Secularism and Islamism: Two contending ideologies

Soon after the death of Aurangzeb Alamghir, the Mughal Empire descended into political decadence. Marred by internal fissures, the Safavid Empire ceased to exist by the end of 1722. The Ottoman Empire after the showdown of 1682 in Vienna, continued to lose territorial size and faced an endless streak of defeats. By the 18th century, the three gunpowder empires were no longer stamping their authority upon the world, Douglas E Streusand noted in his book the Islamic Gunpowder Empires. In the suffocating intellectual climate of the Islamic world, Shah Waliullah emerged into the limelight as a rigorous scholar of great caliber and erudition. Considered to be the last great scholar of classical Islam by Muhammad Iqbal in a letter to Syed Sulaiman Nadwi, Shah Waliullah wrote his famous tome The Conclusive Argument from God in late 1730s. He was the first Muslim dialectician to have broached the idea of Pan-Islamism in his magnum opus.

Pan-Islamism, conceptualized as an all-embracing political vision geared towards uniting all the Muslim polities under a single empire, was further refined by the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire. Soon after them, Syed Jamaaluddin Afghani became the devoted exponent of Pan-Islamism. Hailed from Asadabad of Iran and educated in North India, Afghani was an exceptionally brilliant metaphysician of his age. He pressed into use his intellectual energy to disseminate his vision for an Islamic resurgence, Nikkie Keddie asserts in her book Syed Jamaaluddin Afghani: A Political Biography. Pan-Islamism became an integral component of Ottoman foreign policy spearheaded by Abdul Hameed II. In collaboration with Afghani, Abdul Hameed II used Pan-Islamism as an effective tool for the spread of Ottomanism as the sole representative of Muslim unity in the late 19th century.

But the great Arab Revolt in 1916 constituted a challenge to the central tenets of Pan-Islamism. The decision of the Grand National Assembly to abolish the Sultanate in 1922 and the Caliphate in 1924, hammered the last nail in the coffin of Pan-Islamism. A brand new political vision of Islam was already in the offing. In 1925, Lebanese scholar Rashid Rida pieced together a treatise in order to explore the possible political options after the abolishment of the Caliphate. He used the term “Islamic state” or “Dawlat-al-Islamia” for the first time in Islamic history to refer to a state defined by territory, but governed by a religious system of code. The idea of an Islamic state, embryonic in Rida’s treatise, was further refined and philosophized by Muhammad Asad and Mawlana Mawdudi. An autodidact of considerable intelligence, Mawlana Mawdudi became the architect of modern Islamic resurgence, Roy Jackson mused.

According to Vali Nasr, Mawlana Mawdudi’s vision of Islam influenced Hassan al-Banna and Syed Qutb in Egypt, Baqir as-Sadr in Iraq, Musa as-Sadr in Lebonan, and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. The concept of sovereignty, attributable only to God, was conceptualized by Mawdudi in his book Four Basic Quranic Terms which became the leitmotif of modern Islamic political discourse. The term “Islamism” in English was employed in 1960s by late Dr Fazlur Rehman in order to explain the political vision of Mawlana Mawdudi and Syed Qutb. Islamism, according to Graham Fuller, is “the belief that Islam has something special to say about politics and political governance”. Islamism is a political theology that aims to establish a state anchored in a traditional belief-system. Islam, in the writings of these Islamists, offers a comprehensive program of political vision that seeks to dominate over all other political orders. Politics is not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself in Islamist literature.

Intriguingly a year after the Caliphate was dismantled, Abd al-Raziq also came up with a comprehensive treatise on politics. Considered to be the first Muslim secularist by Ali T. Souad in her book A Religion, Not a State, Raziq was educated at the seminary of Al-Azher and had spent time under the tutelage of proverbial orientalists at Oxford University. His book” Islam and the Foundations of Islamic Rule” published in 1925 proved to be a landmark in the modern intellectual history of Islam. Abd al-Raziq investigated the political writings of earlier Muslim theorists and contended that they had misconstrued the message of Islam. The Prophet of Islam, according to him, did not establish the state of Medina as part of his “divine project”, rather it came into being as a result of political exigencies. He argued that the Prophet “exercised his personal discretion” in establishing the state of Medina in 622.

He further elucidated that the state and the caliphate were two different concepts. Islam, according to Raziq, obligated Muslims to establish a state but had not prescribed any form of government or style of governance. The state is, by definition, a secular institution established to stamp out injustice meted to people. The caliphate was a form of government which was instituted by the early Islamic community as an attempt to run a traditional political system in line with the requirements of that period. Raziq forcefully argued that the establishment of Caliphate was not part of the Islamic creed. He summoned into use his vast knowledge of Islamic traditional sciences (especially of theology and positive law) to rebut former Muslim theorists as eminent as Mawardi, Baqillani, Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyah, and Shah Waliullah. His ingenuity lied in his ability to demonstrate the logical fallacies in the theological writings of former Muslim scholars.

Abd al-Raziq held that the religion of Islam did not specifically prescribe any form of government. The community of Muslims was entrusted by God and his Prophet to chalk out a blueprint for its political order. The secularism of Abd al-Raziq lies in his assertion that religion does not dictate politics or politics is not defined by religion. His secular vision was carried forward by Khalid Muhammad Khalid and Taha Hussain in Egypt, Kasravi and Abdel Karim Soroush in Iran, Muhammad Arkoun in Algeria, Mehmoud Muhammad Taha and Naim Abdullahi in Sudan, and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi in Pakistan. Secularism and Islamism are the two contending political visions in the Islamic world. The former presses for a flexible democratic political order in conformity with modernity, while the latter demands strict observance of Islamic injunctions and principles. But it is also equally important to bear in mind that both of them came into being in 1920s as responses to the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924.

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