Islam: Secularism and liberal - Thought In the Islamic World

Posted in Broader Middle East | 15-Oct-07 | Author: Hichem Karoui

"Some liberal Muslims favor the idea of modern seculatr democracy with seperation between the state and the religion, and those…
"Some liberal Muslims favor the idea of modern seculatr democracy with seperation between the state and the religion, and those oppose Islam as a political movement"
Whereas the threat to freedom from radical Islamism has never been so high, there is no much talk today about “Progressive Muslims”, “Liberal Muslims”, “Secular Muslims”, and the like. In the USA, though, such movements aiming at reconsidering the positive values of the Islamic culture in the light of modernity, have stemmed out of the mess of 9/11 and the concerns about the future of the community. Yet, in the Arab and Islamic world, these trends have been there since more than a century.

  • Some liberal Muslims favor the idea of modern secular democracy with separation between the state and the religion , and thus oppose Islam as a political movement.

  • The existence or applicability of Islamic law (Shari'a) is questioned by many liberals. Their argument often involves variants of the Mu'tazili theory that the Qur'an is created by God for the particular circumstances of the early Muslim community, and reason must be used to apply it to new contexts.

  • Tolerance is another key tenet of Liberal Muslims, who are generally more open to interfaith dialog and conflict resolution with such communities as the Jews, Christians, Hindus, and the numerous factions within Islam.

We propose to analyze these trends in this newsletter, for many of their positive features that need to be stressed often go obliterated or ignored, although there is no possible enhancing of the democratization process without empowering the people who stand for these values in the Broader Middle East.

The cultural continuum

Although the relatively recent voiced opinions about the clash of civilizations posit that Islam falls outside the Judeo-Christian and Hellenic cultural continuum, the reverse is actually true : Classical Islamic civilization was constructed out of Arab, Biblicist, and Hellenic cultures, additionally to the fact that it cast a wider net by integrating Persian, Central Asian, and Indian components within its cultural synthesis. Historically, Islam is the true bridge between East and West. We should not omit that Islam’s Hellenism was mediated primarily through Eastern Christian intellectual circles, and important streams of Muslim philosophical and scientific thought still remain an understudied field linking late Antiquity with the Renaissance. Thus, there are strong grounds of asserting that Islam as a civilization force and religious tradition should be perceived as an integral part of the Western tradition in as much as this tradition tends toward universal ecumenism.

As we know, the first peoples to be conquered by Islam were those of the east Mediterranean or Hellenic world, whose minds have been formed by Greek thought. The first Islamic theologians did not reject Greek philosophy out of hand. On the contrary, with the encouragement of the early Caliphs (such as Mamun: 813-833), they studied deeply all the sciences of the classical world ; and it can be said that the Christian West ultimately recovered much of the knowledge of Greek philosophy that it had lost in the dark ages through the Arabs and especially the great universities of Moorish Spain. The Arabs introduced Aristotle to the West centuries before the revival of Greek scholarship, which directly preceded the Renaissance and was one of the causes of the Reformation (T. Arnold and A. Guillaume , The Legacy of Islam, London, 1931, p. 29.) The Arabic Aristotle of Spain was one of the principle sources for medieval Christian scholars in the thirteenth century.

“During the twelfth century” writes Bertrand Russel, “translators gradually increased the number of Greek books available to Western students. There were three main sources of such translations: Constantinople, Palermo, and Toledo. Of these Toledo was the most important, but the translations coming from there were often from Arabic, not direct from the Greek.” (Bertrand Russel, A History of Western Philosophy, a Clarion Book, Simon & Schuster, USA, 1967, Chapter X, Mohammedan Culture and philosophy.)

It has been noticed that what is often viewed, as a clash of civilizations is actually a clash of symbols. The symbols on the one side are head scarves, turbans, and other signs of Islamic religious expression that Westerners find sometimes repellent, just as fundamentalist Muslims view much of Western culture as anti-Islamic. Moreover, cultural contact between Islam and the West has been marred by historically unequal power relations, “leaving the West arrogant and insensitive and the Muslim world defensive and insecure” ( Abdul Aziz Said, contribution to the workshop organized by the United States Institute of Peace on November 2001).

The failure of romantic nationalism

Many observers think that « the American support for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world breeds radical opposition in these countries and stimulates anti-American sentiment »( for example, contribution of Muqtedar Khan to the same workshop. Op. Cit.). To understand how much this issue is important, just observe how the opposition in the Arab world – all trends confounded- reacted to the American intervention to oust Saddam. Our first remark is that instead of siding with the Iraqi opposition – which should have been the logical course – they sided with the dictator, even if they did not say so, hiding their position with anti-imperialist or antiwar slogans. Yet, they have de facto supported the dictator, often taking to their account Saddam's discourse, labeling the Iraqi opposition as “agents of the CIA”, not as people who are fed up with oppression, just like them.

In the same paper, M. Khan remarks also that the lack of peaceful channels for protest and dissent in the Arab world has slowly radicalized most moderate Islamic opposition groups. The West legitimized the military coup that prevented Islamists from coming to power after winning an election in Algeria in 1992. The United States gave tacit support to Turkey when it forced Islamists out of power in the 1990s, even after they had won popular mandates. “It is not the hatred of democracy and freedom but the desire for democracy that has made many Muslims hate the United States, which they blame for the perpetuation of undemocratic polities in their world” (idem). Other sources of hostility include American troops stationed in the Gulf, and uncritical American support for Israel.

There are three dangers against which all peace-loving people must be on guard : « (1) the conflict emerging from 9/11 must not be allowed to become a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West; (2) hawks and extremists must not be allowed to hijack and dominate the discourses in the West and in the Muslim world; and (3) the search for security and revenge should not be allowed to undermine the moral fabric of our societies » (idem).

"Historically, Islam is the true bridge between East and West."
"Historically, Islam is the true bridge between East and West."
All societies, including those of Europe and North America, carry within them the seeds of intolerance and authoritarianism. What makes the Arab world stand out then is simply its recent record of extreme illiberalism. Nazih Ayubi (Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East, London, I.B. Tauris, 1995) observes in this context that there is a difference between a “hard state” and a “strong state”: one punishes and coerces, whereas the other achieves its goals. By these definitions all Arab states are hard states, and a few, such as Syria or Iraq (under Saddam), are ultra-hard or “fierce” states that employ vast bureaucracies, large armies, harsh prisons, and sometimes firing squads to preserve themselves by force. Yet, these hard states are also weak states that lack the capacity to enforce laws, break traditional patterns, and adapt to changing conditions (Karl Wittfogel : Oriental Despotism 1957). Ayubi argues that, regardless of the status of Arab civil society, « three interconnected factors drastically limit the Arab state’s capacity for social control. The first pertains to vested interests against political or economic liberalization. The second consists of cultural dispositions favorable to authoritarianism. And the third involves inhibitions against reforms liable to fuel uncontrollable and self-augmenting demands for redistribution »(Ayubi, idem).

The analysis identifies systematic repression as an obstacle to change. But it is misleading to ascribe the observed repression only to the abuses of state officials. Responsibility lies also, if not mainly, with ordinary citizens who keep quiet or even actively support the political status quo in the face of tyranny and inefficiency. To one degree or another, every Arab country exhibits an expressive equilibrium in which individuals refrain from speaking honestly for fear that the vast majority of their fellow citizens will stay loyal to the status quo, leaving dissidents isolated. And every potential dissident who exhibits such reticence discourages other malcontents from publicizing their complaints.

Even pan-Arabism, « far from being an innovative force for growth and liberation, has been a source of illiberal conservatism »(Ayubi. Op .Cit.; pp. 136-51). Born as a defensive response to Turkish nationalism, European colonialism and Zionism, « pan-Arabism emphasizes communal solidarity and considers individualism an alien trait to be suppressed ». Thus, it uses modern nationalism as a vehicle for preserving the « anti-individualist strands of the Arab cultural heritage ». But it has been manifestly unsuccessful in achieving its political goals. Capable of galvanizing crowds and instilling communal pride, it has taught successive generations that the individual Arab can prosper only as a servant of the global Arab community. Yet, not only it has not unified Arabs, but also by granting legitimacy to the most illiberal regimes of the Arab world (like the Baathist regimes of Syria and Iraq), it has delayed both economic and political liberalization and hindered viable unification while indulging in romantic self-praise and sentimentalist nostalgia.

The failure of romantic pan-Arabism may only be understood in the light of the failure of local state-nationalism. As to pan-Islamism, it has been also a romantic and highly ritualistic doctrine, ignoring many practical issues of modern life (Ayoubi). However, it is not only romantic pan-Arabism that banned individualism from expression, but also romantic local state-nationalism, which in identifying the state to the party in power or to the autocratic leader made of any opposition a “high treason” to the people, and ended up swathing the individual and any private life, any private freedoms into the mythical flag, as a way to cover the absence of freedom by a miserable nationalism. In this context, people become the anonymous mass forced to follow the steps of the head of state. No private life is allowed to the individual in such a situation. In some countries, romantic local state-nationalism has been historically marked by the fascist discourses of the thirties (XXth century), for an understandable reason : it was hostile to the occupying powers (France and Great Britain, that is).

It is exactly in that period that many nationalist leaders and parties struggling for independence have emerged.

Reason and individuality

We hardly need to stress the importance of individualism in the modernization process in the West. From literary studies to rational choice theory, issues broadly construed as ‘cultural’ have inspired academic debates, fostered interdisciplinary exchanges, and prompted battles over the methods, evidence, and objectives of scholarly research. Derived from Max Weber, classic analysis of the ‘effective affinity’ between the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism in the West, these studies attempted to demonstrate how cultural attitudes and beliefs either constrained or promoted progress.

In a book published in Arabic under the title “Assassination of the Reason”, Burhan Ghalioun starts from the remark that the main dimension of the current crisis in the Arab society is related to culture. But the Arab writers were much more concerned, in his view, by its role in the Nahdha- Renaissance- than by its social function: “the cultural question has become particularly attractive for the research only after the irruption of the question of identity. The link of the culture to the Nahdha has thus become the specificity of those who were preaching change and revolution, whereas the same link to the identity has been claimed by those who preached conservatism, authenticity and independence”(Ghalioun, Ightiyal al ‘aql, ed. Madbouli, Cairo, 1990, 3d print, p 22.)

Such a division has been enacted and reflected by the controversy over modernity (hadatha) and traditionalism (taqlid). The Arab contemporary thought in its entirety fell under the effect of such a dispute. “The history of the modern Arab culture has become that of the development of this conflict, of its metamorphosis, and of its different resurrections”(idem). The conflict has not only divided the Arab intelligentsia, but also the Arab society. Thus, two opposite camps appeared, each one with its own vision of the past, of the present, of history, of the Reason, of the Rationality, and with its own purposes, its own political and social mottoes (Ghalioun, op. Cit, p 23). More specifically, “while the call to the authenticity is to be defined by embracing religion, the call to the modernity would rather identify itself with science”(idem). We may also say that this debate has crossed several stages and taken varied forms, but since the XIXth century, it has nearly concentrated into the conflicting and –sometimes violent – controversy between Islamic salafism and social evolutionist secularism.

The decline of Islamic civilization prompted a number of Arab intellectuals, including some already exposed to European culture and impressed by the accomplishments of Europe, to call for radical reform. As a consequence of the intellectual debate aroused within the Arab world by European advancement, an opposition was drawn between din (religion) and ‘aql (reason), asalah (nobility) and mu’asarah (modernity), din and dawlah (state) and din and ‘ilm (science or knowledge).

Pioneers of Arab secularism

"The symbols on the one side are head scarves,turbans and other signs of Islamic religious expressions that Westerners find sometimes…
"The symbols on the one side are head scarves,turbans and other signs of Islamic religious expressions that Westerners find sometimes repellent, just as fundamentalist Muslims view much of the Western culture as anti-Islamic."
The early secularizing elite was dominated by a group of Christian Arabs who had received their education at the Syrian Protestant College and then settled in Egypt. Important figures included Shibli Shumayyil (1850-1917), Farah Antun (1874-1922), Georgie Zaidan (1861-1914), Ya’qub Suruf (1852-1917), Salama Musa (1887-1958) and Nicolas Haddad (1878-1954). Al-Muqtataf and Al-Hilal publications, founded respectively in 1876 and 1892, were used by writers and thinkers belonging to this group. They strove to propagate the transcendence of ideas like love of country and fellow countrymen over all other social ties, even those of religion.

Through their copious writings, these thinkers succeeded in consolidating the foundations of secularism in the Arab world. Praising the liberal thought of France and England during the eighteenth and nineteenth century and condemning the hegemony of tradition over the human mind, they stressed that reason should set the standard for human conduct. For modernization to take place, they demanded that only traditions, which were compatible with this objective, should remain. The main aim of these intellectuals was to lay the basis of a secular state in which Muslims and Christians could participate on a footing of complete equality.

Shibli Shumayyil, who after graduation from the Syrian Protestant College went to Paris to study medicine, is reputed to have first introduced the theories of Darwin to the Arab world through his writings in Al-Muqtataf. He belonged to the late nineteenth century movement, which saw science as the key to unlock the secret of the universe, even as a form of worship. He believed that the religion of science necessitated a declaration of war on older religions. To him social unity, which was essential for a general will to exist, involved the separation of religion from political life since religion was a cause of division. He insisted that nations grew stronger as religion grew weaker, and pointed out that this was true of Europe, which had only become powerful and truly civilized once the Reformation and the French Revolution had broken the hold of religious leaders on society. He condemned both shuyukh (Islamic scholars) and priests for resisting progress and development.

Farah Antun (1874-1922) who migrated from Tripoli to Cairo in 1897 chose to propagate his views through a study of the life and philosophy of Ibn Rushd (Averroes). He was influenced by the works of Ernest Renan to such an extent that the historian Albert Hourani calls the latter Antun’s master. Antun believed that the conflict between science and religion would be solved, but only by assigning each to its proper sphere. He dedicated his book to what he called “the new shoots of the East those men of sense in every community and every religion of the East who have seen the danger of mingling the world with religion in an age like ours, and have come to demand that their religion should be placed on one side in a sacred and honored place, so that they will be able really to unite, and to flow with the tide of the new European civilization, in order to be able to compete with those who belong to it, for otherwise it will sweep them all away and make them the subjects of others.”

Like Shumayyil and other Lebanese contemporaries, Antun’s aim was to lay the intellectual foundations of a secular state in which Muslims and Christians could participate on a footing of complete equality. His emphasis was on proving the invalidity of what he termed ‘the inessential part of religion’: the body of laws. His second condition for secularism was the separation of temporal and spiritual authorities, suggesting that the separation of the two powers in Christianity made it easier for Christians to be tolerant than for Muslims. He added that if European countries were now more tolerant, that was not because they were Christian but because science and philosophy had driven out religious fanaticism, and the separation of powers had taken place.

Salama Musa (1887-1958) called for separating the sphere of science and the sphere of religion insisting that religion, due to the influence of religious institutions and clergymen had lost its progressive nature and become a heavy burden. He tried to emphasize that Islam and Christianity have identical stands with regard to the freedom of thought and emancipation of the mind. He strongly believed that “society cannot advance or progress unless the role of religion in the human conscience is restricted ; progress is the new religion of humanity.”

Muslim secularizers

The next generation of Arab secularist thinkers was mostly followers of Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). While pressing for reforms, Abduh believed that a modern legal system should develop out of Shari'a and not in independence and favored an equal partnership, rather than separation, between those who governed and the guardians of the law. He stressed above all that no conflict existed between Islam on the one hand and logic or science on the other. Shocked by the magnitude of backwardness in the Arab world, he scorned those who blindly imitated the old and resisted the new. He believed that Islam’s relationship with the modern age was the most crucial issue confronting Islamic communities. In an attempt to reconcile Islamic ideas with Western ones, he suggested that maslaha (interest) in Islamic thought corresponded to manfa’ah (utility) in Western thought. Similarly, he equated shura with democracy and ijma’ with consensus. Addressing the question of authority, Abduh denied the existence of a theocracy in Islam and insisted that the authority of the hakim (governor), qadi (judge) or mufti, was civil. He strongly believed that ijtihad should be revived because ‘emerging priorities and problems, which are new to Islamic thought, need to be addressed.’ He was a proponent of the parliamentary system; he defended pluralism and refuted the claims that it would undermine the unity of the ummah, arguing that the European nations were not divided by it. “The reason, he concluded, is that their objective is the same. What varies is only the method they pursue toward accomplishing it.”

"Hawks and extremists must not be allowed to hijack and dominate the discourses in the West and in the Muslim…
"Hawks and extremists must not be allowed to hijack and dominate the discourses in the West and in the Muslim world"
However, some of Abduh’s disciples, such as Qasim Amin and Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid, were not entirely and exclusively influenced by his thought. They had been influenced by the Christian pioneers of the secularist school of thought and began to work out the principles of a secular society in which Islam was honored but was no longer the arbitrator of law and policy. Seeking to reconcile secularist ideas with Islam, they went so far as to develop Abduh’s emphasis on the legitimacy of social change into a de facto division between the two realms of religion and society, each with its own norms.

Qasim Amin (1865-1908), known as the emancipator of women, suggested that the problem with the Muslims was a lack of science. He stressed that it was useless to hope to adopt the sciences of Europe without coming within the radius of its moral principles. The two, he believed, were indissolubly connected, and “we must therefore be prepared for change in every aspect of our life.” He believed that perfection is not to be found in the past, even the Islamic past, but can only be found, if at all, in the distant future. To him, the path to perfection was science. Since Europe was the most advanced in the sciences, was ahead of the Muslims in every way, he insisted that it was not true that the Europeans were only materially better but not morally.

Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid (1872-1963) was a leading member of this group. Although he was a close associate of Abduh, Islam played an insignificant part in his thought. He was not concerned, like Al-Afghani, to defend it, nor like Abduh, to restore to Islamic law its position as the moral basis of society. Religion, whether it be Islamic or not, was relevant to his thought only as one of the constituent factors of society.

The official abolishment of the Khilafah (Caliphate) in 1924 aroused a debate among thinkers of the time over the importance of the Khilafah and the response of Muslims to its abolishment. Ali Abdel Raziq (1888-1966), a graduate of Al-Azhar and Oxford, contributed to the debate with a book published in 1925 that turned to be one of the most controversial works in modern Islamic history: Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm: Bahth fil-Khilafah wal-Hukumah fil-Islam (Islam and the Fundamentals of Governance: A Thesis on Caliphate and Government in Islam). Abdel Raziq claimed there was no such thing as Islamic political principles, a theory believed to have been drawn mainly from the opinions of non-Muslim writers on Islam. He denied the existence of a political order in Islam and claimed that the Prophet had never established one and that it had not been part of his mission to found a state. His work has been a main source of ammunition in the vigorous campaign launched by ‘secularists’ in later times against the validity of Islamic law or Shari'a. The book pioneered the idea of rejecting conventional interpretations and replacing them with innovations based mostly on orientalists’ opinions and writings on Islam.

In this connection, what has been remarked about the failure of modernization in the Arab world should be explained also in the light of the oppression undergone by individuals and individualistic thought in the Arab world. I would go further and say: the self is in the Arab-Islamic world what has been wiped off as a neglected thing, and without the rediscovery and the reconstruction of that self, it is useless to hope for any real progress.

According to John L. Esposito (Contemporary Islam ; reformation or revolution? From Oxford History of Islam, 2000 Oxford University Press ), contemporary Islamic reformers or neomodernists stress the need to renew Islam both at the individual and the community levels. They advocate a process of Islamization or re-Islamization that begins with the sacred sources of Islam, the Koran and Sunna of the Prophet, but that also embraces the best in other cultures. They see themselves as engaging in a dynamic process that is as old as Islam itself. Much as early Muslims interpreted and applied Islamic principles and values to their times and adopted and adapted political, legal, and economic practices from the cultures they had conquered, the neomodernist reformers wish to bring about a new Islamic renaissance (nahda) pursuing a similar selective, self-critical path. They distinguish between God's revelation and human interpretations, between that part of Islamic law, which is eternal and that, which is contingent and relative, between immutable principles and regulations that were human constructs conditioned by time and place. In contrast to neorevivalists, neomodernists are more creative and wide-ranging in their reinterpretation of Islam and less tied to traditional interpretations of the 'ulama. For this reason, they are often accused of "deviationism" by the 'ulama, who charge that neomodernists lack the necessary training and credentials to interpret Islam.

Or, to paraphrase Charles Taylor, the question “who am I” is often spontaneously phrased by people to describe the problem of identity. But “this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand.”(C. Taylor, Sources of the Self, Cambridge University Press; 1989; p. 27.) What is important to underline here is the link between identity and a kind of orientation, which Taylor calls “framework”, and he stresses that “a person without a framework altogether would be outside our space of interlocution ; he wouldn’t have a stand in the space where the rest of us are”(Taylor, p 31). In other words, “what I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me. And (…) these things have significance for me, and the issue of my identity is worked out, only through a language of interpretation which I have come to accept as a valid articulation of these issues.”(Taylor, op.Cit, p. 34. ) Outside this framework, it is useless to try to answer the question “who this individual is”, for the self is partly made by its self-interpretations. That is exactly where the construction of the “Other” – as enemy or as ally – fits in.

“ What we call identity crisis” observes B.Ghalioun in “State and Religion”, “represents only one aspect of the renewal of the national personality in a time of deep civilizational crisis such as what is undergone by altogether underdeveloped societies”(Ghalioun, naqd assyasa addawlatu waddine, Ed. al mu'assasa al arabiyya liddirasat wannachr Beirut, 1993; p. 255). In his view, within the world struggle for the construction of the national self and the achievement of independence and distinction (Bourdieu) , the Islamic revival – notwithstanding the existence or inexistence of faith – is a fundamental element in the construction of the communal belonging, “ as a source of common values determining the behaviors and the great historical and human orientations”( B. Ghalioun, naqd assyasa. Op. Cit.; p. 256).

Let us note, by the way, that the debate about identity, authenticity, modernity, etc, is accompanied in the Arab world by a feeling of distrust and even hostility towards the West. And although we can hardly put 9/11 on the account of the reconstruction or the reconquest of the identity, we state only that such a violent expression of the hard feelings toward the West – and particularly the USA – may be a response to the “construction of the enemy”, which Mohamed Arkoun has identified as a part of the Western culture, although to be fair, we should add that it is also a part of the Arab-Islamic culture. However, despite the relative success of Islamists in providing adversarial idioms and resonant political critiques, the struggle among nominally Muslim citizens and Islamist activists is as pronounced as the solidarities an Islamist adversarial politics has fostered. Being “Muslim» might signify a set of religious beliefs, an ascriptive attachment, a “cultural” identification, a state classification, a set of recognizable activities, or none of the above. There are those who see a separation of mosque and state as fundamental, and those who advocate their conjuncture. There are those who think the sharia should be the source of legislation, those who view it as a source, and those who wish it were irrelevant to contemporary law. There are countries where the ‘Ulamas,- or religious elite - are independent of the state, places where mosque sermons are controlled by the state, and places where the ‘Ulamas are coterminous with the state. There are in short vigorous communities of argument and plural varieties of social and political practice. This plurality makes any invocation of a single political doctrine of Islam empirically untenable and theoretically meaningless.


What Democrats have to focus on :

  • A sustained effort has to be consented aiming at boosting democratization and modernization together with a serious movement towards resolving the Middle-East conflict in its multiple sides and aspects. (Yet, who would lead such efforts, when suspicion is floating about everything and distrust is master?)

  • Modernization should not be pursued at the expense of democracy, because without freedom, the welfare state is just a golden cage. Yet, even modernization revealed to be a false one, as it has been reduced to importing high-tech products and other gadgets, whereas genuine modernization should be creative as well.

  • Demilitarizing the oil rich region of the Gulf may sound, in the present time, almost a pipe dream, albeit the military build up is not absolutely necessary for the stability of these countries. It may even be a cause of tension.

  • To call for democratization and to support military expansion or autocratic regimes at once is equal to sending a schizophrenic message to someone who is already in a state of advanced paranoia.

  • The backbone of any democratic change is the civil society and the social movements. If there is a way to strengthen both of them without triggering a war, generating a revolution, or causing a coup…maybe there is a hope. If not, the society will reproduce itself and “History” will go on, indifferent to all those who have neither the means nor the will to master “her”.