Islam and Secularization

Whatever the answer to the general question, "Why does religion persist?" -- whether it is a Darwinian evolutionary, or Marxist, or socio-cultural, or socio-economic or Freudian explanation – it will obviously apply to Islam in particular. Nonetheless a further, more precise question can be posed in the special case of Islam, "Why has there not been a similar process of secularization in the Islamic world as in the West?"  How and why did secularization take place in the West? And would secularization if it ever took deep roots in the Islamic world necessarily take the same form and trajectory? To what can we attribute the contemporary Islamic Revival? These are profound questions answers to which I cannot even hope to address adequately in the 15 minutes allocated to me. What I can try to do is to give some very tentative reasons for why there has not been any deep and widespread movement present at all levels of society towards a critical examination of religion in the Islamic world ; and even then I shall be constrained to limit my examples to two or three countries out of a possible thirty or so.

First, how did secularization come about in the West? What is it that distinguishes Western civilization from all the other great civilizations that, in fact, have contributed to the making of the West? I think there are four or five principles or traits some of which have perhaps always been present in Western civilization at least ever since the Greeks which eventually led not only to secularization but to the development of those values and principles that we call Western. I shall lean on four scholars to bring out these four elements special to the West.

Sir Ernst Gombrich asks why the West, after the end of the Middle Ages, so rapidly overtook the great civilizations of the East, and then answers :

In the venerable civilizations of the East, custom was king and tradition the guiding principle. If change came it was all but imperceptible, for the laws of Heaven existed once and for all and were not to be questioned. That spirit of questioning, the systematic rejection of of authority, was the one invention the East may have failed to develop. It originated in ancient Greece. However often authority tried to smother this inconvenient element, its spark was glowing underground. It was that spark, perhaps, that was fanned into flame by the awareness that our ancestors did not have the monopoly of wisdom, and that we may learn to know more than they have if only we do not accept their word unquestioned. As the motto of the Royal Society( dating from 1663) has it, Nullius in verba – By nobody’s word.

Here is another answer to the question "how has the secularization of Christendom come about?"

Unbelief is not by any means the only cause of secularization. Thus, attempts by orthodox apologists to establish religion on a secure, rational basis often had an unintended secularizing effect, in that the criteria of rationality could oust the sanction of the supernatural. More important has been the effect of religious pluralism, the separation of Church and State, and the view that religion was essentially a private and personal matter, which often contributed to the secularization of key areas of public life such as education, even when most individuals retained strong religious commitments ….

Here is Chadwick’s assessment,

Part of the development of Christian doctrine was forced upon the churches by advances in knowledge which in other directions made men’s minds more ‘secular’. And part of the development of Christian doctrine, during the nineteenth century, contributed to the growing 'secularity' of men’s minds.

Chadwick again, 

From the moment that European opinion decided for toleration, it decided for an eventual free market in opinion. A toleration of a minority is not the same as equality before the law between opinions. But in the circumstances of European history the one must lead into the other....Once concede equality to a distinctive group, you could not confine it to that group. You could not confine it to Protestants; nor, later, to Christians; nor, at last, to believers in God. A free market in some opinions became a free market in all opinions... Christian conscience was the force which began to make Europe 'secular;' that is, to allow many religions or no religion in a state, and repudiate any kind of pressure upon the man who rejected the accepted and inherited axioms of society...My conscience is my own."

I should like to add one final element that went into the making of the West: self-criticism. This essential ingredient in the Western mix is perhaps hinted at and implied in the other principles adduced above, but I should nonetheless like to spell it out further. West has this uncanny ability for self-reflection, self-criticism, an inward gaze that enables it to reflect on its mistakes, its goals, and weaknesses, and to try to remedy them. This is what Arthur Schlesinger had in mind when he wrote, " There remains, however, a crucial difference between the Western tradition and the others. The crimes of the West have produced their own antidotes. They have provoked great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat racism, to defend freedom of inquiry and expression, to advance personal liberty and human rights."

(Others might wish to add individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties, to the list.)

I have divided the reasons for the lack of secularization and the increasing influence of Islam in the Islamic world into three categories :

( 1) Historico- doctrinal

( 2) Socio-cultural

( 3) Contemporary, post-independence politico-economic (I apologize for the inelegance of the terminology.)

There is an overlap between these categories ; they do not operate separately, but rather influence one another.

( 1) Historico-doctrinal:[3]

1.i  No formal separation of Mosque and State. Secularism was firmly in place by the end of 19th century in Europe but probably the idea first emerged in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe in the 17th century after the bloody wars of religion, and was established by the American and French Revolutions in the 18th century. One could even argue that secularism is a profoundly Christian notion whose origins can be traced to Christ’s oft-quoted words in Matthew 22 verse 21; "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s."

For Muslims, however, as Bernard Lewis put it, God was Caesar, the state was God’s state, the army God’s army, the enemy was God’s enemy, and above all, the Law was God’s Law. The problem of separating mosque and state did not arise as there was no mosque as an autonomous institution to be separated. Mosque and sate were one and the same. Muhammad was both a prophet and soldier, prophet and statesman. His career as a statesman was an essential part of his prophetic mission. Thus from its very inception, Islam was associated with the exercise of power. In Classical Arabic there are no pairs of words corresponding to "lay" and "ecclesiastical," "spiritual" and "temporal," "secular" and "religious." Islam knows no distinctions between these realms, it is all embracing and controls and has jurisdiction over an individual’s entire life.

1.2 The West developed certain characteristic institutions that were essential for the emergence of democracy and secularism. One such institution was the council or representative assembly, whose effective functioning was made possible by the principle embodied in Roman law, that of the legal person – a corporate entity that for legal purposes is treated as an individual, able to buy and sell, enter into contracts, appear as defendant, etc. There was no Islamic equivalent of the Roman senate or assembly or parliament. Islam simply lacked the legal recognition of corporate persons. As Joseph Schacht put it, "Islam does not recognize juristic persons ; not even the public treasury is construed as an institution."

One of the major functions of these Western assemblies was legislative activity, but there was no legislative function in the Islamic state, and thus no need for legislative institutions. The Islamic state was a theocracy, in the literal sense of a polity ruled by God. For pious Muslims, legitimate authority comes from God alone, and the ruler derives his power from God and holy law, and not from the people. Rulers were simply applying or interpreting God’s law as revealed to Muhammad. Lacking legislative bodies, Islam did not develop any principle of representation, any procedure for choosing representatives, any definition of the franchise, or any electoral system. Therefore it is not surprising, as Lewis points out, if the history of the Islamic states is "one of almost unrelieved autocracy. The Muslim subject owed obedience to a legitimate Muslim ruler as a religious duty. That is to say, disobedience was a sin as well as a crime."

1.3 Islam claims for itself the exclusive truth, it is by definition superior to all other faiths, there is only one truth, and that was revealed finally to one man, and that is enshrined in only one book, the Koran. It is the duty of every Muslim to bring the entire world to his way of thinking. As Frithjof Schuon put it once, " … Muslims [have] a curious tendency to believe that non-Muslims either know that Islam is the truth and reject it out of pure obstinacy, or else are simply ignorant of it and can be converted by elementary explanations ; that anyone should be able to oppose Islam with a good conscience quite exceeds the Muslim’s power of imagination, precisely because Islam coincides in his mind with the irresistible logic of things." There is no question here of according opposing views any respect.

( 2) Socio-cultural.( I shall not dwell on this for lack of time)

At least in the Arabic speaking Islamic world, the key to understanding Muslim society is, as David Pryce Jones in a brilliant analysis put it, "acquisition of honour, pride, dignity, respect, and the converse avoidance of shame, disgrace, and humiliation … "  The powerful codes of shame and honour, which are a legacy of the tribal society from which Muslim Arab society is descended, enforce identity and conformity of behaviour. Everything is permitted in order to safeguard the family or tribal honour, lying, cheating, and even murder. Honour makes life worth living whereas shame is a living death. Shame and honour involve publicity ; success involves bragging, and shames means public humiliation; now we can see that the Western penchant for self-criticism is impossible in a Muslim society, for to criticize is to bring humiliation however just the criticism, and thus self-criticism is doubly incomprehensible in such a society. To allow another religion, for example, a fair hearing is also unthinkable, because this risks humiliation for one's own ; pluralism is hence also impossible. Such a society imposes strict codes of social behaviour, and requires absolute obedience. For example, on the domestic level, it is impossible for a son to to grow up and "assert his own individuality without upsetting, insulting, or otherwise calling into question his father’s honour as head of the household and probably his mother’s as well." On the political level it means absolute obedience to the ruler.

( 3) Contemporary, post-independence politico- economic.[7]

3.1 Failure of modern states in the Islamic world. As Edward Said put it, "The history of the modern Arab world – with all its political failures, its human rights abuses, its stunning military incompetence, its decreasing production, the fact that alone of all modern peoples we [the Arabs] have receded in democratic and technological and scientific development – is disfigured by a whole series of out-moded and discredited ideas, … "This is equally true of many of the non-Arabic speaking Islamic countries. There has been a demographic explosion in the Islamic world, and the leaders have simply not coped, unable to provide jobs, housing, health facilities, transport, inflation running high, all compounded by human rights abuses (torture, summary justice, executions, etc.).

3.2 This failure has been very ably exploited by the Islamists to increase their prestige, to increase their power, which has led, in turn, to mounting demands for increasing Islamization of society.

3.3 But how, you may ask, did the religious class, the ulama, hold on to their influence in the first place? First, the Koran. The Koran remains for all Muslims, not just "fundamentalists," the uncreated word of God Himself. It is valid for all times & places, its ideas are absolutely true & beyond all criticism. To question it is to question the very word of God, & hence blasphemous.

A Muslim’s duty is to believe it & obey its divine commands. Given the importance attached to the Koran and the Sunna (custom, the sayings & doings of the Prophet which have been established as legally binding), there grew a need to have a professional class of people competent enough to interpret the Sacred text. As their authority grew among the the community, they grew more confident and claimed absolute authority in all matters relating to faith and law. The doctrine of the consensus of the community (ijma, in reality the consensus of the suitably qualified authorities), further consolidated their absolute power.

Any religion that requires total obedience is not likely to produce people capable of CRITICAL THOUGHT; people capable of independent thinking. Such a situation again is favourable to the development of a powerful "clergy" and is clearly responsible for the intellectual, cultural and economic stagnation of several centuries.. Historically as there never was any separation of state and religion, any criticism of one was seen as a criticism of the other; inevitably at the independence of many Muslim countries after the second world war Islam unfortunately was linked with Nationalism which meant that any criticism of Islam was seen as a betrayal of the newly independent country – an unpatriotic act, an encouragement to colonialism and imperialism. No Muslim country has developed a stable democracy; Muslims are being subjected to every kind of repression possible, under these conditions healthy criticism of society is not possible; critical thought and liberty go together.

The above factors explain why Islam in general is never criticised, discussed or subject to deep scientific or sceptical analysis. All innovations are discouraged in Islam & every problem is seen as a religious problem rather than a social or economic one.

3 .4 At independence contrary to what many people think most countries in the Islamic world gave some constitutional status to Islam, only Turkey has formally adopted the separation of religion and state as law, and it has enacted the removal of Islam from the constitution, and the abrogation of the sharia. This status of Islam ranges from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which gives religion central position, to the rather minimal reference in the Syrian constitution, which says the laws of the state shall be inspired by the sharia. Saudi Arabia which does not have a written constitution still accords a very considerable place to religion, and religious law.

3.5 With a view to holding on to power and to find excuses for their economic failures, leaders of Muslim countries have compromised with obscurantist theologians, who have often obligingly legitimated the power of the despots. The sheikhs who gave increasingly more violent sermons in the mosques and on best-selling audio-cassettes were finding an even wider audience among "the young, poor, and frustrated middle –class for whom the slogans of Islam provide both comfort in their daily misery and hope for a better future."

In Egypt, but this is also true of many Islamic countries world-wide, the Islamists were gathering momentum because of the government’s failures, its crushing corruption, a state bureaucracy more apathetic than those of the former Eastern block, and which according to a UN study work an average of 27 minutes per day; and which did not exist to serve the people but a way to keep power, and thus ensure honour for a small group of people ; a fearsome state security apparatus which did not hesitate to use torture to get its ways, harassing the very people they should have been protecting.

By contrast the Islamic groups were far from being apathetic, providing a dignified identity for the newly uprooted masses flooding the cities, but also help of a very practical nature.. For example during the earthquake of October 1992, Mubarak was visiting China. Official aid only began on his return, two days later. Whereas the Islamists were providing tents, food, clothing, and medical aid within hours of the disaster. Similarly in Jordan the Muslim Brotherhood consciously pursued a policy of developing the social and cultural "infrastructure of an Islamic republic," and by the early 1990s in this small country of 4 million people, was operating a large hospital, twenty clinics, forty Islamic schools, and 120 Koranic study centers. …In the West Bank and Gaza, Islamic organizations established and operated «  student unions, youth organizations, religious, social, and educational associations « , including schools ranging from kindergartens to an Islamic university, clinics, orphanages, a retirement home, and a system of of Islamic judges and arbitrators. Islamic organizations spread throughout Indonesia in the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1980s, the largest, Muhhammadijah, had 6 million members, constituted a "religious-welfare-state-within-the-secular-state," and provided "cradle-to-grave" services for the entire country through an elaborate network of schools, clinics, hospitals, and university-level institutions." 

Sticking to the example of Egypt, we can see that the actual government in power, and before Mubarak, under Sadat, had courted the supposedly moderate Islamic establishment, which now made more and more confident pronouncements and demanded more and more Islamic concessions from the government. For example, the sheikhs of the famous Al Azhar, the state’s most important Islamic center, was able to ban more than 150 books since 1952, as well as movies and songs, even though Egyptian law protects then in principle. When the fearless secularist Foda was assassinated, his murderers were defended by Sheikh Ghazali, and the government said nothing. Sadat had earlier used the al Azhar ulema, the state-funded religious scholars to legitimize his actions; for example he asked them to denounce the food riots of 1977 and bless the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.In return Sadat had made religion compulsory in schools and universities and had rewritten the country’s constitution to make Islamic Law – the sharia, a "main source of law." Twenty years later emboldened by their success the Islamist now wanted the sharia to be THE source of all Egyptian law.

Mubarak in turn, in his fight against the Islamic militants was obliged to pay lip service to Islam and sorely needed the imprimatur of the moderate Islamic establishment. He told journalist Judith Miller, that "he could not say publicly that he was going to reduce the amount of religious programming on television or take other steps to weaken the Islamic current and strengthen civic society in Egypt. The fundamentalists would accuse him of being anti-Islamic. He had the militants on the run now, he said. He would not jeopardize that momentum by making statements that could be twisted to mean that he was attacking Islam."

3.6 Education.

What of education, surely the government could have encouraged secularism through the thousands of state-funded schools? Unfortunately the sociopolitical condition has not permitted education to liberate people and ideas as in the West. "Control lost by fathers did not pass to the sons themselves but to the ruler of the state. No absolute ruler could possibly permit an educational system whose values would produce students who might shame him, destroy his prestige, finally form a power challenge to overthrow him. Education, like so many modern reforms, has evolved into a method of state-control. Group direction, not self-realization, has been the aim of Arab education."

Education has taught "the mannerisms of modern life but not its techniques or spirit." In other words, universities are not producing students able to think for themselves, or capable of self-criticism, or critical thinking, who can apply their analytical skills to the ills besetting their societies.

In Egypt, the Islamists had infiltrated the 25000 state schools, where they were indoctrinating the children by playing them cassettes of the fiery sermons of the militant preachers like Sheikh Kishk, and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The children were taught to identify themselves as Muslims and not Egyptians. In Algeria, one father lamented, "My daughter asks me to go to prayers each day. It is her teacher who is pushing her to say these things. It is as if the teacher has stabbed me in my own house. This kind of fundamentalism we have to eliminate. It is the primary schools with their backwardness that are forming fundamentalists. The teaching of Islam has not been modernised which alone can purge from religion its reductive prejudices." Another Algerian remarked, "I used to think only God could save Algeria. But I sometimes have the impression that he is the cause of our torments." In the primary schools the children are asked to memorize large parts of the Koran in Arabic even in countries where Arabic is not the mother tongue. Needless to say most children do not know what they are learning by rote. By the time some of these children make it to university, we can see that not a great deal has changed in their mental habits; here is what Shabbir Akhtar, who taught at the International Islamic University in Malaysia in the 1990s, says of his former students: "I worry about my former students. In Islam, as in Judaism and Confucianism, there is rote learning and a reverence for the precise written text. Some students not only memorized the Koran but even attempted a kind of memorisation of the whole heritage for a higher degree. A masters candidate had often "mastered nothing but rote learning."

The day after the masscre of the tourists at Luxor, in Egypt, the daily newspaper, Al Goumhouriya, very courageously wrote, "All Egyptians are responsible. It is our society which has incubated these criminals and we are their refuge since they live, hide, kill and come back among us. [The religious Islamic University of Al Azhar and its Koranic schools] fill heads with Islamic teaching, which is but a kind of brain-washing «  wrote Mahfouz al Ansari, describing the Al Azhar and its religious schools as factories for producing extremists."

3.7 Cultural Identity.

One final but essential factor in the current Islamic revival has to do with Islam’s crisis of identity, especially in face of the West’s overwhelming economic and cultural success in contrast to the relative economic, cultural, human rights failures of the post-independence regimes in the Islamic world. These failures has led to an increase of frustration, envy and hatred of the West, and an exaggerated emphasis on their Islamic identity which, at least one scholar thinks, "has nothing to do with worship and man’s relationship with God or nature, but is a fictitious catch-phrase on which anyone with the will for it may mount a bid for power, either Sunni or Shia, but divisive in any case. Without political form, strictly emotional in thought and practice, the appeal of this alleged revival lies in its apology for weakness and in the converse of its apparent defiance of Western vitality."

This analysis, I think, underestimates the fact that for the traditional Muslim Islam still constituted the ultimate basis of identity and loyalty. And "since for Muslims Islam is, by definition, superior to all other faiths, the failures and defeats of Muslims in this world can only mean that they are not practicing authentic Islam and that their states are not true Islamic states. The remedy, therefore, is return to the pure authentic Islam of the Prophet and his Companions, a rejection and elimination of the accretions and innovations that had debased and corrupted the faith and enfeebled the Islamic society …"

It is a depressing fact that during the Gulf War almost every single Muslim and Arab intellectual sympathized with Saddam Hussein, because, we are told, "he stood up to the West." In this explanation is summed up all the sense of Islamic failure, and feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis the West. The Muslim world must indeed be in a dire way if it sees hope in a tyrant who has murdered literally thousands of his own countrymen. These same intellectuals seem incapable of self-criticism, and still the old battles are being fought – "them" and "us," the Crusades all over again. Every ill, every failure is still blamed on the West, Israel, or some Zionist conspiracy. As Kanan Makiya so courageously pointed out, "Old habits die hard. They die hardest of all among people who have made it their duty to awaken pride in self and a sense of collective identity by blaming all ills on some 'other' - a foreign agency or 'alien' culture outside the community one is trying to extol, and often more powerful and dynamic. The painful thing to observe is the unrelenting stridency of the Arab intelligentsia’s attempt to blame every ill on the west or Israel. The language gets more unreal, hysterical, and self-flagellating, the less the Arab world is actually able to achieve politically and culturally in modern times."

Further point of discussion :

[1] Governments in power during cold war encouraged the Islamists as bulwark against Communists. Huntington 115

[2] Not a problem of literacy – Egypt =50 % ; Pakistan = 36 % ; Iran = 74 %. Islamists: all very young, and educated: engineers. Huntington p113: 80% university students (Egyptian Militant leaders)

[3] Islamists not successful with peasants, or rural elite, but urban poor, looking for help & meaning. Cf. E.Gellner, pp 9-15.’ High Islam / Low Islam, of the scholars / people respectively.

[4] Demography : Muslims : 18% in 1980 30% in 2025. 40 Muslim countries. Huntington p.119.

[5] Nonreligious + atheists in the World: 841,000 000 + 220 000 000 = 1061 000 000 = 18% World population (Source 1997 Almanac)

[6] Muslims: 1099, 634 000 ; Christians: 1927,953 000 ; Hindus: 780,547 000.

[7] Averroes(1126 – 1198) superseded by Ibn Taimiya (1263-1328)

[8] Secularists since the early 19th century : Jinnah, Attaturk, Farag Foda (1992) (1985: Qabl al Suqut) Rifaat Said, Taha Hussein (1889 -1973), 1926 First Egyptian film, by woman!, Women's magazines: 1900s, 1914, more than twenty women’s periodicals.

[9] Islamic law does not reflect changing social realities as does Roman law. WIANAM, p169

[10] Individual not important in Islam : collective will of the Umma, Muslim community, more important.

[11] Civil society not well-developed in Islamic Societies.