Secularism is a much misunderstood word. Wikipedia defines secularism as “the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs. In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. In another sense, it refers to the view that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact unbiased by religious influence.”
It is interesting to note, contrary to a popular notion, secularism is not exactly a blanket denial of God. Such a notion was perhaps popularized by atheists, who assumed the patent for secularism, even though the genesis of modern secularism is credited to Muslim polymath Ibn Rushd (Averros). Barring the implication against religion, origination of freedom of faith and scientific approach to affairs cannot be really credited to atheists.
Some people attribute secularism to banning head scarf and other religious symbols, forgetting religious freedom is integral to true secularism. But ironically, taking the Indian context for example, there is virtually no Muslim political party which doesn’t claim to be secular. In this manner "secularism" is often accorded contradictory connotations by various interest groups. This discrepancy is perplexing and has to be done away with. So it is necessary to analyze the concept of secularism in a Muslim perspective, which is necessary to define Muslim leadership for the modern times.
In any discussion concerning Muslim leadership questions that are relevant are who are the leaders of the community? Is it the religious scholars or intellectuals, or both together? Is there a place for intellectuals in the top hierarchy of Islam? How do you distinguish the roles of intellectuals and religious leaders?
These questions are significant as they define the ideological bedrock on which the community should hope to build itself. I have heard many middleclass Muslims blaming the religious scholars for the backwardness of the community, even though I am not sure why they try to fool themselves. This should be viewed as running away from realities and washing hands off their own responsibilities. The intellectuals are viewed as something not concerning the community leadership, as some irrelevant tools for this worldly life. As a result their significance is not recognized and their concerted actions and contributions do not reach the community for its many pressing needs.
The concept that religious scholars are the leaders of a community was mainly a concept of medieval Christianity, which in fact was discarded by even Western countries themselves a long time ago. At the same time notion of “separation of religion and state” adopted there either is fallacious, as religion is indeed the fountain of morals and laws, and hence cannot be separated from state. Then there are Islamists who offer “integration of religion and state” as an alternative, which too unfortunately is not convincing enough. It may be necessary to seek a truer perspective on the issue.
I would like to admit in the first place there appears to be no formal recognition for something like “intellectuals” in Islamic religious perspective; this fact however keeps well with its general outlook on the matter. But such a class and its role are implicitly sanctioned in its philosophy. First we shall look at a Hadith which throws immense light in this regard.
The Sahih of Imam Muslim, the second most authentic book on Hadith, dating from the second century Hijrah, contains a chapter headed as follows: “Whatever the Prophet has said in matters of religion must be followed, but this does not apply to worldly affairs.”
The Hadith is as follows: Once Prophet Muhammad came across some people doing artificial pollination of palm trees. Due to some reason he disliked the idea and commented that it would be better not to do any pollination at all. However for the following year the harvest was poor. When he came to know about this Prophet Muhammad admitted his limitation of knowledge regarding secular affairs and said: “If a question relates to your worldly matters you would know better about it, but if it relates to your religion then to me it belongs.”
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the prominent Indian Muslim scholar, comments on this Hadith in his book “Islam: creator of the modern age”: “Islam, for the first time in history, separated religious knowledge from physical knowledge. The source of religious knowledge which came into general acceptance was divine revelation (the authentic version of which is preserved in the form of the Quran), while full freedom was given to enquiry into physical phenomena, so that individuals could arrive at their own conclusions independently”.
He further says: “According to this hadith, Islam separates religious matters from scientific research. In religious affairs, there has to be strict adherence to divine guidance. But in scientific research, the work must proceed according to human experience. This indeed marks the advent of the greatest revolution in the history of science.”
Notice the remark Islam separates “religious matters” from “scientific research”. Yes separation is not between religion and worldly affairs but rather between religion and science, and so tying together Deen (faith) and Duniya (world) is irrelevant. So if secularism is about approaching something in a non-fundamentalist manner, but only based on reason, then secularism is the contribution of Islam as implied by the author. And the"scientific class" are its proponents.
So in a Muslim perspective definition of secularism may be modified as a Separation of Religion and Science rather than religion and state. However there is nothing sacrilegious about this considering Islam’s view of science, which it views as the law of God. The nature, with all its elements synchronized in unity, its universal laws orchestrating the tiny electron to the giant planets, and its incredible complexity and diversity blending together in perfect harmony to the exclusion of any random chance in their design is a proof for its creator and manifestation of monotheism. Islam only tries to offer what is missing for man– it is ideology.
So the Hadith is an exposition of not just Islam’s view on science but also on ideology. For Muslims ideology is finalized with Prophet Muhammad, and they are left only with science to worry about with room for innovation.
..This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”( Quran 5:3)
"There is nothing that Allah ordered you with except that I have ordered you with it, and there is nothing that Allah forbade you from except that I have forbidden you from it" [Bayhaqee]
The best speech is the Book of Allah and the best guidance and example is that of Muhammad, and the worse of all things are the newly invented things (in the religion), for every innovation is a error and a misguidance." (Muslim)
This not only denounces priesthood, but makes any man-made ideologies post Islam irrelevant. Also it defines our concept of leaders for future. We are not looking anymore for ideologues who are “happenings” in history, but only scientists and social scientists.
Politics is a science
Yes, politics is a science. Politics is concerned with control and regulation of human affairs and uses scientific methods. It is about orchestrating a variety of sciences and social sciences for the benefit of the society. So it can be considered a science, or at least a social science. This underlines the role of "scientific class" in politics and a caution not to apply unscientific principles to politics. So does religion has place in politics? It has, but only as in any other field of science or social science. Few Mullas will endeavor to get involved in engineering or medicine, so there is no more reason why they should do in politics.
The political ideology of Islam is hence secular, in the sense defined before, rather than “Islamic rule” proposed by some. Politics is an area largely concerned with practical and scientific considerations. So religious leaders attempting to implement fundamentalist interpretations rather than practical considerations will not work as is obvious from Muslim countries where religious leaders and parties are kept at bay from politics.
This does not apply to religious fundamentalism alone, but even atheistic fundamentalist philosophies like Marxism. The fall of socialism in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, just like priesthood in medieval Europe confirms the status of politics as a science, and the impracticability of meddling fundamentalism with politics.
There are many ethical and logical grounds why it is the scientific class who should lead in politics and other secular affairs.
First one is the freedom of consciousness which is a fundamental trait of Islam and hence even a nominal subordination of other communities to Islam is not acceptable. So it has to be accepted in principle that no religion is superior over other in politics. Second reason is not to bring the differences among Muslim factions to a functional plane or show favoritism to any of them, which is possible only by not going for fundamentalist approaches in optional issues (There are little differences in obligatory issues). Religious groups actually represent differences of opinions and so should take a backseat in politics.
Thirdly Islam seeks to abolish priesthood, which is the intermediary relationship between God and man, whereas religious scholars wielding power will effectively act as priesthood with their fundamentalist approaches even in optional issues, as has already happened in spiritual realm.
Next even if religious leaders act in a secular manner or preach secularism it will give a wrong impression about Islamic doctrine, distinguished from its political ideology, as something secular, while it is not so but espouses fundamental differences with other religions and is exclusivist in nature. For this reason religious organizations should limit their activities to purely religious domain and should not interfere even in non-political secular issues concerning non-Muslims.
Last but not least, religious leaders have been traditionally considered away from political power and their charisma primarily derived from their detachment from worldly affairs and emphasis on the hereafter. If the religious leaders are seen to vie for pie in power and play political games it will be detrimental to the spiritual interests of the community. So it is better they stay away from politics.
Sure it is necessary for Muslim political leadership to abide by the obligatory injunctions of Islam, which but are well-known and unambiguous so as not necessitated to refer to fundamental sources –but even these are not sought to be enforced on other communities. Their objective should be to strive to establish the ideals Islam aims for, like truth, justice and morals, but this should be in way of Dawah (invitation), rather than forceful implementation. In this matter they share a common platform where every other ideology and religion has the opportunity to offer, but not enforce, their own solutions. The basic idea is that the mores which is the most beneficial for humanity will be eventually accepted. In this aspect Muslims can be proud that very many morals put forward by Islam has made a positive change to the world.
To reiterate, “secularism” implied here is based on Islam’s principles of freedom of faith, shunning priesthood and representation of common interests, and is basically different from the western definition of secularism which is based on a negation of God. Its injunction that religious leaders should take a back seat in politics is not based on a disbelief in religion but is made in a purely scientific perspective. Moreover it doesn’t say “religion” has no place in politics, but rather only religious groups- in fact the moral values governing the political realm like democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, religious freedom and human rights are considered contributions of religion.
To conclude, religious scholars should lead in spiritual affairs, and scientific class should lead in secular affairs. Neither group is superior over other, but each have their roles demarcated and should not encroach each other’s territory. So just like science and religion do not overlap roles of religious scholars and scientific class do not overlap either. The basis of this is not separation of religion and state, but Islam’s separate view of religion and science, and its injunction not to substitute doctrine or guesses for scientific method.
These are some of my ideas on secularism as applicable to Islam, which I admit are in no way definitive or conclusive. This site is a bid towards initiating a collaborative effort to define the scientific Muslim in a fuller perspective, to enunciate how secularism is different from both Islamism and irreligion, to enumerate the objectives of scientific Muslims, to delineate their courses of action and apply it for the benefit of Muslims and humanity. I invite you to be a part of this effort.