Islam and secularism: The case for Islamic exceptionalism, and against it

April 18, 2018

Why is secularism so controversial in the Middle East?

Photo: Vav by Seyfi Şeren, CC.

Photo: Vav by Seyfi Şeren, CC.

Many Muslim religious scholars, both Salafist and Wasaṭi ('centrist'), consider secularism to be fundamentally incompatible with Islam. And therein lies – according to them – Islam’s exceptionalism. Some academics are of the same opinion, too. But others beg to differ.

Secularism has several historical versions and definitions. Yet, in most Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East today, it is a very specific definition that is relevant to the most urgent debates. Many of those in the Middle East today who call for ‘secularization’ (and are thus called ‘secularists’), mean by it practically two things. That some of the rulings (aḥkām) of shariʿa (in the domain of social interaction, or muʿāmalāt) should be radically reinterpreted in order to come closer to acceptable standards of human rights and equal citizenship.  And that the Islamists’ project of building the ‘ideologically homogenous’ state of ‘total Islam’ should be mitigated in favor of a more liberal, pluralist-friendly conception of government. It is this version of secularism that is usually defended by most liberal reformist thinkers, and rejected by most Islamists and religious scholars (ʿulamā’).

Shaykh Qaradawi and secularism

Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, perhaps the most popular living representative of Wasaṭi Islamism, has written several books on the issue. In his view, Islam is an all-embracing, indivisible religion that covers and directs all the individual and social aspects of human life. It is all at once faith and state-politics, creed and law, observances and moral rules, a way of worshipping God and a method (manhaj) for organizing and ruling society. Any attempt to deny Islam its rightful dominion over the political and legislative domains amounts, in Qaradawi’s view, to the rejection of the fundamentals of religion.

Shaykh Qaradawi has often in this regard emphasized Islam's exceptionalism. Unlike Christianity or Buddhism, Qaradawi writes, Islam is essentially and uniquely concerned with political rule and legislation. The ‘Western’ duality between religion and politics, and between the private and the public, Qaradawi says, does not exist in the same way in Islam. Even the seemingly personal duties of worship (ʿibādāt), Qaradawi holds, can have in Islamic legislation great social and political consequences. Sunni scholars throughout the centuries, says Qaradawi, are in consensus (ijmāʿ) that openly breaking or omitting the obligations of prayer, fasting, or paying zakāt, for example, requires the intervention of the Muslim state in order to punish the guilty, using the army if the guilty are many. This is the nature of true Islam (within its own political domain), Qaradawi writes, it “does not know religion without state, or state without religion”. Only the ‘enemies of religion’, Qaradawi thinks, could knowingly support the diluted, non-political versions of Islam that some reformists propagate.

It is safe to say that there is a general consensus today on this issue between Salafist and Wasaṭi religious scholars, and also between Islamists and most of the institutions of 'orthodoxy' (such as al-Azhar, for example). Yet there are also important differences in the way each group interpret the meaning of Islam's dominion over the political and legislative life. And there is also development and change. In Tunisia, for example, the Islamist Ennahda Party has so far agreed with its secularist counterparts to leave any mention of 'shariʿa' out of the Tunisian constitution, and with it the conception of the incompatibility of Islam and secularism.  Yet, on the other hand, it is not clear whether Ennahda can still be called Islamist, in the word’s conventional sense. Rached Ghannouchi, the leading figure of Ennahda, has clearly stated that they should no longer be considered Islamists, but rather ‘Muslim democrats’. “We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam,” Ghannouchi told the French daily Le Monde, “[w]e are Muslim democrats who no longer claim to represent political Islam”.

Islamic exceptionalism

Among academics, too, the controversy is afoot. Scholars such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood underscore the foreignness of Western and liberal conceptions of secularism to Islam as a discursive tradition. In several of his influential works, Asad connects secularism to the specific history of European Christianity, to the emergence of the European national states and their pervasive regulatory powers, and to the concomitant rise of both capitalism at home and imperialism abroad. The late Saba Mahmood seems to agree. The way Western modernity has treated the Jewish and Christian scriptures is not appropriate for treating the Qur'ān. Engaging in religious reform, in the way liberal Muslim thinkers such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Abdolkarim Soroush do, amounts, in Mahmood’s opinion, to running errands for Western imperialism and forging a partnership with the US State Department's “programmatic efforts to reshape and transform Islam 'from within'”.

Shadi Hamid, senior scholar at the Brookings Institution, brings the issue of Islamic exceptionalism into more concrete terms. Due to the central role it plays in law-giving and governance, Hamid holds, Islam is and will remain “resistant to secularization”. In his view, this resistance has to do with two important factors that distinguish Islam from other religions, such as Christianity. First, the highly revered, foundational period of Islam was such that religion in it was nearly completely intertwined with politics. The Prophet, Hamid writes, was all at once “a theologian, a preacher, a warrior and a politician”.  Second, according to Hamid, there is the unique centrality of the Qur'ān to Muslim religiosity, not merely as God’s words but as God’s “direct and literal speech”. The political and legislative relevance of many Qur'anic verses and Prophetic ḥadīths, Hamid’s argument implies, cannot be easily dismissed.

Liberal reformers

Yet there are also numerous Muslim intellectuals and reformist thinkers who take issue with what they consider as the essentialism implied in the argument for Islamic exceptionalism. While they see as urgent the need to bring certain areas of the shariʿa closer to human rights standards and modern conceptions of democracy, they do not consider the reforms required as breaking with the fundamentals of Islam. Even if early Islam was both ‘faith and political order’ combined,  Muslim thinkers such as Ali Abd al-Raziq, Muḥammad Saʿid Ashmawi  and Abd al-Jawwad Yasin argue, this was mostly due to contingent and historical factors, not to essential traits in Islam as such.

A more dynamic understanding of shariʿa, some liberal reformists maintain, was already present in the early periods of Islam. According to Ashmawi, among others, only a few years after the death of the Prophet, Qur’anic and Sunna-based rulings on the distribution of war-booties, for example, were radically reinterpreted, in order to suit changing circumstances on the ground. Likewise, for a more recent example, all the shariʿa legislations on slavery have in fact been discarded, in deference to the modern ‘abolition of slavery and serfdom’. The majority of Wasaṭi Muslim scholars today (including shaykh Qaradawi) seem to consider the abolition of slavery to be in total agreement with the ‘spirit of Islam’ – despite contravening the implications of some Qur'anic and Sunna-based legislations and practices.

There are also other interesting aspects to the debate about the meaning of shariʿa in the countries of the Middle East. As Mona Abdel-Fadil has pointed out, there exists sometimes a considerable gap between what the religious scholars and the Islamists mean by shariʿa in today’s context and what the word brings to the minds of many ‘unspecialized’ Muslims. Many of Abdel-Fadil’s Egyptian research participants, for example, were less concerned with the shariʿa’s detailed, legal aspects than with its rather folkloric, utopian image as the earthly epitome of peace and justice. However, as those critical of the ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ thesis have also argued, religions, Islam included, do evolve and transform through history, redefining in the process what is essential and contingent in their heritage. The resources needed for the creation of a viable Islamic secularism, reformists such as Abd al-Raziq, Ashmawi and Abu Zayd suggest, already exist in Islam's foundational texts and in its manifold cultural and theological expressions.

Also the notion of an essential connection between Christianity and secularism is contested by several academic scholars. At least until late modernity, Sami Zubaida argues, Western Christianities had claimed no less a comprehensive hegemony over all aspects of human life than Islam had historically done. The process of secularization, thus, was not born as a legitimate child of Christianity, but rather amid deep, long-standing conflicts with its hegemonic discourses.

Secularism as a misnomer

Yet again, other modern Muslim intellectuals, without denying the need for Islamic reform, consider the word 'secularism' to be a misnomer and an invalid import from Western debates.  Islam doesn’t have a Church to begin with, the reformist Moroccan thinker Mohammed Abed al-Jabri used to argue, in order to call for its separation from the state. What is needed, rather, is, on the one hand, democratization and, on the other, a more rational and critical interpretation of the foundational texts. Likewise, in his book Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, Nader Hashemi seems to be taking a different route towards a similar idea. Whereas in European history religious reforms had preceded and made possible the process of secularization, historical circumstances in many Muslim-majority societies had reversed the sequence. The imposition of institutional secularization from above, however partial or defective, preceded both religious reform and democracy, leaving many Muslims alienated and unable to reconcile the political developments with what they see as the fundamentals of their faith.

The case of Tunisia

What is perhaps most remarkable about the intra-Islamic debates on shariʿa, secularism and ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ is how democratic developments on the ground, when they happen, can overtake and bypass the theoretical stalemate. This is no more visible today than in the stance of the Tunisian Ennahda Party towards the ‘implementation of shariʿa’.  Tunisia might be an exception, and there is no guarantee for the durability of the compromise. Nevertheless, it is of great significance. Taken to be a Muslim Brotherhood branch, Ennahda Party has agreed to an understanding of Islam's role in government  which, elsewhere in the Middle East, would be  reserved to those whom Islamists call ‘extreme secularists’, ‘enemies of religion’ and ‘agents of Western imperialism’.