Why the Muslim world should embrace secularism

Without secularism, competing with the West is merely a dream

I am always gutted when I hear people in my society shouting at the top of their voices, peddling secularism as the opposite of – or antipodal to – religion. Generally our people consider secularism as a Western product and are never ready to accept it. They have always taken it as a pre-planned conspiracy meant to destroy their own Islamic system of state.

While many of us happily enjoy Western products and send our children to those very countries for better education, we do not reflect on the root cause of the success achieved by Europe vis-à-vis the decline faced by the Islamic world on the same scale. There are plenty of reasons why Europe is more successful than us today. We can argue that vast industrialization and technology contributed majorly towards it. However, the main reason lies in the separation of church from the state affairs. Imagine a country where we teach our children science in classroom but everywhere outside, religion drives the lifestyle, choices and attitudes. The same paradox can be seen in the education sector itself. How then could science flourish under this environment?

For technology and industrialization, one needs an environment where science and research are nurtured and nourished. No country can give its people rational education if religion is still involved in the business of state. For science to progress, we need a society where everything, including religion itself, can be questioned, analyzed, dissected and criticized based on logic and reason. Secularism thus paves the path for progress of science. Without secularism, competing with modern Europe is merely a dream.

Now coming to the main point, which is the cause of constant whining that secularism is a western product and poses a threat to Islamic ideology and hence should not be followed in the Islamic world. First and foremost, let us try to remove this misunderstanding. Religions are not confined to one place and are instead spread across geographical ones attracting different communities belonging to various places and countries. Likewise, political ideologies are also not confined and have an extensive outreach. For instance, the socialist ideology put forward by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, two Germans, is not confined to Germans or Germany alone. In the same manner, capitalism is not confined to one place only. We can therefore arrive at the logical conclusion that secularism is not confined to the West and is found way beyond the western world. Subcontinent produced many Muslim leaders who, in spite of being religious scholars, strongly believed in secularism and struggled for a united and secular India. To support my argument, I will now give examples of two Muslim scholars of India.

Let us first study the works and contribution of Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani.

As Indian independence approached in 1947, Maulana Madani stood as a staunch opponent of those calling for the establishment of a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Instead, he wrote, argued, and campaigned for the position that Muslims could live as observant Muslims in a religiously plural society where they would be full citizens of an independent, secular India.  His importance rests in his being both a political activist and an influential scholar who made Islamic arguments to support his position. Maulana Madani’s life and thought thus challenge common assumptions about the incompatibility between Islam and democracy. More fundamentally, his life serves as an example of the varied and pluralistic ways in which traditionalist Islamic scholars can engage with their scholarly tradition to address the political and social issues of their day.

Maulana Madani opposed Pakistan as someone deeply committed to a Muslim presence in the whole of India. He couched his argument within the framework of modern territorial nationalism, asserting Muslim indigenousness and ties to the land. He thus challenged Hindu “communalists” who marginalized non-Hindus in their vision of Indian nationalism. In this, he also broke with Muslim separatists ready to sever their tie with the larger territory. In taking this position, he, like other Indians, moved beyond historic patterns of de-territorialized loyalties in favor of the modern commitment to national belonging defined by homeland.

Maulana Madani argued that India had had an Islamic presence from the beginning of human history; that the blessed soil of India was the repository of centuries of deceased holy men; and that India was Indian Muslims only and beloved home. To those who attacked him as a “slave” of Hindus who sacrificed the interests of Islam, he replied that he in fact visualized Islam’s true interest. Only by remaining within India could Muslims fulfill their obligation continuously to present the message of Islam to others. He had a strong debate with Allama Muhammad Iqbal on whether the identity of a nation depends upon its land or religion.

The Allama wrote a poem Hussain Ahmad in Armaghan-e-Hijaaz’, his book of verses in Persian:

Hanooz Nadand Rumooz-E-Deen, Warnaza Deoband Husain Ahmad! Aen Che Bu-ul-Ajabi As
Saroad Bar Sar-E-Minbar Ke Millat Az Watan AstChe Bekhabar Za-Maqam-E-Muhammad(S.A.W.) Arabi Ast

[The Ajamites (non-Arabs) do not yet know, the fine points of our faith; Otherwise Husain Ahmad of Deoband! What is this foolhardiness?
A sermon-song from the pulpit that a nation by a homeland be! From the real position of the Arabian Prophet (PBUH), how sadly unaware is he!]

Now, let us consider the example of another brilliant Islamic scholar of India, who was perhaps, much ahead of his times, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

When it comes to countering Islamic terrorism and presenting a counter narrative for some of the things which are mostly considered as un-Islamic by most of the Muslims like secularism and nationalism, one must be definitely aware of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

There is none other than Abul Kalam Azad in the Indo Pak history who was par excellence in wisdom, erudition and clarity of thought. Nations aspire for such leaders and wait for centuries to have one like Abul Kalam Azad. He was an esteemed literary figure, poet, religious scholar and a unique statesman.

Of the leading tolerant Muslims who have left a deep impact on the idea of pluralism in Islam, Maulana Azad stands out unique. Abul Kalam Azad was a man of constant introspection and critical self-examination. His contribution to Indian nationalism and Hindu-Muslim unity in India, and to the idea of universal humanism is tremendous. As such Maulana Azad will not only be remembered in the history of India for the role he played in the national liberation movement of the country, but he will also be considered as a Muslim leader who stood for a dialogue among Muslims and Hindus.

After 1920 a radical change appeared in the views of Maulana Azad and he ceased to be a revivalist Muslim and embraced Indian secular nationalism as a political philosophy. The evolution of Azad’s outlook from Pan-Islamic to secular nationalist, with no doubt, was determined by his friendship and collaboration with Mahatma Gandhi and by the rise of the communal problems in the Indian liberation movement. Through Gandhi, Azad learned that communal harmony played an important role in the future of India. He believed that in spite of religious, ethnic and linguistic differences, India was one nation. Azad believed that the “two-nation theory” offered “no solution of the problem of one another’s minorities, but only lead to retribution and reprisals by introducing a system of mutual hostage.” [Maulana Azad: India Wins Freedom]. Like Gandhi, Azad considered Hindu-Muslim unity as a necessary principle for the national reconstruction of India. In his famous address to the Agra session of the Khalifat Conference on August 25, 1921, he referred to Hindu-Muslim unity as a moral imperative for the future of India. He proclaimed:

“If the Muslims of India would like to top perform their best religious and Islamic duties…then they must recognize that it is obligatory for the Muslims to be together with their Hindu brethren… and it is my belief that the Muslims in India cannot perform their best duties, until in conformity within the injunctions of Islam, in all honesty, they establish unity and cooperation with the Hindus. This belief is based on the imperative spirit of Islam.”

He was a staunch believer in Hindu-Muslim unity and was never ready to accept an independence which may divide the two communities, he said at a special session of All Indian National Congress:

“If an angel were to descend from the clouds today and settle on Delhi’s Qutab Minar and proclaim that India can win Swaraj (self-rule) within two hours provided that India renounces Hindu-Muslim unity, then I would renounce Swaraj and not unity. Because if Swaraj is delayed that is a loss to India, but if unity is lost that is a loss to humanity.”

Subcontinent produced two main Islamic ideologues. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal's political ideology was "juda ho deen siyasat sey to reh jati hai changezi"[Religion/Faith when separated from politics leads to anarchy in the society]. Iqbal insisted that Muslims are a separate nation because of the fact that they have a different religion and culture. On the other hand, Azad envisaged a secular India where all the communities were equal in the eyes of the law (as I have already explained above). One may wonder why Azad's ideology is in sync with Islam when Islam insists so much on politics and state. We explain this by arguing that we make our decisions taking into consideration present-day scenarios and the dynamics at play. To understand this we should be aware of the treaty of Hudaybiyyah.

The treaty of Hudaybiyyah occupies a significant place in the Islamic history. It was a truce between the Muslims and the Qureish tribe of Mecca.

Prophet Mohammed had a dream that he entered Mecca and did tawaf around the Kaa'ba. All the companions were delighted to hear this. In 628, Prophet Mohammed along with almost 1,400 Muslims decided to march towards Mecca in order to perform pilgrimage. They believed that the people of Mecca would not stop them from performing the pilgrimage. However, this was not the case. The people of Mecca decided not to allow the pilgrimages to enter. It was a critical situation and rather than opting for warfare, Prophet Mohammed decided to solve the issue diplomatically and as a result, a truce was made between the Muslims and the Qureish.

Prophet Mohammed started to dictate the terms of the treaty:

He said: "In the name of Allah,the Gracious,the merciful.''

Here Suhail Ibn Amr (the envoy of Mecca) objected and said:

"Allah we know and believe in, but what is this: the Gracious, the Merciful?"

Prophet Mohammed agreed and said to the scribe:

"Only write in the name of Allah"

Then the prophet proceeded, saying "these are the terms of peace between Mohammed, the prophet of God".

Here Suhail Ibn Amr again objected and said :

"If we had thought you the prophet of God, we would not have fought you".

The prophet conceded to his demand and replaced the phrase with "Mohammed, the son of Abdullah", and deleted "the prophet of God".

As we can see that since the Muslims were in a weak position and the agreement was essential for the Muslim cause, Prophet Mohammed conceded to the demands of Suhail Ibn Amr. This is a classic example of separating religion from politics for the sake of betterment of Muslims. Later when the Muslims were in a dominant position, Prophet Muhammad established an Islamic state. We should also keep it in mind that at the time of Muhammad (PBUH), Muslims were united as one nation. There were no differences and conflicts over sects. However when differences arose between Muslims in the Islamic state, The Battle of Siffin , The Battle of Camel (The Battle of Jamal) and Karbala took place destroying the unity of Muslims for the times to come. Therefore, considering the present situation of Muslims when Islam is divided in many different sects, which version of Shariat would be universally accepted by all Muslims? It is natural that it would open the doors of more religious differences and conflicts among Muslims. At such a critical time when Muslims are divided into so many sects, with each sect claiming to be following the only true Islam, it is only secularism that can ensure neutrality in the affairs of state. Hence, secularism is in the benefit of the Muslim community. Only secularism can guarantee that each sect continuous to practice its rituals without any hesitation and without anyone's interference. Secularism is not the opposite of religion, in fact the opposite of religion is atheism and the opposite of secularism is fascism. Politics is just one aspect of Islam not the entire Islam. However, Islamists have interpreted Islam in such a manner that it seems that the very fundamental principle of Islam is to establish a state.  This Islamist interpretation has been criticized by many other Muslim scholars. For instance, Maulana Maududi presents God's sending of the prophets to the world in a particular political light. Thus, discussing the nature of the mission of the prophets in his book Tajdeed-o-Ihya-e Deen [The Renewal and Revival of the Deen] Maulana Maududi wrote:-

"The highest goal of the mission of the prophets (peace be upon them) in this world has been to establish the Divine Government and enforce the system of life that they had brought from God. They were willing to give the people who followed ignorance (ahl-e jahiliyat) the right to remain established in their ignorant (jahili) beliefs and to allow them to continue to follow their ignorant ways to the extent that the impact of their actions remained restricted to them alone. But they were not willing to give them the right and, quite naturally, they could not give them this right that the reign of power could be in their hands and that they could run human affairs according to the laws of Ignorance (jahiliyat). This is why all the prophets made efforts to set off a political revolution. In the case of some, their efforts were only to the extent of preparing the ground for instance, the Prophet Abraham. Some of them launched revolutionary movements in actual practice, but their work ended before establishing Divine Government for instance, the Messiah [Jesus]. And some took this movement to the stage of success for instance, the Prophet Moses and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)."

Rejecting this Islamist concept of prophethood, as put forward by Maulana Maududi, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (the noted Islamic scholar, peace activist and former member of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind) in his book Ta'abir ki Ghalati [Error of Interpretation] writes:-

"This opinion about the prophets is not proper. Assuming that their concern was to acquire power and that had they acquired it, they would have permitted people to continue in their wrong ways, is absolutely wrong, for the very mission of the prophets was to guide people to goodness and what is right."

Present day world is increasingly associating Daesh/ISIS with Islam, putting Muslims and Islam under the pressure to redefine and showcase to the world its fundamental ideologies and principles to convince the opponents that Islam is not what ISIS represents. It is only Maulana Azad's ideology of a secular state that can rescue us from the chaos while we continue paying the price of Iqbal's ideology.

Ammar Anwer is a student with an interest in philosophy, rationalism and politics

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