Secularism: Legitimizing the Illegitimate
By Tarik Jan
Hamid Akhtar is an old communist who happened to be a journalist. One can dispute his ideas but not his person which is for sure sincere to his cause. Most of the time people of his tribe write in layers concealing their inner thoughts, nitpicking, taunting, de-contextualizing issues and twisting them to achieve their desired conclusions. One may describe it as their dilemma of living in a Muslim society where an open expression of their secular beliefs can blow up their cover. Akhtar, however, has the distinction of occasional openness giving his readers the chance to see the inside of the person and his thinking.
After the demise of the Soviet Union like the rest of his tribe, he has begun to tag himself as secular and liberal for which one should not pick a bone with them for if one takes out the proletarian dictatorship and collective ownership from communism than its basic premise by and large will be similar to secularism. Their consanguinity lies in their being the children of the same mother named materialism.
In one of his recent write up he has talked on issues of primary significance. For example, he sulks over the people’s wrong use of the word irreligious for secularism whereas he sees it as a doctrine of separation between religion and state; and thus not opposed to religion. Second, as he says, those who call for Islamizing Pakistan are forgetful of their history and do not know that when the Umayyad and the ‘Abbasid substituted khilafa (caliphate) with monarchy, they opted for secularism.
I shall address myself to these two points.
Whether secularism amounts to irreligious or not is contingent on its essence. I cannot decide about its essence nor can Hamid Akhtar unless we forsake objectivity and follow our whims. Thus, we will have to refer to the objective sources which unfortunately our secular friends want to avoid. To say that secularism is a wedge between religion and state is not the whole truth. Rather, we have to find out the real intent of secularism. What does it aim at?
When it comes to fixing the meaning of secularism, many names can be cited, for example, George Jacob Holyoake, Peter Berger, Harvey Cox, Max Weber, Bernard Lewis, Noah Feldman, and so forth. But since Holyoake was perhaps the first one to come up with the term secularism, it would be appropriate to peg the definition on him.
“Secularism,” as he says, “is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable and unbelievable.” One of its principal features says “that science is the available Providence of man.” See his English Secularism – A confession of belief (1896), under the head “Third stage of free thought,” p. 35.
In other sense, secularism raises its head only when humans distance themselves from religion for they do not find an answer to their problems in it or when they convince themselves that religious beliefs lack certitude and thus they are not credible to rely on.
Expressly stated, secularism is a totalizing concept which poses a countervailing option to religion – a worldview that robs the universe and the planetary existence of its moral and spiritual essence and tries to understand it as mechanical materialism.
Holyoake’s definition also brings this out that religion is for the “other world” while secularism relates to “this world” – the present or the transient in time. In other words, the secularists consider Islam or religion itself as irrelevant to life. Thus, separating religion from running sociopolitical affairs is fundamental to their thinking even when some seminal works on secularism try to differentiate between its benign and malignant forms.
To keep it short and avoid being redundant, I would refrain from citing other writings on secularism for in almost all definitions we find consanguinity and commonalty. Without exception they stress that humans should avoid any allusion to God, religion, tradition, and revelatory morality, for humans are capable enough to think for themselves; it is the individual self which is the sole arbiter of everything. That is why secularism emphatically says that there is no other world; it is wasting one’s life to connect it with the fear of accountability in the hereafter.
True, Islam gives great importance to the “other world” or the life hereafter, yet it likens “this world” to a sowing field without which there is no significance to the life hereafter. And since Islam is for “this world,” it considers worship as an inclusive concept, which goes beyond the prayers and embraces life from societal to economy and politics. For example, in Islam even a small act like smiling toward another human is a religious act equal to sadaqah or charity. Likewise, in normal parlance taxation falls within the realm of the state but Islam turns it into worship in the form of zakah (poor-due). That is why Muslims do not make any differentiation between “this worldly” and “other worldly” for the two are part of the same continuum. To be fair, one may ask which revelatory religion, intended for this world, would like to retreat from life hiding itself in the caves and jungles. Is it possible for a religion or an ideology which has a collective bent to retreat from life and then remain alive? Religion, as the Bosnian scholar ‘Alijah Izetbegovich says, has to become worldly to influence the world.
Thus said, why do the secularists find problem with Islam? One may say it owes to their ignorance about Islam. For example, the proof is in the pudding: they see Islam as a religion in the Western sense – private, dogmatic, and not societal forgetting that Islam prefers the word “al-Din” for itself – the way or a code of life, and not just dogma and ritual.
If the points raised by Hamid Akhtar were specific to only this aspect or confined to the philosophical level, it would not have invited my response. For it is up to an individual’s conscience and thinking to hold whatever he thinks is right for him. But when a foreign originated concept is turned into an ideology and stretched to embrace politics, economics, morality, and other aspects of life and uses state machinery to impose it on “a Muslim society,” then secularism becomes a problem.
- All said one may ask who has given secularism the right to extend itself over the existential human situation and hold everything into its clutch in a “Muslim society”?
- Why would secularism insist on regulating human affairs and expel religion from politics when religion insists that it solves human problems better?
- By which measure of reason secularism can declare itself as the “only truth,” excluding God and morality from the public sphere?
So please Mr. Akhtar, do not minimize the issue – it is not the simple issue of separating religion from politics or state. There is more to it, which you are trying to hide. Your fellow travelers are saying it all, sometimes concealed in the text and sometimes they insinuate showing their enmity for Islam.
For instance, in the Musharraf era when prime minister Shaukat Aziz asked people to pray for rains in order to overcome the long dry spell, your comrade Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy rebuked him in the daily Dawn, saying that rains did not fall because of people’s prayers; rather, there are laws of nature that are instrumental in the cloud formation and rains.
It would have been instructive if Hoodbhoy had also explained the following:
- Who created the laws of nature?
- Or how did the laws of nature came into being?
- Did they come into being before or after the emergence of the physical phenomena?
This would have certainly educated the “emotional” people of Pakistan.
In one of your recent columns, you yourself suggested that all bearded people should be thrown behind the bars. This is still a minor aberration. Your Bina Sarwar laments the fact that she cannot make fun of God in the name of freedom of expression. I could have cited the source as well as her content but since my intention is not to stir mischief, I prefer to keep it to myself.
The irony is obvious that despite the secularists’ effort to scratch religion from every nook and corner of life, they still have the nerve to wear an innocent face and assure people that they are not against religion.
Now let us take the other authentic source which may help us in determining whether secularism is irreligious (disbelief) or not. For example, the secularists are against the shari‘ah and never miss an occasion to fire at it from their bunkers of ignorance and hatred. But then in the same breath they say they are not against religion. The Qur’an (unless one denies it) characterizes such attitudes as kufr (disbelief). To illustrate my point I refer to al-Baqarah 85:
Then do you believe in a part of the Scripture and reject the rest? Then what is the recompense of those who do so among you, except disgrace in the life of this world, and on the Day of Resurrection they shall be consigned to the most grievous torment. And Allah is not unaware of what you do.
Al-Ma’dah: 44 say the same:
And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, such are
the k?fir?n (disbelievers).
So, is there another meaning to secularism? Both sources are saying the same thing. Secularism unabashedly says it is against religion or any normative referent which may deny the role of the human agency in determining right and wrong, while the Qur’an declare such attitudes as amounting to kufr (disbelief).
Hamid Akhtar’s second proposition is equally flawed when he says Muslims forget that the change from al-Khilafah al-Rashidah (rightly guided caliphate) to monarchy was a secularization process. I do not know what exactly he means by it. Why would he consider the post-caliphal period as secular. The monarchial change did not bring about the abolition of the Islamic laws. The jihad continued to have the same attention that the caliphs gave to it. Likewise, the zakah collection and its distribution to the poor remained the same and so were the arrangement for salah, saum and hajj. The courts were as prompt in giving justice to the citizens as before. To qualify for the secular epithet Akhtar will have to prove that the monarchial change showed collective indifference to the essentials of the Islamic polity, disregarding shari’ah and its demands.
True, Muslims always considered the caliphate as a model system of governance. That is why in the first and a half century of Islam we find civil wars – some people rising against the monarchial rule. The ‘ulama and fuqaha felt uneasy; frequent rebellions also bothered them. Eventually ijm?‘(consensus) developed among them, that as long as the monarchial rulers abided by the shari‘ah and implemented it, people will obey them. This broad-based consensus later had its echo in the writings of al-Ghazali, al-Mawardi, and Ibn Taymiyah, binding on the rulers to become the custodians of the shari’ah in exchange for the people’s support to them.
Not surprisingly Muslim history is replete with such rulers whose uprightness, love for their peoples and resolve to safeguard the sovereign majesty of the Muslim ummah could be sworn upon. Most importantly, they upheld the sovereign writ of the shari’ah in general. It was during these Muslim rulers’ reign, which the secularists abuse often, that the Muslims held their sway over a large part of the world, in the East as well as in the West. In our part of the world, Ghaznawis, Ghoris, Lodhies, Mughals (other than the aberration named Akbar) continued to rule under the blessed umbrella of the shar‘iah. This may surprise Hamid Akhtar that even after independence, the small kingdoms of Swat-Dir, and Bahawalpur, had the Islamic justice system. All of them played a great role in keeping the Muslim people together on the Islamic grid.
To keep it short, I shall give one example only. In the last leg of the Umayyad when the zanadiqah (atheists and secular) mounted their assault on the moral core of the Muslim society by spreading licentious living, free sex, liquor, gambling and above all atheism, the Abbasid caliphs al-Mahdi and al-Mansur decided to crush them. They not only killed them but also engaged eminent scholars to write books for the eradication of the then secular threat. Likewise, al-Mahdi’s parting words to his son al-Hadi are a reflection of his Islamic concerns:
If Allah ever gave you the chance to rule, do not spare any effort to crush the M?ni’s followers.
Thus, it is of vital significance to think whether Muslim people can be driven toward secularism. In the Muslim world wherever the secularizing experiment has been made, the results have been catastrophic for secularism. The Iranian experiment turned into the Khomeini revolution. The Turkey of Ataturk has begun to tread the Ottoman way.