Secularism in the Muslim World

by R. Hinkson and Malick Elias

(Originally written and published in 1999 for the Homeland Journal)

Can the organisation of the State and the integration of religious morals into public life be separated in the Muslim World? What are the prospects for a truly secular society in the Middle East and elsewhere and why will this question be a resounding issue, even for future generations?


What is meant here by the state is not confined to the political leadership, ministers and other representatives of it, but encompassing the entire fixed political system. This includes the establishment of authoritative functions by which citizens in a society are controlled, ordered and organised. From the educational system, legislative administrations, to civil liberty institutions that shape the consciousness of its citizens. By religion on the other hand and for the purposes of this discussion, we mean that body of moral rules and guidelines which seeks to regulate for its followers their lives in this world. By adopting this general definition of religion, that cuts across boarders and gets to the heart of the matter: the issue of the role, if any, of religious morals in public life, we can immediately juxtapose the arguments. Why is a general definition so important here in this debate? Our answers to this question are as follows: one, that it is extremely difficult to pin down what religion actually means for two reasons. Firstly, because the word is Western in origin. It comes from the Latin word religio, meaning obligation or bond and thus highly speculative as to whether it has any semantic correlates across cultures. Secondly, religion in the West has undergone radical shifts in meaning during the course of the centuries so much so that the applicability of term ‘religion’ to non-Western institutions raises many doubts. Two, that Western definitions of religion tends to associate religion with the practise of rituals and is often seen as something which an individual performs privately in order to achieve personal spiritual fulfilment. So Western views of religion would tend to see it as separate from public matters such as the organisation and operation of the state, and it is this distinctively secular approach, which seeks to define the world in its image, which this article will seek to address in relation to the Muslim World (MW). The main religion in the Middle East is Islam and hence the focus here will mainly be on Islam and the question of the future of secularism in the MW. Having said that, this issue is not pertinent to the problems in the Middle East. As “religious people” the world over try to reclaim for themselves a role for religious values in public life this issue is bound to grow in important once again, especially in the Muslim world.


Islam as the predominant religion of the Middle East has been established in the region since the seventh century A.D. The impact of its superstructure and belief system has since left Arabs with a unique intellectual heritage and consciousness of self. Combined with its social and historical development the Islamic identity poses a number of problems and challenges for those who seek to impose or implement a modern secular consciousness upon the Muslims. Although there have always been divergent views within the Muslim community on many conflicting and controversial issues, there is a unity in the belief that Islam is an all embracing system that caters for all aspects of life. The general populace of Muslims view Islam as the correct path and hence the only path that can lead to salvation and a good life in this world. Hence Islam, even when rigidly interpreted, new ideas and perspectives that individuals would like to see incorporated in the religion have to be shown to possess an Islamic basis, or at least be compatible with Islam.

When one comprehends the intellectual impact that Islam, its heritage and culture, has upon the evolution of the Muslim mind, then one can begin to appreciate why those who wish to secularise Islam have a heavy burden of proof in trying to justify their approach. Not due to lack of historical data which justifies their arguments in support of a secularist society. But because the separation of religious obligation from the affairs of state is seen as fundamentally against the ethos of Revelation. Muslim secularist or the so called modernist, consisting mainly of scholars who received their education in the West or Westernised institutions are usually the ones who argue for a partial or distinct separation of religion from politics. This move on their behalf is in response to the actual experience of the Muslim community, both past and present.

From the Ummayid despotic political reign and open subjugation of the Ulema (Scholars), Qudaat (Judges) and Aamat (common masses) to the whims and fancies of its rule, to a replication of this type of government by most modern Arab states have reinforced their conviction. Some Modernist, such as Fazlur Rahman, welcome the role of religion in public affairs, if politics and government are used as a channel through which general Islamic goals are realised. However, they strongly reject the exploitation of Islam for party politics and group interest.

Other writers, such as Abdelwahab El-Affendi, have argued that there has always been a consensus on de facto secularism in the Muslim World from as far back to the reign of Muawiya. He states that a broad agreement has evolved among classical writers on several issues: one, they accepted that all regimes since Muawiya did not reflect the ideals of Islam and thus could not be accepted as a model (with the general acceptance amongst Sunnis of the reign of Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz (101/AH-702AC)); two, that such regimes were tolerable only because the alternative was anarchy and civil war; and three, if a way could be found to replace these regimes without too much bloodshed, then their removal would be a religious duty. However this was not often consider a realistic option. This El-Affendi argues, is an rejection of secularism in principle but an adoption of it in practice. He adds that Muslims were instructed to obey the rulers, on the condition that their directive did not lead to sin. However, this sin was narrowly defined and the usurpation of power and the unlawful disposition of the wealth of the Muslims community was not part of it.

Al-Affendi and his ilk are not misguided in their observations and comments because this scenario has all been too common to the Muslim experience, even today. And in many ways these occurrences in Muslims history resembles the problems the European people faced under papal rule and influence in the Middle Ages. The main reason why the advocates of secularism feel that the lessons learnt from the French Revolution, its complete triumph over the influence of the Church, should be replicated in the Muslim world. However, to believe that any enforcement of these lessons upon the lives of a complete mass of people who’s consciousness of self has been dominated by the experience of Islam, is indeed wishful thinking. The acclaimed successes of the French Revolution was not achieved overnight but by centuries of debate on the political organisation of the state and the role of religion in it. These debates has only resumed in the Muslim world after a long period of the pacification of the Muslim masses by the doctrine of Taqleed (Blind following) and despotic rule. Any successful revolution of the sort to take place in the Muslim world will have to evolve from with the Muslim intellectual heritage in confronting its past mistakes and not to be imposed by a Westernised Muslim elite. Attempts at imposing social, political and economical development through Western secularism, from above, without a true intellectual revolution from the middle is bound to fail. Our present history is a testimony to this fact.


One of the main hopes of those who support a secularist approach to Islam in the Middle East, was that the twentieth century phenomena of nationalism would lead to the predominantly Arab Middle East being able to forge their own political identity out of their current experiences in relation to the challenges of the modern world. This belief has come unstuck for several reasons. Firstly, those who foresaw nationalism on a broader scale as in Pan-Arabism have had the problem of resolving the claim that the concept of Arabism leads straight back to Islam. Before the advent of Islam, the Arabs lived as disparate tribes who on the whole had not made a significant impact on history. It was the arrival of Islam that raised the stature of the Arabic language as the language of the Quran. So the Arabs main contribution to history has been seen as the initiators of an Islamic empire that by the ninth century had stretched over the face of the earth. Those who have attempted to espouse narrower definitions of nationalism along Western lines have come across the difficulties of Muslims perceiving themselves as an ‘Ummah’ (nation) that cuts across narrowly defined national borders.

Another major problem for the future of the secularist approach to Islam in the Middle East is its perceived weakness and failure in the twentieth century both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. Hasan Hanafi, an Egyptian philosopher perceived the emergence of Islam as a viable alternative to secularism, which has risen out of the failure of the contemporary ideologies of modernisation such as Western liberalism, state socialism and traditional Marxism. Many of the methodologies embarked upon by secular leaders after colonialism, failed to keep the promises of economic, social and political development. Even in those countries where rapid economic growth occurred, it was a privileged elite, which benefited at the expense of an impoverished majority. This can be said to have been the case of Iran in the 1970’s and Egypt in the 1980’s, which culminated in the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in Egypt. Both of these occurrences, were instigated by Islamic militants. Excessive economic inequality can play into the hands of Islamic groups, as there are verses in the Quran, which encourage Muslims to struggle politically against unjust economic situations. This means that socialism has had difficulty in establishing itself as a primary ideology in the Middle East as Islam incorporates its ideal of seeking to remove the inequality of opportunities created by unjust accumulation and unfair distribution of wealth. Post independence secular ideologies have also generally failed to fulfil their promises to establish parliamentary democracy. This has resulted in despotic rulers who have proved difficult to remove. Although most Islamist groups would not accept the Western concept of parliamentary democracy, in Islam there is in theory a belief that both the ruler and the ruled are subject to Islamic law which means oppressive rulers can be removed if they go against the tenants of the ‘Shariah’. This is an attractive proposition to the masses and again makes it difficult for secularists to penetrate the common people with their ideology.

Periods of rapid socialisation have also caused problems for secular ideologies in terms of creating social cohesion. Industrialisation and urbanisation tend to break down traditional societal structures. When uprooted people find themselves in unfamiliar urban environments and witness the effects of unemployment, excessive materialism, selfishness, and crime etc, people’s inability to identify with this causes an identity crisis. Often such people will turn to religion as this is what they there taught as children, and this acts as a source of stability and an anchor, as it is difficult for individuals to associate themselves with the imported ideas of the leadership. This is one of the reasons why commentators have believe that the Western understanding of nationalism has failed to command the type of reverence and importance in the Middle East as it has in the West, as people cannot identify themselves personally with many of the characteristics and behavioural patterns of people in the nation generally.

This situation has often led to the Islamic scholars ‘Ulema’, being seen as the only lasting symbol of opposition by the general public as they are often educated solely within the country of their birth, and hence are viewed as not trying to import foreign ideologies which attack the traditional structures and cultures within society. There are also those who believe that the Prophet Muhammad represents the life of the Arab soul, and secularist reforms have not and cannot work because they do not spring from the roots of the Arabs which is Islam.

Perhaps the greatest admission by Muslim secularists in the Middle East that their ideologies have been and are inadequate, has been their attempts to insert Islamic provisions into their modern constitutional frameworks to try and disguise the fact that their models are based upon imported secular ideologies. Often the constitution may require that the head of state be a Muslim or that Islamic law be acknowledged as a source of law. These moves have been seen as attempts to limit the importance of Islam and reduce its role to being a private rather than a public matter. Among the more overtly secular leaders who were seen as trying to legitimise themselves by claiming to be both personally Islamic and by implementing Islam in a wider social context were Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri in Sudan and Anwar Sadat in Egypt. However, even though the likes of Qaddafi championed anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and dependency on the West as a sign of weakness, he was still criticised for having an individualistic and for many a highly unorthodox view of Islam, one that amounted in the eyes of many stricter interpreters of Islam as being heretical. The result in the above mentioned cases is that Islamic opposition intensified against all three.

The Secularist ideologies have not only failed internally but also externally. Pan-Arabism which was popular during the 1950’s and 1960’s failed both to unify the Arabs against their common enemy Israel and also failed in its efforts to increase trade and commerce amongst Arab States themselves. Further the ideologies employed by various leaders has failed to make them independent of foreign powers who many deem within the Arab world as being imperialist in their aims. During Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri’s rule in the Sudan, his reneging on Islamic laws and the arrest of Muslim activists who had previously had his support, was viewed by many as being on the instigation of the United States and hence demonstrated an inherent U. S. bias against Islam.

So the close association with foreign regimes who appear hostile to their way of life have further made it difficult for secularists to convince people of the validity of their approach. This is in marked contrast to an Islamic civilisation which once provided a coherent system – now transmuted into Arab Muslim nation states – and a worldview based on the concept of ‘Darul-Islam’ (a place of peace) and ‘Darul-Harb’ (a place of war), which clearly demarcated where a Muslim should reside (i.e in a land where Islamic law is established), and also who the enemy were. The revival of this concept was one of the cornerstones of the policies of the Islamic Iranian revolution led initially by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed the existence of governments like Iran and Sudan, did prove to be a problem for secularist governments as they provided an example to other Islamists in the Middle East that despite the hostility of the outside world and in particular the West, they have basically managed to survive on their own terms.


The question of morality is one that will have to be decided upon on both sides of the debate. Those who oppose the separation of religion and politics, namely, Muslim traditionalist or revelationists, are of course arguing from the premise that Allah is the true Sovereign of the heavens and all of which is on earth. “To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and: he forgives whom he pleases and punishes whom He wills, and He is most forgiving most merciful.” (Al-Quran, C:48, V:14) Therefore, as the logic goes, no one has the right or authority to legislate or administer any form of justice or morality not sanctioned by Allah (swt). The result being that secularist are seen as espousing a morality founded merely upon a rational basis.

To a large extent this claim is correct because secular morality is based upon notions of positive justice, that is justice achievable as a result of observation and reason as oppose to ‘revealed knowledge’ unsupported by any factual basis in the real world. However, the real question here is an old one: the debate on ‘Revelation and Reason’. In clearer and simpler terms, are religious ethics subjective or objective? This issue has been discussed at length both by classical scholars and Muslim philosophers and elaborated upon both by western orientalists and Muslims intellectuals. Oliver Leaman in his book, ‘An Introduction To Medieval Islamic Philosophy (1985)’ has dedicated a complete chapter to answering the aforementioned question. Another detailed work dedicated to debating the concept of morality between both the Western and Islamic Paradigms is Ahmet Davutoglu’s, the current Turkish Foreign Minister’s book, ‘ Alternative Paradigms (1994)’.

Because this paper is limited to a specific length we will attempt to bring to the attention of our readers a few of the significant issues that the Reason/Revelation debate in its relation to the question of morality. The first, as you will remember relates to our general definition of religion: that body of moral rules and guidelines which seeks to regulate for its followers their lives in this world. How different is law and the civil organisation of society by observation and reason different than the proposals and reforms espoused by the Prophet and the recommendations of the Quran?

In conclusion it would be fair to say that due to the historical development of the Arabs as a major force in history which coincided with the rise of Islam, it will almost be impossible to separate religion from politics. The failure of secular governments to bring international prestige to the Middle East via nationalist regimes will mean that people will look with nostalgia at a time when Arabs were successful and this occurred when the political system was in line with religious mandates. Hence in a region where religion plays such an important role it will be difficult for religious minorities such as Jews and Christians not to increasingly look into their own religions to decided how much of a part it should play in their public life. In the West this already taking place with a reassertion of moral concerns for the environment and issues relating to public life. It is true to say that these moral concerns are highly secularised. However what they do demonstrate is that people in general are in search of a new consciousness of self and purpose in the world. The winners would be those who can offer prosperity and a good life in this world combined with secure conscience that they are morally justified in their undertakings, thus bridging the gap between religious tradition and modern change. On the other hand the losers will be those refusing to confront new and old realities and thereby failing to resolve these with utopia.

In the Muslim world there are many unresolved issues such as the need for a transparant political process and social and economic justice to be resolved. Having recognised this fact, any attempt at imposing social, political and economical development through Western secularism, from above, without a true intellectual revolution from the middle is bound to fail. From the middle because the scholars and the educated sections of society have to take a lead in all as much, as is some effort needed from the masses in making their concerns be head and addressed by governments. In the end the future of political change in the Muslim world will have to begin by planting the seeds of a true intellectual revolution beginning with open debate and dialogue between political activist themselves and governments. If this does not take place the future of public order in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East would remain volatile and dark.

Those who believe that secularism within Islam can be successful point to the success that the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt enjoyed during the 50’s and 60’s, and that perhaps if Saddam Hussein had been successful during the Gulf War in 1991, then perceptions would have changed. There has however been one country where secularism has arguably been successful in the Middle East but this society is not Islamic.

Perhaps one way of understanding why this has occurred is that the country in question, Israel, is a settler community and the settlers arrived from societies where state and religion were kept separated. Equally many of the Jewish settlers emigrated from European societies where multi-party democracy had been established. Although many settlers arrived from societies where no democracy existed, certain organisation were already operating in Israel from the time of British occupation which inducted new comers into the social fabric of Israeli society. One could argue that there is a psychological element of having to be associated with the West as ultimately it is the West who offer the best means of protection in the context of being surrounded by hostile Arab Muslim neighbours. So although internally Israel may separate religion from politics, to the rest of the Middle East, the Israeli government will represent Jewish fundamentalism, and to the Israelis, Middle Eastern governments will represent Islamic fundamentalism once they believe that those government ultimately want to see the destruction of Israel. For Christians in the Middle East the only country in which they form a majority is in the Lebanon and this is not a significant majority. The past civil wars in Lebanon, a religiously active and diverse citizenry, plus interference from neighbours has made it extremely difficult to establish any form of truly secularist government.











Published by

Malick Elias

The vision of 'Vivaislam' is to provide a space for Muslim and non-Muslim activists to air their voices on how best to organise and manage their world. The aim is to focus upon recommending solutions to issues of social injustices, freedoms and citizenship facing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies, rather than offering descriptions of problems. It is our hope that these voices will reach the echelons of power and influence.