Is Secularism good for British Muslims?

Scholars such as Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi have written vehemently against ‘secularism’ in the Middle East and how it curtails the freedoms of many people. I have also tried to highlight the more ‘hard’ form of secularism of some states and regimes, and the totalitarian ideologies of certain parties and how it contradicts the principles of freedom, shura (consultation), justice and equality in Islam.

Having said that, secularism is not a definitive principle, its practise and implementation differs from one country to another based upon their political and social frameworks. Countries such as France and Germany, for instance, implement a ‘harder’ version of secularism – the hijab ban in France and parts of Germany is a prime example of this. Other countries such as Britain meanwhile adopt a more ’soft’ form of secularism.

A recent [controversial] report, ‘Contextualising Islam in Britain’, suggests Muslims in Britain should recognise the more soft or ‘procedural’ form of secularism in place, even though it has an established church. The report states, ‘British secularism has historically been closer to procedural secularism than to ideological secularism. In general, British Muslims are perfectly happy with this notion of the secular, and it is important to express support for this more accommodative type of secularism that is part of the British tradition. The goal should be to ensure that Britain is a state where there is room for all religious sentiments, and where Muslims have the freedom to practise Islam without interference, in an atmosphere of respect, security and dignity’.

This is also similar to the ‘European Charter Project’, which states, ‘Muslims of Europe adhere to the principle of secularism based on the neutrality of the state regarding religious affairs. This means just dealings with all religions and allows those who hold religious values to express their beliefs and practice the rites of their religion either as individuals or groups in both the general and specific matters, as is specified in European and international human rights charters and treaties. On this basis, it remains the right of Muslims, as religious communities, to establish mosques, religious, educational and welfare institutions to practice their religion in day-to-day affairs in virtue of diet, clothing and other needs’.

The implication of that, the report exhorts, is Muslims need to be active politically ‘in the legislative process to articulate their own visions and values, and to ensure they are properly represented. The support of British Muslims for multicultural secular pluralism must not be based on expediency, but on principled support for religious freedom and peaceful co-existence of diverse religious groups and those of no faith on the basis of mutual respect, co-operation and pursuit of the common good’.

I tend to agree with this and support the general spirit of this section of the report as it highlights the British model of secularism as the best mechanism (at our disposal) by which we can maintain a religious Muslim community in the UK. However, I do have an issue with the report where it states that Muslims should promote ’secularism’. Secularism in essence conflicts with the Qur’anic perspective of Islam as a complete way of life, and not a private faith. At best, the most that can be said is, Muslims can and should work with this model of secularism.

To formulate a proper or informed view on a subject, one should look into it from a myriad of angles – and not have a narrow pre-supposed perspective on it. The definition of secularism also differs from one academic to another - here’s a good introduction by Charles Taylor (video lecture), and his book is called A Secular Age. Our only concern, as with other principles, should be to understand its intent and importantly the practical application. If it does not conflict with the Shari’ah it is accepted, otherwise it should be rejected as a famous maxim states, “There is no opposition to definitions as long as they do not contradict the Shari’ah, for the deductive implication is not attached to the words but the meanings.”

The British version of secularism in practice means ‘neutrality of the state’ in matters of religion. Although still nominally a ‘Christian’ country, it however does not discriminate against other religions. Minorities are almost totally free to practise their faiths, without state interference – of course this excludes governance and the penal code according to Shari’ah, however this isn’t required in a minority context. If by secularism we mean this, then it would not only be acceptable and tolerated – but even beneficial for Muslims to work with this model of secularism.

This is in contrast to the French [ideological] model of secularism, which tries to ‘eliminate religion’ from the public sphere. This model is copied in some Muslim countries; an example includes Turkey and Tunisia, and is totally against Islam as a ‘complete way of life’. Islam is not just a faith; our religious scripture guides all aspects of life – including politics and legislation.

Islamic politics is distinct from other theories in the sense that in the Islamic state, the people and its elected legislature – although free to enact any laws to better regulate their lives - are not sovereign; all laws must ultimately conform with, and/or must not contradict the divine guidance (Qur’an and Sunnah).

This is one small yet crucial aspect of the report which needs to be clarified. There are other issues which could be seen as questionable but not relevant here. As a minority, we should be happy to work with the procedural secularism, but cannot accept the essence of secularism (which seeks to exile God to the home and church). That would be against our basic beliefs (Aqeeda) as articulated by God in His last testament to humanity and the Sunnah (methodology) of His last Messenger.

17 comments to Is Secularism good for British Muslims?

  • izzuddeen

    What you should say akhi is that ‘procedural secularism’ is the lesser of the two evils when compared to ‘ideological secularism’. Ultimately, both are rooted in ‘godlessness’ evil.

    Also, let’s not be hoodwinked in our praise/acknowledgement of the system that we live in. There is really very little difference between the two types of secularisms that you mention. One is classicaly ‘british’ in exiling god to the confines of individual personal worship through subtle persuasion and manipulation. This is how they colonised some countries and also how they launched stealth operations abroad and at home in controlling minority groups.

    The Ideological one is more ‘American’ in the way that it is frank, brazen and unashamed. The same can be said in respect to their recent foreign politics.

    The report that you quote from (which you article appears to be entirely based upon) says the following amongst many other very controversial and innapropriate things.

    “In classical Islamic theology, khilafah does not imply the imposition of a caliphate or a structure of political authority on believers; rather it means an ethics of individual moral responsibility…
    An Islamic state is not necessary in order for Islam to thrive and to be practised… A related question is: is the state necessary for the proper performance of religious
    duties (such as prayer, fasting and the payment of alms)?”

    What is secularism if it isn’t the same as the above quote…

  • ِAbul-Hussein

    AS

    Abdullah, how are you? I think that you made a good headway into a topic of historical proportions. Without understanding the history of secularism and its types a discussion on secularism in hard. I request and propose that you run a series on these concepts and expound upon these subtleties. -if possible. For it is necessary we begin to think out of the box of ideology and move into principled thought based on evidences and the aims of the Shar’iah and the logic of the faqih and the understanding of a social scientist.

    The Muslims of Britain will be best served, and Britain overall, when the Muslims in Britain stop importing conceptual systems from the Islamic movements of the East, movements that confront different realities. East and West are two different sociological, cultural and political realities. Up to this point, in the West, we have indifference or the call to abandon the West both positions are a lack of demonstrating responsibility and in between that frustration which has been exploited by twisted violence mongers whose action serve to surgically remove Islam from the West period.

    Globalization is tricky. Just because you know what is going on in the other side of the world does not mean you are paralyzed by geo-politics so much so that you fail to live locally. And this is where the Muslims are at in between East and West without having a place to rest.

    AS

    Abul-Hussein

  • Wa ‘alaikumussalam Shaykh Abul Hussain,

    I am well, than thank you. How are you? I pray you and your family are in good health and iman.

    This post was just a small effort from my part to distinguish between the various forms of secularism. Alhamdulillah, I benefitted from the advice you gave me to look up Charles Taylor’s work, jazzakAllah khair for that.

    I think there are more knowledgeable brothers here to tackle the subtleties of secularism. However, we would welcome any posts from you on this topic – I’m sure our editor will accommodate guest posts from yourself, IA.

    Keep me in your prayers and Eid Mubarak to you and your family.
    Wassalam

  • Zafar

    Is there a difference between making do with what our reality holds and Islamisation of that reality? By this I hear and understand the difference between what you term “procedural secularism” and ‘ideological’ – however what compels one to Islamise the former – whilst rejecting its foundations?

    Abul Hussein mentions the importance of understanding secularism and its history, which I agree is important. However, is there a hope that this understanding and reading of history will somehow make us see secularism (or procedural to be precise) as Islamic?

    Why can’t we leave it as the ‘lesser of the two evils’ as Izzuddin points out? I would have thought this was a good position to hold from a shar’ perspective as we are not seeking to establish a long-term legitimacy of our reality, rather accepting it and using the principles Allah has given us to deal with it.

    I am aware that this is a real fear that many hold, that some people are not satisfied with the ‘allowance’ given to us due to our circumstances, instead they are driven to make the ‘allowance’ in to a principle to live by for ever more.

    Hope I haven’t confused the matter.

  • Assalamu Alaikum br Zafar,

    I Pray all is well. JazzakAllah khair for commenting on this important subject – your comments are understood.

    I think first and foremost, we need to understand what our reality is. What are those things that concern us etc. Whenever were faced with new situations we have to judge it against the Qur’an and the Sunnah, if it conforms to the divine guidance we accept it otherwise it is rejected. Therefore those issues that do not contradict the guidance are Islamic. Take a simple example, if the customs and adaat of a particular culture or society do not contradict the guidance then they are accepted and even considered to be law in jurisprudence ‘al ‘adat muhikkimah’ (custom is a proof in Islamic law). If, for example, a particular law in a non ‘Islamic’ country concur with the Islamic law i.e., it does not contradict the Qur’an and Sunnah it is considered to be Islamic.

    I hope I am making sense.

    Wallahu’alam

  • rational thought

    @Abdullah Hasan

    I understand where you are coming from. however, i think sometimes, the way you express yourself sometimes is quite vague and leaves room for misinterpreation/ one is not clear what you mean. (pls take as naseeha – and i’m sure i’m more deserving of correction than any1). For example, your statement that any law of an unislamic system that coincides with the shar’ee ruling is itself islamic. So would that mean that securla system of law that has 50% of its laws coinciding with shariah a 50% islamic system? etc etc. I think where clarification is needed, is that a system that makes its soveriegn law-giver another human being, is 100% unislamic no matter how many laws are agreeing with the shariah point of view. Because the crux of the matter is that Allah’s SWT tawheed is being violated by this system, and nothing good worthy of our ACCEPTANCE can come out of this system. I think some dangerous conclusions can be made from these ideas. e.g. some people justify the secularism we live in today and ACCEPT it due to the fact that it is ‘just’,non-oppressive, gives religious freedom etc, which they claim are all obejectives of the islamic shariah.

    Like you mentioned, we can WORK with those qualities which are beneficial to us, but not accept and be satisfied with it. I think it would have been more clear for you to mention that we have taken the british system here as inherently the lesser of the evils. pls clarify…

  • Zafar

    I understand the point about custom. But in this discussion it does not really come in to it, as you mention that ideologically secularism is anti Islamic. So how then can we look to Islamise the concept of ‘procedural secularism’ which within your own discussion quite clearly is lesser of the two ‘evils’?

  • reason

    @ br hasan

    can give more clarification on your following comments pleaser:

    ”If, for example, a particular law in a non ‘Islamic’ country concur with the Islamic law i.e., it does not contradict the Qur’an and Sunnah it is considered to be Islamic”.

  • Assalamu ‘alamikum br Zafar,

    Let’s try and see where secularism or democracy coincides and conflicts with the Shari’ah, some of them are as follows:

    Similarities:

    1. The principle in democracy that people have the right to choose the rulers they want

    2. People’s (elected) participation on the decision making process (without going into the specific forms)

    3. The principle of removing any government which fails to meet the requirements of the people or does not implement the law.

    Differences:

    1. In democracy ultimate authority lies with the people but in Islam ultimate authority lies with Allah

    2. All subordinate laws passed by the legislature must conform to the shari’ah.

    Off course, we really cannot judge the entire corpus of the conventional law to be Islamic; they have to be looked at individually.

    I don’t really have much time to elaborate more but I hope the above is sufficient. This is a nuanced and complex topic and cannot be really understood with few comments but I urge you to read any material on secularism, democracy and Islam to get a better understanding.

    Wallahu ‘alam

  • Zafar

    Jazakallah khayer for your response.

    Can I say that the 3 points you mention as similarities are not from ’secularism’ at all. It may broadly fall in to ‘procedure’ as you outlined but it is not secularism.

    Islam has the principles of choosing your leader, the concept of shura covers your second point and finally the 3rd point is well established in Islamic traditions.

    I am sure, as Abul Hussein mentions, there is much more detailed understanding needed of the term secularism as lived throughout history. However, this does not make it right for us to explain away matters saying that the topic is complex and nuanced. The fact is, secularism is an ideology and as such at its base it will have a simple clear idea which all people can grasp and understand. This core belief is the divorce between ’state’ and ‘church’ – all other factors are historical and lived experiences.

    So I would argue that your contention that ‘procedural secularism’ is acceptable to Islam and we should Islamise it is simply wrong – based on your own premise that secularism as an ideology is unacceptable to Islam.

    We must remember the word secular means “of this world” therefore it will always be opposite to religious which we understand to mean “from God”.

  • Zafar :
    Jazakallah khayer for your response.
    Can I say that the 3 points you mention as similarities are not from ’secularism’ at all. It may broadly fall in to ‘procedure’ as you outlined but it is not secularism.
    Islam has the principles of choosing your leader, the concept of shura covers your second point and finally the 3rd point is well established in Islamic traditions.
    I am sure, as Abul Hussein mentions, there is much more detailed understanding needed of the term secularism as lived throughout history. However, this does not make it right for us to explain away matters saying that the topic is complex and nuanced. The fact is, secularism is an ideology and as such at its base it will have a simple clear idea which all people can grasp and understand. This core belief is the divorce between ’state’ and ‘church’ – all other factors are historical and lived experiences.
    So I would argue that your contention that ‘procedural secularism’ is acceptable to Islam and we should Islamise it is simply wrong – based on your own premise that secularism as an ideology is unacceptable to Islam.
    We must remember the word secular means “of this world” therefore it will always be opposite to religious which we understand to mean “from God”.

    Jk. I hope to write more posts in this issue to clarify…

  • Yahya

    @Abdullah Hasan

    ‘Secularism’ and ‘Democracy’ are not the same. Though somewhat linked, they are two distinct concepts. A state may be secular without being democratic (Tunisia).

    A country can be ‘democratic’ but not secular, examples would include Pakistan and Malaysia. Islam is the official religion, and there is some preference/postitive discrimination in favour of Muslims. Non-Muslims cannot hold certain government posts, etc.

    @Zafar

    Secularism is not an ‘ideology’ as you state. It is a ‘principle’, but which is understood or applied in various ways. In UK it means ‘neutrality’ of the state, ie the state doesn’t give preference or discriminate against a faith. In France it means the ‘removal’ of religious symbols and practise from public life / governance.

    It however does not seek to abolish religion, or promote ‘atheism’. That honour (!) is (or was) for China and its ‘Communism’. Communism can be correctly described as an ideology.

  • @Yahya

    JK, khair – I tried to highlight those differences in my post.

    wslm

  • Zafar

    @ Yahya

    I beg to disagree, secularism is an ideology. Take this example of British historical links to secularism which states “secularism was the word adopted by George Jacob Holyoake in the early 1850s to describe a system of morals and social action shaped exclusively by this-worldly considerations, irrespective of religious beliefs.”

    In the UK it does not mean ‘neutrality’ of the state – it means that religion has no part to play in public life – a concept (an idea) which is hardly neutral to Christians let alone Muslims.

    The ideology of secularism is to shape exclusively systems of morality and social norms irrespective of religion – if this does not abolish religion then what does? When one creates systems that seek to shape the moral fabric of society excluding God – what do you think gets abolished?

    @ Abdullah Hasan

    That last comment of yours is unfair, your article did not seek to clarify processes and ideology – rather the Islamification of process derived from secularism. As I pointed out already, your examples were already available in Islam.

    I still think that you have confused separate matters – I ask why would we seek to Islamise the lesser of the two evils – when all that is required for us is to use the ‘rukhsa’ and gain the benefit – and when the time changes we go back to our Islamic model – i.e. when the majority are Muslims.

  • OK

    Secularism is not – as said by br Yahya – synonymous with democracy. Some aspects of democracy are indeed compatible with Islam as mentioned by br Hasan, but these are not the same as British ’soft’ secularism, so I do not fully see the relevance of comparing those democratic features with Islam here.

    The ’soft’ secularism, based on the core secular concept of separating religion from state, will not allow state and society to involve itself in personal religious matters nor are people allowed to involve religion in the state and society.

    As a minority, we can indeed adapt to this soft secularism. The state should not interfere in our building of masaajid and schooling of children or Muslim clothing etc. This is in our favour, and I think this is what br Hasan is saying.

    However, if we mean that therefore soft secularism is also ‘Islamic’ (in that it is endorsed and approved by Islam) then this is obviously not true. I think br Hasan did not mean this when he said we shouldn’t ‘promote’ this form of secularism. Because ‘Islamically’, the state MUST interfere to ensure promotion of religion in society, the total opposite of soft/procedural secularism.

    In essence, we are agreed that Muslims should and have indeed already adapted to the current soft secularism available in the UK (and perhaps we are ‘adapting’ too much? More should be said about that instead I think!), but if anyone assumes this is endorsed and approved by Islam as ‘Islamic’, then it this…

  • izzuddeen

    “there can no disagreements when it comes to terminologies/definitions”

    Br Hasan, shukran for all your replies. I would like to know if point one “The principle in democracy that people have the right to choose the rulers they want” is really compatible with Islaam.

    I understood that it was the select group of ahlul hilli wal ‘aqd that made those decisions and not every adult in the country over the age of 18.

    Also, Communism is ’secular’ (non religious) but not very democratic. In that sense, all these isms and ideologies are secular except the religious ideologies. So yes, democracy and secularisms are two different things… yet democracy can lead to a secular leadership, a gay one or a christian fanatic government.

    So anything other than Islaam is rejected by us. “…wa man yabtaghi ghayral islaama deenan, falan yuqbala minhu…” (quraan) “If one seeks anything other than islaam, it will not be accepted from him”…

    Finally, aspects of democracy that we may ‘comply’ with may be deemed ‘mubaah’ as opposed to ‘islaamiyy’/islamic’. Terming it ‘islaamic’ may suggest that this aspect of secularism or democracy (invented by a slave) is derived from islaam or is endorsed by islaam.

    It may not be wise to state the obvious that ‘we are in a no-win situation and must comply’ (all agreed). It is also not a good idea to separate aspects of secularism from the ‘godless entity’ that it is and seek to classify those aspects as…

  • Since when are incidental features praiseworthy? In attempts to defend Secularism for its instability and its lack of compatibility to the global return to religiosity which Seculars could not have predicted, they now claim that Secularism as a principle is meant to differ amongst different countries. In other words, in an attempt to defend the validity of Secularism in the United States they will claim “oh yes, well this is what we call soft secularism” while in France we have “hard” Secularism. Secularism, by time, is taking on more and more forms in its feverish struggle to stay alive as a valid principle.

    Upon observation, the form of secularism in a specific country is the product of the circumstances in that country and not vice-versa. Hence, Secularism and its various forms is a product of circumstance and not generosity or the “amazing” ability to adapt. For example, the French Revolution was a reaction to the Church and the “Divine” Monarchs. The reaction is illustrated in the bloodiness of the revolt, term the reign of terror. Its history documents the oppressiveness of the Church, hence we see this complete divorce of religion from the public sphere as seen in the banning of Hijaab. The United States, founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution embraced religious diversity (amongst themselves of course, we must not forget the massacres against the Native Americans) as a key foundation of their society. Hence religiosity was preserved and…

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