which includes politics, and the other that of religion(Latin: “Religio”), which includes private sets of beliefs, customs, rituals, etc.

However, such a dichotomization is far from universal. In most civilizations, this division has never existed, and in fact, it had no presence in Greco-Roman antiquity either. According to the historian Robert Markus, although “sacred” and “profane” were both familiar terms in antiquity, until it was imported by Christianity, there was no notion of the “secular” in the ancient world. The word and the concept were both alien to the Greco-Roman religion. “It was relatively easy to distinguish the ‘sacred’ from the ‘profane’; but the language of neither law nor religion offered a ready-made terminology for a third realm, the secular.” As a result, there was also no clear separation between religion and state, rather the two remained intertwined. The historian John North writes:

“The communities in the archaic Greco-Roman world, whether they were based on city-states or on tribal systems, or were incorporated in larger imperial associations, had their own specific form of religious life. In this form, religious rituals and practices were integral to all civic, local or family activities; and religious roles, sometimes overlapping with political ones, were ubiquitous.”

It was the coming of Christ that dramatically changed the ancient relationship between religion and state. It was he who announced, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.

In these words, a principle was laid down, at the very beginning of Christianity, that was to become central to both Christian thought and practice and that remains discernible throughout Christian history and all over western Christendom. In Christian thought, there are always two distinct authorities in society, God and Caesar, dealing with different matters, exercising different jurisdictions, each with its own laws and its own courts for enforcing them, each with its own institutions and its own hierarchy for administering them. Over the centuries, Christian jurists and theologians devised or adapted pairs of terms to denote this dichotomy of jurisdiction: sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal, religious and secular, ecclesiastical and lay.

Today, these two different authorities are generally known in the Christian world as “church” and “state”, the first concerned with the matters of faith and the other with the matters of politics. Throughout the history of Christendom, the two have always been there, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict, at times one dominant, at times the other, but always two authorities: one representing the imperium (the imperial power), and the other representing the Sacerdotium (the priestly power). Following the Reformation and The Enlightenment, this doctrine of separation gained almost unanimous acceptance across the Western Christian world. This mistake made by the post-Enlightenment Western thinkers is to assume that this separation is somehow universal or rational and that it can be imported to other cultures too, including Islamic culture. But this is false. Secularism, the idea that politics and religion can be separated, is a distinctly Western idea that owes its very origins to Christianity, and one which is at odds with Islamic theology.

In Classical Islam, not only does such a doctrine not exist, but it is utterly meaningless, for in Islam the church and state represent not two distinct authorities as in Christian thought but one and the same thing. As the historian of Islam Bernard Lewis points out, “They are not separate or indeed separable institutions, and there is no way of cutting through the tangled web of human activities and the authorities that regulate them; allocating certain things to the state and some to a specifically religious authority.”

Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, the preeminent Muslim philosopher of the twentieth century, writes:

“In Islam, the spiritual and the temporal are not two distinct domains, and the nature of an act, however secular in its import, is determined by the attitude of mind with which the agent does it… In Islam it is the same reality which appears as Church looked at from one point of view and State from another”. He further adds, “The ultimate Reality, according to the Quran, is spiritual, and its life consists in its temporal activity…All that is secular is therefore sacred in the roots of its being… There is no such thing as a profane world… All is holy ground.”

One could even say that in Islam there is no “church”, at least not in the institutional sense as there is in Christianity. People often use the word “mosque” as if it is synonymous with the “church” but this is a mistake- a projection of Christian categories on non-Christian religions. A mosque is simply a place of worship, nothing more.

Another reason why secularism seems organic to Christianity but foreign to Islam has to do with the early historical experiences of the two religious communities. Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and his followers suffered one of the worst persecutions in history. For three centuries, Christianity remained a persecuted religion, brutally opposed by the Roman authority. During their long and arduous struggle, Christians developed a distinctive institution—the church, with its own laws and hierarchy. It was only after the conversion of Constantine to Christianity that Christians began to exercise any temporal influence. But by then, the Christian imagination had already been strongly shaped by the experience of the founding generations, and the general Christian attitude towards temporal power remained that of indifference. After all, as Saint Augustine said, Christians are those who belong to the eternal “City of God” but find themselves living in the transient “City of Man.”

The Islamic experience was quite the opposite. While Muhammad and his followers endured persecution during the early stages of their movement, they ultimately triumphed. Muhammad returned to the city of Mecca, from where he was expelled, as a triumphant leader. Not only did he not partake in what we may call politics, but he also founded a religiously conceived polity of which he himself was the supreme sovereign. In the words of Bernard Lewis, “Muhammad was, so to speak, his own Constantine,” and his actions as a ruler remain a vital component of the Islamic tradition.

It is the combination of these theological and historical differences between Christianity and Islam that has made secularism possible in the first but difficult in the latter. While the Western Christian states continue to secularize, the state of secularism in the Muslim world is no better today as it was a hundred years ago, in fact, one could argue it has worsened.

Since the 1980s, there has been a strong Islamic resurgence and Islamist parties have been at the forefront of opposing the governments in Muslim countries, which have mostly either been monarchies or dictatorships. It is also worth noting that in Muslim states, secularism has been a possibility only within an authoritarian system such as Kemalist Turkey, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Iran, and the numerous military regimes in Arab states. And time and again, it has been observed that when these despots fall, and some democratic order is restored, the outcome is not a liberal democratic setup like in the West, but an overtly Islamic political order.

The ousting of the Shah of Iran, due to a nationwide mass uprising, culminated in the creation of a theocratic regime in Iran. Hosni Mubarak’s removal in Egypt resulted in a party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood coming into power. Even in the Turkish Republic, which remains the only success story for secularism in any Muslim-majority state, there has been an increasing recourse to Islamic politics ever since parliamentary democracy has taken root in the country. Secularism and democracy do not seem to go hand in hand in the Middle East.

Despite all these hurdles, Western liberals remain as optimistic as ever in hoping that one day the Muslim world will come to emulate the secular state model. All the historical and theological intricacies matter little in their eyes. For them, secularism is a culturally-neutral idea that can be implanted anywhere. It is this naivety that leads them to think that one-day Muslim societies too will embrace this idea. They remain oblivious to the fact that the reason secularism prevailed in the Christian West but remains impractical in the Muslim world is that, from the beginning, Christians were taught both by precept and practice to distinguish between God and Caesar and between the different duties owed to each of the two. Muslims, however, received no such instruction. Thus, to hope for an “Islamic secularism” is to hope that Islam, like Christianity, will concede to such dualism.

In short, it is to hope that Islam will somehow Christianize itself- an unlikely outcome.

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