Islamic perspective

Islam and securlarism


Many people feel that Islam is quite incompatible with secularism. Some even maintain that as long as one is Muslim he cannot be a secularist. This is further reinforced by the propaganda by some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia that secularism is haram and that all secular nations are enemies of Islam.

Maulana Maududi, the founder chief of Jamat-e-Islami also said while leaving for Pakistan in 1948 that secularism is haram and all those who participate in secular politics in India will be rebels against Islam and enemies of the messenger of Allah. How far is it true? Are Islam and secularism really incompatible? Is Saudi propaganda against secularism justified? Was Maulana Maududi right? These are important questions and we must search for answers. We must bear in mind that in every religion there are different intellectual trends - both liberal as well as conservative. Both quote scriptures in support of their respective positions. Since a scripture or religious tradition for that matter has to deal with complex social situation, one finds differing or even contradictory statements responding to the differing or contradictory situations.

In scriptural hermeneutics (interpretations) one has to take situation in totality and develop certain keys to deal with the evolving situation. The commentators often deal with the situation as if it is static. Social situations can never be static. It continually evolves and changes. The way scriptural statements were understood by early commentators conformed to their own socio-cultural situation. Their hermeneutics should not be binding on the subsequent generations as it will not conform to the changed situation.

For every age there are some keys which help us understand the scripture in our own age. Also, a commentator should have a vision of society and this vision evolves from ones own social situation. Allah's creative power cannot be treated as static in any way. The Qur'an also refers to His dynamism when it states "....every day He manifests Himself in yet another (wondrous) way. Which, then, of your Sustainer's powers can you disavow?" (29:55). This Allah manifests Himself every day in new state (sha'n). And the word "yaum" literally means day but figuratively it can also mean a whole epoch, a period. Taking the word "yaum" in this sense, the verse will mean Allah manifests His Glories in new ways from period to period, from epoch to epoch.

The early commentators of the Qur'an, on which depends the conservative view of the 'ulama, were product of their own socio-religious and socio-cultural situation. In the early days of Islam, particularly in the period of four caliphs succeeding the Holy Prophet, state was very closely identified with religion of Islam. In the Arabia of those days there did not exist even a state before advent of Islam, let alone any laws associated with the state. But a state came into existence when Islam united people of Arabia transcending tribal bonds.

The state needed laws to deal with fast evolving situation. First they took help of the Qur'an and then Sunnah of the Prophet. Even then if they could not solve the problem they held the assembly of the companions of the prophet and tried to solve the problem in consultation with them. Their collective wisdom was often of great help. But it is quite obvious that they heavily drew from their own experiences in the social milieu they lived in. This social milieu also heavily influenced their understanding of the Qur'anic verses. And some Qur'anic verses were integrally related to the situation obtaining there.

Early commentators

The problem really arose when the subsequent generations treated the understanding of the Qur'anic verses by the companions of the Prophet or the early commentators who drew their own understanding heavily from the pronouncements of these companions and their followers (tabi'in). The companions were thought to be - and rightly so - as great authorities as the Qur'an was revealed during their life time and in their presence and who could understand it better than these companions.

Most of the subsequent commentators simply referred to these companions and their followers' pronouncements became the only source of understanding the Qur'anic verses. Until today the commentators of the Qur'an are repeating those very ideas and these ideas have become sacred and any deviation is considered heresy by most of the orthodox commentators of the Qur'an.

The Islamic state which came into existence after the death of the Prophet, as pointed out above, also became a model for the subsequent generation though this model was hardly followed even in early period of Islamic history. The Umayyad and the Abbasid empires which came into existence after what is called khilafat-e-rashidah (i.e. the rightly guided period of khilafat i.e. Islamic state) never followed this religious model. Both the empires were based on personal and authoritarian rule and were Islamic only in name. The Umayyad and the Abbasid Caliphs followed their own personal desires rather than the Qur'anic injunctions or the Shari'ah rules. They just symbolically made their obeisance to religion and followed what was in their personal interest. Thus theirs were what we can call a 'semi-secular' states.

And the states which came into existence after the Abbasid state were even more secularized except the Fatimid state which was more or less based on the Isma'ili theology. Even the Fatimid Imams had to face serious problems as their Isma'ili followers were very few in their domain and the vast majority belonged to the Sunni faith. Thus they often separated affairs of the state from Isma'ili theological considerations. A separate department of Isma'ili theology (Fatimi Da'wah) had to be established.

Though the Khilafat model was never repeated in the history of Islam, in theory, it remained the objective of all the Islamic theologians to establish the state on the model of early Khilafat and any state which did not follow that model came to be condemned as un-Islamic and it was even more strongly condemned if the state claimed to be secular. Maulana Maududi opposed Jinnah vehemently because his vision of Pakistani state was based on secular concept giving all citizens equal rights irrespective of their religious faith. The Maulana refused to support the Pakistan movement as Jinnah would not agree to set up an Islamic state.

Now the question is whether Islam as a religion is compatible with secularism? Does it aim at setting up an Islamic state and nothing less? Can there be a Muslim country with a secular state? These are some of the crucial questions one has to answer in order to deal with the subject of Islam and secularism. Of course, we should remember that there cannot be uncontested answers. Every answer that we attempt would be, and could be, contested by those with differing viewpoint. Ours is a liberal and inclusive approach and we will, of course, attempt answer from this viewpoint.

Secular political philosophy

Before we deal with the question of Islam and secularism, we would like to throw some light on religion and secularism. Here too there are differing views. There are rationalists and atheists who consider religion and secularism quite contrary to each other. For them the two are quite incompatible. Secularism is a non-religious, if not altogether anti-religious philosophy. A secular political philosophy should have nothing to do with any religious tenets or doctrines. A secular state then would not take any religious beliefs or practices into account while legislating on any issue and in some extreme cases even citizens would not be free to have religious faith and declare it and practice it publicly. Religion, in other words, would be almost a taboo in such a political set up. The former Soviet and Chinese states came close to this model.

Then there is western liberal secular model where religion is not a taboo but is not a basic factor as far as state affairs are concerned. State affairs are conducted quite independently of any religious considerations. In the U.K. too, where Anglican Christianity continues to be state religion and the king or queen of England is considered head of the Anglican Church, religion plays hardly any role in the matters of state. All state legislations are quite independent of the tenets of the Anglican Church. The Church cannot oppose any law passed by the House of Commons and approved by the House of Lords.

In other western countries too positions are more or less similar. The state remains quite independent of the church. In fact church and state have totally independent domains and do not interfere in each others sphere. This western model comes closest to the political philosophy of secularism.

The Islamic world has its own features and uniqueness. When we deal with the question of Islam and secularism we have to keep this in mind. It should, however, be kept in mind that the Islamic world is also not homogenised one. One comes across fundamental differences in Islamic countries from Algeria to Indonesia though all of them follow religion of Islam. Commonality of religion does not necessarily mean commonality of social or political traditions. These traditions are as different as their societies and social realities.

Algeria, for example, is a modern westernised state and hence it is undergoing a great religious turmoil as a section of citizens want it to be an 'Islamic state' of their vision. Then there are countries like Malaysia and Indonesia with mixed populations though with Muslim majority and they too have secular states. The movements for setting up Islamic states in these countries by the Islamic groups did not succeed. Both these countries have adopted models of polity suited more to a pluralist society. So is the case with Malaysia. Though it is a Muslim majority country it is also pluralist in character and hence has chosen to be secular in character.

Turkey is overwhelmingly a Muslim country and yet it chose to be a secular country since Kamal Pasha's revolution in 1924 and it has stayed secular ever since. Though there have been attempts at religious revival they did not register much success. Turkey has gone to the extent of abolishing Islamic personal laws and have replaced them with secular Swiss Code. Perhaps Turkey is the only country to do so.

Liberal Islamic character

Among Arab countries besides Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco also have brought about considerable modern reforms though technically they are not secular states. Their state religion continues to be Islam. Jordan is another moderate country with 10 per cent Christian population. Iraq, on the other hand, is ruled by the Baath Party which is socialistic in character. Iraq, until the Gulf war in 1990, was quite secular in character. However, the compulsions of the Gulf war and earlier war with Iran in the eighties brought about some changes in its character and Saddam Hussain, in order to win a degree of legitimacy, started mild measures of Islamisation. Some of the Gulf countries like Bahrain, the Yemen, are also Islamic in character but with liberal dispensation unlike the Saudi Arab and Kuwait. In fact the fast process of modernisation is also affecting hard Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Thus it will be seen that all Islamic countries are not same in political and even religious character. There are great deal of differences. We find the whole range of political shades - from rigid Islamic character of Saudis to liberal Islamic character of the countries like Iraq to secular country like the Turkey. There is not, and there cannot be, any homogeneity. As far as orthodoxy or liberalism or secularism is concerned, much depends on the proclivities of the ruling classes in a particular country. It also depends on the interests of the ruling classes and their political alliances.

Now the important question is can Islam and secularism go together? We have already said above that religion and secularism can go together or not depends on the interpretation of both religion as well as secularism. If religion is interpreted in keeping with very conservative traditions, it may be difficult for it to go along with secularism which demands more liberal disposition and not only tolerance but also promotion of pluralism. On the other hand, if secularism is interpreted too rigidly i.e. if it is equated with atheism, as many rationalists do, then also the two (i.e. religion and secularism) will find it difficult to go together.

Islam too, as pointed out above, can be interpreted rigidly, or liberally. If both Islam and secularism are interpreted liberally there should not be any problem with Islam in a secular set up. In fact if one studies the Qur'an holistically one can find strong support for 'liberal or non-atheistic secularism'. No religion will support atheistic secularism for that matter. If we talk of liberal secularism what do we mean by it? We must clearly define it. Liberal secularism does not insist on belief in atheism. Secondly, it promotes pluralism and respect for all faiths and thirdly it guarantees full freedom of religion for all citizens. Also, secularism guarantees equal rights for all citizens irrespective of ones caste, creed, race, language or faith.

Islam can hardly clash with this liberal secularism. The Qur'an, in fact, directly encourages pluralism vide its verse 5:48. This verse clearly states that every people have their own law and a way i.e. every nation is unique in its way of life, its rules etc. It also says that if Allah had pleased He would have created all human beings a single people but He did not do so in order to test them (whether they can live in harmony with each other despite their differences in laws and way of life). Thus it is clear assertion of pluralism. One must respect the others faith and live in harmony with him/her.

Doers of justice

The Qur'an also asserts that every people have their own way of worshiping God (see 2:148). One should not quarrel about this. Instead one should try to excel each other in good deeds. In the verses 60:7-8 we find that Allah will bring about friendship between Muslims and those whom you hold as enemies. And Allah does not forbid you from respecting those who fight you not for religion, nor drive you forth from your homes and deal with them justly. Allah loves doers of justice.

The above verse is a good example of secular ethos. If others do not fight you in matters of your faith and allow you to profess, practice and propagate your faith you should respect them and deal with them justly. This is precisely what India's secular constitution says and this what secular constitutions world over emphasize. Also, in 6:109 the Qur'an prohibits Muslims from abusing people of other faiths or their gods as in turn they will abuse Allah. This verse also makes much more significant statement that Allah has made every for every people their deeds fair-seeming i.e. every community thinks its beliefs and deeds are fair and good and social harmony lies in accepting this situation rather than quarreling about each others beliefs and practices.

The Qur'an also states in 22:40 that no religious place should be demolished as in all religious places be it synagogue, or church or monastery, name of Allah is remembered and hence all these places should be protected. This is another tenet of liberal secularism which is upheld by the Qur'an.

The Islamic tenets, it will be seen, do not disapprove of composite or pluralistic way of life. Even the Covenant of Madina (called Mithaq-i-Madina) clearly approves of pluralistic set up. When the Prophet migrated from Mecca to Madina owing to persecution in Mecca at the hands of Meccan tribal leaders, he found Madinese society a pluralistic society. There were Jews, pagans and Muslims and also Jews and pagans were divided into several tribes, each tribe having its own customs and traditions. The Prophet drew up a covenant with these tribes guaranteeing them full freedom of their faith and also creating a common community in the city of Medina with an obligation to defend it, if attacked from outside.

This was in a way a precursor of modern secular nation, every citizen free to follow his/her own faith and tribal customs and their own personal laws but having an obligation towards the city to maintain peace within and defend it from without. The Prophet clearly set an example that people of different faith and traditions can live together in peace and harmony creating a common bond and respecting a common obligation towards the city/country.

It is interesting to note that the Muslim theologians belonging to the Jam'at al-'Ulama-i-Hind (i.e. the Association of the 'Ulama of India) drew the inspiration for creating a composite secular nation in India from the Prophet's Covenant of Madina. These 'Ulama opposed two nation theory and maintained that Islam is not against composite secular nationalism. Different religious communities can exist together in a country. The only condition for this is that all should be guaranteed to freely profess, practice and propagate their religion. Since the Indian Constitution allows this, the 'Ulama happily accepted the liberal secular political disposition in India and did not find any justification for a separate state for Muslims of the sub-continent.

No concept of state

Yet another question which remains to be answered is about equal rights to all citizens in a country with Muslim majority. It is often argued that Muslims are reluctant to accord equal citizenship rights to religious minorities. No doubt there is some truth in this assertion but not the whole truth. Some Muslim majority countries certainly do not allow non-Muslims equal rights but many other countries do. We have already given examples of countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Both countries, though have Muslim majorities, do allow all their citizens, including the non-Muslims, equal political rights. In Pakistan too, until Zia-ul-Haq's time, enjoyed equal citizenship rights and joint electorate. It was Zia who created separate electorate for non-Muslims.

In Qur'an, as pointed out elsewhere, there is no concept of state, nor of territorial nationalism. In fact religious scriptures are hardly supposed to deal with such questions. It no where states that it is obligatory for Muslims to set up a religious or a theocratic state. Qur'an does not refer, not even indirectly, to any concept of state. Its whole emphasis is on truth, justice, benevolence, compassion, tolerance and wisdom as far as life in this world is concerned. As long as people conform to these values, it does not matter what religious faith they belong to. They can coexist in peace and harmony.

Thus the concept of a purely Islamic state is a historical construct attempted by Muslim jurists over a period of time. It is these jurists who laid down detailed rules of Shari'ah and also drew up a configuration of an Islamic state defining the rights of non-Muslims in such state. Moreover it was very different historical situation and the Qur'anic verses were interpreted under the influence of their own social and religious ethos.

The rights of non-Muslims, in other words, will have to be rethought and reformulated. The Qur'an nowhere states that religion can be the basis of political rights of the people. This was the opinion of Muslim jurists of the medieval period when religion of the ruler determined the status of the ruled. Such a formulation cannot be considered a necessary part of the political theory of Islam. The only model for this purpose can be the Mithaq-i-Madina and this Covenant, as pointed out above, did not make any distinction between people of one religion and the other in matters of political rights.

This Covenant, at least in spirit, if not in form, provides a valuable guidance for according political rights to citizens of modern state irrespective of ones religion. It is unfortunate that the later political theorists of Islam almost wholly neglected this significant political document drawn up by the Prophet of Islam. In fact he was far ahead of his time in according non-Muslims equal religious and political rights. The theory of political rights in the modern Islamic state should be based on this document.

Trancparency in governance

There is great deal of emphasis on freedom of conscience and human rights in the modern civil society. It is highly regrettable that most of the Muslim countries do not have good record in this field. Freedom of conscience, human rights and democracy are quite integral to each other. In most of the Muslim majority countries today which have declared themselves as "Islamic countries" even the democratic discourse is banished, let alone human rights discourse. It is not right to maintain that an Islamic society cannot admit of human rights. The lack of democracy and human rights is not because of Islam or Islamic teachings but due to authoritarian and corrupt regimes which totally lack transparency in governance.

Again, if we go by the sunnah of the Prophet and record of governance of the rightly guided caliphs, we see that the principle of accountability and transparency in governance was quite fundamental. The people who had experienced the conduct of the Prophet were so sensitive to the doctrine of accountability that there was great uprising when the regime of the third Caliph deviated from this doctrine for various reasons not to be discussed here. The Prophet of Islam and his companions had sensitized the Muslims to such an extent in respect of accountability and transparency in governance that any deviation from it was strongly protested. But when authoritarian regimes came into existence and khilafat turned into monarchy beginning with the first Umayyad monarch Yazid, this doctrine vanished into thin air.

Those who respect the doctrine of accountability would never maintain that Islam is against democracy and human rights. In fact almost all Islamic countries - with few exceptions - signed the U.N. Human Rights Declaration of 1948. Some countries who refused to sign had objection only on one clause on freedom of conscience and right to convert to any religion of ones choice. They felt it was against the tenets of Islam and one who renounces Islam should be punished with death.

This is of course not the place to discuss this controversial question of the right to convert but suffice it to say that the Muslim jurists had instituted this punishment more for political than religious reasons. In the modern nation states the punishment for irtidad (i.e. renouncing Islam) cannot be death and the individual must be given right to belie what he/she desires. One cannot be made to follow any religion under the threat of death. A religion is certainly a serious matter and a matter of conscience and commitment.

From all this will be seen that Islamic teachings as embodied in the Qur'an and sunnah of the Prophet (and not opinions of the jurists) are not against the concept of human rights and individual freedom (freedom of conscience). It is authoritarian rulers of some Muslim countries who denounce the concept of human rights as alien to Islam. Islam, in fact, is the first religion which legally recognised other religions and gave them dignified status and also accepted the concept of dignity of all children of Adam (17:70) irrespective of their faith, race, tribe, nationality or language (49:13).

The verse 2:213 is also quite significant on the unity of all human beings which is what is the intention of Allah. All differences are human and not divine and these differences should be resolved in democratic and goodly manner (29:46). These are the norms laid down by the Qur'an but the rulers of Muslim countries deviate from these norms to protect their hold on power and blame it on Islam.

Islam upholds pluralism, freedom of conscience and human and democratic rights and thus does not clash with the concept of secularism. It is also interesting to note that in a secular set up like India the 'Ulama accepted secular principles of governance and never objected to it. In fact, the 'Ulama in India stress secularism and urge upon Muslim masses to vote for secular parties. Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani had taken lead in this respect by legitimising composite nationalism (Muttahida Qaumiyyat) and rejecting two nation theory. Of late the Jama'at-e-Islami-i-Hind has also accepted secular democracy and has even set up a secular democratic front of its own, particularly after demolition of Babri Masjid and the riots that followed it. Thus it will be seen that the Indian 'Ulama have shown a way in this respect by accepting secularism. Islam and secularism can and should go together in the modern world.

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