Secularism and Islam: An Artificial Divide
Abdou Filali-Ansary 13 June 2011

I would like to begin by looking at one of the most trite and most commonly aired views concerning philosophy and its presumed worth, or lack there of. According to a certain way thinking, philosophy is considered incapable of leading to tangible progress, or of bearing any kind of real fruit. It is considered to be nothing more than an endless discussion of unchanging themes, and philosophers are imagined as eternally pondering the same questions whilst being incapable of providing any answers. While science and technology demonstrate visible benefits and progress, philosophy is seen to offer nothing but endless questioning. Some have even felt compelled to claim that, from the origins of philosophy to the present day, philosophers have done nothing more than gloss Plato’s Dialogues and repeat his ideas; in other words, that all the essential questions have already been defined, and all the possibly alternative responses to the world’s questions have already been analyzed. All subsequent philosophical reflections are consequently seen as amounting to nothing more than a pointless re-working of these same questions.

It seems clear to me, however, that philosophy should not be compared with the calculable profits generated by science and technology, and that philosophy offers something quite different, which I define as “a process of continual learning.” I believe that the history of philosophy shows this eloquently, and today more than ever. And it is on this process of learning, and on its implications in the face of the important challenges and issues that recent events have raised, that I would like us to reflect on together.

For some time now there has been talk of a religious revival, a resurgence which has raised all kinds of questions and problems, and upon which philosophers, in their various areas of specialization, have been called to comment. In my opinion, this concept of a religious revival is another misconception, because the phenomenon of religion–and it has been stated and restated so often–never went away. It may have altered its appearance, form, or expression, but it was always here; and if there might have been moments in which it seemed to be definitively extinguished, these were later shown to be illusory. For these reasons, it is inaccurate to talk of a “return” or “revival.” My personal belief is that this contrived idea, which has been forced upon us by the media, ought not to be attributed to philosophers so much as to the experts of the social sciences, and to the attraction that this prospect of a revival, of the emersion in something new and unexpected, holds for them.

Let us take, for example, the contemporary debate on secularism. It is true that our history lessons have always taught us that there is a certain polarization here, and that the idea of a clash between secularism and its opposite was firmly established early on. Indeed, many colleagues today, researchers and thinkers–and some not very far from me–are convinced that there is only black and white, true and false, and attempts to reconcile, mediate, or find some kind of compromise between secularism and religion are considered worthless. The concepts of secularism and its antithesis have probably provided philosophy with the necessary instruments with which to continue toward further clarifications. I personally believe that simply the concept of a political or social order not founded on a religion leads to reflection, and that this has allowed us to clarify and assess certain questions. Secularism may therefore perhaps be a utopia, but it is a useful one. (This theory has never been conclusively proved by history, however, even if events might have led us to suspect it.) Above all the idea of the secular society can lead us to understand what it is that we don’t want, even if we are unable to define exactly, and equally unable to completely forget, what it is that we actually do want.

At this point, I would like to look at the reality of this debate in the Muslim world, using some examples to illustrate what we have discussed. It seems clear today that the idea of the acceptance of secularism within the Muslim world is extremely far away. As such, the presence of a tangible and irreducible dichotomy becomes evident. I mentioned before that this opposition seemed to me to be the fruit of a historical construction, which is not in fact intrinsic either to Islam or Christianity. In a work by Ali Abderraziq I translated, L’Islam et les fondements du pouvoir (La Découverte 1994), the theologist from Al-Azhar University shows that it cannot be claimed that Islam rejects secularism outright, and he goes on to make a rigorous and systematic demonstration of his theory, referring to sources and listing all the verses of the Qur’an that can be interpreted as alluding to politics and to its ideal conduct. Furthermore, Abderraziq has carefully examined the hadith–that is, the traditions of the Prophet that might allude to politics–and has discovered that there is nothing in these verses that calls for Muslims to conform to a specific, defined conduct, nor which specifies any particular institution or form of government which might be defined as “an Islamic political system.” Perhaps his most important contribution that we, through this process of continual learning, are called to recognize, is the idea that a fundamental distinction must be made between Islam and Muslims.

Another historian, American this time, has also proposed the separation of Islam and “Islamdom,” remarking that, when talking about Christian heritage, there is an automatic and almost natural distinction made between “Christianity” and “Christendom.” The term “Christianity” is used to refer to the collective of believers, their rituals, the established theology, and so on and so forth. “Christendom” on the other hand, refers to the history of what Christians have done with their beliefs–their behaviour, interpretations, and actions. In other words, everything which they have constructed. No one would dream of confusing the two concepts. No one, for example, would refer to the massacres of Saint Bartholomew’s Day in France as part of “Christianity.” Political power, Catholicism, Christendom, and Christians are all criticized, but never “Christianity.” Turning to the east, however, we notice that the term “Islam” is used to refer to the two realities simultaneously–to the collection of beliefs, rituals, and dogmas, and to the history of the religion. In this way, no one perceives any distortion in automatically collating the actions of Bin Laden with the message of Islam. If a certain individual in a certain time and place performs a certain action, it is on this person that attention ought to be focused, not on his creed. Here we can see the importance of the process of learning, in which we start from one point in order to reach a different perspective.

I would like to highlight that over the course of the 20th century, when certain Muslim authors decided to translate the word “secularism” into Arabic or other languages with Arabic roots, such as Persian or Turkish, they opted for a term taken from verse of the Qur’an entitled Al-Muminun (“the believers”). A verse which, in my view, has not been afforded the attention it deserves, and which refers to a controversy between the Prophet and a small group of people who come to him and say: “You talk to us of supernatural realities, of things which we cannot see with our own eyes. All that we can see, the only visible reality for us is that of change, and we know only that we are born, that we live, and that we die.” And so the decision, right from the beginning, to translate “secular” and “secularism” with words taken from this passage immediately created the idea that secularism was something irreconcilably opposed to religion. Naturally, there were some who realized this immediately, and who pointed out that this was not the correct way to express the concept of secularism, and so another term was then adopted: La-dini. La-dini means “a-religious” or “non-religious”; and therefore this again communicates the idea of an irreconcilable opposition or dichotomy, and so to be “secular” has come to mean to step out of, and to refuse, religion. Such is the interpretation of secularism for many Muslim cultures, from the very beginning. It was a long time before another term was introduced, that which is currently used: Almania. Nevertheless, my impression is that previous translations have left an indelible mark in the collective Muslim imagination. It is for this reason that I maintain that the opposition between secularism and Islam is completely artificial, and that rather than trying to resolve this opposition, we can, or perhaps ought to, simply rid ourselves of it. What we need to do is not to reconcile the two extremes, but rather to eliminate the misunderstanding.

Ali Abderraziq’s book, first published in 1925 and regularly reprinted ever since, is only a short essay of about a hundred pages. Immediately after its publication, three other essays appeared contesting his ideas, and, to this day, texts written in response to Abderraziq’s work continue to be published. This is because the questions he poses to the reader are so strong, and his untangling of all the sources is so disarming, that his reflections continue to generate great interest. No one, indeed, could claim that Abderraziq was basing his own ideas on the theories developed by modern philosophy, or that he was writing from the perspective of the social sciences. On the contrary, the author simply draws from the sources that he reads and re-reads in the most direct and spontaneous ways. The polarization which confronts us today is nothing more than the fruit of artificial construction. The problem is that today–and here I confess that I will have to put my student hat back on and accept to learn once again–if we look around, this dichotomy is profoundly rooted in the mentality of Muslim societies and their populations, and it influences not only their way of perceiving the surrounding reality, but also their actions. In other words, it is as if, on the basis of deeply-held convictions, society as a whole were demanding a certain form of not exactly theocracy, but certainly of “moralization” of public life–a demand expressed in religious language. In this sense, I believe that we all have the duty to listen and learn from the societies that surround us.

Certainly there are also those who have hypothesized or defined, and by doing so created, the dichotomy between Islam and secularism. Bernard Lewis, for example, has claimed that Muslims are condemned to live in a world permeated by religion, and that they will never succeed in arriving at democracy, nor abandon their own viewpoints because they are prisoners of them. In other words, Muslims are, if not genetically, at least culturally marked–which is perhaps much worse. It is a way of thinking that has tempted numerous observers and intellectuals, and not only orientalists like Bernard Lewis, but also thinkers within the Muslim world. According to this idea the very nature of Muslim cultural heritage demands either the acceptance of a certain way of life or automatic exile from society. I am consoled, however, by the fact that a small group of philosophers, instead of trying to define both dichotomies and mechanics, are trying to explore new perspectives. From these perspectives, it might be possible to reconcile entities some argue are irreconcilable; and to understand, for example, that secularism represents a kind of utopia, and that as such it is in many ways impossible; and that, in a certain sense, if we chase religion out through the door it will make its way back in through the window, perhaps in an unconventional form.

Communism, for example, which played in many countries the role of lay religion, was superseded by the Church because of its lack of supernatural reference points and its failure to recognize any possible truths outside of historical reality. It seems clear then that absolute secularism can be nothing more than an ideal, perhaps a utopia. And that, as is the case of religious states, theocracy too is an ideal, but one taken to its conclusion. This is demonstrated by the continual, and pointless, effort on the part of some Muslim societies to bring alive once again the golden age of the Caliphates, instating a social order supposedly wholly inspired by religion. Perhaps we find ourselves confronted by two utopias that have helped us to some extent to clarify our own ideas, stimulating us to subject our society to new interrogations relating to the possible distinction between the historical and the absolute. There can be no negotiation between those principles that we can and cannot accept. Where is the limit? How and where should we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not? Posing ourselves the question does not mean making concessions on the ideal of secularism. Nor does it mean championing excessive intellectual agitation. On the contrary, it prompts us to ask ourselves where we should draw the line between the sphere of universal principles and the structures and expressions that these assume throughout the course of history. And for Muslims, but in my opinion not solely for Muslims, this is absolutely crucial. Because principles never reach us in their pure state, but are always filtered by examples and modulated by clearly defined historical circumstances.

Ali Abderraziq makes this distinction (I continue to quote him because he was and remains my teacher), asserting that the fissure which, in the Muslim world, separates the death of the Prophet–considered to be the last man to receive divine revelation in the course of History–from all that which follows, between Islam as taught by Mohammed and everything that Muslims have done since, necessitates further study and investigation. Perhaps it will help to open our eyes if we remember that many of the instances we today associate with Islam or with Christianity are often nothing more than inherited customs and habits passed on from certain believers in certain places and moments of history. And it would be an error to believe that these constitute unbreakable rules that bind or in some way constrict our freedom of thought and action.

Abdou Filali-Ansary is the director of Aga Khan University of London. Previously he served as founding director of the «King Adbul-Aziz Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences» in Casablanca, Morocco and secretary-general of the Mohammed V University in Rabat where he also taught modern philosophy. He is the author of several books and articles on Islam’s reformist traditions: Is Islam Hostile to Secularism?, Reforming Islam: An Introduction to Contemporary Debates. In 1993, he co-founded «Prologues: revue maghrébine du livre».

This text is the transcript of the author’s participation in the symposium organized by Reset Dialogues on Civilisations – “The reawakening of religion and open society,” which was held during UNESCO World Philosophy Day (Rabat, 16th November 2006). Taking part were the Home Secretary Giuliano Amato, the philosophers Adbou Filali-Ansary (Morocco), Fred Dallmayr (USA), Sadik Al Azm (Syria), Sebastiano Maffettone and Alessandro Ferrarra (Italy), Reset Editor-in-Chief Giancarlo Bosetti, and Reset DoC’s director Nina zu Fürstenberg.

Translation by Liz Longden



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)